Florence Small Lost Her Head

The defense made a valiant effort on Frederick Small’s behalf.
Proclaiming that he was in Boston at the time,
and had witnesses to the fact.
There was undeniable proof that he wasn’t near the cottage, 
when it burned into the ground.
And he had absolutely nothing to do with the body that they found.  
He could not, would not, did not murder his wife.
Yet in jail he sat, on trial for his life.


The normal nighttime twinkle of lights from the little cottage that sat on the shore of Lake Ossipee, in the village of Mountain View, New Hampshire, had been replaced with the roaring flames of an incendiary fire. One set to erase all evidence of the murder that had been committed there and reduce the body of Mrs. Florence Small to little more than bone and ash.

Foiling the plot of what was expected to be a perfect crime; the floor beneath Mrs. Small’s body gave way during the fire and she fell into the basement below, fortuitously landing in a little pool of water that had collected there.

A cord bound tightly about her neck, a skull fractured by numerous blows, and a bullet wound to the forehead told the ghastly tale of the fate that had been bestowed upon Florence Small. She had not met her death by succumbing to the smoke and flame, but rather to a cold blooded killing.

In an effort to eradicate all signs of his crime her killer had applied a resin of thermite to his victim’s body and sprinkled it about the scene. The compound, typically used in welding to generate an extremely high heat, was intended to fuel a fire so hot that it would incinerate the body, the house, and any evidence that remained.

An onlooker who had stood by to watch as the bungalow burned stated that they had peered through a window upon arriving at the fiery cottage and believed they bore witness to Florence Small’s body partially suspended from the bed by a rope.

After the embers cooled, an alarm clock, some wire, spark plugs and a .32 caliber revolver were found amid the debris in the burned-out rubble of the Small’s summer home. The same caliber bullet was retrieved from Florence’s head.

The assailant stood above her as Florence lie prone on her back, and it was from that angle that he had shot her, the medical examiner said. And while the head shot would have eventually proven to be fatal, the thrashing she took to her skull most likely would not. However, the medical examiner presented, it wasn’t the fire, the gunshot or the blows to the head that had killed her. She had died from strangulation, instead. In his professional opinion, after suffering through a beating and being shot in the head, he estimated that Florence succumbed to the ligature around her neck, finally asphyxiated, and five minutes later was dead.

A Boston broker, Frederick Small was Florence’s husband. Out of town when the fire broke at 10pm that night, he had left for Boston at 3pm earlier in the day, just after lunch. But despite being away from the scene at the time, Florence’s loving husband became the primary suspect in her case.

Frederick had been married twice before. His previous love, second wife Laura Patterson Small, had granted his request for a divorce. Frederick came briefly into the public eye when he sued her paramour for the alienation of lovely Laura’s affections. The man in her life, Frederick Small alleged, was none other than millionaire baseball executive, Arthur H. Soden, president of the National League. Frederick Small wanted A. H. Soden to pay for his crime of the heart. He wanted $500,000 in damages for the loss of his lady love. He also alleged that Soden had drugged both he and his Laura, leaving them unconscious within their own home. Awarded a pittance compared to that which he coveted, a mere $10,000 was all that Frederick was deemed to receive.

On the night of the fire, following the dispatch of news regarding the death of his wife, a physician inquired of Frederick as to what should be done with her remains. “Why?” Frederick asked the good doctor, “is there enough left of the body to require a casket?”

The state believed Frederick concocted some kind of infernal machine. One that employed the spark plugs and wires and ignited gasoline, the fuse had been set with a timed device that he had formed with the alarm clock that they had found. They believed that he had killed his wife after lunch, some time near mid-afternoon, and then rigged the device to ignite the fuse after he had already left town.

Upon his return from Boston, Small proffered a theory that his wife had been murdered by a tramp or a thief, and then offered up a $1,000 reward for the capture of the person who had ended her life.

The police didn’t buy it; they believed that Frederick Small was their man and they surmised that a $20,000 life insurance policy was the reason he hatched his plan. The grieving widower was arrested in his hotel room and carted off to jail. From there he made the arrangements to bury his beloved.

After being acquainted for only ten days, Florence and Frederick had now been married for five years. Her husband spared no expense when it came to burying his beautiful wife. Ninety-eight dollars he spent, covering half of a plot, a paltry casket and a few flowers. He requested no formalities that required any additional attention – such as a headstone, grave marker or service. For her burial only one gift of flowers was received. A wreath, arranged in white and sent by her husband with an inscription that read, “To My Love.”

When Frederick returned to New Hampshire and was questioned by police waiting there he stated that he bade Florence farewell and that she was still in the house when he left. The driver who took him to the station for his trip concurred with Mr. Small; he saw for himself Frederick turn toward the door and heard him say “Good-bye” to Mrs. Small. The driver, however, admitted that he didn’t personally lay eyes on Florence at the time nor had he heard her voice at all.

One of Florence’s previous physician’s came in from Massachusetts. He stepped forward and offered up evidence of some possible prior abuse. The physician recounted an exchange from Frederick as Florence was being treated for injuries. Her husband boastfully quipped, said the doctor, “I hit her in the head with a bootjack. I ought to have killed her and I will yet.”

The mother of the victim had very little to say, but opined Frederick to be a “fear-inspiring hypnotist.” He is, she said, a man “without a drop of the milk of human kindness in his heart,” her Florence had feared him for years.

