Rogues, Rascals, & Villains
Presenting a dirty dozen of Maine's most loathsome - from itinerant ax murderers to homegrown Nazis.
Photo courtesy of Maine State Archives
A fair number of nefarious characters have passed through Maine on their way to infamy. The pirate Dixie Bull stopped by to sack Pemaquid in 1632. His more illustrious colleague Edward Teach, aka Blackbeard, allegedly honeymooned on the Isles of Shoals in 1720. Gangster Al Brady, the FBI’s Most Wanted criminal at one time, was gunned down by G-men in the streets of Bangor in 1937. And then, most recently and horrifically, there were the 9/11 terrorists who took off from the Portland International Jetport in 2001. The rogues and scoundrels assembled here, however, are either Maine natives we’d like to disown or notorious individuals remembered largely for mischief, misdeeds, or mayhem perpetrated right here in the Pine Tree State.
Henry Tufts (1748–1831)
He may well have been Maine’s first career criminal. Though a native of New Hampshire, in 1807 the larcenous Mr. Tufts detailed his life of crime in A Narrative of the Life, Adventures, Travels, and Sufferings of Henry Tufts, Now Residing at Lemington [sic], in the District of Maine, in Substance as Compiled from His Own Mouth. Re-published in 1930 as The Autobiography of a Criminal, Tufts’ recollections, written in highfalutin’, pseudo-intellectual prose, describe a picaresque one-man crime wave that swept across New England in the late 1700s.
In those wild colonial days, Tufts galloped across New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and the District of Maine (as yet still part of the Bay State) stealing horses, dogs, livestock, and the hearts of ladies (several of whom he married bigamously), dressing himself off the clotheslines of others, breaking into cobblers’ shops when in need of new shoes, and in general living a vagabond life of pilfering and theft, often finding it “requisite to levy contributions on the public.”
Tufts also confessed to passing counterfeit money and to being a serial deserter during the Revolutionary War, although he did make himself useful while in uniform by stealing supplies for his unit. Oddly enough, it was possession of a stolen silver tablespoon and five silver teaspoons in Marblehead, Massachusetts, that got Tufts sentenced to hang in 1794. At the last possible minute, however, Governor Samuel Adams commuted Tufts’ sentence to life imprisonment. He served five years in Castle Williams in Boston Harbor before being transferred to the Salem jail, where he promptly escaped and fled to Limington. There, if he can be believed, a reformed Tufts lived out a blameless old age, “never taking clandestinely from man, woman, or child to the value of a single pin.”
Just prior to his imprisonment, Henry Tufts had studied herbalism in Bethel with the legendary Indian medicine woman Molly Ockett, whom he had sought out to treat a severe knife wound. Thus, “Doctor” Tufts was able to make a meager living in retirement from crime as a healer, about as close to legitimacy as he ever got.
Daniel Brackett (1757–1826)
Brackett was the leader of a band of so-called White Indians in Fairfax (now Albion) in the years just prior to Maine statehood. Whether one views him as a colonial terrorist or populist patriot depends somewhat on one’s political point of view. For his part, Daniel Brackett regarded the great proprietors and landowners of the Kennebec region as the real “rogues and deceivers,” as he called them in an 1808 White Indian recruiting notice.
The resentment that native Mainers sometimes feel to this day toward folks “from away” has historical roots in the White Indian movement that swept rural Maine in 1807. Revolutionary War veterans like Brackett, who came from Falmouth (now Portland) in 1798 to settle a hundred-acre parcel in Fairfax, deeply resented paying taxes and tributes to the great proprietors, baronial landowners who had been deeded vast tracts of Maine by English kings. Had they not, after all, just fought and won a war of independence from England?
As Thomas Jefferson’s 1807 embargo on foreign trade precipitated an economic depression, and the Kennebec proprietors commenced legal proceedings to force payment or removal of settlers, guerrilla bands of White Indians such as Brackett’s began dressing as Native American warriors and attacking surveyors and sheriffs’ deputies out to serve quit claim papers on them.
