Who Killed Orrando P. Dexter?

by | History

Throughout 2019, in celebration of Adirondack Life’s 50th anniversary, we’re sharing an article per week from our archives—one for each year since 1970. In the 37 years since Neal Burdick wrote about the enduring mystery of a Franklin County murder, the cold case has remained unsolved. But future owners of part of the victim’s estate—Shania Twain and “Mutt” Lange—could not so easily elude authorities. They incurred a fine from the Adirondack Park Agency in the 1990s for building a massive recording studio without a permit.


It all came down to a question of land use.
People around St. Regis Falls thought they should be al­lowed to log the woods and hunt in them, as they always had; the owner of the land, Orrando P. Dexter, thought they shouldn’t.

So they shot him.

They shot him September 19, 1903, and today—79 years later—no one knows who “they” is—or was. At least no one is saying. Franklin County’s most sensational murder, echoes of which affected the relationship be­tween nonresident landowners and local citizens in the northern Adiron­dacks for years, remains officially un­solved.

Orrando Dexter’s last day on earth was cold and raw, with snow in the air. Just before noon he left his mansion by the lake that still bears his name and began driving his buggy down the 1 ½-mile driveway to the Blue Mountain Road. He was going, depending upon which old newspaper account one reads, to the New York & Ottawa station at Santa Clara to pick up some freight, or to the Santa Clara post office, or to Nicholville to finalize a land deal that would have ruined a local timber dealer. He was preceded (did he fear for his life?) by Azro M. Giles of Dickinson Center, his gamekeeper and foreman, and followed at some distance by sta­bleman Bert Russell.

A short way down the driveway, someone crouched behind a pile of cedar posts. Dexter passed. The person stepped into the roadway and shot Dexter through the back. The bullet buried itself in the rump of his trotting mare, which bolted, pitching Dexter backward into the dust. When Giles and Russell reached him, Dexter was dead.

Orrando Perry Dexter (not Orlan­do, an error which appeared in area newspapers as early as 1891 and has been perpetuated in various histo­ries, including Donaldson’s) was 48 when he died. According to one news­paper description of his fate, “He was one of The Dexters of New England.” Millionaire, recluse, cat-fancier, New York lawyer, genealogist, writer and land-grabber, he began buying parcels of property around East Branch Pond in the Town of Waverly in 1887. Ap­parently he was motivated principally by a desire for privacy, although it was said—even by his father, Henry Dexter, founder of the American News Company—that his chief end in life was the accumulation of real estate. Ultimately Orrando possessed close to 10,000 acres, some of them across the St. Lawrence County line in Hopkinton township. Most of the terrain was rolling, glaciated upland clothed in northern hardwood forest. Punctuating “Dexter Park” was Cat Hill, a 600-foot-high exposure of bedrock named in honor of guide Bill Edwards, who, according to local lore, one day saw seven catamounts on its flanks and shot all seven, plus two he hadn’t seen-with a single bullet. The jewel in the crown of this wilderness sanctuary was the 200-acre body of water which within a short time had been renamed Dexter Lake.

Dexter chose to build on an esker that rises out of the east end of the lake. In 1890, in the best tradition of the “rusticators,” he spent $50,000 on a four-story, 16-room home patterned after the townhouse of artist Albrecht Durer in Nuremburg, Germany. This he christened “Sunbeam Lodge.” The structure featured a copper roof, fireplaces in every room, and hard­wood floors throughout. Adjacent to it he added “The Nest,” a guest house in the same style; it was never used because he never invited anyone to visit him. He built a road and tele­graph line the several miles to Santa Clara. A house for his staff, a boat­house, large barn, carriage house and stables, bathhouse, icehouse, tank­house and woodshed completed the facilities-a veritable village of build­ings for his private pleasure.

Of Dexter’s background, not much is certain. Educated in the Ivy League (where is undetermined) and in Eu­rope, he was a licensed lawyer. He never practiced, although he main­tained an office on Wall Street. Even after he considered himself a resident of the Adirondacks, he kept a home in Norwalk, Connecticut, and re­treated to the relative comfort of New York City every winter. As the only child of a New York newspaper magnate, he had no need to work for a living. He travelled, studied and pursued a variety of activities: col­lecting chips off old tombstones, raising angora cats, researching his family history (he traced his ancestry to 12-century Britain) and harassing his neighbors.

