Originally published in The Rock River Times.
Anyone reading Ralph Middleton’s obituary printed in the Register Star on July 30, 1998 would have been impressed by his life. The article mentioned his 62 years of employment at Ingersoll and that he served in the National Guard. Ralph was also voted Rockford’s Father of the Year in 1950. By all accounts, Ralph led a successful life filled with many accomplishments.
But it is what wasn’t written in his obituary that makes Ralph Middleton truly astonishing. Ralph suffered a personal tragedy that would have crippled most people. The fact that he went through this dark period and continued his success is nothing less than inspirational.
In the mid 1950’s Ralph lived on the west side of Rockford with his wife Dorothy. Ralph worked as a field supervisor at Ingersoll Milling Machine. Dorothy, who had been a dedicated teacher to children with cognitive and mobility issues, stayed at home to care for their three children. The oldest, Richard was enrolled in Harvard University working on a degree in Biology. Thomas who was 18 in 1956, recently graduated from West High School. Their only daughter, Judith was 12 years old and enrolled at Roosevelt Junior High School. Neighbors would later speak of the close bond that was evident between the family members.
Ralph’s life wasn’t perfect, of course. There were some bumps in the marriage, typical things that all young couples face. But as the years passed, different troubles appeared. Dorothy would sometimes be overcome with depression. She became confused in her thoughts and on really bad days would speak of harming herself. Luckily, Dorothy’s parents and siblings were close and helped with the the children. Eventually, Ralph had no choice but to admit Dorothy into a mental health facility for a few weeks.
Dorothy suffered another spell several years later. Ralph must have felt helpless as he watched his wife fall into utter despair. When he returned home from work one day to find Dorothy with her head submerged in the bathtub, he once again committed her.
These incidences had taken place years before and the summer of 1956 promised wonderful things. Richard was a junior at Harvard and made high marks in all of his classes. Thomas had taken a competitive examination for the Air Force Academy and was accepted. Judith showed all the signs of being as brilliant as her brothers.
But by the beginning of September there were clouds forming on the horizon that threatened the Middleton family. Thomas had decided to take leave from the academy to think about his future. Ralph and Dorothy wanted Thomas to return to the academy but he held firm and made the decision to enroll in the University of Wisconsin at Madison instead. He was interested in becoming a dentist and Madison had an excellent program.
Ralph was obviously disappointed but wanted to show his support for his son. Dorothy on the other hand, began to think that there was something lacking in Thomas. Ralph pointed out all of Thomas’ successes during high school. Thomas was a star athlete, made the honor roll consistently, was inducted to the National Honor Society, and had passed the very tough exam required to be accepted into the Air Force Academy.
Dorothy spoke with Ralph and her sisters about the negative effect she was having on her children. They were quick to deny that claim and tried to reassure her that was not the case. Dorothy’s sisters grew very concerned. They pleaded with Ralph to return Dorothy to the mental facility that had helped in the past. They offered to take Judith until Dorothy recovered. But Ralph was certain that his wife would eventually support Thomas’ decision.
Ralph woke up on Saturday, October 13, 1956 feeling hopeful that Dorothy would change her mind. Dorothy seemed in good spirits that morning and got up early to make Ralph breakfast before he left for work. They drank coffee and discussed the plans for the day. Ralph mentioned that he was only working a half day and should be home by noon. Dorothy seemed happy as she kissed him goodbye. Ralph would later state that he had no warning of what was to come.
Ralph arrived home after noon to find a note addressed to him on the kitchen table. His hands were shaking as he tore open the letter. The letter started with the words, “I just couldn’t take it anymore.”
Ralph dropped the letter and raced to the master bedroom. He was stunned to see the rifle that he used for target practice placed on the bed. The gun had obviously been fired. Ralph raced to Thomas’s room where it took a moment to understand what lay before him. There was blood on the pillow and a hole in Thomas’ temple.
