Monday, May 02, 2011

WWI Aviator and Adventurer Lt. Pat 'Brien - Suicide or Foul Play?

Lt. Pat O'Brien, RCAC, OMC or Momence, IL was an early American aviator, U.S. Army Flying Corps officer, Royal Canadian Air Corps combat pilot with two kills, POW who escaped a running prison train and hide from the Germans on a 370 mile dash to freedom from Germany to neutral Holland, celebrated author, speaker, silent movie star and world adventurer was reported to have killed himself in a Los Angeles hotel room.

There was an remains an air of mystery about O'Brien's death. Here are some interesting items from the Lowell, Indiana ( home to O'Brien's mother) Public Library from researcher Kevin McNulty and others:

Pat O'Brien Given British War Cross
Lieut. Pat O'Brien was in Momence for a few hours on Monday, having arrived direct from New York, and left the same day for Lowell to see his mother, leaving on Tuesday for Cleveland. Pat brought the information that he had received additional honors that conferred upon him by His Majesty, the King of England. Pat has been awarded the British War Cross, which is conferred upon officers for gallantry in action. The award of this great honor came as a complete surprise to O'Brien, and coming as it did is all the more appreciated. This medal is the highest war honor that is conferred by the British government, and is one of the very few in the United States that have ever been so honored.
The citation conferring this honor upon him was received by Pat a few weeks ago in New York. According to the regulations this medal should be pinned upon him by the King himself, but owing to the fact that he was unable to go to England at this time, a special ruling was made in Pat's case and the cross will be pinned upon him by the British ambassador to the United States. The ceremony will take place at the national Capital within a few weeks, in the presence of high British officials, and representatives of the American army. Sen. McCormick will be in charge of the ceremony, and the presentation will be witnessed by several of Pat's friends from all parts of the country.

The high decoration was bestowed by the King on December 16, 1919, but notice of the award reached Pat only three weeks ago. The cross is one of the most handsome decorations in the English army, being made of silver and suspended on a ribbon of British colors. Pat says if these decorations continue to come he will have to expand his chest to get room for them all. Of all the decorations which he has received, Pat prizes the war cross the most highly. -- Momence Press-Reporter.

The following May 13, 1920, Lowell Tribune article appeared on page 1, column 3:
Pat O'Brien Married
Lieut. Pat O'Brien has just announced his marriage to Mrs. E.E. Allen, of Washington, D.C. The marriage took piece in Havana, Cuba, in January and Pat only told his friends a few days ago. Pat met his bride while in Washington and they were married three weeks later. They are now enjoying their honeymoon in California. Pat's many Lowell friends extend congratulations and best wishes to him and his bride.

The following December 22, 1920, Lowell Tribune article appeared on page 1, column 5:
Lieut. Pat O'Brien Suicides
The entire country was thunderstruck last Saturday when it became known that Lieut. Pat O'Brien, the famous aviator, had been found dead in a room in a fashionable hotel in Los Angeles, Calif. It is thought that in a fit of despondency he took his own life. He had been separated from his wife whom he married less than a year ago, and this with his war experience, it is thought unbalanced his mind and caused him to do the rash act. The thought that domestic troubles might be the cause is borne out by the following note which was found near his body.

"Only a coward would do what I am doing. But I guess I am one. With all my war record, I am just like the rest of the people in this world -- a little bit of clay.
"And to you, my sweet little wife, I go, thinking of you and my dear, sweet mother, my sisters and brothers. And may the just God that answered my prayers in those two days I spent in making my escape from Germany, once more answer them.

"And bring trouble, sickness, disgrace and more bad luck than anyone in this world has ever had and forever that awful woman that has broken our home and has taken you from me.

"She caused this life of mine, that just a few minutes ago was so happy to go on that sweet adventure of death.

"Please send what you find back to my dear mother in Momence, Ill.

"To the five armies I have been in, the birds, the animals I loved so well, to my friends, to all the world and to adventure, I say good-bye.

"Pat O'Brien"
Lieut. O'Brien was born at Momence, where his mother and brothers and sister still reside, Many years ago he went west and when the war broke out he enlisted with the Royal Flying Corps of England and fought with them until he was captured by them and our people here have heard him tell of his wonderful escape from the Germans while they were taking him to a German prison camp. His leap from the train; his tramp of 72 days across the entire German country and finally arrived Holland and his return to this country a physical wreck, is all fresh in their minds. His many experiences are told in his book "Outwitting the Hun" which had a nation wide circulation.

