|Undated, 19th Century photograph of the timber-built lumber mill at West Great Works constructed on cribs to create a spit in the Penobscot River (See Figure 1). To the left of the smokestack, roofs of houses and tenements in West Great Works Village are visible. This land now lies beneath the foundation of the Old Town mill complex. Image: MS1732_DemerittD_Box_2_Folder_11_224 courtesy of Special Collections, Raymond H. Fogler Library, DigitalCommons@UMaine, https://digitalcommons.library.umaine.edu/spec_photos/657|
Another Horror!Augustus Gowen was an ordinary man who lived an ordinary life in 19th Century Maine. The end of his life, however, was shrouded in mystery, speculation, and innuendo. Gowen's death marked the second brutal ax murder to happen in Penobscot County in a 31-day span in 1879, spurring the Bangor Whig & Courier and the Bangor Daily Commercial newspapers to seize on and report every thread of gossip about the suspects and victim alike, casting aspersions on Augustus' otherwise respectable, albeit mundane life.
Portrait thought to be of Augustus Gowen, ca. 1865.
Photograph courtesy of Paul Aldrich.
Portrait of Eliza H. (Joy) Gowen, 1810-1868.
Photograph courtesy of Paul Aldrich.
On January 20, 1834, Augustus married Eliza H. Joy, the sister of prominent Orono merchant, Hiram Joy. The union marked Gowen’s elevation from laborer to the merchant class. Though never as wealthy or successful as his brother-in-law, Gowen made a living that supported his small family. According to Paul Aldrich, the Gowens’ great-great-grandson, there is some confusion regarding the number of children born to Eliza and Augustus.1 According to municipal records, the couple had a daughter Caroline, who died August 28, 1843, at 11 years 11 months of age2 and lays in an unmarked grave at Riverside Cemetery in Orono. According to this information, the child’s birth in September 1831 pre-dates the Gowens’ documented marriage by nearly three years. The alleged birth, however, was never recorded in the family bible, according to Aldrich,3 and Caroline was not enumerated in the 1840 Federal census for Orono which recorded the presence of only one female child in the household who matches the documented age of daughter, Martha, as “Free White Persons-Females-Under 5.”4 Without supporting documentation for Caroline’s birth or death, Aldrich credit’s association of the child’s name with the Gowens’ gravesite as a potential clerical error.5 Alternatively, if she was the couple’s first child, the circumstances of the little girl’s birth may account for the community’s rapid descent into salacious speculation about Augustus Gowen’s private life following his murder.
Portrait of Martha (Gowen) Crowell, 1836-1871.
Photograph courtesy of Paul Aldrich.
The Gowens’ daughter, Martha, married James Moody Crowell in early 1860 and happily gave birth to a first grandchild, Mary, on December 31 of that year. Unfortunately, the balance of the 19th Century would largely bring sorrows to Augustus Gowen. First, his friend and brother-in-law, Hiram, died in February 18619 after a protracted illness. Eliza’s death followed on December 13, 1868.10 The deaths of two grandchildren, Edith and Fred, followed in March and July of 1869. Little more than 18-months later, Martha died of consumption on January 23, 1871.11 By the time of Gowen’s own death in March of 1879, only two grandchildren survived him; of them, only Mary lived to see the 20th Century.
Quiet Night at Home
On the evening of March 10, 1879, at age 69, Augustus Gowen sat reading in his room. Born in the earlier part of the century, he still wore an old-fashioned wig. After closing up the shop for the day, he doffed the wig that lay on the table beside him.
Sometime following Eliza’s death and possibly due to his financial difficulties, Gowen moved from Orono to the village of West Great Works in Old Town to occupy the first floor of a house owned by Erastus, who lived and worked in Bangor. Facing the challenges of advancing age and changing technology in the lumber industry, Gowen opened a wheelwright shop in the front room of the house, repairing carriages and wheels but also taking whatever work came his way, including sharpening tools.
Gowen occupied a single room of the house behind the shop. The room was sparsely furnished with a cook stove that also provided heat, a lounge, a table, a large trunk that served for storage, and a bed. His financial circumstances were not what they’d been before Eliza’s death, but Gowen was able to keep the woodshed adjacent to his sleeping room, stocked with wood. He also made enough to hire a neighborhood woman to wash his clothes and occasionally prepare food for him when he tired of what fare he could muster himself.
The upstairs of the house was rented to Mrs. Polk and her three children whose voices and activities could be heard through the floor just as his activities could be heard above. This night, with his tenant and two of her progeny attending church services while the third slept upstairs, the house was silent but for the crackle of a fire in the stove and the turning of pages. At some point, Gowen removed his glasses, possibly as he considered preparing for bed. A knock at the shop door caused him to rise from his seat. His wig, glasses, and open book lay forgotten on the table as Gowen went to greet his unexpected visitor.
