Saturday, February 13, 2016

Little Conestoga Creek.

The discovery of the murdered body of Mrs. Mary Dellinger led to the very public airing of her family’s dirty laundry. Calvin Dellinger was a philanderer, an abusive husband, and a sadistic father, but was he a killer as well?

Date:  October 4, 1888

Location:   Lancaster, Pennsylvania

Victim:  Mary C. Dellinger

Cause of Death:  Drowning

Accused:   Calvin M. Dellinger

A team of railroad men heading to work on a handcar on Friday, October 5, 1888 spotted something strange under a bridge across Little Conestoga Creek, near Lancaster, Pennsylvania. One of the men climbed down the steep bank for a closer look and found the body of a young woman. Her clothing was torn and her hair disheveled, and the ground around her showed signs of a struggle. Strewn around the body were a white straw hat trimmed with ribbon and bunting, a brown ladies handkerchief, seven buttons torn from her jersey, and a horseshoe shaped breast pin.

The woman was just over five feet tall, with a slender but shapely form. The upper portion of her clothing was wet while the lower was dry, suggesting that someone had held her head under the water. She was found on land farmed by John Gamber, and he took her body by wagon the dead house of the County Hospital. An examination of the body revealed that she had drowned.

Inside the hat found at the scene was written the name C. M. Dellinger. From this, the body was identified as Mary Dellinger, the 18-year-old wife of Calvin M. Dellinger, a tenant farmer. They lived on Fruitville Pike with their 13-month-old daughter. When he heard the news, Mr. Dellinger hurried to the County Hospital and wept bitterly over his wife’s body.

Dellinger explained to the police that he had not seen his wife since Tuesday when she left the house to go shopping and did not return. She was still missing on Thursday, and Dellinger went into Lancaster to see if she was at the home of her father, Isaac Aston. Aston told him that Mary had stayed there Wednesday night, but had returned home that morning. Dellinger went back home only to find that Mary had been home, taken some clothing for the baby and her watch, and left again. Once more Dellinger went into Lancaster and searched for his wife, unsuccessfully, until 11:00 Thursday night. Mary was reportedly seen Thursday evening in the company of an unknown man.

When the friends and family of Mary Dellinger were questioned, the police learned that there was more to the story of her disappearance. Calvin Dellinger was a serious wife beater who took any opportunity to abuse his Mary. He also tortured their baby; he hit her when she cried, would press the hot chimney of an oil lamp against the baby’s face, and once held out a hot poker for her to grab. When his wife tried to interfere, he would turn his wrath on her. Mary could not take it anymore and on Tuesday, October 2, she decided to leave her husband.

She told him she was going to the grocery store, but went instead to her brother’s house in Conestoga Centre. She stayed there Tuesday night, then on Wednesday he took her to her father’s house in Lancaster. On Thursday she stopped at the home of a friend, then went back home. She entered the house by forcing open the shutters, then gathered up some baby clothes and other small items. As she was leaving, she saw her husband approaching and ran to a neighbor’s house and hid there until he left again. She told her story at every stop, but it is not clear where she went from there or where the baby was during this time.

Mary Aston was not Calvin Dellinger’s first wife. That marriage had ended in divorce the previous summer, just before he married Mary. The first Mrs. Dellinger was reluctant to speak of her husband, saying that her thoughts were now centered on her own family, but when she started talking she added another dimension to the story. She said their marriage had been happy until Dellinger met Mary Aston, then he became abusive and had once threatened to shoot her. He met Mary at a Sunday school picnic and she had asked him to take her home, after that they would meet on the sly. His wife found some letters Mary had written to him, proposing that they run off and get married. She also found Mary’s picture in Dellinger’s hat. When she confronted her husband he said he loved Mary and was planning to marry her.

When Mary became pregnant and threatened to bring a paternity suit against him, Mrs. Dellinger divorced her husband. But Dellinger and Mary did not immediately get married, and in spite of the divorce he and his ex-wife were trying to settle their differences and live together again. He told her that Mary had agreed to drop the suit if she was paid $125. She gave Dellinger the money, thinking the matter was resolved, but three days later Dellinger married Mary Aston. He had used the money to buy a stage route between Lancaster and Conestoga. 

