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The gunshots that shook Newport

Tuesday, October 6, 1885, was a rainy morning on bustling Levin Street in Newport, Rhode Island. Despite the rain, the day began like any other, with milkmen and delivery boys making their usual rounds. Wives and daughters carried out their household duties while keeping an eye on the small children. Horses pulled wagons and carriages noisily up and down the short artery between swanky Bellevue Avenue to the east and Thames Street, the commercial heart of Newport, to the west. On either side of Levin Street, a diverse population occupied homes that were interspersed between bars, liveries and family-run businesses. Among the clamor of the morning, the first gunshot from the Burton residence at 63 Levin Street went relatively unnoticed. A few neighbors would later say, upon reflection, that they’d heard that first shot. When a second shot quickly followed, folks paused their morning activities to listen. Then the screaming began.

The screams came from a young Black woman who burst through the doorway of the Burton home—one of the largest in the neighborhood, an imposing two-and-a-half-story building with the family’s living quarters, adjoining a four-family tenement—and dashed up the street. Her cries of “Help! My father has shot himself!” echoed throughout the neighborhood. Those closest to the Burton house rushed to the open doorway, pushing their way inside, where they were met by a younger woman beckoning the crowd toward the back of the house. “Father has killed himself, go and get somebody!” she sobbed, pointing to the kitchen.

On the floor, legs sprawled under the breakfast table, lay the body of 59-year-old entrepreneur Benjamin J. Burton, reputed to be Rhode Island’s wealthiest Black businessman. A small pistol lay by his side. A delivery man who had hastily abandoned his wagon on the street stepped forward and gently put his fingers on Burton’s wrist, searching for a pulse. Slowly returning Burton’s hand to the floor, he shook his head and stepped away from the body.

In the chaos, someone flagged down the police officer walking the neighborhood beat. The policeman dutifully called for the medical examiner and coroner before turning his attention to the gawking onlookers streaming in and out of the front door.

Burton’s former home on Levin Street, now Memorial Boulevard, photographed in 1967
Burton’s former home on Levin Street, now Memorial Boulevard, photographed in 1967. The home was demolished in the 1970s. Rhode Island Collection, Providence Public Library

The medical examiner quickly assumed command of the scene and ordered Burton’s body moved to the kitchen table. A cursory inspection revealed two bullet wounds: one to the back of the head just above the right ear and a second to the left side of his chest. A curious white object protruded from Burton’s mouth. It was a large piece of unchewed bread, its presence silently noted by the medical examiner. Within minutes, Burton was unceremoniously declared dead. It now fell to the coroner to determine the cause.

The coroner was eager to speak with the members of Burton’s immediate family before issuing his decision. He found them huddled together in an upstairs bedroom. He asked each of them where they were at the time of their father’s death. 

Maria Burton Dorsey, Burton’s 24-year-old daughter, matter-of-factly reported that she had been in one of the adjacent tenements at the time of the shooting. Allen Dorsey, Maria’s husband of three months, claimed to have been sick in bed in an upstairs room. He acknowledged hearing two loud bangs but said he assumed it was just doors being slammed shut. Burton’s 18-year-old daughter, Emmie, cautiously answered that she wasn’t certain if she’d been in the attic or her upstairs bedroom at the time of the shooting, as she had not heard the shots. 

Each family member solemnly described Burton as being despondent in the weeks leading up to his death. The daughters revealed that their father had recently told them he did not expect to live much longer. Tearfully, they lamented that his prediction had come true.

This description of the despairing family patriarch came as a surprise to many in the Newport community, where the family enjoyed a stellar reputation and Burton himself was known as a jovial, good-natured man with a quick wit and kind disposition.

Within minutes, Burton was unceremoniously declared dead.

His beloved wife had died five years earlier, leaving him to raise their children while running his businesses. His daughters were considered to be well-bred, genteel young ladies whose status as members of Newport’s Black elite kept them above taking in laundry, dressmaking or engaging in a trade.

