Hal Roth - July 2008

Old News from Delmarva:
The Mysterious Death of Ulman Owens
Hal Roth

   Sometimes the clippings I discover can be as mysterious as the conundrums they report. The following two articles were published in different newspapers with identical datelines of March 21, 1931. The first informs us that two federal agents have reported to Crisfield on that date to launch an investigation, while the second claims the investigation has already closed. Also, after a dead man has been discovered in a ransacked room with blood splattered on the floor and walls, a coroner issues a  verdict of death from either accidental or natural causes, and a federal district attorney discounts the possibility of foul play.
   “Baltimore, Md., March 21 (AP) – Two Department of Justice agents were sent today to Crisfield, Md., to try to solve the mystery of the death of Ulman Owens, keeper of the lonely Holland Bar lighthouse in Chesapeake Bay.
   “Owens’s body was found Sunday in the living quarters of the lighthouse after residents of nearby sections reported that the light had not burned for two nights. The room was in disorder and bloodstains were found, but the coroner returned a verdict of death from accidental causes. A heart attack was given as the cause of death.”
   “Baltimore, March 21 (AP) – A theory that Ulman Owens, keeper of the lonely Holland Bar Lighthouse in the Chesapeake Bay was slain by rum runners was abandoned Friday by two Department of Justice agents who investigated his death.
   “Though Owens was found with his quarters in the lighthouse in disorder, blood on the floor and walls and the place apparently ransacked, a coroner returned a verdict of death from natural causes, and the agents said following a conference with Federal district Attorney Simon E. Sobeloff that they took no stock in the foul play theory.
   “They said it had been ascertained definitely that Owens did not die from a broken neck.”
    A week and a half later, newspapers confirmed that the investigation of Owens’s death was closed.
   “Crisfield, Md., April 1 (AP) – Unless there are unexpected developments, the death of Ulman Owens, keeper of the Holland Bar lighthouse, is a closed incident, and the Somerset County Grand Jury, meeting April 13, will not be asked to take action, John B. Robins, States Attorney, has announced.
   “The county officials are satisfied with the investigation conducted by the Department of Justice and consider a grand jury investigation would be a duplication of effort. The facts obtained by the government agents, the States Attorney said, are at the disposal of the county.”
    A more thorough coverage of the incident, copyrighted by the International Feature Service, was offered in Sunday news magazines on May 30.
    A quote from Goethe, “Where there is most light, the shadows lie deepest,” introduces the story, which is titled “4 Mysteries of the Lonely Lighthouse Tragedy in a Howling Hurricane.”
   “On the night of Friday, March 13, a furious storm was lashing the waters of Chesapeake Bay to churning foam. Murky clouds veiled a fitful moon. The air was filled with the flutter of seagulls’ wings. Through the ever-thickening fog boomed the sinister cry of the bittern.
   “There were a few mariners abroad that night – rash souls who had ventured out for an afternoon’s fishing or, foolhardy, to kill time. Caught in the teeth of the sudden tempest, these men raised hopeful eyes to their one salvation, the old Holland Bar lighthouse. For eleven years, without a pause, its revolving beams had cheered and guided those lost at sea.
   “But as the wave-bound sailors murmured blessings on the gleaming, golden tunnel that pierced the darkness, a terrifying thing occurred. As if blotted by a giant’s fist, the light went out!
   “What had happened inside the tower? Something grim, beyond doubt, for Ulman Owens, fifty-three, loyal sentinel of the bay, was not the sort of man to desert his post or scant his duties, particularly on the night of a howling hurricane. The authorities of the fishing town of Crisfield, Maryland, nearest community to the Holland Bar, were frankly uneasy. So when the clouds lifted and the rain ceased to fall, Sheriff Luther Dougherty, Magistrate Fred N. Holland and Police Chief Willard Laird, of Somerset County, shoved off shore in a tiny dory to investigate the maritime mystery of Friday, the thirteenth.
   “Instead of one mystery, they came upon four.
   “‘There’s an air of death about this place,’ remarked the sheriff as he swung himself up on the landing platform with the aid of an iron stanchion. His companions followed, shivering in the chill air. ‘Hey, Owens,’ shouted Dougherty, ‘how’s every little thing?’ The walls gave back the echo, but the voice of Owens failed to reply. Seagulls cried in the morning light as if in mockery.
