A daughter’s quest to learn about her mother’s past becomes a journey of discovery
By Joanna Bastian
“My father always said he’d been in love with my mother since the age of 5,” Kathleen Bigger said as she sipped a glass of iced tea and paused over a salad at the Twisp River Pub recently. “She was a beautiful watercolor artist — her works were displayed in different galleries. But the minute she became well known, she would walk away from it all. She was so ashamed, so afraid they would find out who she was …”
She was Dorothy Bigger, Kathleen’s mother, and she was inadvertently involved in a crime that violently awakened the sleepy town of Carlton, and made headlines outside the Methow Valley, in the 1930s. It’s a story of abduction, slave trading, child abuse and a mother’s murderous wrath.
Currently living in Wellington, New Zealand, Kathleen Bigger has traveled around the world to investigate her mother’s story through newspaper archives, court transcripts, police records and living memories. “My journey is to unravel the confusion and inconsistencies of growing up in the nest of a secret,” Kathleen said.
For many years, Kathleen attempted to search out the details of her mother’s story, which was treated as a secret tragedy. Her mother answered few questions. Her father, whom Kathleen called “an honorable man,” tried to protect his beloved wife by hiding her past. He dissuaded Kathleen from her research by suggesting she would find “something you don’t want to know.”
The story begins in Carlton, on Biggers Road, across the river from the sandy beach and cool waters of the Carlton swimming hole. William Bigger, Kathleen’s father, was born and raised in the orchard that his parents, William Finley Bigger and Lucia Bigger, planted on the land now known as Willowbrook Farm. They had two children: Florence Bigger and Wilfred Loomis Bigger. William Finley Bigger died in 1914, at age 34, during an operation to remove his tonsils. After his death, his widow, Lucia, changed their infant son’s name from Wilfred Loomis Bigger to William Finley Bigger, after his father.
Lucia managed two orchards, Sunnyslope near Cashmere and the family orchard in Carlton. Bernard Thurlowe, a longtime valley resident who lives in Methow, recalls that Lucia had the “best apples.”
Dorothy Bigger’s parents were Henry and Jennie Miller, who lived in a little white house on the main thoroughfare of Carlton, what is now known as Old Carlton Road. Originally from Centralia, Washington, Henry and Jennie were pleasantly surprised when Jennie became pregnant with Dorothy later in life. Their older daughters were already grown and married.
Dorothy was born in 1915. Soon after, the family moved from Centralia to Pasadena, California. When Dorothy was 6 years old, Jennie and Henry bought property in Carlton, where they built a home and orchard, hoping to raise their youngest daughter in “a safer, healthier community.” The little white house is still there, nestled in the shade of cottonwoods.
Dorothy Miller and William Bigger both attended classes at the red brick Carlton School, just down the street from the Miller home. It was there, in the schoolyard and among the blackboards and lesson books, that William first fell in love with Dorothy. It would be decades before that love came to fruition.
For the Miller family, 1930 proved to be a pivotal year. Dorothy turned 14, and her father suffered a stroke, rendering him a semi-invalid. Shortly thereafter, a man named Hayden Canfield moved to the Methow Valley and befriended the family. Dorothy’s nightmare was just beginning.
Drugged and kidnapped
In November 1930, Canfield, with the help of another man and woman, kidnapped Dorothy and took her to Pateros. There they drugged Dorothy and switched cars before driving to Spokane. There, the female kidnapper assumed Dorothy’s name, and Canfield obtained a marriage certificate declaring Dorothy his wife. Canfield told Dorothy that he and his friends sold brides to brothels in the Yukon territories and Mexico, and that they were taking her to California.
Kathleen paused in her narrative to share a disturbing find in her research through police archives around Washington state in the 1930s. Many 14- and 15-year-old girls disappeared around the same time as Dorothy’s abduction. Kathleen believes, based on her findings and her mother’s story, that there was an organized crime ring operating between Spokane and California, kidnapping young teenagers and exploiting them for profit.
On the night of Dorothy’s abduction, her mother, Jennie, received a note that Dorothy had eloped. Fearing the worst and not believing the note, Jennie went first to Pateros, then Okanogan, and then Wenatchee. She retraced her steps to Carlton before returning yet again to Wenatchee, trying to find Dorothy. She searched for 24 hours before she found Canfield’s accomplices in Wenatchee. They told her that Dorothy and Canfield were married in Spokane and had gone to California.
