There have always been bad people in our society, and always will be, even in small-town America. Dimondale was the setting, 130 years ago, of a brutal murder of a child. It was deemed so heinous that it made newspaper headlines across the country.
Fourteen-year-old Nellie Griffin was originally from Mason, the daughter of Oliver and Della Griffin. Other sources give her age as eleven. Her life, despite her young age, had been very rough. Before her first birthday, her mother abandoned Nellie and her father. Mortified by this disgrace, her father fled to California where he, too, vanished from her life.
She was too much for her grandparents, and Nellie ended up in the Coldwater State School for Waifs and Neglected Children, a “model institution for the education and support of children of the state.” The objective of the institution was to receive, care for, and place children between the ages of two and twelve into homes.
In 1891 Russell Canfield went to the Coldwater school seeking a child to adopt. He made up a phony name and claimed to be a wealthy farmer with much to offer for a child. He claimed that would raise the girl with his own children. The superintendent allowed him to leave with Nellie, without verifying anything Canfield told him.
An unstable man, Canfield had twice been married, and both of his wives had left him. His plan, it is believed, was to adopt this girl now, and then marry her when she was of age, despite being legally married to his second wife. This, he hoped, would stop the unmerciful teasing he received from his neighbors about being unable to hold on to a wife.
The two boarded the train to Dimondale. At Dimondale, they exited the train and started walking towards the Harrison farm where Canfield worked as a truck driver.
As they walked, Nellie cried and begged him to take her back to Coldwater. Instead, Canfield murdered her in the woods and disposed of her body in the Grand River through a jagged hole in the ice. He wanted to return to his life without her as an encumbrance, the Eaton County Sheriff report states.
Her body was soon discovered, but no one was able to identify it. When the village undertaker prepared her for burial a photo was taken of her face in the hopes she would eventually be identified. Copies of the photo were sent out. People came from all around the area to try to identify the girl, with no luck.
The first clue to the crime was when Nellie was positively identified by the conductor and brakeman of the Lake Shore and Michigan Railroad as that of a poorly dressed child accompanied by a man on their train.
The officials of the State Public School at Coldwater then identified the body as that of Nellie Griffin who had been recently adopted from their school by a man named Hendershot.
A search was instituted for Hendershot/Canfield. He was found on the farm in Dimondale where he worked. After being positively identified by the superintendent of the Coldwater School as the man who took Nellie, he was arrested and taken to the Charlotte jail, where he eventually broke down and confessed, fearing mob vengeance from the community.
In his confession, he described how it all took place.
He and Nellie sat down on a log by the water where the body was later found. “The girl began to cry,” Canfield said, “and I threw her on the ground and choked her to death with one hand. I did not abuse the girl and I have no idea why I killed her. I must have been insane.”
Less than 24 hours after confessing, Canfield was on his way to Jackson Prison with a life sentence. The Coldwater School Superintendent was chastised for his role in the release of a child like this, with people calling for his resignation as the superintendent of a State Public School.
Nellie was buried at the State School Cemetery at Coldwater, which is now defunct. Canfield served 27 years in prison before dying there at age 83.