The Thayers

"The Evening Bulletin" -- Philadelphia, Friday, September 21, 1945

Found at 48th & Parkside; Throat, Wrists Slashed; Dead 40 Hours [Large bold]

John B. Thayer, 3d, member of a widely-known Philadelphia family and financial vice president of the Unievrsity [sic] of Pennsylvania, was found dead, his throat and wrists slashed, in an automobile on a West Philadelphia lot this morning.

Former Lieutenant Governor John C. Bell, a life-long friend, identified the body at the morgue and said Thayer had not been seen since he left his university office Tuesday morning.

"He has been suffering from a nervous breakdown during the last two weeks, due, I believe, to worrying about the death of his son who was killed in service," Bell stated. "A few days ago he seemed to develop amnesia."

The son, one of two who went to war, was Second Lieutenant Edward Cassatt Thayer, 22, co-pilot of an Army bomber in the Southwest Pacific, who was killed in action and was the first member of the First City Troop to die in World War II.

Coroner J. Allan Bertolet went to the scene, a lot on the south side of Parkside av., between 47th and 48th sts., near the P. T. C. trolley loop, and indicated that he believed the death a suicide. Later Deputy Coroner Matthew A. Roth announced that there was no doubt that Thayer used razor blades found in the car to kill himself.

There was a package of new blades in the car and apparently two of them had been employed to inflict the wounds.

Condition of blood stains in the car indicated that death occurred at least 40 hours ago.

[Bold] Not Seen Since Tuesday

Bell stated that Thayer had not been seen since he left his university office at 10:45 A.M. Tuesday at which time he was seen by his secretary. The family became alarmed, Bell added, when Thayer failed to appear at his Grays lane, Haverford, home, Tuesday evening. On Wednesday, Bell reported the disappearance to State Police.

Thayer, who was 50, was a survivor of the sinking of the steamship Titanic on April 14, 1912, in which his father lost his life when the world's then largest liner went down after striking an iceberg off the Grand Banks on its maiden voyage.

The automobile in which he died, one registered in the name of his wife, Mrs. Lois C. Thayer, was first noticed on the lot before noon yesterday.

George E. Wharton, of 2036 N. 56th st., a P. T. C. supervisor, saw it at that time. Yesterday afternoon boys played football on the lot within sight of the car, but saw nothing amiss.

[Bold] Saw Car Again Today

When Wharton saw it again this morning he began to suspect something was wrong. Accompanied by Daniel Petetti, of 1247 N. 54th st., a mechanic, he went to the door and looked in.

They saw Thayer's body sprawled on the front seat. He was dressed in a gray business suit and there was a brown hat on his head.

There was an amber cigar holder in the car with a cigar smoked to within an inch of the holder, possibly indicating, detectives said, that Thayer sat in the car for some time before killing himself.

The discoverers telephoned police, and Joyner and Berry, policemen, were ordered to the scene in a radio car. They said that in addition to the throat and wrist wounds they found Thayer's shirt torn, as though it, too, had been slashed. There was no wound beneath the tear, however.

The policemen took the body to Presbyterian Hospital, where the pronouncement of death was made.

[Bold] $1.88 in Pockets

Coroner Bertolet said that Thayer's pockets contained $1.88, a miscellaneous assortment of cards, and an unmailed business letter to a bank he had written on university stationary [sic]. Roth described the letter as routine, throwing no light on the death.

Dr. Thomas S. Gates, chairman of the University of Pennsylvania, in a formal statement, declared:

"In the death of Mr. Thayer, trustee, financial vice president, and former treasurer, the University of Pennsylvania has lost a trusted and loyal servant.

"He had given unsparingly of himself to his university and to community affairs, and he had re-doubled his efforts in the war period, especially after the death of his son, Edward, in the Pacific, which was followed closely by the death of his mother."

Thayer's mother, Mrs. Marian Longstreth Morris Thayer, died at her Haverford home April 14, 1944, the 32d anniversary of her husband's loss on the Titanic.

