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ONE FEBRUARY DAY in 1904, a thirty-something man got off the train in Hood River and hired a buggy at the local livery stable. He wanted to be driven to the homestead ranch of a man named Norman Williams. And he wanted to bring along a shovel.
Bert Stranahan, the owner of the livery stable, was happy to oblige.
Business was, after all, business. The shovel was a strange request, but he couldn’t see any reason to say no.
When they got to the place, it had clearly been abandoned for some time. The visiting man, whose name was George Nesbitt, poked around the buildings with the shovel. Then, as Stranahan eyed him dubiously, he started digging inside a chicken coop in the yard. He dug all day — four feet, five feet, six feet down.
He was looking for his mother and his sister.
The disappearing homesteaders
Nesbitt’s sister’s name was Alma, and she had known Williams back in Iowa before he came out to Oregon. They’d probably talked of marriage, because after Williams moved to the Hood River Valley to file his homestead claim, they wrote letters back and forth, and he urged her to come out and file a homestead claim on the adjacent parcel. She finally did, in 1899.
Then her mother, 68-year-old Louisa Nesbitt, came out too, and for a while the three of them wrote happy open-air homesteader letters back to Iowa, relating how they were all working together to build a house and barn and various other improvements that would make their land productive and homey.
Then, all at once, the letters stopped.
The family wrote to Williams, and he replied that the women had left — that Alma had thrown him over for a younger man. Beyond that, he was very uncommunicative. The family posted notices, contacted authorities, offered rewards. Nothing.
Finally, in desperation, George bought a railroad ticket and came to Hood River.
At the farm, something had seemed to guide him unerringly to that half-built henhouse, and kept him going all day digging into its floor. And at twilight, he finally found something at the bottom of the hole he’d dug: a piece of burlap sacking stained with what looked like blood, and several long silver hairs.
At least now he knew.
Back at The Dalles, Nesbitt went straight to the county courthouse and reported his find and his suspicions. He swore out a warrant for Williams’ arrest, and Wasco County Deputy District Attorney Fred Wilson was assigned to the case.
Williams, when tracked down in Washington state, was affable and cooperative and apparently unconcerned. In jail, he made no attempt to raise bail. “It’ll come out all right,” he said with an easy smile.
Unlike all the previous correspondence, Alma’s last letter home had been mailed from a boardinghouse in Portland, not from the homestead. So Wilson and Nesbitt went there and talked to the landlord. They learned that the women had stayed there from Feb. 8 to March 8; March 8 was the postmark date on the letter.
March 8 was also the day a Hood River livery stable rented a buggy and team to Williams and two women, one young and pretty, the other middle-aged, with long silver hair. Assuming this was Alma and her mother, that would have been the last time anybody other than Williams ever saw either of them; but the livery stable owner did see Williams again, returning the buggy and team, alone.
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Acting on a hunch, Wilson crossed the Columbia and checked the public records. At the time, Washington’s marriage laws were looser than Oregon’s, and many eloping couples ran to Vancouver to get married. Sure enough, Wilson found that Norman Williams and Alma Nesbitt had tied the knot before a justice of the peace there — six months before Alma had disappeared.
This was particularly interesting because a record search in Oregon showed he was still married to a woman in Dufur, whom he’d wed in 1898, the year before Alma came out.
There were some other issues, too — skeletons in Williams’ closet, as it were. As it turned out, he had been married not just twice, but six times; two of those wives had died of poisoning, and he’d served three years in the Nebraska State Pen for assaulting and nearly killing a sister-in-law.
But Wilson found the real smoking gun at the land claim office. There, he learned that Williams was under indictment for forgery; after Alma’s disappearance, he’d brought in a document transferring title to Alma’s homestead claim to him, and the clerk had been suspicious so he’d sent back to Washington for a copy of the initial homestead claim forms.
The signatures did not match. Clearly, Williams was in the process of trying to steal Alma's land.
Convicted and hanged
To the prosecutors, it all added up: Williams, wanting Alma’s claim to add to his, sweet-talks her into marrying him and starts making plans to combine the parcels. But before that can happen, she learns he’s been two-timing her. So she and her mother pick up and leave for Portland. He, having found out where they are, goes out and sweet-talks them into coming back to the ranch … then kills them both and cremates the bodies (the neighbors reported a huge bonfire on the property shortly after the women returned). Having overlooked one piece of bloody burlap, he buries it and builds a chicken coop on it — ironically, if he had not done this, it would have been long gone by the time Nesbitt arrived four years later.
The evidence was fairly damning, but very circumstantial … until an expert witness took the stand. This witness was Dr. Victoria Hampton, a chemist from Portland, one of the very first female scientists in Oregon and in the U.S.
Hampton testified that based on her forensic analysis, the blood on the burlap was human, and so were the hairs; and that the hairs had been ripped out of the scalp before death.
And on that note, the prosecution rested. But they’d presented more than enough. Norman Williams was hanged for the murder of his sixth wife and mother-in-law on July 21, 1905, in the last public hanging in Oregon history. He was 48 years old.
By the way, there’s more to this story — more interesting details than I have space to go into here. To get the full story, you’ll have to pick up a copy of Stewart Holbrook’ s book, Murder Out Yonder. It’s all in Chapter 11.
(Sources: Holbrook, Stewart. Murder Out Yonder. New York: Macmillan, 1941; Goerdes-Gardner, Diane. “State of Oregon v. Norman Williams,” The Oregon Encyclopedia, www.oregonencyclopedia.org; Portland Morning Oregonian, May 11, 24, 26 and 27, 1904)