Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Other Moorehead Girl

On Thursday April 12, 1906 Margaret Ann Moorehead was born in Hamilton, Butler County, Ohio to John Henderson Moorehead and his wife Mary McCauley Moorehead.  It has been reported that Margaret was born on April 23rd but the date on her certificate of birth is April 12th.
Margaret had an elder sister. Her sister would grow up to become the gifted actress Agnes Moorehead. Agnes was a woman who would become well known by several generations of radio listeners, moviegoers, theatre attendees and television watchers. From what little is known of Margaret it is hard to know exactly what she was like. We do know from the very few references made to her by her sister Agnes that she, like Agnes, had a gift for mimicry and mischief, but beyond that her life, as well as her death, is shrouded in mystery. A mystery I hope to abate somewhat.

I have said to many friends and associates that I would never talk publicly about my family, I’m an eighth cousin, but recent events have changed my mind. Speculation about those who have passed on is a waste of time, in my opinion, so in an effort to end some of that and shed some light on why people were who they were I’ve opted to end my self-imposed silence.

It has been rumored off and on that Margaret died by her own hand. Let me end that rumor with the truth of it, she did. Margaret Ann Moorehead died on the 14th of July 1929 at 7:50am in the Miami Valley Hospital, Ward 8 of Bichloride of Mercury poisoning which the coroner ruled a suicide. A contributing factor to her demise was listed as Nephritis which was a fancy way of saying her kidney function was impaired.

It took Margaret four days to die. The “attack”, as it has been referred to, began on Wednesday July 10th. I do not know when Margaret was hospitalized but I do know that her sister was sent a telegram telling her “Things are not so well come at once.” This telegram was received in New York at 9am on July 12th 1929. I also know that her mother telephoned her but I do not know when. I know that during that conversation she was told that her sister had attempted suicide and I know that from Molly Moorhead’s letter to Agnes transcribed below:

My Dear Agnes,
I didn’t intend to frighten you so last night for I didn’t want that word to go over the telephone but as you know what happened why you are prepared for the worst if things don’t go on well. I came down early and Margaret is sleeping –had a fair night. The kept her doped and we have two good nurses…we will send for you if we things are going against us. Mother came and is at the house, we dad and I can take turns being here. I in the morning and he in the afternoon. Peg realizes now what a mistake she made and says she was to blame and wants me to forget all the trouble which I told her I would and ask her to forgive me for being crass and unreasonable. I told her, she and you were the only things we had in this world and we couldn’t lose her. She said she would fight and has been. She says that she took care of girl who was worse than she is and she pulled through. Agnes, I think Frank was cruel to her, for out of a clear sky he said they would quit and she fainted and he never called me. And if he had I could have watched her. I’ll try to keep calm and keep your dad cheered up. Please think of us…He has been a peach and he directed things when we needed a cool head around. Let us hear from you.

We all send love.

Lovingly yours,


It is apparent “that word’ Molly was so desperate to avoid using on the telephone is suicide. In the ensuing years it was always said that Margaret died of a heart seizure or heart attack. Every obituary written from Xenia to Zanesville contains disinformation from “a brief illness” to “a sudden illness while at her occupation as a nurse in New York.” Suicide was then and continues to be today a stigma that families are saddled with. In addition Margaret’s father was the minister of a Presbyterian church and to have the daughter of a minister die by their own hand was unthinkable. If you read between the lines of that letter you will witness a family dynamic that formed the personalities of both children. Molly refers to herself in the first person 9 separate times. She only refers to her husband and herself as we 4 separate times. Rev. Moorehead is only referred to only 3 times and finally Agnes is referred to only as Agnes once and as “you” 6 times. Blame for the suicide is laid squarely on the shoulders of Margaret who accepts it willingly. Frank, the lover/boyfriend who instigated the ending of the relationship, is chided for simply failing to call Molly but not for driving a disturbed young woman to suicide. I believe that Charles Tranberg makes a valid observation when he says that Agnes was “daddy’s girl” and Margaret was “mommies girl.” However much we may want to believe it suicide is never a momentary lapse in judgment. There are always signs and portents that someone is on their way down the one-way street of suicidal behavior.

