Crime and Scandal

Suicide or Murder – The Mystery of the 1878 Dexter Savings Bank Robbery

On Feb. 22, 1878, the treasurer of the Dexter Savings Bank, John Wilson Barron, was found lying in front of the bank vault tied and gagged, his head bleeding. Carried to his home in Dexter, Maine, near death, he opened his eyes just long enough to gaze at his wife and smile. Then he died.

Newspaper illustration of the Dexter Savings Bank robbery of 1878

Newspaper illustration of the Dexter Savings Bank robbery of 1878

Three doctors had rushed to his home, and they thought Barron was under the influence of some kind of drug. Bank robbers, they surmised, had administered something to force him to reveal the combination to the bank’s vault. The robbers roughed him up and, when he passed out, had left with a few hundred dollars. Bankers around the country praised Barron for his heroism and bravery.

It wouldn’t be long, however, before police began questioning this version of events. The Newport Savings Bank had closed down just days earlier after a run on deposits had left it insolvent. The panic showed signs of spreading to the Dexter Savings Bank. Then the day before the robbery, customer withdrawals had pushed the bank’s cash reserves dangerously low.

The robbery of the Dexter Savings Bank would remain unsolved for decades. Two men who didn’t do it each served 13 years in prison. Over many years, the truth would emerge: A criminal mastermind had planned the heist — and he would pay for it with his own life.

Dexter, Maine, in 1909

The Dexter Savings Bank Robbery

February 22 was George Washington’s Birthday and a bank holiday. John Barron had gone to work, but did almost no business. Auditors would find that the day before he had purchased a government savings bond of $500 for the bank. That, plus another $200, were missing.

But something didn’t make sense. With the bank so low on funds, and depositors looking to withdraw cash for safe-keeping, why would Barron tie up its money in a savings bond?

John Wilson Barron

What’s more, looking back over the records, auditors couldn’t make Barron’s accounts square. Had he taken money from the bank? And now that the bank was on the brink of a run, did he worry that an audit following the bank’s failure would uncover his malfeasance?

The idea seemed preposterous to those who knew Barron. Honest and upright, a devout Methodist, he had been entrusted to town office before.

Police searched for three strangers reported passing through town on the day of the robbery and murder. They stopped and questioned anyone suspicious, but everyone had an alibi. Slowly, a notion took hold among the townspeople. No one robbed and murdered John Barron. He killed himself.

More Questions

That idea seemed preposterous. Why would he gag himself, bind himself with handcuffs and rig up a rope to slowly strangle? And what about the head injury? If he were in a jam, weren’t there simpler ways to solve it? A fire in the bank, for instance, or simply stage the robbery without all the props?

But Dexter’s postmaster, who shared a building with the bank, said he would have heard if someone had attacked Barron.

Slowly the case fell to the wayside as police made no progress. And Mainers split into two camps. Those who thought Barron had killed himself believed the case solved. Those who thought he had been murdered suspected a gang had blown through town, killed him and fled before law enforcement could catch them.

A Son Frames His Father

Nine full years passed when, finally, Charles Francis Stain notified police that he had information about the case. Stain , a small-time crook, was serving time at the Norridgewock Jail. He explained that he was haunted. By Barron’s ghost. He couldn’t sleep until he came clean.

Stain said his father. David. and a friend, Oliver Cromwell, of Medfield, Mass., had committed the robbery. Stain said his father told him they had entered the bank and demanded money. Barron refused. David Stain had struck the banker and Cromwell proceeded to tie him up and strangle him.

Charles Stain said his father had confessed the crime in a feverish panic, but claimed he and Cromwell had killed John Barron accidentally. David also  threatened to kill his son if he ever told anyone, Charles said.

Police questioned Stain and Cromwell. The two seemed an unlikely pair of criminals. Both in their 50s, neither had a criminal record, though someone had once accused David Stain of stealing from a henhouse.

On the strength of Charles Stain’s statement, however, the two men were brought to Maine to stand trial in 1888. Ten years after the crime, little physical evidence remained. Still, shopkeepers said they’d seen the two men in town that day.

David Stain and Oliver Cromwell had a simple defense. They had never set foot in Dexter, Maine. They did not rob the bank. Further, David Stain said his son was probably angry with him because he refused to give him $25 to get him out of jail.

