Historic City Memories: D. P. Davis – Part IV

The Mysterious Disappearance of D.P. Davis

Part IV of a series

A Giant Wave.

By Geoff Dobson

On October 12, 1926, David Paul Davis, the developer of Davis Shores had vanished, vanished under suspicious circumstances.

Mysterious disappearances have a certain fascination. A hundred years later, expeditions are still being dispatched to South America in search of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. See Meadows, Anne: Digging up Butch and Sundance, St. Martins Press. Writers still argue over the fate of author Ambrose Bierce. The search continues for the Sundance Kid’s wife Ethel Place. Aviatrix Amelia Earhart’s vacation cabin still sits unfinished in Kirwin, Wyoming, awaiting her return. Arguments continue as to the fates of teamster Jimmy Hoffa, Judge Crater, and world traveler Richard Halliburton. Occasionally, a newspaper will hold out hope that a disappearance has been solved. As an example, in 2004, the Wyoming Star-Tribune reported the discovery of a skeleton, possibly that of former Baggs, Wyo. town marshal “Bad Bob” Muldrum who disappeared 78 years before. The only difficulty, the skeleton was three inches shorter that the recorded height of Bad Bob. Thus, there were two mysteries, whose skeleton was it and what happened to Bad Bob.

Europe and France in particular seem, however, to be the destination of choice for mysterious disappearances. It was to Europe that San Diego and Cheyenne banker and street railway mogul D. D. Dare vanished carrying $200,000.00 shortly before the bank examiners arrived. And again, it was to France that Henry Myron Blackmer, president of the Midwest Oil Company went just as Congress was investigating his role in the Teapot Dome scandal and a grand jury was convening to investigate his possible violation of the Volstead Act. France was also the destination of choice for Wyoming ranchmen Hubert E. Teschemacher and Frederic O. DeBillier following their involvement in the shootout at the K C during the Johnson County War.

Davis had been accompanied on his trip to Europe by Lucille Vehring whom he had been dating since the death of Davis’ first wife. Mrs, Zehring, formerly Lucille Smith, was born in England. She later became a minor player for Hal Roach Studios performing in the 1917 “Lonesome Luke’s Lively Life” and the 1919 “Monkey Stuff” in which the principal part was that of a chimpanzee. She later married and divorced Liewellyn F. Zehring.

Milton Davis, D. P. Davis’s brother, questioned Mrs. Verhring in New York after she returned to the United States. Mrs. Zehring was of little help in solving the mystery. Even though she was the last to see Davis alive, she gave, apparently, two different accounts.

She told a steward in the hall outside her stateroom that Davis fell out the porthole. Davis may have had too much to drink at a party. In contrast she told Milton Davis that Davis was sucked out the open porthole by a giant wave. She told Milton that she screamed and tried to save Davis by grabbing Davis’s leg. The steward outside the door told the insurance investigator that he heard conversations in the stateroom. He was, however, unaware of any problems until Miss Zehring emerged from the stateroom to announce that Davis had left the ship.

Mrs. Zehring did not remain in mourning long. In August of the following year, she married an Italian duke and former officer in the Italian army, Fabio d’Andria. The new marriage was to be celebrated with a trip to Europe on board the Compagnie Générale Transatlantique liner France. In due course, the liner sailed with the Duchess D’Andria and her mother. Left in New York at the dock, so to speak, was the Duke. The Duchess’s sister denied to the press that the parties had separated. Also denied was a rumor that the Duke had sent a wireless message to the ship forbidding the Duchess from using her new title.

Absent actually finding Davis, the investigations were for naught. No one could disprove either of Miss Zehring’s versions. Therefore, the official verdict is that Davis drowned in the Atlantic Ocean. No determination has ever been made as to whether he was pushed, committed suicide, or was sucked out the porthole by the giant wave.

The impact, however, on St. Augustine was immediate. Without Davis’s promotional skills, sales and development stopped. Construction of the new Yacht Club stopped. Construction of the smaller hotel ceased. The magnificent centerpiece of the island, the main hotel with lagoon and gondolas, was not to be. The chapel in honor of Don Pedro Menendez was not built. Davis’s successors actually deplatted a portion of Davis Shores in order to save on taxes. Only now is it being replatted.

The City shrank its city limits. The lawsuits commenced (and indeed continue to this day), and within a year, D.P Davis Properties, developer of St. Augustine’s Davis Shores, was in receivership. The real estate office became a Knights of Columbus Hall and has now been torn down. The Administration Building has become an American Legion Hall. Of the City’s banks, only one survived and that only with an infusion of money from Jacksonville’s Barnett Bank.

Only today, 82 years later, is the development of the northern part of Anastasia Island being completed — and then to an entirely different plan. There is to be no 17-story hotel. The new hotel to be built on Fish Island will be considerable smaller and limited in height.

Intriguingly, Miss Zehring has disappeared into the mists of time. Her trail has gone cold.. A search has been conducted throughout the United States and in France. Her name appears only on two trans-Atlantic passenger lists. She has vanished.

Geoff Dobson, a St Augustine resident for the past 32 years, is a western and Florida history writer. He is a former president of the St. Augustine Historical Society and a regular contributor of nostalgic memories to Historic City News. Before his parents moved to Florida, his father was a Black Angus cattleman. Geoff has written extensively on Wyoming history (“Wyoming Tales and Trails”). When Geoff was in high school, his family lived in the cattle country of eastern Sarasota County. The family spread, which his parents called “Wild Cat Slough,” was reachable only by a pair of ruts over the sand hills and through a snake and gator infested slough. Now, it is an area of four-lane roads, expensive subdivisions, shopping centers, and office parks. . His undergraduate degree is in history. Geoff received his post-graduate degree from the University of Florida. He may be reached at horse.creek.cowboy@gmail.com