Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Helen Brach: Gone But Not Forgotten

Hatcheck Girl to Heiress

Helen Voorhees Brach was not born into the world of the super-rich. She lived most of her life in the most humble circumstances and not until she was nearly 40 did she meet the man who would take her away from the drudgery of the workaday world to exceptional luxury. Frank Brach was the son of the founder of the Brach candy empire. Emil J. Brach may have discovered the secret to making better caramel (baked, rather than boiled), but it was Frank who turned the immigrant's candy stand into the empire it was to become. Under Frank's leadership E.J. Brach and Sons became one of the world's largest candy producers and made the family wealthier than any of them had ever dreamed possible. It takes a lot of caramels to amass a fortune of $20 million, but Frank managed to do so before he was 60.

Brach's Candy advertisement
Brach's Candy advertisement

He met Helen Voorhees as his previous marriage was disintegrating. She was the coat-check girl at the Palm Beach Country Club, where Brach spent much of his winters, and they became very close. Shortly after he divorced his wife, Brach proposed to Helen and they were wed.

Helen took to her new life with ease, but managed to retain some of her Midwestern roots. She remained close with her family in Ohio and built comfortable homes for her parents and brother. Throughout the rest of her life, Helen continued to bestow gifts on her family and while she was accustomed to many of the better things in life, she would often fret and fuss over seemingly insignificant costs.

During the warmer months the Brachs lived on the north side of Chicago and wintered in Florida. They did not own a home in Palm Beach, but rented from long-time friends. When, after Frank died, the friends opted to raise the rent they charged for the Brach's lodging by $100, Helen was miffed.

In 1970, 20 years after he married Helen, Frank Brach died. He was 79 and Helen was 58. There were no children from the marriage (or from Helen's brief, previous marriage) and Frank had long retired from the candy business. Helen was left with lots of money and little to do.

She was very private, but not totally reclusive and as she grew older became even more obsessively interested in animal welfare causes and her own personal pets. The story circulates about how she once chartered a plane to bring a sick pet back from the Bahamas to be cared for by her favored veterinarian. Her two favorite pets, Candy and Sugar, were buried in a $500,000 pink marble mausoleum she had built in her hometown in Ohio (Frank was buried there, as well and it was her intention that it would be her final resting place). She was also quite philanthropic with animal causes, giving quite a bit of money to the Chicago Zoo, which named its primate house in her honor, and other charitable causes.

Some considered Helen to be eccentric and she did have a few quirks. She was concerned for animal rights, but she loved wearing fur. She was a compulsive journal-writer who had diaries dating back decades. She wrote in them every day, but what she wrote about will forever remain a mystery.

In addition to her journaling, Helen was also interested in the spirit world and practiced "automatic writing" or spirit writing, in which the writer enters a trance-state and his or her hand is guided to write words and phrases allegedly by spiritual forces. She would conduct automatic writing sessions frequently and used the results for guidance.

Helen never had much use for tony Chicago society, preferring instead her old friends from the days of living hand-to-mouth. In addition to her obsessive journaling, she would spend hours each day on the telephone with this friend or that, chit-chatting about matters important and inconsequential. One of the people she called every day was her medium, with whom she shared the results of her automatic writing.

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