Monday, January 22, 2018

Killed by the Hand of an Assassin

Gravestone of William Elliot
Gravestone of William B. Elliot located in South Branch
Cemetery, Levant, Maine. The misspelling of Elliot’s last
name, capital L's, and backward “b” in the abbreviation for
February, suggests the carver possessed a limited level of
literacy and was copying the letter shapes.  The epitaph reads: 
A Member of  Co. C. 11 Me. Regiment. Was Killed by the
hand of an assassin, Fed. [sic] 5, 1879. AE 36 yrs. 11 mos.
A couple years ago, I heard a story telling of a murderer who’d been hung and buried in a swamp behind South Branch Cemetery in Levant, Maine.  The legend of the swamp-mired murder’s grave originated in connection to the gravestone of William B. Elliot, a member of Company C of the 11th Maine (Civil War) Regiment who—as is inscribed on his gravestone— “was killed by the hand of an assassin, Feb. 5, 1879” at age 36 years, 11 months.  The chilling epitaph commemorates what may well be the state of Maine’s second oldest murder cold case.

The following account includes a summary of information about the murder published in the Bangor Daily Whig & Courier in the year following the murder.

Bangor, Maine — February 5, 1879.

Night watchman, Amos Colson, walked along the Washington Street side of the Maine Central Railroad station between 7:30 and 7:40 p.m. the evening of Wednesday, February 5, 1879 when a stranger—a man about 5 feet 5 inches in height with dark whiskers and complexion—drove a sled drawn by a two-horse hitch, rapidly west down Washington Street from Exchange in Bangor, Maine.  The swarthy man, wearing a long dark coat and cloth cap, stopped the sled just short of the station. Jumping down, the stranger ran past Colson, telling him to watch the horses, “saying something about getting over before the train left,” Colson reported.

Unimpressed but sympathetic to the horses’ needs, Colson tended the animals that he reported were “wet from fast driving,” stabling them across the street from the station. At 9:45 p.m., the train having rolled out of the station approximately 7:45 p.m. and the man failing to return, Colson went back to the sheds to cover the horses for the night. Colson was pulling a horse blanket from under some bags of meal in the back of the sled when, by the light of his lantern, he discovered the blanket and bags were saturated with fresh blood.

Sensing foul play, Colson mounted the sled and drove toward the police station. En route, he crossed paths with Bangor Police Officers Thomas F. Allen and Patrick J. Dougherty.  After hearing Colson’s story, Officer Allen took the sled to the station where the three men used additional lanterns to more fully examine the vehicle. It was then that the group discovered an axe covered with clotted blood and clumps of human hair. Marshal Alvin Reed was summoned and arrived at the police station at 10 p.m., just as young William Graffam showed up to report the discovery of a murder on Valley Avenue, only a couple miles from where Colson met the stranger at the train station.

A short time earlier, Graffam and a friend were walking on Harlow Street toward Valley Avenue, near the establishment of Merrill & Stiles, and found a man lying on the side of the road. Thinking the man was passed out drunk, they stopped to roust him rather than leave him to freeze in the snow. That’s when they discovered the man’s head was “horribly mangled.”  

Arriving at the scene, police found the man—later identified as William B. Elliot of Glenburn—lying just off the road, his feet toward the road. He was partially rolled in a horse blanket and tracks in the drifted snow showed where he’d first fallen, staggered, and fallen again at the point where he was discovered. As police examined the body, William issued a small moan.

Shocked that, as badly injured as he was, William clung to life, the men loaded him into a pung and delivered him to the police station. The rescuers sent for doctors but the medical evaluation was that the man was “beyond aid” and at 11:40 p.m., “the last spark of vitality left” his body.

The Victim

Portrait of William Elliot in a Union Army uniform
Portrait of William B. Elliot, ca. 1863,
Company C, 11th Maine Regiment.
Photo courtesy of Wayne Hoar.

The son of Calvin Elliot and Susannah E. Barrett Elliot, William was the oldest of eight children. Blonde and blue-eyed with a strong chin but boyish good looks, William Elliot served in the Union Army between August 1863 and February 1866, surviving the Civil War. In 1868, he married his brother-in-law’s sister, Joanna B. Lake.

William was well-known and respected in Bangor having lived in town for a period of time, working in the office of Provost Marshal Low before taking a job driving a milk cart for S. F. Fuller. By 1870, the U. S. Federal Census, noted that William was a farmer living in Glenburn, with a value of $1,530 including 98 acres of land, 78 of which were wooded, and various livestock. Seven years later, William served a single year as Constable and Tax Collector for the town of Glenburn.

The Investigation

The doctors’ examination after his death revealed that William Elliot suffered four, massive head wounds.  He received two blows to the back of his head with the butt of the axe, crushing his skull; a gaping wound caused by the axe bit on the right forehead that cut through the skull; and a final blow with the flat side of the axe  to the right temple that did additional crushing damage.