“To shock,” writes historian Alan Taylor in his wonderful 1990 Liberty Men and Great Proprietors, “some White Indians killed, roasted, and ate the horses of persistent deputies before their eyes.”
In April, 1808, when Brackett was arrested for debt, his White Indian comrades liberated him by shooting the horse of Fairfax Constable Moses Robinson and taking the lawman to Brackett’s cabin where they stripped him, beat him soundly with sticks, and sent him off naked into the woods.
Ultimately, Brackett was forced to flee Maine for upstate New York, where he made his way as an itinerant shoemaker until his death in 1826.
Dorcas Doyen, aka Helen Jewett (1813–1836)
The most beautiful and high-class call girl of her day in Portland and Boston and New York until her untimely death in 1836, Doyen was born in Hallowell, the daughter of Welsh immigrant parents. She worked as a servant in the Augusta home of Judge Nathan Weston from age thirteen to seventeen, during which time she acquired an education, a love of literature, and mastery of several languages.
At seventeen, however, young Doyen seems to have had a rather disastrous love affair that ultimately led the fallen woman to a life of prostitution, first in Portland, thereafter at Mrs. Bryant’s whorehouse in Boston and Mrs. Berry’s house of ill repute in New York. Doing business under the pseudonyms Helen (Ellen or Nell) Jewett, Maria Benson, Ellen Spaulding, Helen Mar, and Maria Stanley, the Maine beauty was a star attraction of the Manhattan demimonde, carrying on lengthy correspondences with her friends, lovers, and clients, attending the theater, traveling, and dressing elegantly.
Jewett’s life in the fast lane came to an abrupt and tragic halt, however, on the night of April 9, 1836, when one of her clients murdered the twenty-three-year-old hooker in her bed, hitting her in the head with an ax and setting her body afire. The lurid details of Miss Jewett’s life and death provided fodder for New York tabloids for months, until the acquittal of the man charged with her murder. In the wake of the Jewett murder, New York began a serious effort to clean up prostitution in the city. Portland, Maine, might well have done the same.
Augustus King (dates unknown)
King was the proprietor of a Portland dance hall and house of prostitution popular with sailors up from the waterfront. When, in 1849, his establishment came under sustained attack by a mob of seamen armed with a swivel cannon, Mr. King fought back gallantly and, as a newspaper of the day put it, King “in a better cause would be quite a hero.” As it is, King is remembered, if at all, as the protagonist of Portland’s King Riot, sometimes known as the Whorehouse Riot of 1849.
The King Riot was a colorful episode in Portland history that sounds in retrospect like a scene out of the motion picture Gangs of New York. Augustus King, who was fairly new to the city, was a black man who lived with his white wife and one child in an establishment on the side of Munjoy Hill in a neighborhood extirpated long ago to provide sand and gravel to build Commercial Street. While advertised as a dance hall, King’s business and the seedy hotel next door were known to attract ladies of the evening and their rowdy, seafaring clientele.
The cause of the riot remains a mystery, but the precipitating events seem to have occurred on the evening of July 4, 1849, when a group of sailors created a disturbance at King’s dance hall and the owner saw fit to drive them away with gunfire. Three weeks later the sailors returned with a small brass cannon and fired five cannon balls into King’s house, one ball passing through the headboard where King and his wife and child slept. Again, Augustus King returned fire.
Then, a month and half later, on September 7, 1849, roving bands of seamen made their way to King’s dance hall and laid siege to it until King drove them away with gunfire. Later that evening, as word of the violence spread and a crowd gathered, the sailors returned with a cannon and began firing on his house. King fired back, wounding fourteen and killing one.
The following day, with King in jail, a mob returned to burn his dance hall down, keeping both Portland police and firemen at bay until the Portland Light Infantry was called out to quell the riot. King left town not long after getting out of jail and was never heard from again.
Henry Plummer (1832–1864)
Plummer is perhaps the most paradoxical of Maine villains — a lawman gone bad and a Wild West outlaw from Down East Maine. Born in Addison, the seventh child of a local sea captain, Henry Plummer never felt the call of the sea. Instead, in 1852, at the age of nineteen, he heeded the call of gold and sailed for California.
