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Joseph Bowne Elwell

Born Joseph Bowne Elwell
Nationality American
Period 1902-1920

Joseph Bowne Elwell (1874 - June 11, 1920), was an American bridge player, tutor, and writer during the 1900s and 1910s, prior to and during development of the auction bridge version of the card game. He is best known as the victim of an unsolved murder.


J. B. Elwell was the son of Joseph E. Elwell, a student at Phillips Academy, Andover, and an insurance agent as a teenager. He learned the new card game "bridge" - now called bridge whist or straight bridge to distinguish it from later versions - in the course of establishing a young men's club in church, where its play was a popular activity. His fascination with it took over his life.

Elwell married Helen Derby, who also liked the game. She was socially well-connected, her cousin Richard Derby having married Ethel Roosevelt. Elwell's other social connections included his auction bridge partner Harold Stirling Vanderbilt. Such connections provided him with affluent students and with gambling opportunities; he became wealthy enough ultimately to own property in Palm Beach, 20 horses, 5 cars, and a yacht. He also took a fancy to some of his female students and acquaintances and developed a reputation as a womanizer. By 1916 his wife took their son Richard and filed for separation; by 1920 she was negotiating a divorce.


In the dark of early morning on June 11, 1920, Elwell was murdered with a gunshot to the head from a .45 automatic in his locked house. The murder has never been solved. A 1921 confession was determined to be the false utterance of a deranged man. The crime generated considerable publicity: the New York Times covered it almost daily until the end of July, the Chicago Tribune published 18 articles, and the Los Angeles Times published 12. This classic "locked room murder" was the inspiration for S.S. Van Dine's mystery novel The Benson Murder Case (1926), which introduced his famous fictional detective Philo Vance.

According to a review by Kirkus, Jonathan Goodman's 1987 book The Slaying of Joseph Bowne Elwell fails in its attempted resolution. "Goodman's conclusion can only (sic) remain a supposition in a case that is still important largely as the seedbed for the detective novels of both S.S. Van Dine and Ellery Queen, who realized that the popular taste for such urban mysteries could be tapped in fiction."


Reprint 2010, NY: Husband Press, ISBN 9781445550206, OCLC 648693194
UK ed. 1904, London: George Newnes, 277 pp.
6th ed. 1907, Scribner's, 297 pp.
UK edition 1912, Auction Bridge to Date, London: George Newnes, 215 pp.