Burton’s start in Newport, in the mid-19th century, had been a humble one, working as a teamster hauling coal and goods from the docks for other business owners. To service the tourists and summer residents who had made Newport a popular seaside resort, Burton established its first Black-owned express and transfer business. During the ten-week summer season, Burton’s signature green wagons, piled high with the trunks and personal belongings of summer residents and vacationers, traversed the city thoroughfares. Arriving at the docks at two o’clock every morning, wagons in tow, Burton was eager to accept work his competitors rejected.

Over the course of his career, Burton saw Newport blossom into a destination for some of the wealthiest families in America. With the dawn of the Gilded Age around 1870, new ultra-rich industrialists and capitalists from New York, Boston and beyond began flocking to this “Queen of Resorts.” Eager to spend their newfound wealth, they erected glittery behemoth granite-and-stone mansions with meticulously groomed grounds. With his superior physical strength and outgoing personality, Burton quickly became the favorite expressman of the summer elite.

He then bankrolled his profits into the creation of a horse-drawn bus line that became Newport’s first means of mass public transportation. It was Burton’s forward thinking that facilitated the creation of new neighborhoods in areas previously deemed undesirable due to their distance from places of employment and houses of worship. At 10 cents a ride, all classes could now travel around Newport at little expense. With the services he provided, for everyone from the uber-wealthy to the working class, Burton had earned goodwill all throughout Newport.

Dorsey’s dowry

Although the family’s description of Burton’s state of mind seemed contrary to popular opinion, the coroner saw no reason to question the veracity of their statements. Satisfied with their explanations, he snapped his notebook closed, declared Burton’s death a suicide and dismissed the need for an official inquest.

But not everyone was so sure.

Among the people gathered in the Levin Street home on the morning of Burton’s death was Emily Burton, the widow of his brother, a woman described as having “great will power and magnetism … [who could] set a whole congregation shouting during a meeting.” After viewing Burton’s body, she sought out a police officer to ask if he thought her brother-in-law had been murdered.

By the time Burton’s death was reported in the Providence Evening Bulletin, rumors that all was not well in his home were beginning to circulate. Much of the gossip centered around the newest member of the Burton household: Allen Dorsey.

The son of a barber, Dorsey hailed from Athens, Pennsylvania, and was on track to become one of the first Black surgeons in the country. He was a graduate of Lincoln University, in Pennsylvania, and to defray the cost of his education he had worked as a waiter at Newport’s resort hotels during the summers. In 1877, Dorsey was introduced to Maria Burton, and they began a courtship that culminated in their marriage on June 17, 1885.

At the time of Burton’s death—just three months after his daughter’s wedding—Dorsey was preparing to return to Philadelphia to complete his final year of medical school. His admittance to the prestigious University of Pennsylvania was an extraordinary accomplishment, considering that he’d been one of only a handful of Black applicants admitted to the medical college in the school’s history.

Standing on the precipice of success, there was only one thing preventing Dorsey from achieving his dream of becoming a surgeon: He was penniless.

Benjamin J. Burton’s carriage business holds a 20th anniversary parade on the streets of Newport in 1875.
Benjamin J. Burton’s carriage business holds a 20th anniversary parade on the streets of Newport in 1875. Rhode Island Collection, Providence Public Library

Dorsey couldn’t believe his luck when Maria agreed to marry him. What’s more, Burton had promised a generous dowry to be paid at the end of the season, in time for the start of the fall semester. The money would enable Dorsey to fund his final year of schooling and defray the initial costs of establishing a medical practice. With his future now secure, Allen Dorsey had no intention of returning to menial hotel jobs. Instead, he spent the better part of the summer lounging in his bed and parading around town like a peacock in Burton’s carriages.

Burton, on the other hand, seemed to have had a change of heart concerning his daughter’s marriage to her freeloading husband. Although he was eager for the newlyweds to depart and begin their life in Philadelphia, he had yet to pay the dowry. In the months leading up to his death, Burton frequently complained bitterly that Allen was a “highly educated pauper” and that the household expenses had soared with the addition of his son-in-law. But most concerning to Burton were the rumors about Maria’s participation in a desperate financial deceit.

