One of the best aspects to working in archives is getting to tag along for our patrons’ research adventures! Recently, we’ve had the great pleasure of getting to work with our colleagues at the Arizona Capitol Museum to unravel a murder mystery that happened in the Capitol! They valiantly slogged through several land records and newspapers to get the story, and now they’re hosting a Halloween Murder Mystery at the Capitol!
* Special Guest Post from Brian Blackwell of the Arizona Capitol Museum
Details: The Arizona Capitol Museum’s Halloween Murder Mystery Event is Saturday, October 26th from 10am to 2pm, admission is free. Because of road closures, parking is available off of 19th avenue in the executive tower parking lot. Please check with @AZCapitolMuseum on Twitter for updates and more information.
Every year at the Arizona Capitol Museum, we try to plan something fun for our visitors on the Saturday Fun Day before Halloween. This year we’d decided on a murder mystery game based on the infamous murder suicide which actually took place at the Capitol in 1912. We didn’t know much of the particulars, someone shot a low level clerk over perceived wrongdoings in a land deal and then killed himself, but we figured some quick research would fill in the gaps so we could piece together the game. Since we already knew the killer, we’d create more of a “whydunit,” as opposed to a whodunit, and ask guests to figure out the motive for the crime. What we did not realize at the time was that almost no one has searched for the motive to this crime before.
Our first stop, a basic web search, turned up nothing of value. Sites which mention the murder at all were more interested in if this meant the Museum was haunted, and kept the details vague. (PS, the Arizona Capitol Museum is not, to our knowledge, haunted.) Next we tried the Arizona Digital Newspaper Program, and while they had a wealth of perfectly preserved articles from 1912 newspapers about the murder, we ran into the main problem with period journalism: they appear to be engaging in a contest to see who can get everything wrong the fastest, in order to print first. The different papers could not agree on facts as basic as the names of the victim and murderer, the type of gun used, or where the crime was committed. They alternated painting the murderer as Mexican, consumptive, and an invalid, based mostly on the fact that those were things people didn’t like at the time. More distressing, no one was searching very hard for a motive to the crime. They dismissed the killer as crazy, and focused on grisly and unnecessary details, many of which seemed fabricated.
Unfortunately, there is little record that anyone searched very hard for the motive to this crime, including law enforcement. With no suspect to track down, there didn’t seem much point in knocking themselves out investigating it. The papers mention the coroner would perform an investigation, but none of the papers wrote follow-up articles with the investigation’s findings. To make any sense of this, we would need the cold hard facts which can only be found in primary documents.
With the help of the archivists at the State Archives, things finally started to come together. Looking at the original land deeds we learned that the victim, Granville Malcolm Gillette personally sold a piece of land to Finley Coffman (not Frank or Francis Chapman), in a transaction which was in no way connected to his job as chief clerk to the state surveyor. Before, we had always assumed the murder was over something he’d done in an official capacity at the Capitol. Surveyor’s maps showed us where the property was located, and how much land Coffman would be purchasing. Tax assessments showed the value of the land to be at $1,500. The most reliable interviews from newspaper articles state that’s how much Coffman paid Gillette for the land. However, an administrator’s deed from Gillette’s lawyer showed there was a large outstanding mortgage on the property which Coffman as owner would be responsible for, separate from the purchase price. If the sale price of $1,500 is accurate, Coffman would essentially have to pay for the land twice.
It’s impossible to piece together the entire motive for the hundred year-old murder at this point in time. Unfortunately, only two people knew the whole story behind the deal, and they both died in 1912. A contemporary investigation may have uncovered the motive, but the coroner’s reports were thrown away decades ago, before there requirements to hang on to official records like those, another lesson in why professional archives are so important. Destroyed documents would add incredibly important puzzle pieces which remain missing, so we may never know why this heinous act occurred. It’s very possible Coffman was mentally disturbed in some manner, it is hard to find the rationale in an irrational act, but some solid research revealed a plausible theory on a motive for the first time, beyond 1912’s “he was a crazy Mexican with tuberculosis.”