Police Tales of Yesteryear

By Jim Ignasher

Originally published in Your Smithfield Magazine – June, 2012.  

Smithfield’s first police car, a Ford Model A

Smithfield’s first police car, a Ford Model A

The evening of October 2, 1933, was a glorious autumn night that appeared custom made for romance.  The weather was clear and crisp, and millions of stars dazzled the sky. So it was that a young man and his favorite girl parked along a wooded area of Ridge Road near the North Providence line.  As the couple sat in the car anticipating what might come next, a man with a pistol suddenly appeared as if out of nowhere.  

“Stick ‘em up and hand over your dough!” he demanded, as if he were in some low-budget B-rated gangster movie.

The couple was in no position to argue, and the young man quickly handed over two dollars, stammering that it was all he had.

Instead of being angry or running off, the robber then proceeded to tell the couple his life story, leading up to how he had recently been released from prison.  His time in jail, he insisted, had been a “bum rap”, and the man swore he was totally innocent of the crime he had been convicted of.  He then went on to explain that the only reason he was robbing them was to raise enough money to leave Rhode Island so he could “go straight.” 

Ah, the good old days, a time when people slept behind unlocked doors and crime was virtually non-existent.  Vintage sepia tone images pasted in yellowing scrapbooks seem to reflect such a simpler time, but did such an era really exist?

Consider the case of the wife of Doctor E. L. Bellou of Spragueville, who often helped her husband with his practice by traveling to Centerdale to purchase supplies, and collect past due bills from patients.  On the evening of October 30, 1901, she was returning home along the Powder Mill Turnpike, (Today known as Route 44.) when she was accosted in the area of the present-day Greenville Library.  Without warning, two rough looking characters emerged from the shadows and brought her horse and buggy to a halt.

As one man pointed a gun at the woman, he told the other, “You take care of the horse, I’ll look after her!”  He had no sooner uttered these words when Mrs. Bellou produced a pistol of her own and promptly shot him!  As the would-be bandit staggered backwards, he fired a shot in return.  The bullet passed through the brim of Mrs. Bellou’s hat and out the canvas roof of the buggy leaving two perfectly round holes to denote its path. Before either of the men could recover, the woman put the whip to her horse which took off at a full gallop.   

Smithfield constables were notified, but a search of the area revealed nothing but a trail of blood that led away from Greenville. Town officials, outraged at the brazen robbery attempt, and subsequent near murder of a well respected woman, posted a $300 reward for the capture and conviction of the men responsible.  Whether or not they were ever apprehended is unclear. 

Although there is no definitive proof that the same two men were responsible, a similar attempted robbery occurred a few days later on a highway in West Greenwich.  In that incident, one of the men was disguised as a woman! 

Fortunately it wasn’t all high crimes and misdemeanors that made headlines in those days of yore.  Most of the time Smithfield’s police officers dealt with more benign issues.  A case in point occurred one afternoon in the summer of 1937 when then Chief of Police Alfred La Croix encountered two pretty teenaged girls walking along Farnum Pike on their way home from Georgiaville Beach clad only in one-piece bathing suits.  After speaking with the girls, the chief drafted a proclamation banning the practice of strolling along public highways in such attire.  A newspaper article pertaining to the incident stated that the ban, which also applied to non-Smithfield residents, did not include sun suits or short pants.   

On the surface one might think the chief was being prudish, for bating suits of the 1930s were quite modest compared to those of today, but it was a time before modern roads and highways, when many “strangers” came to town to swim in local ponds and lakes instead of traveling to the shore like people do today.  With this knowledge one can surmise that the chief was doing his due diligence and looking out for the girl’s safety. 

Apparently traveling peddlers had become a nuisance during the Depression, for in September of 1937 Smithfield’s Town Council adopted an ordinance requiring all peddlers operating in town to have a license.  However, certain vendors, such as butchers, fish dealers, and farmers, were exempt.

Those arrested for crimes in Smithfield usually spent the night in one of the town’s two “bridewells”; an old English term for jail.  One was located in Georgiaville, and the other in Greenville.  Prisoners would remain in the bridewell until they were brought before the judge of the Ninth District Court.  In the early 1900s court was held in what is today the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post on Farnum Pike.  

An amusing incident concerning the courtroom wood stove happened on June 24, 1938, when the janitor, following the judge’s orders, started a fire to remove dampness from the building.  He apparently did his job a little too well for the resulting heat from the roaring fire, combined with balmy June weather, forced a temporary recess.   

