Crime and Scandal

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

On Feb. 22, 1878, the treasurer of the Dexter Savings Bank, John 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 it looked like 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 just a small quantity of money. 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 was showing signs of spreading to the Dexter Savings Bank. The day before the robbery, customer withdrawals had pushed the bank’s cash reserves dangerously low.

February 22 was George Washington’s Birthday and a bank holiday. Barron had been at work, but had done almost no business. Auditors would find that the day before he noted that 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?

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, on the brink of a run, worried that if the bank failed his malfeasance was about to be uncovered by the inevitable audit that would follow?

The idea seemed preposterous to those who knew Barron. He was an honest and upright man, a devout Methodist and someone who had been entrusted to town office before.

Police searched for three strangers who had been reported passing through town on the day of the robbery and murder. They stopped and questioned anyone suspicious they found, but everyone had an alibi. Slowly, a notion took hold among the townspeople: Barron hadn’t been robbed and murdered; he killed himself.

That idea seemed preposterous to many. 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 it was impossible for Barron to have been attacked and not make so much noise he would have heard the crime.

Slowly the case fell to the wayside as police could make no progress. And Mainers were divided in two camps. Those who thought it was suicide believed it was resolved. Those who thought he had been murdered suspected a gang had blown through town and fled so fast that they were out of reach of the law by the time Barron’s body was discovered.

Nine full years passed when, finally, Charles Francis Stain notified police that he had information about the case. Stain was a small-time crook 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’s father David and a friend, Oliver Cromwell, of Medfield, Mass., had committed the robbery. Stain explained that as his father told the story, the two men entered the bank and demanded money. Barron refused. David Stain had struck the banker and Cromwell proceeded to tie him up and strangle him.

While he hadn’t meant to kill him, David Stain had told his son, the two men accidentally had done so. David Stain had confessed the crime in a feverish panic, but had later threatened his son. He would kill him if he ever told anyone.

Police questioned Stain and Cromwell. The two seemed an unlikely pair of criminals. Both in their 50s, neither had a criminal record, though Stain had once been accused 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, there was little by way of physical evidence available. Still, shopkeepers identified the two men as having been 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. The money could have gotten the younger man out of jail, but in response to a request for the money, his father said he would sooner send his son a rope with which to hang himself.

The jury decided the two men were guilty 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.

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 where David Stain had been on the day of the robbery. A horse had been stolen in town that day, and 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 his instability was documented.

Maine Gov. Llewellyn Powers pardoned Stain and Cromwell in 1901.

“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. Mrs. Merrifield was David Stain’s daughter and she celebrated his return by introducing him to his seven grandchildren, six of whom he had never met.

And as for John Barron, there was (and is) still no clear answer to why he died. His supporters would say the suicide was still as preposterous as ever. His detractors would say that no murderer was ever found, suggesting Barron staged the whole crime.

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