The William Dorr Way To Murder

Updated on July 11, 2016

Everyone agreed that wealthy retired soap manufacturer George E. Marsh didn't have an enemy in the world. And yet, on April 11, 1912, someone pumped five bullets into the 76-year-old millionaire, before dumping his body on an embankment overlooking the salt flats near Lynn, Massachusetts.

His body was found the next day. The crime seemed motiveless, since the victim's wallet and gold watch were untouched, and clues were in short supply. But as detectives combed the crime scene, they discovered, just a few yards from the body, a scrap of woven cloth with a pearl-gray overcoat button attached. It might have come from the killer; it might not. Only by finding the overcoat could this clue's true significance be gauged.

Marsh's murder was headline news
Marsh's murder was headline news

Marsh's sensational murder had made the front page of the New York Times, but all that changed on April 15, with the shattering news that the R.M.S. Titanic had sunk earlier that day on her maiden voyage, with the loss of over 1,500 lives. Newspaper coverage of this international calamity was wall-to-wall and suddenly the murder of a solitary individual got relegated to the inside pages. This kind of indifference didn't make the detectives' job any easier. But they kept plugging away and soon heard reports of a light blue car being seen near Marsh's home on the day of the murder. Inquiries made in that vicinity led to a boarding housekeeper who recalled letting a room to a young man who drove such a vehicle. He had given his name as Willis A. Dow, and had spent considerable time at his window with a pair of binoculars, studying the rear of George Marsh's house.

Mysterious Visitor

Another landlady was even more helpful. She, too, had let a room to this mysterious Mr. Dow, this time a day before Marsh had died. He had left hurriedly on the night of the murder, leaving behind an overcoat from which all the buttons had been removed. The detectives studied this coat thoughtfully. At this time the scientific investigation of crime in America was very much in its infancy, but news was filtering through of the great strides being made in France and Britain in the field of forensic crime detection. Massachusetts was always one step ahead of the rest of the nation when it came to crime-fighting initiatives – as early as 1877 they had established the first properly funded medical examiner's office in the United States, four decades before New York – and the Lynn police now decided to enlist laboratory assistance. Because they had no forensic facility of their own, they forwarded the coat and button to the Lowell Textile School in northern Massachusetts for examination.

Professor Edward H. Baker and Louis A. Olney compared both items under a high-powered microscope. The fragment of multi-colored cloth on the button matched the cloth of the overcoat in both weave and texture; and the area of coat from which it had been torn – with its broken threads – was also clearly visible. They speculated that, as he fought for his life, George Marsh had yanked the button from the coat of his killer. Later, the murderer had removed all the remaining buttons and presumably destroyed them, in a futile attempt to thwart any subsequent identification.

A "Wanted" photo of Dorr
A "Wanted" photo of Dorr

While these findings linked the button from the crime scene to the overcoat, they in no way helped to identify the mysterious killer. A further clue came when the blue car was found abandoned in Stanhope Street, Boston. Police there tracked down a local auto dealer who recalled selling the car in early April to a Willis A. Dow from California. Inquiries revealed that Willis A. Dow was an alias for William A. Dorr, a 30-year-old motorcycle dealer from Stockton, California.

Detectives were baffled. Why, if Dorr was the killer, had he traveled 3,000 miles across country to commit murder?

Bizarre Relationship

At this point the already puzzling saga began to take on a decidedly incestuous air. Dorr's aunt, Orpha Marsh, who also lived in Stockton, happened to be the foster daughter of George Marsh's deceased brother, James. As such, she was the heiress to a chunk of his considerable fortune. Dorr, not the kind to let a few bloodlines get in the way of some hefty capital gains, set about seducing his matronly aunt. He met with spectacular success. Orpha, 38 years old, unmarried and unloved, was so smitten with her nephew's amorous overtures that she drew up a will naming him as sole beneficiary. The only problem with this arrangement, to Dorr's way of thinking, was that Orpha's $100,000 legacy was held in a trust administered by George Marsh, who only allowed her a monthly stipend of $87.55. Dorr seethed: so long as the elderly millionaire remained alive, he would never get his hands on the capital. Over several months he convinced the ever-more compliant Orpha that her affairs were being grossly mishandled, until she agreed that he should travel across country to confront her skinflint uncle.