William was dressed for outdoor labor, wearing two coats, denim overalls, white, wool mittens, a wool scarf, and moccasins. Though he was carrying a pocket book containing various paperwork and 16 3-cent stamps, the only money found was 12 cents on the body and 42 cents in change found in the sled. Aside from the two sacks of meal, police found two pounds of coffee, a box of savory, two lemons, and some peanuts in the bed of the sled.

When interviewed, William Elliot’s wife, Joanna, indicated that her husband and their hired hand, Tozier Sproul, a 19-year-old orphan from Montville, left the Glenburn home about 8 o’clock that morning. Elliot told Joanna that he and Sproul would be working at a woodlot in the morning and that, later in the day, he planned to go to Bangor to look for work hauling ice for a day or two. This being the case, she did not expect him home. Neither did she know how much money William carried with him.

Sometime after the men departed, Randall Goodwin pulled up to the house in a sled saying he wanted to buy a load of seasoned firewood. Joanna Elliot explained where her husband could be found and Goodwin followed the sled tracks to the wood lot.

At about noon, Sproul returned to the Elliot house on foot, explaining that Goodwin found them and purchased a load of firewood for his neighbor, the widow Jameson, paying William $1.50 in cash. Sproul remained at the home, tending to chores the rest of the day and evening. According to Sproul, William headed to Bangor alone to look for work hauling ice.

At Merrill & Stiles Provisions, Groceries and Ice House, located in the former Stetson Mill on Harlow Street, a short distance from the murder scene, investigators learned from Joseph R. Merrill that William Elliot and a young man—about 18 years old, dressed in dark clothes—stopped at the store around 7 p.m., purchasing the two bags of meal that were found in the sled, and some other small items. William counted out $2.81 to pay for the purchases but Merrill didn’t see any other money. William and his companion loaded the purchases into the sled and drove away together around 7:15 p.m.

During the Coroner’s inquest, witness reports varied. One witness living in the neighborhood reported seeing William stopped on Valley Avenue standing by the sled talking to one man while another man sat in the sled. A married couple also reported seeing William driving the sled as a man dressed in dark clothing was standing in the back of the box.

Newspaper accounts of the time did not indicate whether police interviewed anyone associated with ice merchants: Penobscot River Ice, Co. or J. H. Robinson & Co. both located on Harlow Street or John L. Triggs, on Valley Avenue. The Whig & Courier did, however, publish a second description of the suspect given by James Fickett, as being “about 25-years of age” with red chin whiskers, seeking to leave the team in the shelter of a shed.

Not mentioned during the Coroner’s inquest was the newspaper’s account of two children who allegedly attempted to jump aboard the Elliot sled being driven by a solitary man shortly after the murder was thought to occur. While it was common for children in the city to hop on and off sleds to catch ride or as part of their play, in this instance the driver reportedly swung a whip at the children, yelling that they could not ride with him.

One of the children was alleged to react by grabbing the fall of the whip as it swung toward him, and he yanked the whip handle from the man’s hand. The children, cited in one report to be two boys and cited in a second report to be girls, returned the whip to the police during the investigation, recounting the incident.

1875 Map of Bangor, Maine

Although of dubious scale, this 1875 map illustrates the level of development along  Valley Avenue and Harlow Street around the time of William Elliot’s murder and shows the likely route of the perpetrator’s escape (marked by the author with red arrows), along Harlow Street through East Market Square and down Exchange Street where he turned onto Washington Street en route to the railroad depot.  By modern measurement, this distance is approximately two miles. Unimpeded by traffic, a two-horse team, driven fast,  could cover this distance in five to seven minutes.  Bird’s Eye View of the City of Bangor, Penobscot County, Maine. 

Speculation about the Murder

While physical descriptions vary from witness to witness, William Elliot apparently picked up a stranger somewhere along his drive from Glenburn to Bangor. William stopped at Merrill & Stiles store and ice house to pick up provisions, leaving the establishment at approximately 7:15 p.m.  Around that same time, a witness reported seeing William stopped on Valley Avenue, speaking with another man. The final reported sighting on the Avenue—of a man standing in the back of the sled behind William as he drove—may have been only seconds before the murderer took his first swing with the axe.

The Whig & Courier reported that Officers Allen and Dougherty speculated the attack took place shortly after the pair left Merrill’s store. Due to the amount of blood in the back of the sled, police speculated the perpetrator stowed William in the back of the sled, covered with a horse blanket, to drive to a spot where he could dispose of the body. It is presumed this is why the driver “was so particular to prevent” the children from boarding the sled. Investigators surmised that after discarding of the body, the perpetrator turned the sled and headed toward town and his get-away.

One wonders at this theory, however. How would the perpetrator know of the axe in the bed of the sled? If his intention was robbery and murder, why would the perpetrator wait until after William Elliot made a purchase that reduced the value of his purse by nearly three dollars? Why would the murderer leave the body where it was so easily found, as well as take time to wrap it with a horse blanket? 

