Dr. John Dale Cavaness was well-liked by his patients around the Little Egypt area in southern Illiniois. He was one of those old-school doctors that was becoming a rarity by the 1970s. Dr. Cavaness still made house calls and often waived his fees for patients who were unable to pay. And his patients never felt rushed, despite Dr. Cavaness’ heavy workload.
But this was only his public, professional persona. His family was subjected to a mean-spirited, drunken man who frequently took out his frustrations by verbally insulting his wife and four boys while he pummeled them with his fists and threw breakables about the house.
Dr. Cavaness was a latter 20th century Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde, of sorts. Well liked and respected for years as a hometown doctor, he would make a complete transformation in 1977 to a murderous monster willing to sacrifice his sons for his own personal financial gain.
Early Family Life
Thrown back into bachelorhood following a divorce, in late 1951 Dr. Cavaness, or Dale as everyone called him, met nurse Marian Newberry. After a whirlwind courtship, the couple wed in 1952.
Dr. Cavaness provided well for his family, which rapidly grew to include four sons. The family lived in a luxurious home (see photo above) in the center of Harrisburg, Illinois – the heart of the area known as Little Egypt. And in his free time, Dale enjoyed tending to his livestock at Hickory Handle Farm in Eldorado, often accompanied by his boys.
It would appear the Cavanesses were a scene fit for a Normal Rockwell painting, but behind closed doors it was a life more reminiscent of a horror flick.
Dale enjoyed drinking. A lot. Unlike the friendly, good old boy persona he presented to patients, his family suffered a cruel, bitter Dale whose slurred tongue rolled off insults and his healing hands became a creator of bruises. And if he wasn’t beating or insulting his wife and boys, then Dale could use be found out and about, bedding an assortment of women – something his wife and even his parents attempted to corral to no avail.
In 1972, Dale’s drinking finally caught up to him when he killed a 10 month-old baby and her father in a three car accident which occurred as a result of his intoxication. Dale was also charged with Driving Under the Influence (DUI) and unlawful possession of loaded weapons but, after entering a guilty plea, he managed to skip away with two years probation and $1,000 fine.
This seemed to send the already troubled marriage into a tailspin finale and Marian moved to Saint Louis, Missouri. The Cavaness boys went with their mother.
Life After Divorce
Mark Dale Cavaness struggled with his parents divorce. He began hanging out with undesirables and experimenting with marijuana and alcohol. Eventually Mark dropped out of school altogether and moved back to Illinois with his father. Dale obviously couldn’t see himself in Mark and was outraged at the boys behavior. Dale loudly declared to anyone who would listen, including Mark and Marian, that Mark was a “no good for nothing pot-smoker.” These remarks only caused Mark to sink deeper into a depression and his self-medicating methods increased in frequency.
By 1977, Mark was struggling just to survive. He worked odd jobs around the Little Egypt area and helped out on his father’s farm. Marian was very concerned about her 22 year old son and insisted it was time for him to return to Saint Louis where more resources were available to help Mark with his drug and alcohol issues.
On Easter Sunday 1977, Mark had agreed to visit with his mother and younger brothers when they returned to Illinois. But after their arrival, Mark never showed up as planned so they went in search of him. Their first stop was to Dale’s farm where Mark was living in a trailer on the property. A knock on the door produced no one, so his 15-year-old brother Sean started toward his Jeep parked in the drive to see if it would tell them anything about Mark’s whereabouts.
Before Sean even made it to the vehicle, he found his brother lying dead in the tall grass surrounding the area. Marian and 19-year-old Keven rushed over to Sean and saw only a little of Mark’s flesh remained. Even though it was determined later Mark had been dead somewhere around 12 hours, the animals had scavenged his body.
Investigators were certain Dale Cavaness had a hand in his son’s death but, unfortunately, they couldn’t prove it. Mark’s family members had contaminated the scene and the medical examiner declared it an accidental death – one of a suicidal nature, but that wasn’t in the record.
Marian grieved immensely over the death of her son. Dale collected $40,000 in life insurance.
Downfall of Dr. Dale
Life went on as usual for Dale Cavaness after the death of his son. He continued to treat the ails of his patients while gaining their utmost trust and respect.
Behind closed doors, however, Dale’s alcoholism had led to drug use. Later his son Kevin would tell of witnessing his father’s involvement in a drug deal. Realizing Kevin had knowledge of the transaction, Dale told him, “If you tell anyone, I’ll kill you.”
