Dena Winslow believes that Jim Cullen, who was hunted down by a lynch mob in 1873, may have been an innocent man.
Author Dena Winslow discusses one of her books, "The History of Native American Ash Split Baskets," with Dana Allison of Mapleton in 2018. Winslow recently released a new book on New England's only lynching, which involved a Mapleton man in 1873. Credit: Courtesy of Terry Sandusky

MAPLETON, Maine — An Aroostook County author and historian has published a book that claims to tell the truth behind New England’s only lynching.

Dr. Dena Winslow of Mapleton published “They Lynched Jim Cullen: New England’s Only Lynching, Facts, Folklore, and – What Really Happened” in December. The book, her seventh, attempts to decipher fact from myth about the 19th-century execution in The County, using court records not reported at the time. 

The most common story goes that Cullen stole a pair of boots in Mapleton, was followed by sheriffs and murdered two lawmen before being hunted down by a lynch mob on April 30, 1873. But Winslow claims he may well have been innocent, like 99 percent of lynching victims across America. Many victims morphed into what Winslow called mythic monsters depending on who told their stories, and Cullen’s features grew larger and his hair color changed as the folklore grew.

“I really doubt if the people involved in the actual events back in 1873 would recognize the story as their own today, if they heard today’s [Cullen] folklore,” Winslow said.

Winslow’s 60-year fascination with the lynching began when she was 6 or 7 years old. In junior high and high school in Presque Isle, she began recording interviews with people who knew the story. 

Her work continued at the University of Maine at Presque Isle and University of Southern Maine. In 2000, she researched more of the history for her Ph.D. at UMaine. That research became her first book, “They Lynched Jim Cullen: New England’s Only Lynching,” published in 2005. 

In the first book, Winslow examined lynching as a phenomenon in America, using the stories of Cullen as a local example. She looked at what was common between America’s lynchings.

Her latest book focuses on what really happened to Cullen, who may have been an innocent man, according to Winslow. The evidence she collected came from the descendants of the people most involved and written records related to the lynching.

Readers of her previous work were eager to see the followup of her first book on the lynching, Winslow said.

“As historians know, what happened is important, but so is what people think happened,” she said. “It’s just as important to look at what the folklore became and who created the folklore as it is to look at what actually happened.”

One of the toughest mysteries to solve for Winslow was the location of Cullen’s skull, which was famously separated from his body by professor Luther Bateman, who acquired it in October 1873 and used it in his phrenology presentations. The pseudoscientific phrenology claimed bumps and indentations could be used as indications of character and mental abilities.

In the book, Winslow writes about her investigation to locate Cullen’s skull, which was prompted by a 2000 front-page article in the Lewiston Sun Journal. Winslow was hoping to use the skull to reconstruct what Cullen looked like. But the skull was buried illegally in a cemetery in the Lewiston-Auburn area, and she was unable to pinpoint its location.

One of the takeaways for readers is how stories told about an event can become very distant from reality over time. 

“It’s pretty easy to tell what’s myth and what’s not if you actually dig into the primary sources, the historical records from the day,” Winslow said.

She is working on other projects, but doesn’t think she is finished with digging up more information about Cullen.

She didn’t want to give too much of the book away, but in order to get more details about the facts of Cullen’s lynching, she encouraged readers to dive into her newest book.

Winslow’s seven books are historical nonfiction and can be purchased on Amazon.