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Death Comes for the Headmaster

Elliott Speer

In 1934 the Mount Hermon Preparatory School for Boys in Northfield, Mass., was the last place anyone would expect a violent murder to occur. But sometimes the strangest crimes happen where no one expects them.
The school was founded by Dwight Moody, an American evangelist, as two separate institutions: Northfield Seminary for Young Ladies and Mount Hermon School for Boys in 1879 and 1881, respectively.
Moody was well known around the world for his commitment to serving the poor and less-fortunate of American inner cities.
According to the history of Northfield Mount Hermon school, Moody founded his institutions of learning because he “wanted to provide an education to young men and women who’d been denied that opportunity, usually due to financial hardship. In doing so, he hoped to create generations of committed Christians who would continue his evangelical efforts.”
By the time 35-year-old Rev. Dr. Elliott Speer took over as headmaster of the boys’ school, the institution had broadened its mission from serving society’s downtrodden to become a preparatory school for the well-heeled from across the country.
Speer came from a long line of religious elites, and had his own pedigree. His father was the Rev. Dr. Robert E. Speer, a renowned author of religious subjects and the head of the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions. The younger Speer was educated at Phillips Andover Academy and Princeton University. After his ordination he studied at the University of Edinburgh and at Columbia. He also taught school in England before returning in 1926 to Mount Hermon to serve as president of the Northfield schools. He left to conduct a study of the British educational system before returning to Mount Hermon in 1932 as headmaster.
Speer’s appointment as headmaster was not without controversy. At the time he was installed, the Presbyterian Church was involved in a struggle between two differing philosophies, one considered the “modernist” school and the other the “fundamentalist.”
Speer was a strong proponent of the more liberal modernist view and his reforms at the school prompted a bitter factional fight. Before he took over at the school, boys were subjected to a rigorous set of rules that, according to contemporary sources, made the place more of a monastery than a prep school. Speer introduced interscholastic athletics and the even more controversial practice of mixers involving the girls at school’s sister academy.
The battle between the liberals and fundamentalists at Mount Hermon came to a head when Speer invited the Presbyterian socialist and pacifist Norman Thomas to speak on campus. By late summer 1934 Speer was firmly in control of the policies at the school, but the church-wide controversy still raged.
It was September 15 and Speer was preparing to open another school year in less than a week when he retired to his study after dining with his wife, three children, and his father-in-law. Mrs. Speer’s mother had recently been in an accident and was recuperating in the Speer home, which was quietly situated in a secluded wood on the school’s 300-acre campus.
Speer was a man of rigid habits and he would spend several hours in his study after dinner reading various religious books and writing. As was his custom he was alone in the study, which was of the type one would expect for the literate headmaster of a Northeastern prep academy. The walls were lined with bookshelves and a large wooden desk dominated the room. A single window, behind the desk, allowed a view of a spacious lawn surrounded by old hardwood trees.
About 8:20 p.m. Speer was seated at the desk, apparently writing something, when he stood and turned toward the window. At that moment there was a single blast from a 12-gauge shotgun fired point-blank through the window. Five pellets of double-ought buckshot, each about 1/3-inch in diameter, caught Speer in his right arm and the right side of his chest.
Almost immediately after hearing the blast Mrs. Speer and her father rushed into the study. Speer had managed to stagger about 20 feet from behind the desk to the doorway where his wife found him.
“I don’t know what happened,” were Speer’s last words.
“Either the person outside the window with the gun purposely attracted Mr. Speer’s attention and thereby caused him to stand up,” wrote Massachusetts Associate Justice Timothy Hayes in a special inquest report. “Or he had turned his chair to the left and stood up to reach for a book which was located in the shelf above his head.”
Hayes conducted his closed inquest in December 1934.
Ballistics experts from the Massachusetts state police later recovered shell wadding beneath a large maple tree that stood beside the house. A low-hanging bough apparently provided an ideal hiding place for the killer, who fired up at Speer from a fairly sharp angle.
Police questioned members of the Speer household and were told by a maid that she heard “heavy, running footsteps” on the lawn immediately after the shooting. Another witness told authorities that she heard a car she saw parked in front of the school’s dining hall about 200 yards away from the Speer home speed away after the blast.
District Attorney Joseph T. Bartlett assumed command of the investigation and said he was convinced that someone familiar with the school was responsible for the crime.
“In the utter blackness which prevails on the campus at night, no stranger could have found his way to the house in its remote location and then escaped,” he said, alluding to the paths through the wooded campus formed a “virtual labyrinth.”
One of the earliest questions investigators struggled with was reminiscent of the famous “curious incident of the dog in the night time” of Sherlock Holmes.
The Speer family owned a pair of Newfoundland dogs, neither of which made any sound in the time leading up to the murder. Like the dog in “Silver Blaze,” the Speer dogs probably knew the killer, authorities surmised. However, a quick investigation eliminated this line of investigation. The elder dog, Andy, paid no attention to any of the investigators prowling though the home for the four days of the initial investigation while the younger, Amy, was a puppy locked in a kennel.
Investigators were also intrigued by the possibility that the killing was inspired by an English murder mystery book The Public School Murder that Speer owned. That book told the story of a school headmaster who was murdered by a rifle shot through his window.
Having abandoned the dogs as possible leads to a suspect, police began looking at anyone who might have wanted Speer dead. They theorized that Speer was killed by a disgruntled student or teacher, or a “religious fanatic” who objected to Speer’s liberal theology.
“Investigators assert there is the possibility that one of Dr. Speer’s opponents, maddened over the prospect of the opening of another term Monday under what he regarded as an unfit leader, might have goaded himself into the shooting,” reported The New York Times, referring to a theory espoused by Det. Lt. Albert Dacey of the state police.
For the next several months police followed hundreds of leads to nowhere and interviewed many of the 4,300 Mount Hermon alumni in New England. They tracked down an “incorrigible” former student who reportedly created a list of violent acts he wanted to accomplish — including killing Speer. That student, however, was in Virginia at the time of the murder.
By December, however, police had quickly eliminated all but one suspect — the school’s dean, Thomas E. Elder.
Elder and Speer had a contentious relationship from the day Speer was named headmaster for a number of reasons. Elder was one of the leaders of the school’s remaining fundamentalists and was reportedly upset that he was passed over for the headmaster’s job in favor of Speer. The dean was also known for having a quick temper and for holding a grudge.
During the investigation a number of circumstantial clues directed police toward Elder:

