The noose in Laconia tells a story about the last man executed in the state


Monitor staff

Published: 04-15-2018 11:19 PM

The rope is behind glass, in a rectangular wooden box, and it leaves no room for interpretation.

It signals death, end of story.

A rope will do that – invade your mind with darkness – when tied into a noose. This one is on a back wall at the Belknap County Sheriff’s Department in Laconia. On July 14, 1939, it snapped Howard Long’s neck at the New Hampshire State Prison.

No one has been executed in the Granite State since.

You can see the rope if you’d like. In fact, schoolchildren take tours there, and their teachers, sometimes shocked by the impact of this symbol, have asked about its background, concerned over the effect it might have on kids. Maybe, they’ve wondered, someone should cover that noose, take it down, put it somewhere else.

“Teachers have thought it was inappropriate,” Belknap Country Sheriff Mike Moyer told me recently. “They’ll ask, ‘What’s that?’ It’s history.”

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The history is this: Long was sentenced to death by hanging after he sexually molested four children, killing two of them, the last of whom was a 10-year-old boy named Mark Jensen. Jensen lived in Laconia, Long in Alton.

Moyer is one of the law enforcement officials who brought this story to life for me. He’s a history buff, a visitor to Ford’s Theater in Washington D.C., where President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in 1865.

He was a Laconia cop for 26 years, until 2011, then was elected sheriff. He pointed to the noose on the wall and a nearby box of press clippings from the execution, which grabbed national headlines the year World War II began.

Moyer said a priest named Father Donnelly issued Long his last rights, and that priest was Moyer’s priest years later at the Immaculate Conception Church in Penacook.

“He was with him before the hanging,” Moyer told me. “Long’s last words were, ‘God bless you, Father Donnelly.’ ”

Once, the noose was stored in the Superior Court basement, where the sheriff’s department used to be. It’s been in Laconia for about 20 years.

“We don’t have it here to make a statement,” Moyer stressed. 

Then he reverted to his favorite topic, saying, “It’s a piece of New Hampshire history.”

The rope, with its seven coils wrapped around a segment that splits into an oval of unmistakable horror, is as intricate as the story behind it, and no one knows this story better than a hard-boiled ex-lawman named Bill Robarge.

He retired as a detective sergeant with the Belknap County Sheriff’s Department in 2014 and now works security for Associated Grocers.

When the press came calling for the 75th anniversary of Long’s death in 2014, it was Robarge who dug deep to answer every question imaginable. He loved every moment of it. He loves connecting dots.

“It was all over radio and in newspapers, so I understood there would be some interest,” Robarge told me. “My background as a criminal detective is also what intrigued me, my curiosity in investigating and solving cases. Because the convicted criminal was executed, it was a very unique case.”

Robarge opened a folder stuffed with information, but the material was for me, not him.  “Where would you like me to start,” Robarge said, laughing.

The background

He knew the names in law enforcement who were connected to the Long case, people like Homer Crockett and George Hubbard and Chester Bickford and Herman Olsen.

And Robarge knew the names of the four victims, all 10 years old, all walking without a care in the world, all ambushed or lured into Long’s car between 1924 and 1937.

Robarge moved into Long’s background, telling the story about a kid raised in Belmont, Mass., the only child of a rich mother, Sarah Long, and a father who never figured into this historic formula.

“She helped him (Long) over the years to get out of trouble,” Robarge said. “He terrorized Belmont. He was categorized in the newspaper as a sexual deviant.”

He sprung from the bushes one day in 1924 like a cliche in a bad horror movie and assaulted a little girl, leaving her for dead. A Belmont cop found her and saved her. The girl managed to bite Long, and that bite mark helped convict him, although he was sent to a Massachusetts reformatory and was soon paroled.

In July of 1930, Long promised to give a puppy to a little boy and assaulted him at an abandoned house. Long was then confined to Bridgewater State Hospital, during which time he caught a pair of lucky breaks.