Soon after his return to this country Lieut. O'Brien gave his famous lecture in Lowell. His lecture told in a vivid way the terrible experience he had in his escape from the Germans. The proceeds of the lecture amounted to $500 which was turned over to the Red Cross.

Perhaps no one had a greater experience in the World war and came back to tell of it, than did Pat O'Brien. His wonderful experiences will always be remembered by the folks here. Sincehe came back he has been on the chautauqua platform and gave lectures all over the country and at the time of his death he was in motion pictures. He was a young man who was greatly loved and respected by all those who knew him. He had visited here many times and numbered his friends by the score in this section.

Mrs. Maggie O'Brien, his mother, was prostrated when the news of her son's death came. One sister, Mrs. Ben Worley, resides here. They have a large circle of friends here who extend to them their heartfelt sympathy in their great hour of sorrow.

The remains will probably be brought back to Momence for burial.

In an e-mail dated July 15, 2007, Marcia A. Tedford of Momence, Illinois, added the following information about Pat O'Brien:
Through the efforts of Mr. Rex Rowe with the assistance of Jack O'Brien, Momence, a grave marker for Lieutenant Pat O'Brien, Royal Flying Corps, 1916-1917 has been placed.
The heroism of Lt. Pat O'Brien is written in his book, "Outwitting the Hun" published 1918. This aviator flew over France before the United States had entered WWI. Pat was shot down, wounded, captured, escaped, returned to England, honored by King George V, and returned home to Momence in 1917. He was one of the first American pilots to be captured and escape before the United States entered WWI.

The Memorial Dedication will take place at the Momence Cemetery, Tuesday, July 31, 2007 at 11:30 a.m..

Consul-General, the Honorable Andrew Seaton, from the British Consulate in Chicago, Illinois will present the British Flag to the surviving family members of Lt. O'Brien.

Mary Bock will play "Amazing Grace" on the bagpipes.

A bi-plane, similar to the one flown by Pat, will be piloted by Dr. Brian Olofsson and will perform a flyover during the services.

Our Momence Honor Guard will accord military rites.

In my research on the life of Pat O'Brien, a photo of Pat and his Mother, Margaret Hathaway O'Brien was found on your website. Margaret was originally from Lowell before moving to Momence and marrying Daniel O'Brien, Momence. Their daughter, Lila was the wife of Ben Worley. Another daughter Clare was married to Matt Clegg. Their son Jack Clegg went to California in his youth and remained there.

Here is a bit more from the site - Early Aviators:

via email from Kevin McNulty, 11-14-10
I have extensive information on Lt. Pat O'Brien as I will be publishing his life story in January following 4 years of research and writing. His story is extensive beyond his flying career and I anticipate the the book - which is over 100,000 words will become a movie as well.
Perhaps a small summary of Pat would suffice for your site. He is from my home town and still has relatives there. He published his own book, was in the movies, spoke in every major venue in the United States, crashed a second time - was involved in some undercover operations with the Allied Expeditionary forces in Siberia and many, many other events in his short life. He crashed a second time and survived training U.S. flyers in Texas in 1919 - this time from 2,000 feet. As you likely know he crashed behind enemy lines in 1917, shot through the jaw, was captured and escaped the Germans by jumping out of a prison transfer train where he proceeded to walk 72 days through Belgium clearing a 9 foot electronic fence into Holland. He was decorated by the King in Buckingham Palace in a private visit (for one hour) before returning home. He is from my hometown of Momence, IL. He died at age 30. He didn't leave home until age 15. There is much more about Pat that will startle you and many true stories that will appear in my book.


Kevin McNulty
Editor's Note: I thank Kevin for sharing this information with us. When his book becomes available, I hope to announce it on this page.

via email from Judy Hoffman, 3-18-06
Pat O'Brien was my second cousin. We have heard of him through family stories and of course has a copy of book (Outwitting the Hun). It was exciting to see your story of him on the Internet.
His middle name was Alva. He came from a large family in Momence, Illinois. He was the second youngest of eight children. He had two sisters and 5 brothers. To my knowledge he has a nephew who is still living in Momence.
The family story was that he was murdered, but suicide is not an eager subject to discuss in families. His demons obviously got the better of him. He would have made a very handsome actor for his day.
Thanks for your research on him.
Judy Hoffman