Many physicians have listed characteristics of suicidal people. These are thought to be:

1. Preoccupation with death.

2. A sense of isolation and withdrawal.

3. Few friends or family.

4. Distraction and a lack of humor.

5. A focus on the past. Often voicing that the world or people would be better off without them around.

6. Being haunted and dominated by hopelessness and helplessness.

7. Viewing themselves as helpless is 2 ways. First by being unable to free themselves from the sea of despair that is swallowing them and secondly that nobody else can help them either.

There are certain life events that precipitate suicidal behavior and one of them is the loss of a love relationship. It has also been said that past emotional or physical damage to the person can lead to self-destructive behavior. It has been written many times over “suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.” If a person is what they call “presuicidal” they are in a state of extreme anguish in which there is no ability to neither make rational decisions nor distinguish rational options to the problem. For most people who are in the right state of mind the decision to end ones own life seems not only irrational but also incomprehensible. Loved ones cannot understand or accept that somebody they love could possibly do this to himself or herself. Unfortunately that inability to comprehend the depth of a loved one’s pain can act as a blinder to family or friends preventing them from picking up on the clues that may be right in front of them. The person who dies by suicide is in so much pain emotionally that they cannot focus on anything but ending that pain by whatever means possible.

Margaret appears to have been isolated from her parents by distance for quite a long time.  Margaret did not, as has always been believed, move to Dayton with her parents in 1925 nor did she remain in Reedsburg with her parents after their fall 1919 relocation from Saint Louis. Margaret, who would have been 13 at the time of the move, remained in Saint Louis with family. She graduated in June of 1925 from Cleveland High School in Saint Louis. I can only assume that between 1925 and her move to Dayton in the fall of 1928 that she attended college to become a nurse. I have never been able to find any record of her nursing degree or what college she might have attended to obtain it. All there is to go on is misinformation in an obituary that gives her occupation as a nurse and her mother’s reference in the letter to Agnes of a girl that Margaret had taken care of who was far worse off but survived. It has made me wonder if she might have been a psychiatric nurse but I’m afraid that we’ll never really know for sure. Her death certificate, which I have, lists her occupation as “at home.” This indicates to me that she either couldn’t find work or wasn’t capable of it any longer. The reference to her moving from Saint Louis to Dayton comes from a front-page obituary in a Xenia, Ohio newspaper and is specific in the details of the move happening the year before her death. It is transcribed below:

“Miss Margaret Moorehead, 22, daughter of Dr. and Mrs. J.H. Moorehead of 19 Stone Mill Road, Dayton, died at Miami Valley Hospital early Sunday morning after a brief illness. Dr. Moorehead is a first cousin of Miss Margaret Moorehead and William Moorehead of this city.

Miss Moorehead had been a resident of Dayton for a year, coming to that city from St. Louis last fall when Dr. Moorehead assumed the pastorate of Patterson Memorial Presbyterian Church.

She is survived by her parents and one sister, Agnes Moorehead, New York City. Funeral arrangements have not been completed.”

The Evening Gazette, Xenia, Ohio, Monday, July 15, 1929

This brings us to one of the roots of Margaret’s problem, “Frank.” Whoever Frank was, obviously there was a romantic relationship. Margaret either moved to Dayton from Saint Louis to be near him or she met him after her move to Dayton. If the latter is true then she couldn’t possibly have known him for more than a year before opting to end her life over his rejection. I think that it was a very intense affair as evidenced by Agnes’ quoting of Margaret’s words to her in her postmortem letter to her sister, “your words of last year ring in my ears, “You never loved a man like I have.” The truth of it is you can search forever in a sea of Frank’s and never find the exact one. He is never referred to in any document that I am aware of other than Molly’s letter to Agnes. There were several young men with the right name and of a similar age within a short radius of her parent’s home at 19 Stone Mill Road but we will never know if “Frank” was one of those young men. Her parent’s home now falls within the campus confines of the University of Dayton and even then may have housed students among the families that lived there. It is possible that Frank was a student. What is less likely is that the decision to end their relationship came out of “a clear sky” as Molly states in her letter to Agnes. Rarely do children dole out specific details of their romantic relationships to their parents so we have to accept Molly’s statement as coming from her own point of view. Margaret and Frank’s relationship may have been one sided or extremely stormy from the very beginning. There were obviously difficulties that had drove Margaret down the road toward suicide long before Frank ended their relationship. I have never read of anybody just suddenly on a whim decide to take their own life. It could have been a long lasting depressive state that pushed Frank to sever ties with Margaret, however, we’ll never really know for sure because we weren’t there. I do know from the letter to Agnes that Margaret asked Molly to forget “all the trouble.” This statement seems to indicate that there were tensions within Margaret’s family as a result of her relationship with Frank. There is also mention in the letter of forgiveness between Molly and Margaret. It is a confusing statement. I don’t know whether Margaret is asking Molly to forgive her for “being crass and unreasonable” or if Molly asked Margaret to forgive her for “being crass and unreasonable.” The sentence says specifically “and ask her to forgive me for being crass and unreasonable.” Anyway you cut it family tension added to Margaret’s already apparently fragile emotional state. This leads me to the method Margaret chose to end her own life.

