Assassination in the Adirondacks: the murder of Orrando Perry Dexter

Posthumous portrait of Orrando P. Dexter by Charles Ayer Whipple for Henry Dexter, 1906.1
Posthumous portrait of Orrando P. Dexter by Charles Ayer Whipple, 1906.1

On the afternoon of September 19, 1903,  49-year-old millionaire lawyer Orrando Perry Dexter met his end on the road leading from his estate to the town of Santa Clara, NY. As usual, he had been on his way to collect his mail when a man stepped into the road from behind “a clump of hemlock bushes” where he fired two shots from a .38 caliber rifle. The first missed Dexter, instead ripping through the dashboard of his buggy and into his horse; the second struck him squarely in the left shoulder. Despite an estate employee riding ahead and another a short distance behind, Dexter had been shot dead in broad daylight in the middle of the Adirondack wilderness.

It was a shocking crime, but possibly not entirely unexpected. Since his original purchase in the early 1890s, Dexter had built a vast estate — upwards of 10,000 acres — which he closed off to bemused locals, generations of whom had used it for hunting, fishing and timber. This act, and the zealousness with which he defended his property from transgressors, made  him a fairly unpopular figure around Santa Clara.

Detail from the Franklin County map in the Atlas of the State of New York, Bien & Co.: New York, 1895.
Detail from an 1895 Franklin County map  showing Dexter Lake  and rail line providing access from New York City to the Adirondacks. Atlas of the State of New York, Bien & Co.: New York, 1895.

Though painted in the press as slightly eccentric, and a bit of a loner “who cared nothing for society,” Dexter’s passion for the Adirondack wilderness was hardly an exception. With wilderness preservation already building a head of steam, a number of others with the financial means and desire were amassing their own private preserves in the Adirondacks. A notable example is financier William Rockefeller, who ran afoul of the local population too. Like Dexter, he faced similar acts of intimidation, a common tactic among the locals, only he was spared a comparably violent end.

While even the most superficial pieces of evidence collected, such as the caliber of the rifle, suggested a disgruntled local, no one was ever convicted for the murder. Not even the hefty reward posted by Dexter’s elderly father Henry, head of the American News Company, could suss out the shooter’s identity.

The Orrando Perry Dexter Memorial at the New-York Historical Society, NYHS 5, New-York Historical Society Pictorial Archives
The Orrando Perry Dexter Memorial at the New-York Historical Society. New-York Historical Society Pictorial Archives, NYHS 5

Given its mysterious circumstances, the story itself remains fairly well-known today. But the public’s fascination with the intrigue often obscures its broader historical relevance. The tensions between Dexter and the those living in the vicinity of Santa Clara represent an fundamental reality for nature conservation: the appreciation of nature is a luxury that not every member of society can afford.

This was especially the case around the turn of the twentieth century when the time and money to visit places like the Adirondacks remained a venture limited mostly to those economically better off. In contrast, the inhabitants of the Adirondack wilderness, who eked out a living from the land, had understandably more narrow concerns. Sadly for Dexter, his good intentions and the energy with which he pursued them only widened the existing socioeconomic gap between himself and the local population.

Henry Dexter was clearly very troubled by the loss of his son and, in addition to the reward, did his best to ensure Orrando would not be forgotten. Towards that end, he contributed an enormous sum (in the vicinity of $250,000) towards the construction of the New-York Historical Society’s present home on Central Park West. That generous act led to a memorial for his son on the doorway of the Robert H. Smith Auditorium.

Unfortunately, one piece of Orrando Dexter’s legacy, the house he had built as part of his estate (a copy of  the 16th Century home of German artist and printmaker Albrecht Durer), came to a similarly ignominious end as its first owner. Newly restored, it was purchased in 1994 by Shania Twain and her husband, who subsequently knocked it down to build an entirely new house and studio only to sell it soon after.




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