THE GIRL IN THE SNOW
The Haunting Story of Marion Lambert
The First World War was raging in Europe in the middle days of February 1916 but among Chicagoans and others across the country, one of the most riveting newspaper stories of the day was the mysterious case of Marion Lambert. The attractive daughter of the gardener at a North Shore estate was found dead in the woods near the Lake Forest interurban railroad station on the early morning of February 10. She had celebrated her eighteenth birthday just four days before and she had last been seen on February 9, when she had left for classes at Deerfield High School in Highland Park. She never arrived there, and was not seen again until her body was discovered the following day. She had been killed by a deadly dose of poison, although what exactly happened to her remains a lingering mystery to this day.
And because of this mystery, there are many who do not believe that Marion Lambert rests in peace. Like other restless young women in the Chicago area, her ghost is said to be seen along the area roadways, not far from where she died.
Marion Lambert was a beautiful young girl, as photographs that remain of her clearly show. She was a pretty and vivacious senior at Deerfield High School. Her light brown, wavy hair was cut stylishly short and her minister called her the liveliest girl at the Lake Forest Presbyterian Church. She lived a happy life, usually with a smile on her face. She was the beloved only child of Frank Lambert, the head gardener employed by clothing millionaire Jonas Kuppenheimer, on whose estate the family lived. The Lambert family did well for themselves and times were good in Lake Forest. Many of the local tycoons were becoming wealthier by equipping the warring armies in Europe and they paid their employees well. Marion was starting to dream of going off to college in the fall.
But perhaps the one thing that made her happiest was the young man in her life, Will Orpet, a college student three years older than she was. Orpet’s father was also a caretaker; he worked on the estate of farm equipment tycoon Cyrus McCormick. The two families had known each other for years and were friendly with one another but the friendship between Will and Marion blossomed when he began sending her letters from Madison, where he was studying journalism at the University of Wisconsin. The letters were only flirtatious at first, but soon grew more serious. “I want to see you dearest, and want you badly,” he wrote to Marion on April 8, 1915. “If only I could get my arm around you now, and get up close to you and kiss the life out of you, I would be happy.”
It was later recalled that Will was not content with mere words. When he came to see her, he sat scandalously close to her on the sofa, insisting on holding her hand and daring to kiss her. Marion did not approve at first but Will refused to give up and slowly, she started to give in to his advances. In September of that year, he came to her home in Lake Forest, took her for a drive and stopped at the edge of the woods just south of the Sacred Heart Convent. They went for a walk in the forest and then sat down together in a remote spot, carefully hidden among the trees. Marion gave herself to him there and they made love in the quiet of the forest.
Marion began dreaming of a wedding but Orpet, apparently bored after getting what he wanted out of the pretty young woman, began to lose interest. His letters became short and often he told her that he didn’t have time to write. In November, when Marion confessed that she feared she might be pregnant, the letters grew even colder. Orpet was angry and stopped just short of calling her a liar. They had only been intimate once, he insisted, and he didn’t believe that it could have happened. In spite of his denials, he called on a pharmacist friend and sent Marion a potion that was meant to relieve her “delicate condition.” Orpet was determined not to let his dalliance with Marion became a trap. She wasn’t his only girlfriend – a college pal said that he had several others on the side -- and he wasn’t serious about her. He was planning to marry another girl, a young chemistry teacher from DeKalb, and he wasn’t going to let Marion trap him into a marriage that he didn’t want.
By the time the holidays arrived, Marion undoubtedly knew that she wasn’t pregnant but it’s unknown whether or not she told Orpet about this. She wanted to hang onto him as long as she could, believing the two of them were meant to be together. On February 6, 1916, Marion celebrated her eighteenth birthday at a spirited party thrown by her best friend, Josephine Davis.
Two days later, while Josephine was visiting at her home, the telephone rang and Marion left her friend in the sitting room when she into the hallway went to answer it. The telephone call was from Will Orpet. Josephine later stated that Marion was uneasy when she returned to the sitting room, but later, at Orpet’s trial, she said that Marion was “confused” and became “greatly distressed and depressed.” She even testified that Marion confided in her that, “if Will throws me over and marries that other girl, I’ll kill myself.”
