A lynching in Maine is an unusual thing. Throughout New England, lynching was extremely rare. Most lynching occurred in states in the South and Midwest-West, with blacks targeted more than whites by a three to one margin.
But in 1873, in the far north, residents from the area around Presque Isle carried out a lynching in Maine, and it remains a murky chapter in the state’s history to this day. The basic facts are these: On the night of April 27, 1873, James Cullen broke into Dudley’s General Store in Mapleton and stole a pair of boots. In total, he got away with about $25 worth of merchandise.
Cullen, a New Brunswick farmer of Irish descent, worked in the Maine woods logging in the winters. He also worked odd jobs in the mills and at local farms. He married Rosellah Twist in 1871 and together they had a son.
After the robbery, Cullen took to the woods. David Dudley, owner of the store, and William Thomas Hubbard went to Presque Isle to swear out a complaint against Cullen. Then Hubbard and deputy sheriff Granville Hayden left in pursuit of Cullen, accompanied by Minot Bird, a teenager who knew Cullen.
When the three caught up with Cullen at a camp deep in the woods, owned by John Swanbeck, they told Cullen of the complaint. They planned to return to Presque Isle in the morning. That night, however, Minot Bird and John Swanbeck awoke to discover Cullen beating Hayden and Hubbard to death with an ax.
The men fled the camp, leaving Cullen behind, where he burned the bodies and fled.
When news reached the town of Presque Isle, a posse of men formed to hunt for Cullen. Turns out he wasn’t very good at hiding. The men proceeded to the house Cullen shared with Rosellah and his son in Mapleton. There, they discovered him hiding in a cellar. His captors tied up Cullen and placed him in the store window in Mapleton, where residents could question him.
The Lynching in Maine
As the day drew to a close, a party of seven men, headed by Presque Isle’s constable, tied up Cullen and began to transport him to Presque Isle. About seven miles outside of Presque Isle, however, a group of angry men seized Cullen, put a rope around his neck and hoisted him up a tree. They held him aloft until he perished.
Once Cullen was dead, he was transported to Presque Isle where he was placed in a window for townspeople to view. A coroner conducted an inquest, and he concluded that James Cullen was hanged by parties unknown.
As the years rolled along, the retelling of the story has embellished it with added details and recollections. It even inspired a play several years ago. It is impossible to ever know all the facts, but here are a few of the mysteries that remain:
Far from being strangers, James Cullen and William Hubbard, one of the men he killed, knew each other well. According to several sources, Cullen’s wife Rosellah was not known for her fidelity. She was already married to another man at the time she married Cullen.
In addition, she had taken a fancy to Hubbard, who arrived in northern Maine around the same time as Cullen. Sources speculate that Hubbard and Rosellah had an affair and that she intended to leave Cullen for Hubbard and evict her husband from the home they shared.
Indeed, something set Cullen off, since he stabbed Hubbard’s horse before he went to rob the general store. Many theorize he discovered the affair and murdered Hubbard in retaliation. Cullen reportedly said when apprehended that he only regretted not killing more people.
New Brunswick History
Exactly why did the deputy sheriff not immediately return with Cullen once he found him at John Swanbeck’s camp? Why spend the night there, and risk letting Cullen attack or flee?
One theory is that Cullen was convinced the issue of the stolen merchandise could be smoothed over with Dudley, the store owner. So, Cullen seemed agreeable to returning peacefully.
Another theory holds that Deputy Heydon told Cullen that he could go on his way if he agreed to go to Canada and not return, a common way of dealing with petty criminals. Under this school of thought, Cullen left the camp, promising to run to Canada, but returned early in the morning to carry out the murders.
A rumor spread shortly after the lynching that Cullen could not return to New Brunswick because he was guilty of murder there, though there is little evidence to support that.
Who Hanged Jim Cullen
Perhaps the biggest question of all is who actually hanged James Cullen. No one was ever accused of the lynching, let alone tried. News accounts at the time said a group of 75 to 100 men, wearing disguises, waylaid the prisoner. They formed a ring around him while they strung him up and prevented others from releasing him until he died. Then they disappeared, unidentified.
However, some evidence suggests that the lynching was more organized than that. One newspaper correspondent may have mailed off an article about the lynching to his editor before it even happened.
Further, deputy Hayden was a well-liked merchant of the firm Hayden & Pratt and a popular Mason. One historian theorizes it was a group of Hayden’s friends, mostly his fellow Masons, who murdered him shortly after leaving Mapleton. And what about the larger group reported in the press? It only intercepted Cullen after he was dead. That group intended to torture Cullen before hanging him, but were too late.
Head of the Class
After displaying Cullen in a store window, the townspeople disposed of his body by burying it at the town dump. But he wouldn’t stay there long. That fall, Luther Bateman visited Aroostook County to deliver a lecture on phrenology – the scientific discipline that held that people’s predilections could be predicted by the bumps on their heads.
Bateman had a varied career: Lewiston newspaper editor, politician and lecturer. The idea of examining the skull of a murderer fascinated him. He convinced a local lawyer to assist him in exhuming Cullen’s corpse, removing the head and stripping the flesh from the skull.
In the years that followed, Bateman made Cullen’s skull prominent feature in his skull collection and it toured with Bateman as he traveled the countryside – even returning to Aroostook County for occasional lectures on the lynching in Maine.
This story last updated in 2022.
“A Maine Lynching: The Violent Death of James Cullen at Mapleton, 1873,” George S. Rowell, Maine Historical Society Quarterly
“They Lynched Jim Cullen: Story and Myth on the Story and Myth on the Northern Maine Frontier,” Dena Lynn Winslow York
Lynching Beyond Dixie: American Mob Violence Outside the South, Michael J. Pfeifer
Photo: Arbuckle Bros. Publisher: Arbuckle Bros. Date: 1889 Location: Maine.