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A Tawdry Tale of Montgomery Murder

In 1910, shock waves spread throughout the tiny village of Montgomery as word spread of a vicious murder on Clay Street.

The year was 1910. Shock waves spread throughout the tiny village of Montgomery as word spread of the vicious murder on Clay Street. Thirty years later reminders of it would resurface.

As children, living in the Settler’s Cottage on River Street, the traffic back and forth from the Saloon at the top of the hill down to the taverns two blocks north, was a big concern to our parents. The “drunks” as we called them, assuming of course they were all drunk, were frightening to us. The sidewalk was just a few inches from the house and we huddled inside on busy Saturday nights, listening to the radio.

To make things worse, and increase our fear, one warm summer morning I found a small pistol in the hedges that lined the sidewalk in our back yard. We worried that someone would come back to retrieve it. They never did.

On occasion our parents would have another couple over to play cards. Upstairs we would drag our pillows close to the stovepipe opening and lay on the floor, listening to their conversation. We would fall asleep listening and that is probably how we first heard about the long ago murder at the old Riverview hotel; the saloon, brothel and gambling house at the top of our street.

In 1940, there were still people around who had vivid memories of it. Rereading accounts of it now, it is clear there was good reason to be frightened if you lived during those times. The murderer was on the loose for six days while men on horseback with rifles searched the area.

It is ironic that when the Riverview Park had its grand opening on Nov. 7, 1899, the mayor of Aurora announced that it would be a prohibition park, and no drinking would be allowed. Less than a year later in 1900, a large headline in the Aurora Daily Express screamed – MONTGOMERY WANTS SALOONS. The story continues: “Village election results in victory for license. For the first time in its history Montgomery will have a saloon. The “License” ticket carried at Tuesday’s election by a majority of four. The following officers were elected:  Nels Johnson, president, C. P. Johnson, H. E. Falloux and J. W. Healy, trustees, John Byron, constable and C. F. Titsworth, clerk.”

Thus a new era was ushered in, and before long the Riverview Hotel was making a name for itself in certain circles. In 1910, the average wage was around $750 a year. Two out of every 10 adults couldn’t read or write, and only 6 percent of all Americans had graduated from high school. And while Montgomery had no drugstore, heroin and morphine were available over the counter at other nearby drugstores. There were so few automobiles that fuel had to be purchased at a drugstore as well. This is a little picture of what life was like at the time of the murder.

Sometime in the late 1930s a popular crime/detective magazine published a grizzly account of the “Morris-Dumas Murder.” It surfaced in our house while it was being passed around and eagerly read and discussed by our neighbors. Of course we overheard the talk. It wasn’t long before we children discovered the little pulp paper magazine with the grainy black and white photos of the policeman pointing to the crime scene evidence.

Until recently, the only details anyone remembered were given in the 1989 book, The History of Montgomery in Words and Pictures. Margorie Phillips Heiman recalled these details: “I remember the time there was a murder in Montgomery – people called it the Morris-Dumas murder. A couple were drinking at the tavern and got into a fight. They left the tavern and walked over to Main Street to wait for a streetcar. While waiting there, Mr. Morris shot Mrs. Dumas and killed her. He got away and hid in a barn on Baseline Road for many days, while the police searched for him. He lived on raw eggs and milk from the farm. (The house was where Ralph Perkins later lived.) The police eventually found him… in Yorkville (sic: Plano), at his home.”

It turns out there were more wild twists and turns to the story that were uncovered by following the newspaper accounts as the story developed. They revealed that the many rumors of scandalous behavior at the Riverview hotel were true. It seems the bad publicity didn’t hurt the business. 

Nobody ever admitted to first hand knowledge of a brothel operating on the second floor, but when Augie Balotto purchased the building for Marlene’s bakery, there were 20 rooms up there. As more details surfaced about the couple’s private lives, it became clear that the victim was engaged in the oldest profession in the world. All during the trial the newspapers gave her residence as Montgomery.

Now that the rumors have been verified, a clearer picture emerges. There was great difficulty picking a jury with the lawyers on both sides having broad restrictions. One lawyer stipulated only young men without families. Farmers were preferred. Aurorans were not wanted because most of them had already formed opinions.

One witness testified before the coroner’s jury, but later disappeared. After temporarily working in Montgomery as a sheep shearer, he returned to Montana. Hearing that his testimony was wanted, he came back in time for the trial.

Aurora’s Chief of Police Michels was in charge of the case. He announced he had a witness who was at the elbow of Morris and Mrs. Dumas when the fatal shots were fired.

“The witness I have in mind was so close that she could not have been any closer,” he hinted.

Several others were at the scene at the time. One was John Healy. Very likely this was the same J. W. Healy who was elected trustee from the “License” ticket.

The trial will be covered in the Thursday, Nov. 1 column, and the search for the identity of the mystery witness continues.

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