The lady in the lake
Researching my files on Saturday, Sept. 26, looking for a subject for this week’s column, an Enterprise clipping practically fell into my lap, dated Sept. 26, 1963.
The story in the clipping was about Mrs. Mabel Smith Douglass, who disappeared while rowing on Lake Placid on Sept. 21, 1933.
What follows is the story published in the Adirondack Daily Enterprise about the day Mrs. Douglass’ body was found 30 years after she disappeared, and now we retell the story of when she was found 57 years ago of that terrible day 87 years ago.
The Enterprise, Sept. 18, 1963
“MALONE, N.Y. (AP) – State Police say they want to establish the identity of a woman whose body was found Sunday in Lake Placid before giving an opinion as to how she died.
“Scuba divers told investigators that when they spotted the body at a depth of about 95 feet, a rope was tied around the neck and attached to a 50-pound weight. The rope and weight were lost, however, in recovery of the body.
“Troopers are proceeding on the theory that the body is that of Mrs. Mabel Smith Douglass, a New Jersey College dean who disappeared 30 years ago. A pathologist has reported that his examination indicated a strong possibility that the body was that of Mrs. Douglass.
“But he said further tests and studies would have to be made.
“State Police Lt. Supervisor W. B. Surdam told newsmen here Tuesday that troopers were concentrating on identifying the body positively before an opinion as to the cause of death.
“Mrs. Douglass, 56, disappeared while rowing on Lake Placid, September 21, 1933. She had been dean of the New Jersey College for Women, later changed to Douglass College in her honor.
“The Wreck-Raiders, the diving group that found the body Sunday, returned today to try to bring up the weight which they said was attached to the body when they discovered it. According to their description, the rope around the woman’s neck disintegrated when they moved it, and the weight settled into the silt.
“The two divers, Sgt. Nick Niffenegger of Plattsburgh Air Force Base and James Rogers of Rouses Point, said they did not pay much attention to the exact kind of weight it was, but they are certain it is there, and hope to find it. They said the water is clear and there is enough light at mid-day, when the sun is high, and during the early afternoon hours. There is no water movement at that depth, and they felt the silt would have settled enough to give them a good chance of finding it.
“District Attorney Daniel Manning said this morning they probably would not hold the body much longer, perhaps another half-day before burial.”
The Enterprise, Sept. 26, 1963
“LAKE PLACID, N.Y. (AP) – State Police reported today that the body of the woman found in the icy depths of Lake Placid has been identified positively as that of Mrs. Mabel Smith Douglass, women’s college dean who disappeared 30 years ago.
“They said there was no evidence that she was murdered and that other evidence was inconclusive, so the official coroner’s verdict was accidental death.
“The examinations of pathologists, troopers said, ‘reflect ill health and an extreme nervous condition’ of the former dean of Douglass College in New Jersey, who was last seen alone in a boat on the lake while vacationing here.
“Scuba divers who pulled the body from the lake Sept. 15 said a rope was attached to a weight around her neck when they happened upon the body on a shore ledge 95 feet down. But they said the rope and weight vanished as they lifted the parts of the body to the surface.
“Friends of Mrs. Douglass, who was 56 at the time of her death, were reported to have been concerned that she was over-working.”
“Douglass was the first dean of the New Jersey College for Women when it opened in 1918 with 54 students and some 16 faculty members. In 1955, the college was named Douglass College in her honor.
“Douglass spent the next 14 years shaping the college and was instrumental in helping the students rise to success.
“Douglass attended public school in Jersey City. In 1899 she graduated from Barnard College in New York City. In 1903, she married William Shipman Douglass, owner of a shipping business. They had two children, a son, William Shipman Douglass Jr., and a daughter, Edith Douglass.
“In September 1932 Douglass retired due to ill health. On September 21, 1933, she went rowing on Lake Placid and never returned. She was last seen rowing alone across the lake by servants at a camp she owned. Her boat was found capsized near the shore of the deepest part of the lake, three miles opposite her starting point. Police dragged the lake and searched the surrounding mountain trails, to no avail. Thirty years later her remarkably preserved remains were found by scuba divers on a shelf about 95 feet below the water’s surface.”
Two books surfaced
In 1983 a book, “Dancehall,” a fictionalized version of the Douglass story, was written by Bernard F. Conners. In 1985 another book, “A Lady in the Lake” was written by Lake Placid native George Christian Ortloff.