FIFTIES COLLECTION: “The Tragedy of Monty Thorne” (1954)

Mrs Marion Thorne sitting on Monty’s bed in bedroom with pictures of Monty. Pictures of his father and grandfather hang in the Drake Towers. January 27, 1956.

MANNERS & MORALS: The Tragedy of Monty Thorne

Time Magazine, Monday, July 26, 1954

Montgomery Ward Thorne seemed to have everything. He grew up with a $4,200 model railroad, a collection of guns, a speedboat and an Oldsmobile convertible. If he had reached his 21st birthday next October, he would have come into a fortune. His father, Gordon Thorne. a hard-drinking heir of a Montgomery Ward & Co. founder, had left his fourth wife and their son Monty $3,000,000 in trust. But Monty’s life was full of unhappiness, and his death was full of horror.

Nine Neat Marks. Early last month, after his freshman year at Fordham University, Thorne drove home to Chicago, but he did not go to his mother’s 15-room East Lake Shore Drive apartment. Instead, he went to a dingy hotel, and then moved into a tiny, raffish apartment in Chicago’s bohemia. A few days later, on June 19, his body was found there abed, with blood-flecked lips and, on his arms. nine neat punctures like a drug-addict’s needle marks. Four were fresh.

Thorne left behind two startlingly different impressions. His fiancée, Maureen Ragen, 18, a student in Westchester County’s Manhattanville College of the Sacred Heart (and granddaughter of Chicago’s late racing-wire king, James Ragen*), sobbed: “He was great and good. He simply had no faults. He didn’t drink. Why, he didn’t even drink coffee, just milk.” The old needle marks were from giving blood, she said, and the fresh ones were “a put-up job.” Said a Fordham official: “Young Thorne was a fine athlete, a good student and deeply religious. He served Mass every morning in the school chapel. We would know it here, I assure you, if he had been a drinker or dope user.”

Monty Thorne’s Drug Stash 1964. Montgomery Ward’s Heir, Monty Thorne died after a wild weekend of drugs and carnal activities. Here detectives go through a bag containing drugs and needles at his apartment June 22, 1954

On the other hand, police, who first neglected to seal his apartment, later found therein: a marijuana cigarette, a red heroin capsule, two hypo needles (one taped above a closet door), a blood-splotched towel and a white nylon girdle embroidered with pink flowers. In the past 18 months, it turned out, young Thorne had checked in 24 times at a cheap hotel, always alone, usually under false names but only twice with luggage. He had not lived at home since he was 18.

The allowance for his support ran to $1,900 monthly—and he spent $2,500 on a two-week European trip last year. But he was so broke that sometimes he sold a pint of blood for $10. He ran up big bills at clothing stores, but his wardrobe was small; some said he peddled clothing to buy dope. Although he died with a nearly empty wallet, an open fight soon developed over the fortune.

Two Last Wills. In true Chicago style, Cook County’s Coroner Walter McCarron, a politician and trucker with no medical training, leaped happily into the case—and the headlines. Thorne had made one will leaving everything to his mother. But a second will, made nine days before his death, bequeathed most of the money to pretty Maureen Ragen and her mother, Mrs. Aleen Ragen. Day after day, Coroner McCarron called before the television newsreel cameras the weeping women who loved Thorne—and now seek his inheritance—to cast suspicion on each other.

Montgomery Ward Thorne Exhumed, 1954.
The coroner’s jury in the inquest into the death of Montgomery Ward heir Monty Thorne. Jerry Kearns, coroner’s pathologist, is telling the finding of himself and three other pathologists in the case. Coroner McCarron is next to Kerans, and Dr. Harry G. Leon, who made the first autopsy on Thorne’s body, sits behind McCarron.
Detective RJ Curran testifying to the Coroner Walter McCarron about the dope found in the room, which was presented to evidence, during the Thorne Inquest on June 21st, 1954.
Denny Annis (friend of Monty Thorne) with attorney John Brennan at Monty Thorne’s inquest, June 28, 1954.

Mrs. Ragen testified that Thorne was afraid to eat with his mother’s lawyer because “something would be put in his soup . . . He said he knew he wouldn’t get [his inheritance] because his mother had spent it.” Mrs. Marion McDougal Thorne, with mink stole, mourning garb, reddened toenails, and with rosary beads clutched in her hand, replied pointedly: “The boy went in and made a will, and nine days later he’s dead—how do you explain that?” Her lawyers had dug up evidence that her son was a drug addict (and thus perhaps incompetent to change his will); the Ragen lawyers dug up evidence that he was a clean-cut, clean-living lad (legally competent). Bumbled Coroner McCarron: “There’s some confusion here.”

All of McCarron’s hubbub made a sensational show, but very little sense. The coroner’s physician, Dr. Harry Leon, made the worst mistake: after an autopsy, he reported that Thorne was killed by a mixture of alcohol, morphine and barbiturates. “He died by undue means,” said Dr. Leon, clearly implying murder. But four pathologists rejected his report outright; his autopsy proved to be so sketchy that last week, while Coroner McCarron posed alongside with bowed head, Thome’s casket was dug up for a new autopsy.

Even then, doctors doubted that the cause of death could be established. There was little chance that the tragedy of Monty Thorne, in life and in death, would ever be fully explained.

* Who was mowed down by gangster bullets in 1946, died in a hospital 51 days later after a mysteriously administered dose of mercury.

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