On the 4 July 1928, a Fokker Trimotor took off from Croydon airport to the south of London, in the UK. The light passenger aircraft’s destination was Brussels, and seven people were onboard. Six would make it to their destination.
En-route, somewhere over the English Channel, one of the passengers disappeared. But what really made the headlines was that the missing man was millionaire financier Alfred Loewenstein, the third richest man in the world.
The sudden disappearance of a millionaire from his private plane may seem to you like the storyline of a detective novel. However the man known as “The Belgian Croesus” by the media, after the immensely rich ancient ruler of Lydia, somehow vanished from the small aircraft, and was never seen alive again.
A Businessman of Genius
Alfred Loewenstein was born on the 11th of March, 1877, in Brussels, Belgium. He was the son of Bernard Loewenstein, who was a German-Jewish banker. By 1914, Alfred Loewenstein was a successful businessman and a wealthy individual in his own right.
In the years running up to World War I, his fortune increased significantly, and his successful investments made him one of the most powerful financiers in Europe. His partnership with Sir James Dunn made over £1,000,000 profit through a single deal alone.
His fortune increased enormously when he started providing electric power facilities to developing countries around the world. He became so successful in business that he was sought by prime ministers and presidents of the world.
His company “International Holdings and Investments Limited” was established in 1926. Through this, he was successful in raising huge capital from wealthy investors, and by 1928, he had amassed a personal fortune of £12m.
The flight on the 4th of July, 1928 was routine. Alfred Loewenstein was to fly from Croydon Airport to Brussels on his private plane, returning home from a business trip. Accompanying Loewenstein on the flight were his valet and secretary, two stenographers, and the pilot and mechanic in the cockpit. All were employed by Loewenstein.
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The weather was fine, and the plane was flying smoothly. In the first half of the flight, Alfred Loewenstein was involved in making notes. However, as the flight was nearing the English Channel, he went to the small toilet present at the rear of the plane.
At the rear area of the plane’s cabin, next to the toilet, was the external door to the plane. It was clearly marked as “EXIT”. While it had a spring-loaded latch that was controlled from inside, the door opened outwards. In order to open this door in mid-air against the stream of air flowing along the outside of the plane, the strength of at least two strong men would be required.
Loewenstein never returned from the toilet. According to Fred Baxter the valet, after ten minutes when Alfred did not return to his seat, he became concerned and knocked on the toilet door. However, there was no answer.
Baxter became even more worried that Alfred Loewenstein may have fallen ill inside the bathroom. He broke open the door only to find the toilet empty. Alfred Loewenstein had disappeared into thin air.
On discovering that Alfred Loewenstein had disappeared, Baxter informed the pilot, Donald Drew. But the pilot took a strange decision of landing on a deserted beach near Dunkirk, instead of a nearby airfield.
On the beach, a local army unit was being trained, and the passengers and crew members were questioned by Lieutenant Marquailles as to what had happened. The pilot in particular was considered to be behaving in a strange manner.
All the employees of Alfred had no clue as to where he disappeared and finally believed that he must have fallen and died due to the accidental opening of the exit door. How a 51 year old man had opened the door, and why, were a complete mystery.
According to the reports, tests were conducted on the same aircraft a week later on the 12th of July, by the Accidents Branch of the British Air Ministry. The tests revealed the fact that it was impossible for a person to open the “EXIT” door and fall out.
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However, other questions would soon be answered. On the 19th of July 1928, a fishing boat found a decomposed corpse that was floating near the French coast. The wristwatch helped in confirming that the body was that of Alfred Loewenstein.
An autopsy was conducted as the family members of Alfred requested for it. The reports of the autopsy revealed that he had broken a number of bones and partial fracture of the skull. The forensic scientists concluded that Alfred Loewenstein was still alive while he hit the water.
The Different Theories
How Alfred Loewenstein fell from the plane and died remained a mystery. As the exit door was hard to open, his death was quite surprising for all. However, there are a number of theories relating to the potential causes.
According to one of the prominent theories, he was murdered on the orders of his business rivals. Some believed that two of the passengers on board were involved in forcibly throwing Alfred out of the plane.
This theory is however problematic. The passengers on the plane were adamant that nobody had left their seats until the valet went to check on Loewenstein, and that the valet went alone. The murder would require the co-operation, and silence, of the very people Loewenstein trusted the most.
Another theory is that he would have committed suicide after being aware that his corrupt business practices were likely to be exposed. Or maybe he simply opened the wrong door mistakenly and fell off. How he was able to open the door while the plane was in flight, something the investigation was unable to replicate, remains unexplained.
No wrongdoing was ever uncovered that suggested a reason for murdering Loewenstein and nobody was ever prosecuted for any crime. What happened, and how, remains a mystery to this day.
Top Image: A Fokker Trimotor similar to Loewenstein’s aircraft. The open door towards the rear of the plane can clearly be seen. Source: kitchener.lord / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.
By Bipin Dimri