A Nexus of Lives and Lies: The William Dempsey story — Part 4

AUTHOR’S NOTE: In the first three parts of this story, William Dempsey, who confessed to killing two Alaskans in 1919, escaped from prison in Washington in 1940, alarming the Alaskan who had convicted and sentenced him to death. Part Four describes Dempsey’s first murder and the ways in which he later attempted to change his version of events.

Marie (sometimes called Margaret) Lavor was a member of what authorities and the Anchorage Daily Times referred to as Anchorage’s “former red-light district” or the “underworld.” Although Lavor ran a cigar store and soft-drink parlor, she was, in essence, a prostitute, just like the masseuse operating at the same intersection at Sixth and C.

As such, Lavor was accustomed to proposals. On the night of Aug. 25, 1919, William Dempsey, after failing to attract another, more prosperous woman of that district, made similar overtures to Lavor: to meet him at his cabin on East B Street, between Sixth and Seventh avenues, a place that authorities learned later he had rented for two weeks under the name Jack Smith.

Later, in order to convince Lavor to go with him to a second cabin, he told her he had there a cache of whiskey he wanted to sell—and was willing to sell cheap, as he needed the money in order to get out of Anchorage. (The city was, from its founding until 1933, considered a “dry” town.)

His real plan was darker: to knock out Lavor or at least stun her long enough to allow him to hurry to her store, rob her cash supply and hop the next train out of town.

Lavor arrived after midnight, and by about 2 a.m. Dempsey announced he was ready to take her to the booze. They walked to a nearby cabin known as Crazy John’s, named for John Krikiroff who only a few months before had been deemed insane and institutionalized at the Morningside facility in Oregon.

There, Dempsey struck Lavor on the back of the head with a large pipe wrench. Instead of passing out, however, Lavor began to scream and attempted to flee. Dempsey chased her down and struck her a second time, harder. The blow drove her diamond-tipped hairpin into her skull.

Dempsey claimed he was unnerved when he realized that Lavor was dead. He knew he had to conceal her body and escape. He pulled Lavor’s skirt up over her head to stanch the flow of blood and then looked for a place to stash his victim.

Lavor, who was 44, outweighed 19-year-old Dempsey by perhaps 60 pounds, yet Dempsey managed to drag her body to an unused well near Crazy John’s place. He hoisted her over the lip of the well and sent her tumbling into it head-first. Then he tossed debris into the well to conceal Lavor.

So concerned was he with hiding the body and covering his tracks that Dempsey neglected to pilfer Lavor’s jewelry. Of the perhaps $600 she had been carrying, Dempsey also got zero because, investigators later determined, she had loaned the cash to friends just before meeting up with Dempsey.

After depositing Lavor in the well, Dempsey scratched up the ground at the kill site in order to hide the blood, grabbed the murder weapon and hurried back to his own cabin. There, he heaved the wrench into a field of tall grass, changed into fresh clothes and threw his blood-soaked shirt, vest and trousers down the hole of the outhouse about 30 feet behind his cabin.

Later that same morning, he caught an early train out of Anchorage, stopping at Mile 52 where he had been previously employed. He worked there for two or three days before deciding to continue on to Resurrection Bay to gain steamship passage out of the territory. He arrived in Seward on Aug. 31.

Second Murder

Although Dempsey had been living in what was then a fairly isolated part of Anchorage, word spread quickly that he had been asking for Marie Lavor just before she disappeared. She had been reported overdue on Aug. 26, and a search for her had been initiated promptly.

As days passed, Anchorage authorities assumed she had met with foul play and began hunting for a body. They also began hunting for William Dempsey, whom some witnesses claimed to have seen near the railroad station shortly after Lavor was reported as missing.

Word was sent out to law-enforcement officials down the rail line to be on the lookout for Dempsey, and a detailed description of him was supplied to U.S. Deputy Marshal Isaac Evans in Seward.

At about 9 a.m. on Sept. 1, Evans spotted a man fitting the description and collared him. The man, calling himself William Cummings, had just walked out of the railroad administration building, where he had attempted to cash a recent paycheck. Evans performed a cursory search of Cummings but failed to check the man’s pack. He then walked the suspect over to the nearby marshal’s office for questioning.

Before entering the office, Cummings dropped his pack outside on the ground. Inside the office, Evans required little time to ascertain that Cummings was really Dempsey. He decided to detain the suspect in Seward’s federal jail until a marshal arrived from Anchorage.

With Evans slightly in the lead, the two men departed the marshal’s office for the nearby jail. Dempsey bent to retrieve his pack, inside of which he had concealed a .38-caliber pistol.

Evans later claimed that Dempsey had leveled his weapon at him and demanded that he raise his hands. “I never have held up my hands before and will not do so now,” he told Dempsey, reaching for his own gun while attempting to dive around a corner to safety.

Dempsey shot twice. One shot missed cleanly, while the other went through the brim of the marshal’s hat.

Evans slipped as Dempsey moved forward. Both men fired simultaneously. While Evans missed, one of Dempsey’s next two shots struck the marshal in the chest and clipped his right lung.

Dempsey then fled toward the railroad depot. Despite his injury, Evans attempted to pursue but sagged to the ground, calling out for assistance. Fortunately, Dr. Joseph Romig and another Seward resident had been passing nearby and had seen the exchange of gunfire. As the doctor tended to the wounded lawman, the second witness began to follow Dempsey.

To lighten his load as he fled, Dempsey dropped his pack and doffed his heavy jacket. At the depot, he discovered a handcar on the tracks. He leaped aboard and began pumping for all he was worth in an attempt to flee north.

Behind him, the men of Seward were quickly forming an ad hoc posse. They clambered into vehicles and headed north, hoping to head off Dempsey if he continued to travel that way.