a wooden gavel sitting on top of a blue gray table top

Untying the Knot: An Iowa True Crime Story

From the outside looking in, William and Constance Richardson had a picture perfect marriage. They had three beautiful kids, Mildred, Dorothy and Dayton. Their social life was always the talk of the town. They were truly a model couple. Sure, they had their problems, but what couple didn’t after being married for six years? That’s why friends were shocked when they started seeing sensational headlines in the newspaper about Constance filing for separation.

Short on time? Skip down to the TL;DR version of the story.

Constance’s story

Constance Richardson

From the beginning of their marriage, William and Constance always threw lavish parties and made sure to attend ones that their friends threw. But when she fell ill in the winter of 1899, according to Constance, the marriage began to sour.

She could no longer keep up with the demands of their busy social life. William, however, didn’t want to sacrifice his own social life. As a result, Constance decided to invite her sister, Agnes, to stay with them at the house and go to social events in her place. Agnes was more than happy to oblige.

It wasn’t long before William enlisted Agnes to help in other parts of his life. A few weeks after she moved in, he hired her as his personal assistant. According to Constance, the two began spending all day together at the office. And when they weren’t at the office, they’d take long bicycle rides together. As William and Agnes began spending more and more time together, Constance noticed William’s behavior towards her and their family had changed.

William had always been an attentive husband. But then he turned downright cruel. Throughout their entire marriage, he had encouraged Constance to dress the kids in the latest fashions and to make them the center of society. He told her to spare no expense. But suddenly, he’d had a change of heart.

Now he was complaining about how expensive the kids’ clothes were. Why couldn’t they wear hand-me-downs? They didn’t need a new outfit so often. Why was she spending so much money on food? Surely, she could find ways to save money. As a result, he began cutting her allowance.

But she was able to live within the new restrictions. This, she claimed, made his treatment of her even worse. In retaliation, he slashed her spending allowance even more, so much so that she could no longer feed the kids. She was now forced to ask him for more money for basic necessities. And whenever she did, he ridiculed her for overspending.

All of that she was able to put up with, but it was when he allegedly confessed to having an affair with her sister, Agnes, that it became too much.

According to Constance, she had been suspicious of the two ever since he hired Agnes as his personal assistant. So, she started dropping by the office unannounced. Every time she visited, she said Agnes and William would become flustered.

One day, Constance caught the two of them in what appeared to be an intimate conversation, with their heads close together. When they noticed she was there, they quickly separated and both looked pale. William, Constance said, became agitated. When she asked them what was going on, they both said they were just talking, but neither could remember what they had been talking about. (1)

Around this time, Constance decided to hire private investigators to find out the exact nature of William and Agnes’ relationship. The investigators followed William and Agnes on a trip to Chicago, where they documented alleged incriminating evidence of a relationship between the two.

They claimed to have seen William visit her room several times over the course of the trip. They were even able to see in the windows and saw that the two had “kissed and embraced several times” before turning off the light and leaving it off for “more than half an hour.”

One day in Chicago, the investigators approached William on the street and he confirmed his identity and claimed that Agnes was his sister. (2)

Eventually, Constance kicked Agnes out of the house. That’s when she says his treatment of her worsened. He spent less and less time at home. He even stopped paying the bills, forcing her to ask a neighbor for money to pay for the family’s basic needs. (3)

Throughout all of this, Constance said that William had been physically abusive as well. He hit her on several occasions and threatened to kill her. It had gotten so bad that she had to ask her father to come move in with her. Which just made William even more unbearable. (4)

William’s story

William wasn’t going to let Constance be the only one to tell her side of the story. According to him, he had no choice but to set a strict allowance because she spent his money with reckless abandon. He claimed she had racked up a ridiculous grocery bill each week that he could no longer afford. However, on cross-examination, he was forced to admit that he had indeed encouraged her to spend a lot of money on everything from food to the latest fashions for the kids as well as keeping servants.

