One of the most peculiar crimes in the history of Pennsylvania occurred in 1931 with the slaying of a reclusive elderly spinster from Forty Fort named Minnie Dilley. While most murders in our state's history were carried out by drunken thugs, heartless outlaws and seasoned criminals, Miss Dilley's slayer was a young female college graduate and the daughter of a minister. Stranger still, the unfortunate elderly victim was said to have belonged to a bizarre sex cult.
A media sensation was created on Wednesday, April 8, when a beautiful 29-year-old woman named Frances Thomsen confessed to the brutal bludgeoning and attempted decapitation of Minnie Dilley, a 76-year-old spinster from Luzerne County. The confessed killer, who graduated from the prestigious halls of Wellesley College, was a mother to three young children and a beloved school teacher. She had once lived across the street from the victim.
But what strange series of events had led to this heinous, ghastly crime?
Frances Thomsen confessed that she had killed Minnie Dilley on the morning of Friday, April 3, 1931, between the hours of eight and nine o'clock. On the orders of Luzerne County District Attorney Thomas M. Lewis, Thomsen was brought back to Wilkes-Barre but, although the school teacher had confessed, she adamantly refused to reveal a motive for the stunningly brutal crime.
Anning Dilley, the spinster's nephew, discovered Minnie's body in front of a fireplace inside her sprawling River Street home in Forty Fort on April 4 after his knock on the door was unanswered. According to police, the victim's head had been beaten viciously beyond recognition, and her head had been nearly severed from the torso. A filled bottle of ginger ale was found on the floor, and it was believed by investigators that the glass bottle had been used to bludgeon the old woman in the head. The weapon used to slice open her throat was not found.
Dilley was rumored to be an heiress to a large fortune, and police immediately suspected that the motive for the crime was financial gain, even though there was no evidence of a robbery. Miss Dilley lived in a large, luxurious home at 98 River Street and owned many valuable possessions, but not one thing was missing. Police examined her diary for a possible clue, but lost hope after discovering that Minnie's most recent journal entry had been made in 1921.
The Dilley name was one of the oldest and most respected in the Wyoming Valley, and within hours word of the murder spread throughout the country; news of the murder made the front pages of newspapers as far away as Albuquerque and El Paso. The Dilleys arrived in Wyoming Valley from Cape May, New Jersey, in 1784. The Rolling Mill Hill section of Wilkes-Barre was named for the large mill owned by Minnie's grandfather, Jesse Dilley. Other family members became prominent civic leaders. Because of the prestige associated with the family name, the Dilley murder was discussed from coast to coast.
Meanwhile, back in Luzerne County, wild rumors were running rampant.
Miss Dilley was said to be quite eccentric and she also prided herself in being an amateur architect. Like the famous Winchester House in San Jose, Dilley's home featured an assortment of architectural oddities; each room in the three story stucco house contained two doors, one which opened inwardly, while the other opened in the opposite direction. One room that overlooked the Susquehanna River featured unique v-shaped windows. And, like the equally eccentric recluse Sarah Winchester, Minnie Dilley always kept her home in a state of continual construction.
The local paper, the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader, was quick to print any and all rumors pertaining the murder. On April 6 the newspaper claimed that the killer was known and that his identity would be revealed in a short time (County Detective Richard Powell and State Police Captain William A. Clark dismissed this claim, however). It was also reported that a threatening letter was found in one of the victim's pockets (this, too, was denied by police). When asked for a statement, the victim's nephew, Anning Dilley, mocked the Times Leader for its reckless reporting. He quipped, "You people know more about me than I do."
The Dilley murder must have been exhausting for local reporters; even the victim's closest relatives confessed to knowing little about her private life. "If everyone knew her as we did, they know nothing about her," one relative remarked.
On Tuesday, April 7, local papers claimed that authorities had identified Dilley's killer and promised that an arrest would be made before nightfall. Captain Clark of the State Police told reporters that they now believed revenge to be the motive, and that the spinster's killer might have been a woman, and that her every move was under surveillance. The entire Wyoming Valley sat on the edge of their seats in anticipation of further developments.
The following evening a salesman for a lumber company named Carl Thomsen sat at his kitchen table in Pittsburgh, motionless, with a dazed expression on his face, upon learning that his estranged wife had been arrested. Officers hauled his wife down to police headquarters for questioning after finding her wandering the streets of the city. She had left him on Wednesday, leaving behind a note saying not to worry. By the time he had regained his composure, dressed, and made his way to police station, his wife was already en route to Wilkes-Barre, in the custody of Assistant District Attorney Coughlin and County Detective Dempsey.