BiChloride of Mercury is highly, highly toxic. If Margaret had been a nurse she would have been acutely aware of the properties of this poison. It was used primarily as a topical treatment for Syphilis before the advent of antibiotics. It was also used as a fungicide. It usually came dissolved in alcohol, which, if ingested, took it into the bloodstream more quickly thereby making it all the more deadly. It was a long drawn out extremely painful way to die. In the early 1920’s the actress Olive Thomas, wife of Jack Pickford, died from BiChloride of Mercury poisoning. It was widely covered in the popular press of the time and perhaps that was what made Margaret think of it. The symptoms are a litany of severe pain and are as follows:

1. Severe abdominal pain.

2. Severe difficulty in breathing.

3. Decreased urine output potentially stopping completely.

4. Diarrhea

5. Metallic taste

6. Mouth lesions

7. Severe pain in the mouth and throat.

8. Shock

9. Severe swelling of the throat.

10. Vomiting

The prognosis for survival of this type of poisoning depended then on what symptoms manifested themselves within the first 10-15 minutes of ingestion and how rapidly you got to a hospital. It didn’t take much of dose to kill you. Kidney failure and death could occur with small doses of the poison. It simply appears as though even having expressed regret, according to her mother, that Margaret was determined to end her life. What a painful tragic end it was.

This brings me to the second reason for talking about this incident, Margaret’s sister Agnes. Everyone who knows of Agnes Moorehead and has a sense of devotion to her reads whatever they can about her. I think perhaps in an attempt to understand her better. What I want to talk about here is how it affects a person when a sibling takes his or her own life.

So much has been published now about how suicide affects the surviving sibling or siblings. I have read that they are often called the forgotten mourners. Most typically people fixate on the parents of a dead child rarely on the remaining child or children. This leaves them to fend for themselves with their grief. Often they put that grief aside in an attempt to help parents cope with the loss and never fully grieve on their own.

Agnes was 28 years old when her sister died. When a sibling dies by their own hand at this stage in life the surviving sibling learns, in a most difficult way, that life does not hold the unlimited promise they once believed it did. They are literally blindsided by reality. At this point in their lives siblings have spent more time together than they have with their parents. We know this to be true of Agnes and Margaret because it is documented that Agnes spent a great deal of time in St. Louis in the 1920’s. The two of them had shared their whole lives with each other. Sharing a room, secrets, dreams, wishes, fears and plans. Now, at 28, she would find herself having lost her other half. Typically when there are only 2 children they are always grouped together. In 1925 there is a reference in the Zanesville newspaper to the “Misses Agnes and Margaret Moorehead,” returning to Saint Louis after visiting their grandfather. You can believe that they were a tandem, Aggie and Peggy. Suddenly you are left without your right hand. You are without the one person you would talk to about something this life altering and tragic. The anguished letter Agnes wrote to her sister the week after she died and transcribed below evidences that:

“A week later so many things have happened and my own dear sister where are you? Where can you be? How brave and courageous you are to face death so young—how you know our maker—the secret of life and death you know…How I wanted to see you and yet the thought of seeing you was beyond my strength. I loved you—I love you know—you asleep in a cold little bed in a tomb like the good father who created you. And you were beautiful. I only wish you could talk to me sometimes. I know you are alive and well and even so much better off than we. If only you could have come to us. Men are so heartless so cruel. Poor dear little girl your words of last year ring in my ears, “ you never loved a man like I have.” Now you know I have your spirit will know how I feel toward Jack. My little sister I loved you so. I have always loved you and prayed for your happiness. I dreamed of you last night—I love you.”

