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ROSEBURG, DOUGLAS COUNTY; 1921:

Dynamite-murderer dentist killed, mailed panties, fled

Audio version: Download MP3 or use controls below:
By Finn J.D. John
June 1, 2020

Editor's Note: This is Part One of a two-part article on the Dr. Brumfield case. You'll find Part Two here.

On a warm summer’s evening in 1921, Dr. Richard Brumfield loaded about a dozen sticks of dynamite into his snazzy red convertible and left Roseburg, headed for handyman Dennis Russell’s tiny shack in the hills near Dillard.

Dr. Brumfield had hired Russell to blast out some stumps from around a rural farm property he owned. At least, that’s what he’d told Russell when he hired him.

But, as it turned out, he was lying about that. What Brumfield really wanted to hire Russell for was to impersonate a corpse.

His corpse.

 

I.

Dennis Russell was a hard-working bachelor, well known and liked all over Douglas County, affable and competent but not overly bright. Brumfield, although young and not many years out of dental school, was already one of Roseburg’s most prominent dentists, and a real pillar of the community: a member of the Elk’s Lodge, president of the Roseburg Monthly Music Club, active in the business community. He was a family man, blessed with a pretty and adoring wife and three beautiful young children, all boys.

But he wasn’t as prosperous as he appeared. He was deep in debt, and not far from a humiliating financial collapse.

Facing that prospect, the young dentist hatched a dark, desperate plan.

Doubtless he started by making sure his life-insurance premiums were all paid up; his life was insured for just under $30,000. Then he borrowed $1,000 apiece from two different local banks, bought about a dozen sticks of dynamite, loaded his .30 Remington semi-automatic rifle, wiped every surface in his entire residence and dental office clear of fingerprints … and went to see Dennis Russell.

A photo spread from the Portland Morning Oregonian showing Dr. Richard Brumfield, his wife, and his murder victim, Dennis Russell. (Image: UO Libraries)

Now, before we continue, it’s important to note that this account of the events of June 13, 1921, is derived entirely from evidence at the scene. Dr. 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.

In any event, here’s what the prosecutors said happened next:

 

Brumfield drove out to Russell’s cabin with a jar of moonshine, which he offered the handyman as partial payment and a way of getting into the spirit of the job. The booze was doped, and Russell was soon out cold. Brumfield loaded him into the car and drove him a little less than a mile down the road, where he got him out and bludgeoned him with the butt of the .30 Remington. Then he drove farther down the road to a secluded place, where the first of those irregularities arose: he for some reason shot Russell twice with the .30 (maybe he wasn’t dead yet?); — but the gunfire attracted the attention of some neighborhood lads, so he loaded the body up and hastily drove away again.

At a spot in the road that passed close by the river, Brumfield pulled off the road, got out his forceps, and removed every tooth from Russell’s mouth, tossing them far out into the river. Then he got back in his seat and drove on.

About a mile and a half outside Roseburg on Highway 99, Brumfield pulled over at the edge of a steep embankment by a sharp curve in the road. He slipped off his signet ring, put it on Russell’s hand, propped him up behind the wheel, shoved a stick of dynamite into the corpse’s mouth, and lit the fuse. Presumably he ducked behind something to avoid getting spattered with small gobbets of Russell’s head, or maybe not; evidence at the scene showed he did go down to the river to wash himself afterward.

Then Brumfield lit the car on fire around the now-headless corpse and shoved it over the embankment, where it rolled down the hill and tipped over, still burning fiercely.

Then Brumfield put on a pair of old overalls that he’d brought along and set out on foot for the Roseburg train yards, leaving the car burning fiercely — and then, as the fire reached the remaining dynamite, exploding — behind him.

 

II.

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; 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.

[EDITOR'S NOTE: In "reader view" some phone browsers truncate the story here, algorithmically "assuming" that the second column is advertising. (Most browsers do not recognize this page as mobile-device-friendly; it is designed to be browsed on any device without reflowing, by taking advantage of the "double-tap-to-zoom" function.) If the story ends here on your device, you may have to exit "reader view" (sometimes labeled "Make This Page Mobile Friendly Mode") to continue reading. We apologize for the inconvenience.]

        — (Jump to top of next column)

Oregon Journal artist Harold Detje created this map/photo spread to show how police believe the murder of Dennis Russell was perpetrated. (Image: UO Libraries)

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 had ever seen before (nor 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.

 

III.

By June 15, news of this spectacular dynamite murder had been splashed all over the front pages of every newspaper in the state — the full gory details, breathlessly recounted, with Brumfield’s name in the headlines. The early stories also mentioned that he might be dressed in drag — information that could only have come from discovery of the box of sexy lingerie he’d tried to mail to Calgary the day before the murder. From this, perhaps Brumfield deduced that his northbound plans had been figured out; in any case, he was next seen in the company of an Army man, headed out into eastern Oregon.

Reports subsequently came in from LaPine, Redmond, and Silver Lake, among other places. A touring car with Oregon plates found abandoned in Spokane with an semiautomatic shotgun and a “.38-caliber rifle” inside, along with part of a soldier’s uniform, was suspected of some connection. Dr. R.B. Shoemaker, a Roseburg physician on a road trip with his father to Crater Lake, claimed to have seen Brumfield speeding by them in an automobile south of Bend.

Dr. Richard Brumfield’s family: his wife and three children, as shown in the Portland Morning Oregonian. (Image: UO Libraries)

There was even a report that Brumfield had taken up highway robbery, after a man who held up several members on a Mazama Club outing near Diamond Lake was “positively” identified as Roseburg’s most notorious ex-dentist.

Meanwhile, back home in Roseburg, a chimney sweep stopped to pick up some litter by the roadside near the crime scene and found that one large can contained a human hand and a human foot — from two different people, a man’s hand and a woman’s foot — that had been apparently preserved in formaldehyde. Police investigated, and found the body parts were unrelated to the Brumfield case — and with that, the newspaper reporters covering the case moved on to other topics. One wonders if anyone ever got around to explaining these weird and sinister roadside discoveries; if they did, apparently their story wasn’t deemed newsworthy.

But finally, on August 12, after just shy of a month on the lam, word came in from Calgary: Dr. Brumfield was in custody, and on his way back to Roseburg to face the music.

 

THE ARREST HAPPENED as a result of Brumfield trying to recover the box of sexy lingerie that he’d tried to mail to “Mrs. Norman Whitney” in Calgary. By now he had made his way to Calgary, and once there — under the name of Norman Whitney — settled into a job as a ranch hand.

But then, for some reason, he thought it would be safe to ask the Seattle post office to forward the box of panties that he’d mailed to “Mrs. Norman” the day before the murder.

If he’d been reading the newspapers, he would have known better. But if he wasn’t, the Post Office employees were; so when “Norman Whitney” called them up and asked them to forward “his wife’s package” to him, they forwarded his request to the police … and a day or two later, as “Whitney” was finishing up his plowing for the day and preparing to put the horses up in the barn, an officer from the Calgary Police Department stepped out behind him, pistol out and held low in his hand.

“Hello, Doc,” he said. “What are you doing here?”

(This story is Part One of a two-part series on Dr. Brumfield. You can continue reading Part Two here.)

 

(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)

 

 

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