As the morning of March 11, 1879, dawned, the people of West Great Works Village went about the routine business of their lives. More than one customer stopped by Augustus Gowen’s shop that morning but the door remained bolted. Near 1 p.m., with no signs of activity in the shop, Gowen’s friends feared he was ill and needed help. A gathering of men nominated the young Polk boy from upstairs to be boosted through a window to check on the older man’s well-being.12 It’s unlikely the sight that greeted the boy upon entering Gowen’s room ever left the child. Returning to the window too frightened to communicate coherently, the Polk boy was removed and several men entered to find Gowen’s mangled body, his throat cut.
Published accounts of the crime scene vary and official coroner records documenting the murder scene and investigation could not be located in any municipal office or law-enforcement agency, library, local, or state historical repository. If any official records survive, they likely are among papers kept by Hartwell Lancaster, a successful Old Town farmer who became a deputy sheriff and served as the community’s coroner for over 20 years. Lancaster also owned rental property across the street from Gowen and presided over the investigation with the assistance of Old Town lawyer, David Norton. Esq.
Reports agree that following the discovery of Gowen’s body, the men exited the house and called for the coroner. Despite the large crowd that gathered, entry to the crime scene was barred to all but Lancaster, the hastily impaneled jury, two doctors, and local reporters. Jurors inspecting the scene included Norton, Lorenzo Moor, Charles W. Lowell, E. W. Conant, Horatio W. Harris, and Jesse Prentiss.13
Gowen’s body lay on the floor, his head toward the foot of the bed and his feet slightly under the bed, according to the Bangor Daily Commercial. His body was still clothed and wearing boots,14 indicating he had yet to retire for the night. Neither report published in the Whig & Courier nor the Daily Commercial indicated if the body was supine or prone.
Figure 1. Map showing the central portion of the Village of Great Works, Old Town from page 55 of the Atlas of Penobscot County Maine, 1875.
Local physicians, Dr. Jerome Elkins and Dr. Joseph Norcross examined the body and determined that Gowen received six major wounds including three violent blows to the back, top, and side of his head, two gashes across the throat, and one under his chin. The order in which the wounds were delivered is unclear though the victim’s heart beat long enough to cause extensive bleeding. The crushing blow to the top of Gowen’s head exposed brain matter but, according to both doctors, the wounds to the back and side of the head were of great enough force alone to have killed the man. There was also a smaller cut on one of Gowen’s cheeks, which may have resulted from him falling after one of the blows,15 possibly hitting his face on the corner of the table.
The coroner’s jury faced no questions about the instrument of Gowen’s murder. The Bangor Daily Commercial reported that “an ax besmeared with blood was found laying on the lounge. The blood was so plentiful on it that it stuck very tenaciously to the lounge and considerable force was required to release it.”16 While the Whig & Courier reported that the murder weapon was an ax owned by a man named Carr who dropped the tool off to be sharpened, the Daily Commercial countered with information that the ax was a “shop ax and had been in Mr. Gowen’s possession for some time.”17 The Daily Commercial further reported that the victim’s blunt force trauma was inflicted by the ax poll while the sharp blade was used to cut the man’s throat.18
Not published until completion of the coroner’s inquest was evidence that Gowen’s body was moved post-mortem. While the Bangor Daily Commercial does not discuss the presence of drag marks, it makes clear that Gowen’s head was approximately six feet away from a large blood pool that lay between the lounge and the bed. Supporting this evidence was Mrs. Polk’s account that she returned from church with her children a little past 9 p.m. and retired to bed about 10:30 p.m. Though she reported hearing nothing out of the ordinary during this period, Mrs. Polk told the investigators that “sometime in the night she awoke,” hearing the shop door open “and some person or persons pass through the shop to [Gowen’s] living room.”19
The reason for the murderer’s return to the scene was undetermined, though the jury suggested that it was at this time the body was moved. The supposition was that the guilty party returned to collect evidence left behind. It may also be surmised the perpetrator wished to confirm that Gowen was dead and unable to bear witness against his attacker.
Rumors and Speculation
West Great Works Village bloomed on the periphery of the large sawmill complex built by Rufus Dwinel—a wealthy Bangor lumber baron—and his primary partner M. P. Sawyer. The Great Works mill complex began in 1833 with the construction of a double-mill. The following year Dwinel, Sawyer & Co. built five more mills running as many as twelve saws simultaneously.20 In response to the demand for labor, families gravitated to Old Town, building homes near the mills.
According to the 1880 U.S. Census, a year after Gowen’s death, 58 families comprised of 284 people including borders, inhabited a total of 54 dwellings in the village of West Great Works.21 With the great boom days of lumber past them, working-class families that prospered at mid-century began to struggle economically. On average in 1880, each West Great Works household included at least one millworker or domestic servant reporting an estimated three months of unemployment in the previous year.
