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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.