The tortured heiress who disappeared into the Bay Area hills – SF Gate

The Empress of the World was born on a sprawling California ranch in 1872. The only daughter of John and Susan Wolfskill, two of the first English-speaking settlers in Winters, Edith Irene Wolfskill was spoiled and treasured. As she grew, so did her familys fortunes. In Southern California, Johns brother William was among the first to introduce wine grapes, citrus and eucalyptus trees to the state. In Northern California, John and William ran Rancho Rio de los Putos, an enormous 18,000-acre land grant that spanned Solano and Yolo counties.

Edith was one of the wealthiest elites in the state in 1902. She was pretty, too, with brown hair and big, cool-gray eyes. But that year, her mind began drifting from reality. She became obsessed with religion, shouting Bible verses and wandering out of the house to pray on her knees in the streets. Her worried family sent her to a private sanitarium in Belmont, but "although her parents spared no expense and did everything in their power to effect a cure, the young woman did not improve, the San Francisco Examiner wrote in 1903.

Edith Wolfskill as she appeared in 1903 when she disappeared from a hospital in San Francisco. This portrait ran in the San Francisco Examiner.

In August of that year, Edith was checked into California General Hospital, a mansion-turned-medical facility on Douglass Street in San Francisco. Her personal doctor believed she needed an operation to restore her reason. (Its not reported exactly what this operation was, but the most likely candidate during this era is a hysterectomy; lobotomies would not come into fashion for another few decades.) Distressed to find herself in a strange hospital, awaiting a no doubt terrifying surgery, Edith escaped out of a window and down a fire escape. The only witness was another patient, who didnt raise the alarm.

The disappearance of a beautiful heiress, wearing only a thin summer dress, prompted a media frenzy. The Wolfskills friend, politician William Chapman Ralston Jr., hired Pinkertons to track her. A few days later, a man passing Mussel Rock off Daly City saw a sad, weary woman sitting along the shore. She matched the description of the lost heiress, and the good Samaritan convinced her to get into his carriage. He took her back to the hospital, where she was found to be in good health, if unwilling to talk. "She must have walked all the way down there and have simply become tired out from her wanderings," the family doctor told the media. Now returned to her familys care, Edith had the surgery.

A view of the Alfred E. Clarke mansion on Douglass Street in San Francisco. Edith was once hospitalized here when it was known as California General Hospital.

For the rest of her life, Edith needed full-time aid. She had difficulty problem solving and struggled to keep a steady grip on reality. A former nurse said Edith was deathly terrified of strangers. Within a decade, Ediths parents died, leaving her somewhere between $600,000 and $800,000 (thats more than $13 million, adjusted for inflation). The trust stipulated that Ediths brothers, Matt and Ney, had to use some of that money to provide for her.

Edith moved into the beautiful house on the Wolfskill estate in Suisun Valley. The five-bedroom home, which still stands at 2477 Mankas Corner Road, looked out onto the valleys orchards. Cherries, Bartlett pears and every imaginable stone fruit grew in abundance in the many busy farms of the burgeoning region. Surrounding the groves were rolling hills, green in the spring and bleached yellow in the summer, and a few small creeks cut jagged lines through the landscape.

Edith seemed to love it. She regularly went for long hikes, traipsing through Rockville and its namesake quarry, up to the bright blue waters of Lake Curry and down into what would become the edges of Fairfield. Everyone knew the wayward heiress as the town eccentric; some called her the Empress of the World. Perhaps it was because there was something still regal about her, even as she wore plain clothes and came home dusty from her meandering walks.

A vineyard in Suisun Valley in autumn. The landscape, once roamed by Edith, is dotted with farms and creeks.

Early on the morning of July 14, 1929, 57-year-old Edith left her home on foot. It was shaping up to be hot, and she wore only light summer clothes. When she didnt return for lunch, her caregivers began to worry, and they reported her missing.