[Bold] Family Long Active at Penn

Thayer's family long has been active in the affairs of the University of Pennsylvania, and he was elected a trustee in 1928. On October 2, 1939, he became a treasurer of the university, and in [sic] February 8, 1944, he was named to the newly-created office of financial vice president. He also was director of the bi-centennial celebration of the university. A second son, John B. Thayer, 4th, is a Navy pilot.

While an undergraduate, Thayer was a member of the soccer team, a member and manager of the cricket team, manager of the crew, advisory editor of The Pennsylvanian and a director of the Athletic Association.

In addition, he was active on various undergraduate committees, and was elected to the Phi Kappa Beta Junior Society, Sphinx Senior Society, and Delta Psi fraternity. During World War 1 he served as a first lieutenant and later as a captain in the 304th ammunition train of the Field Artillery, 79th Division.

[Bold] On Managing Committee

He also served as a member of the managing committee of the university, as a member of the General Alumni Society Board of Directors, and as vice chairman of the Alumni Annual Giving Fund Committee.

An honorary member of the First City Troop, a director of the Academy of the Fine Arts, and chairman of the board of trustees of the Haverford School, of which he was a graduate. Thayer was President of the Philadelphia Skating Club and Humane Society. His hobby was figure skating. He was president of the Racquet Club, and a former president of the Bond Club of Philadelphia.

Thayer was a member of the Rose Tree Fox Hunt, the Rabbit Club, and the Gulph Mills Golf Club. His father was a vice president of the Pennsylvania Railroad.

Mrs. Thayer, the former Lois B. Cassatt, is a granddaughter of the late Alexander J. Cassatt, former president of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Her parents were Captain and Mrs. Edward Buchanan Cassatt.

[The above has been checked and verified, insofar as possible, as a true and accurate transcription of the original article -- JMF]
"The Philadelphia Inquirer" -- Monday Morning, September 24, 1945

Thayer Watch Found in Home [Headline Font]

A gold watch, reported missing following the discovery of the body of John B. Thayer, 3d, financial vice president of the University of Pennsylvania, in his parked automobile last Friday, mysteriously turned up at his home yesterday.

A friend of Mr. Thayer's family confirmed the fact that the watch was "found at home," but said he was unable to state whether someone had taken it to the residence, on Grays lane, Haverford, or if it had been there all the time and mistakenly believed missing.


Members of the family would not talk about the matter last night.

First inkling that the timepiece was ostensibly missing from Mr. Thayer's clothing when his body was found in his car on a lot at 48th st. and Parkside ave. came at 2 P.M. yesterday, in a report sent out over the police teletype.


The report, which did not give the owner's name, said the watch was lost in the vicinity of the lot between Sept. 18 and 21. The latter date was last Friday, and the body had been unnoticed for some time previously.

Coroner J. Allan Bertolet, who said he believed Mr. Thayer took his own life by slashing his wrists and throat with a razor blade, estimated the victim had lain dead in the car for 40 hours or more.

The police report described the watch as a "repeater" type, and said that a locket containing a woman's photograph and a T-shaped fraternity pin were on a heavy gold chain attached to the watch.

Police officials said last night they could advance no theory as to how the timepiece might have disappeared from the man's clothing, or how it turned up again at Mr. Thayer's house, if that was what actually happened.

[The above has been checked and verified, insofar as possible, as a true and accurate transcription of the original article -- JMF]
"The Evening Bulletin" -- Philadelphia, Monday, September 24, 1945


Timepiece, Gone when Body was Found, Returned Mysteriously [Large bold]

The missing gold watch of John B. Thayer, 3d, who was found dead in his parked automobile last Friday, has turned up.

The watch was missing when Thayer's body was found in his car on a lot at 47th st. and Parkside av. It turned up Saturday morning, wrapped in paper, on the running board of a station wagon in the garage of the Thayer home on Gray's lane, Haverford.

The watch was found by an employe [sic] of the Thayer family, and apparently had been put on the running board of the station wagon some time Friday night. Yesterday Lieutenant Governor John C. Bell, personal friend of Thayer, complained to Director James H. Malone, of Public Safety, about the presumed theft, and Malone ordered an immediate investigation.

Thayer, his throat and both wrists slashed, was found dead in the car in a lot near the 47th st. and Parkside av. P. T. C. trolley loop. Police of the 42d District were called, and the body was taken to Presbyterian Hospital, and then to the morgue.