Kevin didn’t tell.
Everybody's gotta die sometime
— Dr. John Dale Cavaness
For a while, anyway.
In 1980, Dale was convicted of medical fraud but it did little to slow him down. Four years later, he convinced Sean and Kevin, who were too fearful of their father to say no, to participate in an insurance scheme that would serve as a great financial benefit to them in the future because of the borrowing power against the policy amounts. Dale paid the $1,000 monthly premiums for the policies on his sons and used them as income tax deductions.
Sean Cavaness, now an adult, had never gotten over discovering his oldest brother’s body and tried to erase the images with drugs and alcohol. When coupled with his father’s same addictions, the relationship between Dale and Sean was extremely volatile. After one of their many fights, Dale told Marian, “I don’t care if I go to jail. I’ll kill him.”
That statement would become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Unlike Mark, Sean sought help for his additions through a 12-step program and came to realize his problems stemmed not only from his brother’s death but from his constant seeking of love and approval from his father and the repeated rebuffs for his efforts.
Sean continued to visit his father in Little Egypt, hoping to gain his father’s acceptance. But Sean’s efforts would be to no avail. He was, in his father’s eyes, only a tool to be used in a pursuit of financial happiness.
On December 14, Sean’s body was discovered by a farmer in a remote area of Saint Louis once known as Times Beach. He had been shot twice in the head. Police were able to identify him from fingerprints taken during a prior misdemeanor arrest.
An autopsy later revealed Sean had consumed at least 12 alcoholic beverages before his death, which was estimated to have occurred within 3 hours of his discovery.
At first, investigators believed Sean may have died as the result of a drug deal gone wrong. It was obvious the killer or killers had staged the scene and his wallet was missing. But when they learned about Mark’s death, detectives turned their attention to Dale.
Dale told investigators during his first interview that he had not seen Sean in several weeks. But they knew this wrong as a couple had witnessed him cruising around the apartment complex where Sean lived on the evening of the young man’s death. His driving around the lot had seemed so suspicious that the coupe had written down his license plate number should a crime be reported in the area. Later, however, they had witnessed Sean and his father hug and quickly forgot about the incident.
Confronted with eyewitness account of his presence on that fateful evening, Dale began singing a different tune. And quite a tune it was.
Dale told investigators he and Sean had gone out drinking and, after a while, ended up in the area where Sean was found. As they stood outside the car, Sean asked his father to see his pistol. Dale thought nothing of it and handed over the weapon.
Dale then claimed Sean put the gun to the back of his head and said “tell Mom I’m sorry” before pulling the trigger. Knowing that a suicide would emotionally destroy his ex-wife, Dale decided to stage the scene to make it look like a robbery. Standing over his son’s body, Dale fired a second shot into his head then took his wallet and watch before leaving.
These statements were not consistent with the evidence. Forensics had clearly shown the shot Dale claimed was self-inflicted was fired while Sean was on the ground. Additionally, Sean’s level of intoxication would not have allowed him the dexterity necessary to fire the shot.
With this information and knowledge of the insurance policy on Sean’s life which named his father as beneficiary, police arrested Dr. Dale and charged him with first degree murder of his son.
Someone should have told the doc, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice…”
So Long, Doc
Dale’s patients back in Little Egypt refused to accept that the kind and gentle doctor had killed his son, much less two as police suspected. They even founded a defense fund for him.
But the people of Saint Louis had little trouble believing Dale had killed Sean and found him guilty of such on November 19, 1986, after less than three hours of deliberation. Dale was then sentenced to death.
Whether it was because his conscience got the best of him, his health problems became too burdensome, or if Dale was so intent on being the master of his own life, no one may never know but, in November 1986 he fashioned a noose out of an electrical cord and hung himself in his cell at the Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City, Missouri.
Old timers around Eldorado and Harrisburg still recall the story of Dr. Cavaness and fondly remember him as a gentleman doctor who carried immensely for his patients. Others, however, saw the dark side of the man who so coldly murdered his sons and think Dale did the world a favor when he decided to end his life.