The scene at Sheriff Jack Thorntons office was unlike any hed ever seen. Matt and Ney Wolfskill were arguing violently, at one point needing to be separated. Matt was sure his sister had been kidnapped; she was wealthy and someone must have wanted to ransom her.

"She's dead," Ney shot back. "She ran away from the new nurse you hired last Sunday. She lies dead in the hills from exposure right now."

When the brothers left the sheriffs office, awaiting media found a motormouth in Ney, who readily admitted he considered himself enemies with his brother. As different as the sun and the moon, he said. Ney also complained about local law enforcement. "They have got detectives following me and my brother," he said. "They seem to think that we know something about sister's disappearance. That's all nonsense."

Detectives or no, the investigation was getting nowhere. Hundreds of searchers combed the hills, creeks and orchards every day. A pilot from Vallejo took to the skies, conducting aerial sweeps. A sizable reward pot and the prestige of finding a lost heiress drew seekers from across the state. Only one clue was found: a footprint, a few miles from the Wolfskill home, that appeared to match Ediths badly worn shoes.

Months passed. As summer softened into fall, 18-year-old farmers son Bernold Glashoff went seeking a stick to help him knock ripening fruit off tall trees. He climbed down into a dry creek bed and saw it: a decomposing body in a pair of overalls. Over two months after Ediths disappearance, she had been found.

The scene was, in the words of Sheriff Thornton, puzzling. Ediths resting place was only a mile and half from her home, and in a place he swore had been searched innumerable times. Based on the state of the body, she had been dead for some time. He thought it was unlikely theyd missed her and thus suspected foul play.

Then there was her clothing. Shed left the home wearing a shirt and a skirt, but was found in mens overalls. Her shoes were placed nearby. There were footprints around her, but even police admitted that a lack of crime scene integrity meant those could belong to anyone.

An autopsy shed little light on the mysterious case. What remained of Ediths body was in poor shape for analysis. "I fear we will not be able to tell whether she died of natural causes, an autopsy surgeon told United Press International. So far we have established that no bones were broken and no poison taken.A coroners jury could only rule that Edith had died from cause unknown.

Mankas Corner has changed hands many times, but it's remained a Suisun staple since the 1850s. Edith's home is across the street, just to the right of the frame. The Wolfskill estate is currently owned by local vitners Caymus.

Edith left behind a few hints, though. Pioneering UC Berkeley criminologist Edward O. Heinrich inspected a faded note tucked into Ediths overalls. Using early forensic technology, Heinrich was able to revive parts of the dim script, which read: Do not give anything ... do not show sympathy... do not speak to any nurse... do not speak magic... walk out... sleep only in the day time and drink water ... bathe before I dress... use gifts... shun all change." Also discovered was a peculiar situation on the farm next to the Wolfskills. The rancher there noticed a shack on the property, uninhabited for years as far as he knew, showed signs of recent occupation. A bed had been slept in, fresh ashes filled the stove and decaying eggshells and other food scraps were scattered about. Most striking of all, a few religious phrases had been scrawled on the walls. Go to heaven, looked like it was written in Ediths handwriting.

Heinrich ruled that Edith, a creature of habit and extremely averse to strangers, had likely run away from home when her brother hired a new private nurse. Either intentionally or accidentally, she died shortly after her escape. Although the sheriff was convinced Edith had been the victim of foul play, no definitive proof or suspects were ever found. As for the brothers, Matt and Ney entered an acrimonious court battle to distribute Ediths remaining trust. All the bitterness was for nothing; they eventually split the money money that neither incredibly wealthy man needed to begin with.

Ediths body was taken to the family plot at Inglewood Park Cemetery in Los Angeles County. There, she was laid to rest with her parents under a white marble tombstone bearing the inscription Nearer My God to Thee. Carved into rock is a single, sweeping palm frond: a symbol of Christs triumph over death, a sign of life everlasting awaiting in the world beyond.

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The tortured heiress who disappeared into the Bay Area hills - SF Gate

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