Category Archives: Victorian Lawmen

Forgotten Stories behind the Artifacts of the Lowell Historical Society

Lowell Police Badge - William G Lee (Photo Credit:  Tony Sampas, LHS Archivist)

Lowell Police Badge – William G Lee (Photo Credit: Tony Sampas, LHS Archivist) From the Collection of the Lowell Historical Society

Check out this badge.  I came across it in the Lowell Historical Society’s vast archive, located in the city’s Boott Mills complex.  As the society’s newly-appointed Curator of Art and Artifacts, I got to spend some time with the badge, recently, and other items that came with it.

The badge, it turns out, comes from William G. Lee, a patrolman with the Lowell Police Department who retired from the force in 1948, after 37 years of service.  The Society also has Lee’s billy club and his policemans’ rule book in its collection.

Like all old stuff, the badge, club, and book all have a kind of magic to them.  I mean, face it.  Old stuff like this invokes a certain fascination within all of us.  It’s one of the reasons societies like the Lowell Historical Society exist, and why they have an archive in the first place.  Maybe that sense of wonder carries forward from our first years, when  we escaped into our grandparents’ attics as children and found Victorian punch bowl sets wrapped in yellowed newspapers, or a stack of colorful magazines from the decade before we were born.  Most of those things are gone now, disappeared into landfills, into firepits, into oblivion.  Unless we saved them, or donated them to an archive.

That’s just how the badge, the club, and the rulebook made it to the Lowell Historical Society’s archive.  Almost 20 years ago, Officer Lee’s daughter donated them so that they could be maintained, and shared with future visitors to the Society’s archive.

24 Canton Street, Lowell, as it appears today (Photo Credit:  Google Maps)

24 Canton Street as it appears today (Photo Credit: Google Maps)

Touching history is a pretty cool thing.  Sure, you can read about history, watch it on TV, or even apply your imagination to it.  But touching history brings it to life.  And that’s the great thing about archives.  You can touch history.  As the Lowell Historical Society’s Curator, one of my duties is to publicize the collection, and share some of the stories I encounter as I research its items, and help bring the society’s vast holdings to life.  When you first set about researching an artifact, there’s that initial wave of information you instantly find, the low-hanging fruit, so to speak.  Sometimes, it’s the most interesting.  Often, it’s not.  A quick search on William G Lee shows that he lived at 24 Canton Street in Lowell in June 1948, when he retired from the force.

From the note that came with the badge, I also learned that he was appointed to the department’s probationary force in May 1911, and was promoted to the rank of patrolman about five years later in September 1916.

What’s really interesting, though, is the next few waves of discovery that you come across as you research a piece.  And it turns out that Patrolman Lee received some commendations during his 37 years on the force.  A quick glance through Lee’s rulebook reveals that patrolmen, while making their rounds, weren’t allowed to walk together, or even talk with one another.  They were advised not to stay in one spot, or converse with anyone, unless it was in the line of duty.  But, a little more research into Lee’s career proves that it’s good that he didn’t always follow his rulebook to the letter.

Officers Lee and Liston Save Lives of Dummer Street Tenants (Credit: Lowell Sun - 2/8/1922, Pg. 1)

Officers Lee and Liston Save Lives of Dummer Street Tenants (Credit: Lowell Sun – 2/8/1922, Pg. 1)

While he was wearing that very badge pictured above, Lee stood at the top of Dummer Street early one day on February 13, 1922, talking with fellow patrolman William Liston.  It wasn’t even four in the morning, when he and Liston first saw the flames and smoke bursting from the windows of a dry goods store on the ground floor of a building housing eight tenements.  Lee ran at once and pulled the alarm on a nearby fire box, while Liston ran to the burning tenement at 67 Dummer Street and started to rouse its residents.  Lee soon joined.  They, with the firemen who soon arrived, entered the building and awakened the tenants who lived on its three floors.  Everyone escaped unharmed, and the men carried three children out of the fire to safety.