There was a time when all motor vehicle offenses carried criminal penalties, and were therefore heard by judges of the District Court instead of the traffic tribunals we know today.   The Ninth District Court docket for May 26, 1938, shows that a Greenville man was fined twenty dollars for operating his motorcycle at an “estimated” speed of 58 mph on Farnum Pike.  How the speed was “estimated” was not stated.  Two other men were fined $5 for operating motor vehicles without a license.

Police reports of those pre-World War II days are scarce – if they ever existed at all.  Many Rhode Island police departments of the era were part-time, and newspapers generally carried more information about an incident than day-sheet entries in a police blotter.  A case in point is the Pawtucket man who was slightly injured on April 23, 1939, when his hastily repaired two-seater airplane crashed at the Smithfield Airport, located where Bryant University stands today.  The crash was blamed on a “bad welding job” and the mechanic responsible was promptly fired.  The plane was owned by the Smithfield Airport Club, an organization consisting of young men interested in aviation.

In the later twentieth century is the story of what was perhaps Smithfield’s best kept open secret; a “safe house” where notorious criminals were kept in protective custody until they could testify in federal court.

In the spring of 1971, a chain link fence was erected around a former mill owner’s home in Stillwater, and soon afterward men with automatic weapons were seen patrolling the grounds.  Those men were United States Marshals attached to the Witness Protection Program however none would admit it at the time.  Town officials who made inquiries and attempted to access the property were rebuffed and turned away.  The Marshals put forth a cover story that the U.S. Department of Interior was developing anti-pollution equipment at the site, but nobody believed it.  Before long it was common knowledge what was going on at the property although government officials would neither confirm nor deny the “rumors”. 

One might be surprised to learn that many famous, and not so famous, underworld figures were sheltered there, ranging from corrupt cops and politicians to international drug dealers and stone-cold killers.  

When a local news station began filming activity at the house the Marshal’s abandoned the site for one more secretive.  Today the former “safe house” is a private residence.

On April 27, 1977, the sleepy village of Stillwater once again made the news when three men used dynamite to blow up the Capron Dam at the bottom of Capron Road.  Millions of gallons of water gushed forth before the dam was repaired.  The men were part of a construction crew digging a trench in the area that kept filling with water seeping from the pond.  Rather than employ pumps, they chose to empty the pond.   

More than just old newspaper accounts survive to give a glimpse of those long ago days.  In September of 2009, Smithfield’s then Deputy Chief of Police, Richard P. St. Sauveur, discovered an old iron key that once locked the cell of the Georgiaville Bridewell, and donated it to the Historical Society of Smithfield. The artifact is presently on display at the Smith-Appleby House Museum.

Blood, Bullets, and Bad Men

By Jim Ignasher

Originally Published in Your Smithfield Magazine – July, 2010

bloodThe day started out like any other, but before it was over, there would be a story to tell that had all the makings of an old-time western movie; a highway robbery, a shoot-out with the law, and even a citizen’s posse.  This forgotten tale has long since faded into the recesses of local history, but it seems worth re-telling. It all began on Farnum Pike near present-day Kane Road on April 20, 1914. 

To tell this story properly, the reader needs to know a little background information.  The Village of Stillwater once had a large textile mill that burned to the ground in 1984. Between 1914 and 1974 it was owned by the Lister Family, but before that, it was owned by the Centerdale Worsted Company, of North Providence.  James Lister, Jr. was part-owner of the Centerdale Worsted Company and served as its treasurer.

On the afternoon of April 20, Mr. Lister and company president, William Mackie, set out from North Providence for Stillwater to deliver the mill payroll.  

They traveled by way of Waterman Avenue and Farnum Pike in an open horse-drawn carriage, with a canvas sack containing several thousand dollars resting on the seat between them. As they reached the top of what was referred to in the newspapers as, “Appleby’s Hill”, they encountered an automobile parked along the side of the roadway with nobody inside.  Motor vehicles were still somewhat rare in Smithfield in 1914, and as they proceeded past it, both men took note of the four-digit license plate, number 1939, but didn’t recognize the car as belonging to anyone local.  It was at this point that five men armed with pistols and rifles jumped up from behind a stone wall and ordered the businessmen to stop.

It is unknown if Lister and Mackie were armed, but even if they were they were out-gunned and had been taken by surprise.  As the bandits approached, one holding a shotgun unexpectedly opened fire hitting Lister square in the chest with a slew of lead pellets. The sudden blast startled the horse, which reared up on its hind legs and let out a loud whinny, frightening one of the other bandits into firing his pistol.  The bullet missed the horse, but grazed Mackie’s neck.  This caused the others to begin shooting, which sent the horse off at full-gallop trying to outrun the fusillade of bullets. 

