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80th Anniversary of the Death of David Paul Davis (Presumed)

December 15, 2011 | By | Reply More

The (Presumed) Death of David Paul Davis
by Rodney Kite-Powell
Curator, Tampa Bay History Center

October 2006 marks the 80th anniversary of David P. Davis’ death. The
passage of time has done little to clear up the details regarding that fateful night
aboard the steamship Majestic. What follows is an examination of the few facts
that are known about the incident.

In October 1926, D. P. Davis booked passage aboard the luxury liner
Majestic for a trip to Europe. His life, both professional and personal, had taken
some severe hits over the past few months. He had to sell his interest in Davis
Islands, Davis Shores, in St. Augustine, was proceeding very slowly, and his
marriage to the former Elizabeth Nelson was falling apart. Nelson had fled to
France, as the story goes, and Davis was headed her way. He would not live to see
the end of the trans-Atlantic voyage.

Stories of Davis’s death always include some element of mystery. The only
undisputed facts are that he went overboard and drowned while en route to Europe
aboard the large ocean liner on October 12, 1926 and that his girlfriend, Lucille
Zehring, accompanied him on the voyage. What is in question is how he ended up
in the water: by accidentally falling out of a stateroom window, being pushed out
or jumping out to end his own life. A multitude of stories fill the void.

Victory National Life Insurance Company, founded by Sumter Lowry, (a
member of Tampa’s City Commission in 1924) sold Davis a $300,000 policy a few
months before his death. Davis held policies with other insurance companies and,
since his body was not recovered, some felt that Davis faked his own death.

Lowry, “anxious to make a reputation for paying claims promptly,” hired an
investigator, who determined that Davis had accidentally fallen overboard.
Lowry’s findings regarding Davis’ death did not assuage all doubts on the
subject. Many felt that Davis leapt overboard to end his life. Chief among this
theory’s proponents was the captain of the Majestic. Another who thought Davis
killed himself was Jerome McLeod, who had joined D. P. Davis Properties in 1925
as assistant publicity director after a stint at the Tampa Daily Times. “He got
drunk,” McLeod told a later interviewer, and “when he got drunk he got maudlin.”

A third story comes from a steward who stood outside Davis’ room and overheard
an argument between Davis and Zehring. The Majestic’s employee claimed Davis
said, “I can go on living or end it. I can make money or spend it. It all depends on
you.” The statement was punctuated by a loud splash. This runs somewhat
counter to the testimony given Lowry, in which the steward had to be told of
Davis’ fall by Zehring.

Davis’ brother Milton had a different story. While acknowledging D. P.
Davis had a drinking problem, he believed his death was an accident. Milton
traveled to New York City to speak with Zehring about his brother’s final
moments. Milton, who claimed David probably intended to divorce Elizabeth and
marry his girlfriend, restated Zehring’s recollection: “Lucille said there had been a
party and D. P. was sitting in an open porthole, one of those big ones. It was
storming outside, and he blew out the window. She said she started to scream and
grab his leg, but it was blown out of her hands. That’s what happened.”

There are a variety of problems and inconsistencies with each of these
stories. Some say that Davis and Zehring were alone while others say there was a
party. The Majestic was the largest ship in the world, a sister to the Titanic, and
undoubtedly had “large portholes,” and Davis was a small man, but could he really
sit in one and then be “blown overboard”? Could the steward standing outside of
the closed stateroom door hear a loud splash that occurred outside the ship and
dozens of yards below the open window?

The idea that Davis booked passage with a large party, including Davis Properties
employees and possibly his oldest son,George, places doubt that the intent of the voyage was to divorce his wife.

Davis’ drinking problem unquestionably contributed to his untimely death,
but to what degree? Some point to the possible fight with Zehring, others to his
overall financial collapse, as reasons why he would commit suicide. Alcohol
inevitably compounded those problems. Others, like Davis’ brother, felt that his
alcoholism merely put him in the position of hurting himself, intentionally or
otherwise. D. P. Davis’ eldest son, George, was aboard the Majestic, and he, too,
feels that suicide is as likely as any other scenario.

Murder, too, is a possibility. Some stories relate that Davis had up to
$50,000 in cash with him. Others discount this, claiming that he hardly ever
carried large amounts of money on him. Motive and opportunity do not seem to be
on the side of murder, but no one could lead his life without making enemies,
especially after losing so much money in such a brief period of time.

Yet another theory intimates that Davis faked his death. While discredited
by Lowry’s investigation and Milton’s assurances to the contrary, it remains a
possibility, though remote given that his son was on the ship, too.

How, or even if, he fell overboard is still a mystery. Until new evidence is
found, any theory regarding Davis’ death is just that, theory.

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