Anne “Nancy” Payson Holt: Murder on Falmouth Foreside

Anne Carroll Payson Holt, better known as Nancy, was almost 80-years old, but not quite yet. Her milestone birthday and the fancy gala planned in her honor was still a few days away in early October of 1976. It would’ve been everything Nancy loved; an entire celebration in her name attended by people she loved most, with the beam of a metaphorical spotlight warm on her face.

But Nancy never saw a day past 79. On October 5, 1976, the safety of her secluded Falmouth Foreside estate was violated by intruders seeking electronics. Before they fled the dirt drive of Thornhurst Road though, they stole more than a television. They stole Nancy’s life.

Nancy’s granddaughter, Anne Fowler, is on Dark Downeast to tell her grandmother’s story. Anne gives a glimpse into the life of a woman from one of Portland, Maine’s most well-known families, she shares how her family navigated a very public investigation and trial, and offers her unique reflections on what she believes Nancy would’ve thought about her manner of death.

The Night Of

It was dark on Thornhurst Road, the damp air of a seaside October night quiet except for the distant crashing of waves against a stone beach on Bartlett Point. The stretch of family land curved around one of Casco Bay’s many coves, and the secluded Falmouth Foreside acreage had long been a sanctuary for many a Payson, past and present.

The rhythmic beating of water on rock was interrupted that night by the sound of tires on dirt. A sedan was making its way down the private drive with six people crammed into the cab – three men and three women. They’d been joyriding around the Portland area, passing around a bottle of coffee brandy, when an idea struck.

One of the women in the car worked for a wealthy older lady helping out with the ironing on occasion. The lady had some antiques in the house, probably worth a lot of money. How the scheme truly unfolded is known only to the occupants of that vehicle, and where they thought they put stolen antiques in a car already packed above capacity apparently wasn’t a consideration as they followed Veranda Street towards Falmouth, veering onto the Foreside.

Somewhere between swigs of sugary-sweet brown liquor, they found themselves pulling into the driveway of 40 Thornhurst Road around 11:30 p.m. on October 5, 1976. The three women waited in the car as the men, with a tire iron in hand, walked behind the home of Anne Payson Holt.

About Anne “Nancy” Carroll Payson Holt

Anne Payson, who was always known by her nickname Nancy, was born October 14, 1896. If you’re from Maine, or even from away, the Payson name may ring a bell. In many of the news articles about her murder, Nancy is referred to as the sister-in-law of the late Joan Whitney Payson, who was once the owner of the New York Mets, as if that association alone is what made her lineage impressive. But Nancy’s family line on her mother’s side has even deeper roots here in Maine.

I sat down with Anne Fowler, Nancy’s granddaughter, at her home in Portland. She was generous with her time and memories, introducing me to her grandmother and family history as we sat together in her study on a rainy summer morning.

Anne told me that her grandmother’s great-great-grandfather on her mother’s side was John Bundy Brown. J.B. Brown was an influential figure in 19th century Portland, involved in industries such as rum, sugar, and real estate. Anne noted that while he did not own slaves, he was complicit in the events of that time.

J.B. Brown was recognized as Maine’s wealthiest resident and Portland’s largest landowner of the time, including over 400 acres of land to his name on the West End of Portland’s peninsula. He built his own home there, an impressive mansion known as Bramhall, though it was torn down in 1915.

Nancy grew up in that same neighborhood, the West End, in a house on Bowdoin Street. Her family also had a summer compound on the prestigious and exclusive Falmouth Foreside.

Though not far from Portland, the Falmouth Foreside would’ve provided a contrast in scenery. Bowdoin Street in Portland’s West End neighborhood is lined with large stately brick homes and the Shingle Style abodes designed by notable Portland area architect John Calvin Stevens. It’s a “city” neighborhood, as city as Portland could get both then and now.

Just 8 miles away at the family summer home in Falmouth, the landscape changes from the city feel to a lush coastal haven. Anne told me that at one time, all the land from the Martin’s Point Bridge at the Presumpscot River to Waites Landing belonged to members of her family, about a three mile stretch as the crow flies. It was parceled off long ago and developed into smaller neighborhoods with modest homes on carefully planned streets splintering off of Route 1, but the further you get from Portland, those neighborhoods thin out.

