The Madness of Count Louis

History says little about the famous A.I. du Pont’s younger brother, and what it does say is often wrong. Here, the authors attempt a more accurate account of his life and death. Yet the mystery surrounding his suicide remains.

Page 2: The Blackest Day
Page 3: A Mother’s Madness?
Page 4: A Mother’s Madness?, continues…
Page 5: Hurried to the Cemetery
Page 6: But Why?
Page 7: Guns, Booze and Women
Page 8: Mistreated in Death
Page 9: Again: But Why?


Courtesy of Hagley Museum & LibraryOn December 2, 1892, Louis Cazenove du Pont shot himself in the library of the exclusive Wilmington Club.

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That is history’s account of the event that ended a short, unhappy life. He was 24 years old, the youngest brother of Alfred I. du Pont (1864-1935), who years earlier had stolen away Louis’ love, Bessie Gardner. That, some historians of the du Ponts say, was the motive behind Louis’ determination to shock the world, end his suffering and embarrass his family. But was it?

Louis was young, attractive and wildly rich. He enjoyed drinking and women. Since 1892, the bizarre and incongruent accounts of his death have fostered whispers of jealousy, cover-up and murder, all in an attempt to explain why someone with everything to live for would give it up.

But triumph and tragedy make no allowance for social class, and the du Ponts have known personal setbacks familiar to famous families throughout time. History has forgotten Louis Cazenove du Pont’s story, but his short life deserves an accurate account.

Page 2: The Blackest Day



There is no biography of Louis du Pont, and little has been written about his death apart from contemporary newspaper accounts. Gerald Colby Zilg’s history of the du Pont family, “DuPont: Behind the Nylon Curtain” (1972), mentions Louis’ suicide. Unfortunately, Zilg is wrong in his facts, writing that Louis “walked into the Wilmington Country Club, took out a revolver, and fired a bullet through his brain.”

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It was, says Fenton Wendell, a past president of the Wilmington Club, “the blackest day in the club’s long history.”

Articles in the New York Times and Wilmington’s Evening Journal give better accounts. When Louis entered the club at 3:30 p.m., he spoke briefly to another member, lawyer Willard Hall Porter, to explain that he would be unable to help with an upcoming club event.

Louis then asked the steward, Henry Carter, for help in posting a letter. Carter replied that he would mail the letter. Louis climbed the stairs to the library. Paper at hand, the young du Pont started his letter about 3:45 p.m. The steward heard the report of a gun around 4 p.m. He hurried to the library, where he found Louis face down on the floor. Blood oozed from behind his right ear, and a revolver lay at his feet. A nearby physician, Dr. James Avery Draper, was summoned. He pronounced Louis dead.

Louis was too young to be established in the DuPont Co. and was viewed by some in his family as a black sheep. The reporting of wealthy children’s exploits is not a new development in the age of Paris Hilton. In many ways, Louis could be called America’s first “celebutante.”

He was famous for being rich. His drinking and womanizing were known to some. Joseph Frazier Hall in his 1990 biography, “Alfred I. du Pont: The Man and His Family,” said Louis was “the most obvious [of du Ponts] to be characterized as being the beautiful and the damned.”

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Page 3: A Mother’s Madness?


A photo taken at Nemours around 1885. Standing (from left) are A.I. du Pont, L. d’A du Pont, C. Gardener and Louis Cazenove du Pont, who was known for comical poses. Seated are Louise Bayard and A.R. du Pont. Photograph courtesy of Hagley Museum & LibraryA MOTHER’S MADNESS?

After initial newspaper notices, Louis’ death faded quickly. When the Wilmington Club published a book in 1955 describing its first 100 years, the authors listed Louis as a member, but wrote nothing of his end.

One must be suspicious of Zilg’s assertion that Louis was still hurt over the loss of Bessie Gardner. Alfred married Bessie in 1887, five years before Louis did the deed. Hall suggests the “madness” of their mother, Charlotte Henderson du Pont, affected her son Louis more than Alfred and the other siblings, and that Louis’ dissolute and aimless life reflected the impact of his mother’s illness and early death. Still, she died in 1877, 15 years before Louis shot himself.