Kathleen related that Jennie “intimidated one of the accomplices to confess” that Canfield and Dorothy actually were at the Bruce Hotel in Wenatchee and had not gone to California. When Jennie found the couple at the hotel, “she actually threw Hayden [Canfield] in the car and brought him back to Carlton. Little did she know she had brought a criminal home,” Kathleen said.
Kathleen noted, “Hayden [Canfield] should have been arrested for abduction, but Jennie assumed this was simply a case of defending her daughter’s honor.” Jennie was beside herself. That night, she accepted the marriage, and initially resolved to “make the best of it and accept her son-in-law,” Kathleen said.
Shortly after their return to Carlton, Canfield bought some land a mile-and-a-half north of town and began to clear it for an orchard. He soon became a person of interest to local law enforcement for drug trafficking. And then, the family received an anonymous letter revealing that Canfield was already married to another woman — the one who assisted in Dorothy’s abduction and assumed the name “Dorothy Canfield” was in fact Hayden Canfield’s wife.
The other man involved in Dorothy’s abduction was intimately involved with Canfield’s wife and was known as her boyfriend. A tangled knot of bigamy, drug trafficking, kidnapping and sex trade was beginning to emerge, with Dorothy trapped in the middle.
Jennie realized she had made a deadly mistake.
Dorothy told her mother that she felt unwell early in 1931. Upon examination, Jennie discovered track marks all over Dorothy’s body, and symptoms of gonorrhea. For several weeks, Jennie insisted that Canfield take Dorothy to a doctor, but he refused, for fear that he would be arrested for forcibly injecting Dorothy with sedatives.
Shooting and trial
On March 28, 1931, Jennie arrived at the Canfield home, having made a doctor’s appointment for Dorothy in Wenatchee. She was determined to take Dorothy for treatment. Canfield refused to let Dorothy leave and threatened Jennie with a hatchet. What happens next can be found in the April 3, 1931, edition of the Methow Valley News:
“Young Man is Killed in Family Argument”
“The shooting occurred during an argument … which began with the insistence of Mrs. Miller that the girl be taken to Wenatchee for medical attention.
… Canfield objected strenuously and the argument which ended in his death ensued. The revolver, one of small caliber, belonged to Canfield himself and was taken from a bureau drawer by Mrs. Miller.”
“To me, that is not the interesting part of the story,” Kathleen said. “It is what happened afterwards. The community stood behind her.”
Kathleen took out a sheet of lined notebook paper with a list of names: Charles Miller, John Larrabee, H.J. French, Edith Ross, J.F. Holman, and D.L. Enslaw — all of whom rallied behind Jennie and paid her $5,000 bail, a hefty sum for farmers in 1930. With inflation rates, $5,000 in 1930 is worth $68,300 in 2015.
The community ensured that Jennie did not have to spend a single night in jail before her trial and sentencing. She could stay at home and look after her distraught daughter and invalid husband.
From numerous Methow Valley News articles spanning the length of the trial, it can be inferred that public sentiment stood behind Jennie and Dorothy, despite the outcome of the trial.
“Mrs. Miller is well known in the Methow Valley … has a reputation for civic leadership and … church work,” according to one article.
As for Canfield, “The status of the case hinged to a great degree upon the character of the man Canfield …,” an article noted.
In numerous articles, Dorothy is referred to not as a woman nor as Mrs. Canfield, but as a “girl” and “Mrs. Miller’s daughter.”
A very different narrative unfolds in publications outside of the valley, and in court proceedings.
The fact that Dorothy was drugged and abducted was left out of the trial. Dorothy’s character was brought into question and in court she was treated as a disreputable woman who had willingly eloped with a 24-year-old man, taken drugs, and contracted gonorrhea. Dorothy was blamed for creating a situation in which her mother had an opportunity to murder her husband.
The trial was not clear-cut, nor were the jurors in their decision. The July 3, 1931, Methow Valley News announced:
“Manslaughter Verdict, Jury asks for Leniency”
“… It was a compromise verdict, seven jurors voted for conviction for second-degree murder…three voted for conviction for manslaughter and two voted for acquittal,” the News reported.
Defense attorney Charles A. Johnson filed a motion for a new trial, citing concerns of misconduct by the prosecutor and the jury, insufficient evidence to support the verdict, and “several other errors in the proceedings.” Judge William C. Brown denied the motion for a new trial and sentenced Jennie to five to 10 years at the Walla Walla prison.
Jennie was surprised to find a warm welcome in prison. Kathleen shared some logical insight from her grandmother: “They had just built a new section for women. The other women did not cast judgment, they considered her a hero for saving her daughter.”
