PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — New England’s only hanging, a mysterious bank robbery and trouble on a 1920s train could be movie plots but are actually part of Aroostook County’s sinister history.
Though The County is generally known as a peaceful farming community, larger than Connecticut and Rhode Island combined, it has seen its share of rum runners, robbers and murderers.
Here are five historic Aroostook criminals who were notorious in their day. Some remain infamous still, while others rest in the pages of history.
The only recorded lynching in New England occurred in Mapleton. It started with the theft of a pair of boots and ended with the murder of two men and a real-life lynch mob.
In winter 1873, local ne’er-do-well James Cullen stole a pair of size 14 boots from David Dudley’s Mapleton store, said Kim Smith of the Presque Isle Historical Society.
Deputy Sheriff Granville Hayden and Deputy Officer William Hubbard followed Cullen’s large boot tracks to a camp, where he was staying with friend John Swanbeck, and waited out the night, planning to arrest Cullen in the morning.
Swanbeck and another guest awoke to see Cullen murder the two officers with an axe. A mob of around a hundred swarmed after Cullen and hanged him.
No one was ever found responsible for the lynching, according to the New England Historical Society. But Cullen’s head had another life. A visiting phrenology professor, Luther Bateman, exhumed Cullen’s body to study his skull, carrying it with him as part of his lecture tour.
Some called him ingenious, others called him scandalous, but Bernard Patterson managed to pull off the largest bank heist in Maine’s history.
A Vietnam War veteran, Patterson donned a reddish wig and, with a toy gun, robbed the Northern National Bank in Mars Hill in 1971, making away with $177,000. The crime spurred an international manhunt that followed Patterson throughout North America and Europe, ending with his surrender at Scotland Yard.
Author Ron Chase of Topsham recounted the crime in his book “The Great Mars Hill Bank Robbery.” Patterson trekked through the Prestile Stream wilderness as police, sheriffs, Canadian Mounties and the FBI undertook the largest law enforcement investigation in northern Maine history, Chase said.
Patterson wasn’t an ordinary criminal, the author said. He was intelligent and had a personality that drew people to him. In fact, many townsfolk wouldn’t say anything to denigrate him — even though the locals knew he had done the crime.
Whether or not there were accomplices never came to light. Patterson was released from prison in 1977 and died in 2003.
Those present when Harry Wood encountered Game Warden Lee Parker in Westfield recounted different stories, but that night in 1927 Parker died of a gunshot wound to the head.
Wood and wife Lenora were passengers in a car with Garfield and Laura Cray and had been hunting, according to “Killed in the Line of Duty” by Ryan Jahn on StoryMaps.
Wardens Parker and George Hodgdon were scouting for deer jackers — illegal night hunters — and saw Cray’s car coming toward them. The wardens approached the car, guns drawn, and ordered the people out of the vehicle.
Here is where accounts differ. Wood claimed he heard a shot ring out and fled. Hodgdon said he saw Wood holding a rifle, heard a shot and then Parker fell. Hodgdon said he fired two shots at a man fleeing the scene. Garfield Cray said he thought Hodgdon shot Parker. The women said they heard shots. Mrs. Wood had covered her eyes, but Laura Cray said there was no flash from Wood’s rifle.
Wood was arrested, found guilty of manslaughter and went to prison for six years. Gov. Louis J. Brann pardoned him on Oct. 4, 1934.
In the early 20th century, it was common for trains to transport gravel to construction sites. But it wasn’t common for a worker to shoot the cook.
A Bangor and Aroostook Railroad gravel train stopped in Fort Kent on July 6, 1922. As the crew’s cook left the train for his home in town, two shots rang out. One missed, but the other went through one of his lungs.
Laborer Hugh Lyden of Madison fired the shots following a period of “bad blood” between the men, said the Bangor Daily News on July 11 of that year. The cook was first identified as John Sears, but later as George Cyr.
Cyr was sent into critical care at a local hospital. Luckily, the injury was not fatal. A Sheriff Dunn arrested Lyden for assault with intent to kill and escorted him to Houlton.
During his trial, Lyden claimed Cyr threatened him in what he called a “growl,” and said he didn’t mean to shoot the cook, but only scare him. The jury disagreed and found him guilty, as the newspaper reported on Dec. 12, 1922.
Though this incident is the most recent, its scope and horrific nature, combined with the perpetrator’s death by suicide, give it a lasting place in history.
In 2003, churchgoers at the Gustaf Adolph Lutheran Church in New Sweden suddenly fell ill after having coffee. Providers at Caribou’s Cary Medical Center and other medical professionals discovered they were suffering from arsenic poisoning. Several people were hospitalized and Walter Reid Morrill, 78, died the next morning, the BDN reported.
A week after the poisonings, Daniel “Danny” Bondeson, 53, of Woodland shot himself in the chest after leaving a note claiming he was responsible and had acted alone, according to the Associated Press.
In the note, Bondeson said he didn’t know the poison was arsenic, and that he only wanted to nauseate parishioners following an argument over a communion table his family had donated to the church.
The poisonings made national news, and have inspired several books.
The intrigue of crime seems to loom larger in Aroostook because the area is so removed from population centers. But like other areas of the state, there are dark deeds that give The County its own criminal legacy.