Three years later, Lee received a commendation again, when he made an arrest in the early morning hours of January 26, 1925.  While likely carrying the very billy club that now rests within the Society’s collection, Lee arrested Edward Cole, a 32-year-old Lowell man who was wanted for breaking and entering into a Londonderry, NH hen house some two months earlier.  How did Lee find Cole?  He happened upon him while Cole was trying to crack a safe at the Colonial Filling Station on the Pawtucket Boulevard.

Police Billy Club that once belonged to Lowell Police Officer William G Lee (Photo Credit:  Tony Sampas, LHS Archivist)  From the Collection of the Lowell Historical Society

Police Billy Club that once belonged to Lowell Police Officer William G Lee (Photo Credit: Tony Sampas, LHS Archivist) From the Collection of the Lowell Historical Society

How did Lee treat his prisoners?  Luckily, we have his rulebook to shed some light on this.  The book advised that prisoners “shall be made as comfortable as possible,” and reminded officers that they were entitled to clear water.  The water could be purchased using the prisoners’ own money, the book continued, but only if that money hadn’t come from the offense for which they had been arrested.  Even if it turned out that the prisoner was broke, the police officer could purchase the refreshment from his own money, get a receipt, and get reimbursed for these expenses once monthly.  Officers were required to check on their prisoners once every half hour, but were strictly forbidden to “bandy words with prisoners” or to speak to them unnecessarily.  The book also stressed that the use of obscene or profane language was prohibited.

Lee’s guidebook also provides a glimpse into the daily life of patrolmen.  The book specifically reminded policemen that they were to look for anyone of ‘known bad character’ and that it was their duty to seek out disturbances and to restore quiet.  They were also encouraged to evaluate anyone who he saw walking Lowell’s streets after 10 PM.  In making his rounds, we also learn that Lee ensured that Lowell’s sidewalks remained unobstructed, and that he was to gauge the purpose of anyone he saw selling door-to-door.  Lee was also responsible for checking the doors of all dwellings upon his route to make sure that they were properly locked.

While Lee was fulfilling these same duties, in March 1933, he found Mrs. Sofie Boumilla, 37, on the floor of her unheated Cady Street home, weak and nonresponsive.  She had spent the night before on her floor, suffering with a broken leg.  She had fallen on the sidewalk on Chapel Street at 6:30 PM the prior evening and had dragged herself home, nearly half a mile away.  A neighbor who heard the woman’s weak moaning summoned Patrolman Lee who entered the home and rescued her.

Lowell Sun, Front Page, March 16, 1933

Lowell Sun, Front Page, March 16, 1933

Source:  Lowell Sun, Front Page, June 22, 1948

Source: Lowell Sun, Front Page, June 22, 1948

The badge, billy club, and police rulebook are just a few of the many historical treasures that form the holdings of the Lowell Historical Society’s archive.  The LHS has been in existence for years, and traces its roots to 1868 when it was founded as the Old Residents’ Historical Association.  In the coming months, I’ll be writing regular posts researching some of the many interesting items held by the Society and trying to find some of the forgotten history behind the Society’s art and artifacts.


Jailbreak at Rainsford Island – Boston Harbor: August 1899

Boys, House of Reformation, Rainsford Island, ...

Boys, House of Reformation, Rainsford Island, Boston Harbor, Massachusetts (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A steady stream of ten boys, each jumping from the classroom windows of the Rainsford Island House of Reformation, sprinted for the shore under the cover of the night fog on August 19, 1899. They found their way through the brush by the light of the fire that raged through their prison behind them.  As the boys reached the shore, a boat appeared and several of them  crawled into it.  The rest found another boat nearby, belonging to a lobsterman, and stole away in that.  From there, the boys escaped first to Moon Island, and then into Boston itself.

While the boys slunk off into the darkness, the prison’s superintendent, John C. Anthony, was the first to notice the flames issuing from the north wing of his House of Reformation.  Just days earlier, the same building had been set afire.  And the day before, a boy named Joseph Sullivan escaped by jumping off the island’s gangplank and swimming over to Hull, across Boston Harbor.  Sullivan had told his fellow inmates that, if his escape was successful, he would return to help the others.