© 2016 Kim Bryan
W Eric Thompson on July 27, 2020:
I DID know Doctor Dale Cavaness. Being born and raised in Eldorado Illinois, the Cavaness' were a prominent family and well known. Surprisingly for the small size of my hometown, Eldorado had 2 hospitals. Ferrell and Pierce. Dale was often the ER doctor at Pierce Hospital. While it is true that many in the Eldorado/Harrisburg area were fond enough of Doc to take up a defense fund for him, there were many of us who had witnessed the real Dale Cavaness and had no doubt that he was the culprit upon his arrest. Even before it. I was in the US Navy and stationed near Seattle when my father called me to tell me that Sean had been murdered. Without hesitation, I replied, "Doc did it."....My late brother, Randy had worked part time for Dale Cavaness on his farm near Galatia. He once told me of a night of drinking with a few other friends at the farm when someone had mentioned Doc's recently found dead son Mark. Randy told me that Doc replied, "I never cared for him anyway." I also recall the time my brother was in a car accident with minor injuries and was being treated by Doctor Dale at Pierce Hospital. I was there when he treated Randy, but all the while he did so, he ridiculed and insulted my brother for being so "stupid" as to wreck his car.... I never saw the loving, caring physician that so many say existed within the man. I only saw a hateful, condescending, insulting man who always left me wondering why he would want to be a physician.... One last thing: I knew Sean Cavaness. He was a friend. He spent a few nights at our house when he and my brother would be too drunk to drive Sean home. Sean was a smart, funny guy who loved to laugh. He was nothing like his father. Which probably incited the disdain Doc had for his son. I saw the "dark side" of John Dale Cavaness, but I did NOT feel he did the world a favor by taking his own life. On the contrary, to this day I feel cheated. I wanted to know that Dale was dragged, kicking and screaming as they took him to the Gas Chamber. That he took the easier way out only serves to exacerbate the hatred I have for the man who murdered my friend.
Ladue Attorney on May 25, 2019:
This story is such a tragic story of a brilliant man, who graduated from one of the top medical schools in the nation, Washington University Medical School in St. Louis, who could have had "the world by a string." After completing a residency in New York City, he returned to his hometown, foregoing opportunities to make more money in a big city. Naturally, he became a hero to his community and to his patients. Of course, he still brought in income well above the six-figure mark some 35 years ago and could have been very financially secure if he had taken the time to manage the money carefully. Dr. Cavaness was careful to be on his best behavior around his patients but not so careful with his those closest to him. This gifted man let alcohol take his mind to places one's mind should never go. I first learned of Sean's murder shortly before Christmas when I was 18. The story was the lead news story on the St. Louis TV news broadcasts. Although I never met Dr. Dale Cavaness, he lived in Harrisburg, Illinois in the house pictured in the article, a few scant blocks from the residence of my grandmother, a dear lady whom I visited at her home several times a year throughout my childhood and into my early adulthood. I am NOT suggesting I believe that alcohol misuse mitigates Dr. Cavaness's guilt in the least. However, I am suggesting that had the doctor stayed sober, Sean Cavaness might still be alive. The old saying, "First the man took a drink, then the drink took a drink, and then the drink took the man" has much applicability here. Although many people regardless of how entrenched in alcoholism they become might never do what was done to Sean Cavaness, I do suspect that Sean's body would not have been found lying in rural St. Louis County in the wee hours of the morning with 2 bullet holes in Sean's head if Doc Cavaness had been abstemious. Obviously, for some, starting down the road to alcoholism can lead to tragic consequences. Once someone starts rolling down the "Lost Highway," that traveler may not always find an exit ramp back to a peaceful life. Many years after this tragedy, a Southern Illinois newspaper featured a quote from a local barber who had known the doctor and who stated that "Doc was a different person once he got a few drinks in him." Once the inhibitions were diminished, those close to him saw a "side of him" that most community members never imagined existed and one that might have continued to lay suppressed had Dr. Cavaness not caused "Whiskey River" to take his mind.
Ladue Attorney on May 25, 2019:
The picture in this article is of the wrong Mark Cavaness, and of someone likely not related to Dr. Dale Cavaness, at least not to any appreciable degree.
Suzie from Carson City on September 18, 2018:
Kim....Where are all the comments?
Quite a hair-raising tale! Sweet Dada was a true drunken bastard. His own sons (SMH). This Dr. needed a Dr.....one that could treat him as he was locked away in the padded room of the psyche ward! Even LOOKS like a sorry-ass lunatic.
Fortunately he did not get away with his unforgivable crimes & it was nice of him to do himself in and save the tax dollars.
(Hey girl, this article must be noted as having an open link.....your video is not a working video. Change it or delete it, before this great story becomes unfeatured!) Paula