A year after arriving in California, Plummer owned a ranch and mine outside Nevada City. He traded the mine for a bakery and, when that failed, he decided to run for sheriff. In his second term as sheriff, however, Plummer crossed the line from lawman to criminal, gunning down the irate husband of a woman with whom he was having an affair. Sentenced to ten years in prison, he served only six months before being released. Thereafter, Plummer turned to a dissolute life of brothels and crime.
Again smelling the riches of gold, Plummer moved to the Montana Territory where he not only managed to get himself elected sheriff of Bannack, but secretly became the leader of a large gang of road agents that preyed on gold shipments. By some accounts, Plummer and his gang killed as many as 120 miners, stealing their gold and dismembering their bodies.
Plummer’s murderous ways came to an end, however, when a vigilante posse, tipped off that Plummer was actually the leader of the outlaw gang, came for the sheriff on the frigid evening of January 10, 1864.
“Give me two hours and a horse,” Plummer reportedly pleaded with the lynch mob, “and I’ll bring back my weight in gold.”
His plea fell on deaf ears. The vigilantes strung him up on a gallows Plummer had himself built. People have been searching for Henry Plummer’s gold ever since.
Major General James Henry Carleton (1814–1873)
The general was once the most hated man in New Mexico by virtue of the ruthless way he crushed the Navajo nation while serving as the military commander of the territory. The charitable view of General Carleton might be that he was an “Indian fighter,” but as The Native Americans: An Illustrated History notes, “Carleton was unpopular even among his own men, and in trouble throughout the Civil War. A stickler for protocol, extreme in his views, he was almost a caricature of the tyrannical military martinet.”
Born in Lubec, Carleton was commissioned a lieutenant in the Maine Militia in 1838 and served during the border dispute with British Canada known as the Aroostook War. As an officer in the Regular Army, he served in California and New Mexico, where he took it upon himself to put down Indian uprisings by any means necessary. In 1863, he sent his troops against the Mescalero Apaches with orders to kill all Indian men “whenever and wherever you find them” and then ordered Colonel Christopher “Kit” Carson to destroy all the crops in Navajo territory to starve them into submission.
Both Carson and the Indian Bureau objected to Carleton’s scorched earth policy, but Carleton prevailed, subduing eight thousand Navajo and sending them on the infamous “Long Walk” to Bosque Redondo, where many died of starvation and disease.
Today, whether General Carleton is portrayed as a war hero or a war criminal depends entirely upon who is writing his history.
Louis Wagner (c.1846–1875)
Wagner was the ax murderer of Smuttynose Island. Equally heinous crimes had occurred in Maine before and have since, but, perhaps for reasons of setting and circumstance, the double murders at Smuttynose continue to haunt Maine’s history and imagination like no other.
Louis Wagner, a dark, brooding German fisherman with a thick accent, arrived on the Isles of Shoals around 1871. There he boarded on and off with the Hontvedts, a family of Norwegian fishermen. On the cold, moonlit night of March 6, 1873, Wagner repaid his hosts’ kindness with blood.
Desperate, destitute, and possibly deranged, Wagner had been working on the Portsmouth waterfront for some time when he decided to steal a dory and row the twelve miles across to Smuttynose, apparently intent on burglarizing the Hontvedt cottage. He knew that John Hontvedt and Evan Christensen, Hontvedt’s brother-in-law, were ashore, but when he discovered that John’s wife, Maren, her sister Karen Christensen, and their sister-in-law Anethe Christensen were at home he grabbed an ax and went on a berserk killing spree. Karen and Anethe were butchered and bludgeoned to death and Maren, herself wounded in the attack, was driven out in the winter’s night in her bedclothes. She hid in a cave by the shore all night before walking barefoot across the stone breakwater to nearby Malaga in the morning.
From the time he was apprehended until the day he died, Wagner protested his innocence, but there was never any doubt in the public’s mind that “the Prussian devil,” as island poet Celia Thaxter described Wagner, was guilty. A lynch mob of some two hundred local fishermen tried to get to Wagner when he was transported from Portsmouth to Alfred for trial, and it took a jury only fifty-five minutes to convict him following a nine-day trial that was front-page news all over the country.