A week before his death, Burton had paid his sister-in-law, Emily, an unannounced visit to determine whether she knew anything about an anonymous letter he had just received. The author of the letter accused Maria of borrowing money under false pretenses. Indeed, Emily knew firsthand of the shenanigans involving Burton’s daughter and her new husband.

Emily told Burton that Allen had written to her the previous spring asking to borrow $125. After declining his request, Emily learned that Maria had borrowed the same amount—close to $4,000 in today’s dollars—from a cousin in New York City, promising to repay the debt once her father paid the dowry. This cousin had also had a $200 promissory note mysteriously disappear from her locked trunk while she was staying in the Burton home.

Most recently, Emily had heard that Maria had concocted a story about a relative who’d committed a murder and desperately needed money to flee the country. Though the story sounded like the plot of a dime-store novella, Maria successfully used it to collect a little money, though less than the amount Allen needed. Dumbfounded by all he had learned, Burton thanked his sister-in-law and returned home to confront his daughter.

A stormy scene ensued between father and daughter, in which Burton demanded to know if the rumors about the money were true. Maria denied having ever received any money, “borrowed or given.” He told Maria that her actions had disgraced him and questioned why her husband had not worked all summer. “Is he too high-toned now that he has married [you]?” he taunted. Pounding his fist on the table, Burton shouted that Maria and her husband must be prepared to leave his house. This confrontation set into motion a series of events that would forever alter the fate of all four occupants of the Burton home.

Digging up the family secrets

The community was still reeling from Burton’s death when the funeral was held, only two days after his body had been found on the kitchen floor. Townsfolk from all classes and races filled the Union Congregational Church to capacity, with an overflow of people spilling onto the street. They had all come to bid farewell to their friend and neighbor and to pray for his soul.

The cause of Burton’s death divided the citizens of Newport into two distinct and unequivocal camps—those who believed it was suicide and those who believed it was murder. Many of Burton’s friends and extended family members were making inquiries regarding the mysterious claims of his despondency and comparing notes about suspicious goings-on in the Burton home. Their informal investigations suggested that Burton was most likely murdered. Conversely, as reported in the November 21, 1885, edition of the Newport Mercury, “City authorities from his honor the mayor down have hung tenaciously to the theory of suicide from the first and showed a disposition to ridicule whatever might be said against that opinion.”

While some residents had become convinced that Allen Dorsey was involved in the murder, many others shared the authorities’ perspective. Among Allen’s staunchest supporters was George T. Downing, one of the most influential civil rights leaders in the country and a friend of Burton. A noted abolitionist, Downing had worked with Frederick Douglass to form the country’s first Black labor union in New York City. No one had done more than Downing to fearlessly defend the civil rights of the Black community in Newport. His notable successes included the desegregation of Newport schools, the repeal of the law prohibiting interracial marriage, and the election of the first Black member to the state legislature and the Newport school committee.

1880s engraving of George T. Downing
1880s engraving of George T. Downing Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Downing championed Allen Dorsey as proof of what a Black man could achieve if given equal access to education and opportunity. If Allen became a surgeon, Downing believed it would open the door to the profession for other young Black men. He was steadfast in asserting his innocence.

While Downing, as a civil rights leader, was a notable defender of Allen Dorsey, it is important to note that the difference in opinion over the cause of Burton’s death was equally divided among the townspeople and seemingly not defined along racial or class lines. Unlike other communities of the era, Newport was highly integrated and progressive regarding civil rights such as voting and equal access to education. According to the book Aristocrats of Color: The Black Elite, 1880-1920 by Willard B. Gatewood, a Black visitor to the city noted in 1886: “Respectable, refined and well-bearing colored ladies and gentlemen have as little reason to feel their color as in Newport.” That is not to suggest that Newport was devoid of racial tensions or social hierarchies, but neither appears to have been a determining factor in the community’s bitter division over Burton’s cause of death.

As the debate around the cause of Burton’s death made its way into the legal community, it came as no surprise when a young attorney named Patrick J. Galvin questioned the likelihood of suicide.

