A photo spread published in The Oregonian, featuring the main participants in the trial as well as Brumfield’s house and the mangled wreckage of his sports car.

Part five 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.

Richard Brumfield never made it to the scaffold. He killed himself in his cell — but it took two tries to do it, and in both cases there are reasons to wonder if he might have had “help.”

The first was just a few days after the trial ended, when the night jailer noticed a puddle of blood running out of his cell. Investigating, he found Brumfield lying on his cot in a semi-conscious state, with his throat cut.

As a scene of a suicide attempt, it made as little sense as anything in this case. A hurried search of the cell turned up no weapon. The attempt had been made with an instrument duller than a razor, but sharp enough to cut two inches deep into human flesh. And it had somehow disappeared. If Brumfield had carried it to the toilet or thrown it out the window after slashing his throat with it, there would have been a blood trail, and there wasn’t.

It was a puzzler. The best theory was that he had used his partial dental bridge plate to do it — no doubt having sharpened it on the concrete floor prior to making the cut — and stuck it back in his mouth afterward. This theory was bolstered by the fact that the cut got infected, and he nearly died of blood poisoning from it. But if they ever inspected his bridge plate to see if it had an edge on it, nobody shared that info with the newspapers.

Meanwhile, the usual round of appeals dragged on into the new year. But before they could reach their inevitable conclusion, Brumfield tried again. He was found dead in his cell on Sept. 13, 1922, having managed to hang himself from his bunk using his bedsheets.

So, what’s the real story of Richard Brumfield? Even today, it’s a remarkably unsatisfying account. There’s plenty of evidence that Brumfield committed the murder — but there’s also a bunch of evidence that makes no sense at all in that context. Why would a murderer mail a box of sexy panties to the exact place he planned to run away to, the day before an apparently premeditated crime? Was “Mrs. Norman Whitney” a real person, and if so, who was she? Did Brumfield have a second family in Calgary?

Then, too, why would a man who’s contemplating a murder like this use such a small amount of dynamite? Why would he stage the entire pageant on Pacific Highway, the most heavily traveled road in the area? Was there a second man involved in the plot, as the district attorney broadly hinted to reporters? Why was his wife so doggedly insistent that the burned corpse was that of her husband, when it was so obvious to everyone else that it was not? Was she in on it?

And those suicide attempts: How many people, crazy or not, can cut two inches into their own throats with a dull instrument? How many can hang themselves from a bunk bed without help? If he had help, who could have provided it?

It’s possible that all these anomalies can be explained by Brumfield simply being an unhinged homicidal maniac, and maybe that’s all there was to it. But looking back over the record at all the loose ends hanging off this messy little murder mystery, a person sure has to wonder.

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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