On September 3, 1923, a chiropractor named Fred Covell received a frantic telephone call from his brother. All that Arthur Covell said on the phone was, "something terrible has happened to Ebba" and that Fred needed to come home as quickly as possible. Based on that call, Fred rushed home to the large house in Brandon, Oregon that he shared with his wife Ebba, his two children from a previous marriage, the three young children that he and Ebba had together, and his brother Arthur who lived on the top floor. On returning home, Fred found his wife's body lying in the bed they shared. Though he saw the bruises on Ebba's face, he apparently thought no more of it and arranged for her body to be taken to a local mortuary with a funeral to be held the following day. It was only when Justice of the Peace J.L. Radley went to the mortuary and investigated Ebba's body for himself that police were called. And so would begin what would be one of the most bizarre murder cases in Oregon's history.
During the investigation, police examined the odd bruises on Ebba's head and also found a strange reddish mark running from her upper lip and across her cheek. They also found that her neck appeared disjointed, as if it had been twisted by powerful hands. As a result, they then turned to Fred Covell as their most likely suspect in Ebba's murder, largely because he appeared strong enough to strangle his wife (the presumed cause of her death). It likely didn't help that he was sullen and uncooperative when police tried questioning him.
The only other possible suspects were Fred's fifteen-year-old son Alton and his brother Arthur, both of whom admitted being in the house when Ebba died. Though Arthur and Ebba had openly hated one another, he still had the best alibi of all. Since he had been paralyzed in a truck accident years. Arthur was largely confined to his bedroom. Though he had a reputation of being rather peculiar given his fascination with astrology (he had a lucrative mail-order astrology business) and local reputation for being a seer, police didn't take him seriously as a suspect. There didn't seem any possibility that he could have committed murder since he needed strong crutches just to walk a few steps. As for Alton Covell, his history of intellectual impairments and lack of any animosity against his stepmother caused police to dismiss him as a suspect.
Though the actual evidence against Fred Covell was slim at best (if you didn't count neighbourhood gossip about their frequent quarrels), he was promptly arrested. Fred wasn't in jail for long however after a coroner ruled out any possibility that Ebba had been strangled. He also found burn marks on her face which he concluded had been caused by someone smothering her with a cloth dipped in ammonia. The case was broken wide open after police search Arthur Covell's room and found a journal containing entries in a special code Arthur had devised. It took them a while to break the code, but police then had what amounted to a full confession. It also included notations such as, "today is the day. I wonder if Alton will go through with it. "
But Arthur had more grandiose plans than just ridding himself of his hated sister-in-law. Guided by astrology, he also intended to have Alton carry out dozens of other murders in the Bandon area. Seeing himself as having a perfect alibi due to his paralysis, Arthur planned to use his mail-order business to swindle people out of their money (or else change their wills to make him the beneficiary). He would then send Alton to dispatch his victims and burn their homes to hide any evidence. “The plans of Arthur Covell were so minutely detailed that they even called for the removal of windows and doors before the home of the victim was burned,” said Bandon Detective Luke S. May after Arthur’s arrest. “The stolen articles were to be used in a home the Covells planned to build.”
With this information in hand police then questioned Lucille Covell, Fred's daughter, who had also been in the house and who had apparently overheard Arthur and Alton planning Ebba's murder. As intellectually impaired as her brother, Lucille told police that she had not told anyone what they had been planning because she was afraid of getting her uncle in trouble. When the police told Alton about what Lucille had said, he freely confessed to murdering his stepmother. As he explained, Arthur Covell had told him that Ebba's murder was fated since he saw it in her horoscope. It was the stars that told Arthur the exact time the murder needed to take place. Alton, who was easily dominated by the uncle he believed to have supernatural powers, went along with the scheme. And so, at 11 am on September 3, Alton followed Arthur's instructions exactly.
"I put the ammonia on the rag,” Alton said, “and Ebba was standing by the stove. I walked up to her from behind and on the right side. I put the rag over her nose with my right hand and held her arms with my left. I held it on her nose, pressing hard, for about three minutes before I let her down on the floor." Following his uncle's instructions, Alton then carried the body up to her bedroom and laid her on the bed. And this murder scheme might have worked considering its intricacy. In choosing ammonia for his murder weapon, Arthur was particularly inspired considering that the fumes evaporated quickly leaving little evidence as to what caused her death. What he didn't realize was that Alton had applied too much ammonia to the cloth and left traces of it on Ebba's face. Though ammonia is harmless to living tissue, the traces on Ebba's dead body left burn marks that the coroner was able to detect.
With Alton's confession, police then interrogated Arthur Covell a second time during which he confessed to his sister-in-law's murder and also absolved Lucille and Fred of any involvement. In a fitting display of poetic justice, he received the jail cell where his brother had been held just hours previously. Local newspapers had a field day with this story. With headlines such as "Fiendish Crime Laid Bare by Confession", the lurid details were all outlined and Arthur Covell was labelled a "super-criminal" with an "occult hold" over his nephew. The evidence against Arthur, including Alton's confession and Lucille's testimony, was overwhelming. He was quickly found guilty and sentenced to hang. Arthur, who attended the entire trial while lying in a special cot placed in the courtroom, simply raised himself on the cot on hearing the verdict and thanked everyone for how the case had been handled.
After Arthur was successfully convicted, there were still the question of what to do with Alton. During the course of his trial, his attorney, Grant Corby, introduced expert testimony to show that Alton had the mental age of an eleven-year-old and argued that his client was mentally unfit. The prosecutor countered this argument with letters that Alton had written to his sister warning her to "keep her mouth shut" and that she would end up in reform school for her own small part in the killing. It took the jury less than an hour to find Alton guilty but with the recommendation that he receive a life sentence.
As Alton began serving his life sentence (for which he would receive a conditional pardon just a few years later), there was still the problem of executing Arthur. Despite repeated attempts at an appeal, he was finally hanged on May 22, 1925 at the penitentiary in Salem, Oregon where he was being held. Given his paralysis, he needed to taken to the gallows in a wheelchair and physically carried up the steps to where the hangman was waiting. His body was so light that the hanging failed to break his neck and he wasn't pronounced dead until twenty-six minutes later. His cremated remains were never taken after his death and are still available to any relative willing to claim them.