Tuesday, 15 January 2008

O, What A Tangled Web He Wove

By Curt Norris
Detective Dragnet
February 1980 (Volume 24, Number 1)

The 1923 winter winds howled a desolate song in the New Hampshire backwoods, a tune that sighed through the pines, whistled past craggy ledges, and moaned like a dirge around a simple, isolated wooden house.

Inside the house, an obscure spider advanced upon a fly newly ensnared in its web. Down in Boston, private investigator James R. Wood was continuing to build a national reputation based on his uncanny deductive skills. Soon the spider, the fly and the private detective would play leading roles in solving one of New Hampshire’s most puzzling crimes.

The house belonged to Samuel Houston, who had gotten kind of lonely down home in the rural stretches of Berwick, Maine. So the tall, muscular cattle dealer with the snow-white hair framing a kindly face decided to spend his remaining years closer to civilization.

"I'd like to have more company when I get old," he'd explain later to folks in North Barrington, a picturesque community in the foothills of eastern New Hampshire.

"Civilization" to Sam Houston in 1917 meant buying a 100-acre farm on a back country road where he lived alone. He was well past 70 at this time, but few of his neighbors considered the striking-looking Mainer an old man. He drove down to Rochester several times each week to buy food and kerosene for his oil lamps, and other days worked as hard on his farm as would a man half his age.

As the years passed, some of the neighbors, aware that they lived too far away to offer immediate help, suggested that Houston should have someone living with him to keep him company. Sam always replied that he had company once a year, and that this was sufficient dissipation for a man of his years. This company, two nephews from down Boston way, always spent several weeks with him each fall hunting season.

But as the years passed, Sam did get tired. He performed fewer farm chores and his trips to Rochester became less frequent. He admitted to his nephews in the fall of 1923 that, at the age of 78, he tired easily. He planned to either close his farm, or, using his savings, hire someone to come out and live in with him. His friends in town were happy when this news spread through the rural grapevine.

In November, Sam Houston hired Summer Clow for $25 a month and keep to serve as a companion and helper around the farm. Clow was the good-natured son of a prominent Rochester businessman and soon proved to be a real help. After the day’s chores and a comfortable supper, Houston looked forward to the evening spent in the large living room with its piano and cheery fireplace. The forgotten glow of friendly companionship returned to warm Houston’s waning years.

Then the glow flickered. Weeks passed and early on the morning of December 8, neighbor Allen Long was awakened by pounding on his door. He slipped reluctantly from his warm bed and groped towards his window.

"What's the matter?" he called down.

A dim figure looked up and identified itself as Summer Clow. "Get the sheriff as fast as you can," Clow ordered. "Sam Houston has been shot!"

Long rushed downstairs and let the shivering Clow inside. "What happened?" he asked.

"Don't know," Crow responded. "I found Mr. Houston by the front door when I came down this morning to start the chores."

"Sit by the fire and thaw out," Long told the handyman. "I'll call the sheriff." Clow refused, saying he couldn't sit still while the old man was lying as he was. Houston might still be alive and in need of help. Clow buttoned his coat and left in a run for the Houston farm while Long spread the alarm.

Long reached Stratford County Sheriff Stephen W. Scruton in Dover. Sheriff Scruton contacted his deputy, Frank Callaghan, in Rochester and then placed a call to his fellow townsman, County Solicitor F. Clyde Keefe.

The three men reached the lonely Houston farm at daybreak. They noticed a human form sprawled across the front door threshold as they drew to a stop.

As the authorities left the car and approached the still body lying in a huge pool of blood, they noticed the broken glass fragments of a kerosene lamp lying beside the man. The glass panels of the open door behind the body were also shattered.

Scruton and Keefe bent over the glassy-eyed and cold form of Houston as Callaghan stood by in silence. The sheriff noted that Houston had been killed by a shotgun, a weapon that had been fired from a considerable distance away. The dead man's heart and lungs had been riddled by the blast. The three took care not to disturb the body, pending the arrival of the medical referee (as medical examiners were called in those days), and stepped into the hall.

They glanced inside the large living room and then proceeded down the narrow, old-fashioned passage. Callaghan pushed open a closed door and steeped into the kitchen. He immediately noticed a form huddled by the kitchen stove.

"Hello, Summer," he said.