Los Angeles, California - 12-19-1920,
Collection of Mike Kline,
By International News Service
Los Angeles, Dec. 18, -- Declaration that she had feared to meet her husband because of a premonition that a tragedy was impending, was sobbed out today by his widow, as authorities espressed the opinion that Lieut. Pat O'Brien, noted war aviator, had shot and killed himself at a downtown hotel while mentally unbalanced.
Mrs. O'Brien, lying on a cot in her room at her hotel and suffering from the shock, emphatically denied the statement made by her husband, in a suicide note, that Mrs. Sarah Ottis was responsible for their troubles.
"I was in mortal fear of Pat and I was afraid to live with him for fear he would take my life. That is why I dreaded to go to his room when he telephoned that he wanted to talk with me," said Mrs. O/Brien.
"Mrs. Ottis was just a friend to us, more like a mother than anything else and I do not know what I would have done if she had not comforted me in my terrible distress. She was not to blame and I feel I must contradict this awful statement left by my husband."
"Mr. O'Brien and I were married at Chicago. We came to Los Angeles in June and he and I both worked in motion pictures. As time went on he became subject to terrible fits of temper. He often struck me."
"Mrs. Ottis, who had known both of us for several years, came from Chicago two months ago to visit us."

Mrs. Ottis said, "I have known Lieut. O'Brien for three years. I met him in Chicago while working with Gen. Pershing's sister-in-law, Mrs. Jessie Pershing, at a war booth. I became very friendly with him and never had a quarrel with him. I accompanied Mrs. O'Brien to a hotel at her request. I always advised Mrs. O'Brien to return to her husband if she wanted to."
It was stated that Mrs. O'Brien fled hurriedly from her Hollywood home at 3 a. m. yesterday following a quarrel with her husband. Mrs. Ottis was with Mrs. O'Brien at the time, it was said. Mrs. Ottis, who is the mother of a girl aged about 20, with her daughter, accompanied Mrs. O'Brien to the downtown hotel, and they took adjoning suites.
While friends cared for the widow, the opinion was expressed that O'Brien was mentally unbalanced as a result of his battle experience and also because of threats and opposition that he encountered while starring recently in an anti-Japanese picture.
This opposition was so great that the great film fell short of the financial success that had been anticipated by O'Brien and his associates.
Failing to see his wife, O'Brien went to his room last night and shot himself with a .45 caliber army automatic pistol after he had written five notes to his wife.

via email from Ralph Jacobs, 10-18-07
I came across your website while looking up some information on Lt Pat O'Brien. In my family he is generally referred to as "Uncle Pat" and my relation to him is through my grandmother who is Margaret (O'Brien) Jacobs. I have several pictures of Lt. O'Brien and a copy of his book. I'm fairly certain that my uncle either has or had his Military Cross. I had heard he loaned it to the Champlain Air Museum in Mesa, AZ, but I recently found out that the museum was sold to the Museum of Flight in Seattle.
I don't have any additional information for you, but if I'm able to track down what became of the Military Cross, I'll send you the information if you are interested.
Ralph Jacobs
Centennial, Colorado
Editor's Note: I thank Ralph for this additional information. Every little bit helps to tell the story. I hope he will share some of the pictures of Lt. O'Brien with us and with any luck, may even locate the Military Cross.

Yet the most compelling account appears in 66 Squadron:

The Events Surrounding Patrick’s Death
After his return to America it is known that Pat spent some time in Washington D.C. where it is though he met Virginia. “The Lowell Tribune” 13 May 1920 carried a report that Pat had announced his marriage to Mrs E E Allen and that after a three week romance they married in Havana, Cuba in January 1920, although he might not have needed them, there are no stamps in his British Passport which was valid until 1921 to confirm that he had visited the Island. Pat and his bride moved to California, setting up home in Pasadena, California.

Things turned sour between Pat and his wife and they separated, Virginia went to stay at the fashionable Alexandria Hotel Los Angeles, which in those days was a major meeting place for people like Charlie Chaplin and other movie moguls and stars. Pat went and booked into the Hotel and attempted to reconcile himself with Virginia, but the attempt failed and on the 17 December 1920 he ended his life with a shot to his head. In a note that he wrote in his hotel room, Pat wrote to Virginia ”…..and bring back trouble, sickness, disgrace and more bad luck than anyone else in the world has ever had and curse forever that awful woman that has broken our home and has taken you away from me”. Mrs Sarah Ottis of Springfield Illinois was Virginia’s travelling companion, who it later transpired had initially introduced Virginia to Pat. Ottis took on the role of spokeswoman on behalf of the widow, she went on to say that Mrs O’Brien expressed the opinion her husband had been mentally unbalanced and that he planned to kill her had she responded to a telephone request to meet him. It turned out that Pat was talking about Mrs Ottis as the woman concerned of having interfered in the family affairs, although Mrs O’Brien refuted the allegation. She went on to say that on the last Thursday Pat had broken her finger in a fit of temper, which prompted her to leave the home and move to the hotel.

