Wednesday, November 07, 2007

The Headless Halloween of 1940

This story made its debut in the October 2007 issue of the Strange Maine Gazette. I'm still hoping to do further research on the story, and would be very pleased to hear anything from folks who have any information or recollections about the events of that Halloween.

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Halloween, while the haven of horror movies, pranks, and thrilling, terrifying darkness filled with unknown things, is still viewed as a mostly harmless occasion to indulge in the shadow world that is forbidden territory the rest of the year.

On Halloween night in 1940, however, events in Rockland, Maine, took a turn for the worse, and over the next week or so a story emerged in the Rockland Courier-Gazette that was as grim and grisly as today’s worst Hollywood imaginings.

John B. Phelps, 54, got in an argument with his 16-year-old stepdaughter Pauline Young yet again. Only this time, things went horribly, horribly wrong for Pauline.

Nine days later, police found Phelps wandering the streets near the police station around 2 o’clock in the morning, “bleeding profusely” from a suicide attempt, and ready to confess to his step-daughter’s murder.

The details of his hospital bed confession to Sheriff C. Earle Ludwick shocked an already wary town. A good number of the details created further questions in people’s minds.

For a week or so before the incident, Pauline had been avoiding her home at 28 Crescent Street, staying with a friend. On Halloween she returned home, planning to leave shortly thereafter. She never had the chance.

Phelps locked the doors of the house to prevent her leaving before her mother could get home from her job at the almshouse, although later he would tell Thelma Phelps that Pauline “ran out the back door.”
“She cursed me,” said Phelps, “and came at me with a butcher knife. I threw a hammer at her and it struck her on the forehead. [...] I didn’t know what to do with the body, but finally removed the head with an axe and a knife. The body I dragged down the cellar stairs, and wrapping it in burlap bags put it out through a cellar window under the piazza.”
Neighbors reported hearing four screams followed by a “dull thud” at the time of the incident. This did not necessarily agree with Phelps’ version of the events. Both of Pauline’s younger siblings were at play in the home’s dooryard during the time of their sister’s murder.

In the week after Phelps’ confession, neighbors spoke freely to the press, revealing that Phelps had acted “wild” the day after the killing, and did such peculiar things as asking Mrs. Alice Rich if she “noticed an awful smell,” and offering police the use of his pickaxe and shovel during the early days of their search.

The police search following Phelps’ confession uncovered five of the six burlap bags that he claimed to have placed Pauline’s body in. Although his story on when exactly the dismemberment occurred differed from telling to telling, the location in which the bags had been left was accurate. It must have been unnerving to realize that when they had come by earlier in the week to look for clues to the girl’s disappearance at the request of her mother, those grisly packages had been there the whole time.

The question that remained uppermost in local authorities’ minds was where had Pauline’s head gone? Taking the police to the northeast corner of the Maine Central wharf on the afternoon of his confession, John Phelps pointed into the murky depths of the Atlantic and cried, “There’s where I threw it; down there!”

Days passed, divers were called in, the harbor was dragged thoroughly, but no head was found. Stories circulated among local kids about where it could be. Adults pondered whether Phelps was cunning enough to have hidden it somewhere undiscoverable in order to hide “marks which would prove that more than a single blow was administered.”

Arraignment of Phelps occurred a week after his confession, at which time he pled “not guilty.” He spoke no other words during the court session. By the time of this turn of events, efforts to uncover the head were being abandoned, as the diver engaged to pursue the missing appendage had continued to stay away, and authorities decided that “the head has either become embedded in the soft bottom, or has drifted away from the wharf…”

The following Wednesday, Thelma Phelps announced plans to retire to her husband’s hometown of Danforth, Maine, with their two youngest children. Presumably Pauline’s younger sister, 13-year-old Evangeline, remained in the Pownal State School (later to become known as Pineland) where she resided at the time of the murder. Here ends the paper trail as it exists in the Rockland Public Library’s collected file.

I picked up the trail again in Home Front on Penobscot Bay: Rockland During the War Years 1940-1945 by Merriam, Molloy, and Sylvester. In the chapter titled “Crime of the Forties,” the story continues with Phelps’ indictment on February 13, 1941.

According to Home Front, Phelps pleaded guilty to murder, and two other charges, of mutilation and disposing of a human body, were filed. He served a life sentence at Maine State Prison, only released on parole “some thirty years later … to an out-of-state nursing home, where he died.”

