Millionaire Socialite Dies Under Suspicious Circumstances

The death of wealthy socialite, Mary Lily Kenan Bingham, soon after she married a suspected fortune hunter, led to scandal, rumors, speculation, and prodigious inquiry, including the exhumation of her body, which challenged reports that her death was caused either by natural causes, medical malpractice, or an overdose of morphine.

Summary of Event

Before Mary Lily Kenan Bingham would marry Robert Worth Bingham in 1916, she required that he sign a prenuptial agreement that waived all rights over her estate, which was worth millions of dollars. In less than one year, Kenan Bingham was dead, and no one knew why. Adding to the mystery of her death was the appearance of a secret codicil, allegedly written by Kenan Bingham, which willed five million dollars to her husband just days before her death. Skepticism followed the revelation of the codicil and continued unabated for years. [kw]Dies Under Suspicious Circumstances, Millionaire Socialite (July 27, 1917)
Bingham, Mary Lily Kenan
Bingham, Robert Worth
Bingham, Barry, Sr.
Bingham, Mary Lily Kenan
Bingham, Robert Worth
Bingham, Barry, Sr.
[g]United States;July 27, 1917: Millionaire Socialite Dies Under Suspicious Circumstances[00210]
[c]Murder and suicide;July 27, 1917: Millionaire Socialite Dies Under Suspicious Circumstances[00210]
[c]Publishing and journalism;July 27, 1917: Millionaire Socialite Dies Under Suspicious Circumstances[00210]
Burns, William J.

For decades, theories would surface about what really happened to cause Kenan Bingham’s death. One theory held that she died of natural causes (later determined to be cardiovascular syphilis). Another theory suggested by her stepson, Barry Bingham, Sr., was that she died of acute alcoholism, which was confirmed by a doctor and family friend in an affidavit. A third theory speculated that she died from either medical malpractice or from an overdose of morphine administered by either her husband or a colluding physician. This latter theory would lead the Kenan family to contest the secret codicil she had written just before her death, to challenge Bingham’s behavior, and to hire investigators to search for more answers surrounding the mysterious death.

On a miserably hot July day in Louisville, Kentucky, the couple’s maid found Kenan Bingham in a cool bath, draped over the tub and unconscious. Kenan Bingham’s health had begun to decline seven months earlier, and she had complained of chest pains. Bingham had hired an old friend, dermatologist Michael Leo Ravitch, to tend to her and to keep her sedated around the clock. When she was found in a coma, after becoming addicted to the daily morphine she had received since early May, Ravitch determined that she was unconscious because of a heart attack. He called a second friend of Bingham, pediatrician Walter Fisk Boggess. Although neither doctor was qualified to diagnose or treat heart disease, they nevertheless continued the morphine treatment. So extreme were the dosages that two different attending nurses protested; they were immediately released from their duties.

While Kenan Bingham’s condition worsened, Bingham was making statements to the press, alluding to her assumed heart condition. By 3:10 p.m. on July 27, 1917, she was dead, having had a seizure earlier that morning and after suffering convulsions. The attending physicians determined that she had died of edema of the brain and myocarditis.

Taken by private railroad car to Wilmington, Kenan Bingham’s body was buried in the family’s Oakdale Cemetery plot. Shortly thereafter, it was learned that she had left an estate of $150 million (her will was filed in Florida courts). A month later, however, Bingham filed with the Louisville courts a secret codicil that Kenan Bingham had written eight days before her death. Bingham had hired yet another old college friend, attorney Dave Davies, to oversee the signing of the secret codicil, made to Bingham for five million dollars and “to be absolutely his.” While apparently in a dazed morphine state, Kenan Bingham reportedly told Davies that information about the codicil was to be kept secret, and that its existence was not to be revealed to anyone, especially not her brother, Will Kenan. Bingham had told Davies earlier that her dazed condition was caused by her serious medical condition.

