Sparse. That’s a good word to describe the population density of Eastern Massachusetts in the late 19th century. In 1895, Eastern Massachusetts was empty, from an early 21st century perspective. Compared to its 2010 population just north of 33,800, Chelmsford, Massachusetts had 3,162 people living within its borders in 1895. Its neighbor to the south, Billerica, had 2,577 inhabitants, compared to its 2010 population, which surpassed 40,000. In comparison, Boston (proper) counted approximately 497,000 residents compared to today’s count of about 620,000.
So, where do you go to find the residents of a 19th century town? One place would be the town common, or more specifically, the town water pump – often located nearby. This is where newspapermen loitered in hopes of capturing the best stories for that elusive next edition. Their best sources, they found, were the people who congregated around the pump, or, as they called them, the “village wiseacres.” Indeed, in Billerica, the wiseacres told newspapermen about church scandals, wranglings of high society in town, and even burglaries that had townspeople talking. And not only newspapermen sought out the town pump. Town constables would sometimes go there if they needed some ready deputies to help them capture their latest criminal.
Indeed, the effects of that case reverberated across Billerica for years after the men responsible were apprehended and jailed. Two-and-a-half years later, in February 1897, newspapermen learned from the “village wiseacres” that John Bull, a storeowner near town center, had suffered several recent break-ins and had since spent several nights awake in his store, double-barreled shotgun at full-cock, ready for the next time the burglars attempted entry. The story appeared in the Lowell Sun on February 4 of that year, and no further burglaries at his store were reported.
That same rash of burglaries hit the harness shop of Herbert A. King, who might have lost more than a few harnesses if a milkman, making his early-morning rounds, hadn’t frightened them away as they were making ready to escape. The wiseacres at the town pump saw him looking for his harnesses along Main Street the next morning and reported it to the newspaperman, who submitted it the the paper for publication.
The newspapermen even learned news of Constable Livingston at the town pump, who in the link above, had the most noteworthy encounter with burglars. The wiseacres reported that Livingston had been seen on the outskirts of Billerica, taking shots at trees. He apparently wanted to make sure that his revolver didn’t jam again, as it had on the night that left Deroy Foster dead, and which allowed the highwaymen to escape. A story even emerged that Livingston had shot a pumpkin off the head of a local farmer, to prove the truth of his aim, which had been questioned in the days following the murder.
In the days before television (and even radio), news travelled by word of mouth and the town pump was a popular place to congregate, to receive and spread the latest news of the town. The wiseacres found a ready audience for their gossip and the newspapermen found a ready source of material for their impending deadlines.