The murder of a
Harmony schoolgirl in 1895
still shocks and fascinates
county residents and
true crime enthusiasts.
Sallie Dean’s grave
at Hillcrest Cemetery in Federalsburg.
In the early spring of 1895, Caroline County was the scene of an infamous and tragic episode that continues to transcend eras and capture the attention of regional historians, true crime enthusiasts, and ghost hunters alike. A thirteen-year-old girl from Harmony named Sallie Dean was brutally murdered by Marshall Price, a local twenty-two-year-old blacksmith. While the criminal proceedings were fairly routine, a number of unexpected plot twists during the ordeal and well beyond make for a lively tale still recounted with both wonder and horror.
The facts have been well documented over time. The crime, trial, and immediate aftermath occurred during the height of yellow journalism, a sensationalized genre of reporting that saw newspapers compete for sales by running grotesquely eye-catching photographs and equally graphic front page stories. So it is no surprise that dailies such as the New York Times and St. Louis Globe or community papers as far away as Montana offered regular dispatches informing readers of the murder and subsequent drama.
A long form article by Caroline County Record reporter William Darling in 1953, which was republished as a booklet through Baker Printing of Denton in 1971, kept the grisly subject matter fresh in the minds of many long-time residents. With the advent of YouTube and Facebook, a new generation of amateur sleuths, curious tourists, and local historians — some hearing the morbid details for the first time — are now enthusiastically scrutinizing both print and digital sources that address the incident.
Harmony was known as Fowling Creek in 1895.
So what exactly happened in the spring and summer of 1895?
Concerns were raised on the afternoon of March 26, as those who had attended school in Harmony that day asked the Dean family why Sallie had been absent from class. Alarmed, a search party was quickly organized and soon found the teenager’s body covered by brush in the woods just north of town. A blunt force blow to the head was accompanied by a fatal ear-to-ear knife wound. Dean’s killer attempted to hide in plain sight over the next few hours and days.
To escape suspicion, Marshall Price joined the group looking for Sallie, volunteered his wagon to transport the remains to her family’s home, and even reportedly served as a pallbearer at her funeral. He pointed the finger at several men who had been in the Harmony area, but as leads were investigated, every alibi concerning whereabouts seemed to check out except his. One by one, pieces of evidence mounted against Price, culminating with knowledge of the location of the murder weapon that he said came to him in a dream. He continued to offer other erratic and incriminating remarks over the next weeks, once he was charged with the murder, including a pattern of confessing to authorities and then implicating myriad others in subsequent retractions.
Price. From a contemporary newspaper.
Prosecutors ultimately developed a roster of approximately two dozen witnesses who could describe Sallie Dean’s usual path to school and daily routine, as well as contradict Marshall Price’s timeline the day of the murder. Though Caroline County buzzed with anger and vengeful anticipation from the time of the arrest, and the courtroom was packed each day of the trial, the verdict was never truly in doubt. Price was found guilty and sentenced to death. An appeal was filed by Price’s lawyers, however, and a new trial was granted based on a single minor technicality.
The mood of the county turned ugly once word spread that the state Court of Appeals would not hear the case again until October. Rather than wait for due process to take its course, a lynch mob numbering at least 40 disguised men assembled outside the county jail in Denton. On the night of July 2, 1895, ringleaders dragged Price from his holding cell and hung him from a maple tree on the adjacent courthouse green. None of the conspirators were ever formally charged or identified.
MARSHALL E. PRICE
July 2, 1895
Aged 23 yrs & 7 days
Our only one is laid to rest
In peace with God forever blest,
In peace with God has glory doth shine.
Forever blest in God divine.
Price’s grave is perpendicular to others in the Denton Cemetery.
Photo by Chad Dean.
While this is undoubtedly a regrettable episode in the annals of Caroline County, the story does not end there. The dark cloud of the affair also followed Price’s killers. It was reported that several perpetrators of the hanging soon died from unexplained illnesses, suicide, and myriad other calamities. Even the tree used for the lynching soon fell victim to disease.
The Dean family farmhouse near Harmony attracted ghost hunters and thrillseekers until the dwelling was leveled a few years ago, after years of neglect. Many county residents wanted to see and hear for themselves the strange sounds, moving objects, blood stains, shadowy apparitions, and more. More recently, members of the Facebook group Caroline Past and Present have reported retracing the route Sallie Dean walked to school and identifying the wooded area where her body was found, the former location of Marshall Price’s blacksmith shop, and the gravesites of both individuals.
Contemporary historians have also begun to emphasize the notion that this particular hanging does not fit the turn-of-the century pattern noted elsewhere in the country. While African-Americans were lynched across the United States during the era of Jim Crow, the rarity of a white man suffering that fate here is not lost on period scholars. It’s also significant that during the initial investigation, Marshall Price gave credence to the suggestion that the murder could have been committed by two black men who were working at nearby Ganey’s Wharf the morning of the murder, or by other local people of color, depending on his ever-changing version of events once in custody. Locals dismissed his conjectures; the men in question were quickly absolved of any wrongdoing.
If there is a silver lining to the entire sordid sequence of events, perhaps it is that particular footnote – that in an otherwise grim era of race relations, this case was an example of public and judicial objectivity and restraint, which was not often observed elsewhere at the time.
Stand in the Place:
The Life and Death of Sallie Dean
The History Behind the Story
Sources for Further Research
Baltimore Sun, 11 October 2011. Dean murder recounted by former governor Harry Hughes. Includes Price’s assertion that he had not raped the victim, although that was probably his intention.
Maryland State Archives. Extensive list of contemporary Denton Journal and Baltimore Sun newspaper articles.