Augustus Gown was living in a state of poverty in 1879. Both Bangor newspapers reported that Gowen was well-known and well-liked in Orono and Old Town. The Bangor Daily Commercial, however, opted to point out his turn of fortune, “He has lived by himself in the rear part of the shop, his wife having died some years before and also his children. He has of late years been in poor circumstances and has barely earned enough to live.” 22
Despite Gowen’s reported economic state, the coroner found a small roll of bills on his person, pointing away from robbery as the potential motive for the murder. Aside from the attack, Gowen’s room remained otherwise undisturbed. His wig, book, and glasses lay on the table. The room was neat and the bed made. The only evidence of disturbance noted by the jury, beyond that of the body, was blood spatter on one wall and the presence of two footprints on the foot of the bed as though the perpetrator stepped onto the bed in order to step over either it or Gowen’s body. Though the front door of the shop was locked, the door from Gowen’s room into the woodshed was unbarred, as was the door from the woodshed into the backyard.
When Gowen’s body was initially discovered, his death was thought to be suicide but the extent of physical damage made foul play undeniable. Word spread like wildfire through Old Town and Orono, and soon an estimated 400 to 500 curiosity-seekers milled about the village, trampling potential evidence. As in any excited crowd, speculation soon sparked rumors that spread like oil on water.
Both the Whig & Courier and the Daily Commercial published rumors about an alleged tangle of love affairs involving Gowen, his 32-year-old laundress and neighbor Mary Etta Patten, her husband Alonzo Patten, and Walter Riggs. Patten, a Civil War Veteran with a reputation as a combative drunk, was arrested for beating his wife in 1877. Refusing to back down in the face of domestic violence, Mary Etta pressed charges and Patten was fined $15 and sentenced to six months in the Penobscot County Jail. 23 Taking exception to the turn of events, Patten abandoned his wife and children. At some undetermined point thereafter, Riggs moved in.
Though both Patten and Riggs were detained for questioning on March 11, there was no evidence to charge the pair and they were released the following day. Patten minced no words when he addressed the rumors in a Letter to the Editor published in the Bangor Daily Commercial on March 13: 24
Allow me to state to the public and the citizens of Oldtown in particular, that on Monday night I was arrested as one who was connected with the murder of Augustus Gowen. Nothing being proven against me, I was discharged from arrest. I have always been on friendly terms with the late Mr. Gowen and was not jealous of him or anyone else, for when I separated from my wife, she became to me as one dead and buried.
For the story of Alonzo Patten's life, read Forgotten Soldier, Forgotten Man.
A woman with the last name of Martin appears to be the best candidate for Person Zero in the proliferation of gossip swirling about the murder case. Renting a room just down the hall from Mary Etta Patten and Walter Riggs, Ms. Martin claimed that she, herself, anticipated a visit from Augustus Gowen the night of the murder. Having initially borne witness against Riggs, Martin later claimed she witnessed two Native American men entering Gowen’s shop at 7:30 p.m.
“The Martin woman was very outspoken that one of the murderers of Gowen was an Indian whom she knew,”25 the Bangor Daily Commercial reported. With Martin’s claim bolstered by a tale told by a somewhat notorious resident of Indian Island, Newell Lacoot of Perry, Maine was briefly detained before being released.
Witnesses and Evidence
The findings of the coroner’s inquest published in the Bangor Daily Commercial, notes testimony by three credible witnesses, Mr. and Mrs. Berry, who resided in the Seth Rowe house on the northwest corner of the block,26 (See Figure 2) and a “young lady”—possibly one of William Bowman’s daughters. The neighbors, like Mrs. Polk and her children, were returning from the Baptist Church service at approximately 9 p.m. As the Berry’s separated from her, the young woman continued toward the Bowman residence and was startled by two men exiting the woodshed behind the Gowen house, starting in her direction. Frightened, the woman raced home. As she reached her door, the woman turned to see the two men cross Main Street and run in the opposite direction.27
The young woman’s account was corroborated by Mr. Berry who, upon arriving home, directed his wife inside but lingered outside himself. At the sound of footsteps crunching in the snow, Mr. Berry turned to see two men cross between Gowen’s place and his own. He called to his wife, who looked through a window, and together the couple watched the men dressed in dark clothing, one taller than the other, cross Main Street. Turning northeast, the pair ran through an empty lot toward the railroad tracks. Given the reported timing, it is possible that the sound of Mrs. Polk and her children returning from church caused the perpetrators to flee into the night where their departure was witnessed by neighbors.
The throng of foot traffic following the discovery of the murder and the impact of an early spring rain made identification of the men’s footprints a nearly impossible task. Investigators, however, determined from prints closest to the Gowen house that one man appeared to wear overshoes while the other wore moccasins; both being common forms of footwear the discovery was not particularly revealing. In the end, the darkly-dressed men escaped apprehension and as time marched on, the murder of Augustus Gowen went cold and unsolved.
