Friday, August 26, 2022

A matter of historical record: Courtroom drama stuns as Windham murderess is revealed in 1895 infant death

By Walter Lunt


Facing a sentence of life in prison, Rose Dolley, her head buried in a tear-stained handkerchief, sat in superior court in Portland, where she was on trial for the brutal and horrific slaying of her infant son on Thanksgiving Day 1895.

As explained in Part One (The Windham Eagle, Aug. 12, 2022), the young Windham woman, who was unmarried, gave birth in Portland at a home for unwed girls. Her mother, Ellen, fearing shame and dishonor would be brought upon the family, demanded her daughter give up the child. That idea fell through and as the pair returned to Windham with the child during an early season snowstorm, the horse and carriage came to a stop just beyond the Prides Corner bridge where the babe was taken into the woods. It was found dead a month later, face down in an icy bog. The coroner would later testify that he found “…part of a white apron around the child’s neck. It was tied in a hard knot…” and that death was due to strangulation.

Following an investigation that included an eyewitness to a woman entering the woods and to retracing footsteps through brush, barbed wire fences and wetlands in the snow, Sheriff Samuel Plummer arrested both mother and daughter, Rose for murder and her mother as an accomplice. Rose’s trial drew hundreds of spectators who followed an unfolding drama, dubbed “The Prides Corner Mystery,” that made newspaper headlines throughout New England.

Evidence presented by the district attorney was overwhelming and pointed toward certain conviction.

But in an unusual legal twist, defense counsel William Anthoine, who represented both women, stunned the courtroom by asserting Rose was innocent, that the infant was dead when taken into the woods because the mother, Ellen, had killed the child during the wagon journey. Rose, however, had confessed to the crime during the prosecution phase of the trial.

This was yet another astounding turn of events that brought about surprise and astonishment to the thousands of courtroom followers in six states. According to the Jan. 30 Portland Evening Express, “Counsel Anthoine stated that the defense would admit that murder had been committed but would show that the child was dead when taken by Rose from the carriage. It would also show that Rose did not touch the child from the time it was given to its grandmother in Portland…until she took the baby from her mother’s arms just before going into the woods. The defense would show that, if murder was committed, it was committed by the grandmother, Ellen Dolley, and not by Rose Dolley.”
In his stern and almost fiery address to the court, Anthoine declared, “Ellen Dolley believed that the wages of sin is death and she considered herself as one of the instruments of God’s justice. Ellen Dolley refused to let her daughter come home (to Windham) when the child was born. She called her daughter every name that she could think of and told her that as she had disgraced the family, she might get out of it as best she could. She offered no sympathy to her unfortunate child, said no consoling words, but left her, heaping imprecations on her head and cursing her for the disgrace she had caused her family… (Mrs. Dolley) said she wished the child was dead. They drove on gentlemen (towards Windham), through the gathering gloom, the mother and child suffering the agonies of the damned under the cruel lash of her mother’s tongue, the grandmother of the child plotting murder in the heart. At last, they reached the woods beyond Prides Corner when Mrs. Dolley suddenly asked Rose, who was driving, to stop the horse. Mrs. Dolley then jumped out like a cat and took the child with her (into the woods).”

The first witness to be called by Counsel Anthoine was Patia Dolley, Rose’s younger sister and a daughter of Mrs. (Ellen) Dolley. The young girl’s testimony was said to be given in a convincing manner. She was at home in Windham the night of Nov. 25 when her mother and Rose arrived home from Portland. Her key testimony revealed that Rose had arrived in dry clothes and dry footwear. Her mother, however, had immediately entered her bedroom and changed her clothes.

Anthoine’s second witness was Rose Dolley, who reluctantly stepped into the witness box. Here the story of the ride from Portland to Windham that stormy night changed dramatically. Under intense questioning from her counsel, Rose said she drove the wagon and that she and her mother argued about bringing the child home. Rose recounted how Mrs. Dolley grew increasingly anxious with each passing mile, and finally, as they entered the wooded area at Prides Corner, ordered Rose to stop the horse. Mrs. Dolley got out of the carriage with the baby and disappeared into the dark woods, ignoring Rose’s pleas for an explanation.

