Murder in the Adirondacks — Mysterious cold case remains

orrando

A posthumous portrait of Orrando P. Dexter by Charles Ayer Whipple, courtesy New-York Historical Society Museum & Library.

The murder took place in the fall. The principal figures were an outsider and a local citizen. Relatives of the victim appealed for justice and posted a reward. The impartiality of police and judicial authorities was questioned. What little evidence could be found was circumstantial. The case became a media sensation. It remains unsolved.

Sound like the Oral “Nick” Hillary case, recently concluded with a “not guilty” judgment in St. Lawrence County? That’s only the latest inconclusive murder mystery in the north country. The incident I’ve described occurred in 1903 near St. Regis Falls, and today, 113 years later, no one knows who did the deed. Or no one is saying.

September 19 of that year dawned cold, gray and still across the northern Adirondacks. Just before noon, Orrando Perry Dexter left his 16-room mansion on the shore of what had been East Branch Pond until he renamed it Dexter Lake in honor of himself, hitched one of his fine horses to one of his fleet of carriages, and departed up the lane that would take him off his 7,000-acre estate and onto Blue Mountain Road. He was going, depending upon which rumor one chooses to believe, to the train station at Santa Clara to pick up some freight, or to the post office there, or to distant Nicholville to finalize a land transaction that would have put a local timber dealer out of business.

Whatever his designs, Dexter never made it. Before he reached the end of his private road, someone stepped out from behind a stack of cedar posts and shot him through the back. Orrando Dexter, age 48, Ivy Leaguer, lawyer and millionaire, tumbled from his carriage and lay dead in the dust.

Henry Dexter, Orrando’s father and the wealthy founder of the American News Company syndicate in New York City, promptly hired the best, determined to get to the bottom of his only child’s assassination: Pinkerton detectives scoured the area and cross-examined everyone they could corral. But solid evidence was scarce. The assailant left no tracks; the bullet was from the kind of gun everyone owned; everybody had a firm alibi. No indictment could be made.

The way some people saw it, no indictment would be made. “We all knew who killed Dexter and why, but never dared print it,” said a star reporter for William Randolph Hearst’s New York American newspaper. He claimed they were discouraged by the local district attorney, who allegedly told them “It was a popular murder, and we folks have got to live around here the rest of our lives.”

What made it “popular”? For one thing, Dexter had snapped up a lot of land that people around St. Regis Falls and Santa Clara had been used to logging, hunting and fishing, and peppered it with “No Trespassing” signs. He had boasted to local residents of his wealth and social superiority over them. He had ruined loggers by buying all the acreage surrounding theirs, isolating them on islands in a sea of his own holdings. He had posted waterways traditionally used for boating and log driving, an issue that remains contentious to this day in the Adirondacks. He’d even blown up one lumberman’s dam, asserting that it had caused the flooding of some of his property. Rumors circulated that he had forcibly impregnated one of his young servant girls, the daughter of a well-known local leader. In an era when “robber barons” from the big cities were accumulating huge tracts of land for their private enjoyment, revenge was in the air.

The media, which in 1903 meant newspapers, feasted on the social implications of the incident, reflecting the intensity of hard feelings between struggling natives and rich, imperious outsiders. One major New York City daily 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.” And that was just the headline.

The local press didn’t let such insults pass unnoticed, engaging the downstate giants in a war of words that at times threatened to gain more attention than the case itself. The St. Regis Falls Adirondack News (yes, like most small towns, St. Regis Falls had a newspaper back then) proclaimed that the copy urban correspondents had “concocted to make good reading for gullible city subscribers” was “a conglomeration of fabrications, mere rot.” The Malone Farmer — one of at least three newspapers in that county seat in those days — pontificated, “That there is ill feeling against rich men in the Adirondacks is ridiculous. There are many who think the [Adirondack] Park law is unjust, but landowners are safe.”

Evidently they were not safe, but in some circles suspicions — or was it relief? — grew that perhaps those who eliminated them were. Soon after the killing, the Franklin County sheriff reported through the press that he was “morally sure of his man.” A week later, the papers announced that an arrest was imminent. The next week, they carried brief notices about the affair, and that was the last they said about it. As Henry Dexter raged over his son’s “un-American” death and advertised a $5,000 reward for any scrap of information, the investigation withered like the leaves on that fall’s trees. The elder Dexter died unrequited in 1910, bequeathing $1.4 million to the conclusion of the case.

That never happened. Occasionally it has been resurrected, as someone has come forward with a far-fetched claim or the Dexter estate’s reward money has been publicized. But as an anonymous local resident told a national magazine writer in 1934, “It’ll take more Dexter money than there is to make anyone hereabouts tell what he knows.” Perhaps that sentiment applies to other unsolved North Country murders as well.

For more on Orrando Dexter’s murder, see “Who Killed Orrando P. Dexter?” Adirondack Life, May/June 1982, and Adirondack Outlaws: Bad Boys and Lawless Ladies, by Niki Kourofsky, Farcountry Press, 2015.

