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Alvin McCURDY

 
 
 
 
 

 

 

 

   
 
 
Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Parricide - Arson
Number of victims: 1
Date of murder: July 8, 1927
Date of birth: 1872
Victim profile: His wife, Ethel McCurdy
Method of murder: Hitting with a hammer
Location: Oregon City, Clackamas County, Oregon, USA
Status: Plead guilty of second-degree murder. Sentenced to life in prison on July 25, 1927. Released on parole in 1939 after the Governor commuted his sentence from life to 35 years.
 
 
 
 
 
 

Time Out for Murder

Sheriff E.T. Mass knew it would not be an easy case to solve. The death of Ethel McCurdy in a devastating house fire on July 8, 1927, at first appeared to be accidental. Her charred body had been recovered from the tiny bungalow she shared with her husband Alvin in the Canemah community, just south of Oregon city.

Neighbors who first arrived on the scene the night of the fire found Alvin McCurdy laying motionless on the lawn outside the burning house, his arms and legs severely burned. Most figured he was dead, but McCurdy had managed to escape. His wife wasn't so lucky.

But there was something suspicious about Ethel McCurdy's death. The deep trying to escape from a burning house. And Ethel McCurdy was laying on her back in bed when authorities found her badly burned body. If beams or roofing material had fallen on her during the fire, they would have struck her in the face-not the back of her skull.

Mass' worst fears were answered when an autopsy revealed Ethel McCurdy died of blunt force blows to the back of her head, possibly caused by a hammer.

Her husband, Alvin, suffering from shock and smoke inhalation, was rushed to the local hospital. Mass knew the 55 year-old millworker was in no shape to tell authorities what had happened.

With few leads to work with, Mass and his men began questioning neighbors and got all the wrong answers: Ethel McCurdy was a wonderful lady, they said. Everyone liked her. She had no enemies.

But Mass and his men kept searching. They finally found someone who recalled that a neighbor's boy had been caught by Ethel McCurdy coming out of the bungalow one day. She gave him a verbal tongue lashing, they said. He went off muttering something about getting even with her. But more significantly, one neighbor recalled, the youth had done some carpentry work for the McCurdys, and he had a hammer.

With this information, Mass and his deputies hurried off to the boy's house. They didn't find him there; his mother said he had left early that morning to go to a friend's house -- about the time when the fire was first discovered. At Mass' request, she went down in the basement to get the boy's hammer, but found it missing. That corresponded with Mass' theory that whoever crushed Ethel McCurdy's skull had buried the murder weapon.

Mass and his men got the name and address of the friend's house. They found the suspect youth there, working on a jalopy with his friend. But their spirits sagged somewhat when the boy immediately produced his hammer. He said he brought it with him from home to work on the car. To Mass' chagrin, the hammer did not appear to have any bloodstains on it. A lab test later confirmed that the hammer contained no particles of blood.

Authorities later learned Alvin McCurdy had regained enough strength to talk to deputies. He told them they had gone to bed about the same time, 10 p.m. the previous night. They had separate bedrooms, he explained, because he had suffered a heart attack some time ago and his doctor prescribed maximum, uninterrupted bed rest. The last time he saw his wife, Alvin McCurdy said, was when she left his medicine on the nightstand next to his bed.

He went on to say that he was awakened by a cloud of smoke pouring into his bedroom. He said he tried to make it to his wife's bedroom, but was overcome by the smoke and heat, and was forced to flee from the burning dwelling. He said his heart apparently gave out when he reached the front lawn, and he fainted.

Alvin McCurdy said he had not noticed anyone poking around their Canemah residence in recent days. He also said he doubted anyone wanted to burglarize their home or rob them because they didn't have much money or many material possessions.

In the days that followed, Mass and his deputies talked again to neighbors and friends of the couple, as well as several transients who had been lingering around the area. But they were unable to turn up any good leads.

Frustrated by their lack of progress, Mass and Oregon City Police Officer Clinton A. Blodgett decided to return to the fire-murder scene to sift through the burned debris. Mass was convinced the killer had made one mistake, left one incriminating piece of evidence behind.

He was right. While sifting through the debris, they found a man's wrist watch. Engraved on the back they found the name Alvin McCurdy.

At first, Mass and Blodgett were perplexed. Alvin McCurdy said he could not make his way into his wife's bedroom because of the intense smoke and heat, but he had apparently dropped it. But how could he, they asked themselves. McCurdy said he had been confined to his bed for several days because of his heart condition.

The investigators decided to hone in on Alvin McCurdy's shaky alibi. They contacted several local stores to see if McCurdy had purchased a hammer recently, and found one storekeeper who recalled selling one to McCurdy two weeks earlier.

With that piece of information, Mass ordered a more thorough search of property surrounding the McCurdy's fire-gutted bungalow. One officer uncovered a blood-stained claw hammer buried in the ground less than 100 yards from the McCurdy house.

Confronted with this new information, McCurdy broke down and confessed to killing his wife. He said they had an argument and that she threatened to leave him. Rather than face the heartbreak of losing her, Alvin McCurdy said he killed his wife with the hammer, set the house after, singed his arms and legs in the process and faked the fainting spell to throw suspicion off of himself.

On July 25, 1927 -- less than three weeks after the fatal fire -- Alvin McCurdy' s murder trial began. But rather than face the possibility of a first-degree murder conviction and certain death in the gas chamber, the elderly millworker asked if he could change his plea to guilty of second-degree murder.

Circuit Court Judge James U. Campbell granted his wish and sentenced McCurdy to life imprisonment. But McCurdy was released on parole in 1939 after the Governor commuted his sentence from life to 35 years. McCurdy died four years later of natural causes.

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