The story of bigamist murderer Henry Campbell, born Henry Colin Close, is one of unrealized potential and an intelligent man’s lack of direction mixed with deception and criminal propensity. It is a Jekyll and Hyde story that readers of the Malefactor’s Register have encountered many times.
For his crimes a stoic Campbell was electrocuted by the State of New Jersey in 1930.
At the time of his arrest in 1929, Campbell, 60, had been a husband for 15 years and was a father of four children between the ages of 2 and 14. He had enjoyed a moderately successful career in a variety of fields, from engineering to public relations, and had even published books on the subject of concrete.
“He is of a high intellectual type,” said John B. Walsh, who prosecuted Campbell. “He did what he did with every attention to perfection.”
But before he had settled down to a life of domestic tranquility, Campbell dropped out of medical school, practiced medicine illegally in Mexico, and served a couple of prison terms, including a stretch for embezzlement from Union Pacific Railroad. For that offense he was eventually pardoned by the governor of California. As “Dr. H.C. Close,” Campbell served a six-year term in Sing Sing for grand larceny.
Officials were able to establish that he had also been married three times before, although some newspaper reports claimed Campbell confessed to having seven wives, and said he lived with three of them simultaneously.
Campbell had always lived a life of a transient, even after his last (legal) marriage. He and his wife, Roselea, moved often during their marriage, from Elizabeth, N.J. to Chicago, then to Baltimore, and finally back to Westfield, N.J., a suburb of Elizabeth.
Even as the facts of his past life emerged, and Campbell stood on trial for his life, Roselea stood by her man.
“I know no one will believe me; I don’t know what it’s all about,” she told the press. “He was always so fine. In all the 15 years we have been married, he never used a cross word to me.”
Although the Campbells moved more frequently than was the norm in the 1920s, Campbell was financially successful — earning $25,000 annually (about $65,000 today) in 1925 as the director of advertising and promotion for a cement association in New York.
But as is so common in the lives of psychopaths, the good times ended because of Campbell’s various antisocial behaviors. He may have been successful as an employee, but as a business owner Campbell was not so skilled, and that monetary squeeze was what he claimed drove him to kill.
In 1928 the Campbell family moved to Salisbury, Md., “to take charge of a promotion concern.” They took their $40,000 nest egg and bought a home and furniture.
“Then things seemed to fall through” and the family’s savings were wiped out, Campbell testified at his murder trial. His health began to suffer and he became addicted to morphine.
When the chips were down, Campbell resumed his criminal lifestyle as easily as if he never left it and ended up committing at least one — but more likely two — murders. On its face, Campbell’s story is anecdotal proof that rehabilitating a criminal is very often a exercise in futility.
To become a murderer, a person must overcome fear and cultural taboo: they must not be deterred by the so-called “terrors of the law,” i.e., prison or death, nor can they be hampered by society’s strong distaste for the ultimate crime. Campbell was not troubled in the least by the threat of the electric chair nor did he at any time show reluctance to take innocent life.
According to Campbell, money was his sole motive in contacting and ultimately killing his victim, Mildred Mowry. He had tried to interest a number of businessmen in investing in his public relations company without success, and it was then that he thought of “getting a woman to enter business with him.”
Campbell said he believed the best way to find such a women was through a matrimonial agency. By advertising himself as a childless widower who was seeking a woman without children, Campbell was matched with Mildred Mowry of Greenville, Pa. Mildred, in her mid-50s, had been widowed for a decade when she met Campbell. On his application Campbell listed his religion as “The Golden Rule,” admitted that he was not handsome, and answered the question about his disposition with “The best ever if well treated.”
When they met for the first time in February 1928, the couple apparently hit it off because they were married in Maryland in August 1928. One of the first things the couple did together was to open a joint savings account in New Brunswick, N.J., for which Mildred contributed the first $1,000.
After the brief honeymoon (it must have been quite short as Rosalea Campbell claimed she and her husband never spent more than a total of a fortnight apart during their marriage) Mildred returned to Greenville and Campbell went back to Rosalea and his four children in Westfield.
While in Greenville, Mildred told her friends that she had married a doctor.
The bigamous Campbell traded letters with Mildred, explaining that he was setting up a business in North Jersey and that they would be together soon. For her part, Mildred’s letters go from affectionate to cautious and finally to accusatory.
The couple apparently met several times, and Campbell told authorities that he had tried to break off the relationship. He did not tell Mildred they were not legally wed, because she continued to pursue him and demanded that they establish a home together.
Finally, a year after their first meeting, Campbell was desperate to end the sham marriage.
“By this time I had made up my mind that she was not the kind of person to help me,” Campbell testified at his trial. “I thought I would pay her back and get rid of her that way.”
