Seattle morticians John F. Hennessy and Earl J. Cassedy mysteriously disappear on November 24, 1944.

  • By Daryl C. McClary
  • Posted 8/18/2007
  • Essay 8229
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On November 24, 1944, the Friday after Thanksgiving, Seattle morticians John F. Hennessy, 37, and Earl J. Cassedy, 49, disappear while driving from a colleague's house in the Queen Anne Hill neighborhood to their homes in the University District. Fearing foul play, Seattle police launch a statewide search for the men. No clues to their whereabouts are discovered until four years later, on October 26, 1948, when a Seattle Harbor Patrol diver, looking for a suicide victim, inadvertently finds Hennessy's car submerged in the Lake Washington Ship Canal. The vehicle contains the bodies of the two missing men. Although the mystery is solved, the story does not end. By tragic coincidence, on the Friday after Thanksgiving, November 26, 1948, John's wife, Gladys Hennessy, will be driving from Wenatchee to Seattle with her 4-year-old son, Patrick, and her friend, Edna Horner. Five miles west of Leavenworth, her automobile will skid off the icy Stevens Pass Highway into the Wenatchee River, drowning all three occupants.

An Innocent Nightcap

In 1944, John F. Hennessy (1907-1944) was part owner and manager of Forkner’s University Funeral Parlors, 4214 University Way, and Earl J. Cassedy (1898-1944), a mortician, also worked at the firm. Both men and their families had apartments upstairs at 4212 University Way, in the same building as the funeral parlors. Hennessy and his wife, Gladys, who also worked at Forkner’s, had one son, Patrick Terrance, born on May 5, 1944. Cassedy’s wife, Agnes, was a nurse at Maynard Hospital.

After Thanksgiving dinner, late Thursday evening, November 23, 1944, James H. Murphy, an embalmer who worked at Forkner’s, invited Hennessy and Cassedy to his home for a nightcap. Murphy lived at 40 Florentia Street in the Queen Anne Hill neighborhood, less than three miles away. It was a rainy night in Seattle and the city, adhering to strict wartime conditions, was blacked out. Hennessy and Cassedy arrived at Murphy’s house about midnight, riding in Hennessy’s black 1939 Plymouth Roadking four-door sedan. They left at 1:30 a.m. Friday morning, telling Murphy they were going directly home. It was the last time the two men were seen alive.

Missing Morticians

When Hennessy and Cassedy failed to arrive home, their wives began to search for the pair, telephoning everyone they knew, but to no avail. The men were close friends and, except for work, had never been away for more than a few hours at a time. Finally on Monday, fearing the worst, Gladys Hennessy and Agnes Cassedy appealed to Detective Captain Marshall C. Scrafford, Seattle Police Department, for help. When Mrs. Hennessy told Captain Scrafford her husband was carrying $260, he feared a clever killer had murdered the pair for the money and hidden the bodies. A police bulletin with a description of the two men and the automobile, Washington license A-4218, was broadcast throughout the Northwest, then the entire nation, without result. The King County Funeral Directors Association offered a $900 reward for information leading to a solution to the mystery.

Numerous witnesses reported seeing Hennessy’s car at various places throughout the state. A private investigator claimed neighbors heard four gunshots as Hennessy’s car left Florentia Street. A tip from Duvall said the men had gone duck hunting. The state patrol claimed to have chased a car bearing Hennessy’s license numbers between Monroe and Snohomish. The inventor of an "affinity machine" said his gadget indicated the men were in the Duwamish River. People, who saw the men in their dreams, phoned in tips on their possible whereabouts. Someone reported that Hennessy and Cassedy were draft-dodgers, living on the outskirts of Spokane. And Mrs. Hennessy received a bogus ransom note demanding $2,500 for the safe return of her husband. The price was later dropped to $500.

Chief William T. Fitzgerald, Seattle Fire Department, theorized Hennessy’s car had somehow wound up in the Lake Washington Ship Canal and the foot of 3rd Avenue W, only a few blocks from Murphy’s house, seemed to be a logical place. Seattle Harbor Patrol crews dragged the area twice after the men vanished and went on to thoroughly drag the foot of every street along the canal, Lake Union, Lake Washington, and Elliott Bay, but found no sign of the missing automobile.

A Suicide and the Lost Car

After investigating scores of leads over the next four years, the Seattle police finally had a break in the baffling case. On Monday, October 25, 1948, the Seattle Harbor Patrol was searching for the body of Florence Foster, a 40-year-old secretary, missing since Friday and believed to have committed suicide. Her clothing had been found on the bank of the ship canal west of the Fremont Bridge and this is where the search began. That afternoon, Harborman Willis E. Collins was diving in the ship canal and found a fully loaded .38-caliber Colt’s revolver in a holster attached to a cartridge belt which spurred a further search of the area.

