Updated: Jan 24, 2022
We often look up to high society and influential people and think they have great lives. But money can’t always buy happiness, and power and influence often have huge drawbacks. Let’s talk about Marjorie and Curtis Chillingworth, who were pillars of their community before they vanished over half a century ago.
life before disappearance
Curtis Eugene Chillingworth was born on October 24, 1896 into a prominent family in West Palm Beach, Florida. His father had been a city attorney there and his grandfather had been mayor.
And Curtis was pretty ambitious and successful himself. After attending the University of Florida, he graduated from law school early. In 1920, at the age of 24, he was elected county judge — the youngest in Florida history at the time. By age 26, he was a circuit court judge.
Around 1920 or 1921, Curtis married Marjorie Croude McKinley, who would stand by his side throughthe next 35 years of his career, which also included serving in the Navy and fighting in both World Wars.
By 1955, 57-year-old Marjorie and 58-year-old Curtis had settled in Manalapan, a small but wealthy community about 10 miles south of West Palm Beach. The couple had raised three daughters together and Curtis, after enjoying a 32 year career as a judge, was not too far from retirement. All seemed well with the Chillingworths — but that wouldn’t last much longer.
Marjorie and Curtis Chillingworth were last officially seen on the evening of Tuesday, June 14, 1955. They had dinner with James Owen, who was the Palm Beach County tax assessor. At that dinner, they told him about an upcoming cruise they were taking, as well as plans for their daughters to come visit soon. One of their daughters had a husband and children of her own, which meant they also had grandchildren they were no doubt looking forward to seeing. The Chillingworths headed back to Manalapan around 10 pm and presumably settled into bed.
The next morning, a contractor was supposed to come to the house around 8 am. One source said he was supposed to build a playground for their grandchildren, but another said he was going to replace a broken window. Regardless of the reason he was hired, the contractor arrived to find the front door open but nobody inside. He called the courthouse, but Curtis’s secretary said he hadn’t shown up yet. He wasn’t supposed to come in until 10 am — but 10 am came and went, and there was still no sign of the judge. Curtis was a notorious stickler for punctuality; if he was showing up late for work, his colleagues knew something was seriously wrong.
Police arrived at the Chillingworth house around noon on June 15. Right away, they found more clues that indicated something was off. A porch light had been shattered and there were blood droplets on the walkway leading to the beach. Two empty tape spools were also found on the property.
All the couple’s cash was still inside, which seemed to rule out robbery as a motive. Their swimsuits were inside and dry, so they hadn’t gone for a swim. Their beds were unmade, fans were running, and the clothes they’d worn to dinner the night before were found in the house — but a pair of men’s pajamas, a nightgown and two pairs of slippers were missing.
Other than this, not much evidence was found. During the first few days of the investigation, over 100 policemen from multiple agencies, as well as the coast guard, all got involved in the search. Bloodhounds were brought in and a $100,000 reward was offered for information leading to the rescue of the Chillingworths or the arrest of whoever was responsible for their disappearances. That reward was later raised to $250,000.
And the case got a lot of attention. Rumors swirled in the area, with most people believing the couple had been killed in some way. National and even international news outlets picked up the story.
But despite the extensive search and media attention, no more traces of the Chillingworths were ever found. They were declared legally dead by their daughters in 1957, but the investigation continued.
So who would want to hurt the Chillingworths? Curtis had made plenty of enemies during his time as a judge, but investigators soon turned their suspicion to one particular person.
Joseph Peel was just as ambitious as his colleague Curtis Chillingworth. A lawyer and judge, Peel’s ambitions were largely political, with his ultimate goal to be governor of Florida. But unlike Curtis Chillingworth, Joe Peel was willing to go to more unethical lengths to get what he wanted.
In 1953, Peel had represented both sides in the divorce case of a couple he knew personally. When Curtis found out about this, he wasn’t happy. He suspended Peel for two months and said if he committed malpractice again, he’d be disbarred. At the time, Curtis’s action was seen as merciful; he could have easily barred Peel right then and there and instead decided to give him another chance. But the message was clear: This was his last chance. If Peel screwed up again, his career was over.
And yet he did screw up again. Not even two years later, Peel told a client her divorce was finalized when it wasn’t, and she went on to (illegally) remarry. When Peel’s actions came to light, Judge Chillingworth was set to preside over his case.