Harassing his neighbors, it would seem, was his fatal flaw. Whatever the motivation, for the 13 years he was in the Adirondacks he engaged in constant combat with the people around him. He arrived at a time when wealthy downstaters were buy­ing up great chunks of wilderness for their personal use—or non-use, as the natives saw it. Immediately to the south, the William Rockefellers were consolidating vast acreage around Bay Pond and Brandon. Sentiment against these outsiders ran high, and with his irascibility Dexter did nothing to improve their reputation. The times were a powder keg, and he was a spark. Dexter knew no scruples in his drive to enlarge his estate. He ruined loggers by isolating them on islands in a sea of his own holdings. He agreed in deeds to allow lumbermen to float timber down streams that crossed his property, then denied them permission to do so. He haggled with lawyers about purchase prices ($1.50 an acre was current in the 1890s). He publicly accused local assessors of over-­appraising his property.

Illustrative of Dexter’s running battle with area residents was his contest with Joe Alfred, a local lumber baron. For a decade these two repre­sentatives of opposing forest-use phi­losophies struggled for territorial supremacy.

The “War in the Adirondacks,” as the St. Regis Falls weekly Adirondack News labeled it, began in 1890 when Dexter sued Alfred for trespass, pre­sumably because Alfred was trans­porting timber across Dexter’s land. The case was scheduled to be tried in New York City, but in 1891 Alfred succeeded in having the venue changed to Malone. This elicited from Dexter the published comment, “Franklin County is in the hands of a gang, at the head of which is Joe Alfred. He said he wasn’t going to be beaten by any New Yorker, and he’d haul timber over my lands if he had to employ a hundred shotguns to do it.”

To blockade Alfred, Dexter resorted to an ancient tactic: he created a manmade “blowdown” across Alfred’s route. But Alfred was not to be denied; around the roadblock he went, prompt­ing a second trespass suit from Dexter.

The next round went to Alfred. He arranged to have Dexter’s road de­clared a public highway. Dexter retali­ated by building a substantial house square in the middle of the road and arming it with three loyal mercenaries. Alfred’s response was to dam the outlet of Dexter Lake, thereby flooding 100 Dexter acres. Dexter, unappreciative of Alfred’s industriousness, dyna­mited the dam. “l mean to show these fellows a city man can’t be bulldozed so easily,” he snarled in the newspaper.

Shortly thereafter, the court decided in favor of Dexter in the trespass matter but indicted him for destroy­ing Alfred’s dam, which had been installed outside Dexter’s boundary. This case dragged on for a year; there was as yet no precedent in water impoundment controversies. Even­tually Dexter accused the district attorney and county grand jury of collusion. Stung, they quickly found him guilty. His sentence was not publicized, but whatever it was, in 1893 he saw to it that Governor Ros­well P. Flower, a North Country na­tive, appointed a commission to re­view the case.

They threw the conviction out. Dexter then sued Franklin County Sheriff G. W. Dustin for malicious prosecution and false imprisonment. Alfred, outraged that his nemesis was on the loose again, pursued Dexter through the judicial network for the rest of the decade.

Dexter’s attitude was not destined to win his neighbors’ respect. He did not seek their company and displayed great distaste whenever it was neces­sary to deal with them. He was aware that people objected to such airs but felt he could, as he said, “educate” them. “There’s no danger of violence,” he told a friend. “Things like that don’t happen here.” In his self­-imposed isolation he failed to see that Adirondackers do not give up their property rights, real or perceived, so easily.

It fell upon Azro Giles to handle matters after the shooting. Dexter’s corpse was shipped to New York City for burial, although some say it re­mains buried in the cellar of the servants’ quarters. His fortune, re­portedly in the neighborhood of a million dollars, went to his aged father. Within a month the property was sold to a partnership from Brushton which announced their intention to operate it as a resort. They never did.

