Death in the South Wellfleet Marsh

An article from the Boston Daily Globe on February 29, 1896, caught my eye as I scrolled through a new database of historical newspapers: IS IT MURDER? Wellfleet Man Found In A Boghole.

The man was Manuel Leo, an immigrant from Portugal who had moved to South Wellfleet from New Bedford ten years previously. Manuel, who sometimes used the alias “John”, purchased one-half of a house on “a knoll not far from the bay shore, overlooking the road two miles south of the South Wellfleet depot.” The owner of the house was Frank Joseph, also Portuguese, who kept the other half. The two men established their separate spaces within the house, “a stone’s throw from a little brook.”

That description places the house in the area of the salt marsh surrounding Lieutenant’s Island where the Audubon Society owns a significant portion today. Fresh Brook and Silver Spring meander through the land to the east, and empty into what once was Silver Spring Harbor.  I found a deed dated July, 1877, whereby Sarah A. Smith of Provincetown and her husband S. Smith transferred ownership of land and buildings for $1,000 to Frank Joseph and Frank Case of Provincetown. However, even three years later, these two men are not listed in the 1880 federal census that covers South Wellfleet homes between the Eastham border and the depot/general store.

The reporter from the Globe must have talked to the neighbors, to get so many details about the life of Manuel Leo.  Both he and Frank Joseph did odd-jobs “felling and chopping trees in the pine forests, cultivating asparagus, hay making, and work of like nature.”  The writer made strong judgements too, describing Manuel Leo’s life as “an existence full of drudging toil.”

According to the article, Frank Joseph died in the autumn of 1895. Actually, the Massachusetts death record shows his death occurred on May 18, 1895, when Francis Joseph, a Portuguese single male of 60 years, living in Wellfleet, died of pneumonia. There are no parents listed, and his place of birth is listed simply as “Fayal.”  There are other “Francis Josephs” listed in the federal censuses, living in Provincetown. One, of the same age, married a woman named Mary Center, in February 1859, but there’s no way of knowing if this is the same man who died in 1895.

I found a record for Manuel Leo also. The name, age and year of immigration agree with a record for a man named Manuel Garcia Lui, born in 1851. He is on a passenger list for a ship named Sarah, which arrived in Boston in 1884, departing from Fayal in the Portuguese Azores. The late nineteenth century brought many Azorians to New England as immigrants. For many years, Azorian men had come to Massachusetts after being recruited by the New Englanders who re-supplied and picked up more seamen in the Azores before embarking on their whaling voyages.

Fall River, New Bedford, and certain towns on the Cape were popular destinations for the “Western Islands” immigrants, as those from the Azores were called. Provincetown had become a haven over the years, with the Portuguese immigrants settling into the West End while the Yankees lived in the East End. In the 1890s, the Barnstable Patriot ran a column “Letter from the Azores” by Pedro Miguel about life in the Azores.

Because the Portuguese immigrants had darker skin, there was a measure of discrimination, but that does not seem to have been a factor—so far as we know—in the disappearance and then possible murder of Manuel Leo. In fact, the South Wellfleet residents organized a search when he went missing.

Before we return to the story, there’s one more significant fact about Manuel Leo: he was an epileptic. His ”fits” occurred at irregular intervals. Mr. Washington Pierce, who employed Leo during the cold weather for some years, told the reporter that Leo sometimes had two or more fits a day, and then would be free of them for 10 days or a fortnight. When seized, he would fling off his coat and vest before falling. Upon recovery, he would go wandering around the area, “taking extremely long walks through the forests and along the beach.” Others said that he had not had many fits, and they had never seen him disrobe. They indicated that when he was “free of epilepsy” he was “good-natured and industrious.”

The reporter also learns that the family of “Venie” Dill did the cooking for Manuel Leo  at their home on the bluff, just across the road. This would be Sylvanus Dill who lived in South Wellfleet for most of his life. Mr. Dill was born in 1827, in Eastham, and had recently (1894) married his third wife, Lucinda Lewis Higgins, a young widow with two sons who were in the Dill home in the 1900 census. When Mr. Dill died in 1906, she married Stephen Paine a few months later.  Mr. Dill’s son Leonard and his wife, Kate, lived next door. It’s not clear which Dill household was preparing Mr. Leo’s meals.

Manuel Leo disappeared in mid-December 1895. Some said he had last been seen on December 14, but others said it was the following day, Sunday the 15th.  Although his door was found unlocked, and the key in the sink, no one looked for him until three weeks had gone by. It’s not clear in the article if one or two searches were done, but six on January 18, about 25 men from South Wellfleet organized a search party, and fanned out over the landscape, 20 feet apart, going toward the ocean, “making a most rigid examination.”

Turning to neither the left nor right, they waded creeks and sloughs, climbed hills, pushing their way meanwhile through thicket and grove, snowbanks and ice fields until they had penetrated to the margin of the sea, having during the trip made a thorough examination of a vast amount of territory.

Then, on February 7, the body was found by Joe Brown, another South Wellfleet resident, who was hunting turtles in the marsh.  Cape Cod’s diamondback terrapins, although not as popular as those in the Chesapeake Bay region, were hunted as a food source. Turtle soups and stews became a high-status food during the late 19th century, so Mr. Brown was picking up a few extra dollars by plunging a pole down through the mud at the edge of the marsh, and capturing the hibernating turtles. At some point, making a few bucks came to be known as “turtle thumping.” All of that is hard to imagine in our era when the turtles are so very well protected and cared for.

