Friday, August 12, 2022

A matter of historical record: Spectacular murder trial of Windham mother and daughter grips New England in late 1800s

Rose Dolley and her mother Ellen were put in
jail in Portland, shown above, for the murder
of Rose's baby boy in December 1895.
Part One

By Walter Lunt 

Observers in the Portland courtroom sat motionless and silent, listening intently to incredulous testimony from the young lady from Windham who was on trial, accused of an unthinkable crime. Rosalie (Rose) Dolley sobbed uncontrollably, spilling tears into a handkerchief behind a black veil that covered her face. The warrant for her arrest, dated Dec. 8, 1895, stated that she was being charged with the murder of her infant child and that her mother, Ellen Dolley, was charged with being an accessory before the fact in the crime.

Newspapers from Bangor to Boston were enthralled with the case against the two Dolley women and printed front page stories, sometimes under banner headlines, as each nefarious detail emerged.

The whole affair began the previous year when Rose, then 17, became engaged to James Libby, 40. The two decided to postpone the wedding for at least a year. Libby, however, died suddenly in May of 1895; a short time later, Rose discovered she was pregnant; bearing a child out of wedlock, in those times, was seriously frowned upon and usually brought shame and dishonor to the entire family.

Rose told no one, not even her immediate family, of her condition and left home to take a job at a boarding house on Peak’s Island. Eventually, word got back to her mother, Ellen, that Rose was “in trouble.” Furious, Ellen visited Rose and insisted she go to the Temporary House, a home for unwed girls, in Portland.

After Rose gave birth to a baby boy named William on October 7, Ellen forced her daughter to give up the child to a Portland couple who, ostensibly, would adopt it. Days later, for reasons that remain unclear, Rose and Ellen returned to the home and reclaimed the child. The baby, however, would never arrive at the Dolley home in Windham.

As Rose would later confess to Cumberland County Sheriff Samuel D. Plummer, the night they retrieved the child from Portland was the evening of the season’s first snowstorm, Nov. 25. As the horse and wagon moved north through wind-whipped snow along the Bridgton Road toward their home in Windham, they argued about the disposition of the infant and how they would explain the situation to family and neighbors – perhaps claim it was someone else’s child. Ultimately, all seemed hopeless and about a quarter mile beyond the Prides Corner bridge the horse would pull up to a stop. Rose said she stepped from the wagon with her child and entered woods on property owned by Oliver Leighton. While wandering aimlessly through the trees, underbrush, and brooks, she was spotted by a man named Winfield Lawrence who was returning to his home following a welfare check on a neighbor. Later, he could not identify the girl due to the bad weather and because a shawl was wrapped about her head and shoulders. After about an hour, Rose said she returned to the wagon and her waiting mother…without the baby.

The next morning, both Lawrence and Leighton returned to the wooded area and followed the meandering tracks of the mysterious woman. The following day, results of their exploration were reported in the Portland Evening Express under the headline A Mysterious Case (that is) Exciting the People at Prides Corner – the story stated, “…they went down the road until they found the track through the woods made by the woman in her flight…For more than an hour they followed the tracks in the snow, which seemed to be made by a woman wearing a small sized shoe. The trail led over logs and through a deep tangle of underwood, across brooks and over bogs. On the edge of a brook the men picked up a baby’s hood and a lady’s handkerchief with no initials on it. The entire distance followed by the men was about five miles and tracks finally came (back) to the Bridgton Road, about half a mile below the point where the woman (went in).” The story went on to speculate that a child may be in some sort of danger, perhaps even murdered, and that the matter would undoubtedly be investigated by the sheriff’s office.

The newspaper’s assumption was correct. The next day Sheriff Plummer and two deputies “put in” with Oliver Leighton. On the track trail they discovered additional items of clothing, described as a blue worsted cord and tassel from a baby’s jacket. Authorities (along with dozens of Prides Corner residents) were now convinced the mysterious woman in the woods was carrying a baby.

On Dec. 2 a search party was organized. At least 50 men and a foxhound initiated a systematic search of Leighton’s woods; more clothing turned up: a baby’s white dress, “…clean and lying on top of the snow.” The sheriff and the Prides Corner neighborhood were now convinced there was a deceased child somewhere in those woods. Sheriff Plummer announced a reward of $50 to anyone who should find a child’s body. More searches were conducted in the following days, but to no avail.

By this time, more newspapers had picked up the “The Prides Corner Mystery” story. It soon became must-reading all over New England, nearly as notorious as the Lizzie Borden axe murders only four years earlier.

