A century ago when one of Boston’s most famous citizens killed himself under strange circumstances in a gruesome fashion, muttering final words that rival the gasping “Rosebud” of Charles Foster Kane in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, it prompted shock, sadness, and conspiracy theories.
As Charles “Chick” Stahl doubled over and fell to the floor in his hotel room in West Baden Springs, Indiana, his best friend Jimmy Collins, star third baseman for the Boston Americans ballclub, watched helplessly. The police and a physician were on their way, but when they arrived, they found a dead man. That the dead man was only 34 years old and a newlywed made it a tragedy. That he was the player/manager of the Boston team made it news worthy of headlines.
The police officer turned to Collins.
“Did he say anything?”
“He just groaned at the very end, he died right in front of me, in pain,” Jimmy said, slightly in shock.
“Nothing at all?”
“Before? Yes. He said: ‘I couldn’t help it. I did it. It was killing me and I couldn’t stand it.’ “
The officer stood over the doctor, who was examining the dead man – crouched over him like a boxing referee in the ring. The dead man’s lips were blue and his face was yellow, his body twisted in a grotesque shape, like a life-sized question mark made of flesh and bone.
When the news of Stahl’s demise in late March of 1907 reached New England, the city of Boston was stunned and saddened. But there were a few shadowy souls who may not have been dispirited when they heard that Chick took his own life. There were women – more than a handful across the country at various train stops – who had ill feelings and broken hearts. One tried to kill him five years earlier.
On an unusually warm January evening in 1902, Chick was taking a stroll with a female friend in Fort Wayne, Indiana. As Stahl navigated the streets of his hometown there were another set of footsteps not far behind him. They belonged to Lulu Ortmann, a pretty young woman who was carrying a revolver in her waistcoat. She intended to shoot Stahl at close range. Chick knew Lulu, and Lulu knew Chick – they had been lovers. But Chick had found a new girl to fancy and casually brushed Lulu aside. Spurned, Ms. Ortmann was planning to exact the revenge of a heartbroken lover. But Lulu’s best friend, tipped off of the plan, went to the Fort Wayne police, and before Lulu could rip a hole in Chick’s chest she was subdued. Stahl was shaken, but it was a testament to his charm and icy nerve that he was able to calm his new lady friend and keep that relationship going for some months before he moved on to another.
For as long as there has been baseball, there have been “Annie’s” – the National Pastime’s equivalent to rock-and-roll’s groupies. Just as stagehands corral young women for the band, there were bat boys and clubhouse attendants to perform that ritual for ballplayers. Stahl was a handsome man with a strong jaw, deep-set eyes, and broad shoulders. He was, as one newspaper wrote, “a darling of the fans in every city.” Indeed, Stahl left a little bit of himself in every city he traveled to. For every Annie who knew the score there was a Lulu who surrendered their heart just as easily as their flesh when they went into a hotel room with a baseball player. Athletes have been shot, stabbed, chased down fire escapes, even killed for sexual indiscretions or affairs of the heart. Stahl was not unusual, but he was perhaps unusual in his appetite for playing that game.
Charles Sylvester Stahl was the sixth of 24 children born to his working class parents in rural Indiana. They were a Catholic family and Chick attended parochial schools in and near Fort Wayne. The Stahls were as Fighting Irish as any family raised in the shadows of the golden dome of Notre Dame. He was raised with a stern reminder of what was expected and what was acceptable in the sight of God.
With 17 brothers and six sisters, Stahl learned to take care of himself quickly. He had a full-time job at 16 and was playing ball with men twice his age at the age of 17. Like most parents of that era, his father didn’t approve of baseball as a career. The game was for ruffians and thugs, for the “lower rungs of society.” But Chick determined that he could make more money batting the ball than he could following his father into the trade business. Chick played semi-pro ball in Indiana and also extensively in southern Michigan. It was a rough exercise but it was rowdy and exciting too. Every town brought a new adventure, more sex, more booze, and night life. It was the perfect backdrop for rebellion. When he was 22, Chick signed his first professional contract. There was no looking back. Echoing the words of Ty Cobb, a southerner who defied his father’s wishes to enter the game, Chick made up his mind to make baseball his life.
“I intended to make my way through the professional ranks and earn a living for myself, to be my own man,” he said.
It didn’t take long for baseball folks to fall in love with Chick Stahl. In just two short seasons in the minor leagues, Stahl impressed with his bat and baserunning. In 1897 he was spotted playing for Buffalo by Jimmy Collins, a native and resident of that city. Collins was the third baseman for the Boston Beaneaters and he urged legendary manager Frank Selee to sign Stahl to a contract. The deal was made and Chick never went back to the minor leagues again. He had hit the big time.
