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.