In 2014 Dr. Michael Baden performed autopsies on the bodies of two Black men. They had died under unusual circumstances more than a half-century earlier in Norwich. Baden, a famous forensic pathologist who recently performed an autopsy on George Floyd at the request of Floyd’s family, was hoping to shed light on the mysteries which haunted the area for decades.
On Nov. 20, 1948, Douglas Harris’ body was found headfirst in a narrow well on the property where he lived with his wife and in-laws. Eleven years later, on Jan. 17, 1959, his father-in-law, Ellis Ruley, was found dead near the road in front of the same house. His body was frozen and he had a head wound.
In both instances, authorities quickly ruled the deaths accidents. Ruley, they concluded, had hit his head before staggering toward the road and falling, possibly several times, before freezing to death. Harris, they said, had fallen into the well, hit his head and drowned. More than two years after Ruley’s death, the house on the property was destroyed by a fire on Aug. 12, 1961. As with the two deaths, the cause of the fire was uncertain. The house was still owned by the family, but was unoccupied and most likely had its electricity off.
Ruley’s wife, Wilhelmina, was white and there were whispers that the deaths and fire had been caused by racist neighbors who didn’t approve of an interracial marriage. Or maybe it had been the work of the Ku Klux Klan. Family members have long held that both men were murdered.
“Too much coincidence is not a coincidence,” says DeLois Lindsey, Ruley’s great-granddaughter and Harris’ granddaughter. Lindsey, who now lives in Torrington and retired last year as assistant vice president for student development at the University of Hartford, adds, “Black lives didn’t matter then. It was a mindset and culture of nobody gives a damn about what happens to poor Black people, murdered or not.”
The deaths of both men might have been forgotten had Ruley not been a talented painter. He exhibited work at the Slater Museum and taught occasional painting classes at Norwich Free Academy, but never enjoyed financial or critical success in his lifetime. After his death, he was admired by a small contingent of art collectors but was mostly unknown. Then in 1984, Glenn Robert Smith, an art collector and writer, discovered a painting of Ruley’s at a Massachusetts flea market. It depicted a pale Adam and Eve beneath an apple tree in the Garden of Eden, and it immediately captivated Smith. “I knew I glimpsed something wonderful, and a little sad, and more than a little mesmerizing,” he would later write in his book, Discovering Ellis Ruley: The Story of an American Outsider Artist. Smith became fascinated with Ruley’s art and life. When he learned about his death, he was convinced something untoward had happened to Ruley and Harris, but even after the publication of his book in the early 1990s, there was little progress toward discovering what happened to both men.
More recently, the cases have been in the news again.
In 2011, Samuel Browning, a local attorney and Norwich alderman from 2017 to 2019 with a master’s degree in forensic science from the University of New Haven, began investigating the cases pro bono on behalf of family members. After spending eight years researching them, he announced his conclusions publicly in 2019. “It is more likely than not, that Douglas Harris was murdered in 1948,” he says in an interview for this story.
According to the medical examiner’s report, the evening before Harris was found dead in the well, he had been drinking and he and his wife had an argument. She asked him to get fresh water for the wash, but he stormed out of the house, saying he was going downtown.
Browning notes that the well was not between the house and town, and it would have been nearly impossible to fall headfirst into the narrow 19-by-20 inch opening. Even if Harris had leaned in to fetch water from it, Browning thinks it is unlikely. “My belief is a grown man, who admittedly was drunk, but still capable of drawing water, would have stuck out at least one arm, possibly both when he was falling to catch himself, preventing himself from falling straight down the well,” he says. He adds that there was no documentation of a water pail being found in or around the well in the medical Examiner's report or police log.
As for Ruley’s death, Browning says there are “troubling, unanswered questions,” but there’s not enough evidence to prove it was a murder. He believes a cab driver who said he dropped Ruley at his door was lying because family members told Browning that cab drivers would not deliver people up to the house. They would drop them off at the foot of the hill instead because cars could easily bottom out on the driveway.
Browning remains unsure of who is responsible in either case. He says he found no evidence of Ku Klux Klan involvement, as the Klan was not known to be active at that time in Norwich, though they were in the decades before and after. He also says covering up a murder doesn’t fit. “The KKK is many things but subtlety is not in their description,” he says. “The purpose of a lynching is to inflict terror on African Americans.”
In 2015, Baden, the pathologist, announced his conclusions, telling local press that Harris’ death “clearly was a homicide.” He stated it was his opinion that “Mr. Harris was in a struggle with one or more people; that he was strangled and lost consciousness; that while unconscious he was dropped into the narrow well where he drowned.”
In Ruley’s case, Baden found the cause of death to be “undetermined,” but noted that Ruley’s 0.14 blood alcohol content “would not be sufficient to have caused Mr. Ruley, an experienced drinker, to lose consciousness or to be too confused to reach his house.” Baden added, “The blood at the scene and the report that his empty wallet was found a distance from his body do indicate that an investigation was warranted to determine whether he had been assaulted.”
The state medical examiner, Dr. James R. Gill, did not agree with Baden’s findings, and did not change Harris’ cause of death. The cases officially remain open at Norwich Police Department but do not appear to have been actively investigated in years.
Nevertheless, Lindsey says Baden’s autopsies vindicated her family by suggesting something had happened. “Maybe now they can rest a little more peacefully because that occurred,” she says.
Recognizing the injustice that occurred is more important than catching any culprits, Lindsey adds. “If those individuals are still alive, they probably don’t remember what they did 10 minutes ago.”
Lindsey still finds great joy in viewing her grandfather’s artwork. “I like the simplicity of it. I like that it is full of life; it’s full of nature; it’s full of things that he enjoyed in life.” She adds that her daughter is an artist who is inspired by Ruley and notes that Ruley’s abilities flew in the face of the racism he faced. “People may take what you have as worldly possessions, but they can’t take what God gives you.”
Correction: July 3, 2020
An early web-only version of this story misstated the date Ellis Ruley's body was found. His body was found on January 17, 1959, not January 11. It also stated incorrectly that the electricity was off to the Ruley house at the time of the fire on Aug. 12, 1961. The electricity to the house was most likely off, but not certainly shut off.