At about noon on Tuesday, October 26, Collins discovered a car and reported to Chief Harborman James A. Burns he could see a body inside. It was in 30 feet of water behind the Pioneer Millwork Company, 3601 3rd Avenue W, approximately 80 feet from shore. Collins said the car was a 1939 Plymouth sedan, but the license plate had disintegrated from rust, making identification impossible. Chief Fitzgerald was notified and, believing it was the Hennessy vehicle, immediately took personal charge of the recovery operation. He told Collins to tie the doors shut with rope, so the contents would not be lost while being raised, and attach a towing cable to the front bumper.

The first attempt to extricate the car from the mud with a tow truck failed when the bumper broke away from its rusted mountings. After the bumper was brought to the surface, Collins made another dive, this time attaching cables around the front axles. After several minutes of winching, the mud-caked hood surfaced and the car was slowly hoisted from the water over a concrete bulkhead and deposited onto a dirt road behind the mill.

Finding the Disappeared

A newspaper reporter telephoned Gladys Hennessy about finding the car and she arrived at the scene a few minutes after the bumper surfaced. As the Plymouth emerged from the water, she immediately identified it from a large dent in the radiator grill, where her husband hit a stump, and a distinctive red tip on the radio aerial. Mrs. Hennessy told detectives her green bowling ball should be in the back seat and her husband’s fishing tackle in the trunk.

"Well, now we know," Gladys Hennessy told The Seattle Times. "It’s quite a relief" (The Seattle Times). She then left the scene with a friend. Seattle Police homicide detectives had the car removed to the Seattle Towing Garage, 2125 4th Avenue, for evidence processing. The first thing the detectives found when they opened the rear door on the left side was the green bowing ball. Cassedy’s body was in the back seat and Hennessy’s body was draped face down over the back of the front seat. Detectives noted the headlights and ignition switches were on, the hand brake was off and the gearshift lever was in reverse.

Taking a Wrong Turn

King County Coroner John P. Brill Jr. positively identified the decomposed bodies as Hennesy and Cassedy through dental records, identification found in their wallets and jewelry the men had been wearing when they disappeared. Inside the car’s interior, Brill found Hennessy’s wristwatch, onyx ring, and Saint Christopher medal and Cassedy’s identification bracelet and tie clasp. An autopsy by Dr. Gale E. Wilson confirmed the two deaths were likely caused by drowning, as there was no evidence of foul play.

Chief Fitzgerald and police detectives theorized that Hennessy inadvertently headed west on Florentia Street and turned north onto 3rd Avenue W, a dead-end street. When he discovered his mistake, he entered into the rear area of the Pioneer Millworks property, attempted to turn around and backed off the bulkhead. Hennessy should have headed east on Florentia Street, turned north on 4th Avenue N and crossed the Fremont Bridge, then east toward the University District.

Chief Fitzgerald explained that although the Lake Washington Ship Canal had been dragged several times, the spot where the automobile had been found had never been searched. The dragging operations had been conducted off all street ends and docks along the ship canal. The car’s location, some 80 feet into the canal and behind the Pioneer Millworks plant, more than 30 yards west of the 3rd Avenue W dead end, had been considered unlikely at the time. The area behind the plant was surrounded by a fence and protected by a gate that was usually closed and locked.

A requiem mass for Hennessy and Cassedy was said at Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church, 5050 8th Avenue NE on Friday morning, October 29, 1948. After individual funeral services, the men were buried in the Calvary Cemetery, at 5041 35th Avenue NE, Seattle.

Tragedy Following Tragedy

On Friday afternoon, November 26, 1948, Gladys Hennessy, age 47, was returning to Seattle via the Stevens Pass Highway (US Route 2), after a Thanksgiving visit with her brother, Dr. James E. Harding, in Wenatchee. She was driving Dr. Harding’s 1948 Hudson Commodore four-door sedan and accompanied by her 4-year-old son, Patrick, his black cocker spaniel, Bridget, and Hennessy's best friend and bowling partner, Edna Gladys Horner, age 40.

It was snowing lightly as Gladys Hennessy proceeded west from Leavenworth. Traffic on the two-lane highway was proceeding at about 20-25 miles-per-hour. Within a few miles, she entered Tumwater Canyon, a narrow cut through steep mountains that squeezed the highway tight against the edge of the Wenatchee River without benefit of guard rails. At about 3:30 p.m., the vehicle was just approaching The Alps, a well-known local candy store and gift shop approximately five miles from Leavenworth, when it entered a curve, hit an icy patch and skidded across the icy pavement. The automobile hit the shoulder sideways and rolled down a rocky nine-foot embankment into the backwater created by the Tumwater Dam across Wenatchee River. The vehicle came to rest on its side in 20 feet of water, some 40 feet from shore. 