Galvin, the son of Irish immigrants, had established a reputation as a patron of lost causes through his vigorous and outspoken legal defense of poor immigrants and other underrepresented residents of Newport. He was convinced that Burton had been murdered and believed that there should be a formal inquest into his death. The authorities did not share Galvin’s opinion and were eager to put the recent unpleasantness behind them.

But when the rumors of foul play became increasingly accusatory, the officials could no longer defend their inaction. There are conflicting reports as to who brought the kerfuffle to the Rhode Island attorney general’s attention. Nonetheless, ten days after Burton’s death, the attorney general ordered the exhumation and autopsy of Burton’s body, to be followed by an inquest to determine the cause of death and whether anyone should be charged with a crime. The attorney general appointed Galvin to represent the state in the inquest. It proved to be a wise decision. 

The exhumation took place at one o’clock in the morning in the Old North burial grounds. Burton had weighed more than 250 pounds while he was alive, and it took several men to lift the body from the casket and hold it in midair while the undertaker slid the lid back onto the coffin. The coffin served as a makeshift autopsy table, with handheld lanterns providing the only source of light.

Among the things the autopsy revealed was the absence of gunpowder burns at the site of Burton’s head wound. That combined with the presence of the unchewed bread in Burton’s mouth suggested that if Burton had been holding anything in his hand, it was a sweet roll, not a gun.

The inquest lasted four long days, with 62 witnesses testifying. Conflicting accounts were given concerning Burton’s state of mind and his financial situation at the time of his death. Testimony was elicited from friends and neighbors who had heard Burton make frequent statements about self-harm, including saying he wished he could float away in the waves, crawl into a hole and die, or blow his brains out with a pistol.

The one opinion shared by all the physicians who testified was that the shot to Burton’s heart would have been instantly fatal; therefore, if it was suicide, he must have shot himself in the head first, then the chest.

However, the physicians who asserted murder as the cause of death testified that the shot to Burton’s head would have, at a minimum, caused him to lose consciousness, rendering him incapable of inflicting a second gunshot wound upon himself. There was no way, Galvin argued, that Burton could have inflicted both wounds himself.

Having made his case that Burton was murdered, Galvin then turned his attention to identifying the person or people most likely responsible. He called his star witness, Emily Burton, who eagerly testified as to her conversation with Burton concerning Maria and Allen Dorsey. A neighboring tenant of Burton’s testified that she’d overheard the heated verbal altercation between Maria and her father the week before his death.

When it was the Dorseys’ turn to take the stand, each maintained a cool composure, calmly repeating the events on the morning of Burton’s death. When questioned about their involvement, their earnest pleas of innocence impressed even their harshest critics. Some who initially believed Burton was murdered began to wonder whether Galvin was acting as a persecutor rather than a prosecutor.

Illustration of Maria and Allen Dorsey
Illustration of Maria and Allen Dorsey Illustration by Camilla Sucre

Downing, the civil rights leader, testified that he’d observed Burton to be “in a despondent state,” which he attributed to Burton’s financial embarrassment over his gambling losses. Using a pseudonym, Downing also wrote a letter to the editor of the Newport Daily News criticizing Galvin’s investigation, alleging that he was not pursuing critical evidence concerning Burton’s gambling habits. The accusation that the attorney was ignoring exculpatory evidence must have stung Galvin. Contrary to Downing’s assertion, Galvin had followed up on that lead, but saloon owners and residents were not eager to testify about illegal gambling for fear of incriminating themselves in the process.

Ultimately, the coroner ruled that Burton had died of two shots fired by persons unknown. Although the finding ruled out suicide as the cause of death, the coroner’s refusal to identify the Dorseys as the probable killers was a bitter disappointment to Galvin. The Dorseys’ supporters claimed that the ruling was a vindication but that it unfairly left a cloud of suspicion over an innocent man.

Undeterred by the ruling, Galvin pored over the inquest testimony, focusing his attention on the younger daughter, Emmie, and the neighbor who had provided Maria with an alibi for the time of the murder. Faced with the threat of perjury, Emmie changed her story, admitting that only 5 minutes—not 20 minutes as she had originally testified—had elapsed between the sound of gunshots and Maria’s screams alerting the neighborhood that her father had shot himself. This revised statement called the timeline of Maria’s alibi into question and was enough to convince the authorities to arrest Allen and Maria.

