The Warden Murders (part 1)

Boston Globe November 10 1886

In the fall of 1886, two Maine game wardens were shot and killed by Calvin Graves at Fletcher Brook near Wesley. While we don’t know the history of the Maine Warden Service, we are unaware of any other Maine Game Wardens dying in the line of duty, certainly never two in the matter of seconds. The above headline from the Boston Globe of November 10, 1886, provides some indication of the attention the murders received in the national press. Many have written accounts of the tragedy. A short version of the event was written by Ned Lamb, Calais historian in the 1940s for the Calais Advertiser. It is reasonably accurate although Ned’s contention that the “dog”, unquestionably the primary cause of the dispute between the killer, Calvin Graves and the wardens was shot by the wardens is not correct. The dog Smoker, as far as we know, lived a long dog’s life completely unaware of his responsibility for the murder of two men.

Ned Lamb’s account:

Game Wardens

In those good-bad days of the olden times poaching was very common and game wardens were almost looked on as pariahs. We understand that many lumber camps hired men to kill deer so that the camps could have fresh meat. Many a farmer’s family, if they were expecting company from the city would make sure that they had some nice fresh venison for their company. Of course, today some housewives can some deer meat during the hunting season.

But a change came over a great many people. They saw something had to be done or there would not be any game to shoot. The caribou were gone, the moose were gone. Once a man was allowed three deer legally. This was cut to two, then to one. The fish and game societies have done a wonderful job in creating a sentiment for the preserving of game. Once every little brook had its trout. Now they have to stock them.

Calvin Graves

Calvin Graves was a game poacher or was suspected of being one over on the Machias waters. In November 1886 two men, Calvin Graves and James McFarland and a little dog, whose name we do not know, but who played a big part in the tragedy. Two game wardens came along, Lyman O. Hill of East Machias and Charles Niles of Wesley. A young boy Ira McReavy was with them. The game wardens said they wanted the dog as he was chasing deer. Perhaps they accused Graves of using him for that purpose. They said if Graves would not give him up, they would have to shoot the dog. Graves told them if they shot the dog, he would shoot them. The dog was shot, and Calvin Graves raised his gun and shot both men.  

Calvin Graves started over the Airline for Bangor. It seems to show how game wardens were thought of when he was not stopped at once. This was on November 8, 1886. Graves stayed around Bangor some time, got in touch with some friends who raised five hundred dollars for him. Then he stole a rowboat and rowed down the Penobscot two nights, hiding in the woods during the day. He pretended to be drunk and went on board a schooner and they allowed him to go to Portsmouth. From there he went to Boston and then away across the country to Anaheim, Calif., which was near to Oakland where he got his mail.

Foolishly he wrote home and they wrote to him. In the meantime, the State woke up and offered a thousand dollars for information that would lead to the arrest of Calvin Graves. A relative found out about the letters and told the officers. It was in March that Calvin Graves was arrested by officer Thomas.

Governor Robie sent Officer Thomas Allen and City Marshal Whitney of Bangor to bring Graves back to Maine.

A Change in The Hanging Law

While Graves was away the State Legislature changed the law against murder from hanging to life imprisonment. This new law was signed by the Governor March 17, 1887, but it hadn’t gone into effect until 90 days after the approval by the Governor. Besides as Graves had killed these two under the old law it was thought he should be tried under the old law. There was a great amount of feeling expressed that Graves would not hang on account of the change of the law. But we do not hear any sympathy expressed for the families of the two murdered men. Graves was put in the Machias jail.

Tried in Calais

The next term of Court was held in Calais in April 1887. Graves was driven over from Machias and put in the lockup in Calais, and many went down and talked with him through the windows. As was expected the jury found a second-degree murder verdict on April 11, 1887, and Calvin Graves was sentenced to State Prison for life. Thus, the first murder trial in Maine was because Ball killed Downes who was a Calais man, and the last trial under the hanging act was held in Calais.

Graves Freed

The years must have passed slowly for an out-of-doors man like Graves but probably just as slowly for the families of Hill and Niles with their bitter memories. The Governor with the advice and consent of his Council can commute a prison sentence. So, Governor Hill set Calvin Graves sentence at 25 years and so with time off for good behavior Calvin Graves left Thomaston. He was 66 years of age. He lived near Ellsworth in a small building the rest of his life.

Is it not peculiar that with all the other places in Maine that both the first and the last murder trials under the hanging act should be so closely connected with our City of Calais, although about 77 years apart?

Ned’s reference to Maine’s first and last trials for murder under capital punishment requires some explanation. Ebenezer Ball of Robbinston was hanged for the murder of a Calais Deputy Sheriff in the early 1800s, the first such execution in the District of Maine. Graves trial was the last for which capital punishment was the sentence for murder.

The way to Fletcher Brook

The scene of the murders was Fletcher Brook which is just beyond Wesley on the way to Bangor.

We know now from contemporary news accounts that the uproar over the killings was intense. Every law enforcement officer in the county and many private citizens joined the search. Local papers raised tempers to a fever pitch:

From Machias Valley Observer: 11/13/86

Fiendish Double Murder.

Two Men Murdered in Cold Blood.

Last Monday afternoon at about three ‘ o’clock one of the most cold-blooded premeditated murders ever perpetrated in the State of Maine was committed at a place called Fletcher Brook farm in Township No. 36 in Washington County, on the Machias river. The victims of this diabolical murder were two Deer Wardens, Lyman O. Hill of Whiting and Charles Niles of Wesley, who in the discharge of their duty were guarding the deer in that quarter from being hunted with dogs, which is forbidden by law.

The perpetrators of this fiendish murder are Calvin Graves and James McFarland of Hancock in Hancock County, noted desperadoes, poachers and smugglers, who have infested the woods in Washington County as well as the lakes and rivers, violating the Laws at every opportunity, giving the game wardens much trouble.

