Thursday, April 18, 2024

Oddities & Curiosities: The Kane Murder Trial (Part 1)

Elisha Kent Kane III, a suspect in the 1931 drowning death of his wife, Jenny Kane. This trial became Hampton Roads’ “Trial of the Century.” (Nancy E. Sheppard Historic Archive Collection)

HAMPTON ROADS — Many dark stories include certain elements: a salacious undercurrent, a plot that seems to stretch the bounds of reality, and characters that are deeply flawed. While most of these stories are relegated to cozy mystery novels or made-for-television movies, some pieces of reality remain stranger than fiction.

Today, we are going to examine one of these stories that includes all of these elements: romance, a torrid affair, a mysterious death, a complex suspect, and a highly publicized trial that has gone down in Hampton Roads’ history as our very own “Trial of the Century.”

Introducing… Elisha Kent Kane III

Elisha Kent Kane III was born into a prominent Pennsylvania family; so much so that the town of Kane, Pennsylvania was named in their honor.

His grandfather, Dr. Elisha K. Kane, II, was a famed surgeon and explorer whose life is the stuff of legions and worthy of honors including having a United States Navy Spruance-class destroyer.

Then Elisha’s father, Dr. Evan O’Neill Kane, came to prominence after performing his own appendectomy and then, later, his own inguinal hernia repair.

Elisha, the third in this line of heroic and prominent men, was destined to also achieve some sort of notoriety. However, his story doesn’t follow the trajectory that one would initially believe he was destined for.

Young Love

After a shortened college career at Cornell University, Elisha enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1917. During World War I, he earned his commission and continued to serve active duty.

During a tour in Newport News, Elisha met Jenny Graham, a resident of Hilton Village. The pair married in 1919 and Elisha transitioned from active duty to reserve status the following year.

Jenny’s parents did not approve of the soft-spoken, romantic Elisha and never hesitated to tell their daughter this.

Elisha and Jenny shared a passionate love for one another, though spending considerable time apart. Elisha inherited his family’s wanderlust trait, traveling abroad to teach, study poetry and translate romance languages. However, Jenny did not accompany her husband.

While Jenny’s parents did not have any use for her husband, the Kanes were always warm and welcoming to her. So much so that Elisha’s father treated his daughter-in-law for a heart condition that she kept secret from her own family.

Regardless of their separations, the two constantly exchanged romantic letters, had affectionate pet names for one another, and were clearly devoted to one another. When the physical spaces between the pair converged, Jenny and Elisha were inseparable from one another.

The Other Woman

The time apart eventually took a toll upon the passionate marriage. In 1929, Elisha was traveling on an ocean liner when he met ship employee, Elizabeth “Betty” Harris Dahl. The striking brunette had an adventurous spirit that attracted Elisha to her.

The two engaged in a sultry love affair, though it has never been revealed just how far this affair went.

Meanwhile, Jenny’s heart condition was beginning to decline. She expressed concern to Dr. Kane about recent fainting spells and how she perceived that her heart had stopped a time or two. Her father-in-law diagnosed her with an “organic defect of the mechanism which kept her heart beating.”

Out of concern for his wife’s condition, Elisha accepted a position to teach at the University of Tennessee.

Despite distance no longer playing a factor in their relationship, Elisha continued to exchange letters with Betty. He would write passionately to this other woman, even promising to dedicate a book to “E.H.D.”

Jenny, concerned over her husband’s odd and distant behavior, began snooping through his possessions when she stumbled across several of Betty’s letters. She confronted Elisha and demanded that he end the affair with Betty. Realizing how heartbroken and unhappy Jenny was, Elisha agreed to bring an end to the affair.

By all accounts, Elisha ignored any further correspondence from Betty in an effort to mend fences in his marriage. The Kanes planned a trip to visit Jenny’s parents for September 1931.

Just prior to leaving for the trip to Newport News, Jenny allegedly intercepted a letter from the elusive E.H.D. It read:

My dearest “Sashy,”

There were numerous times, Sashy, when I wondered if you and I would ever get leisure to do some of the “old world” places together — the good and the bad. Do you still have any dreams as my ever being a part of your life? If you ever get rich, would you take me to the “unusual” and would we do the “unusual”?

Where is she? I can’t understand how come she stayed home a year. Do you still intend to stick to it? With a little nerve and a very little time, we could get rid of her.

What are you doing with your days this summer, Sashy? I really don’t believe I let a day go by without a thought of you. If you were not now at her home you could easily drive to Washington and I could take a bus there.

Jenny tucked the letter away in her luggage, never telling her husband that it was in there.

A Fateful Trip

After arriving to the Grahams’ Newport News home, Jenny allegedly gave the letter to her mother for safe keeping.

On September 11, the Kanes decided to visit the very remote beach at Grandview Island in Hampton. While Jenny was a strong swimmer, she expressed concern to Elisha regarding her heart condition. Elisha assured his wife that she was safe and that she would be okay.

The pair packed their pooch in the car and drove to the picturesque location near the Back River Lighthouse.

Later that afternoon, witnesses reported seeing a vehicle racing through the streets of Hampton and screech to a halt at Dixie Hospital. A manic Elisha climbed out of the vehicle, carrying his wife’s limp body into the hospital. Elisha yelled, demanding that someone help him. He desperately pleaded, “This is my wife! you need to do something! Get a doctor!”

Jenny had no pulse so doctors attempted hypodermic injections and the use of a pulmotor in a futile attempt to revive her. Jenny’s body grew colder as doctors informed Elisha that his wife was gone.

But what happened that day?

Check back next Friday to read the conclusion!

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