Love letters hidden for a century inside the wall of a Roland Park home unspooled not only a secret romance between a married science journalist and a bachelor philosopher, but also teased a scandalous legal drama.

In Robert Underhill’s 67 letters to Edith Spaeth, he worried that he could be ruined by a court case in Philadelphia involving someone named “Eleanor.”

Robert requested Edith's help in a legal drama involving the estate and child of their friend Eleanor.

If you have preserved any letters of Eleanor’s could you kindly go over them to see whether you have anything on her relation to her family … Also, should you object to being called on as a witness?

Robert taught math and philosophy at Harvard before he became a famous mountaineer. Nothing online or in old newspapers mentioned the court case.

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Curiosity at The Banner was piqued. But how to find the ending when you barely know the beginning?

67 letters were found in a wall during a construction job. The letters were addressed to Mrs. R. A. Spaeth.
A Roland Park home contained a box of 67 century-old love letters — and within them a love story and a legal drama. (Kirk McKoy/The Baltimore Banner)

Philadelphia archivists said they had only criminal cases from the 1920s, just one of many dead ends.

Our search led to an obscure corner of the internet. “American Law Reports,” Vol. 38, of 1925, cited a Pennsylvania Supreme Court case involving Robert and the estate of Eleanor Robb Patterson. There was a legal fight in Chester County, Pennsylvania, over a will and an “illegitimate child.”

A county clerk emailed the microfilm, 197 pages.

Eleanor came from a wealthy, society family of Philadelphia. Her family founded the Whiting-Patterson Co. paper company, and in 1902 famously built “Grey Craig,” an English-style hunting estate in the Philadelphia countryside.

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Almost 200 pages of microfilm detailed the legal fight around the estate of Eleanor Robb Patterson.

“She [Eleanor] did not feel herself happy in her father’s home, and her entire life seemed wrapped up in her studies and associations with one or more of this coterie of friends,” the court-appointed auditor wrote in his report.

The court record helped fill out other characters in Robert’s love letters. Eleanor attended Wellesley and Radcliffe colleges with Edith. A “Wips” he frequently wrote of was Natalie Wipplinger, their friend and professor of German at Wellesley. Natalie was a German immigrant and in 1920 was considered an “alien-enemy.”

Both Eleanor and Robert studied philosophy at Harvard in the 1910s; they became close friends, the auditor wrote. The court record sketched out a dramatic turn for Eleanor:

While traveling abroad to research her book on the philosophy of German Romanticism, she became pregnant. Eleanor returned to America in March 1920 and confided in Robert and Natalie. She planned to travel to San Francisco and have the baby in secret.

A photo of Eleanor Robb Patterson that was attached to her 1919 passport application. (Source: United States Passport Applications, 1795-1925 microfilm)
A photo of Eleanor Robb Patterson attached to her 1919 U.S. passport application.

She was to have a C-section, a dangerous operation at the time. Eleanor arranged for a friend to raise the child and to dispose of her estate to the benefit of the child and her friends if she were to die in childbirth.

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Excerpt from the legal file for the estate of Eleanor Robb Patterson.

She delivered a boy, Alexander. Four days later, she died. Her death was reported in Wellesley’s Alumnae Quarterly as the result of “a brief illness” after a summer camping in the mountains. There was no mention of her baby. Alexander went into the care of her sister’s family.

Eleanor left an estate equal to more than $7.6 million today.

She worried that her family and the U.S. government would intervene if she left the money directly to her German friends, the auditor wrote. Therefore, she wrote a will that awarded her estate to Robert with written plans for him to disburse the money. The auditor wrote that she left these instructions in the locked drawer of her trunk.

According to the report, Robert was to receive $75,000, or $1.2 million today; her son, Alexander, would get $100,000, or $1.6 million.

Excerpt from the legal file of the estate of Eleanor Robb Patterson.
From the legal file of the estate of Eleanor Robb Patterson. Eleanor left plans to disburse her estate among her child and friends.

Upon her death, her family and Robert both made claims against her estate. Pennsylvania law considered a will invalid if a woman has a child afterward, and if her will makes no provision for the child.

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The legal fight would stretch over several years, with Robert arguing that her wishes should be honored. The court sided with Eleanor’s family and awarded her entire estate to baby Alexander in the care of his guardian, Allen E. Whiting, Eleanor’s brother-in-law.

Little Alexander grew up to become a character fit for a novel, his obituary suggests. “Penniless patient led life of eccentric millionaire,” reads the July 16, 1996, edition of the Pensacola News Journal.

An article in the July 16, 1996 edition of the Pensacola News Journal details the tragic life of Alexander Patterson.
An article in the July 16, 1996, edition of the Pensacola News Journal details the tragic life of Alexander Patterson. (

An attorney hunting for assets to repay the deceased man’s medical debt discovered that he had left 20 storage units stuffed with canned food and 40 diaries filled with mundane details of his daily life. He spent lavishly, living in hotels in Boston, Las Vegas, Miami and Mexico. Every six months, he leased a new Cadillac, according to the article.

After his mother died, Alexander was raised not by his aunt and uncle, it appears, but by a nanny across town. At age 10, he was sent to boarding schools. By age 15, he was declared a problem child.

He died at 74 years old, with a heap of debt and a collection of rare Spanish-American coins valued at $1 million. He was remembered as a troubled man.

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Would Alexander have fared better if Robert had won the legal battle all those years earlier?

“He was probably angry at the world that he was left alone,” his ex-girlfriend told the newspaper. “The guardians didn’t want him and no one cared about him.”

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