Suspicion followed news of the secret codicil. Kenan Bingham’s family hired renowned detective William Burns of the William J. Burns International Detective Agency. What Burns discovered would lead to serious questions: Why had Kenan Bingham been drugged so heavily? Why had Bingham, with access to the best physicians money could hire and with the money to do so, hire inferior doctors whose specialties were not in cardiology but in pediatrics and dermatology? Why, when Kenan Bingham was so obviously ill, did the couple reside in the far less comfortable Louisville home, with temperatures reaching 102 degrees, rather than at the cooler, more comfortable mansion at Mamaroneck? Burns also found that Bingham had given Ravitch a brand-new 1925 Packard Roadster and that Kenan Bingham’s half-million-dollar pearl necklace (given to her by her first husband, Henry Morrison Flagler, the late Standard Oil cofounder) had disappeared. Trustees of the Flagler estate, studying Burns’s report, decided to open Kenan Bingham’s grave and to order an autopsy on her remains. A New York pathologist concluded the cause of death was endocarditis, inflammation of the heart lining.

More curious in the scandal, however, was that Burns’s report was never released, the report of the autopsy was repressed, and an initially outraged Kenan family dropped its court case against Bingham. Furthermore, later research on the case uncovered more information: Bingham and Kenan Bingham had begun an affair in their early college years. Soon after college, Bingham had begun a series of treatments with Ravitch, who was experienced in treating syphilis. Syphilis, in its tertiary stage, not only does not surface with identifiable symptoms until decades later but also can manifest as endocarditis and can be fatal. Another theory surrounding her death emerged: that Bingham was protecting Kenan Bingham, the family, and himself from the scandal that would follow had her syphilis become public knowledge.

Skeptics, however, believe that Bingham did not necessarily intend to kill Kenan Bingham; they believe, instead, that it was his mission to get support by way of Standard Oil stocks, financial relief by way of Kenan Bingham paying off his outstanding debts, and funding for his new publishing venture. In the end, Bingham got everything he aimed to get. On their wedding day, November 15, 1916, Kenan Bingham gave him a certified check for fifty thousand dollars, but no gift came from him. She gave him freedom from his many debts, but he gave her grief over plans she made for the family, over trips she had planned, over being a close and loving husband-and-wife team. She also gave him $700,000 in Standard Oil stocks and five million dollars, contingent upon her death. He gave her daily and excessive amounts of morphine and, possibly, the condition that caused her early demise.


Bingham’s secrecy about Kenan Bingham’s death continued to lead to skepticism for Kenan Bingham’s family and friends, as well as for reporters, researchers, and the public. The scandal had several unanswered questions and shady circumstances, including the coincidental timing of the death, the hiring of friends as doctors and lawyers, and the convenient secret codicil—which helped pay for Bingham’s start-up newspapers, a venture he had approached a reticent Kenan Bingham about months before her death. These circumstances add up to possible motives, and these possible motives kept the scandal alive for years following her death in 1917.

With the money, Bingham purchased the Louisville Times and the Courier-Journal, two newspapers that would help propel him into national prominence and politics. He became a major financial supporter of U.S. president Roosevelt, Franklin D. Franklin D. Roosevelt. In 1933, Roosevelt appointed Bingham ambassador to the United Kingdom. Bingham, Mary Lily Kenan
Bingham, Robert Worth
Bingham, Barry, Sr.

Further Reading

  • Bingham, Sallie. Passion and Prejudice: A Family Memoir. New York: Applause Books, 2000. Persistent truth-seeker, the granddaughter to the Bingham fortune takes a feminist perspective to the case. Sympathetic to Kenan Bingham, arguing she was murdered by Bingham.
  • Brenner, Mary. House of Dreams: The Bingham Family of Louisville. New York: Random House, 1988. A detailed exploration of the successful life of Barry Bingham, Sr., after he took over the publishing empire following Robert Bingham’s death in 1937.
  • Chandler, David Leon. The Binghams of Louisville: The Dark History Behind One of America’s Great Fortunes. New York: Crown, 1989. A biographical account of the wealthy Bingham family and its complicated—and scandalous—history. Claims Bingham was responsible for Kenan Bingham’s death.

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