On Dec. 9, the Portland Evening Express ran a banner headline: SOLVED AT LAST. The story read, “…at last a reader of the Express…came to the front and gave officers some information. It was to the effect that a young woman named Rose Dolly (sp), who lived in Windham, had given birth to a child in the Temporary (home for unwed girls) in Deering about six weeks before the finding of the footprints in the woods.”

The sheriff’s investigation was then speedy and complete. Interviews with the girl’s home led to the identification of the clothing found in the woods, as well as the identification of the Portland couple who had temporarily cared for the child. This led to the discovery that the child’s mother and grandmother had reclaimed the baby and was taking it to their home in Windham…on the same evening of the snowstorm and the discovery of the tracks. Sheriff Plummer immediately visited the home of the Dolley’s in Windham, where he found Mrs. (Ellen) Dolley, her son, Warren, and three younger children. Rose was not there. All gave conflicting stories regarding the journey from Portland on the snowy night and about the whereabouts of Rose and Rose’s baby. Both Ellen and Warren were immediately arrested as possible accomplices of a crime. The newspaper reported that the scene at Mrs. Dolley’s house when she was taken away from her children “…was very affecting. (She is a widow) and protests her innocence. She has lived in Windham 30 years and is said to have been very much respected there.”

Upon further questioning, Warren finally admitted he had recently driven his sister (Rose) to Portland, that she left him without word of where she was going and that she carried with her a small extension grip (suitcase). A search of the Dolley house turned up an address in Dorchester, Massachusetts. Armed with a picture of Rose, the sheriff boarded the midnight train, located her at the Dorchester address and returned her to Portland. On Dec. 12, the Portland Evening Express, in a simple three-word headline revealed the latest stunning turn of events: “ROSE HAS CONFESSED.”

Both Rose and her mother, Ellen, were put in jail in Portland. Warren was ordered to provide surety bond and was allowed to remain at the Windham home to provide care to the younger children.

Many observers in the public square clung to the belief that Rose Dolley had given up her child, and that baby William was alive and well somewhere in the hands of loving adoptive parents. Those hopes were dashed on the afternoon of Dec. 29; William Leighton had stumbled across the body of an infant approximately one-third of a mile from the main road. Footprints of previous search parties had passed near the child, but the tiny body had been covered with sticks and branches and Leighton found it quite by accident.

Later, at the trials of Rose and Ellen Dolley, a coroner would testify that the infant was lying face down in a swamp and ice had to be cut away from around the body. “A cloth was tied tightly about the child’s neck. There was a look of anguish on its face.” The ruling was death by strangulation.

The county attorney ordered the child’s body be buried at public expense and that no ceremony be held.

On Jan. 29, 1896, a local newspaper reported “The trial of Rose Dolley of Windham, on the charge of murdering her infant son, was begun this morning in the superior court (in Portland). Judge Bonney presiding.” The trial of Mrs. Dolley, accused as an accomplice, was scheduled after that of her daughter’s.

Crowds of spectators swarmed the court, composed chiefly of women, many from Windham who were friends or neighbors of the Dolleys. A few had driven in from out of state. Sheriff Plummer allowed only as many as the courtroom could absorb comfortably. Photographers were barred from taking pictures of the defendant, so news writers provided a written description of the girl: “Rose Dolley was brought into the court from jail by the sheriff…and heavily veiled, was carefully guarded through the surging crowd. She made a very favorable impression on those who saw her this morning. She wore a brown cloak, braided with black…She had on a very pretty dark-green dress trimmed brown. Her hat was also brown with a small feather (that) curled gracefully over one side. Rose Dolley is not a very evil or bad looking girl. Her eyes are large and black, her hair brown and complexion fair. The prisoner sat with her head bowed and face often hidden in her handkerchief.”

The prosecution consisted of a legal trio: the attorney general, county attorney and assistant county attorney. The evidence was presented: the hidden birth, attempts to conceal the child, the snowy journey from Portland, a stop near Prides bridge, the tracks, the discovery and identification of the child and finally, Rose’s confession to Sheriff Plummer. In summation, the county attorney told the jury, “In this case a little child with all of the possibilities of life before it is needlessly, cruelly, and shamefully murdered by (Rose Dolley) who should be the one person in the world to guard it…the evidence bears with certainty…guilt.”

It was reported there was scarcely a dry eye in the courtroom. Rose sobbed pitifully.

Following brief recess, Rose’s court appointed counsel, William Anthoine would stun the court, as well as all of New England with new evidence. The tide was about to turn in the Rose Dolley murder trial. As one observer noted, “(the trial) ended in the way many of the story books do, which the average reader considers overdone. Everybody in the crowded court room was on tiptoe with excitement.”

Next time, Part Two reveals the real murderer. <

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