But was Josephine’s testimony the truth? Marion’s parents and several other of her friends claimed that the girl had been happy and untroubled in the days leading up to her death. This bit of testimony remains one of the lingering mysteries in the case.
On the morning of February 9, Marion, bundled up in a green coat, walked with Josephine to the Sacred Heart station, where they usually caught the train to Deerfield High School. But having arrived on the platform, Marion decided not to take the train. She told her friend that she had to go to the post office to mail a letter to her Sunday school teacher. That was the last time that Josephine saw her alive.
Later that night, Frank Lambert waited for his daughter at the Sacred Heart station. Marion had told her parents that she was going to attend a party after school and would return on the 8:05 p.m. electric car from Highland Park. When the train arrived, though, Marion was not on board. She was not on the next train either. Lambert waited for over an hour before he drove into Highland Park. He was told that Marion was not at the party and in fact, her friends told him, she had not come to school at all that day.
Confused and worried, Lambert returned home and he and his wife spent a sleepless night waiting for and worrying about their daughter. Finally, before dawn, he couldn’t wait any longer and he returned to the Sacred Heart station to search for any clues as to Marion’s whereabouts. He stumbled about in the darkness, looking for footprints in the snow by the light of burning matches. It was too dark to see anything so he left to go get a friend. When they sun came up, they returned and found a line of footprints leading away from the station in the snow. One of the sets of prints was small, like a girl’s, the other was larger. They formed a side-by-side trail that wandered out into the forest.
The two men followed the trail into a small clearing and there, beneath three winter bare oak trees, Lambert saw a bright patch of green in the snow. He let out a small cry and began to run toward it. He soon saw Marion lying there on her side, her school books tucked under her arm and the letter to her Sunday school teacher still in her pocket. Her right hand was ungloved and it stretched away from her body. In the palm of her ice-cold hand her father saw a smear of white, powdery crystals. Her lips were bloody and blistered as if they had been burned.
The clearing in the snow where Marion’s body was discovered.
Marion’s autopsy was performed at midnight, as soon as her body had thawed from the bitter cold. A few hours later, Ralph Dady, the state’s attorney of Lake County, held a press conference for the horde of newspaper reporters that had gathered, seeking information about the tragedy. “We are confident Miss Lambert was poisoned,” Dady told the reporters. We do not know if the poison was taken with suicidal intent or whether it was administered by someone else. We believe a man was with her when she died. We are bending our efforts toward locating that person, and when we do, we believe the motive of her act will be explained.”
Although a search of the area by police detectives found no trace of a bottle, the coroner concluded that Marion had swallowed cyanide mixed into an acidic solution. That had caused the blistering on her mouth and had left behind the white residue on her hand.
Marion’s father, Frank Lambert, waiting at the police station after his daughter’s body was discovered.
Suspicion quickly fell on Will Orpet. A reporter for the Chicago Tribune was the first to track him down at his rooming house in Madison, Wisconsin. Orpet said that he was shocked by the news of Marion’s death. He told the reporter that he and Marion had corresponded, but that they had not been involved in a “serious affair.” In fact, he said he had just sent her a friendly letter wishing her good luck with some upcoming exams and expressing regret that he would not be able to come and visit her soon.
Orpet had indeed mailed the letter – but the rest of the story was a lie.
It was discovered that the affair had been serious and that Marion had thought she was pregnant after their rendezvous in the woods. He sent her drugs meant to cause a miscarriage, even though he claimed that he could not be responsible for her condition. The police searched the post office and found the innocent letter that Orpet had posted but at Marion’s house, they found a different one. “Dear Marion,” it read, “Jo has told me that you’ve been pretty sick. Just got word yesterday morning, hence the delay. I hope that everything is all right now and that you will soon be up and around. I’ll try to get down to see you, probably the 9th of February, and will call you on the evening of the 8th. Remember the dates… If everything is not all right by the time I see you, it will be, leave it to me.”
After this discovery, Orpet was arrested and subjected to serious questioning – first by a reporter who had arranged to have himself locked up so that he could share Will’s cell, and then by a collection of police officers, prosecutors and private detectives. They interrogated him for a full night in Madison, and then brought him to Lake Forest, where he was forced to walk for hours in the woods where Marion’s body had been found. They even forced him to stand by the side of the road and watch as her funeral procession made its way to the cemetery.