A large crowd of the curious were on hand in Luzerne County to welcome Frances Thomsen back to the place where she and her husband had called home four years earlier. She was described as small, slightly built and extremely attractive by those who watched her being whisked out of the automobile and into police headquarters. She had protested her innocence all throughout the long drive, and claimed that the elderly spinster had held a "mysterious influence" over her husband.
Thomsen was unable to provide an alibi, and gave rambling, conflicting stories regarding her whereabouts on the day of the murder. Police were convinced that Mrs. Thomsen was mentally unbalanced, and it was later reported that the former Latimer Junior High English teacher was known to have suffered from hallucinations. According to Frances, she had disappeared after learning that her husband was planning on placing her into a mental institution. Carl Thomsen later denied this claim.
During her grilling at police headquarters she denied killing the wealthy recluse. She did, however, make some interesting statements.
Frances also told Coughlin a wild story-- that Minnie Dilley wanted Carl Thomsen to head a "love cult" composed of school teachers. During her grilling at police headquarters she denied killing the wealthy recluse, but said to Coughlin, "If they put me in the electric chair, it certainly will be a joke." The assistant district attorney asked her what she meant. "Perhaps I should say, rather, it would be a travesty," she remarked.
Meanwhile, detectives searched the Thomsen home and found several bottles of ginger ale. For Frances Thomsen, the jig was up. She admitted that she had hitch-hiked from Pittsburgh to Luzerne County to kill Miss Dilley, bashing her over the head with a bottle and then slashing her throat with a bread knife she had hidden inside her umbrella. She then hitch-hiked back to Pittsburgh. "I did it in self-defense," she insisted. "It was her life or mine!"
The following day, Assistant D.A. Coughlin announced that Thomsen would probably be turned over to the Lunacy Commission. Judge McLean, on the other hand, wasn't as convinced that the killer was insane.
|Minnie Dilley's house as it appears today|
On Saturday, April 11, Frances Thomsen made her first court appearance. She was represented by a well-known lawyer, John Dando, who had been hired by the Wellesley Alumni Association. Louise McBride, one the country's leading female attorneys, had also been retained by the alumni association.
During the hearing some interesting evidence was produced; District Attorney Thomas M. Lewis entered into evidence several letters Thomsen had written to Dilley. In these letters Thomsen had accused the spinster of attempting to form a "love cult" and using her "unholy witch powers" to steal away her husband. In these letters Frances Thomsen accused Dilley of making plans to establish a sex colony in the Poconos-- a claim she made again on the witness stand. "I am in great danger by saying this because it involves a great many people in Forty Fort," declared the killer. "They plan to establish a love cult with my husband as the presiding head, for teachers and business girls who cannot afford to live a married life."
Frances smiled as Assistant District Attorney Coughlin read from another letter, dated March 5, 1929, written to Minnie Dilley's brother, Sherman. "Your sister, Miss Dilley, is and has been for years breaking up my home. She has tempted my husband with money. She has a strange, unholy power over him. She would build a bungalow for him and she'd take the children, if she couldn't have him alone."
When questioned about the murder, Frances admitted to it, but still maintained that it was in self-defense. Nonetheless, she was charged with first-degree murder. After the arraignment she was embraced by her teary-eyed husband. "Oh, dear Frances," he sobbed. "I'm so sorry."
Frances smiled, as though she did not comprehend the seriousness of what was happening. She patted her husband on the head, saying, "Don't worry, Carl. Everything will be alright in a short time."
Carl, of course, denied knowing anything about this bizarre "love cult". During the preliminary hearing he testified that the claims were the result of his wife's "jealously insane mind".
"She often accused me of cooperating with Miss Dilley in a plan to start a 'school for love' in the Poconos and sometimes she imagined we were going to establish it in the heart of New York City," he testified. "The very idea is absurd. Miss Dilley never even intimated such a thing to me."
He also explained that his wife claimed to have gotten these messages "from the air", and that she believed she possessed a power to receive these messages like "some sort of radio machine".
But things were looking quite grim indeed; although numerous witnesses-- including her Baptist minister father and several former Wellesley classmates-- testified that Frances was not mentally fit to stand trial, Judge McLean still decided to charge the ex-teacher with first degree murder, even though John Dando argued that his client would not have a fair trial due to the fact that the Dilleys had many powerful and influential friends in the community.
