AUTHOR’S NOTE: William Dempsey killed two Alaskans in 1919 and was sent to prison for his crimes. The first five parts of this story introduced Dempsey’s victims and the judge who became alarmed when Dempsey escaped from prison in 1940. Earlier parts of this story also described Dempsey’s crimes and the manhunt that concluded with his arrest near Seward.
Lawyers for William Dempsey succeeded in convincing Judge Charles Bunnell that Dempsey’s jailhouse confession had been made under duress and should therefore be excluded from their client’s first trial — for the charge of first-degree murder of U.S. Deputy Marshal Isaac Evans.
Prosecution lawyers were fortunate to have a fallback plan: witnesses to the crime.
First, they had Robert J. Weir, the engineer-in-charge of the Seward Division of the Railway Commission, who had been working in his office in the railroad building, about 75 feet away and directly across from where the shooting began. Weir testified that he had seen Evans and Dempsey exit the marshal’s office and head for the federal jail. He then witnessed the exchange of gunfire, saw the marshal struck in the chest, and saw Dempsey flee the scene.
Most importantly, he had seen Dempsey shoot first.
Second, the prosecution also had two other prominent Seward residents, physician Joseph H. Romig and fish-packing manager H.O. Roberts, who, from about 175 feet away, had witnessed Evans and Dempsey shooting at each other. After Evans collapsed and Dempsey raced away, Dr. Romig had tended to the injured marshal while Roberts pursued the suspect.
This trio of witnesses left little doubt in the minds of the jury that Dempsey was guilty as charged.
The defense’s attempt to paint Dempsey as insane failed to sway the jury otherwise, particularly since the prosecution carefully refuted those insanity claims with a number of experts who had examined the accused. The defense dropped the insanity plea in the second trial — for the murder of Marie Lavor.
Nevertheless, during the Evans trial Dempsey pushed the notion of craziness, frequently interrupting attorneys and the judge while exhibiting unusual behavior. At one point, the electric lights in the courtroom went off, and in a low voice in the subsequent darkness Dempsey said, “The day of judgment has come. The day of judgment has come.”
Another time, an examination of the revolver that Dempsey had taken from D.C. Brownell was halted when several men attempted unsuccessfully to remove its cartridges. Dempsey offered to help: “Let me take the gun. I will show you how to take the bullets out.”
The first trial began Nov. 24, 1919, and concluded four days later. The jury required only 90 minutes of deliberation to decide that Dempsey was guilty of murder in the first degree. The jury, which had the option to prohibit capital punishment with its verdict, chose not to do so.
The Lavor trial, in front of a new jury, commenced Nov. 29 and ended Dec. 3. That jury deliberated for two hours and returned with the same verdict as in the previous trial. Sentencing was set for Dec. 6.
“Mr. Dempsey,” announced Judge Bunnell on sentencing day, according to an article in the Alaska Daily Empire (of Juneau), “it is never too late to repent, and I must turn you over to the offices of Rev. Bollinger, who may be able to convince you of a hereafter. It is my duty to sentence you (for the murder of Isaac Evans). On Friday, the 20th day of February (1920), between the hours of 6 a.m. and 6 p.m., the United State marshal and his assistants will hang you by the neck until you are dead.”
The second sentencing produced the same results, after which, according to Alaska historian Claus-M Naske, “Dempsey responded … by threatening to kill all court officials connected with the case.”
At some point after this outburst and the dismissal of court, the ever-mercurial Dempsey sent a note, written in pencil on unlined paper, to the judge. It said:
“Mr. Bunnell: Will you kindly see me at my cell before you leave Valdez? I have a very important matter I wish to discuss with you…. I promise you it will purly [sic] legal. I will not speak harshly to you, as you have but done your duty. I trust you will not dissapoint [sic] me. Yours, Wm Dempsey.”
Bunnell’s files on Dempsey at the Alaska and Polar Regions Collections & Archives at the University of Alaska Fairbanks contain no description of this interaction or state whether Bunnell responded at all. But the note was a precursor to a flood of Dempsey-generated correspondence in the years to come.
As Dempsey languished week after week in the federal jail in Valdez, his lawyers successfully argued for a temporary stay of execution while they martialed an appeal. Ultimately, the delay forced a rescheduling of the execution to mid-June.
In Cleveland, a lawyer for Dempsey’s family was instructed to go to Washington, D.C., and discuss the case with government attorneys.
When rumors first emerged that a commutation was being considered, those involved in Dempsey’s trials recalled his threats and were alarmed by the thought of Dempsey remaining alive. William Munly, the prosecuting attorney at both trials, sent a five-page objection to the U.S. pardon attorney in Washington, D.C., concluding with:
“I therefore protest most earnestly (and) solemnly against commutation or interference with this sentence. (Dempsey) is a brutal, cold blooded murderer and desperado, and any commutation would be a mockery of justice, a license to murderers of his kind.”
Bunnell and other court officials offered similar sentiments. None of their arguments prevailed. On May 27, 1920, Pres. Woodrow Wilson, for reasons never made public, commuted Dempsey’s death sentence to a term of life in prison.
Two deputy U.S. marshals took Dempsey into custody, placed him aboard the S.S. Alaska, and escorted him to Washington state. On July 10, 1920, he was received at McNeil Island federal penitentiary as inmate #3572. He was only 20 years old.
For reasons that are thus far unclear, Dempsey was transferred eight months later to the Leavenworth prison in Kansas. Five months after that, he received his first reprimand: “This prisoner will not give his attention to work and will not work over five minutes at a time…. For some time this man has been very persistent for a change of work, insisting that he be given work in Library.”
Shortly after this note was entered into Dempsey’s prison file, Charles Bunnell, in Fairbanks, was elected by the Board of Trustees to become the first president of the Alaska Agricultural College and School of Mines.
In 1926, Bunnell would begin receiving letters from Leavenworth. His association with William Dempsey was far from over.