On February 21, 1929, Campbell and Mildred met in Philadelphia where he claimed that he told her the truth about their situation. He testified at his trial that they then drove to Maryland where he tried to collect some debts to repay Mildred.
“All along the way I took drugs to keep my nerves from going to pieces,” he added.
After unsuccessfully trying to obtain money, Campbell and Mildred drove from Philadelphia toward Westfield. On the witness stand, in an effort to save his life, Campbell claimed no memory of what happened next.
Defense Counsel Francis A. Gordon: Did you have any intention of shooting Mrs. Mowry that night?
Henry Campbell: No.
Q:Did you have any such intention at any time?
Q:Do you recall shooting her that night?
Q:Do you have any recollection of shooting Mrs. Mowry and burning her body?
A:No, I don’t remember doing so.
After waking up at home on February 23 and not recalling how he got there, Campbell said he went out to his car and saw a suitcase and handbag in it. He said he knew he had been with someone, but did not know who or when. But he clearly knew something was wrong because he took the items to his basement and burned them in his incinerator.
Defense Counsel Francis A. Gordon: Did you go to the police and tell them something had happened?
Henry Campbell: No. I couldn’t get things collected in my mind. I couldn’t get a picture. Sometimes I seemed to see something on fire in or near my car. I took bromides to calm my nerves. But the picture wouldn’t straighten out.
Campbell really didn’t have to go to the police to tell them something had happened (but he should have, of course). In the early morning hours of February 23, 1929, bakery delivery driver James Boyle was making his way along Springfield Avenue near the Kenilworth Avenue intersection when he saw what he termed “a blazing bundle.” As he passed by it, he realized it was a burning human body and he drove to the Cranford police station.
Apparently at the time the Cranford PD was short of cars because the New York Times account of finding the body states that “Chief of Police Hennessy with a squad of his police commandeered an automobile and hastened to the scene. There they rolled the body in the snow to extinguish the flames.”
Mildred’s body was badly charred and essentially unidentifiable. Some of her clothing was still intact, the Times reported:
“Her clothing was found to be of homely quality, and every tag on it apparently had been removed,” the paper of record tells. “She had on a brown velour coat edged with rabbit fur dyed black. Her dress was black satin, with wide sleeves and a band of fur about the bottom. Her gold brocaded turban had escaped the flames. It had no label.”
The reporter must have been getting paid by the word because he wasn’t done yet.
“A love of finery was envinced by the quantity of jewelry she wore, inexpensive mostly, and inclining to the gay ‘novelty’ rings and necklaces and bracelets so much in vogue,” he wrote.
The autopsy revealed that Mildred had been shot once through the top of her head and strangled. She was dead before she was doused in gasoline and set ablaze.
At the time Mildred’s body was found, the Bernardsville, N.J., police were working a similar year-old torch murder that had (pardon the pun) gone cold. In that case a former New York City governess, Margaret Brown, had been discovered dead and burning beside a rural road. So far the Bernardsville police managed to piece together some of Margaret’s last days but had not found any suspects.
Against the advice of her employer, Margaret, who had fallen in love with a mysterious doctor, withdrew her $7,000 life savings and quit her job. She told her employer that her sister in Los Angeles was ill, but this was not true.
On February 20, 1928 the body of the 40-year-old governess was found beaten to death with a tire iron. The corpse was on fire, but the husband and wife who found it put out the flames before the body was consumed.
Eventually police received a letter bearing a Newark postmark that contained a short confession and $1,000 in bonds and $500 in cash that belonged to Margaret Brown. Police traced the letter to a hotel on Mulberry Street in Newark where a “Dr. Ross” had checked in, stayed a couple of days and then left. The hotel manager told police he found an old fedora and a phial “which may have contained narcotics” in the room after “Ross” fled without checking out.
While the Margaret Brown murder investigation stalled, the Cranford police were more successful. Their victim wore a unique footbrace that was quickly traced to a shoemaker in Greenville. From there, identifying Mildred was a simple matter.
Mildred’s friends told police that she had married a doctor from North Jersey and that the couple had opened a bank account in New Brunswick.
The bank still had the check from Mildred bearing the signature “Mildred Campbell.” That, coupled with Mildred’s marriage license that listed her husband as “Dr. Richard R. Campbell” whose address was property in Baltimore once owned by Henry Colin Campbell, made arresting Campbell in April 1929 a perfunctory affair.
Once in custody, Campbell made a complete confession. His only hope at trial was an insanity defense, and that failed to sway the jury. He was convicted of first degree murder and electrocuted on April 17, 1930.
His wife, Rosalea, stood by her husband until the end, and Campbell denied all along that he had anything to do with the murder of Margaret Brown, which remains unsolved.