What gave the baby name Rheta a boost in the 1930s?

Chicago murder victim Rheta G. Wynekoop (1910-1933)
Rheta G. Wynekoop

According to the U.S. baby name data, the name Rheta saw an impressive spike in usage in the 1930s:

  • 1936: 37 baby girls named Rheta
  • 1935: 61 baby girls named Rheta
  • 1934: 151 baby girls named Rheta (peak usage)
  • 1933: 81 baby girls named Rheta
  • 1932: 20 baby girls named Rheta

Here’s a graph showing the sharp rise of Rheta in 1933 and 1934:

Popularity graph of the baby name Rheta in the U.S.
Usage of the baby name Rheta

(The spelling Rheata was also a one-hit wonder in 1934.)

So what caused this sudden interest in the name Rheta?

A murder in Chicago!

On November 21, 1933, the body of a 23-year-old woman named Rheta G. Wynekoop was found — chloroformed, partially undressed, and shot to death — on an operating table inside the office of respected female physician Alice Wynekoop, who also happened to be Rheta’s mother-in-law.

The office was located in the basement of Alice’s sizeable Chicago residence, which Alice shared with Rheta and her husband Earle (as well as with various boarders).

Rheta, a violinist originally from Indianapolis, had been married to Earle Wynekoop for four years.

On November 23, both Alice and Earle were arrested.

Earle — who didn’t have a job, but did have multiple paramours (several of whom were named in the newspapers) — confessed to committing the crime. Soon after, though, it was determined that he had an alibi. (He’d been on a trip to Kansas City with a friend at the time of the murder.)

His false confession was an attempt to protect his 62-year-old mother, who (he knew) had taken out a double indemnity life insurance policy on Rheta two weeks earlier.

Alice — despite having an annual income, and owning a large home — was sinking into debt.

Not only that, but at least four other family members and friends had died under Alice’s care, in her “gloomy mansion,” in recent years. Alice’s otherwise healthy husband Frank, for instance, died suddenly in 1929. (His estate was worth $75,000.) And Alice’s close friend Catherine Porter died in 1932. (Alice claimed all the money in their joint bank account, and also inherited Porter’s 100-acre farm.)

On November 25, Rheta Wynekoop’s funeral took place in Indianapolis.

Huge bronze and yellow chrysanthemums, which might have graced the beauty of Rheta Gardner Wynekoop on the concert stage, bowed their heads as if in sorrow this morning while more than 1,000 persons filed slowly past her casket.

On November 30, Dr. Alice Wynekoop was indicted.

Her first trial began on January 15, 1934. It was declared a mistrial four days later due to Alice’s poor health.

Her second trial began on February 19 and lasted more than two weeks.

In early March, the jury returned a guilty verdict. Alice was sentenced to 25 years in prison for the murder of her daughter-in-law.

Soon after, the story of Rheta Wynekoop’s murder was recounted in various true crime magazines, such as Real Detective (in April) and Bernarr Macfadden‘s True Detective Mysteries (in May).

What are your thoughts on the name Rheta?

P.S. I have a hunch that this incident also inspired the cartoonist behind Mandrake the Magician to name one of his comic strip characters Rheeta in early 1935…


Image: Clipping from the Brownsville Herald (26 Nov. 1933)

4 thoughts on “What gave the baby name Rheta a boost in the 1930s?

  1. What a sad thing to name a baby after!
    My grandmother’s name was Rita, as is my aunt/Godmother’s, so I prefer that spelling. But I do like the sound of Rita/Rheta.

  2. Very interesting case, one that I had not heard of. So is the name Rheta pronounced ree-ta (long e sound) or re-ta (short e sound)? Is it a variant of Rita or is it a feminization of Rhett?

  3. My guess is that Rheta sounds like Rita (and not like Rhett-a), but I don’t know for sure how the name was pronounced — either by Rheta Wynekoop herself, or by the parents who gave the name to their daughters. None of the articles I read described the pronunciation, and I didn’t come across any newsreel footage about the murder.

  4. My guess is that it was pronounce more or less the same as “Rita”.
    I would think if it was pronounced “Rhett-a” it might have continued it’s sudden popularity due to Gone With The Wind’s Rhett. The book was published in 1936 and quickly became a best-seller and stayed in the public eye throughout the remainder of the 1930s due to the (well-publicized) making & release of the film.

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