On the first Friday night of October in 1922, somebody pointed a .38-caliber Colt revolver at Otis Arland Bean, a fishing guide and letter carrier, and shot him three times.

Bean, 37, fell to the ground beside his friend’s garage, a pool of blood forming beneath him.

A photograph of Otis Bean printed in newspapers covering the murder trial in 1923.

It was the first murder to occur in tiny Rangeley and one that quickly captivated the press and public across America as authorities sought to figure out who did it and why.

The Lewiston Daily Sun called the case “the biggest sensation ever known in this part of the state.”

Law enforcement initially collared a couple of lumberjacks, taken into custody within hours of the slaying, but months later accused Ethel Bean, the guide’s wife.

This is the story of what happened.

First, it’s important to note that Bean wasn’t a deep woods sort of guide. He was a friendly, reasonably educated fellow who had a wide circle of fans from his work at the camps on Pleasant Island.

In 1911, a newspaper account mentioned that he’d helped a niece at the Cupsuptic Store House Camp catch “a good string of trout.”

Five years later, a story in the Maine Woods paper mentioned three Princeton, New Jersey, tourists had “the time of their lives” with Bean as their guide as they fished on the lake, emerging with 3-pound salmon and lots of trout.

Bean’s standing in the social pecking order of the area, which included many of those well-to-do summer tourists, contributed to the wide interest in the case at the time.

Now, on to that fateful fall day.

THE LAST MINUTES OF OTIS BEAN

Late in the afternoon on Oct. 6, Bean took a boat from Pleasant Island on Cupsuptic Lake and motored about 2 miles over to the wharf at Haines’ Landing, where he pulled up at about 6:15 p.m.

Bean crossed the wharf in the deepening twilight and walked about 1,000 feet to the little settlement of Toothaker’s Garage. He kept a truck there that he typically drove to nearby Oquossoc, where he lived with his wife of 16 years.

At 6:25 p.m., witnesses heard three shots.

Another guide, Robert Martin of East Auburn, reached the body first, 15 feet from the garage where Bean kept his truck.

A Colt Special Police Revolver lay next to him, with four empty shells. Nobody ever explained why a number of witnesses heard only three shots.

Advertisement for the gun used in the Otis Bean murder.

The gun belonged to another guide, Bert Kimball, who lived in a cottage a few hundred feet from Bean’s home. Kimball, however, had an airtight alibi since he could prove he was in Lewiston that evening with his wife on the way to Swampscott, Massachusetts.

He told authorities he had left the gun, fully loaded, in a holster hanging from his bed.

Officials said anyone peering in the ground floor window could have seen it — and that Kimball left his house key dangling near the door, trusting that nothing bad would happen in the nearly crime-free town.

Ethel Bean said that when the murder occurred, she was home writing a letter. She said she never even heard the shots.

Within hours, authorities rounded up a couple of fellows from away — called “wandering woodsmen” in accounts of the time — and held them on suspicion of killing Bean. They were locked up after walking from Kennebago Lake to Haines’ Landing.

Norman Mawson of Methuen, Massachusetts, and Jeremiah Wheaton of Elmira, New York, remained behind bars for five months without ever facing charges, kept there as nearly useless material witnesses even after officials realized they almost certainly didn’t show up in the vicinity of the killing until after Bean had already breathed his last.

The pair eventually got $44 from the state for their troubles, payment for the period after they’d been cleared but still held in custody. They got nothing for the four months they’d been locked up.

GRAND JURY ISSUES A SHOCKING INDICTMENT

After the killing, a grand jury heard secret testimony from many witnesses as prosecutors gradually built a case. The press and public assumed it would end with formal charges against the two jailed men.

Instead, the grand jury shocked everyone on Feb. 9, 1923, by indicting Ethel Bean, who had been staying with her sister in Portland as events unfolded. Her motive, a prosecutor said when her trial began, was simple jealousy.

She initially threatened to kill herself if tossed in jail, so to ease her anguish, authorities brought the case to trial just two weeks later in the Franklin County Courthouse.

Bean was the first woman ever to face a murder charge in Franklin County and one of only a few in the history of Maine to that point.

Accused killer Ethel Bean in a 1923 press photograph outside the Franklin County Courthouse.

Interest was so great in the case that the sheriff’s office gave out admissions cards before the Feb. 27 starting date for the trial so jurors, lawyers, court personnel and reporters would be able to get in and find seats in the 300-seat courthouse. Without the cards, officials said, they expected mass confusion.

On the eve of the trial, Bean’s defense lawyer, former Maine Attorney General William Pattangall, called it a remarkable case.

