PORTLAND, Maine — It was a big story in November 1885. Of course it was. No newspaper could resist the stupendous yarn. It had everything that sells: a tragic death, an empty casket, graverobbing and a seemingly supernatural return to the living.
The city’s three daily broadsheets covered the unfolding mystery in real time. The Portland Daily Press, the Daily Eastern Argus and the Portland Advertiser each had reporters burning shoe leather on the city’s cobblestoned streets, tracking down details and asking questions that could not be answered.
A day after the sensational news broke in the local press, the story went national. The New York World, the St. Louis Dispatch, the Macon Beacon, and Bangor Daily Whig and Courier all carried early accounts of the story.
But as hometown reporters picked away at the fabulous narrative, it began to crumble, leaving behind another mystery that still stands to this day: Why?
Breaking news of the undead
The Advertiser first broke the news Nov. 10, 1885. Its triple-deck headline read: “Resurrected. Astounding case of suspended animation. Return of Joseph Dyer from the dead.”
The original article’s sole source was named only as “Mr. Martson of the Home for Aged Men on Danforth Street.” It did not say how he came by the information, only that, “Mr. Marston vouches for the truth of the narrative.”
As the story went, a young Cape Elizabeth farmer named Joseph Dyer Jr. was coming across the bridge from South Portland in a wagon. Near the end, a drunken man scared his horse and Dyer fell from the cart, hitting his head. Then he died.
Three days later, Dyer’s heartbroken fiancee and weeping parents watched his casket go into the ground at Evergreen Cemetery. Death usually being a final state of affairs, they thought he had crossed over into the great beyond.
They were wrong.
After more than a year, Dyer’s mother began to have vivid dreams that her son was not dead. She had his coffin dug up and opened — at midnight. It was empty. Her son’s body was missing. An hour later, Dyer walked through her door and into her arms.
“Joseph Dyer, who for 14 months had been dead to his family and the world, appeared before his parents and resumed his place in the family,” the Advertiser wrote.
Upon returning from the hereafter, Dyer immediately sent word to his fiancee, Blanche Edwards. When reunited, he saw she was still wearing the ring he gave her, and they resumed their betrothal without much discussion. The Advertiser reported Dyer was now back to farming in Cape Elizabeth.
According to the paper, Dyer told his family and Edwards that he had only been mostly dead at the time of his burial. He described it as a state of suspended animation.
In a stroke of ghoulish luck, he said, a pair of physicians dug him up in the nick of time. The doctors were looking for a fresh, undiseased corpse to dissect. After spiriting him away, they discovered Dyer was still alive. The pair nursed him back to health over the better part of a year before Dyer made his way home.
“It is understood that the young man is reticent about where he has been and what he has been doing since his recovery,” the Advertiser wrote. “This is very natural, for the medical men who got possession of his body in so questionable a manner would hardly come to have their names known.”
The Advertiser made no attempt to verify the story.
Chasing the mystery
The Argus and the Press had the story the following day. Both papers lifted the main tale, almost verbatim, from the Advertiser article. They did manage to add some fresh fact checking and a snide dose of skepticism.
The first thing they revealed was that Mr. Martson, the Advertiser’s sole source, heard the tale from Elizabeth Edwards, a young woman working for him. She heard it from her sister, Blanche, Dyer’s fiancee.
The Argus, which cost 3 cents at the time, sent reporters out in search of Dyer’s parents. They were thought to be living in Deering, then part of Westbrook. A search of Woodfords and Morrills corner turned up nothing.
The Press scoured burial records at Evergreen Cemetery. No one named Joseph Dyer was in the books or in the ground there, they reported.
Editors of both papers revealed they received messy, anonymous letters riddled with spelling errors confirming the details of the original tale.
In what was perhaps an understatement, the Argus article ended, “The story given above does equal anything given in the sensational novels of the day. But there is a possibility that it is not exactly true.”
Over the course of the next week, all three papers combed Portland, Westbrook and Cape Elizabeth looking for Dyer and his parents. They found no one. A few locals say they vaguely remember a man dying after a fall from a wagon but that was all.
Reporters found Blanche Edwards, working at the home of well-known painter Herrison Bird Brown on Danforth Street. They described her as about 20 years old, Welsh and credible.
“A sort of dreamy expression rests on her face,” the Argus wrote.
The Advertiser reported, “She appears honest and thinks she is telling the truth.”
Edwards stuck to her story but said she did not know where Dyer worked in Cape Elizabeth and could not remember exactly where his parents lived. The Argus went so far as to hire a coach to drive her around Deering to see she mike recognize the Dyer’s house. It did not help.
The only tangible proof Edwards could produce were photographs of the Dyer family and a few letters written to her from her fiance’s mother.
The Advertiser and the Argus admitted the story was probably made up, but they kept repeating the salacious details, anyway. They both stated they believed Edwards was being forced into lying by some larger, nefarious force.
“No one, of course, takes any stock in the improbable story of resurrection,” wrote the Advertiser, “but it is thought there may be some hidden motive in telling such a tale.”
The end of the story
The Argus and the Advertiser gave up on the story after a few days. Only the Press saw it through to the end.
A week after the story broke, on Nov. 18, they published an update saying they found a man named Dyer in Oxford County who had a brother, by the same last name, working on a farm in Cape Elizabeth.
“This Dyer raises vegetables, also, selling them in Portland,” the Press wrote.
It was a thin tidbit of information but it kept the story on the front page and presumably sold papers.
The saga came to an end a few days later on Nov. 20. A one paragraph item near the bottom of page one laid it out.
“The story of the resurrection of Joseph Dyer, as told by Blanche Edwards, has at last been proved to be a falsehood wantonly told by the girl,” it read.
A Press reporter discovered the photos Edwards had of Dyer and his family were actually stolen from a house in Deering where she used to work. When confronted with this information, the story said, she confessed to making the whole thing up.
Edwards said she penned the letters supposedly written to her by Dyer’s mother, too. She mailed them to herself.
“[Edwards] parents, who have credited her story,” the article ended, “were much mortified when she confessed her fraud.”
None of Portland’s journalists tried to find out why Edwards had made up her story. Nor did the city’s papers admit any culpability in spreading the unsubstantiated tall tale in the first place.
They were content to blame Edwards and sell papers.
A modern search of newspaper indexes finds no further mention of the young woman who made up the story of the resurrected fiance. Like Joseph Dyer, when the papers were through with her, Edwards vanished.