Home Front co-author Theodore W. Sylvester, Jr., grew up playing on the streets of his neighborhood, which included Crescent Street, home of the unhappy Phelps family. He speaks of it in the chapter “Youthful Recollections”:
They never found the girl’s head. There was a lot of speculation and stories going around. The one that impressed us most was that the Phelps home was forever haunted, and that the head was buried under the porch. It was literally years before any of us would walk past the house – day or night. Sometimes we would race past the house on our bicycles, but that was the extent of our courage.
The book’s information about the case isn’t limited to dates and anecdotes. Among the interviews in Home Front is that of Cecile “Cis” Moore and her husband James A. Moore. Jim came to Rockland in 1940 as a Portland Press Herald correspondent. That first year he found himself present at Pauline Young’s autopsy at the Burpee Funeral Home.

The reporters didn’t actually get to watch the autopsy – the view was blocked by a screen. However, they “could hear the doctor describe the wounds to a nurse, who recorded the findings.” The doctor borrowed the knife of one of the reporters, Ray Sherman of the Bangor Daily News, part way through the operation, though after washing it off before returning it to Ray he remarked on its dullness.

By this point the newsmen must have been thankful they were spared the raw imagery. The stench alone was described as “nearly unbearable.” Cis recalled that it was months before Jim could eat a hamburger again.

To this day, the folks of Rockland who grew up with these events still wonder about what happened. The few who have tried to do research have come up with very little information. The story seems to have hidden itself away with Pauline’s missing head.
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Special thanks to K. Gordon, who tipped me off to this tale, and to Dan O’Connor at the Rockland Public Library, who helped get copies of relevant newspaper clippings to me.

All material in this article (including photos), unless otherwise cited, can be found in issues of the Rockland Courier-Gazette from November 1940. I’ll be digging into this more, but so far it’s been a bit of a boggy march with lots of dead ends.

As a side note, I would highly recommend the book Home Front on Penobscot Bay: Rockland During the War Years 1940-1945 by Merriam, Molloy, and Sylvester to anyone interested in what coastal Maine life was like during World War II.

21 comments:

Anonymous said...

It was nice (although, probably the wrong word) to read this article. My father was a teenager when this event happened. I grew up to his telling the story every Halloween which was followed by a drive by the place where the murder happened. My father often told about how frightened he and his friends were of the place. As kids, they too thought it was haunted.

Very interested reading.

Anonymous said...

My great grandmother was Thelma,and John Phelps is my great grandfather. My father's mother is the daughter of Thelma and John. I heard from my mom and dad when I was little and we went up to Maine to visit family that my great grandfather killed his daughter in a rage years and years ago. I was shocked when I googled his name and found this article today. So horrible a thing to read about a person in your family doing something like this. I didn't know all these details about what happened, Thanks for the article.

Michelle said...

Dear Anonymous (the first)-- Thank you for sharing your experience of the story. I have a feeling it is shared by many that grew up in the area. I hope someday to sit down and interview folks about the stories, as I think it must have formed an underlying current for everyone there.

Dear Anonymous (the second)-- Thank you so much for your note. As research for the story progressed, one of the things I grappled with was how far I should go in tracking down the family, and following the history of the survivors. While the folklore attached to the story is fascinating, I kept coming back to the fact that these were real people, people who had to live with this strange event and its repercussions. I tried to write the story with that in mind, avoiding the urge to emphasize the lurid details in favor of following the personal reactions I imagined people had to the events. I hope I succeeded. If you or anyone in your family has any interest in talking about the story with me, please feel free to use the email link on the side of this page or my P.O. Box as shown at the bottom of the page. Regards, Michelle

Michelle said...

Dear Anonymous--
Another of Thelma's relatives is very interested in speaking to you. Here is a message for you from her: "Please get in touch. Rachael had to be your grandmother, Would like to get together and do some genealogy. My mother was Thelma's sister."

I can put you in touch with her if you email me (email link is at top left of column on blog page).

Thanks,
Michelle

redwing991 said...

I have been doing genealogical research on my family. George Phelps is also my great grandfather, but relations from his first wife. My mother told me a little of what happened and I got in contact with Maine state prison, and they provided a little info. My grandfather disowned him and my great grandma remarried. This was in the 1900-1920 time. I also found info on his later marriage to Thelma, but surprised that no mention of children in the census (1930). When I searched and found this, I was awwed to find the extent of the crime.