Louise McBride also shared this concern, telling Dando to spare no expense in defending Thomsen. Dando also received a telegraph from Ira D. Farquarhar, a famous criminal defense attorney in Boston who had been eagerly following the case. Farquarhar believed that Thomsen was certifiably insane and offered to join the defense team.
There is another remarkable incident connected with the arraignment of Frances Thomsen. There was such a large crowd of gawkers and reporters at the courthouse that officials were forced to devise a novel method for delivering Miss Dilley's killer to Judge McLean's courtroom on the third floor without obstruction. Frances Thomsen was lifted through the ground floor window by Detective Dempsey, who then walked her around the building to a little-used basement entrance. She was whisked onto an elevator in the basement and delivered to the third floor. According to Dempsey, the young woman was highly amused by this treatment.
On Monday, April 20, while Frances awaited her trial behind bars, Luzerne County Warden William B. Healey presented a petition to Judge McLean asking for the appointment of a sanity commission. In his letter, the warden insisted that Frances Thomsen was mentally ill and required urgent institutional care. Normally such a petition would have been the responsibility of John Dando, but the defense attorney had been fallen seriously ill while in Philadelphia. Nothing more could be done until Dando recovered from his illness, and so national attention turned away from the murder trial and turned towards Miss Dilley's will. More than a handful of people were immensely curious about whether or not the aged spinster had bequeathed a large sum of money for the establishment of a sex colony in the Pocono Mountains.
Others simply wanted to get their hands on the Dilley fortune. From Montana to California, people claiming to be distant relatives of Minnie Dilley deluged Luzerne County authorities with letters. One such letter came from a Mary Long of Kemmerer, Wyoming, who claimed that her uncle was Benjamin Dilley and, therefore, she was entitled to a share of the Dilley fortune. This letter, like all the others, was turned over to the State Police. In almost every case the alleged relative was proven to be a con artist.
On the afternoon of Thursday, April 23, Judge McLean reluctanly agreed to appoint a "lunacy commission" to look into the mental health condition of Frances Thomsen. The three members of the board were Dr George Baskett, of the Retreat State Hospital, Dr. Stanley Freeman, physician at the county prison, and Joseph Fleitz, an attorney and former State Workman's Compensation Board member. They determined that Thomsen was indeed insane.
On May 1 she was committed by Judge McLean to the mental asylum at Retreat.
Two weeks later the contents of Minnie Dilley's will were finally revealed. The will, made on May 22, 1924, and placed by the deceased in a safety deposit box at the Second National Bank in Forty Fort, sent shockwaves throughout the Wyoming Valley. Not because Dilley bequeathed part of her vast fortune to establish a sex colony (she didn't, of course), but because the eccentric spinster was not nearly as wealthy as everyone had believed. The bulk of her estate was valued at just $22,000, and much to the chagrin of would-be descendants across the country, Miss Dilley left almost every penny to charity.
And so ends the sad and remarkable tale of a legendary fortune that turned out to be a myth and a sex colony that turned out to be nothing more than the figment of a young woman's diseased imagination.
As to what became of Frances Thomsen, she never made it out of the insane asylum at Retreat. Sadly, her health, both physical and mental, continued to deteriorate. She died in the March of 1940 at the age of 41, her demise barely warranting a couple of sentences on the back pages of the Wilkes-Barre paper. According to the report of her death, which was published more than two weeks after it occurred, her parents came from New Jersey to claim the body.
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Wilkes-Barre Times Leader, April 6, 1931. Page 1.
Hagerstown Daily Mail, April 6, 1931. Page 1.
Hagerstown Morning Herald, April 6, 1931. Page 16.
Albuquerque Journal, April 6, 1931. Page 1.
El Paso Herald, April 6, 1931. Page 5.
Wilkes-Barre Evening News, April 7, 1931. Page 3.
Wilkes-Barre Evening News, April 9, 1931. Page 1.
Jefferson City (Mo.) Post-Tribune, April 9, 1931. Page 5.
Alton (Illinois) Evening Telegraph, April 10, 1931. Page 2.
Canonsburg Daily Notes, April 11, 1931. Page 1.
Wilkes-Barre Evening News, April 11, 1931. Page 1.
Wilkes-Barre Record, April 13, 1931. Page 1.
Wilkes-Barre Evening News, April 20, 1931. Page 1.
Wilkes-Barre Record, April 20, 1931. Page 13.
Wilkes-Barre Times Leader, April 23, 1931. Page 1.
Wilkes-Barre Times Leader, May 1, 1931. Page 1.
Wilkes-Barre Times Leader, May 11, 1931. Page 1.
Wilkes-Barre Record, March 29, 1940. Page 20.