If you veer right onto Foreside Road before entering Falmouth’s commercial district with its fast food restaurants and supermarkets, you’ll find yourself traveling along some of the most coveted acreage in Cumberland County. Today, homes on the oceanfront property sell into the multiple millions, if they ever hit the market at all. Many of the roads leading to those waterfront views are gated, with wooden signs informing any looky-loos that these are Private. It makes it all the more tempting to turn down one of the pine-flanked dirt drives to see what’s hidden beyond.

One of those gated roads is Thornhurst Road, and at the very end of Thornhurst on Bartlett Point once sat the Payson family summer home, a big Victorian right on the water.

Nancy spent the summers of her youth at Thornhurst on Falmouth Foreside. Anne doesn’t know much about her grandmother’s childhood. She knows Nancy had five siblings and that she liked to ride horses, and that when Nancy finished high school at Waynflete, a private school also located in the West End, she went off to college.

“She went to first to Vassar and got expelled for spending too many weekends at West Point,” Anne laughed, ”And then she went to Radcliffe for a while and studied playwriting with, I think, Eugene O’Neill may have been there at that time.”

Her love of theater and the dramatics flourished in college. She later went on to direct plays for children and act in repertory theater. She never shied away from any chance at the spotlight.

“She considered herself a radical and in some ways she was, I mean, she was adventurous,” Anne continued, “And then somehow I think rather unfortunately, she met my grandfather and married him. I’m sure he was very good looking. He was older, I’m sure he cut a dashing figure.”

Nancy married then-Lieutenant Benjamin Holt. They later moved to Cleveland where Nancy’s youngest brother lived. Benjamin practiced law there, but as Nancy recalls, “I’m not sure how much of a living my grandfather ever actually made,” Anne told me.

And so Nancy worked, too.

“My grandmother wrote and read radio plays for a while. And she worked in a children’s bookstore,” Anne reflected, “But it was a not a usual thing for a woman of her class and upbringing to work. But she, either she wanted to or she had to because my grandfather was never much of a moneymaker.”

While living in Cleveland, Nancy and Benjamin welcomed their daughter, Anne’s mother. Nancy later gave birth to a son, but he passed away as a young child. The trauma of that loss stayed with her, however composed on the surface she later seemed.

Nancy and her family moved to New York City in 1932 where Nancy’s husband continued to practice law. They always returned to Maine for the summer though, the family compound at Thornhurst beckoned.

Then in the 40s, Nancy’s father gifted his children property to build their own homes. Nancy’s 6 acre plot was just up the dirt drive from the big family Victorian on Thornhurst Road, and that’s where she would design and build her own summer home on the Falmouth Foreside.

Thornhurst Road

Anne Fowler told her grandmother’s story in a collection of poems published in her book titled The Case of the Restless Redhead. She gave me a copy as I prepared for our interview – it’s now dogeared and tabbed and filled with my notes. It was a very different experience – a deeper, richer one – learning about Nancy’s case in this poetic format.

In her poem, Hybrid Teas, Anne describes Nancy’s home on Thornhurst Road. The second stanza begins:

She designs it: long pine-paneled living room, azure cathedral ceiling, French doors overlooking the Bay.

The house was a sight to behold. The architecture made perfect sense in the setting, but it was very obviously not just any-old-house. A version of it, numerous French doors included, still stands today. The shingles have since been swapped out for new material and the red shutters with the pine tree cutouts are missing, among other updates and aesthetic changes, but it’s still very much recognizable as the home Nancy lovingly designed.

In 1945, the house built as a summer home actually became Nancy and her family’s full-time residence. Anne told me that a sexual misconduct scandal got Mr. Holt kicked out of his law firm, sending the family back to Maine for good.

Back in Falmouth on the shores of Casco Bay where she once played as a little girl, now a grown woman with a child of her own, Nancy put down roots and poured into the community. She became quite the woman about town. Many news articles at the time dubbed her a socialite. Meanwhile, her husband became a so-called gentleman farmer.

“Once they were here in the 50s, she became the sort of grand dame of Falmouth, and to some degree Portland…And it was decided that my grandfather would become a gentleman farmer, so there were some bulls and cows always in the field across from my grandmother’s house.”