In addition to all of this, Curtis Chillingworth knew Joesph Peel was involved in “schemes involving gambling and moonshine.” So Peel clearly had motive to hurt the judge — but was he involved in the disappearances?
The first person to confess to the Chillingworth murders was Floyd “Lucky” Holzapfel. A former fingerprint technician with a police department in Oklahoma, Holzapfel also had a decent sized criminal record himself, mostly involving burglary charges. Holzapfel also claimed he’d had help from a man named Bobby Lincoln — but neither of them were acting alone. Holzapfel claimed he’d been asked to commit the murders by his friend Joseph Peel.
details of murder
I’m not sure exactly what information was revealed when. But here’s the story of the murders as told at various points by Bobby Lincoln and Floyd Holzapfel.
Like I said earlier, Curtis Chillingworth was about to decide the consequences for Peel’s second instance of malpractice in as many years. Peel knew he would be disbarred if everything was allowed to proceed as planned. So Curtis had to die and, unfortunately, Marjorie was likely in the way.
But Peel wasn’t going to get his own hands dirty. He recruited Holzapfel to help, and Holzapfel recruited Bobby Lincoln. Peel promised to pay the men $2500 to kill the Chillingworths.
In the late night or early morning hours of June 15, the two men drove to the Chillingworth house in a rented boat, arriving around 1 am. They knocked on the door and, when Curtis answered, held him up at gunpoint with a shotgun. Then they taped his hands together, as well as Marjorie’s, and forced them to walk the few hundred feet to the ocean. Marjorie screamed on the way and one of the men hit her on the head with a pistol — which is where the blood on the walkway came from. Curtis reportedly offered his kidnappers $200,000 to let them go, but they didn’t take him up on that offer, even though it was significantly more than what Joseph Peel was offering them to kill the couple.
Lincoln and Holzapfel forced the Chillingworths into the boat and they all crammed in. They were out on the water for about an hour before 30 pounds of weights were strapped to the Chillingworths’ bodies.
Then it was Curtis’s turn. He tried to swim at first, so he was pulled back onto the boat, strapped with more weights and hit on the head with the shotgun. When they threw him back overboard, he sank as well.
When the Chillingworths were dead, Bobby Lincoln threw the weapons overboard, docked the boat and washed off the blood that had gotten in it. Around 5 am, Lucky Holzapfel called Joseph Peel from a pay phone to tell him the job was done. The men went home and burned their clothes. Despite being promised payment for the crimes, both men would later claim they never saw a dime.
Joseph Peel went on trial for his role in the murders in 1960. Bobby Lincoln was granted immunity from prosecution if he agreed to testify against Peel. Floyd Holzapfel also testified against his former friend.
Peel was convicted of being an accessory to murder in Curtis’s death, and pled no contest in Marjorie’s. He was sentence to life in prison, but only served 18 years and was released in 1979. He went back to prison on unrelated charges not too long after and was paroled in 1981. A few days after being paroled, he gave an interview and finally confessed to his role in the murders. He wasn’t there, he said, but knew it was happening and didn’t try to stop it. He already had cancer at this point, and died just a week and a half after being released.
Lucky Holzapfel pled guilty and was sentenced to death. In 1966, his sentence was commuted to life in prison, and he died there in 1996.
At the time of Peel’s trial, Bobby Lincoln was already in prison for selling moonshine. He finished that term in 1962 and, upon release, was required to leave Florida for good. He did return at some point and died in 2004 in West Palm Beach while living under the name David A. Karrim.
After the Chillingworth’s deaths, a bend in the road near their old home — which has since been demolished and rebuilt — was named Chillingworth Curve. There’s also an empty grave at Woodlawn Cemetery in West Palm Beach that bears their names.
Before I go, I want to mention the Chillingworth podcast. It’s narrated by two West Palm Beach locals who grew up hearing about the case and knew people who knew the Chillingworths. Once they reached adulthood, they decided to do a deep dive into the case.
I got some of my information for this post from the podcast, but it also goes into a lot more detail, covering even more of the criminal activity that Joseph Peel and Floyd Holzapfel got up to. You can listen to it here.
When I first started researching this case I had no idea how impactful it had been when it first happened. There doesn’t seem to be any talk of finding the Chillingworths bodies at this point, and I don’t know how likely it is. This otherwise seems to be a pretty straightforward case and I can only hope their descendants and other loved ones are at peace with everything.