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Shadows of Deception: The Dark Alleys of Lonely-Hearts Clubs

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The emergence, then decline, of lonely-hearts clubs stands out in American social history’s panorama. They present a tale of evolving societal norms wrapped in the eternal human quest for intimacy. Through personal advertisements in newspapers and magazines, would-be suitors described their attributes and aspirations, seeking kindred spirits.  

America, in the first half of the 20th century, grappled with profound changes. The suffragette movement surged forward, prohibition reshaped social dynamics, and cities expanded rapidly due to industrialization. Amidst these shifts, many felt unanchored. For those seeking love and connection, lonely-hearts clubs offered a beacon. 

  • The profound societal shifts of early 20th-century America
  • The allure and subsequent decline of lonely-hearts clubs
  • Inez Gertrude Brennan’s murky associations
  • Robert’s grim confessions and their implications
  • The courtroom’s revelations and decisions

By the middle of World War II, however, the cultural tides shifted. With a significant portion of the eligible male population away at war, there was an inherent reduction in the pool of potential participants for these clubs.  

This conscription not only affected the numbers but also the emotional state of the nation. With a major focus on the war effort, personal romantic endeavors might have seemed less urgent or even trivial.  

Furthermore, as women became more involved in the workforce, their social circles expanded, and they had more opportunities to meet potential partners outside the confines of classified ads. Women might have felt less reliant on such means to find companionship with a more active role in society and the economy. On top of all that, unsettling stories began to emerge — tales of deception, fraud, and worse, tied to these classified ads — which further eroded their popularity. 

“While the human heart may yearn for companionship, it also harbors the capacity for unspeakable cruelty.”

Perhaps the most potent argument against the romanticized notion of lonely-hearts clubs came not from data or trends, but from visceral, real-life stories that showcased the darker side of humanity. One such narrative revolves around Inez Gertrude Brennan of Dover. 

The story unfolds with an impromptu visit. Charles Wende and his wife, in a spur-of-the-moment decision while traveling from Florida to New Hampshire, decided to drop by Dover, Delaware. Their aim? To reunite with an old friend, Hugo Schulz, who had recently relocated to be with his mail-order bride, Inez Gertrude Brennan. Schulz, originally from Germany like Wende, had excitedly relayed his marital plans in December 1948.  

Unexpected Visit

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However, upon reaching the Brennan farm in April 1949, the Wendes were met with a rather curt Inez, who initially denied any knowledge of Schulz. Her demeanor only changed when the Wendes explained their connection, at which point she begrudgingly admitted that Schulz had “stopped here briefly” before departing. 

Such vague remarks raised the Wendes’ suspicions, leading them to alert the State Police in Dover. Their concerns resonated with recent reports from Sheriff Claude Ruff of Bedford County, VA, who was investigating the mysterious disappearance of Wade Wooldridge. Wooldridge, a 70-year-old carpenter, had left Virginia with a substantial sum of $2,000 in October 1948, intending to meet his own mail-order bride — a certain Mrs. Brennan from Dover. He was never heard from again. 

On April 14, 1949, state probers searched the Brennan farm. Inez lived with her 16-year-old son Robert, a handsome sophomore at Dover High, and her 23-year-old stocky, curly-haired son Raymond. Her 18-year-old son George resided at Lackland Air Force Base, Tex. Her married daughter lived in Texas. As Police Maj. James Turner dug his spade into dirt of the empty pigpen, Robert blurted: “There’s no sense digging there. The bodies were dug up and taken to the city dump!” The police hustled Inez and her sons off to the State Police barracks. There, mom and Ray claimed they had nothing to say. But Robert sang long and cheerfully.  

Revelation at the Brennan Farm

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He said that the previous Oct. 10 Wooldridge had arrived at the farm. Brother George had not gone to the Air Force yet and there was a boarder, Dolly T. Dean. “Mother said, ‘Nobody will miss him if somebody puts something through his head,” Robert stated. “She said he had a considerable sum of money on him and we could use that.” Robert added: “About 4:45 pm. on Oct. 10 I decided to get rid of Mr. Wooldridge. So I took my 12-gauge shotgun to the barn and put it in the loft. Then we all had supper.  