Walter Hoffman, a freight agent for the Great Northern Railway, was the first to reach the scene of the accident. He was immediately preceding Gladys Hennessy’s vehicle, saw the accident in his rear view mirror, and stopped at The Alps to phone for help. Shortly thereafter, Captain Roy Carlson, Washington State Patrol, arrived at the scene from Leavenworth with several volunteer rescue workers and a boat, and a state highway department truck came over the road spreading sand. The rescuers labored in the diminishing light and freezing cold for an hour and 45 minutes before attaching a grappling hook to one of the vehicle’s axles. A tow truck from Leavenworth hauled it from the water onto the highway.

When rescue workers pried open the damaged car doors, they found Gladys's body on the back seat, Edna Horner's body on the front seat, and Patrick’s body on the back floor with that of his dog. A pulmonator (or resuscitator) from Leavenworth Hospital had been dispatched to the accident scene, but was not used.

Coincident Funerals

By coincidence, Stuart N. Adams, part owner of Forkner’s University Funeral Parlors, was in Wenatchee for Thanksgiving with his family. Adams was at the Jones & Jones Funeral Home, 21 S Chelan Avenue, on Friday afternoon talking with former colleagues when a call for a hearse came from Leavenworth. After learning the probable identity of the victims, he went to the scene of the accident with Dr. Harding, helped identify the bodies and later arranged for them to be shipped to Forkner’s in Seattle for funeral arrangements and burial.

Another bizarre coincidence of the accident was that Patrick was wearing the Saint Christopher medal -- patron saint of travelers -- recovered from his father’s body when he drowned exactly four years earlier. "The circle of tragedy enveloping the family of John F. Hennessy was complete today -- all had met death by drowning" (The Wenatchee Daily World).

The Washington State Patrol, responsible for investigating traffic fatalities on state roads, had the wreck hauled to a Leavenworth garage for inspection. The roll-over accident had smashed in the top of the 1948 Hudson sedan, jamming the doors closed. The windows were intact, but the trunk had sprung open, allowing the interior to fill quickly with icy water. Leavenworth Police Chief George Chard said the victims had no chance to escape drowning.

Both Gladys Hennessy (1905-1948) and Edna G. Horner (1908-1948) had been well-known in Seattle bowling leagues and were members of the Women’s International Bowling Club. A remembrance ceremony for the two women was held in Forkner’s funeral chapel on Tuesday, November 30. Afterward, the body of Edna Horner, a Seattle resident for 25 years, was sent to her surviving family in Walla Walla for burial. Funeral services for Gladys Hennessy and her son, Patrick, were held at the Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church on Wednesday, December 1, 1948; burial was in the Calvary Cemetery.


Don Duncan, Washington: The First One Hundred Years (Seattle, The Seattle Times, 1989), p. 73; “Tragic Hennessy Story Ends,” The Wenatchee Daily World, November 27, 1948, p. 1; “No Trace Found of Missing Pair,” The Seattle Times, November 28, 1944, p. 2; “Long Missing, Found Drowned,” Ibid., October 27, 1948, p. 8; “Burden of Tragic Wait Lifted,” Ibid., October 27, 1948, p. 10; “Hennessy’s Widow, Son Die in River,” Ibid., November 27, 1948, p. 1; “Mrs. Hennessy Funeral To Be Wednesday,” Ibid., November 29, 1948, p. 22; “Two Seattleites Still Missing,” The Seattle Star, November 28, 1944, p. 2; Lucille Cohen, “Two Men Mysteriously Missing, Fear Foul Play; Wives Search in Vain Before Asking Aid,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 28, 1944, p. 3; Jack Jarvis, “Four-Year Mystery Cleared by Diver in Canal Search,” Ibid., October 27, 1948, p. 1; Charles Russell, “Widow Glad Suspense Is Over,” Ibid., October 27, 1948, p. 1; “Hennessy-Cassedy Case Like Story,” Ibid., October 27, 1948, p. 2;  William Schulze, “Four Tragic Years of Waiting -- Mrs. Cassedy Glad Its All Over,” Ibid., October 27, 1948, p. 2; Mrs. Hennessy a Widow; Legal Tangle on Divorce,” Ibid., October 27, 1948, p. 3; “Mrs. Hennessy, Son To Be Buried Here,” Ibid., November 28, 1948, p. 4; “Bodies of Two Long Lost Seattle Men Found in Canal,” Walla Walla Union-Bulletin, October 27, 1948, p. 1; “Burial Will Be Locally,” Ibid, November 29, 1948, p. 5.

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