A photo spread from the Portland Morning Oregonian showing Dr. Richard Brumfield, his wife, and his murder victim, Dennis Russell.

Part two of five

It’s important to note that this account of the events of June 13, 1921, is derived entirely from evidence at the scene. Dr. Richard 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.

Douglas County Sheriff Stamer and his investigators didn’t think much out of the ordinary at first, when they investigated the scene. It looked pretty straightforward — Dr. Brumfield’s car had gone off the road, crashed, and caught fire, and the driver had been forced to walk back to town.

But the following day, while recovering the vehicle, a grisly discovery was made — a charred, headless corpse pinned beneath the blackened wreckage.

The obvious conclusion was that it was Dr. Brumfield. But there were some very strange circumstances. First, there was the condition of the corpse’s head — which was scattered all around the scene of the crash in tiny fragments and spatters.

Fair enough, and three unexploded sticks of dynamite that had survived the blaze offered a possible explanation; but, the blast damage seemed awfully precise, and moreover, not a single recognizable tooth was found anywhere near the scene.

There were some other things that didn’t quite add up. Brumfield apparently had overestimated the destructive power of the fire and dynamite — some of the corpse’s clothes were still unburned, and those clothes were recognizably Russell’s. The fingerprints on one hand, too, hadn’t quite melted away, and they also matched Russell. Russell’s watch and fountain pen were found under his body. Yet he was wearing Brumfield’s signet ring.

By now, also, a couple of motorists had come forward with very interesting stories about the car’s behavior the previous day, before the crash. Local resident Walter Bowman reported he’d seen the car driving fast down the highway with a pair of feet sticking out of its trunk, and local harness maker Harry Pearce was nearly T-boned by a fast-moving red luxury car with its headlights switched off, which pulled out in front of him near the scene.

Brought in to identify the corpse, Brumfield’s “widow” (who is never identified by name in the newspapers) tearfully identified the body as his. She remained adamant in claiming it was his corpse for weeks afterward. But everyone else who looked at it — those who knew both men, at any rate — said it was unquestionably Russell.

Further investigating the crime scene, the sheriff found a large pool of blood and rifle cartridge cases in the road where the two boys had heard the gunshots. They found more blood just off the road by the river, where they deduced the posthumous dental operation had been done.

And they learned another bit of especially damning evidence from witnesses at the train yard. In Oakland, a hobo in overalls bearing a strong resemblance to the doctor had been caught trying to sneak a ride on the blind baggage car of a northbound passenger train. Ordered off the car, the hobo had gone to the ticket window, bought a passenger ticket, boarded the same train, and promptly entered the lavatory. He’d emerged a few minutes later wearing a new brown suit, the overalls wadded up in his hand, and ridden on to Eugene.

Other bits of evidence didn’t seem to add up to much, but were extremely puzzling. The day before the explosion, with the help of a young dark-haired woman whom nobody ever saw again, Brumfield had purchased some pink silk panties and other sexy lingerie — then he’d boxed them up and driven to the post office in Myrtle Point, where he was not known by sight. He asked to have the box shipped to Calgary; and, when the postal clerk told him it couldn’t be sent across the border, he settled for Seattle, saying that “Mrs. Norman Whitney” would call for the package in a couple weeks.

This prompted the sheriff to issue a warning for everyone to be on the lookout for a tall, butch-looking woman traveling north by train. Nothing came of this — if cross-dressing was in Brumfield’s plans, he must have changed them. But this box of silk panties was to play a very significant role in his story later.

Continued next week.

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.

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