Clow turned and greeted his old boyhood friend. "I'm sure glad you're here," he said.

The deputy took a seat beside Clow and asked what had happened. Clow recounted how the two had eaten supper together the night before and then spent the evening in the living room, as was their custom. Houston went into the kitchen around 9 pm. He returned with a kerosene lamp to tell Clow that he was going to bed.

"I'm going to finish this story I'm reading," Crow said he told the old man. Houston went upstairs while Clow continued to read for another half hour. Then the handyman fixed the fires, checked to see that the house was secure, and went upstairs himself. "was tired," Clow explained, "and I went to sleep at once."

Sometime later he was awakened by automobile headlights reflecting off the walls of his room. He heard several voices, thought little of them, and went back to sleep. Maybe it was even a dream, he admitted.

"What happened next?" the Sheriff wanted to know.

"I woke up at my regular time, maybe a little before 6 am. I lit my lamp and got dressed, noticing all the while that the house seemed much colder than usual. When I stared downstairs, I saw the front door was open although I remembered distinctly locking it the night before. When I reached the bottom of the stairs, I saw Mr. Houston lying where he is now."

Callaghan asked Clow if he had any idea what time the automobile stopped outside.

"Oh, maybe between three and four o'clock. I wasn’t too concerned about it because I thought some people had stopped to make repairs to their machine (the old records usually refer to automobiles as 'machine')."

"You heard no shot?"

"No, nothing at all."

The impromptu meeting broke up and the party went outside. It was now broad daylight. The sheriff looked around for empty shotgun shells, extending his search to the dirt road where Clow reported the machine had stopped. The sheriff looked around for tire tracks, but the ground had been too frozen the night before. The investigation proved fruitless, and the group returned to the house.

As far as Clow knew, Sam Houston didn't have an enemy in the world. Everyone seemed fond of the old man and in their quiet evening conversations, the old man had never mentioned any enemies to Clow. The handyman said that the few visitors to the house were neighbors who were above suspicion.

Well, reflected the sheriff, there were rumors that Sam Houston was rich. "What do you know about that?" he asked Clow. "In the seven years he's been in New Hampshire, there have been all kinds of stories about the large amount of cash he had hidden in this house to carry on cattle deals."

"Those were rumors, not fact," Crow replied. "He had only about $400. I tried to make him bank it, but he said it was safe enough here." Keefe asked if Clow knew where the money was hidden.

"Sure", came the quick answer. "He kept it in a tin box behind the top row of books in the living room bookcase." A search revealed the tin box was missing.

As Keefe and Callaghan began to look around, the county solicitor noticed a long, narrow door next to the pantry. He gave it a yank and peered inside. "Nothing in this closet but a couple of guns in the corner," he observed. Clow raised his head - he had been complaining of a headache throughout the preliminary investigation. A neighbor woman appeared and prepared medicine for the handyman. Saying he now felt better, Clow explained about the weapons.

"Those shotguns belong to Mr. Houston's nephew. They come down here every fall to hunt."

Scruton came over to the odd-shaped door. He shone a flashlight into the closet and focused it upon the two dust covered weapons. A spider had spun a triangular web across the muzzles of a double-barreled shotgun. More spider webs encircled the breech of the other single-barreled gun.

"As far as I know, those guns haven't been touched since last fall," Chow observed. "The old man didn't like guns and told me to leave that closet alone."

"Where did Houston get that lantern he used last night?" the sheriff asked.

Clow pointed to a shelf above the sink. There was an empty space between two lamps with highly polished chimneys. The old man, Clow said, had gone out into the kitchen and brought the lamp into the living room where he lit the wick from a "spill" (a slip of wood or paper used for lighting lamps). Then he had gone upstairs.

At this point, the three law officials conferred and agreed to postpone further investigation until the attorney general arrived on the scene. At that time, in New Hampshire, the attorney general was responsible for all murder investigations.

Keefe left the others to call the attorney general's office in Concord and learned that Attorney General Irving A. Hinkley was not available. He had gone deep into the logging woods investigating another murder with Deputy Sheriff Walter French of Lime, and Detective James R. Wood of the Wood Detective Agency n Boston.

Hinkley wasn't able to appear on the scene of the Houston murder until early Sunday morning. He stepped from his car and passed through a circle of heavily armed deputies to greet the waiting county solicitor. Detective Wood accompanied him.