The police were called and Detective Williams was assigned to the case, although what he made of the case has yet to be revealed. Pat’s sister Mrs Clara Clegg had gone to California to visit Pat for the winter. She was contacted by the Police and in turn Clara sent the sad news to Mrs O’Brien in Momence, Clara also notified her brother, Merwin (sometimes called John) and nephew Jack Clegg who were visiting San Francisco at the time.

Claim and Counter Claim
The family were reluctant to acknowledge that Pat might have committed suicide; a story went round that whilst Pat was in China he had obtained two Buddha images from a temple and that it was known that two Chinese agents were following him around America in an effort to retrieve them. It is reported that one of the agents visited Momence when the images were on display in the show window of Burdick’s drug store. Another newspaper rumour which was true said that Pat had invested a considerable amount of money in an “anti Japan film” (Shadows of the West) which had been shown around the Pacific coast.

Clara Clegg and other members of the family claimed the death was caused by murder. Brother Merwin emphatically denied that Pat had killed himself and that Pat had not been married to Virginia Allen. The widow issued a statement that he had killed himself because his mind was unbalanced and that they had married in Havana, Cuba on 1 January 1920 and the witness was Mrs A V Deckham of 5217 Romaing Street. Attempts by the press to interview the witness were unsuccessful.

On the 20 December Merwin O’Brien is also quoted as saying “I cannot understand what became of my brother’s fortune”, he goes on to say that his brother Patrick had more than $150.000 in stocks, Liberty bonds and cash less than a year ago. Merwin continued that there was $50.000 in cash held in banks in New York, Chicago and San Francisco, $50.000 in steel stocks and $25.000 in Liberty bonds. Royalties from his book netted him around $15.000, there was also money from his magazine articles and lectures. The same day in another report the widow’s companion Mrs Sarah Ottis said that Mrs O’Brien is so broken up she is unable to speak for herself but if the truth must be known it might as well come from me. Pat O’Brien was financially embarrassed; he had spent all his money and he owed money all over Los Angeles. Finally he pawned Mrs O’Brien’s rings which she had before the marriage, and then the end came. Despite Merwin and friend Virgil Moore’s efforts on 30 December 1920, Capt. Charles R Moffatt who was in charge of the Los Angeles Detective Bureau announced that a second investigation of the death confirmed the findings of the first investigation.

A Sad Day in Momence

The body of Pat accompanied by his sister and nephew departed Los Angeles on the 21 December and arrived in Momence the following Thursday the 23rd. A crowd assembled at the station to meet Mrs Clegg and the body at Momence station. There were no bands or a gay parade this time. The funeral was arranged by his fellow Masons, the service taking part at the Methodist church on a bitterly cold Monday 27th. Due to the train carrying the British government representative from Chicago Colonel Brandt being an hour late, the funeral started around 1100 a.m. The procession left the O’Brien home and was led by some fifty ex-servicemen, next followed a party of 75 masons, the hearse followed behind surrounded by pall bearers, the family and others following the cortege in cars numbered around 100. After the service he was laid to rest in Momence Cemetery near his father who had died in 1901. Patrick did not come from a wealthy family and it would appear that he had no money left and he was buried in an unmarked grave.

A Strange Twist
In February 1921 the parents of a Byron Munson, a movie actor, went to court to have the marriage of their son and Gwendolyn Ottis, daughter of Dr Daniel Mortimer Ottis and Sarah of Springfield Ill., annulled on the grounds that Byron contracted the marriage on the ground of marriage without consent of his parents before he was of age and that he is not self-supporting. The report goes on to say that Mrs Ottis was the woman mentioned in the Pat O’Brien suicide as “that awful woman”. Munson gave an interview in Los Angeles on the 15 February 1921 saying that he had spoken to Pat, who had informed him that he was going to commit suicide; Munson said “thinking he was joking I told him it would be a darned good thing”. The report states that Byron and Gwendolyn “quarrelled all the time. She left me a month ago and went back to her father at Springfield”. “I guess I’ll let mother pick out my next wife” he said.

Last updated 28 December 2010

It sure seems that a case might be made to re-open Lt. Pat O'Brien's mysterious death.

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