Orpet’s story changed several times but it came down to him admitting that he had kept company with Marion and may have loved her once, but his feelings had changed. He said he had been intimate with her only one time and while she told him that she thought she was pregnant, he didn’t believe it. As it turned out, Marion’s autopsy showed that she was not pregnant.
In early February, Marion had harassed him into coming to Lake Forest to see her, hinting that if he refused, she might kill herself. He eventually agreed but came in secret because, he said, he did not want his parents to know he was in town. He called her from the train station that evening, but Josephine Davis was at the house and Marion told him that he couldn’t come over then. They agreed to meet the next morning in the woods near the Sacred Heart Convent. They walked in the woods for two hours before stopping near three oak trees. Marion pleaded with him to stay true to her, but Orpet refused. He planned to marry another woman, he told her, a chemistry teacher with whom he had fallen in love.
Marion was crying when Will walked away. “Is there no hope?” she called after him.
Orpet didn’t answer. He simply kept walking. After a few more steps, he heard the sound of a small cry. When he turned around, he saw that she had fallen into the snow and her body was violently shaking. In only a few moments, he could see that she was dead. Terrified of a scandal, he said he ran away and took the first train back to Madison.
Investigators doubted his story. Why had Orpet written that friendly letter to Marion that said he was unable to come to Lake Forest if he wasn’t trying to establish an alibi? And why had he purchased an empty medicine bottle from a pharmacy clerk just before he left Madison? But the real evidence of his guilt came when the police searched the greenhouse at the McCormick estate, where Orpet’s father worked as a caretaker. As they sifted through an ash heap in the basement, they found three large clumps of cyanide crystals. They were enough, State’s Attorney Ralph Dady said, “to kill a whole high school of girls.”
Will Orpet was arrested and locked up at the Waukegan, Illinois, jail. Three weeks later, a grand jury indicted him for Marion’s murder and Ralph Dady vowed to send the killer to the gallows.
From jail, Orpet continued to proclaim his innocence, although it was hard for him to explain the letter he sent to Marion and the fact that he had rumpled his bed in Madison on the night before her death to make it appear that he slept there. He had actually, unbeknownst to his family, spent the night in the garage next to their Lake Forest home. He had not done this to create an alibi, he claimed, and he swore that he did not take the medicine bottle that he purchased to the meeting with Marion. The authorities could not link him to the purchase of any poison but they insisted that he could have easily obtained it from the cyanide in the greenhouse where his father worked. However, some of the newspapers pointed out that the poison could also have been found at the Lambert house and also in the laboratory of Deerfield High School.
Will Orpet on his way to the courthouse for trial
The case finally went to trial at the Waukegan courthouse on May 15 with Judge Charles Donnelly presiding. The formidable prosecution included Ralph Dady, state’s attorney of McHenry County, David R. Joselyn, who had been called in as a special prosecutor, and Eugene M. Runyard. They were opposed by a defense team that consisted of James H. Wilkerson, Ralph F. Potter and Leslie Hanna, who had been retained on Orpet’s behalf by Cyrus McCormick.
That the people of Lake County heartily believed in Orpet’s guilt was indicated by the fact that it took 23 days and more than 1,200 interviews to find a dozen men who said they could sit on the jury and review the evidence impartially.
In his opening statement, Ralph Dady stated that he would summon witnesses to prove that Orpet had murdered Marion Lambert because she was a threat to his future. He stressed that he would combat the suicide defense with testimony showing that the girl had left home on Wednesday morning in excellent spirits and happy with her life, not depressed or thinking of killing herself.
Then came setback after setback for the prosecution.
Dady’s star witness, Josephine Davis, changed her story, telling the jury that Marion had threatened to kill herself if Orpet left her for another woman. Special prosecutor Joselyn had called her confidently to the stand and was stunned by the turn of events, asking the judge to be able to refer to Josephine’s prior statements when interviewed by police. The young woman explained her change of heart by saying that he had originally been hostile and vindictive toward Orpet, blaming him for breaking her best friend’s heart, but now she saw things in a different light. Marion had been depressed after speaking to Orpet on the telephone on the night before her death, she said, and claimed she would commit suicide if Orpet left her.
