Where did I go?
These were the last words spoken by Ellen O’Donovan McNamara after plunging to her death at the Davenport Hotel in Spokane, WA on August 18th, 1920.
It is also believed that Ellen is one of the lost spirits that haunt the Davenport.
Many have speculated that her death may have been due to suicide, or even murder, but the fact is that she met her demise due to human error.
The short version… she felt ill while dining with her sister and two cousins in the Isabella room, excused herself from the meal, and wandered up to the third floor of the hotel. Opening the door to the pagoda she evidently thought it would be safe to walk across the Tiffany glass floor. The glass broke from underneath her, causing her body to plummet to the stone floor of the main lobby.
After uttering the question, “Where did I go?,” she lost consciousness and died an hour later in her hotel room.
The Spokesman-Review reported her death in two issues of the newspaper, where we are informed that she was born in New York, where she was a prominent matron in New York social circles. We are also informed that her recently deceased husband, as well as her two living sons from her first marriage, were also prominent in politics and business.
Both articles are interesting as they provide a fair amount of biographical information as given by Ellen’s sister and cousins.
Both articles are also very wrong, full of deliberate misinformation. The notices of death printed in three New York newspapers gives us the first clue that Ellen O’Donovan McNamara was not as prominent as her relatives tried to lead us to believe.
Anyone prominent in New York social circles would have been regularly mentioned in the Society section of the newspaper. Everything they did, from dining out in a local restaurant to visiting family or friends, was reported on. The death of a prominent member of this society would have warranted a very in-depth obituary telling us all about their very charities, the clubs or organizations they were members of, a brief genealogy, and their professional successes. Yet, this is all we have for Ellen in the New York newspapers…
And this, from New York City, where she was supposedly “very prominent.”
So, who was Ellen O’Donovan McNamara, and why the lies about who she was and where she came from?
We can only speculate about the “whys.” This was an era when the Pacific Northwest, particularly Spokane & Seattle, WA and Portland, OR, were booming places for industrialists and new millionaires. Many young New York debutantes from wealthy families were lured to the PNW by marriage offers from these rising stars and social climbers. New Yorkers also found that the region was ripe for new business ventures and professional alliances.
Even at her age of 68 years it would not have been out of the ordinary for Ellen to be on the prowl for a new husband, and the same could be said for her female relatives who accompanied her.
Another possibility is that Ellen was looking to move to the PNW for purely business reasons, either to operate as sole owner, or to find a keen partner with funds to inject into a new venture.
Or, maybe Ellen and her companions simply enjoyed pretending to be who they were not, if even only for a little while. It was extremely hard to become part of New York society, which was already steeply entrenched with old money and even older names. In the Pacific Northwest Ellen and her companions could be whoever they said they were and nobody would be the wiser. It is possible that they had made up so many false stories about who they were to new friends and acquaintances that lying was the only way to save face before heading back to New York.
So, now to the question… who was Ellen O’Donovan McNamara?
First lie to correct… Ellen was not born in New York. She was not even born in the United States.
Ellen O’Brien was born circa 1852 in Picton, Prince Edward County, Ontario, Canada, to Richard O’Brien and Mary O’Sullivan, Irish immigrants. Her father died sometime before 1861 as far as can be ascertained, and in 1861 Ellen arrived in the United States. Later census records would give later arrival dates much later than evidence shows.
On May 30th, 1869 she married first husband Jeremiah O’Donovan in Manhattan, NY. Jeremiah, an Irish immigrant, was a small-time merchant of dry goods.
Husband Jeremiah became a Naturalized Citizen in 1886.
This marriage produced eight children, but only two, Alfred and Leo, outlived their parents Ellen and Jeremiah.
The 1880 Census shows Ellen’s mother residing in her marital home. Jeremiah is listed as being employed in dry goods, and Ellen as dressmaker.
Jeremiah O’Donovan died August 2nd, 1892, as reported in The Sun (NY) newspaper on August 4th, 1892.
In the year 1900 Ellen and son Alfred are listed as boarders in someone else’s home. Ellen lists herself as an importer and son Alfred works as a dry goods salesman.
Although the marriage record has not yet been found, in 1906 Ellen married her second husband, Robert T. McNamara.
On December 23rd, 1909 Ellen O’Donovan McNamara may not have been prominent in Society Circles, but her name certainly became known, as reported by the Star Gazette (NY) newspaper, as did her son Alfred J. O’Donovan and her sister Margaret M Smith.
Census records show that Robert McNamara was in no way a prominent citizen, nor was he involved in politics.
In 1910, as can be seen, he was employed as a bookkeeper, and Ellen as an importer of gowns.
In 1915 he is employed as a “city official” in the capacity as a clerk, and Ellen is employed in housework.
Ellen’s second husband Robert T. McNamara died in October 1919. His will or estate was proved November 14th, 1919, as shown in the New York Index of Wills and Probate.
The last public record for Ellen O’Donovan McNamara, other than records of death, is the 1920 Census. As in nearly every other census enumerated during her adult life, she had relatives residing with her, all who, like her, were involved in some form of labor, whether it be dressmaking or teaching. In 1920 Ellen states that she is an importer of ladies gowns.
So there you have it, the REAL Ellen O’Donovan McNamara. Definitely not prominent in New York’s social circles, but she did lead an interesting life!
Maybe she continues to reside at the Davenport because she is still in search of husband #3 or a business partner. Or, she just might prefer spending eternity in the place where she could pretend to be whoever she wished to be.
This is an interesting video of the Davenport when it was undergoing renovation and restoration..
You can also visit the hotel website to visit the rooms where the last days of Ellen’s life were lived. Davenport Hotel
Some of my more recent photos at the Davenport.