On June 25, 1875, Louis Wagner was taken to the state prison at Thomaston where he was among the last people hanged before Maine abolished the death penalty. Anita Shreve’s bestselling 1997 novel The Weight of Water retells the Smuttynose murders and attests to their enduring and horrid attraction.
Eugene Farnsworth (1868–1926)
He was the King Kleagle of the Ku Klux Klan in Maine in the dark days of the 1920s when the KKK and its anti-Catholic message briefly gained some currency in the public and political life of the state.
Born in Columbia Falls, Maine, in 1868, Farnsworth followed a peculiar path to big-time bigotry. He worked for a time as a barber in Fitchburg, Massachusetts, before becoming a lecturer in the art of mesmerism. His career in the occult, however, came to an abrupt end in 1901 when his assistant, supposedly in a trance, was crushed to death by a boulder Farnsworth placed on his stomach.
Farnsworth next supported himself as a travel lecturer and as a wannabe movie producer at a Boston studio bankrolled by a shady underworld figure known as “Billiard Ball” Jack Rose. In Boston, Farnsworth also joined the Loyal Coalition, an anti-Irish organization that apparently established his credentials with the KKK.
Farnsworth’s meteoric rise and fall as King Kleagle of the Maine KKK began in June of 1923, when he returned to his native state to establish a Klan klavern on Forest Avenue in Portland, and ended less than a year later in April of 1924 when he fell victim to infighting among Klan leaders. Public spectacles such as ten thousand spectators and two hundred hooded and robed Klansmen at an August, 1923, induction ceremony for four hundred Klan candidates, bands playing, forty-foot cross burning, convinced some Klan leaders that the grandstanding Farnsworth was compromising the clandestine nature of the Klan.
Forced out of the KKK, Eugene Farnsworth repaired to Boston where, before he died in 1926, he established the Maine Boosters Club, lecturing on Maine as a summer tourist destination. (That kind of publicity we can do without.)
Mildred Sisk Gillars, aka Axis Sally (1900–1988)
An American propaganda pawn for Nazi Germany during World War II, Axis Sally broadcast messages of support for the Axis and doom for the Allies on Radio Berlin.
“Hello, gang,” her broadcasts usually began. “Throw down those little old guns and toddle off home. There’s no getting the Germans down.” Though she usually introduced herself as “Midge at the mike,” the Allied troops, whom she demoralized not at all, took to calling the traitorous broadcaster “Axis Sally.”
Born Mildred Elizabeth Sisk in Portland, the future Axis Sally moved as a young girl with her mother to New York City. She studied theater at Ohio Wesleyan University and then, in 1935, went to Dresden, Germany, to study music. After working for a time teaching English at the Berlitz School of Languages, she used her sultry voice to get a job as an announcer and actress on German radio, a position that made her a perfect propaganda tool when war broke out.
After the war, Gillars remained in Germany until she was captured in 1948 and returned to the U.S. for trial. Convicted of treason, she served twelve years of a ten-to-thirty year sentence. Fellow American Nazi propagandists Robert Best and Douglas Chandler received life sentences, but Gillars received a relatively light sentence because she, unlike her male counterpoints, had not written her own material.
Upon her release from prison in 1961, Axis Sally moved to Columbus, Ohio, where she taught music, English, and German at a Catholic prep school and died in 1988.
George Lincoln Rockwell (1918–1967)
Rockwell was the ignominious, on-again-off-again Maine resident who founded the American Nazi Party in 1959. Son of long-time Down East columnist George Lovejoy “Doc” Rockwell, George Lincoln Rockwell was born in Illinois but spent a large part of his childhood in Boothbay Harbor.
In Maine, Rockwell attended Hebron Academy, worked as a photographer and commercial artist, and started an advertising agency before his racist ideology and anti-Semitic beliefs led him down the path to national shame.
Rockwell founded the World Union of Free Enterprise National Socialists in March 1959, but by December of that year he apparently decided to call a spade a spade and changed the name to the American Nazi Party. During the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, he kept himself and his organization busy supporting other white supremacy groups such as the KKK and opposing integration.