Will Orpet’s trial at the Lake County Courthouse
Although Joselyn managed to get Marion’s parents and some of her other friends to refute this testimony, the damage had already been done. And there was more to come… A classmate testified that just before Marion’s death, he had found her alone in the high school chemistry lab where cyanide was stored.
The prosecution bounced back with testimony from Dr. Ralph Webster, a toxicologist with Rush Medical College, who said that Marion must have taken the fatal dose in liquid form because the cyanide residue had been found in the palm of her hand. This went along with the theory that Orpet had mixed up a deadly concoction with poison from his father’s greenhouse.
When Will Orpet took the stand, Dady was convinced that he could break the young man’s story. He and his co-counsel were merciless, cross-examining him for nineteen hours over a four-day period. Orpet spoke in a subdued, monotone voice and admitted to terrible things. He had romanced, seduced and tossed away a fragile young woman and he was a liar, denying everything until the facts were thrown in his face. He was also a coward, he confessed, and had abandoned his one-time lover’s body in the woods rather than seek help for her because he was worried about a possible scandal. But, he remained adamant, he was not a murderer. Marion had taken her own life when he told her that their relationship was over; he denied he had given her poison.
But for all of the drama that surrounded Orpet’s testimony, the case really turned on the facts offered by three chemists that had been hired by the defense. Marion had been killed by potassium cyanide, the kind, it turned out, that could be found in her high school chemistry lab. But the poison that had the police had recovered from the greenhouse where Orpet’s father worked was sodium cyanide. Sodium cyanide, it was brought out, had replaced potassium cyanide on the open market several years before but this had not been known to the general public – nor the state‘s expert, Dr. Webster. Recalled to the stand, Webster had to admit that he had not tested the Orpet poison for anything but its cyanide content. He had taken for granted that it was potassium cyanide, the type that had killed Marion.
This small fact clinched the case for the defense. The jury took three ballots, the third of which was unanimous, and on July 15, Orpet was declared not guilty. “I’m going to the country,” he told reporters, “I’ve had a bad time but my nerve is still with me. I’m just going to start in where I left off and make good.”
Will Orpet almost immediately vanished into obscurity. Within three months, he had left Lake Forest. Records show that he enlisted in the military and served as a sergeant in the U.S. Army Air Forces during World War I. Some stories claim that he later became an oil wildcatter and a cowboy in Wyoming. In 1920, under the assumed name of W.H. Dawson, he was briefly in trouble in San Francisco after he abandoned a nineteen-year-old bride whom he had lured from Detroit. After that, Orpet stayed out of the newspapers until he died in 1948. He was buried in a military cemetery in Los Angeles.
In spite of what the jury decided, the story of what really happened in the woods that day remained a popular subject for speculation. Many feel the case has never really been solved. Several pulp detective magazines recapped the story as an unsolved mystery. The death of Marion Lambert left an unsettling mark on the annals of true crime in America – but it also left a mark on supernatural history as well.
Over the years, a strange story had circulated about a stretch of Sheridan Road in Lake Forest, near the site of what used to be Barat College. It was close to this spot in 1916 that Marion’s frozen body was discovered by her heartbroken father. The story of the roadway involves a young woman who appears in the headlights of passing cars – and leaves a terrifying impression on the drivers who are unlucky enough to encounter her.
For instance, a woman was traveling along Sheridan Road one stormy night when she saw a rain-soaked, barefoot girl in a blue dress on the side of the road. As the driver approached, she started to telephone for help, believing the girl might have been in an accident, but before she could dial, she saw something truly out of the ordinary. The lights from her car seemed to pass right through the girl, as if she was not even real. When the car pulled up next to her and the driver slowed down to peer out of her water-streaked window, the girl smiled, displaying ruined teeth inside a blackened and burned mouth – almost as if she had swallowed a burning acidic poison.
The ghost stories have continued for years, often recounting such frightening details as the spectral girl’s short brown hair or the terrifying burns around her mouth and lips. Is this chilling specter that of Marion Lambert, refusing to rest until her case has finally been solved? Or does her ghost still wander in search of redemption for taking her own life on that bitter February day?
We may never know.