When William Dempsey and two other men slipped away from the rest of the prison road gang on fog-enshrouded McNeil Island, Washington, on Jan. 30, 1940, officials failed to notice their absence until the post-lunch head-count two to three hours later.
Officials immediately initiated a search of the prison yards and the Puget Sound waters surrounding the island.
The other two inmates were apprehended quickly as they attempted to swim toward the mainland, but Dempsey, who, like the others, had been wearing only a regular gray prison uniform, could not be found. In shifts covering 24 hours each day, 175 employees of the federal penitentiary broadened their search of the 4,000-acre island and its icy perimeter.
They found no sign of Dempsey. Warden Edwin B. Swope issued alerts to the Federal Bureau of Investigation and to sheriffs’ departments in nearby counties. If he had managed to survive the swim to the mainland, or if he had somehow been assisted off the island, Dempsey, a twice-convicted murderer serving a life sentence, was on the loose and should be considered extremely dangerous.
In Fairbanks, this news was particularly alarming to one man: Dr. Charles E. Bunnell, the 62-year-old president of the University of Alaska and former district judge who in 1919 had sentenced Dempsey to death for killing a prostitute in Anchorage and a U.S. deputy marshal in Seward.
After his sentencing in a Valdez courtroom, Dempsey had openly threatened all court officials who had tried him and called for his execution.
Those officials had expected that threat to end on Feb. 20, 1920, when Dempsey’s scheduled hanging took place in Valdez, but Dempsey’s attorneys arranged a stay of execution, and later Pres. Woodrow Wilson commuted Dempsey’s sentence to life in prison.
Two decades had passed since Dempsey had ended two lives and forever changed many others. Between the start of his imprisonment in 1920 and his escape in 1940, he had written numerous cajoling, often accusatory, occasionally vaguely threatening letters to Charles Bunnell. He had rationalized his actions, pleaded his case and requested, over and over, a recommendation for executive clemency.
For two decades, Bunnell had refused to comply. Now, Bunnell thought, Dempsey might be on his way back to Alaska to exact his revenge.
This, then, is the story of the intersection of disparate lives and the unfortunate consequences derived from those crossing paths.
It is the story of Charles Bunnell, the judge turned university president; of William Dempsey, the killer with the slippery identity and persuasive pen.; of Marie Lavor, the French woman who became a member of Anchorage’s early red-light district; and of U.S. Deputy Marshal Isaac Evans, whose attempt to detain Dempsey for questioning in Seward turned Evans’s wife into a widow.
Finally, this is a story about damaging lies and the people dragged into the undertow of those falsehoods—family members, prison pen pals, court and prison officials, perhaps even Dempsey himself.
Newspapers a century ago dedicated few column inches to the lives of women who sold themselves beyond the fringes of what was deemed “good society.” While the deaths or disappearances of such women sometimes provided sensational copy, their personal stories were, at best, marginalized or, at worst, ignored.
When Marie Lavor—sometimes called Margaret—vanished under suspicious circumstances in Anchorage in late August 1919, the disappearance caught the attention of the Anchorage Daily Times. The suspicion of foul play put “oomph” into the coverage; allegations aimed against a potential perpetrator also added spice to the story, as did a search for her body when she remained missing as the days passed.
The personal history of Lavor is scant, but it appears that she was born in France in about 1875 and probably immigrated to the United States in 1900. A decade later, while lodging in the Fairbanks area, according to U.S. Census records, she was single, nearly 35 years old, and had not yet been naturalized.
She made a stop in Seward in December 1914, but by the summer of 1916 she was living in the fledgling city of Anchorage and was embroiled in a civil lawsuit against a woman named Eva Williamson.
Both Lavor and Williamson were probably prostitutes, but both were running “cover” businesses at the same Anchorage intersection. Lavor ran a cigar store and soft-drink parlor on the corner of C Street and 6th Avenue, where Williamson operated “first-class Turkish Bath Parlors,” according to her newspaper advertisements. Williamson, who called herself a “Graduate Masseuse,” made this offer to clients: “Turkish and Plain Baths. Body massaging a specialty.”
Notices in the Anchorage Daily Times stated that Lavor had filed suit against Williamson to force her to repay a loan, but the case was dismissed in June in district court.
As autumn neared in 1919, Lavor, age 44 and once described as a “buxom” 210 pounds, was still doing business at the same location. Late on the evening of Aug. 25, she dressed for an appointment with a “friend,” adorning herself with a diamond dragon hairpin, a bracelet and at least one gold ring. It was believed that she was carrying with her at least $600 in cash.
She left her business in the care of a friend, telling him that she would be back shortly, to sell cigars and soft drinks in her absence, and to wait for her return. Alaska historian Claus-M Naske wrote that after Lavor left Sixth and C streets, where she “usually plied her ancient trade … in old-time Anchorage,” her friend never saw her alive again.
When she had failed to appear by 8 a.m. the following morning, the friend reported her absence to a taxi driver, who in turn advised the marshal’s office of their concern. The search for Lavor, or her remains, began quickly and was ongoing for more than a week.
Thirty-four years later, in October 1953, Lavor’s role in this crime saga would become part of a highly sensationalized story called “Blonde in the Wilderness,” written by R.J. Gerrard for Master Detective magazine. The attention-grabbing subheading beneath the title of the article read: “She thought he was a good businessman, but his business with her was … murder.”
Across from the first page of text was an illustration showing a grim-faced man grappling with a shapely blonde—a heavily made-up young woman, wearing a low-cut cocktail-style dress and screaming in fright. Through the icy window of the cabin in which they are struggling, snow is falling. A bearpaw-style snowshoe hangs from the nearby wall.