Since there is no in-depth study of Louis du Pont’s life and death, all we have is supposition about why he died in such a manner. The standard biography of Pierre S. du Pont by Alfred D. Chandler Jr. and Stephen Salsbury (1971) mentions that Pierre loved to visit his cousins’ home, Swamp Hall on Brecks Lane, not far from the Hagley gunpowder plant. Pierre was especially fond of Louis, who was two years older than he. Despite the close relationship, the biographers fail to say anything about Louis’ death or Pierre’s reaction to it.

Hall’s account of the death has Louis slumped over a table, not prostrate on the floor. This, of course, makes sense because Louis was engaged in writing a letter when he pulled the trigger. But most newspaper accounts at the time depict him lying on the floor. The newspapers also wrote that there was no explanation for “the tragedy.”

Page 4: A Mother’s Madness?, continues…


Bessie Gardner du Pont says nothing about her former beau in her 1920 history of the company and the du Pont men who ran it. George H. Kerr’s “Du Pont Romance: A Reminiscent Narrative of E.I. Du Pont de Nemours and Company,” published in 1938 by the DuPont Co., mentions Louis as one of Charlotte Henderson du Pont’s three sons, but misspells his middle name. His death is not mentioned.

The study by William S. Dutton, “Du Pont: One Hundred and Forty Years” (1942), makes no mention of Louis. Author John K. Winkler says something about Louis in “The Du Pont Dynasty” (1935) when Winkler offers this extraordinary explanation: “Louis du Pont, who had gone from Yale to Harvard Law School, broke down from overstudy and shot himself.”

Louis spent six years at Yale before receiving his bachelor’s degree, so he cannot be described as a zealous scholar. His studies at Harvard were desultory and incomplete.

The letter he was writing when he died cannot be found and was most likely destroyed. According to an article in the December 4 issue of The (Baltimore) Sun, the unfinished letter read as follows:

“Dear Rabbi, I hope you will excuse this vile paper upon which I am compelled to write. I will not have the pleasure of hav…”

And thus the letter ends, as abruptly as Louis’ life. That it ends mid-word is but one more mysterious detail. Curiously, the Wilmington Morning News quotes the text but writes that it was addressed “Dear Rabbie.”

The most detailed published description of the event is in Marquis James’ biography, “Alfred I. du Pont: The Family Rebel” (1941). James writes that the letter was meant for a friend in New York and revealed nothing about Louis’ motive for self-slaughter. Perhaps the nickname for the friend was “Rabbi.” Yale students are fond of inventing nicknames for their classmates. James may have known of the letter’s content from news accounts. If he had seen the letter, he says nothing of its whereabouts.

James also goes further than any other writer to explore the theories that surrounded Louis’ death. One claimed that a “colored servant” (presumably Henry Carter) employed by the club shot him. Another suspicion was that Louis had become involved with the wife of a fellow club member, so the jealous husband sought revenge. And still another surmise found Louis mixed up in the unsolved shooting death of a young woman, a murder that occurred not long before Louis’ end.

Page 5: Hurried to the Cemetery



James dismisses all the theories as unfounded, and even from today’s distance the claims seem far-fetched. Yet the author offers no theory of his own. And despite the attention James gives to Louis, he errs when he claims Louis did not receive a diploma from Yale.

The possibility that Louis was murdered was hazarded from the day of his death. A cuckolded husband seems a more likely suspect than a club employee, but Louis had only recently joined the club, so infuriating one of the staff or finding a pretty wife to charm do not ring likely.

Of course, the last person to see the victim alive is always a “person of interest.” Willard Hall Porter was some 14 years older than Louis. Porter was a Princeton graduate, an old friend to some du Ponts, and a Wilmington Club member since 1879. He was also Delaware’s commissioner for the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago.

Marquis James writes that Porter, in the last conversation Louis had, asked for his help in organizing a club dance. Louis replied that he “could be of no help, that he was going a long distance away.”

The source of this exchange had to be Porter himself, and Louis’ last conversation is mentioned in several newspaper accounts. Louis’ refusal to help was certainly no reason to shoot him, and no one has ever hinted that there was any animus between the two men. Moreover, Porter was as upstanding a gentleman as one could imagine. Further, he had left the club before the gunshot.

Or so the inquest found. The coroner’s jury—lawyers and members of the Wilmington Club—met on December 3. They found the deceased “came to his death from a gunshot wound inflicted by himself.”

