That time Toronto police shut down professional matchmaker Nelle Brooke Stull.
In January of 1936, Mrs. Nelle Brooke Stull came to Toronto with a rich Texan businessman, in the apparent hopes of finding him a bride. A week later, she found herself in police custody, awaiting trial for conspiracy to commit fraud.
Nelle Brooke Stull’s professional career began in Elyria, Ohio, some time in the early 1920s, where she was reportedly a founding member of the Widows’ and Widowers’ Club. Although generally thought of as a dating agency or “matrimonial club,” the Widows’ and Widowers’ Club’s stated aim was simply to provide social opportunities for single people who were older than the usual marrying age. An article in the February 4, 1925 Pittsburgh Press, states “Mrs. Stull decided that the young flappers were having all the good times in Elyria. She knew, too, that plenty of older men and women would enjoy more merriment among congenial companions, but at most social functions she noticed that those past 30 were wall flowers.” Stull soon began travelling to major North American cities, giving lectures on the nature of marriage and establishing club branches. Within a few years, the Widows’ and Widowers’ Club appears to have become a continent-wide phenomenon, holding national conventions at least twice (both times in Chicago).
In the club’s early years, Stull expressed a strong anti-flapper sentiment, criticizing the liberated young women of the 1920s whom, Stull felt, frequently ended up with the older men who otherwise could be marrying women of their own age. In a 1928 article in the Youngstown Vindicator, Stull is quoted as saying “companionate marriage is a plague which is contagious to the jazz-mad youth, but from which the middle-aged are immune…in too many cases it proves for thrill-seeking youth just another episode which takes all and gives nothing.” As the popularity of the Widows’ and Widowers’ Club grew in the 1930s, however, articles about Stull acknowledge that a growing number of younger singles were contacting her, apparently just as desperate for spouses.
Stull soon became something of a celebrity. Described in 1928 as “tall, well-built, with pretty black curling hair and sapphire blue eyes,” she presented an amusing outlook on love and marriage, and was frequently quoted in newspaper round-ups of diverting epigrams from prominent people. Typical of these comments are such gems as “Young girls are a menace to widow ladies; they are all motion and no emotion.” And: “Men still prefer blonds. But what they really want is a girl who looks like a blond, talks like a brunette, and acts like a redhead.” At least one article compares Stull to author Elinor Glyn, known for popularizing “It” (a 1920s euphemism for a specific type of sex appeal).
(At right: Nelle Brooke Stull, ca. 1915, from the George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, LC-B2-2200-13.)
If reports are accurate, she received thousands of letters and put together many satisfied couples, although the numbers of paid club members, letters received, and actual marriages brokered all fluctuate wildly across different newspaper articles. Matchmaking services at this time carried a certain stigma; Stull’s attitude was refreshing in that she encouraged people to be unashamed about hunting for a suitable spouse. From a 1935 article about the Widows’ and Widowers’ Club in the Washington Post: “nothing in America is so funny as getting married and the marriage is doubly funny if the participants are a little bald or fat [or older]. Mrs. Stull’s club has thus become a sort of national joke. And yet her project despite its ludicrous aspects has its points.” Attitudes about matchmaking services appear to have softened during the club’s later years, when Stull is sometimes cited in newspaper features on the growing phenomenon of “matrimonial clubs.”
While Stull did much of her work by correspondence, she received the most media attention on her trips to specific cities, where she often received prospective clients in person. When this happened, local newspapers would run features on her and her matchmaking activities, generally in a positive but light-hearted tone. In this fashion, Stull had traveled Toronto in 1928 and in 1934 without apparent incident.
On her next visit, however, things went badly.
In January of 1936 Stull arrived in Toronto, setting up offices in her rooms at the Prince George Hotel, at the southeast corner of King and York. With her she had Mr. J. Rutherford Allen, described in the Toronto Telegram as a 46 year-old widower, in the oil business, and “determined to marry a Toronto girl right away quick.” When asked why he specifically desired a Toronto wife, Allen’s responses were vague. “I’ve just had an idea I’d like a Toronto girl… I’ve seen some nice-looking ones since I got here.” He specified that blondes would not be considered. With Allen was Rev. Dr. David Dempster, who had supposedly officiated at Allen’s first wedding and who had been brought in hopes of his officiating at the second.