Sun Journal Lewiston  November 11, 1886

The most detailed account of the murders was found in the Lewiston Sun Journal of November 11th, 1886. It is only one version of many that circulated in the press after the shootings and it is fair to say the events of that deadly day were never completely clear to anyone, even those present who survived. The Sun article related, in part:


In The Wilds of the Maine Deer Park

Some Further Details of The Horrible Affair

 The shockingly cold-blooded murder at Hemenway Plantation or Township No 38 near Fletcher Brook continues a craze of talk and speculation says the Bangor Commercial.

 Game Wardens Lyman 0. Hill of East Machias and Charles Niles of Wesley had been looking a week for poachers which infest the Machias waters. It was three o’clock in the afternoon Monday. They were passing along a tote road near Fletcher Brook which is near the West branch of the Machias river and were accompanied by a seventeen-year-old boy named M. Reavy when just ahead of observed a couple of men and a team. They knew the men or supposed they did and thought they were poachers. But whatever they thought— they advanced toward them.

 He who afterwards proved to be James McFarland sat in a one-horse express wagon with a dog between his knees.

There was some talk about hunting deer with dogs after which the hunters went into the camp, soon coming out again.

 Graves said: “We will go home and take the dog with us”

McFarland then seized the dog and jumped into the wagon. Warden Niles pulled off his coat exclaiming “you shan’t take that dog.”   Graves stood by a wheel, a loaded Winchester repeating rifle by him. Niles stepped forward to seize the dog when Graves brought the repeater to his shoulder, took a lightning aim and fired. Niles dropped with a groan, shot through the head.  Then Graves instantly shot Warden Hill. The whole thing, from all reports, was done in a flash. Hill stepped back and fell a rod from his partner.

 Young McReavy was then addressed by the hunters saying, “That’s the way to do it.”

But the young fellow, young McReavy, was just about frightened to death. He thought his fate would be the same as the fellows he had accompanied.

“0! you did a good thing then” he exclaimed cunningly siding with the man who did the shooting “they deserved it they had no business way up here” Perhaps those words saved him for he was not harmed. The hunters put confidence in him Pretty soon however McReavy edged away.

The Murderers Confronted.

Thomas McReavy (Ira’s father) had been in the woods near by exploring for winter’s operations and heard the report of the gun. The terrified boy stammered out the horrible story and the two went back where at the side of the little tote road, their rifles in their hands, the dog which had caused the trouble stood by the two men gazing down upon the dead bodies of the officers.

 Hallo what’s this?” inquired the elder McReavy thoroughly astonished as he beheld the lifeless forms.

 “You can see for yourself” said one of the murderers

 “We couldn’t help it” replied the other

 ‘‘What do you mean?”

“We couldn’t help it”

‘Couldn’t help it?”


“What did you shoot them for!”

“Self-defense We were afraid they would kill us. We thought they were going to do so”

McReavy told them the best thing they could do would be to clear out or give themselves up to the authorities.

The Flight

Then Graves and McFarland discussed the situation aside. In a few minutes they decided that the best thing they could do would be to get off and without making much talk other than adhering to the explanation that the dreadful crime was committed in “self-dense” they mounted their wagon seat and drove slowly away toward the Air Line Road and Beddington leaving the father and son behind with the victims.

The Pursuit

McReavy knew of a camp not far distant, and he made for it in all haste in the team so tragically abandoned by the Wardens, recited the facts and asked if any of the men would go with him and take the fugitives. Not a man would help him. He then started out on a long wood’s tramp to the settlement and easily succeeded in getting a few men to follow the tote road and secure the bodies after which he went to Machias to inform the authorities. Warrants were at once issued, the police of the vicinity notified, and Sheriff Longfellow and Deputy Sheriff Pattengill accompanied by McReavey began the pursuit over the Air Line Road suspecting that the ruffians had driven west. But they did not overtake their men and finally they reached Ellsworth where they called upon the sheriff of Hancock County who quickly summoned a posse and ordered that the roads of the district be carefully covered.

The Dead Bodies

 Hill’s body was brought to Machias Tuesday night. Ten or more coarse shot entered the right shoulder and neck. He walked a few feet, turned threw up a hand and fell dead.  He was one rod from the muzzle of the gun. Niles was struck by the shot on the head so near that several shot made but one abrasure. He fell lifeless.

About the assassins.

James McFarland is about fifty years old. He has a family. He is a cunning hunter and knows every brook and tree in the forests of his section. It is said he has been brought before the courts in Ellsworth for poaching and has been arrested by one of the murdered wardens for the same offense. He is a sure shot and a tough customer when interfered with. His brother Daniel McFarland is a one-armed man and did not have anything to do with the shooting. He is also a hunter and well acquainted with the country.

Calvin Graves is 34 or 38 years old, intelligent and has always been, so far as has been learned, a peaceable citizen. He is reputed to possess a very quick temper.

Graves, as we know, escaped and went on the run, becoming a fugitive from justice. He apparently did not attempt to contact his wife before fleeing. His wife, Abbie, upon receiving the news of the killings:

“…. was very much overcome and greatly excited. She is a rather pretty and intelligent looking woman about 35 years old and the mother of three children, the youngest being seven years old and a cripple.”

Boston Globe November 17, 1886

McFarland soon turned himself in to the authorities and was held without bail on a charge of accessory to the murder of the two wardens. In January of 1887 he was tried and acquitted. So many versions of events at Fletcher Brook were in the public domain by the time of McFarland’s trial that no one knew quite what to believe and with Graves successfully evading apprehension, any final resolution to the case seemed distant. In part 2, we’ll relate the rest of the story.

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