The Suspicious Death of Philip Wendel Boyce (Maine)

During the winter of 1941, the death of a man found in a downtown Portland, Maine alleyway left investigators divided by two very different theories: Was it an accident or was it murder?

Every once in a while, I like to go way, way back and unearth cases that might otherwise be lost with time. Given its age and the circumstances you’re about to hear, it’s unlikely that any investigative resources will be devoted to this case ever again…But that’s exactly the kind of story that deserves to be told.

February 16, 1941

Around 2 a.m. on Sunday, February 16, 1941, a tenant of the Metropolitan Apartments at 439 Congress Street in downtown Portland, Maine stepped outside into the harsh winter air with his dog, who was in need of a middle of the night potty break. As they rounded the corner to walk down an alley behind the building that led to Elm Street, they stopped short at the sight of a man laying in their path. It looked like he might have been sleeping or passed out. The man walking his dog would later say he suspected that the guy on the ground was intoxicated and had fallen down on the icy path, so he called Portland Police.

Portland Police Captain Harold Maguire arrived at the scene within 15 minutes but no sooner did he give the man on the ground a once-over did he realize that this guy was not passed out, he was in fact, deceased. When the medical examiner, Dr. Wilber Leighton arrived, his first assessment was that the man couldn’t have been dead long, maybe an hour at most.

He was lying on his back about two feet from a brick structural column in the covered alleyway behind the Metropolitan Apartment building. He was about a foot from a fence that separated the alley where he was laying from another lower path along the back perimeter of Portland High School. I’ll include a map at so you can visualize the scene.

Now, the man’s left leg was crossed over his right leg with his left arm outstretched and his right at his side. He had blood coming from his right ear and a pool of it collected beneath him. His clothing didn’t appear to be ripped or amiss in any way, but his coat was slightly rolled up beneath him and the leather on the heel of one of his shoes was scuffed.

As the area was secured and a team of local police officers began to take photographs and measurements, a police inspector took the victim’s fingerprints and later checked with cards on file with the Portland Police Department. The man found dead in the alleyway was 24-year old Philip Wendel Boyce.

About Philip Wendel Boyce

I contacted a number of agencies as part of my research on this case, including the Portland Police Department, the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office and Maine State Police. These days, Portland Police handle their own unattended or suspicious death and homicide investigations. Portland is one of only two cities in Maine where Maine State Police doesn’t have jurisdiction over potential homicide investigations. Bangor is the other city where local PD handle their own cases. So, I assumed if any records about this case still existed, the most likely place to start would be Portland PD, but I sent off FOAA requests to the other agencies as well, just in case.

The officials I worked with at the Portland City Clerk’s office were very prompt in responding to my request, but unfortunately, a check of the physical card file didn’t turn up any cases under the name Philip Wendel Boyce. It’s unclear if the file was lost or if it had been destroyed at some point. There was just no record of that case in the Portland PD file system. So, dead end there. And no luck with the Sheriff’s Office either. They don’t retain records of that vintage, nor was it likely that agency assisted in the investigation.

Although it wouldn’t have been typical for Maine State Police to assist in a Portland case of this nature, some source material indicates that State Police did offer specific resources to the investigation. I requested any existing case documents from Maine State Police, however, their records only date back to the 50s, so we’re one decade short of seeing a case file from that agency.

With that, much of the information I have about Philip’s case comes from the archives of local newspapers at the time. It always amazes me how much investigators were willing to share with journalists back then in contrast to the crumbs we’re given about cases today. But of course, a lot has changed since then, period. Protecting the integrity of an investigation by not divulging every update and development to the public seems to be a more contemporary concept, and an important one, despite the frustrations it can cause…But knowing that the original case file was lost with time, I’m grateful the journalists who came before me did get investigators talking. It’s the only record of Philip’s case we’ve got now.

Philip Wendel Boyce was born November 5, 1916 and grew up on Orr’s Island in Harpswell, Maine with his mother, father, and three siblings. He later attended Portland High School and after graduation he worked as a machinist in South Portland for about six years. Philip had a few run-ins with the law during his adult life. According to the police court column in the Portland Evening Express, in 1939, Philip was arrested for breaking and entering with intent to steal and received probation for that offense. In April of 1940, he was arrested for attempting to steal a car. So that would explain why his prints were on file with the Portland Police Department.

Philip had been living in Portland with the family of his wife, 16-year old Louise Nickerson, at their home on St. Lawrence Street in a neighborhood known as Munjoy Hill. Philip and Louise were married just five months earlier and she was due to give birth to their first child any day. I get the sense that the circumstances of Philip and Louise’s relationship were complex, and we don’t have a full picture here, but when police went to notify Louise of Philip’s death, she explained that the last time she saw her husband was about a month earlier. Philip gave her $4.50 and left. Louise hadn’t seen him since and she didn’t know where he’d been or who he was with on the night he died.

Early Investigation

The investigation into Philip’s suspicious death started from nothing. Portland Police processed the scene in the alley behind the apartment building, photographing the spot where Philip’s body lay in a pool of blood and measuring the distances from the brick column to the iron fence to the victim’s body, trying to make sense of what happened there.

