American Showgirl Murdered in Gethsemane

Joan Winters, 1909 – 1933

It reads like the plot of a movie.

A young, beautiful, restless American showgirl travels to the exotic east where she finds intrigue, romance—and a violent death.

As reported on November 3, 1933 in the Los Angeles Times:

(AP) Jerusalem, November 3 —Joan Winters, described as an American professional dancer, and an Indian Moslem were found slain at the foor of the Mount of Olives near the Garden of Gethsemane today.

The two bodies were found in an olive grove outside the city wall. Police found no clews as to their assailants.

Authorities said they are at a loss to account for a motive.

The slain Indian was tentatively identified as Mohamed Karaman, an Indian civil servant from Madras.

Over the next few days more details were revealed. Joan Winters was a stage name. Her real name was Carol Vesta Niedergesaess. But during the First World War the family changed its name to Godfrey and she became Carol Godfrey.

There were hints of a romance between Winters and Karaman. The couple met in Athens and from there sailed to Haifa.  Her father, Bert Godfrey of Brooklyn, dismissed the idea of a romance between his daughter and Karaman as “a remote and absurd possibility.” Karaman, maintained Joan’s parents, was hired as a tour guide.

But, reports the Ogden Standard Examiner, Morning Edition, November 5, 1933:

An unmailed letter which Miss Winters was said to have written shortly before her death led authorities to believe there was a romance between the attractive American blonde  and the man whose body  was found near hers.

Joan told her parents that she was thinking of writing a book about Palestine.

The narrative becomes even more complicated when it was revealed that Winters and Karaman were traveling with another Indian Moslem named Mohamed Ikram, who, after the murder, headed back to India by way of Egypt. Ikram was questioned by Egyptian police and released on November 6.

Further adding to the tangled tale is that Winters was arrested as a “spy” in Istanbul, Turkey prior to Joan’s trip to Palestine. Winters was questioned by female police officers and released after a few hours. It seems likely to Seraphic Secret that the charge of spying was a typical shakedown by notoriously corrupt Ottoman police who used their authority to extract money from easily intimidated tourists.

Jerusalem police—British officers—theorized that Winters and Karaman were murdered by Arabs.

According to the Ogden Standard Examiner of Saturday Evening, November 4, 1933:

The couple encountered Arabs outside the walls of the old city during disturbances attending Arab riots  in protest against an increasing Jewish immigration into Palestine.

Joan Winters was shot three times in the head at close range. Karaman was also murdered with three bullets. Winters had not been molested and robbery was not a motive as both victims were found with money and personnel possessions.

A few days after the murders, the Godfrey family received an urgent cable from the American consulate in Jerusalem. It read:

“Cable immediately the religion of your daughter.”

From the Los Angeles Times, November 5, 1933:

This brought some surmising whether Miss Winters was killed because Arabs thought she was a Jew. The dancer was a Gentile.

Joan Winters did not have a brilliant and promising career. I can find only one professional credit. She appeared on Broadway in 1930, as Sue in the drama Bad Girl.

She left for Europe on April 13, 1932. Initial reports indicate that Joan planned to return to New York City in time to celebrate her birthday on December 8, 1933.

There is a remote but fascinating Hollywood connection to this mystery as reported by the Los Angeles Times, November 5, 1933.

Mrs. Godfrey [Joan’s mother] said her daughter originally intended to return home by Christmas, but that she had decided to remain longer abroad so she could spend her birthday anniversary, December 8 with Mrs. Della Williams—the mother of Myrna Loy, the actress, in Rome.

There are two solutions to the double murder:

1. Joan and Karaman were, as theorized, caught in an Arab riot. They were murdered either because the Arabs thought Joan was Jewish or, just as likely, discovered that a fellow Muslim was consorting with a female infidel. Or, perhaps, the Arab rioters just murdered the couple at random. Though three bullets each seems quite deliberate and does not fit the profile of a frenzied mob.

2. There was a love triangle. Joan Winters and Mohamed Karman were murdered by the jealous Mohamed Ikram.

On November 5, 1933 Joan Winters was buried with simple rites in Jerusalem. An American clergyman, Rev. Shap, performed the service which was attended by the United States Consul and the Vice-Consul.

The final official police report concluded that the couple were killed by Arab rioters while strolling in the moonlight.

Two months before she was murdered Joan wrote a poem and sent it to her parents:

I stood in the shadow of death,

And I reached out my hand,

And life took it into hers,

And we understood each other.

Joan Winters was 24 years old when she was murdered. She is buried in the American Cemetery in Jerusalem. If any of my readers in Israel are so inclined, I’d greatly appreciate it if you’d visit Joan’s grave, make sure it’s properly maintained and perhaps send me a picture.