As the trial proceeded forward the jury took a field trip to the scene of the crime. And with an opportunity advantages to a public display of remorse, Fredrick Small broke with the composure that was the trademark throughout his ordeal and collapsed into a fit of tears. He howled and wailed at the site of his burned house. “Oh my dear wife,” he cried. Unable to hold himself up, he had to be propped up by the sherriff at his side. For the most part, the jurors ignored Frederick Small and his histrionic outbursts, but occasionally one would cast a gaze in the direction of his pitiful tear filled sobs and proclamations of grief.

But the most dreadfully alarming piece of evidence, by far, came in dramatic fashion at the trial’s climax; when the prosecution presented, for the visceral response of the jury, a hideous and frightful display. Florence Small’s severed head. What Frederick didn’t know, as they buried his wife, was that the prosecution had obtained an order to remove his bride’s head and have it placed in their possession for safe keeping. A few other portions and parts had also been plucked for possible use at his trial and they were being kept cozy and well preserved in alcohol filled jars nearby.

The judge suggested that women leave the courtroom, as Florence’s head was produced. Eight fair lasses remained seated, and craned their necks with the rest of the court’s observers as the prosecution’s gruesome exhibit was displayed. A gasp went through the courtroom and Frederick Small covered his face. He sobbed into his hands as a witness described in detail the current state of his wife’s face. Her features had been distorted by fire and frozen in time by death; the neck was still attached and encircled by the knotted cord that took her life. There was clearly a gunshot wound to her forehead and her skull had been cracked and damaged by at least seven forceful blows to her head.

The accused never took the stand to speak in his defense and let his counsel do their job. His attorney argued that the state had not offered proof that his client could cause a fire seven hours after he left his home. And they countered that the thermite was not possessed by Frederick Small, he had no knowledge of any such compound at all. The wires found in the basement, they said, near the spark plugs and clock, were merely telephone wires and nothing nefarious.

The prosecution unleashed upon the defendant a closing argument of vitriol and venom. Charging that the crime was as heinous an act as had ever been committed in the state, it was likened to the same unspeakable cruelty that had befallen women and children who had burned at the stake in the days of early New Hampshire. “Frederick Small,” declared the Attorney General, while shaking his clenched fist, was an “Imp form Hell.” A soulless cad teeming with “the spirit of the Devil”

The jury recessed for dinner and then they went to work. After a fourteen day trial it took only three hours for the verdict to be reached. It was a unanimous finding for guilty; murder in the first degree.

The defendant entered the courtroom looking pale, drawn and haggard. His attorney, brother and nephew were at his side. And as the verdict was read he staggered and swayed just a bit, but then quickly regained his composure.

“Have you anything to say as to why sentence should not be pronounced?” the judge asked of the defendant.

“I have your honor,” Frederick Small replied. “I know no more about this crime than you do. I am an innocent person.”

And then after the formalities of adjournment had been observed, and Frederick Small had been sentenced for his act, he turned to the courtroom, and addressing the reporters still present within he repeated himself for the record, “Gentlemen, I am innocent of this crime. I know no more about it than you do. I am awaiting the next move.”

As journalists crowded around the man who had been damned to hang by his neck a reporter remarked, “The coolest man in the courtroom by far is the man who has just been condemned to death.”

The defense did their level best in lobbying on behalf of their client. Requesting an acquittal on grounds of evidence insufficient for presentation to a jury, appealing the sentence and filing multiple exceptions, but they failed in their endeavor. Affirmation came, supporting the verdict and the sentence. Frederick Small would be executed.

On the day of his death Frederick Small went to the gallows calmly. He would neither admit nor deny that he had ended the life of his wife. “I am resigned. God’s will be done,” were the last words he chose to utter.

The lights were turned out, and amid the blackness that shrouded the hangman’s gallows the strap that operated the trap door beneath Frederick Small’s feet was pulled and the condemned man dropped to his death in darkness.


The first case to be heard within the Ossipee, New Hampshire courtroom walls was that of Frederick Small for the murder of his wife Florence. Easily a victim of domestic battery, Florence Arlene Curry Small died on September 28, 1916. She was 37-years old. She had been beaten, strangled, shot, and burned. Her head later removed for the benefit of prosecutorial theatrics and paraded about a courtroom for the shock and awe of spectators and jurors.

Her husband, Frederick Small, was executed for her murder on January 15, 1918. He dropped to his death at 12:18 am and was pronounced dead nine minutes later. His remains were cremated and put into the care of his brother who returned with him to Portland, ME.

At the end of the trial Florence Arlene Small was forgotten. Left abandoned in an unmarked grave at Grant Hill cemetery for 91-years, it was a mystery as to where in the graveyard Florence actually lay buried, or if she was even there at all. There was little to speak to the fact that Florence had ever existed in Ossipee. The court transcripts had been lost and there was no recording of her death in the 1916 record of vital statistics for the town.

Then one day Natalie Peterson, a woman helping to restore the old courthouse, stumbled upon Florence’s grave and the story of how she came to rest there. She set forth to see that the town’s forgotten victim was forgotten no more. Ninety-one years after her passing Florence Small finally received a proper headstone and long awaited remembrance.

I can’t help but wonder, though… if anyone ever remembered to give Florence back her head?

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