Meanwhile, newspaper coverage of the incident reflected the intensity of feeling that existed between natives and outsiders. The only heir of a giant in journalism had been gunned down, and Franklin County suddenly leaped to page-one prominence in major metropolitan dailies across the country and even abroad. These pa­pers feasted on the social conflict implied in the crime. They described Dexter’s estate as “swarming with armed constables,” which angered local residents “accustomed to the wild freedom of the woods.” The Utica Saturday Globe likened the incident to agrarian revolts in Europe. Author­ities in Santa Clara expected Dexter would be shot and did nothing to pre­vent it, the paper claimed. A banner headline in William Randolph Hearst’s New York American a year after the killing blared, “An Entire County, Police, People, Living in Terror, Says Millionaire Henry Dexter. Uncaught Slayer Roams Holding All in Fear—In Spite of the Fact That the Murderer of Orrando Dexter Is Known, He Goes at Liberty Up the State.”

The local press took umbrage at such attacks on the moral constitution of the North Country, and devoted more ink to its defense than to cover­age of the case. The Adirondack News excoriated the copy urban correspondents had “concocted to make good reading for gullible city subscribers” as a “conglomeration of fabrications” and “mere rot.” It insisted the killer could not be a local citizen, because (as Dexter had said himself) Adiron­dackers wouldn’t do such a thing.

The Malone Farmer joined the News in praising Dexter. Both papers ex­plained that the crime was a case of individual revenge, not class hatred. “That there is ill feeling against rich men in the Adirondacks is ridiculous,” the Farmer pontificated. “There are many who think the park law is unjust, but landowners are safe. Neither are the published reports true that the populace of this section out of dislike for Mr. Dexter will cover up facts that might lead to the detection of the mur­derer, for the great bulk of Northern New Yorkers are law abiding … ”

Perhaps the papers felt obliged to protect the image of the Adirondacks as a fertile field for vacationing millionaires, who pumped consider­able money, in addition to the well-­publicized aggravations, into the region. And perhaps Northern New Yorkers were law-abiding, though not to the point of turning in a neighbor who had removed from their midst a particularly irritating thorn. Was there a coverup, a conspiracy of silence? Or was the crime so perfectly executed that it was truly impossible to solve it?
The official investigation, fueled by Dexter money, quickly gathered steam. Pinkerton detectives scoured the country for clues and cross-­examined everyone in sight. But real evidence was scarce. The murder weapon was a .38 calibre rifle, of which there were at least as many in the neigh­borhood as there were people to own them. The murderer had fled through a swamp. What few tracks he left, those of a standard woodsman’s boot, were largely obliterated by the snow. There were no witnesses. Everyone who was implicated had a solid alibi­—working for the Rockefellers at Bay Pond, playing in the St. Regis Falls-­Nicholville baseball game, on the day train from Tupper Lake, and so on. Everything was circumstantial. No indictment could be made.

The way some people saw it, no indictment would be made. Henry Dexter claimed he knew who had killed his son, and said the grand jury knew, too. Frank P. Stockbridge, star reporter for the American, said “We all knew who killed Dexter and why, but we never dared print it.” The newsmen were discouraged, Stock­bridge said, by the district attorney, who told them “It was a popular mur­der, and we folks have got to live around here the rest of our lives.” Local newspapermen also stated they knew individuals who could identify the murderer, but would not.

Other stories surfaced: about an unsuccessful holdup attempt on Dex­ter two days before the killing; about a plot overheard, about prowlers around Dexter’s house, about threats against Dexter’s lawyers.
Dexter senior was infuriated by these tales. “They have killed my son and they will kill others in the Adiron­dacks because ignorant natives regard the newcomers of wealth who have bought up the land as interlopers and tyrants, men who are malignantly ar­rayed against the guides and woods­men. I have seen this awful and un­-American sentiment grow year after year. I have lost a son by the bullet of a savage, worked into a frenzy by class feeling and deciding in his own igno­rance that a condition of human affairs that has existed as long as mankind, is unjust and a denial of his personal rights.” Thus the old man philoso­phized while the investigation ran into blind alleys and wandered in labyrinths as baffling as the tote roads that lace the northern wilderness.

In its first issue after the killing, the Farmer had advertised a $5,000 re­ward for information in the case. A week later it reported that sheriff Frank Steenberge was “morally sure of his man.” Another week passed, and the paper said an arrest was immi­nent. The next week there was a brief notice about the investigation, and that was the last mention the Farmer made of the matter.

But Henry Dexter wouldn’t quit. Periodically between 1905 and 1909 he announced higher and higher re­wards, claimed new evidence had been found, hired leading criminologists, had a new grand jury convened. And still no indictment was forthcoming. Early in 1910, at the age of 97, the elder Dexter died frustrated, leaving $1,390,000 and explicit instructions to his executors to dedicate themselves and the money to a successful resolu­tion of the case.

