The death of Dr. James Littlefield on October 13, 1937 in South Paris was not the biggest crime story in the state of Maine. That distinction belonged to Bangor where the streets were filled with gunfire as the notorious Brady Gang met its demise in a shootout with police and FBI.
Three days later police around the country were still looking for any signs that members of the gang had gotten away. In Arlington, New Jersey police noticed a car with Maine license plates pulled over beside the road with a young man sleeping in the front seat and a woman in the back. While they were wrong to suspect the two were connected to the Brady gang, they were very right to be suspicious.
The woman in the backseat, Lydia Littlefield, was dead. Strangled. In the trunk they found her husband, Dr. James Littlefield, also dead. Bludgeoned and strangled. The man behind the wheel – 17-year-old Paul Dwyer – confessed and was shipped back to Maine – kicking off one of the most convoluted and lurid murder trials in the state’s history.
Before it was done, two men would be convicted of murder, launching a debate that continues to this day as to who did the actual crime and why.
Dwyer outlined the murder story in his initial confession. Dr. Littlefield paid a house call to Dwyer, a chauffeur. Dwyer had no criminal record. Dr. Littlefield was a morphine addict, but otherwise was a respected physician.
Dwyer suspected he had venereal disease and called the doctor. Littlefield treated him, but chastised the young man about the company he was keeping. Dwyer flew into a rage that the doctor had insulted his girlfriend, Barbara Carroll, and attacked the doctor.
After killing him, Dwyer stuffed the doctor’s body into the trunk of his car and drove to the Littlefield home. He told the doctor’s wife, Lydia, that the doctor had left on a train to Boston. The story he told was fantastic: the doctor had hit two pedestrians with his car, panicked and fled. He asked Dwyer to pick up Lydia and meet him in Boston.
For two days, Dwyer stayed on the road with Lydia as a passenger, explaining that at each stop he had received word from the doctor that they were to travel to a new destination. The pair traipsed around from South Paris Hill, Maine to Boston back up to Concord, N.H. and then back to Maine.
Dwyer finally strangled the increasingly suspicious Lydia and propped her in the back seat, as if sleeping, and went on his way to New Jersey. Oddly enough, two police officers stopped the car for traffic violations but sent Dwyer on his way with only a warning—all while Lydia “slept” in the back seat.
Dwyer plead not guilty, but after two days of trial he changed his plea to guilty. The judge sentenced him to life in prison. The public was not completely convinced. The motive for the murder seemed slim, and Dwyer seemed an unlikely killer to those who knew him.
Behind bars, Dwyer took up pen and paper and wrote a very different version of events. In this second version, Dr. Littlefield had not come to the Dwyer home to treat Paul. Rather, he had come there to examine Paul’s sweetheart Barbara who feared she was pregnant. Barbara told the doctor that the father of the baby, if she was pregnant, was her own father, Deputy Sheriff Francis Carroll.
Barbara had told Dwyer of the incest and the two had turned to the doctor for help. Dr. Littlefield confronted Francis Carroll and threatened him. The deputy killed the doctor and bullied Dwyer into helping with the getaway. It was Carroll, Dwyer said, who killed Lydia and sent Dwyer on his drive.
Dwyer had changed his plea, he said, because Carroll had threatened him. Police were not convinced that the new account was any more likely to be true than the old one, but the story rang true to one person: Carroll’s boss, the sheriff of Oxford County. He arrested Carroll on the incest charge in 1938 and began investigating the murder.
In short order, Carroll was tried and convicted of the murder. Carroll privately denied the incest allegation, but did not do so in court. His lawyers feared that if he addressed it, his daughter would be called as a witness and add to the weight of evidence against him.
Carroll offered an alibi for the murder of Dr. Littlefield, but he couldn’t back it up. He was accused of trying to bribe a witness to support him. Another witness reported seeing him at the scene of the murder. In the end, the jury was persuaded that Carroll was guilty.
Now two men were in the state prison convicted of the same crime. There the matter would sit for ten years while both Carroll and Dwyer proclaimed their innocence. In 1950, Carroll would finally win his release and the legislature would order the attorney general to re-investigate the case.
At this point, Carroll could not be charged with incest. Nor could he be retried for the murder of Dr. Littlefield. But either he or Dwyer could still be tried for the death of Lydia Littlefield, a crime that neither had so far been accused of.
In the end, the last investigation – published in 1952 – concluded that there was reasonable doubt as to Carroll’s guilt. He should not face additional charges, the investigation concluded. He was a free man. Dwyer would, himself, be eventually freed on parole for good behavior.
If you present the facts of the case in Oxford County today, you can still get a good argument going over who murdered Dr. James Littlefield and why.