A surprise confession

Stunned by their arrest, the couple prepared for the fight of their lives. They retained Colonel William Paine Sheffield Jr., another young rising star in the legal community, as their counsel. Sheffield was the son of former United States senator and prominent attorney William Paine Sheffield Sr. The walls of the junior Sheffield’s office were plastered with framed diplomas from prestigious universities and law schools, as well as commendations and awards. He still resided in the family home, a stately Greek revival-style mansion located at the top of Washington Square, in the heart of Newport. The home reeked of money and prestige. Sheffield also had political ambitions and made no secret of the fact that he was setting his sights on the U.S. House of Representatives.

The Sheffields built their legal reputation by representing wealthy white clients and New York cottagers. Sheffield had the necessary resources and connections at his disposal to prepare the best possible defense for the Dorseys. Indeed, Sheffield would be a formidable opponent for Galvin, who did not have the defense attorney’s pedigree.

William Paine Sheffield Jr.
William Paine Sheffield Jr. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

If anything hung on Galvin’s office walls, it was the odor of freshly caught fish from the fishmonger’s shop next door. Galvin was one of eight children born to Irish immigrants and had grown up in Newport’s Fifth Ward, considered the Irish part of town. His father was a fifth-generation landscaper and a favorite of the wealthy Newport summer residents. Many of the magnificent gardens surrounding the villas on Bellevue Avenue had been created by Galvin’s father. Galvin studied law as an apprentice under the senior Sheffield, an honor most children of immigrants could only dream about.

Following the Dorseys’ arrest on Thursday, November 19, Maria’s younger sister, Emmie, was sent to stay with her aunt, who made no effort to hide her belief that Allen and Maria had killed her brother-in-law. By late Sunday night, Emmie suffered a severe lung hemorrhage. It was suggested that the rapid deterioration in the young girl’s health was a direct result of her aunt’s persistent badgering about the Dorseys. Fearing that she was dying, Emmie begged her aunt to summon Galvin and the coroner to her bedside.

Mustering all her strength, Emmie revealed the truth about her father’s death: Allen had shot her father while he sat at the kitchen table eating his breakfast. Maria had known her husband was going to kill their father. While her revelation that the Dorseys were responsible for Burton’s murder was not unexpected, Emmie’s confession that she acted as Allen’s lookout during the shooting took Galvin completely by surprise.

At first light the following morning, the cries of newspaper hawkers began echoing up and down Thames Street: “Read all about it! Burton’s daughter confesses! Daughter says Dorsey pulled the trigger!” People encircled the newsstands in a frenzy and ripped the papers from the hands of helpless paperboys.

A few days later, Emmie was accompanied by her doctor and aunt to the courthouse to put her confession on the record. In her weakened condition, Emmie tottered unsteadily. Maria was shocked by her sister’s declining physical appearance. Instead of taking a seat in the gallery with the other spectators, their aunt sat next to Emmie and tightly held the young girl’s hand during her testimony.

Emmie remained steadfast that her confession was voluntary and initiated by her because the guilt was “killing her by inches.” Allen meticulously took notes as though he were the lead attorney and not the accused. After the conclusion of the proceedings, both Dorseys were ordered held without bail, pending their trial for Burton’s murder.

Illustration of Maria Dorsey and her sister, Emily Burton
Illustration of Maria Dorsey and her sister, Emily Burton Illustration by Camilla Sucre

Despite Emmie’s detailed and heart-wrenching confession outlining Allen’s and Maria’s roles in Burton’s death, the community remained bitterly divided over their guilt. Downing and other civil rights leaders continued to stand firmly behind Allen, insisting he had no motive to kill Burton. He had managed to put himself through college and two years of medical school without Burton’s money. They pointed to the numerous letters submitted on Allen’s behalf extolling his exemplary character.