The coroner’s report of December 5 gives suicide as the cause of death. In the line below the word “suicide,” the deputy coroner who completed the certificate drew a long, slightly squiggly line, which implies either that there is nothing more to be said or that the death was something of a mystery.

The timing of the coroner’s jury and subsequent death certificate indicate that there was not a lengthy investigation into Louis’ death, which suggests that there was some hurry to inter Louis in the du Pont cemetery and put this regrettable matter behind the grieving family.

Page 6: But Why?



Police do not keep evidence related to suicides, only evidence connected to unsolved murder cases. Fingerprinting was known in the 1890s, but was not used in Wilmington until 1915. Thus there is no surviving physical evidence from the death scene, the letter and the revolver being the most intriguing. The Wilmington Morning News wrote that two chambers of the .32-caliber pistol had been fired, one obviously having been spent at an earlier occasion.

Though Marquis James gives no explanation for the suicide, he does record that Louis drank too much “on occasion.” Louis was, by all accounts, one of the more playful of the du Ponts. James writes that Louis had visited his family a month before he died, and that all had a merry time. Louis attended a Wilmington Club event with Alfred and Bessie shortly before his death.

There he is reported to have danced the night away with Bessie, angering his brother. Obviously, this exhibits the complicated and interwoven relationships that must have existed in the home and played on the psyches of the family members. James gives no record of deep despondency in Louis, who was “stopping,” as one newspaper put it, at Alfred’s home when his death occurred.

Moreover, James says Louis was fond of taking his Yale “chums” to Swamp Hall, where Alfred resided with Bessie. (Alfred had the house razed after the marriage ended.) So jealousy clearly did not deter Louis from visiting his brother and sister-in-law and enjoying their company. James also writes that Alfred was fond of Louis and considered him one of the brighter lights of the family.

To be sure, Louis’ lackluster performance at Yale concerned Alfred. There is no evidence that Louis ever wanted to be a major player in the company or that Alfred ever feared competition from his brother.

If one excludes lingering jealousy, the effect of his mother’s “madness,” a life of dissolution and occasional drunkenness, and murder, it is hard to see why an attractive young man surrounded by a rich family would shoot himself.

Page 7: Guns, Booze and Women



Leonard Mosley writes in “Blood Relations: The Rise and Fall of the du Ponts of Delaware” (1980), that Louis, when visiting New York City, “spent most of his time drinking in saloons and carousing with the girls in New York’s brothels, where he was once picked up in a police raid.” Though that aspect of Louis’ life receives no commentary apart from Mosley’s, other evidence suggests that Mosley’s information is accurate.

Louis completed his preparatory studies at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. His brothers Alfred and Maurice also attended Phillips, which has no records of the period because they were lost in a flood. An interesting photo of Louis at Phillips depicts him and his brothers with friends posing as a kind of outlaw band. A muzzle-loading pistol rests on Louis’ lap.

Louis entered Yale in 1885. His time there amounts to a major part of his adult life. One account of Louis’ days at Yale was written by Charles Hitchcock Sherrill, the 1889 class historian.

Louis was supposed to have graduated in 1889. Sherrill wrote that Louis was athletic and literary, the latter area being of more interest to Louis. Sherrill portrays a lively, popular student who was referred to by others at Yale as “the Count.” There is nothing negative in Sherrill’s remarks, though Louis is often described elsewhere as a “swell,” a wealthy young man who was not reticent about his place in the world.

The December 8, 1892, issue of the Delaware Gazette and State Journal writes at length of the suicide, and quotes Dr. Draper as attributing the act “to temporary and recent mental aberration.” The last people who saw Louis alive, however, said he acted perfectly normal.

The paper goes on to say that at Yale, Louis was “one of the best after-dinner speakers of the college” and cites a professor as saying Louis was “the best natural mathematician he had ever seen.” Moreover, writes the Gazette, “on the basis of his brilliant matriculation papers it was expected by the faculty that he would graduate at the top of his class.”

This, of course, did not happen, though the newspaper notes correctly that Louis was graduated in 1891.

A mention of Louis in Volume LV of the Yale Literary Magazine says he was a member of Yale’s Gun Club, which enjoyed a victory over Harvard’s Gun Club in 1890, after which Louis spoke at a ceremony. The title of his address was “Misfire.”