Although seriously wounded, Lister whipped the horse with one hand while holding the reins with the other as hot lead zipped past their heads. There is no doubt that the bandits could have easily pursued and overtaken the two wounded men with their automobile, and why they chose not to is open to speculation.  Perhaps they were just as startled by the ugly turn of events as Lister and Mackie, for they took off toward Georgiaville and Esmond instead. 

With the car load of bandits literally headed south of the border, Lister and Mackie made for the mill and arrived in short order.  As Lister was treated for his wounds, Mackie authorized a reward of $500 for the capture of the bandits, which sent some men scrambling from their work stations to become part of a hastily formed armed posse to set out to collect the bounty.  In the meantime word was sent to North Providence authorities to be on the lookout for the armed desperadoes.   

The North Providence police officer who took the phone call was Deputy Chief of Police George Hill, who had been on duty at the Town Hall in Centerdale.  (This was a different Town Hall than the one used today.)  He stepped out into the roadway just in time to see the bandits approaching, and signaled for the driver to stop. As the automobile slowed, the front seat passenger suddenly leaned out and opened fire on the officer!  One bullet slammed into Hill’s left shoulder, spun him around, and knocked him to the ground.  Before he could recover and return fire, the driver sped off with no regard for the hapless citizens in the street who were sent scrambling for cover.    

It was clear that the gang of thugs had no regard for human life and would stop at nothing to get away.  Word of the shootings spread quickly, and alarms were transmitted to the Pawtucket and Providence police, who set up roadblocks staffed with shotgun-toting blue-coats fully prepared to dispatch the bandits to the land of milk and honey.  Unfortunately, these efforts were for naught because the robbers managed to slip away.   

However, the police had at least one clue to work with and that was the auto’s registration number, which was found to belong to a Providence man named Rosetti.  Rosetti admitted to owning the car, but claimed he had been forced to participate in the attempted payroll robbery.  He related that he had received a telephone call that morning from a man who wanted to rent the car for the day, and when he met the man at an agreed meeting place on Atwells Avenue, he was instructed to go to another location to pick up three others. The five of them then drove to Stillwater where three of the men got out and went into some woods while he waited with the fourth man in the car.  After hearing gunshots in the distance, Rosetti claimed the three men returned, and one put a gun to his head and ordered him to drive back to Providence, and to do it “fast!”   

Imagine Rosetti’s dismay when the police didn’t believe his story!  Despite the fact his tale contradicted accounts related by the victims, Rosetti stuck to his story for nearly three hours before he “suddenly remembered” that after he dropped the four men off in Providence, he had found a rifle in his car that they had left behind. Instead of notifying police, Rosetti felt the best course of action was to hide it in his garage!  Police recovered the rifle, and after another hour of questioning, Rosetti remembered that he had also found an overcoat worn by one of the bandits and had hidden that down a sewer. In the pockets of the coat police found bullets and a black mask. 

As Rosetti’s memory improved, he gave the name of one of the bandits as De Palma. Investigators went to De Palma’s home and found him in bed claiming to be sick. He denied any knowledge of the whole affair and maintained his innocence even after he was brought to the hospital and identified by Deputy Chief Hill as being in the car.  

Rosetti and De Palma, if convicted, were looking at substantial jail time, and probably didn’t feel like serving it alone. It wasn’t long before the names of their cohorts were known and the entire gang was in custody.

Unfortunately, the outcome of the trial is not known. The good news is that all three shooting victims recovered from their wounds, the mill payroll was saved, and an exciting chapter of forgotten local history was thus brought to a close.  

A Sad Case Of Mistaken Identity: How a chance meeting and a runaway imagination led to tragedy

Sad caseOriginally published in Your Smithfield Magazine – May, 2010

By Jim Ignasher

Perhaps if Daniel Atcherson had left for his home in Greenville five minutes sooner, or five minutes later, this story would have ended differently, but he didn’t.  He left at just the right time to set into motion a tragic series of events.  It was August 20, 1873, the night was hot, the air was thick, and under those conditions tempers can rise like the mercury in a thermometer.  Before the night was over, someone close to him would be dead.      

Atcherson was a recent immigrant to America, having brought his wife and three young sons to the United States just the year before.  He eventually settled in Greenville where he found work in a local mill.  The family took up residence in a building referred to as “The Long House”, an apartment house owned by the Greenville Woolen Company located on Putnam Pike near the intersection of West Greenville Road.  The building was so named due to its unusual shape; it was literally a “long house” built specifically to house mill workers.   