Kathleen continues, “My mother had a hard time. She was dragged through court. She lost friends.” Dorothy felt so ashamed she could only imagine judgment. Perhaps her former friends were so shocked by her experiences that they had no idea how to relate, and instead, withdrew.
But Kathleen contends that the Carlton community was very supportive. In 1932, just as Jennie was being incarcerated, the Miller home behind the Carlton General Store burned down. “The neighbors had it rebuilt in two weeks. You know, the best thing they did for Dorothy was to get her mother back,” Kathleen said.
Dorothy faithfully attended the Methodist Church in Carlton, the one that washed downriver years later. According to Kathleen, Dorothy thought that if she were baptized, the act of immersion would change everything: “She would be forgiven.”
But after the baptism service, no one spoke to her. Everyone went to a luncheon party that Dorothy had not been invited to attend.
Soaking wet, she walked up the hill towards home, passing by some girls who had watched the whole service from their perch on the hillside. The girls smoked cigarettes and passed a bottle of wine between them. Kathleen said, “They told Dorothy, ‘They’ll never accept you again, don’t even try.’” They invited her to join them that day, and she sat next to them on the hillside. These new friends, “the bad girls in town,” according to Dorothy, made life bearable while she lived in Carlton.
Dorothy cared for her ailing father, Henry, while Jennie served her time in Walla Walla State Penitentiary. Dorothy was young, recovering from a traumatic experience, caring for her semi-invalid father, and trying to run an orchard. Kathleen imagines there must have been some assistance from the community to help Dorothy manage in the absence of her mother.
William Bigger, at that time 15, was still madly in love with Dorothy, despite her troubles. But Lucia Bigger, fearing that her son would be affected by all the negative attention surrounding Dorothy, moved her son to Cashmere. He only saw Dorothy intermittently during their teen years.
Meanwhile, the Carlton community continued to fight for Jennie’s freedom. They wrote letters to the governor requesting a pardon. A petition was circulated throughout the community, garnering signatures supporting the pardon and release of Jennie Miller. She served just 11 months before governor Clarence D. Martin granted a pardon and Jennie returned home a free woman.
“Dorothy felt an obligation to stay with her family, since she felt the pain and suffering was all her fault,” Kathleen continued. So Dorothy stayed with her family in Carlton until 1939, when she met and married Pete, a young man from Idaho. They moved to the village of Holden, on Lake Chelan, and had a son. The marriage did not last long, and Dorothy returned home to live with Henry and Jennie in Carlton.
In 1942, William Bigger returned home from the war. He and Dorothy met again and married. They had two daughters, Kathleen and her sister. The family lived in Alaska, Virginia and California.
In 1945, Jennie, then in her mid-70s, could no longer manage the orchard. She moved her husband, Henry, who had suffered numerous strokes, to Seattle, where he passed away a few years later.
Dorothy and William Bigger moved to Carmel, California, in 1963. Already an artist, Dorothy thrived in the growing art community, and dedicated herself to her watercolors. She became a member of the Carmel Art Association and the California Watercolor Association. Her paintings were displayed at National Watercolor Society exhibits. Numerous times, Dorothy’s creations were selected by jury to show at prestigious competitions all over the country, including New York City. “Whenever a gallery offered to represent her, she backed away, fearful of writing the bio,” Kathleen explained.
“In their last years, Dorothy and William traveled the country in their luxury motor home so Dorothy could paint on location; she never painted from photos,” said Kathleen. Dorothy passed away in 1995 at the age of 80. William followed her in 2003, at age 89.
After her journey to the Methow Valley, Kathleen corresponded in an email: “Personally, I wish my parents could have seen the abuse instead of the shame. I wish they could have taken pride in the way they had deep compassion for the suffering of others, something only possible through empathetic experience. The rest of my mother’s life wasn’t tragic, or bitter, but she was ashamed of her past and never overcame the guilt of responsibility. She made a conscious decision, though, to find the beauty all around her and communicate it through her painting. A sort of truth in watercolour.”
By the time this article is published, Kathleen Bigger will have returned to her home in New Zealand. If you have any insight or memories of her family, she says she would love to hear from you. Kathleen would also like to know the names of the girls who befriended Dorothy on the day of the baptismal service. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A personal note: In writing this article, I found myself thinking of the young girls I have known who experienced sexual abuse and then had to relive their experiences in court, in front of their abusers and strangers. One of them has found strength and a new purpose in life through “Speak Your Silence,” a nonprofit organization that makes in-person, one-on-one counseling accessible for those personally affected by child sexual abuse. Visit SpeakYourSilence.org to apply confidentially, or to learn how you can support the effort to help kids find their voice and their strength.