Almost a year to the date before the infamous Villisca Axe murders in Iowa, a family of four were killed in Ardenwald, Oregon in a similar manner, and like that crime this one remains unsolved until this day.
On the morning of June 9, 1911 in a neighboring community of Portland, Oregon four victims were found bludgeoned to death with an axe. The two females in the household were sexually assaulted, one after being killed and the other afterwards. Initially the authorities suspected it was a sex maniac.
The family had moved only a few months before to Ardenwald, Oregon to a two-room cottage built by William Hill (1878-1911). He brought his wife Ruth (1878-1911) and her two children by a previous marriage Philip Rintoul (1902-1911) and Dorothy Rintoul (1905-1911) to live in the small rural community.
Only the day before their murder, Ruth visited her and father and brother at their law office in Portland. They described later she seemed "disturbed about something" but didn't go further with the details.
The discovery of the bodies was made by a neighbor who noticed that William did not leave to catch the streetcar that would take him to his job at the Portland Natural Gas Company.
He knocked on the door, and when there was no answer he looked through the front window and saw the body of 4-year-old Dorothy on the floor. He left and notified the sheriff.
The killer had covered most of the windows with garments and other clothing in order to conceal the crime. Later it was also determined the perpetrator had washed up before leaving.
A broken clock in the cabin coincided with the estimated time of the murder which was 12:45 A.M. Another neighbor described that his dog started to bark around this time as well.
The bodies of Ruth and William were found entangled in the bedclothes. Both had been bludgeoned to death. Then 8-year-old Philips was killed in a similar fashion; the last was Ruth.
The murder weapon, was found propped against the foot of Dorothy's bed. It was later found to have been stolen from the front porch of Joseph Delk who lived less than a mile from the murder scene.
The sheriff determined that even though some jewelry was missing, other valuables and money were left untouched, and the motive was not robbery. He suspected the motive was sexual in nature, and the murderer was a pedophile. Bloody fingerprints were found on some of the bodies. A bloodhound brought to assist in the investigation produced no leads.
Examination by the coroner of Ruth's body found she had been raped after death while Dorothy had been assaulted prior to her murder.
The very morning of the discovery of the crime, Edward Ramsey a vagrant was arrested. There were years of complaint by those who lived in the area of an unknown man who lurked in the nearby woods. He was a drifter who lived by trapping animals and stealing food. He was found while trying to leave on a makeshift raft. In the end he was cleared of suspicion.
Another suspect was 55-year-old Nathan Harvey who lived only 100 yards from the murder scene. He'd been involved in a land dispute with William Hill. Most disturbing of all was the discovery that Harvey was connected to other serious crimes. He was charged with the murder on December 20, 1911.
In 1894, Mamie Welch an 18-year-old was murdered in a strawberry patch on Ramsey's property. In 1896, one of his brothers killed their mother than turned the gun on himself. In 1899, another Harvey brother was found drowned in a mill pond in Milwaukie, Oregon.
There were reports where several women complained of "improper proposals" made by Nathan Harvey. He then insulted them when they refused.
Clackamas County sheriff, Ernest Mass claimed that he had "absolute proof" that Havey took the last train to Ardenwald from Cazadero arriving there at 12:25 A.M. only a short time before the murders were committed. Two other witnesses also saw him exit the train at the same time.
However Harvey had supporters and 500 signatures were gathered asking for the charges to be dropped. An anonymous landowner explained to a reporter of The Oregonian the possible reason for this, "Except by his friends, Harvey is feared... There are those possessed of evidence in the case that could incriminate Harvey. If fears of possible retribution from the man are allayed I think they can be induced to tell what they know."
On December 27, the charges against Harvey were dropped, and in February 1912 a judge formally closed the investigation.
Six years later on May 1917, William Riggin confessed to shooting William Booth in Willamina in October 1915. He also claimed to have witnessed the murder of the Hill family. He said also killed was a Mexican man nicknamed "Brown" and a man named William Flynn (found to be an alias used by Edward Ramsey).
He described where they'd met in Oregon City to plan a robbery and the looting of local homes. He said that he'd waited outside the Hills' cottage 30 minutes while Brown and Flynn entered with an axe, supposedly to only rob the occupants. He said he heard children screaming. The murderers than left the home with $1400 worth of gold and silver, and for his participation as a lookout they paid him $100.
He then when to change the story describing where he actually entered the home with Edward Ramsey to rob and murder the family. However the two accounts were filled with inconsistent descriptions of the interior of the Hills' cabin, however he was able to pinpoint the location of the house which had been demolished after the murder.
Ultimately he was not charged with the murder.
An anonymous blogger posted the following in 2019:
Tom F. Cowing, Ruth's brother, was my grandfather. He died in 1958, when I was eight. The only part of the story that was told to me by my grandmother, his wife, was the following. As you stated, Ruth's family was convinced that Nathan Harvey was the murderer, and that he paid off the prosecutor. As the story goes, my grandfather was so sure that Harvey killed his sister, that he went to Harvey's office with a pistol, intent upon getting justice by killing him. When he pulled the trigger, the gun misfired, and Harvey ran off. My grandfather never attempted again to murder Harvey, and I got to be born!
A month later, on July 10, 1911 Archie, 25, and Nettie Coble, 17, were murdered in their Rainier, Washington home with a double-bitted axe. Like the Hills murder, Nettie was sexually assaulted after she was dead. The killer entered through the back door, and then exited through a window. Valuables were were left behind.
Eventually George A. Wilson would be accused of the murder. He worked as a section man on the railroad that traced the path of the Northwest Pacific's route through towns that were stops for the timber industry. At the time of the Coble's murder he lived in a tent cabin about 200 yards behind their home. WIlson's marriage to his wife Martha was troubled and on July 9, 1911 in a fit of jealousy she took their children and went to a friend's home in Tacoma. Another man was in custody for the crime based on WIlson's word, however he became a suspect when a piece of paper with what was believed to be blood was found inside his home. The liquid later turned out to be dirty water.
Eventually his conviction was based on a confession by Wilson which consisted of the statement, “My conscience tells me I did it, but I don’t remember.” This statement was remembered by Sheriff George Gaston and the court stenographer because no written copy was produced. The defense demanded that a written copy purported by the sheriff to exist be presented to the courts, but eventually the judge refused to compel the prosecution to produce it.
The story ran in all the local newspapers, making it impossible to produce an impartial jury. As a result of the trial Martha ended up leaving her five children in a Victoria, B.C. orphanage. She had sought to drop them off in a Seattle orphanage but she went further afield when they required she stay there and live with her children.
Now childless Martha headed to California where she married a younger man named Carlo Jensen. She occasionally wrote to her children, some who were taken in by the Moore family. She died in 1949, age 65.
George was convicted of second degree murder and sentenced to 10 to 20 years in the state penitentiary in Walla Walla. He split his time between the prison and the mental hospital throughout his sentence. He was paroled in February 1925, and gained full release in 1928. He went on to become a barber in Victoria, B.C. and died in 1965 a resident of Alberta.
In the end it is doubtful the Mr. WIlson was the murderer of the Coble in their honeymoon house. Possibly it was this murderer who kept on in a killing spree throughout several years.
Stranger Than Fiction Stories by M.P. Pellicer