Funeral services for Thayer, who was financial vice president of the University of Pennsylvania, will be held at 4:30 this afternoon in the Church of the Redeemer, Bryn Mawr. Interment will be in the church's cemetery.

[The above has been checked and verified, insofar as possible, as a true and accurate transcription of the original article -- JMF]
OK. Above are the other three articles I uncovered, listed in chronological order. And it's important to note that the Philadelphia Inquirer obituary and funeral notice reproduced here on ET both contain date errors in the transcriptions -- that particular Saturday was September *22*, not the 23rd. (The original newspaper is correctly dated "Saturday, Sept. 22, 1945".)

Both the Inquirer and Bulletin were leading and reputable Philadelphia newspapers that persisted for many years. The Inquirer is in circulation still. The Evening Bulletin went under in the late 1970's (I believe), purportedly the victim of competition from television news coverage.

While both were still around, the Inquirer was the "morning paper" and the Bulletin, of course, the "evening paper". Thus, the Inquirer's obituary was actually *second*, chronologically, after the Bulletin's release of the day before.

The Bulletin obituary does make it obvious that Jack was in fact "sprawled" across the seat -- not upright, as the Inquirer article at least suggests. But there are still peculiarities.

At the risk of sounding irreverent, I wouldn't be caught dead myself wearing a gray suit with a brown hat (and I doubt most men of the period would), though Jack could have been a tad color-blind in that range.

The watch story is just bizarre, and at least to me suggests some incredulousness openly expressed by the press itself eventually: "... if this was what actually happened."

The torn or slashed shirt seems a bit suspicious, too; the car registered in Lois's name, likewise (unless all the family cars were for some reason registered in her name). The boys playing football "within sight"?

Some of my initial (far stronger) suspicions were actually the result of the date error in those ET articles, which when backtracked leads to a very bizarre chronology. But there's still room for doubt there, I think. And with a man of the political stature of Lieutenant Governor Bell (particularly in 1945) "at the helm", it's not inconceivable that things might even have been wrapped up hastily "for the sake of the family."

So, while I won't say I find it incomprehensible for Jack to have committed suicide, I do think the story overall is fishy, and at least suggestive of some deeper implication. (Those pat explanations offered just seem way too convenient, in my mind -- "amnesia"??)
John, I caught that bit about the torn shirt as well. Maybe it's something he did himself in some sort of rage, but it does leave a red flag or two flapping in the breeze. Makes you wonder if there was a struggle of some sort. I wonder if the autopsy report is available. It might answer a few questions.

Michael H. Standart
Some other fairly glaring questions:

Jack was reported (by Bell) to have left his office at the University of Pennsylvania around "10:45 a.m. Tuesday", presumably according to his secretary, yet he was only discovered in that car, parked adjacent to the P.T.C. trolley loop, almost 3 days (70 hours) later. Still, the coroner's report only suggests a time of death about *40* hours prior to the discovery.

That only takes us back -- from Friday, 8:50 a.m. (the time of the discovery, according to the Inquirer article) -- to Wednesday evening, around 4:50 p.m.. Where did Jack go, at 10:45 Tuesday morning, and what was he doing for over a full day prior to his estimated time of death? (By direct inference, he was still very much alive when "the family became alarmed" at his failure to appear home Tuesday evening, and would be for another day!)

Moreover, did he supposedly sit in his car in a relatively public place in *daylight* hours, and proceed to do himself in, in this violent manner? The "at least 40 hours" suggests *daytime* on the 19th of September -- some time previous to 4:50 p.m. -- in a fairly open area. (There's a photo that accompanied the Bulletin article that shows the car at the scene -- it's a wide open space, with only the P.T.C. tracks and terminal behind it.)

Add to that the fact that P.T.C. employees Wharton and Petetti "first saw the car" at Noon, Thursday, and you have one very peculiar set of circumstances. (If the estimated time of death was perhaps far too conservative, then where was the car all day Wednesday?)
Good questions. To quote an oft used saying; "It just don't add up!"

If somebody really wants to persue this, one might ask who would have the most to gain by Jack Thayer's death? (Follow the money!)