In addition to showcasing her prize widower, Stull maintained her other duties as president of the Widows’ and Widowers’ Club. One newspaper claimed that there already were, prior to her arrival in Toronto, 75 club members in the city, and Stull is reported to have spent her time fielding requests from both men and women in search of matrimony. “They all want one thing—marriage,” she told the Telegram. “They can camouflage and bluff it, and say that they want a social club, but it’s marriage they’re after. Most are between 45 and 50, but I had one hard little 16 year-old blonde, a dancer, who said: ‘I’ll marry any man with money.’ I told her she’d come to the wrong person, and that she’d never find happiness that way.”
(Above: J. Rutherford Allen (or Allan), as seen in the Toronto Evening Telegram, January 17, 1936.)
Stull’s 1936 visit was covered for the Toronto Star by Alexandrine Gibb, otherwise known for her pioneering coverage of women’s sports. Gibb visited Stull at the Prince George, posing “as another love-sick dame and not a newspaper woman,” calling J. Rutherford Allen “the attraction which is being offered to you Toronto maidens and heart-sick, forlorn widows.” Gibb is apprehensive about the entire affair, and asks why a wealthy Texan should specifically desire a Toronto bride, and why he should bring his own minister with him.
Most of Gibb’s scepticism, however, is reserved for Stull’s apparent business model. To join the Widows’ and Widowers’ Club at this time cost $6, with an additional $25 finder’s fee should Club membership result in a marriage. Assuming that both partners paid these fees, a successful marriage yielded $62 for the club, no small amount during the depression. In 1935, one article reported that Stull made over $9,000 through her matchmaking (by one measure, close to $150,000 in today’s buying power).
It is unclear what first drew the police’s attention to Stull’s activities, but two days after Gibb’s article, on the afternoon of Sunday, January 19, Detective Sergeants Fred Storm and Nelson Silverthorn interrupted a club meeting at Stull’s room at the Prince George. The Star described the scene:
Mrs. Brooke Stull was very indignant at the action of the officers, who gathered up newspapers bearing headlines which claimed she had over 15,000 proposals and had won a great number of beauty contests. The officers also seized letters from persons seeking information about the Widows’ and Widowers’ club… Names and addresses of those attending the meeting yesterday afternoon were obtained by the police, who claim that since the club was announced here, several meetings have been held. A number of pamphlet books on the ‘true secret of love-making,’ as well as contract forms the prospective members would sign were taken by the police.
The nature of the suspected crime soon emerged. From the Star: “When membership fees were paid a number of women were allowed to stay in a room. Allen was telephoned and asked to come and view his bridal prospects. Carefully, police say, he would survey all. He would leave and then it was announced he had not selected any as suiting his choice to share his ‘millions.’ These parades had been going on since Thursday…” Allen, it seems, had no intention of marrying anybody, or at least, not until enough women had paid for privilege of being inspected by him and the enterprise became profitable.
Investigations continued. Stull and Allen were taken first to police headquarters, Stull still wearing her blue evening gown and mink coat. Bail was set the next day at $1,000 each (some sources say $2,000), and the accused were taken to the Don Jail to await trial on charges of conspiracy to commit fraud. Later that week, Stull’s husband and mother both came to Toronto to post the bail money and vouch for her. Allen, curiously, who now gave his first name as “Rawleigh,” remained behind bars, apparently unable to raise an amount which, even then, should have been a pittance if he was as rich as he claimed.
The two defendants appeared in court on January 27, Stull wearing “a corsage of red carnations pinned to her smart fur coat. She smiled around the court beneath a smart velvet turban as the charge was read. “I prefer you,” she told Magistrate O’Connor, when asked to elect a mode of trial after a plea of not guilty.”
(Headline from the Daily Mail and Empire, January 20, 1936.)
During the trial it became apparent that Allen was no millionaire. When he came to Toronto he had but $2 on him, supplemented with oil bonds which were described by police as being about as valuable as “stage money.” Detective Storm claimed that Allan hatched the scheme with Stull on the way to Toronto, taking on a man named J.M. Willy to play the role of the Rev. Dr. Dempster (who had managed to evade arrest and disappear from Toronto by this time). When put on the stand, Allen claimed to have been a genuine member of the Club, but dismissed the hoax, calling it “all a lark.” Stull denied all knowledge of the scam, apparently believing Allen to have been authentic, and claimed that she did not knowingly do anything wrong. The police said that Allen saw and rejected over 300 candidates while in Toronto, although it seems that many of these women did not pay for the privilege; despite her rates, Stull had only signed up four new members on her Toronto trip.
