Notorious San Francisco: Pat Montandon's Curse

Mary Louise Ward died at
1000 Lombard Street on June 20, 1969 in one of San Francisco's most baffling unsolved mysteries.

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The death of Mary Lou Ward is an enduring locked-room mystery. After inviting her newlywed daughter Robin and Robin's husband to use her own home at 2249 Webster Street, Mary Lou - the personal secretary to socialite media personality Pat Montandon - settled in for the night at Motandon's 2nd floor six-room apartment at the foot of the Crooked Street on June 20, 1969. Montandon was then living in the penthouse on the Summit of Russian Hill with her husband, the butter baron Alfred Wilsey. Before 11 p.m., Montandon would survey the house from high above and wonder if her friend had gone to bed for the night. Montandon could not see any light coming from the windows of her apartment, and although Wilsey reminded Montandon that little light ever shone through Montandon's window dressings, she decided to phone Ward in the morning. At 4:01 a.m. the couple woke to the telephone and the news that Ward was dead. Montandon was reportedly in "a state of shock" when she arrived at 1000 Lombard Street after the fire had been put out. As a locked-room mystery, Ward's death is nearly unparalleled. In a bedroom, locked from the inside, Ward, 45, died of undetermined causes (no smoke in the lungs; no carbon dioxide) up to hours before a fire broke out in the room. The cause of the fire was also not determined, but is believed by many to have been caused by a cigarette. According to the theory, a cigarette was left to smolder in the closet, perhaps in the pocket of a garment. However, Ward was known to "abhor" smoking and there was no evidence of cigarettes or any cigarette packet in the apartment. The unsolved case is the subject of Montandon's book The Intruders. The real-life story baffled two of the greatest minds in the history of crime-solving in San Francisco. Both then-coroner Dr. Henry Turkel and renowned Inspector Dave Toschi reported that the case stayed with them. "I met Mrs. Montandon, relatives of the deceased, and anyone else who could assist me," Inspector Toschi told Mister SF in 2003, "I went to the place where the deceased was when the fire started three times to see for myself. The case was then followed with a Coroner';s inquest with all pertinent parties there. It was truly a fascinating case for me and I had worked dozens of Coroner's cases prior to this."

A plaque was later dedicated to Ward in the sidewalk along Leavenworth Street, far below the room where Ward perished. The plaque was last seen in 2005, but Mister SF captured a record of it before that time. The virtual plaque stands here in memory of Ward, who left two daughters, Robin, 19, and Mrs. Frank Rose who lived at the 2249 Webster House, and a son James, 13. Ward's husband was John F. Ward, an attorney with the firm Bronson, Bronson & McKinnon (dissolved in 1999).

As the 38th anniversary of Ward's death nears at this writing, her friends still speculate. "Some say she had a lover..." began a longtime neighbor of the house when asked about the tragedy. The City, and Ward's loved ones, may never know.

Copyright 2007 Hank Donat home