Murder, I Write

How the unwelcome task of turning an unsolved 100-year-old crime into a play became my obsession.
Is author Ken Sheldon — here with his "murder wall" — getting too close to solving the murder of William K. Dean? Someone seems to think so.

When it comes to mysteries, I tend to favor the “cozy” variety: Amateur detectives in quaint villages uncover the dirty secrets of their neighbors with a minimum of sex and violence, the actual mayhem occurring discreetly off-screen. Too high a body count, too much delving into the troubled mind of a serial killer, and I don’t sleep well.

So I wasn’t looking for a true crime drama to write about. I was taking time off from a successful comedy show and had cleared the decks so I could concentrate on a number of writing projects, including a thriller that would definitely be a bestseller if I could only finish it.

Then came the email: Would I be interested in writing a play to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the murder of William K. Dean in Jaffrey, New Hampshire?

My heart sank. For anyone who has lived in the Monadnock Region for any length of time, the Dean murder is an iconic event. At the height of World War I, a gentleman farmer who said he had important information to tell the government was brutally murdered. He was strangled, hog-tied and dumped into a cistern at his farm. The murder ripped the town of Jaffrey apart, became the stuff of local legend, and remains unsolved to this day.

How could I say no?

So much for my thriller.

Flashing lights and fishy tenants

The bare-bones outline of the Dean murder is this: After the United States entered WWI, residents in the southwestern corner of New Hampshire began to report lights flashing from Mount Monadnock and the surrounding hills. Many suspected the lights were German spies sending messages to U-boats prowling the waters offshore. Crazy, right? German spies in one of the sleepy towns mentioned by Thornton Wilder in “Our Town”? Ridiculous.

Still, it was wartime, and patriotic citizens were being encouraged to report any suspicious activity. (Sound familiar?) A few people with influence — wealthy summer visitors, mostly — called on the federal government to investigate the mysterious lights. One government investigator visited Dean at his hilltop home in what was then called East Jaffrey. The agent asked Dean to keep an eye on his tenant, Lawrence Colfelt, a well-to-do New Yorker whom locals suspected of having pro-German tendencies. The patriotic Dean assured the agent that “he would make it his business to keep a sharp lookout for any suspicious actions.”

A month later, Dean asked a friend to alert the authorities in Boston that he had important information for them. That same night he was murdered.

The main suspect, as far as the county authorities were concerned, was Dean’s wife. Mary Dean was senile and had reportedly made damning statements about her husband being in “deep water” before his body was found in the cistern. But locals were outraged at the accusation; the Deans were an extremely loving couple, and Mrs. Dean was physically incapable of committing the crime. Meanwhile, one of Dean’s closest friends — a banker named Charles Rich — appeared the day after the murder with a severe black eye that he was never to explain satisfactorily. Coincidence? Maybe.

Trouble in Dramaville

The problem with the Dean murder, from a dramatic standpoint, is that it remains unsolved. So, no final wrap-up scene in which the detective gathers the suspects in the library and points an accusing finger at the guilty party.

Also, the evidence in the case seemed mostly circumstantial; you could build a case that Rich and Colfelt were guilty or, conversely, that they were innocent victims of gossip and hearsay. The idea that the truth can be bent to serve competing narratives seemed timely and a good thread to build a play around.

Until I started digging deeper.

Hint for budding playwrights: If you’re going to write a historical play, read everything about the subject you can put your hands on. For the Dean murder, this involved over 3,000 pages of depositions, transcripts, newspaper clippings, correspondence, books and magazine articles.

Here’s another problem with the Dean murder. If you’re not careful, it becomes an obsession akin to discovering the location of Blackbeard’s treasure or solving a mathematical proof that has eluded mathematicians for ages. You become so absorbed in it that you forget to eat or change clothes. People at cocktail parties avoid you because they don’t want to get you started. Significant others move to Alaska and you don’t notice.

So that you don’t have to dodge me in public spaces, let me give just a few of the details I’ve learned about the Dean murder, things that led me to believe there was more to the story. The day after the murder, as many as 500 people were allowed to wander around the Dean farm, handling evidence and destroying potential clues. Officials did nothing to hinder them, aside from asking a reporter to stop taking pictures, mostly because Charles Rich’s wife demanded it.

That same day, an associate of Rich (with the ironically appropriate name of Henchman — you can’t make this stuff up) cleaned the barn where the murder took place, destroying potentially valuable evidence in the process.

A cigarette case was found at the bottom of the cistern, likely dropped there by one of the murderers. The cigarette case was a crucial piece of evidence, but it was mishandled and eventually went missing. It has never turned up.

A woman’s hairpin found near the cistern matched one found in the bedroom of the house occupied by Colfelt and his wife. A bloody heel print from a woman’s shoe was found in the barn. State and county officials failed to follow up on either of these clues.

The records of the county attorney’s investigation into the murder were never made public and have since disappeared. (Trust me, I have hounded every institution in the state where the records might have landed. State officials have been unfailingly helpful but ultimately stymied; they have no idea where the records went either.)

Colfelt had in his house an extremely heavy box that he claimed contained a Victrola. But a workman who peeked inside one day said it contained an apparatus that “looked very like a flashlight or wireless with a keyboard.”

Just how ridiculous was the idea that German spies were running around the Monadnock Region? We now know that German spies were active in the US during WWI. The German ambassador to the United States, Count von Bernstorff, was responsible for a spy ring with a $30 million budget, and von Bernstorff was a frequent visitor to the Monadnock Region. On one occasion, he and some associates were taken on a hiking trip where, as their chagrined guide later said, “All they seemed interested in was the outline and the tops of the hills.”

And there’s much more — postcards that might have contained secret messages, telephone calls made in code, a threatening letter that Dean received shortly before his death, and … wait. Where are you going? I’m not through yet. There’s a lot more I could tell you. 

About the Author

Ken Sheldon is the author of suspense novels, children’s books and “Welcome to Frost Heaves,” humorous tales from the most under-appreciated town in New Hampshire.

Categories: Features