A special thanks to Ms. Frances Mendelsohn of the Los Angeles Public Library for all her hard work researching this story.

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17 Comments

  1. Jrryjude
    Posted June 26, 2014 at 6:52 am | Permalink

    Joan Winters’ gravesite has been recently appropriately marked with a dignified gravestone.

    http://findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GSln=winters&GSfn=joan&GSbyrel=all&GSdy=1933&GSdyrel=in&GSob=n&GRid=131853974&df=all&

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  2. Posted February 18, 2013 at 8:42 am | Permalink

    Bill, I thought of the black dahlia, too.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  3. Rahel
    Posted February 11, 2013 at 11:01 am | Permalink

    Joan Winters’s grave has been found, at long last. Her burial place is unmarked, but known — in the Protestant cemetery on Emek Refaim Street in Jerusalem. She is listed in the burial record as “C. von Niedergesaess.”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  4. billypaintbrush
    Posted July 23, 2011 at 6:56 pm | Permalink

    The station wagon that Gable is driving is a 1937 Dodge.
    Also, the Nethercutt Collection in Sylmar CA has a 1923 Voisin that belonged to Valentino.  They also have Fatty Arbuckle’s 1923 McFarlan
     

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  5. Pax ad Israelum
    Posted July 21, 2011 at 5:15 pm | Permalink

    Yeah, by all accounts, being thrown into Turkish prison was just something that happened to people, like being hit by a car. It’s always funny to me when people try to paint the Ottomans as, well, civilized; anybody who can be in a fight with Vlad the Impaler, and still look like the bad guys, should not be getting a white-washing treatment. Remember, the only measurable change Islam made in Turkish behavior was getting them to drop their tradition of ritual cannibalism (it’s not halal).
     
    I incline to either the love-triangle interpretation, or possibly the theory that the other Muslim killed them because of “religious miscegenation”. I question the wisdom of mixed-religion relationships myself, in part because their children are often raised to religious indifference (Himmelfarb was wrong when he said the children of Jewish-Christian marriages should be called Christians; they should be called “atheists, but not very doctrinaire ones”), and in part because different religions have different ideas about what marriage is (I’m Catholic; the fact Protestants have a different understanding of matrimony may be summed up with the words “Henry VIII”). But “I don’t think that’s a good idea” is a parsec or two from “you should be killed for it”—someone really needs to explain that to the Muslim world sometime.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1

  6. Posted July 21, 2011 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

    Robert,
    Sounds like a great movie plot to me!  It would bring her story to the world and the story of what was happening in that part of the world at that time.
    My vote goes to you to write it.
     

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  7. Posted July 21, 2011 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

    The newspaper account calls her a blonde, but the picture clearly shows her as a brunette.
     
    I tend to agree with Robert. This does not sound like a mob action to me. This sounds more personal.
     
    I’ve never heard of Joan Winters, but it is a fascinating story. Are you thinking about writing about her (for profit), Robert? How did you happen upon the story of this barely-successful, gentile dancer? And more importantly, how can you mention Myrna Loy in a post without including a picture??
     
    Inquiring minds want to know.
     

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  8. Rahel
    Posted July 21, 2011 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

    I just looked up the American Cemetery in Jerusalem. If it’s the same one listed under that name on Find A Grave (findagrave.com), then it’s in my neighborhood, and is better known as the Alliance Church International Cemetery. I’ve been there any number of times and have spoken with the caretaker. I just looked up the listings for the cemetery on Find A Grave and didn’t find a listing for Joan Winters — or, for that matter, for Carol von Niedergesaess — but that doesn’t mean that her grave is not there. The listing for the Alliance Cemetery is incomplete — I looked up the names of other people whose graves I have seen and didn’t find them.
    The cemetery is usually open for visitors and tours on Fridays. I will go there tomorrow and ask the caretaker if he can direct me to Joan Winters’s grave.
    If the grave is there, it is being well cared for. I can attest to that — the caretaker is a good man who knows every grave in the cemetery and the histories connected with just about everybody who is buried there, and he cares for their graves with great devotion.
     

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 1

    • Rahel
      Posted July 21, 2011 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

      Here’s a link to a <a href=”http://www.hadassahmagazine.org/site/apps/nlnet/content2.aspx?c=twI6LmN7IzF&b=6115747&ct=8184167″>story about the cemetery and some of the extraordinary people who are buried there.</a>

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      • Posted July 21, 2011 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

        Rahel, for some reason, when I try your link in my browser (Firefox 5), it redirects to http://www.hadassahmagazine.org/site/c.twI6LmN7IzF/b.5698121/k.DC9F/July_2011.htm and I see nothing about the cemetery story. IS anyone else having this problem?
         
