A Nexus of Lives and Lies: The William Dempsey story — Part 5

Although William Dempsey didn’t know it as he fled for his life, several things were working against him

Image courtesy of the University of Alaska Fairbanks archives 
After William Dempsey was convicted on two counts of first-degree murder and sentenced to hang in Valdez on Feb. 20, 1920, Judge Charles Bunnell sent a photo of William (viewed in custody and wearing handcuffs, in Seward) to the Cleveland Police Department. He asked them to try to locate Dempsey’s parents.

Image courtesy of the University of Alaska Fairbanks archives After William Dempsey was convicted on two counts of first-degree murder and sentenced to hang in Valdez on Feb. 20, 1920, Judge Charles Bunnell sent a photo of William (viewed in custody and wearing handcuffs, in Seward) to the Cleveland Police Department. He asked them to try to locate Dempsey’s parents.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: In the first four parts of this story, William Dempsey, who killed two Alaskans in 1919, escaped from prison in Washington in 1940, sending a chill through a third Alaskan, the man who had sentenced him to die. Part Five describes the 1919 manhunt for Dempsey and the search for the body of his first victim, a prostitute known as Marie Lavor.

Wanted Man

Although William Dempsey didn’t know it as he fled for his life, several things were working against him. First, authorities in Anchorage were about to discover the body of his first victim, Marie Lavor, in addition to Dempsey’s blood-stained clothes and the murder weapon.

Second, there had been an eye-witness to his shooting in Seward of U.S. Deputy Marshal Isaac Evans, and, despite early optimism from medical officials, the marshal would not survive his wounds. Third, autumn in Seward had begun with wet, cold weather, and Dempsey lacked a coat, bedding and a source of food.

Fourth, the terrain north of Seward was difficult to traverse. Surrounding by rocky, rugged mountains, the valley floors were crisscrossed by cold streams, swampy ground, and thick, nearly impenetrable brush.

Fifth, at this time in its history, Seward was a haven for big-game guides, men who could travel overland for days without tiring and who owned plenty of weapons they could discharge with great accuracy. Many of these men joined the posse in search of Dempsey.

Aboard a small handcar heading north, Dempsey pumped furiously, hoping to put as much distance as possible between himself and the growing, angry mob in Seward.

Farther up the rail line, J. Lindley Green, an employee of the Alaskan Engineering Commission, was in his office when he received a telephone call alerting him to a fugitive heading his way. Peering down the tracks, he saw the handcar approaching and hurried outdoors. Grabbing a wooden plank, he raced toward the tracks, intending to throw the plank in front of the approaching handcar and derail it.

But in his haste, Green stumbled and managed to fling the plank across only one rail. The handcar struck the board, bounced over it, landed safely on the other side and kept rolling.

Shortly afterward, Don Carlos (“D.C.”) Brownell came zipping up the tracks, pursuing Dempsey in a motorized speeder. He continued past Green and soon found the handcar off the tracks, apparently abandoned. As Brownell slowed to investigate, Dempsey, gun in hand, charged from the nearby brush and held up Brownell, confiscating his .45-caliber Colt automatic before bolting again for the woods.

Searchers fanned out to cover the banks of the Resurrection River, Lowell Creek and other major area streams. They sought out and searched isolated cabins. They followed well-known and little-known trails. They scoured the hillsides and traced the rail line. They were eager to avenge the marshal.

Very few envisioned their prey surviving to face trial.

Body Count

As posse members hunted Dempsey north of Seward, the life of U.S. Deputy Marshal Isaac Evans was fading, and, in Anchorage, the search for the body of Marie (or Margaret) Lavor continued.

At 4:42 a.m. on Sept. 3, less than 48 hours after being gunned down in a Seward alley, the marshal succumbed to his wounds and died, with his wife and others at his bedside, in the Evanses’ apartment above the Harriman National Bank Building.

That afternoon, the Anchorage Daily Times expressed the mood in town: “Gloom today prevails in Seward; men and women are walking the streets despite the rain as the only means of giving vent to their pent-up feelings that have turned to bitter hate for the murderer Dempsey, whose crowning act of a misspent life was to so cold-bloodedly kill one of their best-loved and respected citizens.”

“There is now no dispute offered,” the paper continued, “to the statement that Dempsey’s is the Satanic brain and the degenerate mind which conceived the fiendish crime of doing away with Margaret Lavor solely for the gain of spoils so painfully earned.”

U.S. Marshal Frank R. Hoffman offered a $200 reward for Dempsey’s capture as the search for the fugitive intensified.

The next day between noon and 1 p.m., in almost an anticlimax, Dempsey, who had been trying to light a fire to warm himself, simply walked out of the brush near Seward’s upper reservoir and surrendered. No shots were fired. Bedraggled and hungry, he emerged with his hands in the air, giving up to posse members Aleck Little and Fred Martin, who disarmed him and marched him straightaway to officers Clarence W. Mossman and Frank R. Brenneman.

The marshals quickly ushered Dempsey to the Seward jail, knowing the stir his arrest would incur if he were not promptly locked up.

In Anchorage a few hours later, the body of Marie Lavor was discovered and removed from the abandoned well into which Dempsey later admitted to dumping her after clubbing her to death. Lavor’s whereabouts had been in question since the night of Aug. 25.

Two men, with help from a dog named Rowdy, had made the grim discovery. Earlier, the dog had scented blood on the ground near Dempsey’s cabin on B Street and had tracked the scent to Dempsey’s outhouse hole, into which the men peered and found the blood-soaked clothing Dempsey had discarded.

During Dempsey’s confession, he described where he had thrown the weapon with which he had struck Lavor. After authorities found it on Sept. 6, it was described in the Anchorage paper as “a heavy steel Stillson pipe wrench with the lower part, or jaw, removed. The hammer end is covered with blood and a few strands of hair.”

After a coroner’s inquest in Anchorage, Lavor was interred in Anchorage Memorial Park Cemetery, and her grave was marked with a decorative headstone.

A funeral for Evans was held in Seward on Sept. 5. Flags were flown at half-staff on Sept. 7 in his honor, and the next day U.S. Deputy Marshal S.O. Casler transported Dempsey by steamship to the federal jail in Valdez to await the convening of the grand jury.

A month later, the grand jury returned indictments for both murders of which Dempsey had been charged. The trials, initially scheduled for October, were delayed until late November, first, to give the defense an opportunity to prepare an insanity plea and, second, because finding an impartial jury proved to be so difficult.

TO BE CONTINUED….

Photo courtesy of the University of Alaska Fairbanks archives 
Murder suspect William Dempsey is pictured in handcuffs shortly after he was captured on the outskirts of Seward in early September 1919.

Photo courtesy of the University of Alaska Fairbanks archives Murder suspect William Dempsey is pictured in handcuffs shortly after he was captured on the outskirts of Seward in early September 1919.

Photo courtesy of the University of Alaska Fairbanks archives 
This photo postcard, purported showing William Dempsey (L) and an unnamed partner, was one of two such cards that Dempsey sent from Alaska to his parents in Cleveland in late 1918 and early 1920.

Photo courtesy of the University of Alaska Fairbanks archives This photo postcard, purported showing William Dempsey (L) and an unnamed partner, was one of two such cards that Dempsey sent from Alaska to his parents in Cleveland in late 1918 and early 1920.

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