Galvin’s strategy of separating Emmie from the Dorseys had proved successful. He now wanted to separate Maria from Allen to see if he could repeat his success. Yet another surprise twist gave him the opportunity to do just that. When Galvin became aware that Maria was pregnant, he petitioned the court to transfer her from the Newport County Jail. He argued that the local jail could not provide the level of medical care she needed in her “delicate” condition. The court was persuaded that Maria could be better cared for in the state prison with its around-the-clock matrons and physicians. Her transfer was ordered immediately.

The prison personnel assigned to care for Maria during her pregnancy felt that it was unlikely she would live long enough to give birth. The seeds of consumption were rooted in her body. To their astonishment, on April 2, 1886, Maria gave birth to a small but healthy baby boy.

Showdown in court

When the Dorseys’ criminal trial finally began at the end of June, Galvin and Sheffield were prepared for a battle. Both attorneys had spent the months leading up to the trial lining up medical experts to testify. Galvin was prepared to present testimony concerning bullet wounds and gunpowder burns by hardened Civil War physicians who had treated gunshot wounds during the war. He believed their testimony would prove that Burton’s death could not have been a suicide.

Sheffield, meanwhile, used his family’s connections to secure the testimony of David Hayes Agnew, a doctor and prominent professor at the University of Pennsylvania medical school. Agnew had served as President James Garfield’s primary surgeon after he’d been shot by an assassin five years earlier. Agnew was prepared to testify that Burton’s wounds were consistent with suicide. Moreover, Sheffield was confident that Agnew’s notoriety and mere presence might sway a vacillating juror in the defense’s favor.

Sheffield had also found witnesses willing to depict Burton as a prolific gambler who was deep in debt and who had never emotionally recovered from the death of his wife. Friends and family members were lined up to repeat their testimony that Burton had frequently threatened suicide. Sheffield felt confident that he’d put together a defense that would ensure his clients’ acquittal.

The day before the trial began, Allen gave an interview to a newspaper reporter from his jail cell. He began the interview by recapping all of his educational and professional accomplishments. He then listed the names of university dignitaries and community leaders who were lined up to testify on his behalf. When asked about Emmie’s confession, Allen dismissed it by stating that she was a “hysterical, undeveloped girl … under the control of her aunt.” He assured the reporter that “the more intelligent portion of the community have become favorably impressed in my behalf.”

The Sun reports on the arrest of Maria Burton Dorsey and Allen Dorsey on November 19, 1885.
The Sun reports on the arrest of Maria Burton Dorsey and Allen Dorsey on November 19, 1885. Library of Congress

When the Dorseys arrived in the courtroom on the first day of trial, Maria was cradling their baby in her arms. Women in the gallery oohed and aahed, craning their necks to get a better view of the newest Dorsey. While waiting for the proceedings to begin, Maria chirruped to the baby, and Allen played the old game of “creep mouse” to elicit a smile from the infant boy.

Galvin began the proceedings by presenting testimony concerning Burton’s fine reputation in the community. Witnesses attested that they had never seen Burton gamble. Business partners testified that it was normal for Burton to carry a large amount of debt, due to the nature of his businesses, but that he had always made good on his obligations. Certainly, Burton’s financial situation would have permitted him to retire comfortably once relieved of the financial burden of supporting the Dorseys.

Galvin scrutinized the faces and body language of the 12-man jury carefully as they listened to hours of tedious medical testimony. It was imperative that they understood it would have been impossible for Burton to shoot himself in the chest after having been shot in the head. The autopsy testimony and medical opinions were repetitive and at times gruesome, but the jurors remained stoically attentive. Unbeknownst to Galvin, the medical testimony was having an unexpected effect on one person sitting in the courtroom—but it wasn’t a juror. 

An even more surprising confession

After the long day of testimony, Maria’s pastor and spiritual advisor was awakened by the sound of frantic knocking on his front door. A young man dressed in a jailor uniform was standing on his stoop and informed him that Maria was requesting he come to the jail immediately. When he arrived at the jail, he was met by Galvin and immediately escorted to a small room where Maria sat waiting.

The pastor asked her to pray with him. When the prayer ended, he sat silently next to Maria and patiently waited for her to speak.

