WATERVILLE — It was a grisly murder, one that haunted the city for decades.

It was Sept. 29, 1847, and Edward E. Mathews was throwing an elaborate party in a downtown hotel.

A wealthy man, Mathews had earned his fortune by buying and selling cattle and after a particularly fruitful sale, liked to celebrate.

He and his friends drank, ate and reveled into the night at the Williams House hotel, which was near where GHM Insurance Agency is today on Main Street.

Around 8 p.m., Mathews announced he had an appointment and must leave. He told his guests to continue having fun and he would return later.

Mathews, however, never came back. The next day, his body was found in the cellar of a nearby vacant house, his head bashed in and his money and watch stolen.

It was the first recorded murder in Waterville and it sent shock waves through the city.

At first, Mathews’ death appeared to be the result of a random robbery, but as time wore on, it became clear something more sinister had occurred.

Valorous Coolidge, a doctor who had helped perform the autopsy on Mathews, had poisoned him with acid, investigators said, according to Morning Sentinel accounts. Coolidge, who was heavily in debt and needed cash, killed Mathews and bashed his head with a hatchet, according to investigators.

Mathews’ prized possession, a watch, was found in Coolidge’s sleigh.

He was later convicted of murder and sent to prison. But many city residents were not convinced Coolidge did the deed. The doctor had a stellar reputation, was an excellent surgeon and was well liked throughout the city. He could not possibly be a killer, they said. But others disagreed.

Now, 166 years later, questions linger about what really happened that fateful night in 1847. City officials, too, see the renewed interest in the case and Pine Grove Cemetery where Edwards is buried as important links to Waterville’s history and future.

Cemetery exploration

In modern times, investigators trying to solve murders typically gather evidence, interview witnesses and pursue a motive.

But when a murder is 166 years old, that method isn’t practical.

Unless, that is, if you are Chris Clarke, of Paranormal Research and Extermination.

Clark, of Fairfield, and several members of his group have been researching the Mathews murder for the last several weeks and spending time in cemetery.

They spent a recent night there, filming with a night vision digital recorder, voice recorders and an electromagnetic field detector. They plan to return several more times in November. They hope to communicate with Mathew’s spirit, but haven’t yet, they said.

“Spirits generate an electromagnetic field and when they cross in front of the sensor, it beeps, so we know it’s there,” said Clarke, 26, Monday. “We pan the camera around and try to entice them out. We’re not there to hurt them or take over their home.”

To some people, what Clarke and his group does sounds crazy. But they are serious about their work, which they hope will shed light on what happened to Mathews the night he was killed.

“We’re not in it for the money,” said member Kris Robinson, 36, of Waterville, a former ordained minister who now deals in antiques and collectibles. “We’re doing this for our town — that we’re very proud of being in.”

Robinson’s wife, Naomi, 30, said the ultimate goal is to shed light on unsolved mysteries in the city.

“The Mathews/Coolidge case is a perfect example,” she said.

Clarke’s girlfriend, Allie Turner, 28, of Fairfield, has spent many hours in the Waterville Public Library, poring over information about the case.

“I like knowing the truth,” said Turner, a customer service and sales representative for T-Mobile. “It’s our history; we should know. We’re following the bread crumbs and try to put the pieces together.”

The group also goes into places that are reportedly haunted or where other reported paranormal events are occurring to try to determine the cause. Often, they find a simple explanation, as in the case of a family that was plagued by the sound of a rocking chair creaking and groaning in their home and sought help from the group.

“It was a rocking chair in the basement that was against a window and when the wind blew, it rocked,” said Waterville resident Jim Easler, 36, also a T-Mobile customer service and sales representative. “Ninety-five percent of the time, most things people see can be explained. It usually brings them great comfort when they find out they’re not being haunted or messed with.”

Clarke, who is also a call firefighter for the Fairfield Fire Department, said people who experience unusual things in their homes need to be reassured they are not crazy.

“We want to help them” he said. “We want them to have answers, even if it’s something as simple as the foundation in their house is settling, or if it’s something paranormal like a demon or a ghost. Lots of times, houses — especially older houses — settle and move and can cause doors to open or close.”

City support

Access to Pine Grove Cemetery, in the city’s South End, is prohibited after sunset, but Clarke’s group got permission from city officials to do research there.

The 35-acre cemetery has been a focus of discussion over the last couple of years, as city officials have been spiffing up the site, installing street signs and developing an updated online map that is accessible from the city’s website, www.waterville-me.gov.

City Planner Ann Beverage believes Pine Grove is a great resource and she supports the idea of conducting heritage tours of the cemetery, as some other large cities do. People often come to Waterville seeking information about their ancestors who are buried there, she said, and can glean a lot by visiting the cemetery and being referred to other historic places in the city, such as Redington Museum on Silver Street. That museum contains some of Coolidge’s possessions, including his desk, she said.

Beverage, who spoke with Clark about his project, said there is a question about whether Mathews’ body is actually in Pine Grove, as initially, he reportedly was buried in a cemetery that is now the site of Memorial Park at the corner of Park and Elm streets.

Some of the grave stones were moved from Park Street cemetery to Pine Grove, but whether all of the bodies were moved remains a mystery that Clark and his group hope to solve.

“He is hoping to find out how many bodies are in Memorial Park, and whether Mathews’ body is actually in his grave at Pine Grove,” Beverage said.

The first burial in Pine Grove was in 1851 and if Edwards died in 1847, his body would have been buried off Park Street, she said.

Pine Grove holds 35,000 graves, many of which are those of prominent people, including Maine governors Clinton Clauson and William T. Haines.

About 500 graves are those of veterans from as far back as the Civil and Revolutionary wars. Descendants of Mayflower voyager John Alden also are buried there.

City Clerk Patti Dubois said the cemetery is a gem.

“It’s a treasure that people are actually interested in and I think it’s beneficial to the city to increase interest in it,” Dubois said. “I welcome it.”

Dubois also spoke with Clarke about his project.

“There is history there and I think that anything that raises awareness of the city history is a good thing,” Dubois said. “I think it’s great. I think it’s exciting. I’m anxious to see what they come up with.”

Waterville Public Library Director Sarah Sugden has helped the group find information for their research.

Waterville has a rich and compelling story and the group recognizes there is history behind that story, Sugden said. Most people pass the same buildings and sites every day, not recognizing that there is a story behind them, she said:

“Too often, we are removed from our community’s history and the story of our past.”

Sugden said she is impressed with the group’s dedication.

“They’re like little sleuths of mystery in our community. It’s really pretty cool,” she said.

Clarke, Easler, the Robinsons and Turner spoke animatedly about their project recently as they sipped coffee at the Villager Restaurant on The Concourse.

They said they have known each other many years and are like a family, connected through a common bond.

They emphasized that when they go into a cemetery, they are always respectful. They do not seek out spirits; rather, they wait to see if there is one wandering aimlessly about. They approach it gently, asking if it wants to communicate. Sometimes, they do not get the answers they seek.

The group has offered to volunteer at the cemetery, righting overturned stones, cleaning them or helping in other ways, Clarke said

“We want families to understand that by having a presence there, we want to make sure the cemetery is not forgotten,” Clarke said.

When they complete their research, they plan to approach city officials with the results, they said.

 

Amy Calder — 861-9247

acalder@centralmaine.com

Twitter: @AmyCalder17