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Mayor's death, blaze still linked in mystery

McLane: Baltimore's young leader guided the city through disaster, and months later died of a gunshot. Was it suicide or murder?

The Great Baltimore Fire

February 07, 2004|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

She went into her room to rest before a planned walk with her husband. He went to his dressing room to straighten up a few things. Four minutes later, a bullet went through his right temple and out the left side of his head.

Mary McLane told police she heard what sounded like a shutter falling and dispatched a maid, Lizzie Redchurch, to investigate. The maid soon called for her. McLane lay slumped on the floor bleeding profusely.

"Good heavens!" his wife was said to have exclaimed. "Why did he do it?"

It was 3:15. By 5 o'clock, he was dead.

Claude Van Bibber, Mary's former brother-in-law, insisted the shooting had to be a horrible accident. Coroner Benjamin F. Hayden, forgoing a formal inquest, quickly disagreed.

"As much as I regret to so state, I am obliged to give my official opinion that Mayor McLane committed suicide by shooting himself with a revolver," Hayden announced. "The powder marks on his head show that he pressed the revolver close to his head and pulled the trigger."

But why would he do it? No note was found. And while some people said McLane seemed gloomy, most people, his wife included, said he appeared cheerful.

A doctor named Nathan Gorter reached the conclusion many did: "Only one explanation seems plausible - that he was overwrought at the great worry brought upon him by the fire and the subsequent hard work and that the strain was too great."

The official cause of death, as listed on his death certificate, was a self-inflicted wound "while suffering from temporary dementia."

Because of the coroner's conclusion that the death was a suicide, McLane's funeral was not allowed to take place at the family's Episcopal church. It was held at the McLane family home at 903 Cathedral St. He was buried in Green Mount Cemetery. A simple gravestone marks the spot, not mentioning he was once mayor of Baltimore.

The McLane mystery has receded from public memory, popping up briefly from time to time. In a 1986 column for The Sun, Theo Lippman Jr. wrote that McLane is the only Baltimore mayor "of whom it can be asked: Who murdered him?"

Not that Lippman offered evidence of a homicide. What he cited was a 1956 letter to the editor from a Melbourne Hart of Easton, who wrote that "many of us feel confident that we know that he was murdered and also who the murderer was and also the motive for that crime."

Hart, alas, did not elaborate.

More recently, the puzzle has captivated the chief judge of U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Baltimore. Judge James F. Schneider said he knew McLane supposedly killed himself but decided to look into the story while preparing a talk last fall to a group of lawyers. Schneider read old newspaper articles, visited the gravesite and drove to the block of West Preston Street where McLane died.

"None of it has ever made sense," Schneider said recently. "I have no basis to say he was murdered, but I just don't think it was suicide. Seems like an accident of some kind. It's so bizarre to me."

The McLane family scattered in the decades after the mayor's death. But McLane's grand-niece, Catherine Hoffman, lives in Owings Mills. Now 84, she says her mother - McLane's niece - did not say much about the mayor's death. "They never wanted to talk about it, which always made me suspicious about what happened," Hoffman said.

The mayor's brother, Allan, lived until 1940, and Hoffman often visited her great-uncle at his Green Spring Valley home. "He would take us into his study and talk about history," she said, but "I don't ever remember him talking about his brother or his brother's demise."

Hoffman doubts it was a suicide but says it is "sort of a gut feeling."

Another family member, Stephen Bolton, goes further. Not only does he dismiss suicide, he points a finger at McLane's widow. Bolton, the great-grand-nephew of the mayor, concedes he cannot prove his case but says it is the only explanation that makes sense.

"There is nothing in his life that suggests he's a depressed person or going to be a sudden suicide risk," said Bolton, a 47-year-old nurse practitioner at Johns Hopkins Hospital. "He was riding the crest of the wave - a young mayor, performed well in the fire.

"I, of course, suspect the wife."

Not much is known about the wife, Mary Van Bibber, whom McLane left $10,000 in his will. She departed from Baltimore and lived past 90, dying in 1949. She apparently never remarried, because her obituary in The New York Times gives her name as McLane and lists her as the widow of Robert McLane.

Bolton is resigned to living with his suspicions. He doesn't expect an answer to emerge 100 years after a tumultuous period in his family's history that began with the Great Fire of 1904 and ended with a mayor dead in his dressing room.

"Everybody's dead now who could say anything," Bolton said.

Sun staff researchers Paul McCardell and Elizabeth Lukes contributed to this article.

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