When her mother later reappeared without the baby, Rose demanded to know, “Where have you been so long, and where is the baby?” Her mother’s curt reply was that she had taken care of the baby. Rose attempted to get out of the carriage, but her mother prevented her from doing so and the two quarreled bitterly for the rest of the ride. Rose further stated that the child was alive when Mrs. Dolley took it from the carriage. Her testimony was delivered amid loud sobs and several lengthy breaks while she regained her composure.

The judge, jury, prosecution, and the courtroom spectators listened in dazed silence. Counsel Anthoine’s presentation had gone far beyond what he had told the court to expect to hear. Now, it appeared, it was Ellen Dolley who was on trial.

On cross examination, referencing Rose’s earlier confession to the crime, the prosecution asked her, “Did you not know that your mother had committed a greater crime in killing the child than you had?

“Yes,” answered Rose, “but I was the cause of it all. I wanted to protect my mother.”

The Portland Evening Express observed, “The pitiful story of the defendant yesterday…served to reawaken public sympathy in her case. The generous hearted public believed her tale, the jury believed it…even the prosecuting officers being impressed with her apparent truthfulness.”

The following day, Jan. 31, 1896, spectators, mostly women, mobbed the lower corridors of the city building to witness the next sensational development. They were, reported the Evening Express, “All anxious to get a look at the girl who had been heroic enough to even confess to the murder and put herself on record as an inhuman parent to save her own mother from punishment and from prison.”

Ellen Dolley took the witness stand and corroborated the testimony of her daughter, Rose. In an unusual legal move, Judge Bonney instructed the jury to find Rose Dolley not guilty. They did so, without leaving their seats.

On Feb. 4, Ellen Dolley, 49, pled guilty to the murder of her 6-week-old grandson, William. As reported in the press, “She uttered the word (guilty) in a very low tone but the stillness in the courtroom was so intense that it was distinctly heard by all.”

Her defense counsel, William Anthoine, who, in effect, had prosecuted her, called for a reduced sentence declaring the deed was committed during an outburst of violent temper, that her initial efforts to convince her daughter to give up the child showed that “she had not murder in her heart.”

Attorney General Powers countered for murder in the first degree, proclaiming,” Her frenzy could not have been aroused by a sudden knowledge of her daughter’s shame, for she was aware of that shame before the child’s birth,” and he insisted the evidence brought out in Rose’s trial revealed premeditation.

The judge’s decision was announced on May 5: “That Ellen Dolley be confined in the state prison at Thomaston for the term of her natural life.”

According to research conducted by Louis Dunlap and Jean Dyer and Annette Vance Dorey, author of Maine Mothers Who Murdered, Ellen Dolley served only nine years in prison. Her attorney, William Anthoine, petitioned successfully for her full pardon in August of 1905, arguing that Mrs. Dolley’s crime was manslaughter (not first- degree murder) and that the maximum sentence had been served. She was living on the family farm of her son, George, in Windham when she died in 1931, the same farm where our story occurred. Her great-grandson, Lawrence Dolley, remembered seeing her there and described her as “feisty.”

Rose Dolley changed her name to Hazel R. Dolley and moved to Boston. She married Leslie Wentworth in Portland in 1919 and in 1940 was living in Gorham, Maine with her husband; she later worked at Pineland Hospital. Rose Hazel Dolley died in 1964 and is buried in Chase Cemetery in Windham.Lisa Elizabeth of Standish is a direct descendant of Ellen Dolley and only recently learned the story of her distant grandmother. “The story was harsh, awful, very sad. The story was (obviously) hushed through the generations – like a family secret. I admired Ellen for her courage – she could have walked away, but she didn’t. She owned up for what she did. I think she just momentarily snapped. After 100-plus years, I forgive her.” <

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