Superintendent Anthony issued the alarm.  Within moments, his sixteen officers directed the House’s remaining inmates as they took the fire hose and began their efforts to fight the raging fire.  It proved little use.  The poor quality hose kept splitting. Whatever little water pressure they had was leaking away before the water even had a chance to hit the flames.

House of Reformation, Rainsford Island, Boston...

House of Reformation, Rainsford Island, Boston Harbor, Massachusetts (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As the fire raged, Superintendent Anthony called Superintendent Hopkins of Boston Harbor’s Long Island for help.  Their ship, the John Howard, soon arrived.  The men from the Howard found the north wing completely ablaze, and the inmates fighting the blaze with their single line of hose that had burst in many spots.  The crew of the Howard aimed two streams of water at the fire while Superintendent Anthony put in a call to Boston, which also sent a ship of firefighters to the island.  Their ship arrived, and their crew fought the flames alongside the crew of the Howard, and the inmates.  The fire was gradually brought under control, but not before the North Wing’s top two floors were destroyed.

In the commotion caused by the fire, twenty-five Boston City policemen arrived to guard the island’s shores trying to prevent the boys still missing from escaping the island.  They found boys running about the island “as they pleased, like Fijis”.  Some tried constructing rafts and floating away into the harbor.  One boy, named McNulty, nearly drowned about 50 yards off the shore of Hull, before he was rescued from his floating log by a reporter named Frank Sibley.  Two other boys were later found crawling through a cornfield in search of driftwood that they too hoped to use for a Hull-bound raft.

As midnight approached on that Saturday night, Boston police had rounded up nearly all of the boys who hadn’t managed to escape the island’s shores.  The boys were gathered on the House of Reformation’s recess yard and spent the night in the chapel, which had not been destroyed in the fire.  Sleeping atop mattresses that had been pulled out of the burning building, some of the island’s more unruly boys caused trouble for the guards, yelling, hollering, and calling them names.  The guards tolerated the abuse, owing to the boys’ agitated state of mind, but after some time, they adopted ‘extreme measures’ to restore the peace.

A few ‘knock-down’ battles ensued between police, prison officials, and prisoners.  Eventually, the law got the upper hand.  With the unruliness reigned in, the officials picked out eight of the worst offenders and subjected them to “the administration of the rattan stick” the next morning, when they were made to bend over a bar and were flogged.  As for the boys who escaped, they remained at large for weeks before law enforcement was able to recapture them.

In the investigations occurring in the weeks and months following the fire, cases of prisoner abuse were unearthed, and Superintendent Anthony resigned his position.  Four of the ten escapees were later charged with setting the fire.  Their names were not immediately released by authorities, but were known to the local press soon after the arson.  James McNulty, the boy later rescued while adrift on a log several hundred yards from Hull was among their number.

The investigation found that the boys used shavings, paper, and oil that they had hoarded during the months before the fire.  Escaping to the attic on that Saturday night, the four boys lit several spots in the attic at once, and watched as the fire rapidly gained ground.  McNulty, after his recapture, was later implicated in the August 1900 burning of a barn at another reformatory school, in Westboro, Massachusetts.

Rainsford Island in Boston Harbor. For more in...

Rainsford Island in Boston Harbor. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Rainsford Island

Rainsford Island, an 11 acre island in Boston Harbor, is named for Edward Rainsford, one of the island’s earliest settlers.  In its history, Rainsford Island has been known by a number of names including Hospital Island, Pest House Island, and Quarantine Island.  Since 1996, Rainsford Island has been a part of the Boston Harbor Islands National Recreational Area.  A municipal institution, the House of Reformation at Rainsford Island housed boys between the ages of 18 and 20 years old who had been sent there for all sorts of crimes, ranging from serious crimes like assault with intent to kill and larceny to the crimes that were substantially less serious like stubborn child and ‘playing ball on the Lord’s day’. The House of Reformation, later named the Suffolk School for Boys, operated on the island from 1895 to 1920.  The school housed a three-and-a-half story building with two wings, known as the North and South Wings.  At the time of the fire, 140 boys had been incarcerated there.  Most were housed in the House’s North Wing, which held 115 boys.