NEAL BURDICK lives in Canton. Retired as senior writer/editor at St. Lawrence University, he continues to teach a writing course there, and is a freelance writer, editor and anthologist with a special interest in his native north country. His column appears in every issue of NNY Living.

A few tips to stay in the holiday spirit this season

Michelle Graham

Michelle Graham

Alas, the holiday season is upon us, the most wonderful time of the year. Or is it? If you listen to television ads isn’t that what they claim? For some it’s a time of great stress and worry and it’s not the most wonderful time of year. But have no fear as a little connection to your mind, body and spirit may just help you survive the chaos of the season. It’s is a time to spread joy to others and bring joy and inner peace to yourself, as well.


Start the season off by being kind to yourself. Plan to have fun and a lot of it. Get together with friends and actually make time to celebrate the season and maybe even find time for a holiday drink, playing board games or just getting together for a wonderful holiday lunch and visit. A little holiday visit with good friends can truly make the holiday season that much more special.

Exercise and watch your waist line. Not only will exercise help keep the holiday pounds off, but it can actually help decrease stress. Eating well can also take you into January with no weight gain. Remember the average person gains 5 to 7 pounds through holiday season. Be mindful through the season and your body will be so grateful.

Start purchasing holiday gifts early. Better yet, make some of your gifts. You can find many great ideas on Pinterest. We all know the best gifts are homemade and come from the heart.

Take a time out. Practice peace of mind. Perhaps morning meditation or yoga can set your path for a peaceful day. Better yet, take some time to be lazy and read a good book or just find a moment of quiet.

Get organized in work and play. Don’t wait until the last minute to make a deadline or to check off all your holiday “to-do lists” done. Planning is a significant key to success; don’t wait until tomorrow to get things done today.

Bring joy to others. Visit an old friend or relative. Really visit, be present and put your phone or tablet away. Sometimes we are so connected to everyone else that we lose sight of what is right in front of us. Talk, visit and simply live in the moment.

Volunteer your time and talents. Where can you spread joy this holiday season? Wrap presents at the mall, shop for a shut-in or spend some time helping out at Watertown Urban Mission or other community organizations that need help. Volunteering is wonderful and truly makes you and others feel amazing.

Make a donation small or large to a worthy organization. Every little bit helps. Never underestimate the value of your monetary gift. Surprise the person behind you at the drive-through and pay for their order. Don’t walk by a Salvation Army Kettle without a little donation. My favorite is to give a gift card to a friend or co-worker without signing your name.

Be patient with others. Our lives are busy and rushed and we are not always as patient as we should be. Patience truly is a virtue. Stop rushing and enjoy these beautiful holiday moments. Relax and you will get through the line in a store or get to your destination. Smile along the way as it makes everyone feel better.

Practice the simple act of kindness in this crazy, ruthless world in all that you do. Everyone wants to react; take time to pause and just be kind. Just laugh when life throws you a curve ball. We truly need to laugh at life a little longer a little harder. Don’t be so serious. Relax and enjoy every single holiday moment and besides practicing kindness never hurt anyone. Don’t let the holiday season stress you out. Practice kindness in all things for yourself and others. Your mind, body and spirit will certainly thank you.

I wish you and your families a very happy holiday season and the healthiest of years ahead in 2017. Seize the opportunity to start anew and make it your best year yet.

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A native voice and mentor to other writers is sadly lost

Like every region, the north country has produced its share of mold-breakers. Some, like F.W. Woolworth and Melvil Dewey in retailing and library classification, respectively, achieved wide renown. Others passed their time on this Earth in relative anonymity outside of small circles of the like-minded. [Read more…]

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Michelle Graham

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Every single thing we consume really does matter. Simple daily changes can boost overall health for your family. Remember to make changes slowly and add one new health habit each and every week. Before too long, those small changes add up to big results. [Read more…]

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Holiday 2015: North Country Notes

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“Over the river and through the woods, to Grandmother’s house we go / The horse knows the way to carry the sleigh through the bright and drifting snow-oh … ”

When I was growing up in the Champlain Valley, we did in fact go over the river (two, actually) and through the woods, as well as farm fields, to Grandmother’s house for Thanksgiving and Christmas, although, being an up-to-date 1950s family, we traveled by car, and snowdrifts that early in the winter were rare, at least at Thanksgiving. [Read more…]

Holiday 2015 Wellness: The 12 healthy days of Christmas

Take steps to make this holiday season a happy and wholesome one

Graham, MichelleThe holiday season is upon us, it is a time of joy and celebration. It is also a time of crazy schedules and a lapse in our best efforts for healthy eating and exercise. According to a recent statistic from Weight Watchers, the average person can gain as much as 7 to 10 pounds through the holiday season. You do not have to be a holiday statistic this year. Follow these simple rules and your 12 days of healthy and mindful behavior can be just an elf away. Focus on whole health and making your mind, body and spirit the best that it can be during this festive and chaotic time of year. [Read more…]

Summer 2015: North Country Notes

Farmers markets a hot ticket in summer months

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Some folks think people go to farmers markets to acquire food. That’s only part of it. We really go to see our friends. [Read more…]