In Episode 137, Jeff Belanger and Ray Auger head to High Street in Lancaster, New Hampshire, to the site of an 1880 unsolved serial murder that took the lives of six people in two adjacent houses. Was it a contagious illness, or poison? Authorities were torn, but one young woman had the motive.
Read the episode transcript.
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The Bugbee Family Grave, Summer Street Cemetery, Lancaster, New Hampshire.
The Upland Mystery by Mary Hatch
*A note on the text: Please forgive punctuation, spelling, and grammar mistakes. Like us, the transcripts ain’t perfect.
[DUN DUN DUN MUSIC]
RAY: I can tell by the cliché music that some kind of mystery has brought us to High Street in Lancaster, New Hampshire, today.
JEFF: That’s true, Ray… this week we’re on the trail of a murderer.
RAY: Ooohhh a True Crime Who-Done-It! I like it!
JEFF: And in this case, it’s a Who-Done-It-A-Lot!
RAY: More than one murder, Jeff?
JEFF: In this case, maybe as many as six murders.
RAY: So we’re looking for a potential serial killer?
JEFF: That we are, this week we’re in Lancaster trying to solve the Bugbee Murders.
JEFF: Hi, I’m Jeff Belanger, and welcome to Episode 137 of the New England Legends podcast. If you give us about ten minutes, we’ll give you something strange to talk about today.
RAY: And I’m Ray Auger, thanks for joining us as we criss-cross New England chronicling every single legend we can find one story at a time.
JEFF: We do that through this weekly podcast—and you should subscribe right now if you don’t already, because it’s free on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, iHeartRadio, or wherever you get your podcasts. We also explore legends on the New England Legends television series that you can watch right now on Amazon Prime, and through our Web site: ournewenglandlegends.com.
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JEFF: So let’s get to hunting this possible serial killer.
RAY: Okay, but first, a little more about this town. Lancaster is a small, western New Hampshire town located right on the border with Vermont in the northern part of the state. The population today is about 3,300 people.
JEFF: This is small-town New England all the way. Quick fun fact. Punk singer GG Allin is from Lancaster.
RAY: No way!
JEFF: Way. If you folks know who that is, it’s kind of mind-blowing. If you don’t know who that is, then maybe it’s a testament to how small this town is, that GG Allin is its most notable resident.
RAY: Good point.
JEFF: So Ray, do you have your magnifying glass?
JEFF: And your Sherlock Holmes hat?
RAY: Got it.
JEFF: Good, we’ll need both as we explore this Lancaster caper. So let’s head back to July of 1880 and investigate.
RAY: It’s mid-July here at the High Street home of Dr. Frank Bugbee. Bugbee lives in this house with his wife, Maria, and their daughter, Hattie, who is 14 years old. They also have a servant girl named Hannah Regan.
JEFF: And right next door to the Bugbees is the Towne family. In that house is Mr. Barton Towne, his wife, Harriet, and Miss Nellie Webb, a young woman they had taken in as a child. It’s important to note that Maria Bugbee is the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Towne, so it’s a cozy extended family right next door.
RAY: A little more about Nellie. When Nellie was very young, her mother set fire to a barn and was deemed unfit to raise a child. So Nellie French—which is the name she was born with—was sent to live with Col. Webb of Lancaster who adopted her. Sadly, Col. Web died three years later, so Nellie was sent to live with the Towne Family and has been here ever since.
JEFF: Okay got it. That’s a pretty rough start for a kid.
RAY: Everyone in both houses get along pretty well. They help each other, share meals, and look out for each other. It’s nice.
JEFF: It IS nice… until tragedy strikes in the form of diphtheria. On July 18th, young Hattie Bugbee passes away from the illness.
RAY: Diphtheria is a bacteria that creates this thick covering in the back of the throat. It causes the throat to constrict, the neck to swell up, and makes breathing difficult. In some cases, like Hatti’s, it’s fatal.
JEFF: The loss of Hattie is sad, of course. Both the Bugbee and Towne families are heartbroken, but in these times people do die from illness. It’s just bad luck, I guess.
RAY: The only problem is the Bugbee luck is seemingly about to go from bad to worse.
JEFF: What now?
RAY: Just five days after Hattie’s death, Mrs. Bugbee becomes violently ill and dies almost immediately.
JEFF: That’s horrible. This poor family!
RAY: It still gets worse. Within another week, the Bugbee’s servant girl Hannah Regan also gets sick and dies.
RAY: And then Mr. Bugbee finds himself not feeling well.
JEFF: It turns out Diphtheria is highly contagious. Dr. Bugbee should know that. So is this a case of a family not taking proper precautions when there’s an illness floating around?