Terrified now, Ralph raced into Judith’s room. There was more blood and Ralph realized that Judith had also been shot. Ralph slowly returned to the kitchen. He picked up the phone and dialed the number for the police.
Detectives arrived quickly along with the Coroner Sundberg and States Attorney Canfield. When they questioned Ralph about Dorothy’s location, he stated that he did not know. They decided to check the house and went to the basement with Ralph following behind. They found Dorothy on the floor in the basement. She was curled into a fetal position and gasping for air. They later found evidence that Dorothy had ingested a solution of lye and carbolic acid after shooting the children.
Dorothy was rushed to the hospital as Ralph tried to answer the detectives many questions. Though Dorothy had extensive burns to her mouth, trachea and esophagus, she survived. She was placed under arrest for the murder of Thomas and Judith as soon as she regained consciousness.
Richard came home to assist his father in securing counsel for his mother. The defense attorney believed that they could get a not guilty by reason of insanity verdict. The state was just as sure they could prove murder. The trial turned into a battle of the psychiatrists as the state worked to prove that Dorothy knew what she was doing was wrong because she waited until Ralph left for work before killing the children.
While Ralph and Richard dealt with Dorothy’s medical care and arrest, they also had to plan a funeral for Thomas and Judith. The children were laid to rest at Wildwood Burial Park on West State Street. The service was held at St. John’s Evangelical Church. Besides friends and family, the church was filled to capacity with many who were unknown to the family. These strangers came to show support for the family that had suffered so much.
The state decided to try Dorothy for the murder of Judith first. Dorothy, still weakened by the damage inflicted in her suicide attempt, attended the trial in a wheel chair. The jury deliberated for 2 hours and 25 minutes before returning with a guilty plea. The courtroom exploded with emotion as family members broke into tears. Dorothy became distraught and Ralph reached to comfort her. His stoic demeanor cracked a little as reporters rushed to snap photographs of Dorothy in her despair. In an act completely out of character, Ralph lunged for one of the cameramen.
There was no feeling of resolution in this case, even the thought of bringing the family justice gave no comfort. The judge called Ralph to the front of the courtroom after announcing the verdict. He expressed sympathy for Ralph for the tragedy and spoke of how this case had rocked the entire community. The judge explained that though he felt compassion for Ralph and his wife, his job was to speak for the victims. Dorothy was sentenced to 30 years at the Illinois Reformatory for Women in Dwight, Illinois. The family was devastated and filed an appeal immediately.
Dorothy was re-assessed in the prison and quickly transferred to the Kankakee State Mental Hospital on the recommendation of the prison psychiatrist. While incarcerated, Dorothy made several suicide attempts. During one attempt Dorothy damaged her hands which had to be wrapped in gauze. On April 7, 1957, she removed the gauze wrapping from her hands and used them to hang herself. The newspapers carried the news of Dorothy’s death and her funeral. The articles mentioned the pastor offered hope to the family that Dorothy could at last find peace. She was laid to rest near Judith and Thomas.
Ralph continued to fight to have Dorothy’s murder verdict overturned. In May 1957, he filed an appeal to the Supreme Court to grant a Writ of Error. Ralph spoke of the stigma the conviction brought upon his remaining son. The court denied the request.The same church that held all of the funerals for the family hosted a fund raiser to help Richard to continue his studies at Harvard. Richard eventually received a doctoral degree. He moved to New Jersey where he worked in Biology and raised his own family.
Ralph moved forward from this unbelievable tragedy. He remarried and worked at Ingersoll until his retirement in 1988. He continued to honor Dorothy’s memory whenever possible. When Richard got engaged the announcement mentioned both Ralph and Dorothy as parents. His long time commitment to the company he worked for and his service to this community brought Ralph great pride. But Ralph would probably take more pleasure in being remembered for his dedication to his family.
Copyright © 2019 Kathi Kresol, Haunted Rockford Events