Oh, The Many Queer Lights of Franklin Park! – The Advent of Bicycle Lights in Boston, 1899

Image Credit: Boston Globe, August 22, 1899, Pg. 1

Blue lights, green lights, and red lights rose out of the dusky fog.  Men emerged carrying bright Japanese lanterns; women held dim electric bulbs.  As summer waned in Boston during the last days of August in 1899, a new regulation came into effect.  Starting on the night of August 21, 1899, bicyclists in Boston were to carry lights as they rode.  No longer would the 19th century darkness of Boston’s streets, paths, and byways yield unseen horrors like speeding bicyclists.

The only issue was that no one had thought to define exactly what kind of light the law should require for bicycles, or how many would do, or even where or how they should be mounted.  And this seemed perfectly daft to a populace accustomed to a world of darkness after twilight faded into night.

The patrolmen charged with enforcing the new law suffered for that vagueness; some suffered the abuse more amiably than others.  On the night of the 21st in that enlightened August of 1899, patrolmen were made aware that the regulation had gone into effect, but were asked not to enforce it until the following night.  Instead, for the night of the 21st, they were to ‘remind’ bicycle riders of their new responsibility.

English: Franklin Park, Boston

Franklin Park, Boston (Photo credit: Wikipedia).  In 1912, the Franklin Park Zoo would be founded, thirteen years after the passage of the bicycle lighting law.

Andy Cramm, a Franklin Park patrolman well-known for his joviality and affability, took his orders to heart.  On that Monday evening, the last before the new law took effect, Andy promised that violators would be ‘pinched sure as faith’ if they didn’t carry lanterns on the following evening.  Said he:  “I have only warned them tonight and lots of ‘em have sauced me, but I just want to see ‘em do it tomorrow night.”

Patrolman Cramm, whose beat included the part of Franklin Park known as the ‘roof garden’, saw one bicyclist who had attached a big reflector lantern to a pole extending from the front of his bicycle, much like what he had seen hanging in a “country doctor’s doorway”.   Andy called after the bicyclist as he pedaled off into the darkness, amid the cheers of the spectators and pedestrians who had assembled to watch the unexpected fun brought on by the new regulation.

Many of the bicyclists taunted Cramm and other patrolmen with their varying interpretations of the new vaguely-worded regulation that only required that they carry a light.   Some came carrying Japanese lanterns. Others carried bullseye lanterns.  Still others, like the bicyclist above, carried a huge reflector.  A few carried small, dim electric lights that were barely visible.  The lights spanned all of the available colors.  And then there were the bicyclists who hadn’t even heard of the new law, and who had come as they always had, in the dark, without any lights whatsoever.

Image Credit: Boston Globe, August 22, 1899, Pg. 1

And it fell to Andy Cramm and two other policemen to inform all of the bicyclists in the nearly 600-acre Franklin Park of the new regulation and to evaluate their sometimes half-serious attempts to comply with it.  Cramm, who was stationed near the Blue Hill Avenue entrance that night, was said to have suffered the worst of the abuse.  Known for his jovial, approachable manner, he handled the pranksters with ‘kid gloves’, but promised to bring his ‘boxing gloves’ the next night after the regulation really went into effect.

As Andy Cramm stood in the middle of the path leading from Blue Hill Avenue, prankster bicyclists rode past him, taunting the new law, their bicycles bedecked with red, green, and blue lights, of every variety.  Efforts had clearly been made to be the bicyclist with the most ridiculous light set-up.  Some bicyclists carried the lights in their hands; some attached them to the rear of their bicycles.  Others affixed them to long poles and attached these to the fronts of their bikes.

One young couple, riding a tandem bicycle, hadn’t heard of the coming regulation and drove without a light, wheeling around Patrolman Andy Cramm as he kindly, but firmly berated them.  They eventually wheeled off into the darkness as the man called back: “Ta-ta Andy, I’ll see you in church.” Another man, attempting to make a good faith attempt to comply with the law, showed up at Franklin Park with a well-lit corncob pipe in his mouth.  A light?  Surely.  But, Patrolman Andy Cramm still told him the error of his ways.