Being a snowy February night is it possible instead that, after leaving the store, William suggested his young passenger retrieve the horse blankets for the men to wrap themselves in, to help ward off the cold? Handing the first blanket to William, the stranger may have uncovered the axe and thinking to knock his driver out and stage a robbery, used the butt of the axe to club William twice on the back of the head, cracking open his skull and causing blood from a heavily bleeding wound to saturate the sacks of meal and the second horse blanket.

Injured, William fell from the sled into a snow drift but, at age 36 and in his prime, the former soldier was strong and determined to stand his ground. He managed to stand again. Still in the sled, the murderer swung the axe again, striking William in the forehead with the blade. Panicking, the stranger swung the axe a final time, hitting his victim in the right temple causing the fractured skull to crush inward as William finally collapsed, still wrapped in the horse blanket.

The murderer then secured Williams coin purse or wallet, spilling loose change as he stole the sled. Intent on his get-away, the stranger allegedly lashed out at the children who attempted to jump aboard the sled. Driving the horses hard for the less than two miles to the train station allowed the bewhiskered stranger only moments to abandon the sled and catch the last train out of Bangor for Boston, scheduled to depart at 7:40 p.m.

The Case Goes Cold

Police in Portland, Maine searched the night train when it arrived in that city at approximately 1:10 a.m. but no one matching Colson’s description of the suspect was found. Two days later, Fickett’s description of a red-whiskered suspect began to circulate.

On February 21, the Whig & Courier reported that a traveling agent stopping at the Smith Hotel in Oxford, New Hampshire recounted seeing a thin, 25-year-old man with a light, blotchy complexion and no whiskers who, according to the Whig & Courier, “answered the description” of the murder suspect. The description, however, constitutes the third version of the suspect’s appearance. 

Nonetheless, the young man who went by the name “Reed” was deemed suspicious for arriving at the Smith Hotel with no baggage and spending the following day attempting to beg a ride to Vershire, Vermont.  He was reported to have secured a ride as far as Orford, New Hampshire and upon arriving there, promptly set off on foot toward Vermont. Aside from the witness description, there is zero evidence the man called Reed had anything to do with William Elliot’s murder. Ultimately, the case went cold and remains unsolved to this day.


Bird’s Eye View of the City of Bangor, Penobscot County, Maine. Madison, Wisconsin: J. J. Stoner, 1875.
Bugbee, David, & Co. Greenough’s Directory of the Inhabitants, Institutions, Manufacturing Establishments, Societies, Business Firms, Etc., Etc. in the City of Bangor for 1879-1880. Boston: Greenough & Co., 1879. Retrieved 21, January 2017 from U.S. City Directories, 1822-1995. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2011.
 “A Case for Sympathy.” Bangor Daily Whig & Courier, Friday, February 14, 1879; Issue 39, 3.
Historical Data Systems, comp. U.S., Civil War Soldier Records and Profiles, 1861-1865 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations Inc, 2009.
“A Horrible Murder.” Bangor Daily Whig & Courier, Thursday, February 06, 1879, Issue 32, 3.
“It seems to us.” Bangor Daily Whig & Courier, Thursday, February 07, 1879, Issue 33, 3.
“Local Matters:  The Elliot Murder.” Bangor Daily Whig & Courier, Friday, February 21, 1879; Issue 45, 3.
“One Year Ago Tonight.” Bangor Daily Whig & Courier, Thursday, February 5, 1880; Issue 32, 3.
“The Recent Murder.” Bangor Daily Whig & Courier, Saturday, February 08, 1879; Issue 34, 3.
“The Recent Murder: Coroner’s Inquest—Several Witnesses Examined.” Bangor Daily Whig & Courier, Tuesday, February 11, 1879; Issue 36, 3.
 “The Recent Murder. Great Excitement in the City.” Bangor Daily Whig & Courier, Thursday, February 07, 1879, Issue 33, 3.
 “The Recent Murder: Still a Mystery.” Bangor Daily Whig & Courier, Saturday, February 10, 1879; Issue 35, 3.
 “The Valley Avenue Murder.” Bangor Daily Whig & Courier, Wednesday, February 12, 1879; Issue 37, 3.
U.S. Census Bureau. 1860 United States Federal Census. Levant, Penobscot, Maine; Roll: M653_446; Page: 994; Family History Library Film: 803446.
U.S. Census Bureau. 1870 United States Federal Census. Glenburn, Penobscot, Maine; Roll: M593_554; Page: 21A; Family History Library Film: 552053.
”Valley Avenue Tragedy.” Bangor Daily Whig & Courier, Monday, February 17, 1879; Issue 41, 3.
 “The Valley Avenue Tragedy.” Bangor Daily Whig & Courier, Tuesday, March 4, 1879; Issue 54, 3.