But the affair receded into the misty realms of lore as the years passed. The property changed hands often, being in turn a timber planta­tion (on which area residents were allowed to hunt and fish), a summer camp, a hunting reserve and a wilder­ness study and recreation area, owned at present by St. Lawrence University.

Once, briefly, the incident was res­urrected. Late in 1933 a headline in the Malone Telegram announced, “Heirs Renew Cash Reward for Or­rando Dexter Slayer After Lapse of 30 Years.” ln the weeks following, the Dexter murder again received nation­wide attention. But late in February of 1934 another Telegram headline revealed the fate of this effort: “Si­lence Follows Offer of Reward in Santa Clara’s 30-Yr. Murder Mystery.” De­spite wildfire rumors that the name of the killer was widely known, the lure of $10,000 was not enough to break the covenant, not even in the depths of the Depression. Every Week Maga­zine quoted an anonymous local resi­dent as saying, “It’ll take more Dexter money than there is to make anyone hereabouts tell what he knows.” If there was a conspiracy of silence, it survived this attempt to buy justice. The silence lives on; even today some people in the area are reluctant to dis­cuss the matter. What a Syracuse Post-­Standard columnist in 1939 called “a tragedy which marked a turning point in the history of the big woods” may always be an unfinished story.

Is that the end of it? No one can say. After so many years, it seems certain the murderer has carried his secret to his own grave. But someday, evidence may be uncovered that may lead to his identity. Or someone may decide to reveal a tale his grandfather might have told. Until such time, there are those who say the ghost of Orrando P. Dexter still wanders on his land.

The 1800-acre Dexter Lake water­shed changes little from one genera­tion to the next. It was logged spora­dically until the 1920s; the shoreline has never been developed. The Brook­lyn Cooperage Railroad built a spur from Santa Clara to Lake Ozonia around 1900, skirting the southern boundary of the watershed. All that remains is the roadbed, largely re­claimed by the forest. Save for Dex­ter’s cluster of buildings—many of which no longer stand—the land looks practically the same as it did before white men first encountered it 200 years ago.

The area has been described as “a remote Adirondack forest commu­nity.” It is a typical northern mixed forest—not exotic in terms of scenery or resident species, but valuable be­cause the hand of man has been felt so lightly.

The land was heavily glaciated dur­ing the Wisconsin Stage of the Pleis­tocene Epoch, which terminated 8,000 to 10,000 years ago—relatively re­cently in geological progress. Evi­dence of this activity remains in the form of the general topography, gla­cial erratics, and eskers.

In the forest and bog-type ecosys­tems, life abounds, in shining contrast to the aura of death which surrounds the human history of the place. The wetlands are home to tamarack, bal­sam fir and black spruce, bog laurel, bog rosemary, labrador tea, pitcher plant, wild cranberry, and marsh mari­gold. The hardwood climax forest is dominated by sugar maple, yellow birch and beech, with some black cherry, white ash and mountain ash. On the sandy eskers white pine, red spruce and big-tooth aspen groves, bracken fern, wintergreen and blueberries flourish. The forest floor is carpeted with red and white trillium, royal and cinnamon fern, and pink ladyslippers.

Beaver are active in the lowlands. Mink, otter, muskrat and fisher, coy­ote, red fox, white-tailed deer and black bear make their homes in the woods. Trout of trophy size were once found in the lake, but overharvesting and acid rain have virtually destroyed the population.

The scarlet tanager and cedar wax­wing can be spotted in the woods. Ruffed grouse and great horned owls add their distinctive music. Red-­breasted mergansers and migrating Canada geese grace the surface of the water. Red-tailed hawks soar on sum­mer thermals above the cliffs of Cat Hill.

The common loon also finds a home at Dexter Lake, remote from the bother of humanity. A pair nest along the outlet, their two large, grayish, spotted eggs concealed in a tuft of marsh grass. These primitive birds, which the Cree Indians called Mookwa, “the spirit of northern waters,” are able to swim great distances under wa­ter, then surface unexpectedly with an eerie laugh, as though they know some­thing more of Dexter Lake than mere mortals can ever hope to understand.


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