Nancy’s grand dame of Falmouth era was about the time that Anne’s most vivid memories of her grandmother formed.

“She would call my mother and say, ‘well, this bull is looking through my French doors in my bedroom.’ And she became, because of this sort of facade of an occupation for my grandfather, she became involved in the United Country Women of the World, whatever that is, and became ultimately the president of it,” Anne told me, “And I think that before she died, she was planning to go to Australia at the age of 80 to convention of the United Country Women of the World.”

Anne smiled as she reflected on her grandmother’s best and most memorable qualities. Nancy was seen as performative and she was always beautifully put together. She was also known for her generosity. Anne also said that Nancy was a woman of great faith, an intellectual with a curious mind, and a lifelong learner. Anne remembers her grandmother as loving, a skilled storyteller, and wise.

But Nancy’s life was not without trauma or darkness, “She had suffered. I know I didn’t really know it when she was alive,” Anne shared.

Losing a child. Her husband’s scandals. It all stayed with Nancy.

“She was a mistress of denial. That’s one thing,” Anne shared, “I think she always really loved my grandfather on some level, but it was her misfortune to be married to somebody who was not her equal.”

But Nancy’s life was about to begin anew as she approached her 80th birthday in October of 1976. Age was truly just a number for her. She was planning that trip to Australia with one of the many organizations she was part of, and her husband had recently moved to a nursing home.

“So she was free,” Anne said. “I mean, she was starting a new phase of her life and didn’t get to live much of it at all.

In October of 1976, Anne Fowler was living in Belmont, Massachusetts with her 3-year old daughter, and was teaching part-time while working on her doctorate in English. She came back to Maine as often as she could, and she remained close to her grandmother, her namesake, but it was a challenging time.

“I was just a single parent and without any contact at all with my daughter’s father. So money was an issue. Granny was paying my health insurance and she was very generous to me. I mean, we both loved shopping and clothes and my mother didn’t want anything to do with that. And so, and my mother said once, ‘Of course I’m jealous. You are the daughter my mother always wanted.”

Anne remembers the last conversation she had with Nancy.

“I was close to my grandmother and the last conversation I had with her she was planning to have a fancy 80th birthday party and we talked about that. I was gonna come up for it, “ Anne continued, “And I told her that I had changed my name back to my maiden name and then I had changed my daughter’s name so she knew that that name was carried on in the family.”

In Anne’s book of poems, she describes that final phone call in her piece titled Last Call. The third stanza reads:

I have dialed it back thirty years – my brick and board bookshelves, late afternoon light, west-facing windows. But did she call me Pet as always? Did I say, I love you?

October 5 & 6, 1976

Anne learned the details of what happened inside her grandmother’s home on the night of her murder at trial and from court documents that she studied while writing her book.

The three men cased the outside of the house, locating a ground floor window that opened into Nancy’s bathroom. They shattered the glass with the tire iron and hoisted themselves inside.

“And then I think my grandmother must have heard them, and so she called out or something and that’s when two of them at least came into the bedroom.”

The men moved between Nancy’s bedroom and the living room, causing a commotion. Nancy’s live-in housekeeper, Glenda, heard voices and then moments later, gunshots. She clambered down the stairs from her living quarters on the other end of the house. Glenda later reported seeing several people in the living room, but she did not run to Nancy’s aid. She quickly ascended the stairs and locked herself in her room before making two phone calls, first to her sister and then finally, Glenda called the police.

Lt. David Kloth of the Falmouth Police Department was on patrol in the area and responded to the call. He arrived a short time later, and according to court records, Lt. Kloth actually passed a speeding vehicle, a full-sized sedan, leaving the Holt house. He only managed to glimpse the first three digits of the license plate. 6-2-0. He broadcast the vehicle description over the statewide channel from his cruiser.

The officer called for an ambulance and emergency crews arrived quickly. Mrs. Holt was transported to Maine Medical Center. She had suffered several gunshot wounds, with one to her eye. Four hours later in the early morning of October 6, 1976, she succumbed to her injuries. The beloved Mrs. Anne “Nancy” Payson Holt, only days away from her 80th birthday, was murdered.

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