Ladell Allen Bonner, the daughter of prosperous Monticello businessman Joe Lee Allen, was born into the kind of wealth and privilege that included having a town named in her honor. She also held a secret that would be hidden in the attic of a mansion in Monticello for more than a half century.
The Allen House, a mansion standing beyond a black wrought iron fence on North Main Street where Ladell lived before her tragic death, kept her secret until August 2009 when the house’s current owners, Mark and Rebecca Spencer, made a discovery that solved the mystery surrounding her suicide.
Hidden beneath the wooden floorboards of the attic above Ladell’s bedroom in the Allen House’s south turret were 81 letters revealing her secret love affair with a married man.
The letters answered the question as to why the 54-year-old divorced woman intentionally ingested mercury cyanide on Christmas Day, 1948.
Sixty-four of the 81 letters were from Prentiss Hemingway Savage to Ladell, the first dated March 19, 1948, and the last post marked December 2, 1948.
The letters, which were found in their original envelopes and organized by month in larger envelopes, tell the complete story of Ladell’s affair with Prentiss, according to the Spencers.
Prentiss grew up in Monticello and dated Ladell until February 1913 when he moved to Tyler, Texas, to take a job. He lived in Los Angeles, Seattle and finally Minnesota, where he was an executive at an oil company.
Ladell subsequently married Boyd Bonner and had a son, Elliott Allen Bonner, an editor for the Associated Press in New York who died of pneumonia at the age of 28.
Thirty-five years after Prentiss left Monticello, Ladell, now divorced, ran into Prentiss at the horse races in Hot Springs. That chance meeting led to a nine-month affair which included correspondence by letter and a two-week vacation together in Minnesota and Wisconsin. A letter from Prentiss to Ladell, dated August 19, 1948, contains maps of Minnesota and Wisconsin on which Prentiss marked in red pencil the roads he and Ladell had recently traveled together and the towns in which they had stopped.
Other letters revealed Prentiss’ plan to divorce his wife and move back to Monticello.
“I have thought of you so very much darling and I could never think of any plan working out except for the one we discussed and I am holding on to that one thought that it must be and will be,” Prentiss wrote in one letter to Ladell.
Another letter contains a small birthday card Prentiss received from his wife, whom he refers to only as “H.” Apparently, his purpose in sending the card to Ladell was to demonstrate his wife’s coldness toward him, Mark Spencer explained.
“Two letters contained small fragments of letters Ladell had sent to Prentiss,” Spencer said. “She had insisted that he destroy her letters and return the destroyed letters to prove he had done so.”
In a subsequent letter from Prentiss to his sister Genevieve, Prentiss said he was having difficulty carrying out his plan to divorce his wife. “The big difficulty is that the stocks and government bonds are in joint ownership and since ‘H’ knows all about them I would have a most difficult time trying to hide them out,” he wrote in the October 2, 1948, letter to his sister. Genevieve sent the letter to Ladell on November 29, 1948.
In addition to the 64 letters from Prentiss to Ladell, the Spencers found seven letters from Marie Wooten to Ladell, the first dated August 21, 1948, and last dated December 14, 1948. Marie Wooten, of Hot Springs, appears to have been a kind of spiritual advisor to Ladell, according to Spencer. “In her letters she thanks Ladell for sending checks and then quotes passages from the Bible and from sermons she has read or heard,” Spencer said.
There were two letters from Frances Roddy to Ladell, dated September 11, 1948, and December 5, 1948.
“Frances Roddy grew up in Monticello with Ladell,” Spencer said. “Frances was apparently a school teacher at one time. One of her letters came from Nova Scotia, the other from Newton Center, Massachusetts. She is obviously aware that Ladell has had a series of relationships. Her first comment about Prentiss is that she can’t help comparing him to ‘previous ones.’ She then makes reference to ‘Hugh’ and to ‘The Mystery Man.’”
One letter was from Mrs. Jene Masterson of Stillwater, Minn., to Ladell, dated September 13, 1948.
“Jene Masterson was a woman Ladell visited in Stillwater, Minnesota, along with Ladell’s friend ‘Mary,’” Spencer said. “This visit was apparently the excuse for Ladell to take a trip to Minnesota, the real reason being her desire to see Prentiss.”
Four letters were from Prentiss’ sister Genevieve Savage to Ladell, the first dated September 1, 1948, and the last dated December 14, 1948. Another two letters were from Prentiss to Genevieve dated October 2, 1948, and November 21, 1948, and sent to Ladelle on November 29, 1948.
“Genevieve was married to a man named Arthur and lived in Helena, Arkansas,” Spencer said. “She was aware of the affair between her brother, Prentiss and Ladell and appeared to approve of it. In her last letter, December 14, she mentions trying to make it to the Christmas party on Christmas evening. She also mentions that she has heard no more from Prentiss about his coming to Monticello for Christmas and doubts that he will, given the fact that he has made no progress toward divorcing his wife.”
Also included in the batch of letters was a rough draft of a letter from Ladell to Prentiss, mid-September 1948; three empty and never-mailed envelopes from Ladell to Prentiss; a letter from Boyd Bonner, Ladell’s ex-husband, dated November 25, 1945; a letter on stationary from a New Orleans hotel to Ladell, the writer’s name obliterated by insect damage, mailed in 1945; and a rum bottle. Ladell apparently had a drinking problem.
In one of Prentiss’ letters to Ladell, he told her he was glad she quit drinking because it was bad for her. There was a reference in the letter that she had gone somewhere to get help with the problem, according to Rebecca Spencer.
Ladell intentionally ingested mercury cyanide on Christmas Day, 1948. On December 26, she was taken to the nearby Mack Wilson Hospital, where the First Presbyterian Church now stands.
She died at the hospital on January 2, 1949. Her death certificate lists the cause of death as mercury cyanide poisoning and the manner of death as suicide.
The mystery surrounding Ladell’s tragic death and reports of unexplained occurrences at the Allen House have been the subject of speculation, intrigue and ghost stories for more than 60 years.