As for the relationship with Agnes. William said there was nothing improper between them. The bike rides were nothing but innocent and platonic. That time Constance had walked in on them having an intimate conversation? That was nothing. They had simply been talking about some issues Agnes had been having with her family in Massachusetts. Then she asked him for his opinion on her recent engagement to a man named George Kern. He claimed they were talking in hushed voices because they didn’t want to be overheard by the servants. That’s when Constance came in and made a “hysterical scene” with “a lot of crying and shouting.” (5)

A family divided

A feud between Constance and her family had been festering for years. Now it was playing out in a public courtroom. When Constance’s brother, William, took the stand. He was there to set the record straight about his sister.

According to him, Constance couldn’t be trusted. She had always been the black sheep of the family and many family members found her to be immoral and wicked before her marriage to William. He claimed that Agnus had told him that her immoral behavior had continued into her marriage. When pressed to give specific examples of what exactly made her immoral, he wasn’t able to give any.

He also stated he was present on the Chicago trip between Agnes and William. He said that the two were, in fact, there visiting him and his family at the same time but they hadn’t been there together. Agnes was there with her fiance George Kern, and it was he who the private investigators had seen hugging and kissing Agnes. This was corroborated by both Agnes and George. (6)

Their father, however, had a different story. He claimed that Constance was “a good girl” growing up and that her brother William had never gotten along with her and had always favored Agnes. He figured this was the reason he had taken Agnes’ side over Constance’s. (7)

Neighbors Talk

Her brother William wasn’t the only one who thought negatively of Constance. Her next door neighbor, Mary Drake, testified that around the neighborhood, Constance had a reputation of spreading false gossip around town. And she had recently heard a rumor that Constance was “extravagant and got her husband into embarrassing situations” because of it. Seemingly corroborating William’s story about her overspending.

Mary even questioned her fitness as a mother, stating that Constance was a “great goer” and barely spent any time with her children as a result.

When asked why she had spent so much time with Constance if she didn’t seem to like her, Mary said that she couldn’t shut the door in her face. Besides, she had heard that she was trying to better herself and Mary thought it was her duty as a Christian to try and help her. (8)

William Richardson, you are not the father?

Young Mildred Richardson

Constance’s nurse, Jeanette Broadbent, even testified. Jeanette was an attending nurse for the birth of the Richardsons’ youngest child, Dayton. Jeanette claimed that Constance had admitted to having an affair with a local dentist and William wasn’t Dayton’s father. Instead, it was the local dentist. (9)

A few hours after Jeanette’s testimony, she was found in her apartment with a gunshot wound to the head. She survived the shooting and said that a man came into her apartment, shot her and then ran away. She was convinced it was Constance who had arranged the shooting because of her testimony earlier in the day.

After a brief investigation, however, it was determined Jeanette had actually shot herself and was expected to make a full recovery. (10) (11)

The decision

On December 24, 1900, Constance was granted the separation. William was ordered to pay Constance $125 (about $4,450 in 2023) per month The judge also ruled that she was entitled to “absolute control” over their three children. But they each were responsible for paying their own lawyer and court fees.

The judge also noted that while there was evidence to support “improprieties” on both sides, nothing was criminal in nature. He also put it on the record that he didn’t think there was any substance to the claim that Agnes and William had a romantic relationship. (12) (13)

More problems in Chicago

Dorothy Richardson

In September 1901, William and Constance were both living in Chicago. William had once again stopped paying for his family. She said she hadn’t gotten a payment from him since July. She brought him to court, hoping they’d force him to continue making payments. (14)

In retaliation, William eventually filed for divorce, which he was granted in July of 1903. Very little was reported on this case but it was said that when she heard the decision, she “dropped from her chair and fell to the floor.” It was reported that she was unconscious for several hours. (15)

A few days later, William was granted full custody of their three children. (16)

Constance wants her kids back

A long custody battle followed. By this time, William was living with his cousin Frances. Constance alleged that Frances was abusive towards the two girls. She claimed that Frances cleaned their mouths out with soap after every visit they had with their mother. (17)

Attorneys for William went into attack mode. They called dozens of witnesses to testify as to why she should be declared an unfit mother.