   “The three investigators were, by now, prepared for something dire, but scarcely for the sight that awaited them at the top of the iron circular staircase leading to the big light’s cubbyhole. Owens lay there, stiff in death. He was clad in only a rough shirt, and his body was scored with bruise after bruise. The rest of his clothing lay in a bloody heap beside one of the great reflectors. A deep gash marred his side; a welt stood out livid on his forehead.
   “The dead man’s face bore an expression of contorted agony. And, in tragic irony, one arm was stretched out toward the lamps, as if, in the very throes of his end, Owens had tried to keep the faith.
   “The scene offered every aspect of an awful struggle. In the adjacent bedroom a table had been overturned, a chair had been smashed to splinters and there were splotches of blood. A charred mass of embers lay on top of the stove. Nearby was a bloodstained knife.
   “‘A clear case of murder,’ agreed Dougherty, Holland and Laird after their first hasty survey of the disarranged premises. But further search brought to light evidence that pointed in another direction. Ransacking the wallowed-up bed, which the dead man had slept in, they came upon three pint bottles in which were the dregs of aromatic spirits of ammonia. Now, while ordinarily the drug, in this liquid form, is used to restore fainting persons or for similar beneficial means, it is poisonous if given in sufficient quantities. Had the solitary lighthouse keeper, crazed with the bleak loneliness of his life, gone on an ammonia jag, laying waste his quarters under the spell of his intoxication? Such cases are of record, since men, acting under pressure of drugs, can do tremendous damage.
   “Baffled and wondering, the three officials removed the body of Owens to the mainland. Faint flurries of snow were beginning to fall. It was almost as if the hurricane, enraged at the discovery of a tragedy it had hidden, was renewing its wrath upon the searchers. Night had fallen when they reached Crisfield. A premonition of their find had preceded them. Curious crowds filled the streets, the name of Owens on every tongue.
   “Dr. George S. Coulborn, coroner, after examining the body, gave it as his opinion that Owens had died of a heart attack. Next day the remains were removed to Dames Quarter, Deal Island, where the dead man’s daughter, Mrs. Robert W. Ford, received it and saw that it was buried in the local churchyard. But even while the Rev. R. G. Baynard was pronouncing the burial service, the whisper of ‘Murder’ was heard on every side.
   “Little really definite had been known about the lighthouse keeper during his hermit-like life. But with his death, surprising facts concerning him were pried loose from their obscurity and flooded with the light of publicity. Deep in the woods behind the nearby town of Allen stood a cottage. It had been the sanctuary of Ulman Owens’s secreted love. In the cottage lived Minnie Shores, thirty-five. She was married and the mother of three children, but had long planned to divorce her husband, a Deal Island farmer, and become the wife of Owens.
   “The shock of her sweetheart’s death was tremendous. ‘Yes, I loved him deeply,’ she said with impressive simplicity. ‘I used to sit there for hours, waiting for the sound of his foot on the gravel. Now the place seems haunted. I’ve got to move away. It’s too ghostly.’ She laid a hand affectionately on the shoulder of her fiancé’s daughter, Ella Owens, sixteen. Woman and girl had shared the little home behind its screen of shrubbery.
   “A single tear fell down Ella’s young cheek. ‘Minnie’s just like a mother to me,’ she admitted. ‘Father and I loved her a lot. We’d all have been so happy together if this horrible thing hadn’t happened. I’m sure that someone murdered Dad!’
   “She was far from the first to voice the suspicion so bluntly. Other persons remembered the rumrunners’ wrath against the lighthouse sentinel. Daily, their fleet craft sped through the narrows with their contraband caches of liquor aboard. Laden to the gunwales with smuggled whiskey, these ships must pass through the golden tunnel of the Holland Bar’s light, and no bootlegger or hijacker relishes any such public featuring as that.
   “Too, Owens was said to have reported certain of the lawbreakers to the Federal agents working in the locality. So not unnaturally the query arose: Was this foe of the rumrunners the object of their fury? Had he been visited just before the thunderstorm by several of their number and conveniently put on the spot? Many held to that belief. Many still do. The husband of Mrs. Shores was eliminated and completely cleared in the course of the investigation.