By the end of the week, both Stull and Allen had opted to plead guilty, with Stull’s plea qualified as “with explanations.” Both were summarily sentenced to 24 hours in jail and a $200 fine.
A few weeks later, the mysterious Rev. Dempster/J.M. Willy was positively identified by Prince George staff as Joseph Weil. Weil was a confidence man known to Chicago police as the “Yellow Kid,” known for various frauds and scams and having a particular gift for impersonation. This particular scam seems to have been a bit of a comedown for the Yellow Kid, who had previously been involved in large stock scams worth over $100,000.
Rawleigh “J. Rutherford” Allen was not the first prize spouse to have been affiliated with the Widows’ and Widowers’ Club. In autumn of 1934, Stull selected two prospective husbands for Countess Eugenie Zicha of Prague: a Philadelphia chemist named Theodore Kabelac and an Ontario manufacturer named Jacob Miller. The Countess chose Kabelac, and several newspapers reported that the two were married after a two-day-long courtship. It is possible that this stunt was also some sort of scam, especially given that the only other reference to “Countess Eugenie Zicha of Prague” seems to be a mention in a 1937 newspaper about Stull, in which Zicha is described as Stull’s “lieutenant,” apparently now working for the Widows’ and Widowers’ Club.
Despite her run-in with the law in Toronto, Stull’s reputation does not seem to have suffered significant long-term effects. She continued to visit American cities and offer up humorous quotations about the nature of marriage, and organize various media stunts. In March of 1937, Stull attempted to organize a continent-wide sit-down strike of 1,500 widows supposedly in her club’s ranks, saying “the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. Fix it so that he can’t eat and he’ll come to terms in a hurry. That’s what we’ll do in this strike. No more free meals for men who don’t have serious intentions. When they propose, we’ll call off the strike,” adding “we believe that every woman is entitled to a man and a home.” (Left: Nelle Brooke Stull and J. Rutherford Allan, shown with some of the evidence seized by police, from the Toronto Evening Telegram, January 20, 1936.)
Stull continued her work with the Widows’ and Widowers’ Club until at least the mid-1950s. Her legacy may be a bit ambiguous, but she certainly demonstrated that there is money to be had in introducing lonely single people to each another. As she told the Berkeley Daily Gazette in 1933: “Love is a major industry. It’s certainly as big as the automobile or bituminous coal.”
Additional material from Berkeley [California] Daily Gazette (April 10, 1930; September 5, 1933; October 29, 1934; March 2, 1937); the Calgary Daily Herald (August 25, 1928; January 16, 1936); the Daily Mail and Empire (January 18, January 20, January 28, 1936); Eugene [Oregon] Register-Guard (July 15, 1947); the Gazette [Montreal] (February 1, 1936); the Globe (January 20, February 1, 1936); the Grape Belt and Chautauqua Farmer [Dunkirk, New York] (March 30, 1937); the Lewiston [Idaho] Morning Tribune (December 11, 1930); Miami Daily News (August 18, 1929; January 16, 1944); the Milwaukee Journal (April 24, 1931); the Pittsburgh Press (February 4, 1925; July 15, 1955); the Portsmouth [Ohio] Times (May 6, 1933); the Reading Eagle (October 25, 1934); Rochester Evening Journal and the Post Express (September 17, 1926); San Jose News (November 17, 1939); Schenectady Gazette (December 18, 1948); the Southeast Missourian [Cape Girardeau, Missouri] (March 20, 1937); the Spartanburg [South Carolina] Herald (November 21, 1939); Spokane Daily Chronicle (June 20, 1924); the Telegraph-Herald [Dubuque, Iowa] (September 6, 1935); Toronto Daily Star (December 12, 1933; January 18, January 20, January 22, January 27, January 31, February 19, 1936); Toronto Evening Telegram (January 17, January 18, January 20, January 27, 1936); Washington Post (November 23, 1935); Youngstown Vindicator (February 1, 1928).