In the days following his death, Gowen’s body was laid to rest in an unmarked grave beside Eliza and—possibly—their daughter, Caroline. Erastus and Luther Gowen, each facing their own financial challenges, did not provide a marker for their brother. Gowen’s granddaughter, Mary Crowell whose deceased mother and siblings lay buried nearby, put away the horror of her grandfather’s murder and the sordid rumors it spawned. The case went cold and the painful event transformed into a family secret so closely guarded that even Gowen’s great-great-grandson, genealogist Paul Aldrich, was unaware of his great-great-grandfather’s tragic end until contacted for information as part of the research for this story.
I extend my sincere gratitude to Paul Aldrich for his insight and information about his family. It was Paul who was able to connect the Main Street cited in the newspaper narrative with Erastus’ property in West Great Works Village rather than Old Town proper; and who provided me with a scan of the village map from the 1875 Atlas of Penobscot County, allowing me to put into spatial context a neighborhood that disappeared long ago. I thank Paul for his enthusiasm, sense of humor, and for providing the family photos that illustrate this post.
I thank Eisso Atzema, of the Old Town Museum, for fielding my many questions about the OTM archives and for providing the reference to Paul Aldrich’s 2003 article published in The Maine Genealogist which gave me an avenue to track down the author.
I thank Chief Scott Wilcox of the Old Town Police Department; Assistant Attorney General Lara Nomani; and Lindsey Chasteen from the Office of Chief Medical Examiner for responding to my inquiries about records pertaining to obscure, 19th Century coroner inquests. I thank Desiree Butterfield Nagy of Fogler Library Special Collections; Earle Shettleworth, Maine State Historian; Betsy Paradis of Bangor Public Library; and Helen Tutwiler of the Maine State Archives, for assisting me in my search for historic images of West Great Works Village. Finally, I thank Rusty Stevens for providing the only photograph I’ve seen of a portion of West Great Works Village as of the date this blog was posted.
1Aldrich, Paul. Personal Communication, 28 Jun 2018.
2Typescript Riverside Cemetery MSL:974.1 v074r, 1993.
3Aldrich, Paul. Personal communication, 28 Jun 2018.
4Ancestry.com. Sixth Census of the United States, 1840. (NARA microfilm publication M704, 580 rolls). Records of the Bureau of the Census, Record Group 29. National Archives, Washington, D.C. Images reproduced by FamilySearch.
5Aldrich, Paul. Personal communication, 28 Jun 2018.
6Bangor Daily Whig & Courier (Bangor, Maine), Friday, June 20, 1856; Issue 302
7Aldrich, Paul M. “The Joys of Good Deeds: Using Circumstantial Evidence to Prove the Parents of Eliza H. Joy of Clinton and Orono, Maine.” In The Maine Genealogist, Vol. 25. No. 4., 2003, pp. 165-176
8Bangor Daily Whig & Courier (Bangor, Maine), Monday, March 28, 1864; Issue 228
9Bangor Daily Whig & Courier (Bangor, Maine), Thursday, February 14, 1861, Issue 193
10Bangor Daily Whig & Courier (Bangor, Maine), Wednesday, December 16, 1868; Issue 310
11Bangor Daily Whig & Courier (Bangor, Maine), Wednesday, January 25, 1871, Issue 21
12Bangor Daily Commercial (Bangor, Maine), Tuesday, March 11, 1879, Issue 59
14Bangor Daily Whig & Courier (Bangor, Maine), Tuesday, March 11, 1879; Issue 60
15Bangor Daily Commercial (Bangor, Maine), Tuesday, March 11, 1879, Issue 59
19Bangor Daily Commercial (Bangor, Maine), Wednesday, March 19, 1879, Issue 66
20Norton, David. Sketches of the Town of Old Town, Penobscot County, Maine from its Earliest Settlement, to 1879; with Biographical Sketches. Bangor: S. G. Robinson, 1881, p. 35.
21Tenth Census of the United States, 1880. (NARA microfilm publication T9, 1,454 rolls). Records of the Bureau of the Census, Record Group 29. National Archives, Washington, D.C., pp.3-8.
22Bangor Daily Commercial (Bangor, Maine), Tuesday, March 11, 1879, Issue 59
23Bangor Daily Whig & Courier, Saturday, August 18, 1877; Issue 195
24Bangor Daily Commercial (Bangor, Maine), Thursday, March 13, 1879, Issue 61
25Bangor Daily Commercial (Bangor, Maine), Wednesday, March 19, 1879, Issue 66
26Sherman W. A. “West Great Works, Town of Old Town.” Map published in Atlas of Penobscot County Maine. From Recent and Actual Surveys & Records. New York: Comstock & Cline, 1875, p. 55.