He said that heading into a case involving a serious crime, attorneys usually “know the highly significant, often damning, evidence” against their clients. There was nothing like that against Bean, he said, merely the notion that perhaps the defendant had the opportunity to commit the crime and might have had a reason.

Pattangall said he couldn’t conceive of how the state planned to win, and confessed he felt as though he would be “fighting the wind.”

Newspapers reported that rumors swirled that the murdered man had been involved in sordid affairs — rumors spurred in part by prosecutors promising surprise witnesses.

The next morning in Farmington, Ethel Bean waded through a sea of photographers between the jail and the courtroom.

A Lewiston Evening Journal reporter called her “an attractive woman, no longer exactly young and yet with much of the supple grace and charm of youth.”

“She wore a black sealskin coat with beaver trimming, a black hat” and “a black gown on Canton crepe. And, of all the persons in this crowded courtroom, she seemed by far the most composed.”

THE CASE GOES TO TRIAL IN FARMINGTON

Ethel Bean, from a February 1923 account in an Oklahoma newspaper.

After selecting an all-male jury, the county attorney, Currier Holman, said the state would “bring in a chain of circumstantial evidence” that would prove “absolutely convincing” to those weighing the fate of Ethel Bean.

The prosecutor showed that Bean could have committed the murder but focused his argument on a claim that she had a motive: jealousy.

He said that Ethel Bean had said her husband pursued other women and “doesn’t care anything for me. I am going to get rid of him and get a big fat man who has a car.”

The courtroom burst into laughter. Even the defendant joined in heartily, a reporter noted.

Jurors heard a tale of a four-hour midnight battle between the couple that supposedly occurred during the July before the murder. They also heard testimony that for a week before the shooting, Otis Bean had stayed away from home, perhaps in the company of a young woman he’d apparently taken to the Farmington Fair.

Much of the testimony focused on the reality that Bean could have slipped from her house, shot her husband and sneaked back along a little-used trail without being seen. In any case, nobody saw her.

A deputy sheriff who responded to the scene said in court that he didn’t see any sign of women’s shoe impressions in the dirt near where the shooter must have stood. There were prints from hobnail boots he thought were made by a man.

A constable who also saw the murder scene said, however, that he noticed several sets of a woman’s footprint, but never mentioned it until after Ethel Bean’s arrest.

The court also heard that Holman had sought to squeeze a confession out of her during a five-hour session, promising to let her attend a wedding before jailing her if she would sign.

The real focus of the case, however, was on the possibility that a jealous wife had done in her two-timing husband.

On the trial’s second day, jurors heard that Otis Bean had danced with a “strikingly pretty” waitress and had later shown up with scratches on his face that may have come from his wife.

Elsie Stewart was a waitress who said on the stand that she’d been spending time with Otis Bean in the weeks before his murder.

Most damaging, though, was the claim by waitress Elsie Stewart, who worked on Pleasant Island that summer, that she’d been with Otis Bean most nights until midnight during that time. They weren’t just talking about fish.

Jurors also heard that Ethel Bean was looking out for the Kimballs’ home while they were away and would have easy access to the gun.

But Kimball testified he’d known the Beans well for seven years and had never noticed any friction between the two.

A slew of government witnesses, to the apparent surprise of prosecutors, testified they’d never seen any marital problems involving the Beans. The Lewiston Daily Sun reported that one prosecutor said they’d changed their minds on the stand — and that some other potential witnesses simply backed out.

With that, the prosecution rested.

THE DEFENSE ARGUES FOR ETHEL BEAN’S FREEDOM

Pattangall immediately sought to talk with the judge in chambers to determine whether the evidence presented had been so thin that Ethel Bean should simply be released without the need to put on a defense. The jurors were sent home while lawyers talked.

The next morning, Maine’s attorney general, Ransford Shaw, told the judge in open court that he had reviewed the case thoroughly and determined that all of the evidence had been presented.

He agreed it wasn’t sufficient to justify a conviction.

Ethel Bean outside the courthouse following the dismissal of the murder charges lodged against her. Lewiston Daily Sun

The judge promptly dismissed the case to a wave of applause. He told the defendant she could go home.

Outside the courthouse, Ethel Bean told reporters she’d never quarreled or scratched her husband. She insisted she didn’t shoot him.

The state never brought charges again in the case, which gradually vanished from the public eye. Justice for Otis Bean remained elusive forever.

Now forgotten, he is buried beside his parents in Milan, New Hampshire, his hometown.

It is unclear what happened to Ethel Bean once she regained her freedom.


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