Part 1: Love, then tragedy

Tribune staff reporter

The girl in the road didn't move as the headlights swept over her.

She wore a long blue dress that was soaked from the rain, and her feet were bare. The approaching driver slowed and reached for her cell phone, thinking the girl might have been in an accident. But before she dialed, she took a closer look -- and could scarcely believe what she saw.Light seemed to pass through the girl, as though she were a figment from a disturbing dream. When the car pulled alongside her, she smiled, displaying blackened teeth in a deteriorating mouth. Unnerved, the driver sped away.

"I can't explain it," she recently told the Tribune, years after the incident. "It just wasn't real."

A chill runs through local historians when they hear this story. The driver had been traveling on Sheridan Road in Lake Forest, near the now-closed Barat College. That was close to the spot where, on a winter morning in 1916, a young woman's frozen body was discovered -- the prologue of a drama that would consume the town and the nation.

Though it faded into the void of history, the tale has never really gone away. At least once every generation, someone discovers it, entranced by its ageless themes of lust, betrayal and mystery.

It is a tragedy that some say has become a ghost story. As Halloween approaches, the Tribune tells it anew in three parts, beginning one cold, long-ago night in Lake Forest, in a small home on a large estate, when the telephone rang with a strange call.

Marion Lambert left her friend in the sitting room and went into the hallway to answer the phone. The conversation was brief. When she returned, her friend noticed, she appeared uneasy.

Marion, two days past her 18th birthday, was a pretty and vivacious senior at Deerfield High School in Highland Park. Her fair, wavy hair was cut stylishly short. Mischief danced in her eyes. Her minister called her the liveliest girl at the Lake Forest Presbyterian church.

Most of her friends would have called her happy. She was a beloved only child, living with her parents on the estate of clothing baron Jonas Kuppenheimer, where her father worked as head gardener. Times were good: The tycoons of Lake Forest were growing even richer by equipping Europe's warring armies, and so much money was flowing into town that Marion was dreaming of college.

Best of all, she had a sweetheart. For months, she had been seeing Will Orpet, a college boy three years her senior. He was a schoolgirl's dream -- hair pomaded into a dark shell, narrow, intense eyes and boyishly smooth cheeks.

They had known each other for years -- Orpet's father, a caretaker at Cyrus McCormick's titanic estate, was friendly with the Lamberts -- but their friendship changed when he began sending her letters from Madison, where he was studying journalism at the University of Wisconsin. Playfully flirtatious at first, the notes grew more passionate.

"I want to see you, dearest, and want you badly," he wrote on April 8, 1915. "If I could only get my arm around you now, and get up close to you and kiss the life out of you, I would be happy."

He wasn't content with mere words. On a springtime visit to her home, he sat scandalously close to her on the sofa. She did not approve. He did not relent.

In September of that year, he was again home in Lake Forest and took her for a drive. They stopped at the edge of a small forest just south of Sacred Heart Convent.

"Shall we go into the woods?" Orpet asked. She agreed. They strolled into the trees until they reached an appealingly isolated spot.

"Shall we sit down?" he said.

That was the end of the talk.

After that, Orpet's letters changed. They were short, sometimes peevish, as he claimed he was too busy to write. He no longer called her "dearest."

In November, the notes grew chillier still after Marion relayed a secret fear: She thought she was pregnant.

That, Orpet believed, was utter rot. They had been intimate but once, and he had protected himself. Still, he called upon a pharmacist friend and sent Marion a potion meant to relieve her "delicate condition."

Orpet's youthful dalliance threatened to become a trap. Marion wasn't his only girl -- a college chum said he had several more on the side -- and he had never been serious about her. In fact, he was planning to marry someone else, a young chemistry teacher from DeKalb.

The holidays passed. Marion celebrated her birthday on Feb. 6, 1916, with a spirited party. The strange phone call came two days later.

The next morning, Marion, bundled in her green coat, walked with her friend to the Sacred Heart station for the train to Deerfield High. On the platform, Marion announced she would skip the ride: She remembered that she had to go to the post office to mail a letter to her Sunday school teacher.

"Goodbye, old pal," she told her friend. "I'll see you later."

* * *

Frank Lambert, Marion's father, was waiting at the Sacred Heart station that night. Marion had said she was going to attend a party after school and would return on the 8:05 electric car from Highland Park.

When the doors opened, though, she wasn't there. Nor was she on the trains that followed.

He waited for an hour before traveling into Highland Park. Marion hadn't been at the party, he was told. In fact, she hadn't been to school at all that day.

Lambert, gray-eyed and weather-beaten, returned home to a sleepless vigil. He and his wife put a lamp in the window, hoping Marion might see it.

He was out of the house before dawn, returning to the Sacred Heart station to find footprints in the snow leading into the woods. He lit match after match trying to follow them,

but it was too dark. He left to get a friend, and when the sun rose, they returned.

Now they could see there were two sets of footprints -- one small, like a girl's, the other larger. They formed a parallel trail that wound aimlessly through the forest.

Lambert and his friend followed them to a small clearing where three oak trees reached into the sky. There they saw a patch of green spread upon the white of the snow.

Lambert's heart froze. He started to run.

Marion was lying on her side, her schoolbooks tucked in the crook of her elbow, the letter to her Sunday school teacher still in her coat pocket. Her stiff right hand was ungloved, and in its palm was a smear of white, powdery crystals.

And her lips -- those lips that only 36 hours earlier had kissed him good night. They were swollen, blistered and frothed with blood.

It looked, almost, as if her mouth were deteriorating.


NEXT: A suspect emerges


The original court papers on the Marion Lambert case are gone, so most of the information about her disappearance and its aftermath came from the archives of the Chicago Tribune and other newspapers. The description of Lake Forest's growing prosperity in 1916 was given by Arthur Miller, an archivist at Lake Forest College. The account of the strange girl on Sheridan Road came from a Lake Forest woman who preferred to remain unidentified.

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