Baseball in the late 19th century was a game played on carelessly manicured pastures with baseballs that were often tattered and darkened by licorice and tobacco juice. Gamblers openly operated in the stands, alcohol flowed freely, and players fought tooth and nail for their jobs. In Boston, Stahl joined one of the best teams in the country, a club that boasted Collins at the hot corner, the talented fly chaser Hugh Duffy, and star hurler Kid Nichols. Each of them later honored as Hall of Famers. But supreme on this team was the biggest name in American sports, the iconic Sliding Billy Hamilton. Hamilton was a superstar who made daring plays, prideful boasts, and lived the life of a king. The young, wide-eyed Stahl took note.
In his rookie season, Chick out-hit every one of his teammates, even Hamilton, while playing a solid right field. He batted .354 and drove in 97 runs in just 114 games. Boston papers quickly knighted him, “The Husky Hoosier.” His best friend on the Beaneaters was Collins, and the two remained close until that fateful day when Stahl drank poison in front of his pal. In 1901, when Collins served instrumental in forming a new Boston team in the upstart American League, he recruited his friend Stahl and others to come with him. The Boston Americans, precursors to the Red Sox, were born. One of the first players the Royal Rooters (ancestors of the current Red Sox Nation) cheered was Chick Stahl, their star outfielder. In 1901 at the age of 28, Stahl was single, making good money, and flush with popularity. But things aren’t always as simple as they appear.
The first time Stahl met him they were on the campus of Notre Dame University in 1900. Chick was the coach of the baseball team and David was a fan attending a practice. The two may have chatted that day, or maybe not, but they become friends in short order, some may say too close of friends. Murphy loved Notre Dame and he loved sports. He loved watching athletes perform, watching them strain and battle for victory on the field of play. David grew to love baseball, a game that was still very much growing as the national sport, especially in areas like Fort Wayne which were miles from a major league city. David also grew to love Chick Stahl. His love for the ballplayer ultimately factored in Chick’s death.
In 2016 there are exactly zero major league baseball players who are openly homosexual. Statistically there are certainly many who are. But none feel comfortable enough to have come out openly while actively playing the game at the big league level. Sadly there’s a stigma attached to homosexuality, especially when it comes to athletics, where men are supposed to be macho. Where they are supposed to be meeting women in bars and hotel rooms. 100 years ago the stigma was even more significant.
Stahl and David Murphy became friends, how close isn’t exactly clear, but Murphy’s lifestyle points to a man conflicted by his own sexuality. The United States in the first decade of the 20th century had a hang-up about sex, let alone sex between men. Murphy and Stahl kept the details of their personal relationship between the two of them. But Collins – his teammate, roommate, best friend – knew. He knew how tortured Chick was, but he didn’t tell anyone. He didn’t tell the policeman when he was asked what Stahl’s final words meant.
Stahl swallowed carbolic acid, also known as phenol, a substance commonly used at that time to treat infections. Stahl had an infection on his foot and was supposed to apply a drop – a tiny drop – to the wound. Instead, on March 28, 1907, in that hotel room in Indiana during spring training, he gulped the entire bottle. The acid went to work quickly, causing his lips to turn color, his skin to turn yellow, his body to sweat and convulse. Finally, his organs failed, his body strangled itself. It was an agonizingly painful method of suicide.
Stahl’s wife and mother were enveloped in grief. Chick had only been married for a few months. He had been a bachelor for more than three decades before finally wedding Julia Harmon, a beautiful young girl from Massachusetts. Her family loved Stahl like he was their own son, they were proud that the star ballplayer had married their daughter. Stahl was in his first year as manager of the Boston club, and he had Collins at his side to help with the duties. But he was also troubled by his own personality and his dark secret.
Stahl was one of those people who could go long stretches – years – without any evidence of depression. But when stress blanketed him – any sort of stress – he fell deep into a darkness that was frightening and almost impenetrable. Just days into the spring training session, after some troubles with his team, Stahl spiraled into a depression, threatening to swallow poison. Buoyed by Collins he seemed to come out of it.
But there was more than baseball that was troubling Stahl. His had a wife and she wanted a family. He had responsibilities to her, but he also felt his heart pulling somewhere else, somewhere he couldn’t go in the light of day. His forbidden relationship with David Murphy was going to have to end. Now that he had a wife and was the boss instead of just one of the boys, Chick could no longer live that other life. Or so his unhealthy mind told him.
“I couldn’t help it. I did it. It was killing me and I couldn’t stand it,” he groaned to Collins as he died.
“I did it.” What did he do? Did he end his relationship with David Murphy that spring? After his wedding just four months earlier it was probably the first time Chick had seen David. Did they have a fight, or did they reluctantly agree that their relationship must end? No one will ever know for sure. But something tortured Stahl to the point that he emptied that bottle down his throat, releasing acid into his system that ate away at his body and killed him within 15 minutes.
Two days after Stahl’s death, David Murphy sat in a chair in his kitchen in Fort Wayne and pulled a bottle from his pocket. He quickly swallowed the contents and waited. The poison worked a lethal path through Murphy’s body as it had with Stahl. When David failed to arrive for dinner, his contorted body was found. There was this short note:
“Bury me beside Chick”