"We moved the body yesterday for autopsy in Rochester upon orders from the medical referee," Keefe told Hinkley. "Otherwise, everything has been left as we found it when we were called."

Hinkley was 33 years old at that time and was believed to be the youngest man in the United States to hold such an important office. He nodded soberly as he asked if the medical referee had made any report yet.

"Only preliminary reports," the county solicitor replied. "Houston was killed with a 12-gauge shotgun." As the three walked towards the house, he acquainted the two new arrivals with further facts of the case.

Wood and Hinkley quickly examined the premises, then Wood questioned Clow in some detail about the car which had stopped outside the house before daybreak on the morning of the murder. Finally, Wood asked to see the two guns in the kitchen closet.

Wood studied the two weapons for some time with interest and spent more time examining the dust-covered closet floor. Hinkley watched the Boston detective in silence, puzzled but respectful of Wood's proven abilities in solving many of New England's most puzzling crimes.

Wood finally looked up at Hinkley and suggested that the two look at the front hall. The two men went to the spot where Houston's body had been found lying half across the threshold. The two carefully studied the scattered glass fragments of the broken kerosene lamp and the wick fixture, which was lying a short distance beyond.

Wood looked puzzled as he turned to his companion. "I'm still wondering," he said, "how it was possible for the old man to fall across the threshold if the door was only partly open. Especially if the death charge from the shotgun came through these glass panels. It looks here as though he must have been behind the glass door panels when the charge was fired."

"Maybe he was opening the door when the murderer fired," the attorney general offered. "If that was true, he instinctively pulled the door open and fell outside."

"Well," Wood countered, "that doesn't explain the broken lamp." The two then went inside where Wood singled out Keefe and Scruton. "I think it would be a good idea if we had Clow re-enact, step by step, the movements of the old man beginning from the time he made ready for bed."

The two agreed and, despite his continuing headache, Clow was more than willing. The handyman walked over to the kitchen shelf, removed an oil lamp from the shelf, and brought it into the living room where he placed it on the table near the parlor stove. He reached for a paper spill from a nearby pile, lit it, and started from the room.

"Stop right there for a moment," Wood commanded. Clow stopped, lamp in hand.

"You're sure he came in as you showed us, lighted the lamp as you did, and then went upstairs?"

"I am positive", Clow answered. "He stood right where I am standing right now."

"Then explain this," Wood questioned. "How could he have lighted it and taken it up to bed when the wick we found from the broken lamp is bone dry and hasn't seen oil for some time? Furthermore, why isn't there any trace of spilled oil upon the floor?"

"There are several lamps in the old man's room. Maybe he picked up the wrong one."

Wood's voice carried authority as he answered. "There was no other lamp. You killed Sam Houston and then broke the lamp where you did, forgetting that its fragments would have dropped on the floor behind the door instead of where you planted them."

"But," Clow protested, "I loved the old man. Why would I, of all people, kill him?"

"For that $400," Wood replied.

"I didn't do it. I don't even have a gun."

"That was the detail which helped trip you up. You used that 12-gauge shotgun that belonged to one of the nephews. After the killing, you placed a spider's web containing a dead fly across the muzzle to throw us off. But you outfoxed yourself.

"No spider leaves a victim in his web unless the spider himself is destroyed. After devouring his prey, a spider discards his victim from the web. I checked the floor carefully by the guns and there was nothing there."

Deputy Sheriff Callaghan entered the room at this dramatic point, and the accused man appealed to his childhood friend.

"You believe me, don't you Frank?" he asked. "You don't think I killed Sam Houston, do you?"

"I'm afraid I do," the deputy returned gravely. "If I hadn't been your friend, I would have seen it hours ago."

"I never killed him," Clow repeated again. But several hours later, after a hot meal in a Rochester restaurant, he signed a full confession to the crime, asserting that he murdered the old man for the $400 which, incidentally, authorities never recovered despite several searches in the nearby woods with Clow. The money remains missing to this day.

Early in January, 1924, Clow appeared before Chief Justice William H. Sawyer in Superior Court at Dover. He was sentenced to life imprisonment.

As the years passed, the crime preyed so much upon Clow's mind that he became hopelessly insane complaining of hearing voices and seeing images. In April, 1928, he was transferred from State Prison to the State Hospital, where he remained until death released him from his torments.

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