In Episode 163, Jeff Belanger and Ray Auger travel back to October of 1940 in Rockland, Maine, to explore the gruesome Halloween murder of Alzada Pauline Young by her stepfather, John Phelps. This true crime has haunted this small town for generations and left residents with a mystery and the ghost of a severed head. A warning to parents listening with their kids, this episode is a little more graphic than our usual offerings. You may want to preview first.
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JEFF: Happy October, Ray!
RAY: Happy October to you too, Jeff. Halloween is in the air, and I know it’s your busy season.
JEFF: That it is. The air turns crisp, the leaves burst into color, and ghosts and hauntings, and horror take center stage.
RAY: So we’re in Rockland, Maine, today. Stephen King country!
JEFF: Yup, right on the coast. And we’re here searching for a true-life horror that took place in this small town back on Halloween of 1940. We’re in Rockland looking for a crime that left this town with the ghost of a severed head.
JEFF: I’m Jeff Belanger and welcome to episode 163 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, thank you for joining us on our mission to chronicle every legend in New England one story at a time. So many of our story leads come from you Legendary Listeners. You can reach out to us through our free New England Legends app, through social media, by calling or texting our legend line anytime at 617-444-9683, or through our Web site.
JEFF: On our Web site you can not only listen to our entire archive of past episodes, read transcripts, and watch clips from the New England Legends television series that you can watch right now on Amazon Prime, but you can also see dates for my ongoing and now virtual story tour. Almost every night in October I’m presenting stories of ghosts and monsters and legends at libraries and other venues. The best part is that most of these events are free, you just need to register to get the Zoom link.
RAY: We’d also like to thank our Patreon Patrons who are the backbone of what we do. For just $3 bucks per month this group gets early access to new episodes, plus bonus episodes and content that no one else gets to hear. With your help, we can do even more. You can become a bigger part of the movement by heading over to patreon.com/newenglandlegends to sign up.
JEFF: Just a word of warning about this week’s episode for parents who listen with their kids, this week we’re exploring some true crime here in Rockland, Maine. And the facts of the case may be bit intense for young listeners. You may want to preview this one first.
RAY: When we were kids, the Halloween season was basically the last week of October, and that was it. Now it feels like it starts in mid-September and continues through mid-November.
JEFF: Halloween is now the second-biggest consumer holiday in America behind Christmas. It turns out, we love to be scared, and explore the macabre. It’s a tradition that goes back thousands of years to when Halloween was a Celtic festival called Samhain that takes place hallway between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice. It’s believed that on that day the veil between the world of the living and world of the dead is at its thinnest, and that’s when ghosts and monsters can come into our world and mettle in our affairs… maybe even influence us.
RAY: Influence us?
JEFF: There are many different belief systems that suggest the spirits of the past might push us one way or another when it comes to our behavior.
RAY: Almost like a devil-made-me-do-it kind of thing?
JEFF: Exactly. For many centuries people have tried to use that defense after committing an atrocious act. It continues even in modern times.
RAY: Plus, so many horror movies and stories come out during this time of year, I guess that’s a byproduct of that influence. AND I’d think all of that horror has an influence on us too.
JEFF: Add in a gruesome crime during this time of year, and it definitely carries more weight on our collective psyche.
RAY: I agree. Let’s head back to October of 1940, and set this up.
RAY: It’s late October of 1940, and we’re standing just outside 28 Crescent Street, the tenement home of the Phelps family here in Rockland, Maine. 54-year-old John Phelps is a stonemason who lives in this building with his third wife, Thelma, and their two children: 9-year-old Bernard, and 10 year-old Rachel. Also living with them is 16-year-old Alzada Pauline Young, Mrs. Phelp’s daughter from a previous marriage.
JEFF: There’s a piazza, or kind of covered porch that runs the length of the side of the tenement house. And if we look toward the back of the property.
JEFF: There’s a hen house back there. The Phelpses aren’t the only family to live in this multi-family home.
RAY: Inside the house, tensions have been building between Alzada and her step-father. Alzada has always had issues with John Phelps. Those things will happen. After all, he’s not her real father, and there’s some jealousy, because he clearly seems to prefer her two half-siblings more. The constant fighting and tension is more than the teenager can take. It’s Saturday, October 26th, when Alzada grabs some of her things…
RAY: And leaves home to stay at a friend’s house.
[CRICKETS NIGHT SOUND]
JEFF: A few days go by with no word from Alzada. But back at 28 Crescent Street, John Phelps is fuming at his insolent step daughter. You see, he’s got ideas on how the girl should act, and being gone for days without permission is NOT one of those ideas.
[CRICKETS NIGHT SOUND]
RAY: More days go by until it’s Thursday, October 31st. Halloween. Late that afternoon, Alzada returns home.
[DOOR OPEN AND CLOSE]
RAY: As she walks into the kitchen, there’s her stepfather, John, seething. An argument ensues.
JEFF: Outside, a neighbors hears the yelling.
