The Oregon Daily Journal. (Portland, OR) 1921-08-21 [p 8].

Oregon Journal artist Harold Detje created this map/photo spread to show how police believe the murder of Dennis Russell was perpetrated.

Part one of five

On a warm summer’s evening in 1921, Dr. Richard Brumfield loaded about a dozen sticks of dynamite into his snazzy red convertible and left Roseburg, headed for handyman Dennis Russell’s tiny shack in the hills near Dillard.

Dr. Brumfield had hired Russell to blast out some stumps from around a rural farm property he owned. At least, that’s what he’d told Russell when he hired him.

But, as it turned out, he was lying about that. What Brumfield really wanted to hire Russell for was to impersonate a corpse. His corpse.

Dennis Russell was a hard-working bachelor, well known and liked all over Douglas County, affable and competent but not overly bright. Brumfield, although young and not many years out of dental school, was already one of Roseburg’s most prominent dentists, and a real pillar of the community: a member of the Elk’s Lodge, president of the Roseburg Monthly Music Club, active in the business community. He was a family man, blessed with a pretty and adoring wife and three beautiful young children, all boys.

But he wasn’t as prosperous as he appeared. He was deep in debt, and not far from a humiliating financial collapse.

Facing that prospect, the young dentist hatched a dark, desperate plan.

Doubtless he started by making sure his life-insurance premiums were all paid up — his life was insured for just under $30,000. Then he borrowed $1,000 apiece from two different local banks, bought about a dozen sticks of dynamite, loaded his .30 Remington semi-automatic rifle, wiped every surface in his entire residence and dental office clear of fingerprints … and went to see Dennis Russell.

Now, before we continue, it’s important to note that this account of the events of June 13, 1921, is derived entirely from evidence at the scene. Dr. Brumfield maintained his innocence to the very end. The most likely explanation for that is insanity, but there are enough irregularities in the whole story to justify caution.

In any event, here’s what the prosecutors said happened next:

Brumfield drove out to Russell’s cabin with a jar of moonshine, which he offered the handyman as partial payment and a way of getting into the spirit of the job. The booze was doped, and Russell was soon out cold. Brumfield loaded him into the car and drove him a little less than a mile down the road, where he got him out and bludgeoned him with the butt of the .30 Remington. Then he drove farther down the road to a secluded place, where the first of those irregularities arose — he for some reason shot Russell twice with the .30 (maybe he wasn’t dead yet?). The gunfire attracted the attention of some neighborhood lads, so he loaded the body up and hastily drove away again.

At a spot in the road that passed close by the river, Brumfield pulled off the road, got out his forceps, and removed every tooth from Russell’s mouth, tossing them far out into the river.

At a steep embankment a mile and a half outside Roseburg on Highway 99, Brumfield pulled over at the edge of a steep embankment by a sharp curve in the road. He slipped off his signet ring, put it on Russell’s hand, shoved a stick of dynamite into the corpse’s mouth, and lit the fuse. Presumably he ducked behind something to avoid getting spattered with small gobbets of Russell’s head, or maybe not — evidence at the scene showed he did go down to the river to wash himself afterward.

Then Brumfield lit the car on fire around the now-headless corpse and shoved it over the embankment, where it rolled down the hill and tipped over, still burning fiercely.

Brumfield put on a pair of old overalls that he’d brought along and set out on foot for the Roseburg train yards, leaving the car burning fiercely — and then, as the fire reached the remaining dynamite, exploding — behind him.

Part 2 coming soon.

Sources: Archives of the Portland Morning Oregonian, June 1921 through September 1922; “Dr. Richard Brumfield, Oregon, 1921,” an article by Jason Lucky Morrow published on historicalcrimedetective.com

Finn J.D. John teaches at Oregon State University and writes about odd tidbits of Oregon history. His book, Heroes and Rascals of Old Oregon, was recently published by Ouragan House Publishers. To contact him or suggest a topic: finn@offbeatoregon.com or 541-357-2222.

Recommended for you

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CAPS LOCK.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.