One came compliments of the judge who oversaw Long’s second documented crime. Strangely, the judge was given $30,000 by Long’s mother and asked to set up a trust, and the judge then petitioned the court to parole Long, which is what happened. 

That was a deadly error that should not have occurred. A sex assault charge was supposed to kick in once Long’s parole was presented to the board, but no one noticed.

“That information was filed away and no one knew about it,” Robarge said. “If someone had known that charge was waiting to surface at the point of him being released, he would not have gotten out.”

A boy named Mark

Long got out in 1935. The sympathetic judge bought him a general store – with gas pumps outside and bubble gum and soda fountains inside – in Alton, and that’s where Long settled. The local kids loved that store.

Long killed Armand Nadeau in 1936 in Dover as the 10-year-old boy walked home from school carrying his books. Nadeau was found by hunters a month later in the cellar of an abandoned home, his skull crushed.

And on Sept. 9, 1937, Long killed Jensen. As Robarge tells it, in great detail, Jensen was walking with his mother’s dress, told to return it to Newberry’s on Main Street in Laconia. 

Then he was gone. Witnesses saw him at various places in various towns and cities that day, Robarge said. He pulled out a map showing the trail Long and Jensen took on the last day of the boy’s life.

Someone saw Jensen at Brooksie’s restaurant near the Laconia/Gilford line. A dairy farmer saw him, along with Long and Long’s dog, parked roadside in Gilford. Someone saw a little boy matching Jensen’s description – the blond hair was a tip off – with a man who looked like Long in Alton.

Jensen’s body was found the next night, in a wooded area near Morrill Street in Gilford. His head had been crushed by a screw jack.

Evidence was everywhere, at a time when forensic science and sophisticated equipment were not. Investigators, whom Robarge said did a “fantastic job,” found tire tracks, dog hair and wooden matchsticks, and when the boss of the Massachusetts Department of Corrections read the widespread coverage in the newspaper, he asked himself a question:

Had a sexual predator been released from the Massachusetts system and then relocated to the crime-scene area?

Closing in

Cops immediately checked Long’s tires, which Robarge said was “damning evidence.” The dog’s hairs matched Long’s dog, the type of matchsticks found at the scene were the type at Long’s place and the schoolbooks that Armand Nadeau had been carrying before he was murdered were found there as well. So was the screw jack, discovered in Long’s shed.

Less than two years later, Long was dead, and reminders of that day are everywhere, if you know where to look. His three-story general store in Alton – Long lived upstairs – still stands, looking very much as it did 80 years ago. It’s now a title company.

Long’s file, with a mugshot showing him smartly dressed in jacket and tie, sits in a filing cabinet at the state prison, telling you he plead “not guilty on account of insanity,” and the jury ruled he was “guilty of murder in the first degree.”

The square hatch on the floor, once below the gallows, that leads to the basement at the state prison remains in the canteen office there. Floor tiles cover it, but the borders are clearly defined, and the hatch, a few inches deep, is heavy and takes some effort to open. Long died down there, at the age of 32, pronounced dead seven minutes after the door opened.

Ray Lakeman, a retired Laconia cop and former phone company employee, lived near Jensen as a boy in Laconia. He was six when Jensen was murdered. Both were students at the Academy Street School.

“I remember him walking by my house in the morning,” Lakeman told me by phone. “His father drove a milk truck. I always remember his overshoes looked too big. He was a nice kid.”

Lakeman’s father, Raymond, was friends with the Laconia police chief. Father and son drove to the crime scene, and later Raymond was one of several residents chosen by the chief to test the hanging rope for strength. 

Lakeman’s memory here was fuzzy. “I’m not sure how my father was picked,” he said. “He had this weight in a sand bag and then they dropped it through the floor. When the hanging was over, each person who participated in the testing received six inches of rope.”

The elder Lakeman brought his section of rope home and showed it to his wife.

“It didn’t last long,” Lakeman said. “It immediately went in the garbage. She didn’t want anything to do with it.”