JEFF: Then another sound.
JEFF: Then… only silence.
RAY: Inside, John is panicked. In his rage he threw a hammer at Alzada. The hammer struck her in the forehead, and now the girl lies bleeding on the kitchen floor, and he can find no pulse.
JEFF: Keep in mind that his other children are outside playing in the yard. Thankfully, they don’t seem interested enough in the noise to come inside to investigate. Or maybe they’re too scared to confront their angry father. John must move fast.
RAY: John drags the body of Alzada down to the basement of the tenement home.
[THUD THUD THUD]
RAY: Her corpse thumps down the stairs with a sickening sound. Once she’s on the basement floor, John pulls out an axe and a knife, and proceeds to decapitate the girl, and cut her body up into pieces. He places those pieces in six burlap sacks. The first sack he stuffs out the small basement window located under the home’s piazza.
RAY: Outside, he digs several holes around the yard, including one under the chicken coop, in order to hide the other bags.
JEFF: With this horrible deed done, John heads back into the house. But what he’s done is already haunting him. The following day, he asks his neighbor, Mrs. Alice Rich if she noticed that awful smell near the piazza. She had not. She also thinks John is acting kind of peculiar.
RAY: Mr. and Mrs. Phelps report Alzada missing to the police. And now the authorities are looking for her.
JEFF: When police arrive at the home, John offers them the use of his shovel and pick axe if they should need it. It seems like a strange offer to the officers at the time. Why would someone need to dig to find a missing girl?
RAY: All the while, guilt is haunting John. He can’t sleep. And now police are searching.
JEFF: And that smell that wasn’t there under the piazza on November first? After a few days, it’s now getting noticed by other tenants.
RAY: Friday night, November 8th. John lies awake in bed. Haunted by his evil deed. Pieces of his step daughter are right outside buried in the yard. He sweats. His pulses races. The thump of his heartbeat in his chest is like a drum. It can only be a matter of time before he’s caught and exposed. After midnight, John gets out of bed, he heads to the kitchen where he takes five poisonous tablets. He pulls a knife out of the kitchen drawer, and walks outside into the Rockland night. While walking along Spring Street, he slices at his left wrist with the knife, and now his blood is running out and dripping along the road. For John, now lightheaded, the end of this nightmare is near.
JEFF: That would have been the end had Rockland Night Patrolman Roland Sukeforth not come around the corner to find a profusely bleeding man wandering the street dazed and confused. The officer gathers John Phelps into his car…
[OLD TIME POLICE SIREN]
JEFF: And races him to the hospital.
RAY: Once he’s stable, and identified, John spills everything to the police. He claims on Halloween afternoon, Alzada came at him with a butcher knife in the kitchen. That in order to protect himself he grabbed a nearby hammer and threw it at her. He said the hammer hit her head and killed her, something he never meant to happen. Then, in a panic, he explained how he cut up the body, and hid the burlap sacks. He explained exactly where to find five of the bags on the property. But the sixth—the bag containing the girl’s head—he said he threw that from the Atlantic wharf not far from his home.
JEFF: Police dig up the yard and find all five sacks exactly where John had said they would find them. Police then hire a vessel to drag the shallow ocean bottom near the wharf to try and recover the head. But… the search comes up empty. Next, police employ a diver to search, but he too finds nothing. The head of Alzada Young, is never found. And that brings us back to today.
JEFF: John Phelps was sentenced to life in prison for his crime. And we only have John’s word as to what exactly transpired in the kitchen that day.
RAY: This story is the biggest news of the day around Rockland. Folks here talk about it for years, and soon, a legend grows surrounding Alzada’s missing head. Since it was never found, pretty soon people start to wonder if John lied about that one detail. Or if it still might turn up somewhere else. The poor girl’s missing head literally haunts this town.
JEFF: It doesn’t take long for locals to start spooking each other – especially around Halloween – that Alzada’s head was coming for them. Older siblings would taunt younger siblings. Neighborhood kids would suggest they know where the head is, and the horrible crime continues to haunt this small own for generations.
RAY: The original house at 28 Crescent Street was torn down long ago, and the street has been developed. So it doesn’t look like it did in 1940. And this bit of tragic history and lore seems to only make an appearance around Halloween.
JEFF: And here we are again. Let’s face it, the fact that the murder took place on Halloween makes it more significant. We can’t help but ask what possessed John Phelps to do what he did….
RAY: I mean even if he really did act in self-defense, and fighting back caused an accidental death, to dismember the girl sure makes it look differently.
JEFF: I agree. And Halloween or not, dark spirit influence or not, ultimately we’re all responsible for our own actions.
RAY: And sometimes those actions leave a stain on a town that can never be washed away.
JEFF: So true. A tragic story. And maybe a reminder in our hot-headed world to always try and let cooler heads prevail.
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RAY: And our theme music is by John Judd.
VOICEMAIL: This is Kelly Baxter from North Canton, Ohio until next time remember the bizarre is closer than you think.