In his search, Mr. Brown had “moved along the brook which, sweeping down the long hill on which stand the homes of Venie Dill and Matthew Mayo, passes the spot known as the ‘Try Yard,’” that name giving us another check on the fact that much earlier, whales were brought to shore and cut up, near and on Lieutenant Island.

Mr. Brown found Leo’s body on the northern edge of the creek, with its legs in the crevasse of a bog hole, described as six by ten feet. Brown left his turtle hunting, and “a message was hurried to Deputy Sheriff Linnell at Wellfleet.”

Mr. Linnell did not arrive until several hours later, bringing with him Washington Pierce and Theodore Crocker. Mr. Linnell had a number of jobs in Wellfleet. He had been trained by his father at his shop in South Orleans to be a marble carver of gravestones. After moving to Wellfleet, he had expanded his business to also be the undertaker. In addition, he was one of the deputy sheriffs of Barnstable County, and the closest law enforcement officer, since there was no Wellfleet Police Department until the 1930s. Washington Pierce did numerous odd jobs, including taking the census in 1880. Theodore Crocker was the son of a widow, Sarah R. Crocker, who had purchased the old Smith House and 15 acres in 1883, and may have been operating there as a chicken farm, according to one reference. That house was later purchased by Victor Wolfson, and is one of a few designated as “historical” in the South Wellfleet area in the survey done in the 1970s.

According to the Globe report, the men moved the body, fully clothed with even his Scotch cap in place, but with a swollen and discolored eye, and a bloody wound “at the junction of the nose and forehead.” The hair was dry as a bone. The report goes on to surmise that if the body had been in the marsh for a long time, and had drifted about the canals, the jagged ice there would have torn away the clothing and “torn the head.” A later medical examination showed that the lungs were free of water, so death was not declared to be from drowning.

Mr. Leo’s death record shows the cause of death “supposed to be caused by violence.” The date is recorded as unknown, entered into the record between February 24 and 28, probably when the medical examination of the body was made. Mr. Leo was a single Portuguese male, age 45, from Western Island, parents unknown. There is no note as to where Mr. Leo was buried. Perhaps he is in a grave in the South Wellfleet Cemetery.

The condition of the body, and the fact that the earlier search had not found it, led to speculation that someone had placed the body in the marsh only a short time before its discovery. In a grim final paragraph, the reporter wonders why the person who conveyed it from its hiding place had not sunk it into one of the many bog holes. “A body shoved deep in most any part of the bog land might well remain undiscovered until the crack of doom.”

A second news article about the death of Manuel Leo appeared in the Boston Daily Globe on March 7, 1896. This one covered the inquest concerning his death, and took place in the 2nd District Court of Judge Hopkins in Provincetown’s Town Hall. Two “state detectives,” Letteney and Dexter, appeared and gave testimony as to their work on the case. In addition, several “Wellfleet people” were summoned, and came to court on the noon train from South Wellfleet. The list included Joseph R. Brown, who found the body, Washington R. Pierce, Frank Brewer, Mrs. Boynton (sic), Sylvanus Dill, Lucinda Dill, Kate Dill, Leonard Dill, Elisha Mayo, Mrs. Theodore Crocker, Mrs. Galligan, and Joshua W. Lincoln.

Detective Simeon F. Letteney was based in Hyannis and was in the news often as the state detective for the Cape District. He is mentioned in other Cape investigations around the turn of the century, including Edwin Ray Snow, and Nurse Jane Tappan. Authors have written books about their murder cases.

I could not find out who Mrs. Galligan was.  Frank Brewer was a young farmer from Eastham, possibly living close to the murder scene. Joshua Lincoln was from a family that had settled in the area generations ago; eventually their land became a part of the Wellfleet Drive-In Theater. Mrs. “Boynton” —who was in fact Mrs. Boyington—was John Boyington’s wife. They had come back to their family farm in South Wellfleet from Boston in 1884; John worked for Mr. Stubbs’ shell fishing operation. The Boyington’s home still stands, and, like the Crocker house, is listed on the Massachusetts Historical Commission’s survey of the historic homes in South Wellfleet. Elisha Mayo is also from a long-standing South Wellfleet family, and lived in a house near the Dills, as the first news article mentioned.

The news reporter wasn’t able to add much more to the story of Manuel Leo, as the depositions were given in secret, and no one would speak about their role. The only news reported was that Mrs. Boyington had fainted but recovered—and was able to complete her statement. The event was over by 5:25 pm.

Nothing more was written about the case. No one covered the story in the South Wellfleet columns in the Barnstable Patriot which reported so many small details of the comings and goings of the local residents. Perhaps the idea that this death was a murder was just too unseemly to report, in these early days of the area opening up to become a charming vacation spot. The sales of cottage lots along the bay were already in progress on Lieutenant’s Island, Pleasant Point and the Old Wharf.

The Manuel Leo case was forgotten, unlike other more contemporary unsolved cases, such as the “Lady of the Dunes” from the 1970s, which still gets attention. Manuel Leo came from the Azores, lived a difficult life, perhaps was murdered in his sparsely populated community, died, and was forgotten.


Federal censuses on

Barbara Brennessel Diamonds in the Marsh: A Natural History of the Diamondback Terrapin

Barnstable Patriot online at the Sturgis Library

Massachusetts Historical Commission survey of Wellfleet historic homes, 1970s.


Family history researcher living in New York City.
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