   “There were two other contingencies in the death of Ulman Owens. The first was that he had been the victim of a private feminine vengeance. Even today it is hard to disentangle truth from theory in the case of so mysterious a man. But it is known that, in spite of his comparatively ripe years and curious mode of existence, he was much admired by women. Some of his acquaintances even hint that there was one girl who was so infatuated with Owens that she frenziedly resented his attachment for Mrs. Shores. This girl, they add, had been heard to utter threats against Owens’s life. Had she reached the lighthouse against his wishes, cowed him with a revolver, then engaged in the tragic tussle that ended his life?
   “But their view was derided by others. These persons advanced an even more dramatic supposition. Since Owens was quite a ladies man, they argued, what more natural than that he should have been jealously regarded by one or more husbands of women to whom he had been, at the least, courteous? A sinister picture was painted of a stranger, knife in hand, creeping up the lighthouse stairs while the thunder howled outside. Then the grapple, the battle, the stabbing, sanguinary finale. Such was their theory.
   “What, meanwhile, was happening in the case, officially? The day after Owens’s funeral, his son-in-law, Robert W. Ford, expressed dissatisfaction with the investigation as conducted by the county authorities. They were about to drop the whole affair – but, ‘He never suffered from heart trouble,’ cried Ford. ‘It’s ridiculous.’ Mrs. Ford agreed. She pointed out some very pertinent facts. ‘The extent of father’s injuries was so great,’ she said, ‘that he simply couldn’t have inflicted them all on himself. His logbook was kept up till the night before the tragedy. How could he have drunk himself into a state of delirium and wrecked everything that way in less than a day?’ Her sister, Mrs. Cecelia Webster, agreed.
   “The Fords demanded the instant reopening of the case. Accordingly, B. E. Sackett and J. L. Geraghty, agents of the Bureau of Criminal Investigation of the United States Department of Justice, were sent to Crisfield by United States District Attorney Simon E. Sobeloff. Owens’s body was officially exhumed and an autopsy performed. This showed a head bruise, which had been violent enough to discolor the skull. The heart, stomach and other vital organs were sent to Baltimore for analysis. The cardiac region was found to be much enlarged, but there were no other indications pointing toward poison.
   “Despite vigorous investigation by Agents Sackett and Geraghty, nothing more of significance turned up in the Owens case. Disappointed and frustrated, they departed.
   “The waters of Chesapeake Bay moan round the old Holland Bar lighthouse. The hoarse screams of the seagulls resound through the chill spring air. The fogs rise and subside. The moon glints through the clouds of approaching storms. And always the yellow pencil of the lighthouse lamp traces its pattern on the murky waves.
   “But the hand that guides its course is not that of Ulman Owens, whose wounded body sleeps peacefully in a little seaside churchyard.”
    Included on the full-page spread is a diagrammatic floor plan of the lighthouse tower along with photographs of the lighthouse; Ulman Owens; Cecelia Webster, one of the dead man’s daughters; Minnie Shores, his lover; and Somerset County magistrate Fred N. Holland examining the bloodstained knife he discovered near the body. A collage of drawings depicts the various scenarios suggested as possible causes of Owens’s death: a knife-wielding man ascending the lighthouse stairs, a woman pressing a pistol into Owens’s stomach, a boatload of men preparing to disembark beneath the lighthouse, and one of Owens smashing bottles while on a drunken jag.
    In addition to the formidable evidence of foul play at the location where Owens’s body was discovered, authorities seem to have ignored another compelling demonstration that should, many believe, have reopened the investigation. Two months after the lighthouse incident, revenue agents delivered a major blow to Chesapeake Bay rumrunners. While conducting a stakeout on Taylors Island in South Dorchester County, they confiscated a large haul of contraband and the speedboats Hiawatha and Whippoorwill. [See Tidewater Times, June 2008.] One of the captured crew members, a former New Jersey state trooper by the name of Guy Parkhurst, was observed pointing to several men who had assisted in setting the trap and saying: “There go the rats that turned us in. That lighthouse keeper got in the headlines. We did that, and what these guys get will be worse.”
    Someone quickly told Parkhurst to shut up, to which he replied: “If you guys will forget that crack, we’ll be good friends.”
    Although no further challenge to the accidental death ruling was made, the friends and family of Ulman Owens never accepted it.

   If you have any old news to share, you can reach Hal Roth at nanbk@dmv.com.