History Stories

Suicide? Murder? P.R. stunt? Marie Empress's 1919 disappearance from an ocean liner remains a total enigma.

How did the silent-film star Marie Empress, billed as “the most beautiful woman in pictures,” disappear from the ocean liner R.M.S. Orduña, unnoticed by more than 1,000 passengers and crew? 

Had the popular singer, dancer and actress jumped, fallen or been pushed overboard? Or had she used her well-honed acting skills to sneak off the ship in disguise? Even now, a century later, her disappearance remains one of the most tantalizing mysteries of the sea.

There have been many theories, but few answers.

The mystery begins

Early in the afternoon of Monday, October 27, 1919, the Orduña tied up at a Cunard Line pier in New York City. The liner had begun its transatlantic journey 11 days earlier in Liverpool, England, stopping in Halifax, Nova Scotia, before continuing on to New York.

On board when the ship steamed up the Hudson River were an assortment of VIPs, ordinary travelers and immigrants. Among the most celebrated names on the passenger list: 35-year-old Marie Empress.

Since her start in British vaudeville the previous decade, Empress had established herself on both sides of the Atlantic as a singer, dancer and dramatic actress. She was credited as one of the movies’ first “vamps”—a shameless seductress who lured men to their doom. At the same time, she was considered one of the best male impersonators in the business.

What Marie Empress wasn’t, however, was on the Orduña that day. The crew had already searched the ship three times.

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The ocean liner R.M.S. Orduña, circa 1914.

The ocean liner R.M.S. Orduña, circa 1914.

The newspapers investigate

Empress’s disappearance was covered by newspapers around the world. Reporters interviewed her fellow passengers and any members of the crew who were willing to talk.

None proved chattier than an unnamed “thin, little, gray-haired stewardess,” whose account was picked up in many papers.

The stewardess said she brought dinner to Empress’s stateroom on their last evening at sea and returned to clear the dishes at 6:30 p.m. Empress, she said, asked that she come back at 9:30 p.m. with sandwiches.

When she returned at the appointed hour, Empress wasn’t there, so the stewardess left the sandwiches for her. The following morning, the stewardess found the food untouched and noticed that the bed hadn’t been slept in.

The stewardess allowed a reporter for William Randolph Hearst's International Feature Service a look inside Empress’s first-class cabin. As the reporter described stateroom 480, “In the rack above her berth were a number of photographs of herself—apparently placed aside to be given to press representatives on her arrival in New York.”

There was also a copy of a telegram she’d sent to a New York hotel: “Arrive Monday. Please have room for me.”

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Stateroom 480, the reporter noted, had a door that opened onto an interior passageway. Its lone porthole was 13 inches wide, “far too small for a woman of Marie Empress’s build to have passed through.” It was also locked from the inside.

If she hadn’t squeezed through the porthole, how might she have left the ship? The reporter tried to retrace her path:

“To have gone on deck Marie Empress would have had to traverse several passageways in which people were constantly going and coming at this hour of the evening. She would have had to pass through several salons, always at least half filled, and the actress was of sufficiently striking personality not to have been able to slip through unobserved.”

Besides running the gauntlet of passengers, Empress would have had to “pass by various stewards and officers, and, finally, having gotten there it seems almost impossible that she could have slipped unnoticed to the rail and thrown herself over.”

Making an unobserved leap even more unlikely, “All the decks and promenades are brilliantly lighted until long past the hour when she must have disappeared from the ship,” the reporter noted.

The talkative stewardess supplied some other intriguing details. Empress dressed entirely in black during the voyage, including a “little hat with a big veil… I thought she might be a war widow.” Fellow passengers would also remember the all-black wardrobe, adding that they often saw her wearing a monocle, the New York Tribune reported.

“She would make little jokes while I sewed the rips in her clothes,” the stewardess told the Hearst reporter. “She seemed just like any other lady who was making the crossing, except that she was better looking and better humored.”

Other witnesses also remarked on Empress’s apparent good mood. The Toronto Globe and Mail quoted passengers as saying she’d boarded the ship “as lively as a cricket, and was looking forward with enthusiasm to another season among her American friends.”

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A detail of the article featured in the Richmond Times on November 16, 1919.

