The Carlisle Triple Murder of 1924
In September of 1924, a shocking act of violence stunned the residents of Carlisle when a jealous man shot his sweetheart and her mother before turning the gun on himself in the back yard of the Dotter home at 118 Elm Street. The ghastly act was said to have left such an impression that witnesses reported seeing the ghost of the killer near the scene of the crime just weeks after the tragedy... and, strangely, an eerily similar brush with death occurred inside the very same house six years later.
Addie Dotter was the 34-year-old divorced wife of Ralph Garver, of Lancaster County, who moved back to her parents' home in Carlisle after the divorce in 1919. It was a messy divorce; Garver, who worked at the gas works in Carlisle, claimed that the Dotter family had waged a constant war on his reputation since the separation, spreading vicious rumors throughout Carlisle. But the drama lost much of its steam after Garver remarried and built a home for himself and his new bride on the New Holland Pike. Around this time, Addie Dotter went to work as a domestic servant, keeping house for an Italian immigrant named Mike Lest who was employed at the Carlisle Frog and Switch Works. John Dotter worked in the same factory. Before long, Addie and Mike found themselves embroiled in a torrid love affair.
The romance fizzled out almost immediately; Addie had confided to her parents, John and Lillian Dotter, that Less had a violent temper and had become increasingly physically and verbally abusive. Just two weeks after she had moved into Lest's home on East Louther Street, Addie packed her belongings and moved in with her parents. It was said that Less hounded Addie relentlessly, showing up at the Dotter home on Elm Street at all hours of the day and night, begging Addie to return. Addie stood her ground, and this continual rejection is apparently what caused Mike Lest to snap.
Lest visited the Dotter home at around 8:20 on the evening of Sunday, September 14. It was later reported that Lest had been seen lurking outside the Dotter home for hours that day, continually walking up and down the sidewalk with a basket in his hand, passing the house but never stopping. Perhaps he had been reheasing in his mind what he was going to say to Addie-- perhaps some passionate, desperate plea for a second chance-- or perhaps he was working up the courage to exact his revenge. In either case, it seems that the family had no knowledge of the danger lurking outside their window. The Dotters were sitting in the kitchen of the tiny house at the time, and before anyone could realize what was about to happen, the tragedy had already commenced; Lest strode through the back door and instantly opened fire with his revolver. Only John Dotter was spared from the fusillade of bullets. He ran from the home, screaming for help.
The first shot struck Lillian Dotter in the neck, the second penetrated her abdomen (conflicting reports indicate that the coroner later found only one gunshot wound). The 55-year-old housewife crumpled to the kitchen floor, gasping, choking, and drowning in her own blood. Luckily, her suffering did not last long; she died in a matter of minutes en route to the hospital. Mike Lest then turned the weapon at Addie and fired twice. The first shot pierced her back-- for at such close range it was impossible to miss-- and the second shot passed through her stomach. The coroner later stated that this seemed to suggest that Addie had turned her back to the killer in a desperate attempt to flee the room. The fifth shot whizzed passed Mr. Dotter's head, causing him to bolt from the house, and this left the shooter with just one bullet left.
After screaming for help, John Dotter returned to the house. His wife lay close to death on the kitchen floor while Addie, who had not been killed, had managed to crawl to a sofa in the living room. As he waited for help to arrive, John searched for the attacker, and found him dead in the back yard. Evidently, he had reserved the final bullet for himself. By all appearances, Lest had placed the 38-caliber revolver to his right ear and pulled the trigger.
Officers John Gibb, Ed Lavanture and Joseph Crowley quickly arrived on the scene, and were sooned joined by Borough Manager Herbert and Clerk Keating. Addie was taken to the Carlisle Hospital by Undertaker Lutz's ambulance, but all efforts to save her life were in vain. She died the following evening. Meanwhile, Coroner Ambrose Peffer of Newville and local authorities had their hands full, trying to keep away the mob of curiosity-seekers who were lingering around the Dotter home on Elm Street. The Carlisle Sentinel reported that nearly a thousand people were gathered around the crime scene by 10:30 on the night of the murders, and several residents were interviewed. Also interviewed was Addie's ex-husband, Ralph Garver. After Garver had been informed of the tragedy by telegraph, his reply was simply, "I'm not interested."