“After supper Mr. Wooldridge wanted to see the outside buildings. I took him straight to the barn. While he was looking around I went to the loft. I shot him in the back of the head as he came up. He rolled to the floor.”  

The clan divided Wooldridge’s things and buried his body in the pigpen, the teenager said. On Dec. 27 — George had since joined the Air Force —Robert and his mother went by train to Concord, N.H., where Schulz met them and took them to his farm.  

After several pleasant days, Inez asked Schulz for $1,000 to pay a note on her farm, the son said. Schulz refused. That night, the teen related, his mother put five sleeping pills in Schulz’ food. It did not faze him. The next day she purportedly made it 17. Still no result. On Jan. 8. the couple obtained a marriage license in town. That night Schulz got a dose of arsenic, which made him ill for five hours. But he recovered in fine form. Three days later, in the barn, Inez reportedly handed Robert a gun and pointed her finger at Schulz. Robert said he lost his nerve, and his mother seized the weapon and fired twice. Schulz fell dead.  

The Gruesome Details

Mother and son wrapped the body in canvas and stuffed it into a 50-gallon oil drum. Inez wrote to Ray to come north, then sold off Schulz’ 400 chickens and his farm equipment. When Ray arrived, they loaded the drum and furniture onto a truck and drove to Delaware. In March, they laid Schulz in the pigpen beside Wooldridge. Dolly Dean moved and Brennan decided to sell the farm, Robert said. So, Inez, Robert, and Ray dug up the bodies and cremated them in the oil drum, the youth swore. Later, said Robert, he and Ray strewed the ashes at the city dump. 

Delaware police recalled George from his Texas base for questioning. Yes, he remembered Oct. 10. “Mother told me Mr. Wooldridge had been shot,” George said. “She said I’d have to get up early the next morning to help bury him.” Police learned that Inez, once widowed and once divorced (she resumed her maiden name of Brennan) had joined many lonely-hearts clubs. Two earlier contacts lost some money but escaped with their lives. Kent County court indicted Robert for murder and his mother as an accomplice. The court named George and Ray accessories.  

The Merrimack County Superior Court indicted Inez for the murder of Schulz in New Hampshire. Robert and his mother went on trial Sept 12, 1949. The Delaware Superior Court admitted several bones and two boxes of ashes, retrieved from the city dump, into evidence as the earthly remains of Wooldridge in Dover. Lawyers never mentioned Schulz in court. Richard Ayres of Stone Mountain, Va. identified several articles found on the farm as those of his grandfather, Wooldridge. Dolly Dean testified she heard a shot and that Robert told her, “I shot the old man.”  

She said Wooldridge did not die immediately and screamed, that Inez said, “We can’t have him hollering like that” and that Robert took the gun from the kitchen, and she heard another shot. “I finished off the old man. I shot off half his face,” Robert said on returning to the house, Dolly testified.  

The Courtroom Drama

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The court entered Robert’s confession into evidence despite a defense objection. Inez took the stand and denied telling Robert to kill Wooldridge. Robert gave a new testimony. He claimed that Wooldridge was “getting fresh” with Dolly. When he told the man to leave, Wooldridge pulled a knife on him. 

The jurors found Robert and his mother guilty, but they asked mercy for him. The judge sentenced both to life, since Delaware law precluded giving an accomplice a more severe term than the perpetrator. The Delaware Superior Court sentenced Ray to two years and George to one, following their guilty pleas as accessories.  

The Delaware Department of Correction paroled Robert Brennan in 1959, and following a tearful plea, they also paroled his mother in December 1964. New Hampshire then declined to prosecute in the Schulz slaying because of the deaths of many connected with the case, including the two investigators. 

This chilling episode serves as a stark reminder of the perils that sometimes lurked behind the promises of connection in the first half of the 20th century. While the human heart may yearn for companionship, it also harbors the capacity for unspeakable cruelty. 

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