This article was originally published in Ancestry Magazine, Nov-Dec 2007.
- [James] Edward Forshay—Actor. Born 1867 in Tennessee: THE MURDERER
- Edna Mae Stokes—Wife of Edward Forshay: THE PHILANDERER
- Vernon Johns—Hotel owner in Chicago and Edna Mae’s love interest: THE LOVER
- Jesse Forshay & Margaret “Texas” Pittman— Parents of Edward Forshay: THE PARENTS
- Anna Forshay Ferguson—Sister of Edward Forshay, a.k.a., Mrs. W. H. Ferguson: THE SISTER
- Mae Hosmer—Owner of theater group for which Edward and Edna often worked: THE EMPLOYER
Decades ago, when I’d ask my mother questions about her grandmother’s brother, I’d get the same answer every time—Edward Forshay was an actor and his wife was a famous actress. Mom told me that Edward Forshay killed his wife, Edna, in a love triangle, but he was completely exonerated by the “unwritten law.”
The Forshay family lived in Kansas City, Missouri, in the late 1800s and early 1900s. I found a death for Edward Forshay in Kansas City in 1902, but there were no clues to his occupation or the murder story. I eventually dismissed my mother’s story as just that—a story—and dropped my search.
One day, about 20 years later, as I was teaching a genealogy class at a local college, I was telling my class that they should try Internet searches as well as searches through family history sites when looking for information about relatives. I’m not sure why, but I chose to illustrate my point by conducting a Google search for “Edward Forshay.”
Up popped “What happened in 1901 in Chicago?” and the following news headline— “Actor Ed Forshay Killed Actress Wife Edna Stokes June 3, 1901, in a Chicago Hotel.” My mother was long since deceased, but her snippet of a story was true. Well, mostly true anyway.
Being an actor and actress at the start of the last century did not have the celebrity status it has today. One thing actors had were the newspapers, which would print pretty much any detail they wanted.
Edward’s story started with a clipping from the 10 August 1879 edition of the Sedalia (Missouri) News about Edward—or Jimmy as he was called by his family—when he was a boy.
I learned that the family later moved to Kansas City, and it was there that Edward found his calling—the stage—even if it was a rather daring and questionable occupation in the 1890s. As a young man, he worked at a restaurant in Kansas City. He began a life in the theater at age 17. Edward often appeared in plays and comic theater productions, and he left Kansas City at some point to take charge of the Omaha Stock Company. Later, he was manager of the Forshay Comedy Company.
His marriage, however, is harder to track down. From a Nebraska newspaper, I learned that by 1897, Edward Forshay and Edna Stokes were married.
In 1899, the couple was in New York City, causing all kinds of trouble—but were Edward and Edna really scamming people? Or were other people using Edna and Edward’s names in a scam?
Things got worse from there.
Since there were no living relatives to give me any help on this couple, online newspapers filled in my many blanks on both the murder case and my family history. They also led me to other records, including those of the census, cemetery, the homicide division of the Cook County, Illinois, police department, the Chester County, Illinois, Asylum for the Criminally Insane, and many more.
Edward and Edna appeared in the 1900 census in Manhattan. They stated they were actors, had been married five years, and had no children. The fame and fortune my mother bestowed on them, however, did not seem to be correct.
Various newspaper accounts gave me the following information: the couple were in Sedalia, Missouri, for a funeral in January 1901. In April, Edna was appearing at the Olympia Theater in Chicago in a vaudeville show. Edward was working as a theater company manager for the Mae Hosmer Company in Buffalo, New York.
Chicago newspapers later reported that on 1 June 1901 Edward was a patient in a hospital in Buffalo, New York, preparing to have an operation for appendicitis. They also told me that Edna was having an affair with Vernon Johns in Chicago. Reportedly, when Edward learned about this, he left his hospital bed for Chicago, checking into Dale’s European Hotel. His wife was staying at the Vernon Hotel, owned by Vernon Johns.
That’s when it happened. The murder. Dozens of newspapers across the country ran the story, giving both Edward and Edna more fame than they had ever achieved in their theatrical careers.
Most of the papers gave moment-by-moment versions of Forshay walking into the Vernon Hotel demanding to speak to his wife. Quickly, three shots rang out. Depending on which account you read, he either talked to her for some minutes in the parlor or shot her immediately with a small revolver. He then rushed down a flight of steps and out onto the street. He was chased by a young boy, James Hein, who ultimately apprehended him several blocks away. Although he had planned suicide, he either lost his nerve or was caught too quickly.
The police found several letters on Edward written the previous day. One letter, addressed to his mother, asked for her forgiveness for the deed, which he asserted he couldn’t prevent—he said he was crazed for fear that Edna would not come back to him, and he intended doing away with both her and himself. Another letter, this one to his mother and sister, stated that he and Edna had parted, and he had been “nearly crazy for over a year.” The third letter was to the Chicago police chief. Edward said he intended to kill his wife and then take his own life and that the police chief would find his hotel key in his pocket. Edward also instructed the police on what to do with his and Edna’s personal belongings.
Upon questioning Edward, the police said he expressed no remorse for the deed and gave the impression of being mentally unbalanced.
Reporters converged on Forshay’s family in Kansas City, Missouri, issuing daily updates on the family’s reaction to the crime. They also revealed some family secrets.
On 8 June 1901, Edna May Stokes Forshay was buried by her family in Sedalia, Missouri. Articles told me that Edna was the daughter of Mrs. Louis Brundell. Edward’s sisters Anna Forshay Ferguson and Emma Meyers attended the funeral from Kansas City. Edna’s grave does not have a tombstone marker.
On 9 October 1901, the Chicago Daily Tribune reported that Edward had been found guilty by reason of insanity by a jury who didn’t even leave the jury box to render their verdict. “We the jury find the defendant Edward Forshay committed the act while insane and has not recovered from same.”
Edward was sent to the Chester Asylum for the Criminally Insane in Chester, Illinois.
My mother exonerated him with the unwritten law—meaning it is okay to kill your wife if she has a lover. The court, however, didn’t.
In January 1902, Edward was released from the Chester Asylum. He returned to Kansas City to live with his mother and sister, dying later that year from Bright’s disease.
Newspapers Tell Almost All
I learned a lot about my family from newspapers, but now I have even more questions:
Where is the marriage record for Edward Forshay and Edna Mae Stokes? What happened to the belongings of Edward and Edna? Are they still in the possession of Cook County, Illinois, Homicide? Can I claim them? Where are the detailed records for the Chester County Asylum for the Criminally Insane? Why was Edward released so quickly? Where was Edward’s father during this period of time? Why was Jesse Forshay not mentioned in the publicity?
Newspapers may have stopped reporting on Edward. But, remember, genealogists are never finished with a story.