The first Mrs. Dellinger referred to Mary Aston as a “loose character.” After the marriage she met with Mary who told her that Dellinger was not the father of her child. The real father was a school teacher in Conestoga and she planned to run off with him as soon as she could make the arrangements.

Calvin Dellinger was rapidly becoming the prime suspect in Mary’s murder. In his house, the police found a suit of clothes saturated with water, as well as several rings believed to have been taken off Mary’s body. The breastpin found at the murder scene was known to have belonged to Mr. Dellinger. That evidence, together with Dellinger’s history of abuse, led to his arrest for his wife’s murder. But it could not be proven that Dellinger wore the pin the day of the murder and the footprints at the scene of the murder were not made by Dellinger’s shoes. Though the police were convinced of Dellinger’s guilt, he was released due to lack of evidence. 

Upon his release, Dellinger announced that he was offering a $200 reward for information leading to the arrest of his wife’s killer. but most people in town still believed that Dellinger himself was guilty of the murder. Though it was reported that the police were no longer investigating, the county had brought in a Pinkerton detective named James Nevins to go over the evidence more thoroughly. It was not specified exactly what he found, but on November 7, Calvin Dellinger was re-arrested.

Trial: March 7, 1889

In addition to the somewhat thin circumstantial evidence against Dellinger, the prosecution questioned many friends and family members of Mary Dellinger, who testified to Calvin Dellinger’s abuse of his wife and the animosity that existed between them. The testimony of Mary’s father Isaac Aston, succinctly sums up the situation:
My daughter’s eyes were blackened and she was bruised several times and Dellinger admitted that he had caused it; frequently when Dellinger had quarrels with his wife she was afraid to go with him and he said she had to go with him, that he feared neither hell, Heaven, or the gallows.
The most damning testimony concerning the murder came from Mrs. Susan Shrenk who had been riding home from work in a carriage the evening of October 4 and had passed Calvin Dellinger and his wife going down Fruitville pike and had heard them arguing. This contradicted Dellinger’s story that he had not seen his wife after Tuesday and had been in Lancaster on October 4.

Dellinger’s attorney reminded the jury that his client was charged with the murder of Mary Dellinger, not beating or abusing her. He raised the possibility that Mary had committed suicide and he challenged Mrs. Shrenk’s testimony because it was different from what she testified to at the inquest. 

The jury deliberated for twenty-four hours before sending a note to the judge saying that they were hopelessly deadlocked at six for conviction and six for acquittal. The judge would not accept this and told them to continue deliberating until they all agreed. After another twenty-six hours they reached a compromise and found Dellinger guilty of second-degree murder.

Verdict: Guilty of second-degree murder


The verdict came as a surprise the public who generally believed that Dellinger was either guilty of a capital crime or not guilty at all. He was sentenced to ten years at the Eastern Penitentiary.

Calvin Dellinger was released from prison in February 1897, after serving nearly eight years, and immediately got himself into trouble again. He was out less than a week before he went to his first wife seeking reconciliation. She refused to have anything to do with him and he was arrested for threatening to kill her.


"Arrest of the Husband." Philadelphia Inquirer 8 Oct 1888.
"Dellinger Found Guilty." Reading Times 15 Mar 1889.
"Dellinger Re-arrested." Patriot 1 Nov 1888.
"Did He Kill His Young Wife?." Patriot 8 Oct 1888.
"Feared Wife Murderer." Daily Times 27 Feb 1897.
"Ten Years for Killing his Wife." The Belvidere Standard 3 Apr 1889.
"The Conestoga Mystery.." Patriot 8 Mar 1889.
"The Dellinger Murder." Lancaster Daily Intelligencer 9 Mar 1889.
"The Supposed Wife Murderer Released." Evening Star 18 Oct 1888.
"Was She Murdered ?." The Lancaster Weekly Examiner 10 Oct 1888.
"Woman Found Murdered ." Philadelphia Inquirer 6 Oct 1888.


Clare, Israel Smith. A Brief History of Lancaster County. Lancaster, PA: 1892.


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