For over 100 years, people have tried to figure out who killed Dr. William Dean at his farm in Jaffrey, N.H., and dumped his body in a cistern full of deep water.
There’s no shortage of possible answers to the question – and to another: Why was he killed?
The case led investigators through a tangle of suspects that included Dean’s elderly wife, a World War I-era German spy ring and a politically powerful friend who was a banker and a judge.
Kenneth M. Sheldon delves into the mystery and presents a possible solution in his new book, Deep Water: Murder, Scandal, and Intrigue in a New England Town. The book is based on extensive research into the Dean murder, including thousands of pages of FBI documents, Grand Jury testimonies, newspaper accounts, private correspondence, and the archives of the Jaffrey Historical Society.
Here is an edited excerpt from Deep Water.
By now, it was noon. The men found an ice hook in the barn and used it to pull the body out just enough to confirm that it was William Dean. He had been bound, his hands tied behind his back, a rope around the knees, and a rough burlap sack over his head.
They released the body back into the water and telephoned the county authorities. While they waited, William Coolidge became concerned about Mrs. Dean and decided she should have someone with her. He called the Monadnock National Bank to speak with Dean’s friend Charles Rich, manager of the bank, hoping that Rich’s wife could come to look after Mrs. Dean. Coolidge heard the phone ring, but before it was answered, a car pulled into the Deans’ yard. In it were Charles and Lana Rich, Georgiana Hodgkins, and William Leighton, the town undertaker. Their arrival struck Coolidge as odd. How could they have heard the news so quickly, given that Dean’s body had just been found?
When the Riches arrived, Mrs. Dean was in the barn tending to the turkeys and other animals, which seemed odd to Charles Rich. “She was down there doing that instead of being overcome with grief,” he testified later. “I was a little surprised at that, knowing she was an invalid.”
Dead in the Deep Water
Mrs. Dean emerged from the barn, and Lana Rich and Miss Hodgkins took her aside to keep her from seeing what was going on at the cistern. Mr. Rich joined the other men by the cistern, at which point Martin Garfield noticed Rich had a severe black eye and cuts on his face and ear. Rich also made what seemed to Garfield a foolish comment. “Mr. Rich came to the well and looked in and said he thought Mr. Dean was nervous and intimated that he probably put himself out of the way,” Garfield said. “I told him I didn’t think Mr. Dean could commit suicide the way he was fixed up.”
“Mr. Dean was a pretty smart man,” Rich said.
“He must have been a mighty smart man to tie his legs together, his hands behind his back, pull a bag down over his head, put a stone around his body, jump into the cistern and pull the cover over it,” Garfield replied. He offered to have Dean’s body pulled up for Rich to see.
Rich turned white. “I don’t care to see him.”
At that, Rich left and rejoined the women. Mrs. Dean saw him approach and said, “Oh, Mr. Rich, Mr. Dean is dead in the deep water.”
“Yes, Mrs. Dean, he was in deep water,” Rich replied.
Georgiana Hodgkins found Mary Dean’s reaction to the news disturbing. “She didn’t seem to be impressed by the fact that her own idea had been confirmed, and just went on talking,” Hodgkins said.
William Dean, Murder Victim
It was not until 2 p.m. that the person responsible for investigating the murder, Cheshire County Solicitor Roy Pickard, arrived on the scene with the county medical examiner, Dr. Frank Dinsmore, and two county sheriffs. The officials stood by as Dean’s body was pulled from the cistern and laid on the grass. The ropes binding Dean’s knees and arms had been tied with square knots, and rather than untie them, the men cut the ropes to preserve the knots as evidence.
They removed the burlap sack from Dean’s head, revealing a blood-stained horse blanket that had been wrapped around it, along with a stone estimated to weigh about twenty-five pounds, apparently added to keep the body from floating to the top of the cistern.
The searchers unwrapped the blanket, revealing deep cuts on the left side of Dean’s forehead and bruises to his left eye. A horse halter had been looped around Dean’s throat and pulled so tightly that it left an indentation in his neck. If there had been any doubt before, there certainly was none now; William Dean had been brutally murdered.
No Deep Water Drowning
The body was placed in a basket and carried to the kitchen of the summer house, where Dr. Dinsmore conducted a preliminary examination. He determined that the lacerations on Dean’s head had been caused by one or more blows, perhaps strong enough to render him unconscious, but probably not to kill him. He also concluded Dean had not been drowned. “There was no water in the lungs,” he testified. However, the lungs did provide evidence for the actual cause of death. According to undertaker Leighton, who was present at the examination, “The lungs showed a dark color, proof of suffocation.” The conclusion seemed clear: William Dean had been stunned by a blow to his head, choked to death, and then bound and thrown into the cistern.
While the examination of the body proceeded, County Solicitor Pickard, the sheriffs, and volunteers searched the farm for clues. They found bloodstains on the barn door, the doorknob, the porch steps, and the floor of the barn. They concluded that Dean had been murdered in the barn and his body carried 150 feet to the cistern; the grass from the barn to the cistern did not appear flattened or compressed, indicating the body had been carried rather than dragged.
No Milk Pail
The searchers were unable to find anything that might have been used as a murder weapon. Nor could they find the milk pail that Mr. Dean had used on the night of his death.
Fish and game warden George Wellington arrived, milked the cow, and found that it gave no more than the ordinary amount, establishing that it had been milked the night before. But the milk pail had disappeared. It was suggested that perhaps the murderers had washed their bloody hands in the pail and disposed of it, wanting to hide the evidence. If so, where was the pail, and what had they done with the milk? Then, as if there weren’t already enough complications, New England’s weather—well-known for being fractious and changeable—dealt the search a sudden and disastrous blow.
The author of this story, Kenneth M. Sheldon, is a freelance author, editor, and playwright. His work has appeared in publications ranging from Acoustic Guitar to Yankee Magazine, where he was formerly a columnist.