RAY: That’s possible. But then, Dr. Bugbee recovers enough to make the journey to see his brothers about 60 miles northwest in Derby Line, Vermont. I should mention that both of Dr. Bugbee’s brothers are also physicians.
JEFF: So he’s in good hands.
RAY: He is, and he soon makes a full recovery. His brothers believe he was ill with a combination of diphtheria and blood poisoning. But he seems to be on the mend now.
JEFF: Feeling better, Dr. Bugbee returns to Lancaster, New Hampshire, with a demijohn of medicinal whiskey in hand to resume his duties as a physician. As soon as he’s back in Lancaster, he gives the whiskey to Miss Nellie Webb with instructions to give the medicine to Mr. and Mrs. Towne should they show any signs of illness. Nellie nods, and heads back to her room in the Towne house.
RAY: Dr. Bugbee is heartbroken to be back home in his empty home, but he figures getting back to his medical duties will take his mind off of his recent losses. Unfortunately, he doesn’t get to do much medical work because within days he becomes ill again. For day his condition gets worse. He can’t eat, he can’t hold any food down. He asks his doctor friends who are examining him what they think is killing him, but only one ventures a guess.
DOCTOR: I would say, Frank, it appears to be arsenic poisoning.
RAY: Dr. Bugbee’s battle ends on September 6th at the age of 43.
RAY: In less than two months, an entire household of people have perished.
JEFF: A household that included a medical doctor no less!
RAY: The local board of health investigate to see if there’s maybe poor drainage, or some other explanation as to why these folks died from diphtheria and blood poisoning, but they find nothing. Locals chalk it up to bad luck, and move on.
JEFF: It’s now autumn, and at least one person in the Towne home has reason to celebrate.
RAY: What’s happening?
JEFF: Nellie Webb is getting married! She’s getting hitched to a railroad conductor named Burt Mayo.
RAY: Ahhhh “getting hitched.” Railroad. I see what you did there.
JEFF: Sorry, I couldn’t help it.
RAY: So does Nellie leave the Towne Family at this point?
JEFF: She does not. She’s been living with them since her childhood. It’s a place she and her husband can live for now, and there’s certainly room for one more person at the house.
RAY: Got it.
JEFF: Things get quiet for the next month or so as the leaves outside change color and then drop. Now it’s November, and Mrs. Towne doesn’t feel well. At this point, after seeing what happened right next door, Mr. Towne is on edge. But at least they have Dr. Bugbee’s medicinal whiskey! Nellie pours out the whiskey for Harriet.
JEFF: And in just a couple of days…
JEFF: Harriet is dead.
RAY: After Mrs. Towne’s death, Nellie gives the bottle of medicinal whiskey to Mr. J.W. Weeks who is the administrator of Mr. Towne’s estate. She tells him he might need it after being around so much sickness here at the Towne’s home. Mr. Weeks thanks her, and places the bottle in his safe should he need it.
[METAL DOOR SLAMMING]
JEFF: This poor family. They lose everyone next door, and now this.
RAY: It’s a lonely fall and winter for Mr. Towne, but life must go on… until it can’t.
JEFF: Oh no.
RAY: Yup, it’s now February of 1881, and now Barton Towne takes ill.
RAY: And then Barton Towne dies.
JEFF: That’s six people in seven months!
RAY: You’re not the only person who thinks that looks suspicious. J.W. Weeks, you may remember is the administrator of Mr. Towne’s estate. Barton’s will stipulates that though his property will pass into the hands of his son who lives across the country in Oregon, Nellie can live in the home for as long as she likes after his death.
[DUN DUN DUN MUSIC]
JEFF: Okay, I’m getting it. Suddenly we have someone who would have a motive to get rid of the Towne Family. Nellie has something to gain. A house all to herself and to her husband.
RAY: That’s exactly what J.W. Weeks thinks too.
JEFF: But why kill the Bugbee Family?
RAY: Because Maria Bugbee is the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Towne. The families are so close. If only Barton and Harriet Towne die, there’s no doubt the Bugbees will get involved in the estate. According to Weeks, the Bugbees would have to be taken out of the way.
JEFF: Okay… wait a minute. That whiskey that Nellie gave to Mr. Weeks after Harriet’s death…
RAY: Weeks thought of that two. So he runs to his safe.
RAY: Opens the door.
[CREAKING METAL DOOR]
RAY: And has the whiskey tested.
[DUN DUN DUN MUSIC]
RAY: And that’s when they find there’s arsenic in the whiskey!
RAY: Poison. But not just any old arsenic. An amateur would add arsenic you can get at the general store. That stuff doesn’t really dissolve. You need your victim to swallow the liquid and the undissolved powder inside. The arsenic in this whiskey was Fowler’s solution, which had the arsenic already dissolved.
