Frederick Small, an awful little man, thought of himself as an astute businessman. He wasn’t.
An abusive husband, he thought he committed the perfect murder when he killed his third wife in a remote lakeside cottage.
His sister-in-law was afraid of him. She said he used to stretch out his hand and say, “There is a hand capable of anything.”
Except getting away with murder.
Frederick Small, Serial Husband
Frederick Small was born in 1869 in Portland, Maine, and attended local schools.
At 20, he married Nettie Davis of Minot, Maine, and set up a grocery business. Nettie died in childbirth and his business failed, so he moved to Boston to try his luck there.
The Boston Globe later described Frederick Small as undersized, crippled in one leg and altogether inconspicuous — but also noted he had figured prominently in the newspapers for a score of years.
Throughout his checkered career, Frederick Small had filed a sensational divorce case and fallen victim to three mysterious fires.
When he first came to Boston he took a series of lowly jobs — as a hotel clerk, a waiter and a chef. In 1893 he finally found his calling and began to dabble in real estate. After he made some commissions, he opened an office and played the stock market with some success.
On July 31, 1899, he married Laura Patterson of Everett, Mass., and moved to the Boston suburb of Somerville.
The next year a farm he leased in Hudson, Mass., burned down after two fires mysteriously started on the premises in one day. Small had insured the property heavily, but investigations found nothing.
In 1909, Frederick Small’s fortunes took a turn for the worse. His real estate debts caught up with him, and to make up for his deficits he sued his wife. Laura Patterson Small had carried on an affair with Arthur Soden, president of the Boston Braves, railway magnate and ex-president of the Boston City Club.
Frederick Small sued Soden, and after a three-year trial he got his divorce and a $10,000 settlement. The judge excoriated the Smalls from the bench.
The judge said Laura Small needed ‘no great inducement to be led astray.’ He called Frederick Small ‘an indifferent husband’ who knew his wife was cheating on him but didn’t care because he could profit by it.
In 1913, Frederick Small took a rest cure at a farm in Southboro, Mass. Mrs. Mary Elizabeth Curry and her two daughters ran the big old place.
Mrs. Curry called him ‘smooth, suave and agreeable,’ and he won the heart of her daughter Florence.
Two weeks after he arrived in Southboro, Frederick Small married Florence Curry. He quickly seized control of the family’s property, turned Mrs. Curry and her other daughter out of the house and took Florence to a lonely cottage in Ossipee, N.H.
The day they left Massachusetts, his Southboro property went up in flames. He was accused of leaving a delayed-action incendiary device behind, but no one ever proved it. Small collected $10,000 in insurance money.
In Ossipee, Frederick Small presented himself as a successful retired stockbroker. He spent much of his time tinkering in his workshop, trying to come up with an invention that would make him a fortune.
Florence led a lonely and miserable existence. Her husband cut her off from her family and her religion. Her sister visited once and said she feared him so much she slept with a paper knife under her pillow. Florence told her Frederick Small drugged her.
He once beat her with a bootjack and threatened the doctor who came to tend her wounds. Their neighbors grew accustomed to hearing her screams across the lake.
Florence Small was 12 years younger, three inches taller and 25 pounds heavier than her husband. Still she put up with his abuse.
Once, while boating on Lake Ossipee, Florence fell into the water. She felt certain her husband would let her drown until another boater came along. Frederick Small then made a great show of rescuing her. To top it off, he tried to get a Carnegie medal for saving her life.
On Sept. 28, 1916, Frederick Small summoned a coachman, George Kennett, to pick him up at 3:30 pm and take him to the railroad station. Frederick Small said he had to go to Boston to check on his investments. He waited outside for the coach. When Kennett arrived, Frederick Small yelled goodbye to his wife and climbed into the coach.
At the station, Small joined Edwin Conner, a local schoolteacher and insurance agent who had sold him a $20,000 life insurance policy on him and his wife. Conner had insisted that both Florence and Frederick Small sign the policy. He also sold Small a $3,000 policy on the cottage.
The two men checked into a Boston hotel and Frederick Small mailed Florence a postcard at 8:40 pm. Then he and Conner saw a movie. At midnight they returned to the hotel. The desk clerk told him his cottage was on fire and he should call right away.
Small and Conner raced back to Ossipee in a hired car. When he reached the smoldering ruins of the cottage, Small broke down, apparently inconsolable.
A search party found Florence Small’s head and torso in the basement. The flames had spared them because she fell through the burning floor into several inches of lake water in the basement.
When told, Frederick Small responded, “You mean there’s enough to be buried?”
Someone had made sure Florence Small died. The murderer strangled her, shot her in the head and bludgeoned her face into a bloody pulp.
The medical examiner, George P. Magrath, noticed a strange substance on her body that ultimately explained the unusual intensity of the fire. It was slag left by thermite, a welding compound used by railroads. When investigators searching through the burned cottage found a Colt .32 that belonged to Frederick Small, he became a person of interest in the murder.
Arrest and Trial
Small protested he’d been a hundred miles away when the fire broke out. But further investigation produced an alarm clock with wires and spark plugs attached, and the grocer reported he’d delivered five gallons of kerosene to Small’s cottage just before the fire.
Small, hoping the power of suggestion would work on George Kennett, insisted the coachman had seen him kiss his wife goodbye. Kennett firmly maintained he had only seen Small shout goodbye into the house.
Examination of Florence Small found her lunch in her stomach, which indicated she died hours before the fire.
Small was arrested and tried at the brand-new Carroll County Courthouse in Ossipee. On Jan. 8, 1917, a jury found Frederick Small guilty of murder.
Insisting on his innocence, Small sought a new trial. New Hampshire’s attorney general reported, ‘the facts were too plain and abhorrent to be misunderstood.’
Frederick Small was hanged on Jan. 15, 1918 in Concord Prison.
Photos courtesy Tamworth and Ossipee Historical Societies. This story was updated in 2021.