Unsolved: The Murder of George Marks

Grave of George Marks, Port Matilda

Turning onto the roadway leading to the Port Matilda Presbyterian Cemetery, I immediately noticed the hillside ahead of me was covered with older graves. Those graves that clung to the steep hillside stood guard among the trees that had grown among the stones over the years. At one time the church stood next to the roadway leading to the cemetery, but it had been removed and replaced with a memorial for those who have served in the military.

Slowly driving along the narrow roadway, I noted a number of trees had fallen during the recent storms and was worried that a tree may have fallen in the cemetery. I was pleased to discover that while a number of trees had fallen close to the sacred grounds, none had affected the cemetery.

Spotting the wooden cross near the entrance to the cemetery, I found a place to park and got out of the vehicle. I made my way slowly up the hillside to where the cross stood guarding the cemetery. The white cross was decorated by a patriotic wreath and a sign “In Remembrance of All War Veterans.” In the shadow of this memorial was the grave of the man I had come to remember – a US Civil War Veteran whose 1921 murder has remained unsolved.

George Marks was seventy-nine in the year 1921. Born June 30, 1841, Marks served as a member of Company E of the 45th Pennsylvania Infantry. He was mustered into service on September 12, 1861, and was mustered out on February 29, 1863. In the Pennsylvania Digital Archives Veteran Card File, his occupation is listed as wagonmaker.

 Note: Before I go any further, I need to point out there is some conflict in the service records for George Marks. On Marks’ information card in the “Record of Burial Place of a Veteran,” which is maintained by the Pennsylvania Department of Veteran Affairs, it has his service in Company E as starting on September 15. This same record also reports his death as occurring March 4, 1921 which is an incorrect date.

Marks returned to Centre County after his time with the 45th Pennsylvania Infantry and resumed his life. According to newspapers, his wife left him around 1900, but the two never divorced as he was listed as being married on his death certificate. His death certificate also lists him as being “invalid,” but it is not clear if this was a result of age or if something had happened to him to cause a handicap of some sort.

Marks owned a small house near the flag station at Hannah Furnace – near Port Matilda – where he lived by himself. Note: There is some confusion in the newspapers about where George Marks lived. They agree that he lived near Hannah Furnace, but the location provided for the location of Hannah Furnace is not correct. Newspapers state his house was located in the Bald Eagle Valley about one mile east of Port Matilda. However, Hannah Furnace was located about one mile to the southwest of Port Matilda. I believe the reporter writing the initial article confused the location and it was never corrected in the follow-up articles.

According to The Centre Democrat (Bellefonte, Pa), in the June 24, 1921 edition, the last time anybody saw Marks alive was on June 14, 1921. Witnesses reported seeing him sitting on his front porch around six that evening.

When nothing was heard from him on Wednesday or Thursday, a group of men including his brother John, J.A. Walk, and Alfred and Joe Larkins went to Marks’ house on Friday, June 17, to see if he was alright. When the group arrived at the house, they discovered the doors locked and all the windows latched with the blinds down. The men forced open a window and entered the house.

Searching the house, they discovered Marks dead on the floor of his sitting room, with his head and upper half of his body covered by a coat. Marks was dead – most likely since Tuesday.

The coroner arrived and searching the body discovered the cause of death. Marks had been struck three times on the head – once on top of the head, once on the right temple, and once above the right ear – by an unknown, heavy object, which had been taken away by the murderer. Investigating the scene, it was discovered the murder happened in the kitchen and the body dragged to the place where it had been found.

The motive for the murder of George Marks was listed as theft. It is believed he had between $500 and $1000 on him at the time of death and no money was found at the scene. The string which Marks normally had tied around the wad of money was still in his pocket, but the money was not to be found on him or in the house.

Almost immediately, those who knew Marks could not imagine who would have marked the man. The small house showed no sign of any wealth and who ever targeted him had to have known he carried money with him. The Tyrone Record (Tyrone, Pa), in the July 2, 1921 edition, stated the following: “It is the general belief, founded upon sound reasoning, that the murder of the aged man was at least planned, if not carried out, by someone who knew him intimately. It is entirely unlikely that a passing stranger with the desire to pilfer, or rob, would have chosen the humble, run-down shambling of the venerable recluse as a shining mark of gain.”

It is very interesting to see how newspapers reported the murder. The Centre Democrat viewed the state police as not able to solve the crime due to lack of clues at the scene. The Tyrone Record reports something different in the July 2, 1921 edition: there were clues left at the scene and the state police were investigating these “valuable” clues and it was “only a matter of time until startling developments would occur.”

By August 5, a number of people living nearby had been questioned by Sheriff Harry Dukeman, with the help of the state police, but the interviews revealed nothing about the identity of the killer.

Despite what clues may or may not have been at the scene, the case quickly went cold. A reward was offered for information about the death of George Marks, but nobody came forward to claim it.

And then confusion, caused by false rumors, began to run rampant in the Bald Eagle Valley. Supposedly the murder of George Marks was just one in a number of murders in western Centre and northeastern Blair Counties. These other murders, which never produced a name or exact location, were deemed by authorities as a product of overactive imaginations and false rumors and were quickly dismissed.

In a strange twist of reporting, after the initial report in The Centre Democrat, all reports by this newspaper refused to call Marks’ death a murder. When his death appears in follow-up articles, it is listed as “the alleged murder.” In an article in the September 2, 1921 edition, The Centre Democrat finally questioned the death of George Marks with the headline: “Was George Marks Murdered?” The article stated very little had been revealed about the death of George Marks and they wondered if he had died as a result of some unfortunate accident at his home.

Could the death been a result of a freak accident? Is it possible that Marks fell in the kitchen, striking his head and knowing he was hurt, stumbled into the sitting room and was in the process of putting his jacket on when he collapsed from his wounds? The only thing with this theory is it does not explain what happened to the money he was known to have had on him. This line of thought is never followed up on by any of the regional newspapers.

On February 24, 1924, George’s name again appears in The Centre Democrat, as a brief mention that his murder was still unsolved. However, it was the rest of the article that adds another layer of intrigue to his unsolved death. The article stated George’s brother, John, had been arrested for arson and attempted insurance fraud. At a hearing, it was decided there was not enough to hold him over for trial and he was let go.

After this brief mention, the murder of George Marks vanishes from the newspapers, leaving questions unanswered. Who killed the old man? Was it a stranger or was it one of his neighbors? The answer to those questions remains a mystery as his murder disappeared from the newspapers, public memory, and into the fog of time.

I finished paying my respects to George Marks, thanking him for his service, before leaving him to rest in the field of stone. I silently returned to my vehicle and left the cemetery and the unanswered questions of George Marks lingering in the evening air.

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