Portage to the Past: Questions linger about a Valentine's Day gone wrong

10:57 AM, Feb. 13, 2013  |  Comments
Rhonda Whetstone
Rhonda Whetstone
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Sunday, Feb. 14, 1915, should have been a happy day for most couples, but not so in the Dawson home at 811 Ellis St. This was to be their last day together as husband and wife.

The Stevens Point Journal reported, "A sequel to a series of domestic troubles took place shortly after 5 o'clock Sunday afternoon, when Julia (Dart) Dawson, 23, wife of Howard Dawson, 28, a Soo Line brakeman, took her own life and that of her son, Robert, not yet two years of age."

The Dawsons had also had a daughter, Ethel, 4, who had been removed to Howard's parent's home in Rhinelander a week before the tragedy.

Everything seemed to have been fine with the couple, married September 1910, until three weeks earlier, when Howard started being abusive to Julia, although it was unknown why. He also stated he was filing for divorce.

According to neighbor Margaret Hartman, earlier Sunday, Julia had come to her to borrow a screwdriver. Julia was packing up her household to move to Rhinelander to stay with Howard's parents and Ethel.

Hartman asked if things were better at home, and Julia replied they were not, she felt Howard was crazy, and that something would be done that night.

Hartman knew that Julia kept a revolver under her mattress and seemed afraid of Howard.

According to Howard's testimony, he was leaving the house Sunday, intending to go to the south side of Point, but only got as far as the woodshed when he heard two shots in quick succession. Running back into the house, he found Julia and Robert on the bedroom floor, and after trying to talk to Julia and placing a hand on her head, ran to the Hartman house to get Hartman, telling her, "Julia has shot herself and the baby."

Together they went into the bedroom and found Julia dead with a revolver along side her body on the floor, and Robert a few feet away, still alive but breathing his last.

Howard said he bought Julia the gun three weeks earlier as she said she was afraid to be alone nights, but he did not know where she kept it.

Hartman testified that she saw Howard approaching her house when he stepped onto the sidewalk. Upon arriving back at the Dawson house, Howard stopped to light a lamp before taking Hartman to see Julia and Robert. She said that Julia's body was some distance from Robert's, between the foot of the bed and a box.

Dr. Rice was summoned as was Coroner Boston, District Attorney Owen and Police Chief John Hafsoos.

Dr. Rice determined Julia was dead, and Robert died a few moments later.

It was murder and suicide, or so ruled the coroner's jury. People started talking though, and there is some reason to wonder.

Howard made it a point to tell the police that he did not "strike or choke Julia" on Sunday. Was that because he had earlier in the three previous weeks?

Hartman and Howard both stated that Julia had never made any threats of suicide.

Julia, who was right-handed, supposedly shot herself in the right temple. However, the .38-caliber gun was found lying on her left side. Shooting herself in the right temple, with her right hand, it seems the gun would have fallen on the right side.

Dr. Rice stated that the bullet that killed the baby was fired at close range and entered just above his right ear. Rice later was allowed to change his testimony to say the bullet entered above the left ear, exiting on the right side, coinciding with what Dr. Rogers, who was summoned by the Boston Funeral Home, stated.

Howard moved on, soon marrying Agnes Bissonette, a woman 13 years younger. Together, they raised Ethel, who eventually married Sgt. H. Hewins and left the Rhinelander area.

John Crummey, the man who prepared Julia for burial in 1915, found three notes in her stockings - one in the right and two in the left - but sadly, D.A. Owens refused to allow the contents of those notes revealed. Who knows, those notes may have clarified everything and left no doubt to whether it was murder and suicide - or possibly murder all the way around.

Rhonda Whetstone is a columnist for Stevens Point Journal Media, Daily Tribune Media and News-Herald Media. Rhonda's Twitter ID is TribRendezvous if you wish to follow her musings there. You also can get previews of upcoming columns by clicking "like" on Portage to the Past on Facebook. If you have story ideas of a historical nature, email her at Rhonda.Whetstone@gmail.com.

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