Anonymous said...

i am shocked that this story was really true i had heard of it but thought that it was just a tail woo thats creepy my boyfriend would be his grandson

Anonymous said...

my mom lived on thomaston st.when this happened she was about 8yrs old,and said to believe he threw her head in the quarry behind tge chuch,he walked passed my mom and younger sister carring a bag that resembled a human head..............

redwing991 said...

Responding to my comment redwing991, that John Phelps was my great grandfather, and George was my Grandfather. I met a cousin of mine that visited in Indiana this last month(2010) and he knew of this occurrence. He is the son of John Phelps's daughter, which would be my grandfather's sister. Elliot is their name.

Anonymous said...

Every Halloween I think about this story. I actuall lived in that building when I was 17, pregnant with my first child. Pauline was a friend of my grandmothers (my mom's mother) she went their one day looking for her and John (sharpening knives) at the time said she wasn't there. My father told me that his mother saw John walking down thomaston st with a burlap bag. She asked him what he was doing and he said he was going to drown kittens in the quarry. Living there, I hated being home alone. Always got an eery feeling about the place. Ericka malmstrom

Anonymous said...

I'm a 16 year old guy and my aunt told me this story and I didn't believe it, so I googled it. Sure enough it lead me to this page. My aunt lives at the corner of crescent and suffolk, my mom grew up there. they aren't old enough to be around when this happened, but I can't believe this is true.

Anonymous said...

When I was a kid in the 1960s, my great-grandmother, Lempi Freeman and her husband, Francis, owned the house on Crescent St. in Rockland, Maine where the murder happened. I remember being told that the woman's head was in the cellar or the attic...something said by a neighbor to scare me. I do know I was scared to go into the cellar to fetch potatoes for myh great-grandmother. I spent nights there and I do not remember any hauntings, although it's interesing to read the news stories about the murder.

Anonymous said...

My mother said she was with Pauline just prior to her returning home the day of the murder and my father helped remove the bags from under the porch....or so it has been told to me. The story here matches my parents descriptions exactly.

melissa said...

My Grandfather was John Phelp's grandson. My grandfather did not speak much of this story and the most I've heard about it, was reading this article. We were talking about the story one night, so I came home and googled it and stumbled across this. For me..it was very cool to read and seeing that picture of him...was insane...I saw such a resemblence. A litte piece of family history... Thanks for the article!

Anonymous said...

My grandfather was John Phelp's grandson. I heard little bits about the story growing up, but never really knew what happened. My grandfather got picked on as a boy for it and didn't like talking about it. My family was talking about the story one night, so I came home and googled it. It sent chills down my spine to see that picture of John Phelps...I saw such a resemblence. Thanks for the article...a little piece of crazy family history!

Kristi said...

I sent a detailed e mail to you but my mom was out playing with the other children that night.she will never forget it.she has hated Halloween since that night..

Rachel P said...

Hello, it has been awhile since I visited this page and I am surprised at the new comments. I am Rachel Phelps grandaugter, as I am her name sake. My great grandfather John did not die in the nursing home, my grandmother Rachel took him in. I spoke to my dad Terry (whom has a twin Jerry) and he meet him (John Phelps) and they had words at the dinner table one nite after John gave my dad an attitude about a piece of pie that my grandmother served and my dad told him "well at least I am not a murderer" and left her house and never spoke to him again. And also the kids were not in the dooryard, my grandmother and brother were out trick or treating.

Anonymous said...

This was my great great great aunt my dad just told me about this im shocked and disgusted

Anonymous said...

I did not believe about this story until I heard from john phelps great great grandson.

Anonymous said...

All I can say is WOW. I am one of John Phelps many Great children. He was my maternal grandmother's father from his first marriage to Eunice Belyea. For obvious reasons my grandmother pretended this man didn't exist and never spoke of this horrific deed. I had heard a little of the story from my mother when she gave me a little family history lesson. I am 47 years old and this is the first time I ever tried reading more about it. I knew he had done something really bad and was a known murderer but this is just unimaginable!

Brenda said...

I grew up next door to this house. We moved there in 1956 and I remember hearing this story repeatedly. So many of the details are what I heard, including John walking up Thomaston Street carrying the parcel and said it was kittens he was going to throw into the guarry. I used to spend a lot of time in that apartment with Mattie Barker, an amazingly sweet lady and never felt uncomfortable. Guess I was too young but reading this now it creeps me out.

Anonymous said...

Growing up I was told about this story and told John was my great-grandfather. Don't know how true it is but my grandmother was a Phelps not sure when or how.