There is a well-known story of Alfred, Maurice, Louis and their two sisters defending Swamp Hall after the death of their parents in 1877. They were to be sent to live with relatives until they mounted an insurrection. They “armed themselves with a rolling pin, an axe, an antique pistol and a twelve-gauge shotgun and refused to back down.” Louis was, in short, no stranger to guns, though he had armed himself with a bow and arrow in order to remain at Swamp Hall. (He was 9 years old at the time.)

Page 8: Mistreated in Death



Several contradictions surround Louis’ life and death, one being the claim (repeated by Joseph Frazier Hall) that he never received a diploma from Yale. University records indicate that Louis did in fact graduate with a bachelor of arts in 1891. Though Louis did not fulfill the expectations cited above, he was an active Yale student. The secretary for the class of 1891, Albert Hampton Barclay, published an account of the class in 1927, and what he says about Louis is telling:

“He was a member of the Freshman Football and Baseball teams and a substitute on the University Football Team. He was a member of Eta Phi, Psi Upsilon, and Wolf’s Head… His health, towards the end of his college course, and while he was at Harvard, gave him great anxiety. His ill health reacted (sic) on the melancholy of his spirit and resulted in a morbid depression.”

Wolf’s Head, a secret society founded in 1883, was an iconoclastic alternative to Skull and Bones, the celebrated secret society of famous men such as George W. Bush and John Kerry. Joining Wolf’s Head reflects Louis’ independent nature.

More recent mentions of Louis have been fraught with error. The poor fellow has been mistreated in death as he probably felt he had been in life. Even the death certificate inaccurately gives his age as 26. Other minor errors are found in several histories of the du Pont family.

Page 9: Again: But Why?



Though it is near certain that Louis did indeed shoot himself, one is still hard pressed to determine why. The Wilmington Morning News described Louis as a young man with a “quick, nervous temperament.” Had he planned to kill himself in the Wilmington Club, or did his impulsive nature demand that he take a pistol from his pocket and pull the trigger, even without finishing the word he had begun in his letter to a friend?

The Wilmington Morning News even questioned the authenticity of the letter, saying on December 3 that he had not even commenced the missive, and on December 5 that the authorship was in doubt. Again, mystery compounds mystery.

If the letter is genuine, it supports Louis’ exchange with Porter in that Louis was exempting himself from upcoming events. This may imply his intent to end his life.

The question remains, why?

In a family of achievers like the du Ponts, Louis was an exception. Playful, talented, intelligent, Louis remained something of a failure. He had certainly failed at love, and perhaps in his eyes, he had failed at life. All of the contributing factors—the early death of his parents, the insanity of his mother, the fondness for alcohol, the dissolute life, and the success and tenacity of his older brother Alfred—played an inexorable role in Louis’ decision to kill himself.

One can offer another conjecture, namely, that his trafficking with prostitutes had resulted in the contraction of a sexually transmitted disease. There was no cure for syphilis in the 1890s. If Louis suffered from it, the disease would have assuredly impacted his mental and physical health. This is, to be sure, only a conjecture. There is no evidence to confirm the hypothesis, but all the recorded comments on his concerns about his health and his mental state suggest that something was definitely wrong.

Louis Cazenove du Pont now lies in peace in the du Pont private cemetery, Sandy Hole Woods, next to the grounds of the Hagley Museum. Ironically, Bessie Gardner du Pont is buried not far away, as is the cousin who so admired Louis, Pierre S. du Pont. (Alfred and Alicia Ball du Pont, his second wife, are buried at Nemours, the mansion he built for her.)

The slab above Louis’ grave gives only his name and the dates of his birth and death. No mention is made of parents or siblings, which was the custom in Sandy Hole Woods. But a faded inscription on the slab says much: “While he was still a long way off, his father saw him.”

This is a quotation from Christ’s parable of the prodigal son. It describes the father’s joy in seeing his son, who had left his family to lead a riotous life, then returned home. The inscription clearly dates from the time of Louis’ death, and must have been approved by Alfred, thus confirming an understanding of Louis’ life that the family as well as others shared.

It is a sad story, mainly because from other perspectives, Louis still had a great deal to live for and numerous opportunities to turn his life around. But people who kill themselves usually do not see things the way others do. Moreover, if our guess is correct, Louis probably felt compelled to do what he did.

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