“I am going to completely separate the black and white races and preserve white Christian domination in this country,” the self-appointed fuehrer of the American Nazi Party said when he announced his fringe candidacy for president in 1964.
Rockwell received just 212 votes in the 1964 election.
Three years later, on August 25, 1967, Rockwell was assassinated, gunned down in his car as he waited for his dirty laundry to be cleaned at an Arlington, Virginia, Laundromat. The assassin was a fellow American Nazi Rockwell had expelled from the party. As you reap, etc.
When word reached Maine that one of its least favorite sons had been murdered, Doc Rockwell, who had been estranged from his son for years, said simply, “I’m not surprised at all. I’ve expected it for quite some time.”
Fred H. Vahlsing, Jr. (c.1936–1991)
Vahlsing was the erstwhile Sugar Beet King of Maine who, in the 1960s and 1970s, became the state’s most notorious environmental villain. Shady businessmen with big ideas are a dime a dozen in Maine history, but Vahlsing, with his cowboy hats, snakeskin boots, and private planes and helicopters, had a certain flair and swagger about him that made him easy to dislike when his promises of a second cash crop (after potatoes) for Aroostook County started to fall through amid defaulted loans and polluted streams.
Vahlsing built a potato processing plant in Easton in 1960 and, in 1965, added a sugar beet plant next door. In 1967, he successfully sought reclassification of Prestile Stream from a Class B stream to a Class D, essentially an open sewer for processing waste. In 1968, irate Canadians dammed the Prestile in protest of the filth that was flowing out of Maine.
In 1972, after Vahlsing had defaulted on thirty million dollars worth of state and federal loans, Representative Louis Jalbert was forthright enough to say he was “an ashamed patsy” for ever having fallen for Vahlsing’s sugar beet song and dance, but then plenty of other Maine pols were (or should have been) red-faced, among them Senator Ed Muskie and Governor John Reed, who both supported reclassification of the Prestile, and George Mitchell, who prior to his senatorial career was Vahlsing’s Augusta lobbyist.
To be fair, however, the only thing Vahlsing was ever convicted of was perjury. In 1985, when the state held hearings on a hazardous waste site Vahlsing owned in Easton, he insisted he didn’t own the property. He was later sentenced to sixty days in jail for that little fib.
Vahlsing, who lost an arm in a helicopter accident in 1975 (one story goes that he was walking away from the helicopter and raised his hand to wave at the governor), was never ashamed of his own failures. He even tried to get the state to sell his bankrupt Easton processing plant back to him at a fire sale price. After Governor James Longley blocked the sale, Vahlsing sued the state and Longley’s estate for ten billion dollars. The suit was dropped after Vahlsing died in 1991.
Ken Ng (birth date unknown)
Ng was one of the most successful restaurateurs of the go-go 1980s in Portland. The Hu Shang restaurant that he and his brother Henry opened on Congress Street in 1979 became so popular that they moved it to larger quarters on Brown Street and then opened a second Hu Shang on Exchange Street in the trendy Old Port.
Handsome, smiling, and outgoing, Ng was the toast of the Old Port until 1985 when Henry Ng, having discovered that brother Ken was keeping two sets of books and skimming about a thousand dollars a day from the restaurant receipts, filed suit, alleging that Ken Ng had under-reported corporate income between 1979 and 1985 by some $2.5 million. (No wonder Hu Shang never accepted credit cards.)
In 1986, when Ng pled guilty to evading both personal and corporate income taxes, the prosecutor called it “the most massive criminal tax evasion case” in Maine history. Ng was sentenced to four years at the federal prison in Danbury, Connecticut, but served only twenty-two months before being released in 1988.
Ng’s shenanigans didn’t end there, however. He was subsequently convicted of trying to bribe an IRS agent not to advertise the sale of his tax delinquent property and of arranging a sham marriage in order to stay in the United States. Ken Ng was ultimately deported to China where, given his command of the capitalist system, we can only imagine he is doing quite well.
- By: Edgar Allen Beem