Who killed beer magnate Adolph Coors?

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Adolphus Coors, from Coastal Virginia Magazine.

Take a wildly successful businessman, a patriarch of an extensive family, a beloved city leader. Add one beautiful seaside setting, a pinch of elite vacationers, and throw in a curious lack of witnesses: for Adolph Coors Sr., founder of the Coors brewing empire, was this a perfect recipe for murder?

June 1929. Though Prohibition has been in effect for nearly a decade, a few months before the Great Depression business in America is still booming – even, surprisingly, for one of the country’s largest breweries. Headed by German immigrant Adolph Coors (born Kuhrs), who had risen from humble beginnings as an immigrant stowaway to become one of the most accomplished entrepreneurs in the American West, the Coors Brewery in Colorado had successfully retooled itself after the Volstead Act to diversify its pursuits beyond beer and to keep the cash flowing.

Coors, a shrewd, if stern, tycoon – dinners at the family mansion in Golden were conducted in strict silence – is nearing eighty, and recovering from a bout of influenza. On the advice of his physician, he and his wife relocate to the newly-constructed Cavalier Hotel in Princess Anne County, Virginia, a luxurious, salubrious seaside resort that overlooks both the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean.

Arriving shortly after its grand opening to enjoy a beautiful suite high up on the sixth story, Coors and his wife Louisa find the climate, the activities, and the people eminently agreeable. The man is on the mend.

Cavalier Hotel, circa 2018. Nancy E. Sheppard.”

But not all was in fact well, as Nancy E. Sheppard records. In her book Hampton Roads Murder and Mayhem, she tells the story of a grisly discovery that hotel staff found on June 5, 1929. After only a few weeks at the resort, Coors’ recuperation was mysteriously cut short.

According to Sheppard, “The silence of the morning was interrupted by a loud thunk, followed by a scream from one of the Cavalier’s caretakers. Lying sprawled on the hotel’s concrete patio was the crushed body of Adolph Coors, Sr.”

How, Sheppard notes, one of the most accomplished men of his time could have met an untimely end immediately became the most pressing question of all. Was it an accident? Did Coors take his own life, for reasons unknown, or did someone – his wife, one of his children, a ‘friend’ he might have made at the hotel – take it for him?

Almost immediately the trail of clues went cold. Louisa, the only person with any knowledge of Coors’ movements, testified that all she had witnessed was that Adolph “woke early, made his way to the window and, without saying a word, either fell or jumped.” But without anyone to corroborate her account, and no other material witnesses at hand, her testimony held little water.

While she certainly stood to gain from his death, her own temperament (well-known as loving and generous) and her documented aid in Adolph’s recovery didn’t fit the profile of an aggrieved, resentful spouse, as difficult a person as her husband had sometimes been.

One of Adolph Coors Sr.’s original 1873 copper brewing kettles. Library of Congress.

Closer scrutiny might have queried her more deeply, unearthing key details about his final days and hours, but the county coroner issued only a perfunctory report, and never conducted an autopsy. Almost as swiftly as Adolph had died, his cause of death was swept under the rug, and no formal investigation ever followed. And sadly, as Sheppard notes, that was it: back in Colorado, flags at the Coors brewery flew at half-mast until after his burial, and an entire community mourned the man who had put it on the map.

It’s hard to imagine now, as closely examined as most crimes are – that one of America’s most eminent businessmen could die in such a mysterious manner – but incredibly, that is exactly what happened. Accident? Suicide? Murder? Cover-up? At this point, no one will ever know. We’ll let Sheppard have the last word:

“The Cavalier Hotel has watched the years take their toll on the remote beauty that once invited celebrities and tycoons to escape to Virginia Beach’s shore. … In the process of the hotel’s current restoration, the new owners hope to resurrect the Cavalier’s long-lost elegance from the neglect it endured in the most recent decades of its life.

“The memories and specters of a forgotten moment of time that saw the hotel’s inception are still roaming the halls. Hiding in the aura of the sixth floor, the truth of what happened to Adolph Coors that morning so many years ago remains one of the Cavalier’s deepest, darkest mysteries, never to be revealed.”

While fortune followed the Coors name, misfortune plagued the Coors family. Forty years later, Adolph Coors III was kidnapped and murdered by a man named James Corbett Junior.

This March 19, 1951 mug shot was taken upon Joseph Corbett, Jr.’s incarceration at the California Institution for Men, in Chino, California, where he was sentenced to five years after pleading guilty to second-degree murder. He escaped from prison and committed the kidnapping and murder of Adolph Coors, III while a fugitive.
Mugshot, from the FBI files of the kidnapping.