Winding up the small dirt road in East Jaffrey, New Hampshire, there is a feeling of time slipping backwards. In late fall, all the leaves are gone from the trees and a chill wind steadily blows. Mount Monadnock can be seen to the right peeking out above the tree line. Topping the driveway, a large white country home emerges from the bleak landscape. It looks empty and forgotten. The house seems to emanate a complex history, a forgotten past waiting to be resolved.
Eighty-five years ago on the night of August 13 the murder of William Kendrick Dean was committed on this piece of land. The killing of a 63 year-old man in a desolate New England town grabbed considerable attention and was controversial for many years. The murder is still talked about in Jaffrey, and many people have strong opinions about what happened on that night in 1918.
Margaret Bean, a local historian who has written about the murder, has been quoted as saying, “In many ways it brought out jealousy and resentment in the town.”
William Dean was born in Wilmington, Delaware on February 12, 1855 and married his first cousin, Mary. William and Mary had no children in 38 years of marriage. After a successful start in medicine, Dean gave it up for book publishing at the urging of his wife. In 1889, they moved to Jaffrey to settle on a farm about two miles from the village. Country life became a retreat for Dr. Dean, who did most of the farm chores himself. As time passed Mary became sickly and William spent most of his time caring for her.
Then, the event. Late on an August evening in 1918 the doctor went out to milk the cows. Mary waited through the night for her husband to return. In the morning she went out looking for him and ultimately she called the neighbors, frantically saying, “Billie is dead in the deep water,” according to The Sentinel. The selectmen, police, and others were called in for the search. At about noon the body of Dean was hauled out of a well next to the house.
The investigation from this point was handled in an unorganized fashion, obscuring possible evidence and further clouding the outcome of the case. While cleaning up the barn where blood spots were found, valuable clues may have been swept away. An autopsy was not performed until eight months after the murder.
Police first suspected Mrs. Dean of committing the crime. “There were some who felt Mrs. Dean was jealous of her husband who was very much a ladies man or womanizer. He enjoyed women and talking with them. He always made himself very charming with women,” Margaret Bean stated.
The only evidence against Mrs. Dean was the fact that she was on the farm the night her husband died and that she wore a similar hairpin to the type that was found near her husband's body. Mary was an invalid who suffered from hardening of arteries and senile dementia. Many townspeople in Jaffrey believed Mrs. Dean was too weak mentally and physically to commit the murder. Few believed she had the strength to knock her husband unconscious, tie together his ankles, knees and wrists, cover his head with a sack weighted with a 30-pound rock, carry his body 500 feet, and drop him in a well.
Mrs. Dean died 13 months after the murder, after being confined to a mental hospital.
In another theory, some villagers suspected that Dr. Dean had been set to turn in a German spy ring operating in the Monadnock Region. A conversation was reported between Dean and Mrs. Horace Morrison, a wealthy townsperson, in which Dean told her to go to federal authorities in Boston and have them send one of their best men to Jaffrey. Within 12 hours of that conversation, Dean was dead.
(Mrs. Morrison had heeded Dean’s call. She had gone to Boston, and it was on the train heading back that she learned that Dean had died.)
Rumors and village gossip spread and war hysteria terrorized villagers. For months during World War I citizens in Jaffrey, Dublin, Peterborough, and Keene reported seeing flashing lights on Mount Monadnock. The Sentinel had reported, “By August, 1918, three months before the Armistice was signed ending World War I, hatred of Germans and German sympathizers had reached a feverish pitch. Many people in East Jaffrey and surrounding towns were convinced they were living in the middle of a veritable hotbed of German spy activity.”
In that context, Laurence Colfelt Jr., who had come to Jaffrey in 1916 with his wife and stepdaughter, was also suspected of killing Dean. People in the village believed his name was actually “Kohfeldt” and that he was a German spy. Colfelt rode a horse with rubber shoes, bought large quantities of groceries, received mysterious telegrams from New York City, picked up his mail at several post offices in the region, and did not work for a living.
He and his family lived in a rented house on the Dean property. In 1918 Dr. Dean ordered the Colfelts off his land, and they moved to Greenville.
The Sentinel wrote, “Supposedly, Dean resented the fact that Colfelt was not doing something constructive at such a crucial time. The doctor was quoted as saying: ‘I am too good an American to have a man of that kind on my place.’”
The night of the murder Colfelt told investigators that he was at a hotel in Portsmouth and had gone to bed early.
Separately, Charles Rich, a state senator and a successful businessman became a suspect in the Dean murder mystery, as well.
Said Margaret Bean: “The man who became the prime suspect and became the tragic figure of it was the president of the bank, Mr. Rich. Mr. Rich became a kind of scapegoat in a way. A lot of people didn’t take to him that much.”
Rich had a bruise on the right side of his face the night Dean was murdered. He explained that his horse had kicked him; he was never charged.
With all this, the Cheshire County Grand Jury had a tough job. Its formal conclusion reflected just how tough. “The Grand Jurors announce that upon full consideration of all the evidence presented before them, they find that Dr. Dean of Jaffrey came to his death at midnight August 13, 1918, at the hand of a person or persons unknown to them.”
Amber Stronk is a junior in the honors-level American Studies class at Keene High School, for which this report was written.