The Water Gap Mystery: Who Murdered Fred and Maude Demund?
On June 22, 1922, the slain bodies of a newlywed couple were discovered on the floor of their bedroom in the Monroe County community of North Water Gap (present-day Minisink Hills). With all the twists and turns of a Hollywood movie or an Agatha Christie novel, the story of Fred and Maude Demund has become an enduring Pennsylvania mystery; to this day, no one can say with any degree of certainty whether the Demunds met their demise at the hands of a cold-blooded killer... or at the hands of each other. Was it a case of foul play or a case of murder-suicide? Strangely, there is ample evidence to support both theories.
Fred and Maude Demund had been married just three months and, like many young newlyweds, were doing their best to save money. Although the couple lived just down the street from the groom's parents, they had made a frequent habit of taking their meals at the Demund home. On a Tuesday morning in June, Mr. Napoleon Demund, the village postmaster, became concerned when his son and daughter-in-law failed to show up for breakfast. He walked to his son's house and called his name but received no response. He was just about to leave when he detected the smell of smoke from inside the home. Growing worried, he let himself inside and made a search of the house. Upstairs, Mr. Demund found the source of the smoke-- the newlywed's bed, which had been set on face, was smoldering. But what he saw next was even more shocking-- the bodies of Fred and Maude lying in a pool of blood, with a 38-caliber revolver on the floor.
According to physicians, both had been shot in the back, and both had been dead for hours.
County Detective Mason G. Gilliland immediately questioned neighbors, and were stumped by the fact that no one had reported hearing any gunshots during the previous night, and no strangers had been seen in the vicinity. Their initial theory was that the Demunds had been murdered by a burglar, and the revolver left behind to give the impression of suicide. The newlyweds, said the police, must have been killed in their bed and their bodies dragged to the floor. The bed was then set on fire; the sheets and mattress had been thoroughly burned, and a patch of carpet near Maude's corpse had been partially charred.
Convinced that a killer was on the loose, District Attorney Chester H. Rhoades immediately ordered a dragnet, and all roads leading in and out of Monroe County were closely watched by police. However, authorities seemed to overlook the most obvious hole in the theory: Why would a murderer drag the victims out of bed after shooting them, and then go through the trouble of setting the bed on fire?
Another hole in this theory emerged after investigators learned that the young couple didn't have any valuables in their possession. This would seem to rule out the possibility of a burglary gone awry. So what could the murderer's motive have been? Although clues were scarce, District Attorney Rhoades was determined to solve the mystery.
County Detective Gilliland and Frank Kurtz of the State Constabulary were also determined to crack this odd and perplexing case. Upon a closer examination of evidence obtained at the scene and statements given by neighbors, they were able to piece together a timeline. The lawmen believed that the Demunds had been killed late Monday night, after the couple had gone to bed.
As for the murder weapon, police described it as an Iver Johnson "American Bulldog" six-shot revolver. Three empty cartridges were inside the gun, and one of the others bore evidence of having failed to discharge. According to the Scranton Times-Tribune, police were unable to establish who owned the weapon. The American Bulldog, manufactured by Iver Johnson Arms, was produced between 1885 and 1899.
Since Fred Demund wasn't born until 1886, there was a distinct possibility that the revolver did not belong to him. And since robbery was no longer a motive, authorities now turned their focus on members of the Demund family. It was learned that Napoleon Demund and his son had entered into a business partnership three months earlier, operating a store in North Water Gap. This partnership was formed around the same time that Fred married thirty-two-year-old Maude Morey of Catskill, New York.
As for the bride, very little was known of her life prior to her marriage, though it was discovered that Maude had recently undergone an operation for appendicitis, and the strain of the procedure had left her in a state of severe depression. Fred, meanwhile, had not only fought his own battle with depression, but had an older brother who took his own life eight years earlier. However, authorities refused to entertain the possibility of suicide; physicians who examined the bodies declared that, based upon the trajectory of the bullets, none of the shots could have been self-inflicted. Powder burns indicated that the gun had been pressed against the backs of the victims before the shots were fired.
The Fiery Bed and an Escaped Mental Patient
Investigators believed that the burned mattress held the key to unlocking the riddle of the murders. Obviously the killer's intent wasn't to conceal evidence of a crime-- otherwise the killer wouldn't have gone through the trouble of dragging the Demunds out of bed. Detectives entertained the possibility that the fire was intended to convey some sort of message, and this theory was bolstered by the fact that the Demund's store had been targeted by an arsonist just a few months earlier. The damage caused by the fire was minimal, and no arrests were ever made.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the case is the bizarre and tragic history of the Demund family.
Napoleon and Mary Demund were the parents of four sons, one of whom had been confined to Rittersville State Hospital in Allentown for mental illness. This member of the family, Howard, managed to escape from the asylum in 1914. He returned to North Water Gap and attacked Fred and his mother with a butcher knife. Another son, Millard, saved their lives by grabbing a revolver and shooting his brother dead. Millard was arrested for the shooting, but the charges were later dropped.