While Garver may not have had any interest in the brutal slaying of his former wife and mother-in-law, most people in Cumberland County were clamoring for all the sordid details. Although the Dotters were known as hard-working folks, they were also known to produce more drama than William Shakespeare, George Bernard Shaw and Eugene O'Neill combined. It was learned that Addie's daughter, Viola Fager, had Mike Less arrested a few weeks earlier while Addie was attempting to remove her property from her lover's home on East Louther Street. Viola, who was not inside the Elm Street home at the time of the murders, claimed that Less had physically attacked her. Less was ordered to pay a small fine by Justice of the Peace Boyer. Viola was Addie's daughter from her first marriage to Irvin Fager. Like her subsequent marriage to Ralph Garver, this one had also ended roughly; even though they were still married, Addie had sued Fager in court for child support. Not surprisingly, Fager abandoned her shortly thereafter and filed for divorce.
|The Dotter house at 118 Elm St. as it appears today|
The Stepfather's Statement
"It happened about 8:20 o'clock," said John Dotter of tragedy which occurred inside his Elm Street home. "My wife was sitting on a rocker near the window. Addie was occupied on a rocker near the kitchen range and I sat on a chair alongside the table. Mike opened the kitchen door and, without a word, began firing his revolver, holding the weapon near his waistline close to his body.
"He first fired at my wife and then at my step-daughter, Addie. Several shots were fired, and I ran out of the door and gave the alarm, asking for assistance from the police. Soon another shot was heard. After the firing, Mike went out in the yard and killed himself... Mike lived at 333 East Louther Street, and until about three weeks ago Addie kept house for him. He had made threats to kill Addie, and was greatly incensed at her leaving him, for which he blamed her mother. My wife, after being shot, asked me to put a pillow under her head, and I did so."
He then went on to describe the altercation between Mike Lest and Addie's daughter, who was enrolled in a Harrisburg business school at the time:
"At the time her mother went to get some of her belongings at Mike's house, several weeks ago, Viola Fager, her daughter, went along and Mike struck her on the head."
The killer, Mike Lest (some reports list his surname as Less), was a 53-year-old Italian immigrant of a seemingly quiet disposition, who had been in the country for twelve years prior to the murders. He arrived in Carlisle after living briefly in New York, and rented a room from Mr. and Mrs. George Shetron on South Fourteenth Street before relocating to East Louther Street. The weapon used in the murders was virtually brand new; Lest had purchased it from a Carlisle hardware store just a few days earlier. Police determined that the murders had been premeditated after discovering a note inside the killer's East Louther Street home. The note appeared to be a hastily drawn-up will bequeathing all his property to Mrs. Shetron.
|Mike Lest's home at 333 East Louther St., as it appears today|
The Haunting of Elm Street
On Thursday afternoon, September 18, a double funeral for Lillian and Adeline Dotter was held at the family home at 118 Elm Street in a private service led by Rev. Getz. The Dotters were buried at Carlisle's Old Graveyard. At roughly the same time, Michael Lest was being laid to rest at Mt. Zion Cemetery in Churchtown. However, it appears that at least one of the victims of the Elm Street tragedy refused to rest in peace.
Not long after the funerals of Mike Lest and the Dotter women, neighbors bgean witnessing strange things around the Dotter home. The October 3, 1924 edition of the Lancaster News-Journal reported that neighbors had seen a ghostly figure in the back yard, which appeared for several nights in a row. "It was a thin, shadowy and unhuman thing that they saw flitting about the Dotter yard," the paper declared. "Women stood on the corner and in awed and muffled tones watched the ghost gradually disappear into the air."
If the restless spirit of Michael Lest had returned to scare away John Dotter, it certainly didn't work; Dotter continued to live at the same address until his death from natural causes in 1952. In fact, even a strange act of violence six years after the murder of his wife and step-daughter didn't force him out of 118 Elm Street.