An entire day’s worth of testimony was dedicated to the amount of make-up Constance wore, the types of clothing and accessories she adorned herself with and whether the three-and-a-half-inch heels on her boots should or shouldn’t be seen as vulgar. All of which, according to witnesses, were signs that she was an unfit mother.

Her brother William also made a return to the witness stand. Again, he was the star character witness against Constance. He claimed that their behavior had improved since the children had been with their father and Frances. He said that Frances was much more fit to raise the children than Constance ever was. (18)

In the end, the court decided that William would stay the children’s sole guardian, but Constance was entitled to visitation rights. An arrangement was made for her to see the children for just two hours every Sunday. (19)

Girls Sent Away

Dayton Richardson

By 1908, eight years after the first separation case was finalized, Constance took William to court again to gain custody of her three children.

Constance was now re-married to Charles Meyers, a fairly wealthy salesman. The two girls, Mildred, now 13 and Dorothy, now 12, were living at St. Mary’s Home for Children. It was claimed that while living at St. Mary’s, the girls were overworked and forced to wash windows, scrub floors and operate washing machines. St. Mary’s denied any wrongdoing. (20) (21)

She also alleged that Frances continued to abuse the kids. She said they would be hit and their mouths washed out with soap if they called Constance “mother” in the presence of Frances. (22)

Constance also alleged that William and his cousin Frances had an intimate relationship. It was rumored that the girls were often punished for singing a popular song of the time where part of the lyrics are, “ain’t no harm to hug and kiss your cousin.” Frances and William denied all allegations that they had a romantic relationship. They even claimed to have never heard the song. (23)

Constance was eventually granted custody of the two girls, Mildred and Dorothy but their son was to stay with William and Frances. (24)


From there, the Richardsons fell out of the public eye. Constance, her husband Charles and her two daughters Mildred and Dorothy stayed in Chicago for a few years before moving to New York. (25)

Constance and Charles eventually moved to Los Angeles, where they remained until Charles’ death in 1944. Following her husband’s death, Constance moved in with her younger daughter Dorothy before passing seven years later in 1951 at the age of 72. (26) (27)

Mildred Richardson (c. 1917)

While living in Chicago, both Mildred and Dorothy acted in local plays. After moving to New York, Mildred performed in both vaudeville and musicals and was revered for her “charming soprano” singing voice. She eventually became a popular act with the Ziegfeld Follies. (28) (29) (30) (31)

By 1920, Mildred had been married and divorced to a Follies stage manager, William Schrode. The couple had one son, Billie. Seven years later, Mildred married a Minnesota millionaire, Walter Hill. Mildred retired from show business and moved with her new husband to Butte, Montana. The marriage soured almost immediately and ended in a sensational, years long divorce in 1935. (32) (33)

While in New York, Dorothy worked as a model, actress and performed briefly with the Ziegfeld Follies. In 1920, Dorothy left show business and married Archibald Millard, a car salesman. The couple had one son, Archibald Jr. (34) (35) (36)

The couple eventually settled in Los Angeles, California, where Archibald died in 1943. Seven weeks later, their son Archibald Jr. went missing when his fighter jet was shot down during World War II. (37) (38)

Dorothy spent her final years in a retirement community in California where she passed away at the age of 93 in 1989. (39)

William, his cousin Frances and his son, Dayton, moved several times over the years. They eventually settled in Saskatchewan, Canada where William died in 1935 after suffering a heart attack while curling. He and Frances lived together until his death, always maintaining that they were cousins. (40)

Constance’s sister, Agnes, married George Kern two years after she was dragged into the middle of her sister’s separation case. They settled in California where they lived until George’s death in 1949. She passed four years later, in 1953. (41) (42)


A picture perfect marriage turns sour after the wife’s sister moves in.