Four shots. That's how many shots Millard Demund fired into his older brother on December 21, 1914. And, oddly, that's how many shots had been attempted on the night of June 22, 1922. Three of the shots hit their mark, the fourth was a misfire. Two of the bullets were recovered from Fred's body, but the bullet that snuffed out the life of his new wife was never found.
Mental illness seemed to run in the Demund family, threatening to destroy the lives of every member. In October of 1913, a little over a year before Howard's tragic death, Napoleon and Mary's eldest son, Floyd, committed suicide in New York City by drinking carbolic acid. At the time of his death, he was estranged from his wife and heavily in debt from gambling.
As for the other son, Charles, little is known about his life, except that he died in 1933 at the relatively young age of 48. Millard lived to a ripe old age, passing away peacefully in 1972.
|Fred's grave at Delaware Water Gap Cemetery|
Maude's Mysterious Letters
On Wednesday, June 28, 1922, acting coroner P.M. Nilis empaneled a jury, which conducted a preliminary investigation and held an inquest at the scene of the crime. Citing a failure to discover any new information, the jury returned a verdict of "death caused by some person or persons whose identity is at present unknown."
Expert testimony was given by Dr. C.M. Brownell, an authority on firearms, who stated, rather emphatically, that the newlyweds were murdered. "Very likely they were both lying on their right sides," said Brownell. "Whoever committed the crime was well acquainted with the bungalow. This person evidently entered the front door, then he crawled on his hands and knees to the bedside. He was nearer the foot than the head of the bed, as shown by the course of the bullets. He placed the gun within an inch of Fred Demund's back. The bullet entered just at the left of the spine, took a somewhat upward course, penetrating the man's heart. Death was instantaneous."
Two days later, however, a strange series of letters released to the press by County Detective Gilliland and Constable Kurtz created a sensation throughout Monroe County. One particular letter, written by Maude Demund, was dated the day of her death and addressed to her mother, Mrs. C.H. Morey, in Catskill, New York. It was found on a table in the bedroom where the murders occurred and seemed to foretell her own demise. The letter read:
To My Own Dear Mother,
I came through the operation all right. But I will not live long, and as I am suffering untold agony I do not care how soon the end comes. Why this has all had to happen to me is too terrible to mention. I have got the dearest husband and, oh, God, I am not worthy of him. So, Mother, I have the biggest heart of love for you all. And if I could only have a little family like Blanche has got for this darling husband of mine. Oh, mother, I worship him.
Your dying daughter,
Another letter, which was undated, read:
Oh, how I love each one of my family, my mother and Blanche and her darlings. Oh, God, what I would give to be with them all instead of having to come to such a terrible end. Oh, God, and my husband, whom I love beyond reason, all forgive me. I know God won't, but I must suffer as only I know I have always suffered.
And perhaps strangest of all was this letter, which read:
God, it doesn't seem possible I am so criminal when my heart has always craved for love. Why was I ever led to do the thing I despise? Oh, God, it is the innocent who suffer.
Obviously Maude Demund was harboring some deep, dark secrets that made her contemplate suicide. Kurtz and Gilliand, who refused to believe in the murder theory, presented these letters as evidence during the coroner's inquest. When the jury returned its verdict, Kurtz and Gilliand were so outraged they released these letters to the press. Then they used the address on Maude's letter in an attempt to track down her parents in Catskill, but were confounded to learn that no one named Morey lived at the address.
The publishing of Maude's letters created a firestorm of controversy, leading to a butting of heads between law enforcement and medical examiners. Detectives working on the case argued that Maude had the motive-- she was in ill health, severely depressed, brooded over her inability to make her husband happy, and expressed a desire to die. Physicians, meanwhile, continued to state that it was physically impossible to commit suicide by shooting oneself in the back with a revolver.
State Constable Kurtz, who was attached to the Wyoming barracks at the time of the investigation, was eventually able to track down Mrs. Morey, who had since moved to a different address. According to Mrs. Morey, her daughter's grasp on reality had seemed to be slipping lately, and when the detective presented Mrs. Morey with the murder weapon, she recognized it as one that had been missing from her home for several weeks.
This announcement seemed to prove the lawmen's murder-suicide theory-- even though no one could explain why the bed had been set on fire, or how Maude Demund had been able to shoot herself in the back.
Scranton Tribune, Oct. 14, 1913.
Allentown Democrat, Dec. 22, 1914.
Harrisburg Evening News, June 27, 1922.
Wilkes-Barre Times Leader, June 27, 1922.
Wilkes-Barre Evening News, June 27, 1922.
Scranton Times-Tribune, June 28, 1922.
Scranton Tribune, June 29, 1922.
Wilkes-Barre Record, June 29, 1922.
Philadelphia Inquirer, June 30, 1922.
Wilkes-Barre Record, July 4, 1922.