Agnes never spoke of her sister’s death. This is typical of a time when the stigma of suicide was considered a black mark on the family. The public denial of the sibling’s suicide often leads to a failure to cope with the grief. It would be then that grief, like a mold, would force its way out of the person in many other ways. Frequently it would manifest itself in a physical illness. Sometimes it would come out in deeper more damning ways such as difficulty in establishing healthy long term relationships, fear of rejection, control issues, isolation, and not least of all guilt. The guilt of believing that they could have done something to change what happened or the guilt that they should have been able to tell something was not right. It is my opinion that all of these things are evident in Agnes’ personality. Agnes had difficulty in establishing long-term relationships. She isolated herself from everyone emotionally. She was distant and was often described by those who adored her as being “cold.” I think she demonstrated a fear of rejection and yet a willingness to involve herself in relationships that would end in rejection. Perhaps it was a form self-punishment because of the guilt that hung in her over her sister’s death. Agnes definitely had control issues but, again, constantly put herself into situations over which she had no control. She literally was two people living in one body, one mind. The eccentric outgoing woman the world saw and the troubled, isolated, abandoned sibling that the world only caught fleeting glimpses of. Her career was literally her salvation. She could spend time not having to be herself. It allowed her to leave the isolated sibling behind and become anything she wanted to be. It seems to me that Margaret’s suicide was one of the things that made her so successful at her career and so unsuccessful in her private life.  Despite the issues surrounding her private life Agnes is still one of the most loved and respected names in entertainment history and that would please her no end.


margo7468 said...

. . .Thank you for taking the time to not only write this up, but for really looking into it. . . I admit, I shed more than a tear or two thinking of the grief that Agnes and her family must of gone through. It's heartbreaking to know that Margaret took her own life, for whatever reason, and to see how Agnes carried it with her for the remainder of her life . . . That letter she wrote to her sister, I remember it from Mr. Tranbergs book...I think she said 'I love you' over a dozen times in the length of a paragraph. . . :'(
'Any creative person is fragile by nature', I've heard it said a dozen times, and I firmly believe this to be true. When Agnes lost her sister, she lost a big part of herself, so to speak . . .I never thought of that before. . . Words cannot express how dreadfully sad this realization is, I only wish that she could of been able to have a peaceful private life, but 'peace' seemed to be quite far fetched. . .I hope she's with her sister once more and truly happy . . .she deserves it. . .both of the Moorehead girls do . . . ( <3 )

tamela757 said...

Thanks Margo. It was a really difficult decision to write this but the last one to know her that was alive was my mother and I felt that it was time for people to understand why Aggie was so complex. She carried a very deep pain for a very long time. Hopefully this will help everyone gain insight into her that they would only have been able to guess at.

marienoreene said...

hi tamela, thank you for writing this one and putting light on the death of Agnes' sister... i just became a fan of Agnes recently and i've always known her as the only child but i was wrong... i know it was hard for you to do this because it's not easy to break a family privacy... but i do appreciate it because now i know why sometimes agnes thoughts are distort in some of her interviews... when i knew that she has a sister, i always imagined if she looks like Agnes, does she? do you have a photograph of her? Agnes and her family must have suffered a lot when she was gone at a young age... thanks again...

Erika1712 said...

This is a wonderfully written post, Tamela.
I only wanted to comment on the letter Agnes wrote to her sister. I remember reading that letter in the Tranberg book and my eyes filling with tears -- so incredibly heartrending were her words.

Stephen Street said...

I was aware of Margaret's suicide about 40 years ago. As a young man I was a memember of her fan club (and had to opportunity to meet her twice). I corresponded with a man named Dr.George Perry, who came from Reedsburg, Wis. and knew Mollie and Agnes. He told me about Margaret; said she loved Isadora Duncan, the well known modern dancer of that day, and he claimed Margaret had danced outdoors in the nude as Isadora would have, much to the family's embarrassement. I don't know if it is true or not, and I long ago lost track of Dr.Perry, who would be much, much older than I now, but he did tell me about Margaret taking her own life (around 1972 he would have told me). I tried to convey this to Charles Transberg, who's book was so full of errors, but although I never bought the second edition of his book, I don't think he had enough info to go on to publish it. The strangest thing to me is the fact that no real good photo of Margaret seems available anywhere.

tamela757 said...

Thanks for the fits with family tales to some extent. I'm not the least bit surprised though.

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