A detail of the article featured in the Richmond Times on November 16, 1919.

Was it all just a hoax?

Soon the news coverage took a decidedly different turn. Remembering that she’d been involved in previous publicity stunts, one paper predicted that she would soon show up at a New York theater “with a seaweed halo around her head and an applauding public that loves to have a new one put over on it.”

The New York Clipper, a theatrical monthly, reported that, “several sailors on the ship said that Miss Empress was known to have been about the upper deck in sailor uniform and that she mingled with the crew the night before the ship made New York.”

“Those who believe the music hall star is in New York City suggest she came ashore in the grimy jeans of a fireman,” another newspaper offered. Firemen were the burly guys who shoveled coal to power the ship’s engines. For the petite actress to pass herself off as one would have tested even her skills as a male impersonator.

An anonymous petty officer on the Orduña put his own spin on the theory, telling a reporter, “She could have slipped into men’s clothes and hidden in the hold. There were men’s clothes in her belongings. Maybe she got tired of a woman’s life and thought she’d try a man’s for a while.”

The hoax theory was endorsed early on by people who knew a thing or two about such tricks: the press agents of Broadway.

“The mystery of the lost Marie Empress is solved,” the New York Tribune reported triumphantly. “Marie is as much alive as ever, but no one is supposed to know it yet. The fact is, the press agent hasn’t taken the lid off yet. He doesn’t want the cream skimmed off from the best advertising coup ever…”

The Tribune pinned the stunt on Walter J. Kingsley, the dean of Broadway press agents, perpetrator of innumerable hoaxes and onetime promoter of the escape artist Houdini. The cagey Kingsley didn’t take credit for the stunt but didn’t deny it, either. “Wouldn’t it be nice if a fishing boat picked her up off the coast or something interesting like that happened?” he told his interviewer.

Before long, the publicity stunt theory was so widely accepted that another show-biz paper, the New York Daily Mirror, could even joke about it: “It’s about time Marie Empress showed up for her local theatrical date.”

Not everyone was so sure, however. Several weeks later, a British paper asked a reasonable question: “If Marie Empress is in America, why did she fail to claim her trunks, which, after resting unclaimed over a month at New York, have now been brought back to Liverpool. They have not been opened, and so far no one has claimed them.”

Who was Marie Empress, really?

Throughout her career, Empress did a masterful job of padding her pedigree and concealing her true identity. Numerous articles, both before and after her disappearance, claimed that she was related to the great Shakespearean actor Edmund Kean, that her father was a former lord mayor of London and that her mother was a famous French actress.

As it turns out, Empress was born Mary Ann Louisa Taylor in Birmingham, England in 1884. Her father was a painting contractor, and her mother, according to the British census, performed “home duties.” In 1902, at age 18, she married a local dentist, becoming Mary Ann Louisa Horton. Four years later, the couple separated, after she had become “infatuated with the stage,” the dentist testified when he finally sued for divorce in 1918.

The name of Mary Ann Louisa Horton would appear in print at least once more, on November 8, 1921, roughly the second anniversary of her disappearance. The London Gazette published a legal notice filed by her executor, noting that Horton, “otherwise Marie Empress” had died “on or since the 25 October 1919.” As far as the law was concerned, Empress was now officially dead.

The British government also considered the case closed. Its official registry of citizens who died overseas listed her cause of death as “jumped overboard, presumed drowned” and provided a latitude and longitude corresponding to a spot in the Atlantic about 70 miles off Cape Cod, Mass.

It was a tidy conclusion, but nothing more than a guess.

Lacking any additional facts, the final news accounts fell back on speculation and sometimes overwrought prose. “What was it that reached out of the great waves and plucked Marie Empress from the liner?” one asked. “What subtle spell—what promise of surcease of sorrow—came from the black and racing waves that night, luring her to death in their icy arms?”

By early 1920, Empress had vanished from the headlines, just as she had from the Orduña. The world moved on.

In the century since, Marie Empress has been forgotten. Her movies, like so many from the silent era, have all been lost. Although she performed countless songs, none seems to have been recorded. Aside from some old photos and yellowed newspaper clippings, she left almost nothing to be remembered by.

Except, of course, for the enduring enigma of what happened to her, and why.

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