Maria whispered in a wearied tone that she could not bear sitting in the courtroom another day. She pleaded to be returned to the state women’s prison. Momentarily speechless, the pastor responded that the trial was far from over and the defense had yet to present its case. He reminded her that she could still be acquitted of the charges.

Maria shook her head and said she would never be able to atone for her role in the death of her father. She wept as she described her father’s kindness to her and her shame at being involved in his death. Wiping the tears from her eyes with the back of her hand, Maria said that God was now showing her the way forward. She needed to confess and go back to prison for the remainder of her natural life.

Galvin was called into the room and spent the next two hours silently recording Maria’s confession. Maria slowly described Allen’s descent into madness upon learning that her father would not pay the dowry. He had become convinced Burton would prevent him from achieving his dream of becoming a surgeon. Maria said she initially believed Allen had married her for love but had come to realize he had only married her for her father’s money. When her father hadn’t paid the dowry by the time Allen had expected to receive it, he’d become abusive toward her.

The Sun’s story on Emmie (referred to as Emily) revealing that her sister and brother-in-law murdered her father, published on November 25, 1885
The Sun’s story on Emmie (referred to as Emily) revealing that her sister and brother-in-law murdered her father, published on November 25, 1885. At the time the story was printed, it was not yet known that she acted as Dorsey’s lookout during the shooting. Library of Congress

Maria recounted how Allen had hissed that he’d been duped into marrying her and was now ruined as a result. He threatened to divorce her. Maria had been mortified at the thought of divorce and desperate to please her husband. She’d begged her father to pay the dowry, but he ignored her pleas.

As the start of the academic semester had approached, Allen had become more frantic, relentlessly pressing Maria for other means of obtaining the money. Having already begged, borrowed and perhaps even stolen from friends and family, Maria was at a loss as to where to get more money. Teetering on the brink of madness herself, Maria had blurted out that she’d once overheard her father discussing the purchase of a substantial life insurance policy with her mother. She’d told Allen she thought the policy could be found in the safe in her father’s office. That disclosure would seal Burton’s fate. 

Maria insisted that she had only mentioned the existence of the life insurance as a means of appeasing Allen and giving her more time to convince her father to pay the dowry. She felt certain that her father would capitulate and give Allen the dowry in time for him to return to medical school. When it became clear to her during the argument with her father the week before his death that he was not going to give them a dime of his money, she could no longer keep Allen at bay. Allen began plotting to kill her father. Maria pleaded with him not to do it. Allen called her “chicken-hearted.”

She continued her confession by stating that on the morning of October 6, Allen had announced to Maria and Emmie that he had waited long enough. He retrieved Burton’s gun from his bureau, ordered Maria to go to a neighbor’s house, and instructed Emmie to act as the lookout. Burton sat eating a sweet roll at his kitchen table while Allen quietly tiptoed down the stairs in his stocking feet. Entering the kitchen, Allen stood behind Burton, aimed the pistol at Burton’s head, and pulled the trigger. 

The impact of the bullet caused Burton to fall to the floor. To Allen’s horror, Burton was still alive, so he fired a second shot into Burton’s chest.

When Maria returned to the house, she asked Allen and Emmie if her father was dead. Allen responded that he wasn’t sure, so he was considering shooting him again. Maria flung herself on her father’s body and embraced him. She informed Allen that he was not going to shoot her father again, before rising and running out of the house screaming for help.

Maria concluded her statement by swearing that she’d never believed her husband would kill her father. When Galvin stopped writing, he placed his pen in Maria’s hand; after she signed the confession, he added his signature.

And did the life insurance policy that drove Allen to murder exist? Yes. However, when Allen removed the policy from Burton’s safe after his death, he discovered that it had lapsed and was worthless. Emmie would later describe Allen and Maria’s reaction to this news by saying, “Their disappointment was terrible.”

Allen’s decision to include Emmie in his murder plans, and to trust that she would keep it a secret, is one of the unanswered mysteries that still surrounds this case. Emmie spent a lot of time alone with the Dorseys, which may have created an especially strong bond with her brother-in-law. Or, as at least one newspaper suggested, it’s possible Allen and Emmie shared an “undue intimacy” that was “not strictly honorable.” Emmie and Maria both testified to Allen’s fierce temper, so perhaps she was just afraid of him. In any event, Allen’s decision to include Emmie in Burton’s murder ultimately led to his downfall.