Michael H. Standart
Mike: Yeah, lots of funny business there. I would never venture to take this any further publicly than the profound sense of disbelief that it inspires in me (and perhaps did in the press, as well).

But this whole story has a bizarre aura about it that's vaguely reminiscent of "The Postman Always Rings Twice" and similar dark films. Somehow it just doesn't add up.

It's of course entirely possible that it was a suicide. But the circumstances (just at gut level) suggest to me something far deeper than merely "worrying about his son's death" from two years prior, or even his mother's later death having affected him in this manner. It just seems to me like there's a "third strike" missing somewhere.

(The only thing that remotely ties in additionally here is the occurrence of V.J. Day on September 2, 1945. If the end of the war finally allowed Jack's emotional "flood gates" to open, I suppose that *could* have been the trigger for repressed feelings to finally reach the surface full-force. But it does seem a bit far-fetched for a "nervous breakdown" to ensue within a week or so, and subsequently, "amnesia".)

I also have to wonder why a fairly well-established man -- Financial Vice President of an Ivy League University, after all -- was at his office in the midst of a "nervous breakdown" most recently accompanied by this alleged "amnesia". Know what I mean? It's not like he needed the money! (I'd have thought he'd be under a doctor's care, resting comfortably at home, if that were the case.)

Jack's daughter-in-law Charlotte (J.B. Thayer IV's widow) in a later article described him as a man she absolutely adored -- something along the lines of "the nicest man I ever knew". And every time I look at this in depth, it just seems "off". (I get little ripples in the back of my neck, even.)

I have to admit, it's not purely a rational reaction; in many ways, it's really more instinctive.

John, I suspect it's more then instinctive. Perhaps it was a suicide. Occam's Razor and all that, but it still has a ripe smell to it. Some of the points you raised would have any homicide detective's radar up on full power and out there asking hard questions.

Good luck to anybody trying to run it down now. 57 years after the fact, the trail is going to be ice cold.

Michael H. Standart
Hmmmm, this is all very interesting. I'd be interested in anything further you come up with, John.

One question, though. How advanced was forensic medicine of this time period? Would a medical examiner of that time be able to accurately pinpoint the time of death, or was he giving a ballpark figure?
Thanks for posting those articles, John. They were very thought-provoking.


I think (don't quote me on this) that back then they could estimate time of death to a certain degree- I think it was known by that point, for example, about rigor mortis and how long it takes for a body to go into and then later come out of it, and the fact that after death body temperature drops apporximately one degree an hour. Anything more than that, I couldn't be certain.

And, honestly, I do buy that he was depressed still after the death of his son and mother, even given the long time frame. I know someone who was depressed for a long time before they cut their wrists- several years. And for how long he was missing before the actual death, if the coroner was accurate with the time frame- I buy that, too. Think about it this way- he's despondant, and decides on the spur of the moment, "That's it, I've had enough." He gets up and leaves work at 10:45am. He wanders around for a while, drives around, whatever, buys some razors, says good bye mentally to everything he holds dear. Night falls, and he wants out, but can't quite work up the courage to do it, so he hides out somewhere for the night. The next day passes in much the same way, until he pulls up to where the car was found, sits there and smokes for a while, and then just does it.

However, the other facts- the rip in his shirt, how long the car was sitting there, etc.- they do bother me. I didn't know before just how long the car was sitting there until the police were called. That to me is odd. I mean, now, if I saw a vacant car sitting in what was essentially an empty lot, I probably wouldn't give it much thought, but in 1945, cars were still something relatively new, and not discarded like that. I think most people back then would have gone to check it out immediately, but that's just my opinion.

There are similar suspicions about Washington Dodge's suicide. It took place, suspiciously, in the basement of his apartment building, his family had plans to go to on a trip out of town the next day, he had been involved in a major financial scandal, etc.

My feeling is that Thayer was carrying a lot of baggage. None of the Titanic survivors were treated for any mental disorder, afterwards. They simply tucked the horrifying disaster in the backs of their minds, and went about as before. We all know, today, that doesn't work. The stuff comes back to haunt you, even worse than before, when some other event triggers it. The longer it sits there, unresolved, the worse it gets.