        Thanks,
        PJ

        Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

        • Rahel
          Posted July 21, 2011 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

          ProphetJoe, do a search for “Hadassah Magazine Giants in a Quiet Corner.” That should get you the article.

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          • Posted July 22, 2011 at 6:09 am | Permalink

            I found it, Rahel. Thanks! What a fascinating article!!  Robert, I think you could write a mini-series on the lives of the people buried there!
             
            I have always been fascinated with history and I’ve also had an odd (or at least it seemed odd to me) fascination with cemeteries — I love to look at the stone artwork and read about what people leave as their last “reminder” to the world. I have been a member of FindAGrave for several years, but I think Rahel is one of the first people I’ve seen who actually referenced it on a blog!
             
            Rahel — if it would not be too much trouble. Do you think you could post some photos? Thanks so much!

            Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

            • Rahel
              Posted July 22, 2011 at 8:55 am | Permalink

              ProphetJoe, I went to the cemetery today but the gate was locked. My guess is that the caretaker is on vacation, since the cemetery is usually open on Fridays. I’ll keep trying.
              Yes, the stories of many of the people buried in that graveyard are absolutely fascinating. To cite just one that I have yet to hear — Meir, the caretaker, has promised to tell me the story of a medical student at Hadassah, originally from Biafra, who died here in 1970 and is buried there. And then there’s the stone that reads “P.L.O. Guy,” a man who died in 1952 — but he had no connection to that particular organization. (He couldn’t have — it was started in 1964.) He was Lt. Col. Philip Langstaffe Orde Guy, a historian and archaeologist. Eliezer Ben-Yehuda’s youngest daughter is buried there with her husband. The sheer amount of history in that little corner of Emek Refaim Street is beyond belief.
              I have to confess: if a genie came to me and offered me the possibility of a screenplay by Robert on the subject of my choice, I would choose the story of Dona Gracia Nasi (mid-sixteenth century), a fabulously wealthy, powerful, brilliant and utterly fearless Jewish woman who, among other things, started an “underground railroad” for Jews fleeing from the Inquisition. At one point, she used her wealth and power to blockade the port of Ancona in retaliation for the executions of Jews there. To top it off, she told Queen Marie, the sister of the Holy Roman Emperor, to go take a hike when Queen Marie tried to match Dona Gracia’s daughter to the nobleman who had brought the Inquisition into Portugal. And on and on.
              If the genie was in a really good mood, I would ask to be allowed to appear as an extra in that film.
              OK, fantasy time’s over. Back to pre-Shabbat chores.

              Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

    • Posted July 21, 2011 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

      Don’t forget she might be buried under the name Carol Godfrey too…

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

      • Rahel
        Posted July 21, 2011 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

        I looked up the listings for Godfrey and for Winters. Nothing came up — but that doesn’t mean that it’s not there.

        Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

    • Bill Brandt
      Posted July 21, 2011 at 4:27 pm | Permalink

      The story almost reminded me a bit of the Black Dahlia, although certainly not as gruesome. But a mystery nevertheless.
       
      3 shots each to the head certainly doesn’t sound like a random frenzied mob; but a crime of passion.
       
      I’ll go for door #2.
       
      I have been reminded, rather infrequently fortunately, that life is so transitory and temporary and we truly never know when our last day is upon us.

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  9. Johnny
    Posted July 21, 2011 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

    Just as today, the police of yesterday could clear their case files if they really didn’t care who did it and weren’t going to get in trouble for getting it wrong.  It’s harder for the police today but they still try.  Look at how much trouble Katie Granju is having getting the police to fully investigate her son’s death.  Just because it is easier to fight City Hall doesn’t mean City Hall automatically gives up.
     
    Horsefeathers was on TCM the other day and Thelma Todd’s death is a case where the official conclusions should be questioned. Another is the death of William Desmond Taylor.  And the further we get from the events the less likely evidence will be preserved.  I bet the Jerusalem police department knew they would never get in trouble if they got it wrong on Winter’s death and didn’t want to expend a lot of energy to get the real story.

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2 Trackbacks

  • By Joan Winters: Restored to Memory at Last on August 22, 2014 at 1:47 am

    […] buried in the American Cemetery in Jerusalem,” Robert Avrech wrote in July 2011 at the end of his post about Joan Winters, an American actress who was found murdered at the foot of the Mount of Olives in late 1933. “If […]

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  • By The Lost (And Found) Grave of Joan Winters on February 18, 2013 at 8:28 am

    […] Robert – whose stories of Hollywood history are a treat – published a post entitled American Showgirl Murdered in Gethsemane. He told the story of Broadway dancer Joan Winters – actually, that was her stage name. (She was […]

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

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