When Barre, Vt., police in 1919 first saw the naked body of Lucina Broadwell in a vacant lot, they immediately suspected her husband. People knew the 29-year-old mother of three had problems at home.
The husband had an airtight alibi, though, and police were baffled. So they called in a private detective, whose investigation and arrest made page one news through the summer and fall of 1919.
The story captivated the people of Barre, a thriving quarrying city, and the surrounding towns. Part of the fascination had to do with the modern forensic techniques used by the private detectives to find her killer. And part of it had to do with the discovery of a little red book that listed the names of prominent Barre citizens who patronized a house of ill repute.
Discovery of Lucina Broadwell
Around 7:30 in the morning of May 4, 1919, 21-year-old Harold Jackson from the country town of Orange, Vt., woke up in the Hotel Buzzell. He couldn’t find any toilet facilities in the hotel, but he noticed a vacant lot across the street. So he walked over to it and did his business behind a woodworking shop. As he returned to the hotel, he saw a woman’s naked body lying on the ground. Badly frightened, he ran to the police station. Officer A.B. Curtis hurried to the lot.
He found a woman lying face down with her hands tied behind her back. She wore only shoes, stockings and a pair of kid gloves. Curtis saw her shirtwaist tied around her neck with knots secured by a man’s handkerchief.
Police quickly identified Lucina Broadwell, who lived nearby. Curtis had photographs taken of the body before it was taken to the Undertaking Rooms for an autopsy.
Many suspected her husband, a carpenter named Harry Broadwell.
Three days into the murder investigation, police still had no clue who killed Lucina Broadwell. So they called in James Rodney Wood, Jr., of the Wood Detective Agency.
Wood was the son of the first private detective in New England. James Rodney Wood, Sr., had worked as a Boston police officer for 20 years before striking out on his own. He had gotten many convictions through dogged pursuit of criminals. His son took over the agency.
When Wood got the call to investigate the Lucina Broadwell murder, he had a reputation to uphold as the most famous detective in New England. He didn’t always find that easy. In notes he later used in a talk to young detectives, Wood wrote, ‘think of the strain you are under.’
…you, a detective from Boston here, [the] case should be cleared up at once, in short the buck is passed to us — so let’s start and clean up this rotten mess — or in other words, there is a rotten egg, let’s break it wide open and let the “stink” out and find the guilty party.
Wood boarded a train and arrived in Barre in the afternoon. The city had started to boom in the 1880s with the success of its granite quarries. Stonecutters and quarrymen from Italy, Scotland, Spain, Scandinavia, Greece, Lebanon and Canada arrived to pull the stone from the earth and to carve it. The city’s population had exploded to nearly 11,000 people by 1910, up from 8,500 a decade earlier.
With the sudden influx of working-age men came speakeasies, dance halls and bawdy houses. One bordello would feature prominently in the death of Lucina Broadwell.
Upon his arrival in Barre, Wood reviewed the case notes and then stayed up all night observing the Hotel Buzzell. Police thought Lucina had been murdered there, but he concluded the lighting conditions wouldn’t have allowed it.
He then interviewed Harry Broadwell, who had come home from work, given Lucina two five-dollar bills for household supplies, then went off and got drunk with other men in a speakeasy. Harry could account for his movements all night long. He didn’t kill Lucina.
He did give Wood several useful leads, though. First, he suspected his wife was ‘sporty.’ Second, he’d heard Lucina went to the Parker house with a man named George Long. Third, Lucina wrote frequently to a friend in the Boston area, Grace Grimes.
Wood telephoned his Boston office and told them to find Grace.
Then he went to the Parker House.
Freaky Mrs. Parker
Mrs. Isabelle Parker was very careful to explain where her lodger “Long” had been the night of Lucina Broadwell’s murder. Then Long came in, and aroused Wood’s suspicion because of his anxiety to explain his whereabouts that Saturday night.
Wood described Mrs. Parker as 75 to 80 years of age. She might have been termed slightly demented, he wrote. She
…imagined she was a fortune teller, wrote poetry, dressed very freaky, wore a wig of heavy grey hair…
Most people in Barre, he wrote, thought she was a nut, but she was a very shrewd woman.
She would go about Barre and get a line on the different men and women who were inclined to be a little sporty. For example, if she knew I was a married man and liked to step out, she would make it her business to form my acquaintance and eventually tell me that a certain woman, either married or single, was infatuated with me and would like to meet me. She would invite me down to her house at a certain time and tell me to come in the back door and when I arrive, would introduce me to some woman, married or single, whom she had told the same story.
The men would pay her something for the use of the room. Eventually her married customers might tell her they knew their spouse was a little sporty, furnishing her with a new customer.
Then Wood heard from his office. They’d found Grace and she’d come in at 9 a.m. the next day. Wood took the sleeper to Boston, staying up all night on the train reviewing notes from the case.
Grace told the detectives she’d received a letter from Lucina Broadwell mailed on the day of her murder. She said she’d been going to the Parker house with George. He told her he planned to buy a new Buick and he wanted her to go to California with him. But she had decided George was full of hot air, that he was no good and she wasn’t going to see him again. She would go to the Parker House that night, ditch George and tell Mrs. Parker what she thought of her.
When Grace finished telling her story, Wood then arranged for one of his female operatives to accompany her to Lebanon, N.H. Grace wouldn’t go to Vermont, because she was wanted by Vermont police. Lebanon, though, was close enough.
Cracking the Lucina Broadwell Case
Wood then arranged for Mrs. Parker to meet with Grace Grimes in New Hampshire. Mrs. Parker admitted she knew Lucina Broadwell, and said she had met George Long at her house on the night of her murder. George had gotten her a veal loaf and bread to eat.
That led to the first piece of circumstantial evidence against George Long: The autopsy found Lucina Broadwell had eaten veal and bread an hour before her murder.
Wood found other circumstantial evidence:
- He had told one of his detectives to ‘work in his own way’ around the crime scene. The detective found tire tracks that matched the Metz car George Long had driven that night.
- The handkerchief found at the scene had a laundry mark on it from a local laundry. Wood tracked down the owner, an Eddie Barron, who had left Barre months ago. Wood’s agents tracked down Barron and learned he’d given the handkerchief to Long.
- Wood found a hair in Long’s car, and had Lucina Broadwell’s body dug up to see if it matched her hair. It did.
James Wood also found a sensational piece of evidence – a little red book that listed the names, addresses and phone numbers of some of Barre’s most prominent citizens. It also listed George Long’s name coupled with Lucina Broadwell on the date of her murder.
Long admitted being intimate with Lucina Broadwell, but denied killing her.
Wood arrested both Mrs. Parker and George Long. After a month-long trial, a jury found Long – real name George Rath – guilty of second-degree murder. He served life in prison.
Isabelle Parker was found guilty of running a house of ill repute, and sentenced to 2.5 years in prison.
Wood later used the Lucina Broadwell case to explain the importance of circumstantial evidence. It was considered throughout New England as one of the strongest circumstantial cases ever tried, Wood wrote.
With thanks to the Harvard Law School Library, Historical & Special Collections, Wood Detective Agency records.
Image: Metz car By Florin Chelaru – IMG_1516, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=63363677.
This story was updated in 2023.