The apartments inside were small, separated by thin walls that left much to be desired in terms of privacy. 

Caleb Williams and his wife lived in the apartment next to the Atchersons’, along with their 18 year-old son, Caleb, Jr., and a pretty daughter in her early twenties.

August 30 was a Saturday, and Mr. Atcherson took the opportunity to rent a horse and buggy and go to Cumberland to visit the site of a new mill in Ashton.  He kissed his wife goodbye, and told her he would return around 5 p.m. that evening.  Five o’clock came and went, and there was no sign of Mr. Atcherson.  By ten o’clock that night he still had not returned, and Mrs. Atcherson grew concerned. She wasn’t worried that her husband had met with an accident, or that he had been the victim of foul play.  Her anxiety grew from the belief that her husband might be involved in an affair with the Williams’ daughter. 

One can only speculate as to the thoughts that went through her mind.  Had her husband taken the Williams girl to Cumberland with him?  Was he planning to take a job in Ashton and leave her for the “other woman”?  

Her rising temper seemed to feed off the stifling air in the tiny apartment.       

She began pacing the floor when she suddenly heard a woman’s laughter coming from the Williams apartment.  As she stopped to listen, she could detect a man’s voice, followed by more laughter. Before long, she convinced herself it was her husband carrying on with the Williams girl, and with rage building inside her, she stormed to the next apartment and began pounding on the door demanding to be let in.   

The Williams family was home, but Mr. Williams refused to open the door.  He tried to tell his irate neighbor that her husband was not there, but she would hear none of it.  The fact that he refused to open the door to let her see for herself only supported her suspicions and added to her fury.  Sure that Williams was lying, she began threatening his life, which only further convinced him that opening the door would not be to his best interest.   

When she realized that her threats were useless, she left to obtain an axe from her apartment, and returned to attack her neighbor’s door with renewed vigor.  It only took a few whacks to break it open allowing her to force her way inside. In the meantime, Caleb Jr. had armed himself with a pistol, and when Mrs. Atcherson burst in welding the axe he confronted her.  He no doubt saw rage in her eyes and was likely afraid for himself and his family. 

As she raised the axe he fired, but the round reportedly had little effect.  When she came at him again he fired a second time killing her instantly.      

While the acrid smell of gun smoke still hung in the air, Caleb and his father dragged the body of Mrs. Atcherson back to her apartment, and for some unknown reason they nailed the door shut as if they needed to prevent her from rising from the dead and getting out of the room.  (Where the Atcherson children were during this ordeal is not recorded.)  

At some point afterward, Caleb walked to Greenville center and reported the incident to two men, one of whom sought out Hiram Mann, Smithfield’s Town Sergeant, and chief law enforcement officer. When they broke into the Atcherson apartment they found Mrs. Atcherson lying on the floor in bloodstained clothing.         

An autopsy was performed the following day, and a coroner’s inquest was held a few days later.  The jury heard testimony from Doctor Elmer B. Eddy who determined that the fatal bullet had ruptured the aortic artery causing internal bleeding and, “almost instant death.”

Despite the fact that Mrs. Atcherson had been armed with an axe, and had forced her way into the apartment, the coroner’s jury determined that Caleb had not acted in self-defense!  Mrs. Atcherson was reported to be a small, middle aged, woman weighing about 90 pounds, and it was felt that Caleb, being larger and stronger, should have been able to disarm her without resorting to lethal force.  Caleb was arraigned before Trial Justice Emor H. Mowry where he pled guilty to killing Mrs. Atcherson, and was bound over for trial in October.  The final disposition of the case was not recorded, but there were certainly arguments that could be made in his defense. Therefore, the possibility exists that he was exonerated.     

Authorities were unable to locate Mr. Atcherson on the night of the shooting, but one thing was for sure, he was not in the Williams apartment.  He was found the following morning fast asleep in his rented carriage in front of a home on Putnam Pike with the horse feeding on some grass along the roadside.  Upon being awakened, he related how on his way home the pervious evening he happened to meet three friends walking along the roadway and offered them a ride.  But the road was dusty, and the journey long, so they had decided to partake in some libation and entertainment at a friendly tavern before continuing on their way. They left the tavern around 8 p.m., and resumed their trek towards Greenville when they got into an accident and damaged the buggy.  Their trip was further delayed as they made some makeshift repairs before continuing on. Everyone made it home safely except for Mr. Atcherson who was found sleeping in the carriage. 

One newspaper, echoing the prohibition movement sentiments of the era, blamed the whole incident on the evils of rum, but others could argue that chance played more of a role. Five minutes one way or the other could have made all the difference.      





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