Thayer, in particular, had a horrifying near-death experience, on Collapsible B. People screaming, dying, in the dark --- his own narrow escape from the fate that the ones in the water suffered, the death of his father, his friend, innocent people . . .

The straws, in the form of the deaths of 2 very close family members in proximity to one another, must have broken the camel's back.

I'm not saying the circumstances surrounding his death aren't suspicious, but the explanation of suicide is easily believeable, to me.

It's interesting to note that Mrs. Thayer died on the anniversary of the disaster. That suggests she may have been suffering from the after-effects, as well.

The syndromes associated with horrible events are easily killers in and of themselves. One of the psychiatrists on the ABC News board addressed this issue, after Sept. 11. He noted that at the time of the Titanic disaster there was little therapy, and even less prescription treatment available. Obviously, it's much different, today.

I would suggest that someone get ahold of the coroner's report -- that's probably all that's left.
Hey John,

Thanks for posting these articles. They are very interesting in deed.

Just a few thoughts and my opinion on some the circumstances reported in the articles:

I think VJ Day could have been his catalysis-after
all, sons were coming home and this reminder of
his loss must have been heart wrenching.

As respects the cuts in the shirt, I would think
it more probable that this was a result of actions
a few minutes before his inflicted wounds. What
is a red flag to me here is if the cuts in the shirt came from another person using the razor, I would think that there would be some sort of wound (ever superficial) in the chest area and a possible struggle.

I don't find it unusual to see a car parked in an isolated area of a public parking lot. After all, business men would leave their cars while on trips and this was near the trolley line.

Growing up in the inner city and having to find a good location for baseball or football, I don't
remember ever observing cars in the area except
when a tire could be used as 1st or 3rd base or
a sideline out of bounds for football, or worse case senario we just broke the window with the ball! ;-O

Holding the position he did in Philadelphia society leads me to believe if this was not a
suicide, and his actions during the past few months did not coincide with this act, his family would have had front page denial of suicide. I'm sure they didn't want publicity but acceptance
of these articles published without family rebuttal leads me to believe the family was in agreement with the publishing.

The one real puzzle to me is the watch being found at his home. Then again, I can't imagine
a murder returning a watch that could have been
thrown in the river and never found. Could this have been a blunder and shoddy investigation and the watch not included in items on the victim (fell on ground...etc)?

Just my opinions....thanks again for posting the articles.

Rosanne MacIntyre
Tracy wrote: "How advanced was forensic medicine of this time period? Would a medical examiner of that time be able to accurately pinpoint the time of death, or was he giving a ballpark figure?"

Tracy: That's a question I've wondered about myself, and don't really have a definite answer for. Judging from the obituaries alone, I took that official "at least 40 hours" (determined from the condition of the blood in the car) as pathologist lingo for some "step-wise" or "threshold" type of measurement derived from the minimum elapsed time for those physical changes to occur. So I'm guessing that the underlying implication of the "at least" is that 40 hours would be the earliest likely onset for that particular change in the blood. But what the other discernible phases might be, or what other physical signs could be used to pinpoint the time of death in 1945 is beyond me.

It's a very critical question though, I agree. If "40 hours" indicated the minimum threshold for one observed criterion, then indeed: Where's the *next* discernible benchmark? (Or more properly, where was it in 1945?) If it was in fact beyond 70 hours, then we truly know very little other than "at least 40".

Someone here did mention the onset of rigor mortis. That, I know from some other reading, can vary with environmental factors -- heat and humidity -- and to some extent just randomly. (But then I imagine changes in the blood would, too.) There is a single bizarre case reported where rigor mortis supposedly set in instantly -- in a woman leaning against a wall -- though that's hardly a typical onset. (Note: I can't really vouch for that, either. It's only "reported", as far as I recall, based on the fact that she was found dead in a standing position.)

Add to that the fact that full autopsies were likely not the norm in 1945, except in cases where foul play was *definitely* suspected. (And culturally, I believe, they were very much disdained by familes.) In more recent times, even *possibly* questionable deaths may require an autopsy by law. (Said from recent experience with a heart attack victim.) But, of course, that's nowadays.

Is there an old forensic pathologist in the house? :)