Allen Dorsey’s last stand

When the trial resumed in the morning, a humiliated but defiant Sheffield did his best to save his remaining client, Allen Dorsey. He demanded Maria’s confession be thrown out on the grounds that she could not testify against her spouse. While this argument was technically correct with regard to spousal immunity, Galvin countered that Maria’s pastor was not prohibited from testifying about hearing her confession.

Quickly changing course, Sheffield demanded that Allen be tried separately from Maria. Rejecting his impassioned plea, the court ordered the trial to proceed with Allen and Maria as co-defendants. A defeated Sheffield slowly lowered himself into his chair and announced that the defense would rest its case without presenting any evidence or further argument. Allen sat next to his attorney calmly cleaning his nails with a penknife. 

The jury received their instructions and left the courtroom to deliberate. To pass the time, Allen sat quietly at the defense table, with his back to his wife, nonchalantly flipping through a New York newspaper, searching for articles about the trial.

When the jury returned, it rendered guilty verdicts for both Allen and Maria Dorsey, and they were each sentenced to life in the state prison.

The morning after his conviction, Allen confessed to his jailer that he had killed Burton. But he insisted that they’d gotten his motive wrong, saying, “What my controlling motive was no living person knows and never will. That shall go with me a secret to my grave. But it wasn’t money.”

Emmie, who had also been sentenced to life in prison for her role in Burton’s murder, died in the prison infirmary from consumption six months later. When no one claimed her body, Galvin offered to bear the expense of bringing Emmie’s body back to Newport to be buried next to her father. When this effort failed, due to the condition of her corpse, she was buried in the state prison cemetery. 

“What my controlling motive was no living person knows and never will. That shall go with me a secret to my grave.”

Maria’s baby was removed from her care shortly after her conviction and adopted by a Newport family. After learning that the family had changed her baby’s name and moved to New York City, Maria proclaimed death could not come soon enough. She would only have to wait two years before she also died from consumption. 

When Allen was informed that his wife was dying, he requested permission from the warden to visit her for the first time since their incarceration. After a brusque kiss on Maria’s lips, Allen revealed that he was not there to say goodbye or make amends—he was there to ask a favor. He wanted Maria to sign a document taking full blame for her father’s death, so that he could apply for a pardon. To his surprise, she not-so-politely declined.

True to form, Allen had a backup plan. He contacted his favorite reporter and announced that he was now ready to tell the world his true motive for the murder. According to Allen, Burton had been “criminally intimate” with Maria. When the interview was published, his claim of incest was met with public scorn and denunciation.

Not only had Allen misjudged the public reaction—he’d also sorely miscalculated Maria’s ability or willingness to respond to his outrageous claim. From her sickbed, Maria responded with a vengeance, sending Allen and the newspapers a scathing letter decrying his baseness. The letter was published in the papers the following day. She also provided copies of prior correspondence by Allen that directly refuted his salacious claim.

Allen Dorsey remained in prison for more than 25 years; by all accounts, he was a model prisoner throughout the term of his incarceration. After several unsuccessful attempts, he finally received a pardon in 1912. He eventually moved to New York City, where he worked as a waiter until he passed away in 1918 at the age of 60. He is buried in a potter’s field.

Allen and Maria’s son, Earnest Young, moved to Virginia after the death of his adoptive parents and lived to the ripe old age of 83. He never married and had no children. He was the last known direct descendent of Burton, the trailblazing entrepreneur once thought to be the wealthiest Black businessman in Rhode Island.

Sharing a friendship since childhood, Nancy Markey and Kay Adams have teamed up to write a historical fiction novel dramatizing the events surrounding the murder of Benjamin J. Burton. They also are creating a nonfiction collection of essays featuring crimes that shocked Gilded Age Newport. Visit their website at

This article is republished from Narratively, a storytelling platform that celebrates the diversity of humanity. Read the original article.

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