JEFF: So this killer is smart enough to hide it well.
RAY: And now all eyes are on Nellie. She had the motive. She now has the house. There are six bodies, and J.W. Weeks is in possession of what may be a murder weapon.
JEFF: Nellie is arrested for the murder of six people while police and doctors investigate this case. They exhume the bodies of all of the diseased.
[DIG, DIG, DIG]
JEFF: They perform autopsies and test the blood. First, it’s ruled that young Hattie Bugbee had signs of diphtheria, but also arsenic in her system.
RAY: So that sounds like murder.
JEFF: Next, Mrs. Maria Bugbee. There’s poison in the system, but also signs of diphtheria.
RAY: So inconclusive.
JEFF: Then we have the Bugbee servant, young Hannah Regan. Also signs of diphtheria.
RAY: So it’s ruled natural causes, but still suspicious.
JEFF: Then there’s Doctor Frank Bugee. He’s got arsenic in his system.
RAY: That’s murder.
JEFF: Mrs. Harriet Towne had no signs of diphtheria and was considered in fine health. Also arsenic in her system.
JEFF: Finally we have Barton Towne who was found to have arsenic in his system.
RAY: Another murder!
JEFF: Everyone in Lancaster is shocked, as is the nation, because the news travels fast in the newspapers. Nellie is the only suspect.
RAY: And though Nellie is the only obvious suspect, because she has the most to gain, she also has the sympathy of folks in town. She’s an upstanding member of her church, she’s considered pretty. They figure there’s no way she could have done this.
JEFF: But that’s not what J.W. Weeks believes. Not only that, he now believes the medicinal whiskey Nellie gave him was intended to take him out of the picture as well.
[GAVEL BANGS ON DESK]
RAY: Once the case goes to trial, Nellie is found innocent. She’s free to go. And with no other suspects, the people of Lancaster are left to forever wonder what happened. And that brings us back to today.
JEFF: Okay, there’s more to tell you. Of course people in town remain suspicious as to what happened. I mean, two families living next door to each other and all of them dying doesn’t just happen. It turns out a lot more fuel was poured on the rumor fire just a few years later in 1887.
RAY: That would be six years after the death of Barton Towne. What happened?
JEFF: An author named Mary Hatch published a book called The Upland Mystery that told this story in a work of fiction. It was so close to the real story that anyone with any knowledge of the case could tell which character was based on which real-life person.
RAY: So why is the book so scandalous?
JEFF: In Mary Hatch’s fiction, she implies that Nellie Webb had an inappropriate relationship with Dr. Frank Bugbee. That this affair is what started all of the murder. It was an effort to get the rest of the family out of the way so they could be together. At some point he must have told her he didn’t want to see him anymore, so Nellie figured she’d marry some dude, then get the rest of the Townes out of the way and live there.
RAY: Which is awful considering the Towne’s took Nellie in as a child and cared for her into adulthood.
JEFF: All of the circumstantial evidence pointed toward Nellie. And it’s believed part of the reason she was acquitted was because she’s a woman. And there’s no way a woman could possibly kill all of those people.
RAY: And now we’ll never know for sure.
JEFF: No we won’t. But we do know that locals whisper about these houses being haunted.
RAY: These houses on High Street are in great shape. The former Towne house is now the Col. Towne Community House, and the three-gabled house next door belonged to Dr. Bugbee. But I guess when you know the history, it’s eerie to be out here.
JEFF: It’s worth noting that the current owners of the former Bugbee house claimed in a 2018 news article that they haven’t experienced anything weird in the house. But as you mentioned… give us an unsolved murder…
RAY: Possibly an unsolved serial murder!
JEFF: And that will haunt us.
RAY: We should mention that since the 1920s when a diphtheria vaccine was introduced, the rates of this illness and related deaths have dropped dramatically. It’s no longer the killer it once was.
JEFF: And given how long it’s been since the Bugbee murders, Nellie Webb is no longer the killer she once was.
RAY: We’d like to remind you guys that the discussion of this and other show topics continues in the New England Legends Extra podcast only available at patreon.com/newenglandlegends.
JEFF: We also welcome you guys to call or text our Legend Line with feedback anytime at 617-444-9683. You can also leave our show closing on there for us if you want to hear yourself on a future episode.
RAY: You should also join our super-secret Facebook group. You can find a link at our Web site: ournewenglandlegends.com. And our theme music is by John Judd.
VOICEMAIL: Hi, my name is Alejandra from Boston, Massachusetts, and Keene, New Hampshire. And I just wanted to say stay safe, stay healthy, and remember the bizarre is closer than you may think.
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