Whether Orpha Marsh was privy to Dorr's murderous scheme remains a matter for conjecture. What is certain is that he sent her a letter informing her that the deed was done, and urging her to not breathe a word until the matter was public knowledge; advice that she took to heart.

But the police, by now aware of Orpha's liaison with Dorr, had asked the Stockton telephone exchange to inform them whenever anyone called the aunt. They didn't have long to wait. At 8.45 p.m. on April 17, news cames through that a call to Orpha had been placed from a nearby restaurant. The caller waited while the operator struggled to make the connection, unaware that she was just stalling for time. William A. Dorr still had the phone in his hand when officers stormed the restaurant and he was placed under arrest.

How Dorr looked when arrested
How Dorr looked when arrested

Heavy Disguise

Since fleeing Massachusetts he had disguised himself by cropping his hair and dyeing it brown, and donning heavy glasses. He was also dressed in rough dungarees. He made no attempt to deny killing Marsh, but claimed to have acted in self-defense. The way Dorr told it, he and Marsh had been driving around, when Marsh made a vile comment about Dorr's relationship with his aunt. As a measure of his disgust, Dorr attempted to leave the car, only for the near-octogenarian to suddenly attack him with a wrench! In the scuffle that followed, a gun miraculously appeared in Dorr's hand and Marsh ended up dead. Sweating profusely, Dorr had then wrapped Marsh in a blanket, put a hat on his head, propped him up in the passenger seat of his car, then drove up and down Point-of-Pines Boulevard for half an hour before finding a suitable spot to dump the corpse on the salt flats where it was found next day. Despite it being broad daylight and having been seen by several bystanders, no one had suspected a thing.

When told that he was being taken back east to stand trial, Dorr's only remark was, "Gee, I guess I ought to have a shave and a haircut."

Dorr (second r) with his captors
Dorr (second r) with his captors

Diary Of Death

Orpha, perhaps mindful of her own precarious situation, sealed Dorr's fate by releasing a diary in which he had detailed his daily stalking of George Marsh, and how he had hired "a negro who will do the job for me for $1,000." The fictional account seems to have been written purely for Orpha's benefit, in an attempt by Dorr to convince her that his wasn't the murdering hand.

At Dorr's trial his plea of self-defense cut no ice with the jury, who decided his guilt after only two hours' deliberation. His attorney, C. Neal Barney, filed an appeal to overturn the verdict on the novel ground that his client had actually killed Marsh in Suffolk County, and not Essex County, as it read in the indictment. This was straw-clutching of the very worst kind and the appeal court, every bit as skeptical as the trial jury, decided that since the bullet-riddled body and the pearl-gray button were found in Essex County – more than 3,000 feet from the Suffolk county line – it was reasonable to assume that the crime had occurred where the body was found. The appeal was brusquely dismissed and, on March 24, 1914, the much-traveled William A. Dorr took his final walk to the electric chair at Charlestown State Prison.

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    • profile imageAUTHOR

      ccbrookes 

      7 years ago

      Thanks, Hyphenbird. I've always been intrigued (and horrified) by the kind of psyche that views human beings as nothing more than negotiable financial assets. Patience is rarely their long suit.

    • Hyphenbird profile image

      Brenda Barnes 

      7 years ago from America-Broken But Still Beautiful

      Greed gets them very time. As old as the victim was, surely it wouldn't have bee long.

      how these people can be so smart yet stupid never fails to amaze me.

    • profile imageAUTHOR

      ccbrookes 

      7 years ago

      Cupidity and stupidity: Dorr had 'em both in spades. Just as well, really, or I wouldn't have given much for Aunt Orpha's chances further on down the road. Glad you liked the hub.

    • JamaGenee profile image

      Joanna McKenna 

      7 years ago from Central Oklahoma

      If not for chatting up the aunt, driving (in those days) a very conspicuous car, and leaving the button behind, ol' Will might've gotten away with it. This case just proves, even in pre-CSI days, murderers aren't always as smart as they think. Great hub!

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