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Stranger than Fiction: An Ill-Fated Love Story

The headline was sensational: “Miss Winnie Booth was Hypnotized.”  The subtitle spelled out the startling double suicide in early May of 1902 in greater detail: “Lured to her ruin and death – New developments in the awful tragedy of Orofino – Two families are prostrated by the terrible occurrence.”

Anyone who has read Carol Ryrie Brink’s Buffalo Coat will recognize these details from the ill-fated love story of Dr. Allerton and Miss Jenny Walden.  But as the saying goes, truth is stranger than fiction, and Brink’s dramatic tale was in fact inspired by the very real events that resulted in the deaths of Dr. F.J. Ledbrooke and Miss Booth.

Dr. Ledbrooke first met Reverend Booth’s daughter in the summer of 1901 when she entrusted into his care following a serious accident sustained during a camping trip.  Her recovery was slow, and for months she was the doctor regularly for treatments and evaluations.  According to one newspaper account,

“When Miss Booth was ill during the winter [Dr. Ledbrooke] had her under the influence of hypnotism during an operation performed on her for appendicitis.  It seems that ever since that time she was more or less under his control.  He saw her very often at her home in this city and was especially welcomed there by Rev. Booth as a warm friend and also as the family physician.”  

It would seem that an adulterous relationship developed between the married doctor and young woman, one that was quite unacceptable by the standards of the day and given the devoutly religious natures of both people.  The doomed lovers could not bear to be apart, and yet each knew that divorce was not an option for Dr. Ledbrooke.  And so they hatched a plan to find peace together in eternity.

In the spring of 1902 Miss Booth was teaching grade school in Kendrick.  On Saturday, May 10th Dr. Ledbrooke took a train from Moscow to Kendrick, and together he and Winnie traveled on to Orofino.  The couple spent Saturday and Sunday together in a hotel, and attended a Sunday evening church service where attendees noticed that the strangers were openly weeping.  Several letters were also postmarked on Sunday the 11th by Dr. Ledbrooke, as well as one final note from Miss Booth.

On the morning of Monday the 12th, Dr. Ledbrooke administered a lethal dose of morphine to Winnie and then he turned the needle on himself.  Although heavy breathing from the room aroused enough suspicion from the hotel’s staff to warrant forced entry into the room, the young lady was already deceased and Dr. Ledbrooke would survive only a few minutes longer.  He was pronounced dead at 3:10pm after a failed attempt at resuscitation.  On the bedside table was found a note to the innkeeper, seemingly written by Winnie: “To the proprietor, Hotel Noble, we have notified our folks in Moscow that they will find us here, and unless the letters miscarry they will be here on the afternoon train.  We have also sent for an undertaker from Moscow.  Expect them on the train tomorrow.”

Two of the recipients of Dr. Ledbrooke’s letters, Mr. Gillette and Mr. Grice, did indeed arrive in Orofino by Monday afternoon.  The bodies were brought back to Moscow, just as the news caught like wildfire and stunned friends and acquaintances began to speculate how this tragedy could have come to pass without any prior warnings.

In a letter to Rev. Booth, the doctor expressed his regret for the terrible sadness their love affair would bring to both families.

“My very dear friend.  You have promised always to love me.  We have understood each other and do yet.  This explains what I meant when I said that someday you would understand all.  Do not get angry but please remember us in love.  It may seem utter nonsense to write about Winnie and myself loving each other so that to live pure and acceptable lives would have been impossible.  But such are the facts.  Rather than bring shame upon you, the church and my home, we each by ourselves choose death.  Our love for each other is stronger than death.  This is the only gate friendly to us through which we can be together always.  It costs us a great many tears to rend so many hearts, but explain is useless.  We would not be believed.  Some of [them will] still love us.  Others will think of us as heartless and vile sinners…We die thinking of you all and expect you will all love us and not say unkind things about us.  We are sorry that such tragedy should enter your life as well as ours.  We would that it were otherwise.  Poor Mrs. Booth, I know it will almost kill her.  She knows all about us and we will always sleep knowing one heart understands us…See my poor wife and comfort her.  Talk things over with her and then quietly lays us [together].  We would like the simplest kind of burial.  We are tired of living and want to rest.”   

Mrs. Booth maintained that she had no prior knowledge of the affair.   News accounts in the following weeks were equally as adamant that the tragedy was the result of a one-sided infatuation.

“The story told in the letters that each was madly infatuated with each other seems wide of the truth.  There is no doubt that it was the case with Dr. Ledbrook at all times but it was not rue with Winnie…That the girl was in love with Ledbrook is affirmed by all her friends, to several of whom she confided she hated the man but that he had a strange and irresistible influence over here.  It was an influence that led her on to her death.” – North Idaho Star, May 16, 1902        

With the exception of their final letters, neither Dr. Ledbrooke nor Miss Booth left behind diaries, and so it is difficult to determine the exact nature of their relationship.  As historian Mary Reed noted, however, “The newspaper reports were that he had hypnotized her, because who wanted to believe this could happen?  You had to find an excuse, a reason for this to happen, and you’re not going to say that a minister’s daughter would commit adultery with a married man.  So I think it must have been something like this, that people needed to believe that she was an innocent victim.  And there was already mistrust of him, because he was an outsider.”

Despite their final requests, the two lovers were not buried together.  Both were laid to rest in the Moscow Cemetery.

If you are curious to know more about this sordid and sad affair, or about the lives of other Moscow residents immortalized in Buffalo Coat, please visit our archives.

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© 2020 by the Latah County Historical Society.

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