John Dotter never remarried, and continued to live alone until 1930, when he rented part of his home to Elmer Dasher, his wife, and their two children. Dasher already had an unsavory reputation by this time; his criminal record stretched back to 1910, when he was sent to reform school after a home burglary. Another conviction for robbery earned him a 10-month prison sentence in 1917, and in 1920 he received a two-and-a-half year sentence for a Dauphin County robbery. Elmer Dasher then moved to Carlisle, and would be arrested 26 more times during the course of his lifetime. Most of these arrests were for petty crimes-- but it was a liquor-fueled rampage in June of 1930 that put Elmer Dasher's name on the front page of the local papers.
Early in the evening of June 9, Elmer Dasher, while in a drunken state, got into a heated argument with his wife. The latter sought refuge inside the home of Joseph Miller, who lived next door. Dasher demanded that his wife return home, but finding the Miller's door locked, he proceeded to tear out the door screen, open the latch, and let himself inside. He was confronted by Mrs. Miller, who was promptly shoved to the ground by the angry drunkard. This delay, however, allowed Mrs. Dasher and her children to escape through the back door, across the Dotter yard, and to the safety of a nearby grocery store.
Elmer Dasher went back to the Dotter house for his 12-gauge shotgun and began firing into the thin wall that divided the two homes. One of the shots narrowly missed the young daughter of Mrs. Miller, the buckshot passing beneath the chair upon which Geraldine Miller was sitting. Nearly fifty pellets were later removed from the Miller kitchen cabinet. The sound of the gunshots and the screaming of the Millers quickly drew police chief Ross Trimmer and his deputy to the scene, and as they approached the house on Elm Street Dasher began firing at them with his shotgun.
Realizing the danger, Trimmer sent a dispatch to the jail requesting tear gas, and four gas bombs were tossed into the window of the Dotter house. Only two of the bombs exploded, but the house quickly began to fill with gas. Trimmer called the Harrisburg State Police for backup, and a fresh supply of tear gas. By this time, virtually every member of the Carlisle police department had surrounded the house, and when they entered the property the fumes of the tear gas quickly drove them back outside before they could find Dasher. But just as this was happening, an onlooker caught a glimpse of movement behind the cellar window. The State Police entered through the back door and tackled the shooter in the basement, while most of the population of Carlisle looked on from Elm Street.
Fortunately, John Dotter wasn't home when the shooting affray occurred inside the house, but the odds of a domestic squabble involving firearms taking place inside the same home, involving separate families, in the span of just a few years, is truly odd. One can't help but wonder if Elmer Dasher had somehow channeled the malevolent spirit of Mike Lest. Or perhaps John Dotter was just a magnet for bad luck and negative energy.
Of course, with a habitual miscreant like Elmer Dasher, it's probably safe to say that he would've pulled off a similar stunt no matter which house he and his family had been occupying; records show that Dasher had been sent to Eastern Penitentiary in 1926 by Judge Reese after discharging his gun at his wife. In August of 1945, Dasher would be arrested one last time, after stealing $31 from a man he had been drinking with inside a shed on Fairground Street. Although Dasher had stolen just a small amount of cash, it seemed that Judge Reese had grown tired of seeing Elmer darkening his courtroom-- the judge walloped Dasher with a 20-year prison sentence. Dasher died two years later, at the age of 55, while incarcerated at the Eastern Penitentiary.
Lancaster Intelligencer Journal, Sept. 15, 1924.
Carlisle Sentinel, Sept. 15, 1924.
Harrisburg Evening News, Sept. 15, 1924.
Harrisburg Telegraph, Sept. 15, 1924.
Harrisburg Evening News, Sept. 16, 1924.
Lancaster Intelligencer Journal, Sept. 16, 1924.
Lancaster News-Journal, Oct. 3, 1924.
Carlisle Sentinel, June 9, 1930.
Harrisburg Telegraph, June 9, 1930.
Harrisburg Evening News, Aug. 23, 1945.
Elmer E. Dasher, Findagrave.com