The jury delivered a guilty verdict and sentenced them to prison for life. For 13 years they would rot away at the state prison in Thomaston. Finally, an ambitious lawyer, with some help from a journalist in Massachusetts, put together a case that would free the two prisoners.

Pardon Us

A petition for a pardon was filed with the governor in 1895, but rejected. But a stronger case was made for their freedom in 1900. People from Medfield had pulled together their memories of David Stain’s whereabouts during the bank robbery. On that day, someone had stolen a horse in Medfield. Everyone had been accounted for, including Stain.

Further, Charles Stain now recanted his earlier statement against his father. Charles, it turned out, had a long history of confessing to crimes he did not commit. He had made up his earlier story, he said. He would later reverse himself again, and claim the story against his father was true. But by then the authorities realized Charles’ instability.

Gov. Llewellyn Powers

Maine Gov. Llewellyn Powers pardoned Stain and Cromwell in 1901. David Stain’s daughter, Mrs. Nyron C. Merrifield, celebrated his return by introducing him to his seven grandchildren, six of whom he had never met.

“There is no happier home in the entire country Monday night than that of Mr. and Mrs. Nyron C. Merrifield,” the Cambridge, Mass., newspaper reported on January 5, 1901.

The Real Story of the Dexter Savings Bank Heist

Less than four months after the Dexter Savings Bank robbery, a murdered body turned up in Westchester County, N.Y. The police and the Pinkertons believed the corpse held the key to the crime in Maine.

The murdered man, George Leslie, was an architect turned criminal. A well-educated native of Cincinnati, he dressed well, lived large and circulated among New York’s high society. Police believed him responsible for 80 percent of the bank robberies in the United States between 1869 and 1878.

Why Leslie chose Dexter, Maine, for a bank robbery is unclear. One account says he thought the Dexter Bank vault held $800,000. Others said it was a practice run for a bigger heist.

The Dexter Savings Bank building, courtesy New York Public Library. The Dexter Savings Bank was on the second floor to the left.

Whatever the case, Leslie had bribed John Barron to give them access to the vault in exchange for a share of the take. Barron would unlock the door and give Leslie a key to the vault.

Leslie’s gang converged on Dexter during a frigid week in February.  Leslie gave them disguises stolen from the New York Opera — clothes, wigs and fake beards. One may have dressed as a woman. They brought a  rolled-up black stage screen to hide their burglary from the street.

J. North Conway described the crime in his book about Leslie, King of Heists: The Sensational Bank Robbery of 1878 That Shocked America.

In Dexter, the gang members stayed at different boarding houses and avoided each other so witnesses wouldn’t see them together. They had rehearsed everything.
On the morning of Washington’s Birthday, the gang gathered outside the bank. Leslie knocked on the door. No answer. He knocked again, but still no answer. Finally a gang member, Red Leary, forced the door open.

John Barron Meets His Maker

Barron was inside, waiting for them. He told them he changed his mind and he wouldn’t help them. Leary and a cohort, Shang Draper, grabbed Barron and threatened to beat him if he didn’t give up the key.

The thieves then fell out. Leslie wanted to flee while they could still get away. Leary and Draper wouldn’t leave without the money. Draper pistol-whipped Barron and then confessed: the vault was on a timer. Even if they had a key, the vault wouldn’t open until morning.

Furious, Leary and Draper beat Barron some more, handcuffed his hands behind his back and put a gag in his mouth. Then they wedged him in between the inner and outer doors of the bank vault and left him to die. The gang made a quick getaway in a waiting sleigh.

Back in New York City, Leslie was horrified to read about Barron’s death in the newspapers. He had never killed anyone, and now he was an accessory to murder. He left town for a few days, but then returned to meet with his associates. They had planned another robbery: the sensational Manhattan Savings Institution heist.

But Leslie’s gang didn’t trust him. He’d spent too much time consulting with other gangs on how to rob banks. He was having an affair with Shang Draper’s wife. And they worried he’d finger them for the murder of John Barron.

One or maybe two  of the gang members shot him in the head and the heart and dumped his body by a rock in a wood north of New York City. He had no identification on him, and his wallet, rings and watch had all been taken. Police never apprehended the culprits, and Leslie didn’t live to see the heist he’d planned after the Dexter Savings Bank robbery.


This story last updated in 2022.

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