Philip was still wearing a gold wrist watch and had about $18 and change on him, so police quickly ruled out the motive of robbery. Investigators also found a small glass liquor bottle in one of Philip’s pockets, completely intact without a crack to speak of. There were no obvious signs to suggest that a fight or struggle had preceded Philip’s death, and there was nothing that resembled a weapon at the scene either. However, police did find a small red handkerchief laying on a stone step five feet away from Philip’s head and that was collected as evidence.

The autopsy performed by Dr. Leighton noted that Philip had visible scratches on his hands, a cut on his lip, a swollen left eye, and a scratch on his right shoulder. One or two of his teeth were loose, as if he’d been hit in the mouth. Additional toxicology tests performed at Maine General Hospital indicated that Philip had significant levels of alcohol in his bloodstream and brain, leading the pathologist to believe Philip was intoxicated at the time of his death.

Dr. Leighton determined that Philip’s skull was fractured in several places, including the back of his head, which ultimately caused his death. He estimated Philip’s time of death to be between midnight and 2 a.m. However, the medical examiner could not conclusively determine exactly what caused his injuries, only that Philip suffered a blow or blows of “terrific force”.

Although the medical examiner couldn’t yet make a call as to Philip’s manner of death, county prosecutor Albert Knudsen suspected that Philip’s death was the result of violence inflicted by another person. Knudsen ordered a full and thorough investigation of Philip’s suspicious death.

Philip Wendel Boyce’s story continues on Dark Downeast. Press play wherever you get your podcasts.

Episode Source Material

  • Police Court: Philip W. Boyce, Portland Evening Express, 16 Oct 1939
  • Police Court: Philip W. Boyce, Portland Press Herald, 10 Jan 1940
  • Police Court: Philip W. Boyce, Portland Evening Express, 01 Apr 1940
  • Police question twenty persons in death mystery, AP via Bath Daily Times, 17 Feb 1941
  • Local machinist is victim of blow on skull, Portland Press Herald, 17 Feb 1941
  • Body of Portland machinist found in alley near hotel, AP via Daily Kennebec Journal, 17 Feb 1941
  • County attorney suspects violence in Portland death, AP via Bangor Daily News, 17 Feb 1941
  • Police lack clues in Boyce’s death, Portland Evening Express, 17 Feb 1941
  • Police remain without clues in Boyce’s death, Portland Evening Express, 18 Feb 1941
  • Police report little progress in Boyce case, Bangor Daily News, 18 Feb 1941
  • New witness in Boyce case may aid probe by Charles M. Maxwell, Portland Evening Express, 19 Feb 1941
  • Boyce may have fallen to death from iron fence, AP via Bangor Daily News, 19 Feb 1941
  • Boyce death possibly accidental, Portland Press Herald, 19 Feb 1941
  • Philip Boyce funeral announcement, Brunswick Record, 20 Feb 1941
  • Laboratory tests point to fall by P.W. Boyce, AP via Lewiston Daily Sun, 20 Feb 1941
  • Boyce death probe awaits examination, Portland Press Herald, 21 Feb 1941
  • Girl’s story no help in probe of Boyce’s death, Portland Evening Express, 21 Feb 1941
  • New witness upsets Boyce death probe by Charles M. Maxwell, Portland Evening Express, 22 Feb 1941
  • Laboratory may furnish Boyce clue, Portland Press Herald, 23 Feb 1941
  • Leighton busy, Boyce death inquiry delayed, Portland Evening Express, 24 Feb 1941
  • Boyce case probe shifts to Boston, Portland Evening Express, 25 Feb 1941
  • Officials will confer with Leary today, Portland Press Herald, 25 Feb 1941
  • Boyce died of fall, Leary believes, Portland Press Herald, 26 Feb 1941
  • Woman tenant tells of seeing man near alley death scene by Charles M. Maxwell, Portland Evening Express, 26 Feb 1941
  • Birth announcement: Philip Boyce Jr. Portland Evening Express, 27 Feb 1941
  • Post cards hint possible clue in Boyce death, Portland Evening Express, 28 Feb 1941
  • Boyce death may be added to list of unsolved cases by Charles M. Maxwell, 07 Mar 1941
  • Confesses to slaying but story doubted, AP via Bath Daily Times, 17 Apr 1941
  • Police discredit Calais man’s confession in Boyce case, Portland Evening Express, 17 Apr 1941
  • Portland police doubt man picked up here is slayer, AP via Lewiston Daily Sun, 17 Apr 1941
  • Man admits, then denies killing Boyce, Portland Press Herald, 17 Apr 1941
  • Justice lashes appeals of cases by ‘clearly guilty’, Portland Evening Express, 17 May 1941
  • Unsolved county murders of 3 decades seem likely to stay that way forever by Waldo E. Pray, Portland Evening Express, 02 Jan 1960
  • Philip Boyce Jr. wedding announcement, Portland Evening Express, 12 Aug 1963