  • He was known to have once owned a shotgun of the type used to kill Dr. Speer, but denied this to police.
  • After Speer’s murder investigators saw that Elder had injured his right index finger — the one most likely used to pull a trigger — and friends told police that Elder’s shotgun “had a defective trigger guard.”
  • Elder placed a telephone call to Speer’s home shortly after the murder. Police surmised that he did this to ascertain whether his attack was successful.
  • Two letters, one supposedly written by Speer to Elder and the other in response, “are believed to be forged to simulate a firm friendship which actually did not exist between the pair.”
  • Speer reportedly lent The Public School Murder to Elder shortly before he died. However, in other reports, authorities simply said that Speer owned the book.

The most damning evidence of Elder’s guilt was the fact that he turned several clocks on the Mount Hermon campus ahead by 15 minutes as part of a scheme to establish an alibi.
The timepieces included the landmark clock on the tower of the school’s granite chapel, and, more importantly, the clock on the mantlepiece of Elder’s home.
On the night Speer died, Elder was entertaining a young man when the dean pointed to the clock on the mantle.
“It’s getting late,” Elder told his guest as he ushered him out. “I have to go someplace.”
Unfortunately for Elder, his guest was a shortwave radio enthusiast who, upon returning to his home, received a message and realized that Elder’s clock was wrong.
All of this evidence was presented to Justice Hayes during his inquest. Hayes closed the hearing at the request of the prosecution to prevent the suspect from “framing a defense” or “absconding if it became clear that he would be held for murder.”
Hayes, however, did not feel that the prosecution’s case was sufficient to warrant presentation to a grand jury, much less to a trial court. After hearing from more than 60 witnesses in a seven-day hearing, Hayes determined that Speer was killed by “a person unknown to this court.”
In his 2,500 word report Hayes did hint there was a plausible suspect, but explained that under Massachusetts law, a circumstantial case must meet a number of conditions that the case against Elder did not.
“It is essential that the circumstances taken as a whole should — to a moral certainty exclude every other hypothesis,” he wrote. “The proof required is proof beyond a reasonable doubt…it is not sufficient that the court find probable cause for holding an accused for the grand jury.”
Shortly after the Hayes report was released, Dean Thomas Elder retired from the school and moved to New Hampshire where he operated a poultry farm.
Six years after the Speer murder Elder was arrested for threatening a former Mt. Hermon school colleague with a shotgun. He was acquitted at trial.
Perhaps the best summing up of the tragedy of Elliott Speer’s murder appeared shortly after the event in a letter to the editor of The New York Times from Jean C. Cochrane of Plainfield, N.J.

To the Editor:
The death of Dr. Elliott Speer has been a far greater tragedy than the papers have realized. They have centered on the sensational features of the crime, but have barely mentioned the irretrievable loss to the cause of education and character building.
Already he had become a brilliant leader, and thousands of young lives had become quickened by contact with his buoyant and unconquerable spirit. Now the careless shot of some idle ne’er-do-well has ended such a promising career…
It is a challenge to each of us to see that constructive character building influences, not salacious and crime movies (sic), are put around our citizens; but most of all it is a challenge to our privileged young people to take up the kind of work Elliott Speer was doing and with his joyous, unconquerable spirit go forward to make America a safe and decent place in which to live.