Volume I: Narrative History


Chapter 8: 1915 The Mystery Concluded

The Million Dollar Mystery was not dead, and the public eagerly awaited Episode 23, which was to tell where the missing million dollars was located. Years later Note film historian Terry Ramsaye gave a highly dramatized version of what happened:

Even tragedy came to add to the golden flood. Charles Hite, the executive in charge of film production of the serial, was insured in favor of the Syndicate Film Corporation for $100,000. The night of August 22, 1914, driving a new eight cylinder motor car, he plunged through the railing of a Harlem River viaduct to his death. The stockholders of the serial concern received 700% on their investment. Promoters have been quoting that record ever since in florid prospectus literature on oil, film, and ginseng projects.

A part of the Chicago Tribune promotional campaign in behalf of circulation and the serial included an offer of a prize of $10,000 for the winning suggestion for a sequel chapter of The Million Dollar Mystery. This was the most effective of several contemporary contests which made the United States a nation of scenario writers. Miss Ida Damon, a St. Louis stenographer, submitted the winning sequel suggestion, a $10,000 document of about 100 words typed on a yellow second sheet, torn in two. But the complications of the sequel had only begun. The studio had thoughtfully made the "winning" sequel in New Rochelle some weeks before the winning idea was selected in Chicago. Note Some uncooperative spirit down on Madison Street inspired inquiry into the contest by investigators for the United States Post Office. The Chicago Tribune and the United States of America voiced a unanimous demand that the sequel chapter follow Miss Damon's script. The letter of the law had to be followed. The Tribune's rivals were seeing to that.

The director of the picture was convinced of the superior dramatic merit of the sequel already made. Besides, Miss Damon had chosen to end the story amid the snows of Siberia, and the weather reports indicated that in the current season New Rochelle might expect about one snow a century. The wires between Chicago and New York spit blue fire. "It must be done." "It can not be done." "Do it anyway."

Fleeing the pressure of making hourly reports, Jay Cairns went to New York to appear before the Knickerbocker bar in the case of Manhattan vs. Martini. When he stepped off an early morning train at New Rochelle station he was overwhelmed with an impression that the entire landscape was white. How wonderful if true and how terrible and cruel if not! He felt of it and tasted it. It seemed to meet all tests. But with the caution of the true reporter he awaited confirmation. A milk wagon on its early rounds rattled past. Cairns overtook the wagon and interviewed the driver. The driver was unequivocal and emphatic in his opinion. It had been snowing, he firmly asserted, since midnight. "Are you sure?" Cairns demanded. "This is very important to the World's Greatest Newspaper, Note two film corporations, and the United States government, to say nothing of my many personal friends." "Giddap," said the driver. The sequel was shot at sunrise. Cairns directed.

Miss Damon was presented with her $10,000 check on the stage of a St. Louis theatre, by the mayor, while the orchestra played Hearts and Flowers with muted strings - then was promptly dismissed by her employees, the Certainteed Roofing Company, itself a national advertiser, because of the motion picture publicity involved....

A contemporary view of the contest is provided by Reel Life, which published the following on February 20, 1915:

Before the next issue of Reel Life goes to press, the final episode of The Million Dollar Mystery, the great Thanhouser serial, will have been released, and upwards of ten million photoplay lovers will at last know the solution of the puzzling plot, that has been a source of speculation for so long. The fate of the various characters and the hiding place of the vanished treasure will be revealed, rounding out in adequate fashion the chapters of adventure that preceded it, and the winner of the $10,000 prize announced. Incidentally, a motion picture of the fortunate author of the 100-word solution of The Million Dollar Mystery will be shown in connection with the final episode, on Monday, February 22, 1915.

Altogether, more than 125,000 manuscripts containing as many different solutions to the mystery, were received by the Thanhouser Film Corporation. These located the missing million in hiding places ranging from a whale's stomach to a secret cache at the top of Trinity Church spire. An inventive genius quite as diverse was also shown in disposing of the principals in the cast, and many clever solutions, almost as startling and unexpected in their denouements as that for which the prize was awarded, were submitted. Yet in the final analysis, none of these met the numerous requirements quite as completely and satisfactorily as the successful manuscript.

The Photoplay Magazine, April 1915, carried an article:

Prize-Winning Solution of The Million Dollar Mystery by Ida Damon: Following the instructions of the makers of this serial to all contestants, Miss Damon submitted her idea very briefly - exactly in the words below. But she elaborated it in a detailed scenario which accompanied her solution, and which was followed almost without change in the making of the picture.

A physician has been summoned and it is learned that Braine lives. Braine, Olga and Vroon are taken to the Siberian mines to end their lives. Hargreave, who has been acting as the butler for Florence's protection, reveals his identity and embraces his daughter. Then he joins the hands of Florence and Norton, after which he takes them to Florence's room, where he turns the portrait of himself and presses a button, the back of the portrait then opens and he places her hand on the million dollars. Thereafter follows the marriage of Florence and Norton and all is happiness.

What might have been if other entries had been used was delineated in another Photoplay article, "The Million-Dollar Mystery Museum," in the May 1915 issue:

After Miss Ida Damon of St. Louis received her certified check for $10,000 in payment for her solution of The Million Dollar Mystery, the judges found themselves in possession of some amazing manuscripts.

Arthur J. Wilson, of Franklin, Pa., sent one embroidered in black on white linen. One man sent in this solution on the head of a barrel. Others solved the mystery by having the million hidden in an automobile tire, the cross on the top of St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York, a shark's stomach, and the Washington Monument. B.A. Busby, of Lower Brule, South Dakota, busted right out into poetry on the subject.... One contestant, writing from the United States Arsenal at San Antonio, Texas, solved the location of the million by saying that Florence's picture of her father had writing concealed in its beard telling where the money was.

Another solution has Braine killed and reveals the fact that he had hypnotized Olga, so that, on his death, she comes out of the hypnosis and straightens out all the tangles. R. Clark Alexander of, Paris, Tennessee, sent in a solution done up in an illustrated pamphlet of his own making, giving plans and stage directions. F.B. Bennett, of Los Angeles, California, also sent in a pamphlet, filled with artistic pen and ink drawings, ending with pictures of two sets of the cutest twins in the world, the result of Mr. Bennett's suggestion that Florence marries Norton and Hargreave marries Susan. (To tell you the truth, the drawings of the babies are done so well that they make one think F.B. Bennett is a Miss or Mrs., and not Mr. at all! These girls are getting so tricky nowadays and so often send in just their initials!)

The number of oddly arranged manuscripts was without number. A great many contestants undoubtedly considered that the amount of money involved entitled Mr. MacGrath to receive the manuscripts done up in fine packages. One contestant, also of an artistic turn of mind in the matter of preparing his synopsis, felt mercy in his heart for the wickedly erring Countess. He let her escape and become a nun.


Copyright © 1995 Q. David Bowers. All Rights Reserved.