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.