Editor's Note: Two Vermont women mystery writers are researching an unsolved 1935 triple murder in east Middlebury, Vt., as part of their effort to write a realistic novel about the tragedy.
During their interview session with the late Robert Fenn of East Middlebury, writers Roxanna Emilo and Kathy Brande of Bristol, both women helped him search for a piece of cloth evidence removed from the crime scene and stored in his East Middlebury house; the fragment of awning canvas was never found.
Fenn died a few years later. The cloth fragment, as well as the elderly Vermonter's recollections about the incident, went to the grave with him.
Big news, small town
Vermont in the first half of the 20th century was a world away from Vermont in the first half of the 21st century. Violent crime may be old hat in today's 24-hour news cycle, but in 1935 news of the triple murder sent shockwaves throughout Addison County and beyond.
According to news accounts, the state pathologist, Dr. C. F. Whitney, drove down from Burlington to examine the skeletons. A few hours after Dague and her daughter found the remains, the bones were moved indoors by order of Middlebury Selectman George Chaffee. No doubt much evidence was destroyed in the process.
Newspapers reported that "news hawks" flocked to Middlebury including reporters from Boston, Albany and New York City. Reporters asked questions but they didn't get much in the way of definitive answers.
"There was a lot of bootlegging going on around Middlebury back in those days," Emilo said. "Today's Route 116, the East-Middlebury to Bristol Road, was on the main line of rumrunners during Prohibition. At the time, State's Attorney John T. Conley suggested that bootlegging hijackers may have been involved."
Both Emilo and Brande believe the bootlegging theory is plausible. Maybe the three victims saw something they should not have seen and were killed as a result, they suggested. But who really knows?
What might have helped law enforcement solve the crime turned out to be one of the more frustrating aspects of the triple-murder investigation-the victims' dental records.
"The older of the two young victims, a 14 year old, had several thousand dollars in unfinished dental work," Emilo said. "This included a gold brace. This was a sign that the victim's family had money and could afford such costly dental work during the Great Depression."
Hundreds of dentists and orthodontists looked at the dental work in the weeks following the discovery of the three skeletons. In June 1935, an Elizabeth, N.J. dentist reported that he believed he recognized the work as having been done for a child of a New York stock broker.
The broker was said to have reported a wife and two children missing, however, it is believed the broker was never a serious suspect; his family members were later located alive and well. Police investigated other missing persons, but no hard evidence was forthcoming.
Evidence of a pillow was also found with the canvas awning and the human remains, so some authorities went as far as to speculate that the vicitims were shot in bed, possibly asleep and then dumped along the road. But even this theory didn't seem to produce any leads.
In June 1935, VSP Detective Franzoni reported that orthodontist Dr. Charles A. Spahn believed that at least one of the victims-probably the 14-year-old girl-was of Jewish descent. This, according to Spahn, was based on tooth structure and the shape of the mouth. (While a controversial idea, some researchers believe teeth can sometimes indicate ethnic background.)
Spahn also told police that the gold used in the bracework was similar to a block of metal he possessed. Also, it was discovered that the brace work was of a style developed by a Los Angeles dentist. A list of dentists that employed the method was investigated but nothing turned up. Even the maker of the victims' dental materials, S.S. White Co. of Philadelphia, Pa., was contacted for help. Again, nothing turned up.
Despite the many possible leads, the case of the triple murders still remains a mystery.
"Authorities checked the region for missing persons, too," Brande said. "Even vacationers who spent summers at Lake Dunmore were questioned, but no missing persons were ever reported."
"So, the bodies were never identified," Emilo added. "Yet even today, the State of Vermont will not release the medical examiner's report. Officials will not tell us anything about the case. I know, I've called. I've tried to talk with Dr. Paul Morrow, even the current medical examiner-they all said it's an unsolved crime. They will not release any information today. A few years ago, a University of Vermont anthropology class studied the remains and wrote a report. I tried to get a copy of that report. They won't release it. We believe the remains of these 1935 victims are still in Vermont."
Perhaps author Rachael Carson best summed up the dilemma of those-even fiction writers like Emilo and Brande-who seek to peel back the layers off an immutable onion: "Every mystery solved brings us to the threshold of a greater one."
Check It Out: What do you know about the Middlebury triple murders of May 1935? If you would like to share your story or hearsay with researchers Roxanna Emilo and Kathy Brande, please call 802-388-4440 or 802-349-9837; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org or surface mail Roxanna Emilo, POB 586, East Middlebury, Vt. 05740 or look for Roxanna Emilo on Facebook. All inquiries will be treated privately.