Cramm and his two fellow patrolman eventually found the very darkest section of Franklin Park – at ‘Lovers’ Lane’, where they found many bicycles lacking lights – and riders.  None of the riders, had they even been found, were arrested, the patrolmen said.  To do so would leave their beats unprotected for too long, they reasoned.  An arrest cost the patrolmen about an hour, the time it took to bring the perpetrators to the police station and then to return to the park.

Said one of the men, “I never saw such carrying’s on in my life.  I suppose they wanted to make the most of the last night without lights.”


All in the Same Building: A Jail, Catholic School and later Condos

City Jail, Lowell Massachusetts – (Credit: Library of Congress)

Many in Lowell recall the vast granite and brick buildings at Thorndike’s intersection with Highland as the Keith Academy building.  Before Keith Academy, though, the buildings housed the Lowell Jail.  The Lowell Jail was the city’s second, replacing the first which had been located at the corner of Dutton and Cushing streets, and dated from 1838.

In the years leading up to the Civil War, the new jail was designed and built.  Ninety cells were constructed for men, and 12 for women who were housed in the building’s northern wing.  The jail boasted two hospitals as well as four cells for solitary confinement.  A chapel was added a few decades later, around 1900.

One hundred years ago, in 1912, the Lowell jail housed some 124 inmates.  Most were men who were serving short-term sentences of less than three years.  Men who were convicted of more serious crimes were kept at the Cambridge Jail.

Jail Life

Entering the prison, new inmates were showered, given a prison uniform and underwear.  Some inmates worked in the kitchen.  Some worked in the boiler or engine rooms or as launderers.  Others, those deemed most trustworthy, worked in the barns, gardens, or with the chickens.  These inmates with greater liberties were known as “trusties”.

It was important to prison officials that inmates were kept reasonably busy, and that they weren’t allowed to be too idle or too overworked.  Each morning, the men showered with the soap and towel given to them by the jail.  Showers were followed by breakfast.  At breakfast, each inmate received a cup and plate when they passed by an opening that connected the line of inmates to the kitchen.  Through that opening, they received their food, however much they wanted, and took it back to their cells to eat their breakfasts.  The food, while wholesome was not fancy at all and was cooked “under the most sanitary procedures”.  The men were served desserts once weekly on Sundays.  Each evening, the men received enough tobacco for a smoke after supper.  All smoking ceased when lights went out at 8 o’clock.

English: Old post card of Lowell MA jail house

Old post card showing the Lowell Jail

Women prisoners, though few, experienced a similar life.  They spent their days doing laundry, sweeping, and doing general housework throughout the jail.  Women were kept separate from men.  All inmates were kept on one of the jail’s three floors.  Men, who had earned the trust of prison officials, were allowed to share their cells with roommates.  The lowest floors of the jail housed the storerooms, kitchen, and laundry.

The Lowell Jail housed just two cells that were used for solitary confinement.  The most frequently used cell was used only a couple of times a year.  Most often, the cell was used for men who arrived to the prison and refused to acknowledge and accept the rules of the jail.  The solitary confinement jail cell contained a bed, which was basically a hard board, and a blanket.  The cell contained no window, and for ventilation, had a few small holes punched through the iron door.  And that was the ‘nice’ solitary confinement cell.  The other, never used, was in the facility’s basement, and described as a dungeon.  Padded cell were available to hold those who were suffering from ‘wild delusions’.  The need for this cell was quite frequent, apparently.  The padding, in long strips, stretched from floor to ceiling.

Jail Diversions

On each Sunday, Rev. N. W. Matthews, the jail chaplain, held a service in the chapel.  Inmates were obligated to attend.  The jail also had a library, which had about 500 books, in the areas of fiction, history, and travel.  All of the jail’s vegetables were grown in its garden, and tended by the inmates.  The vegetables were stored in the jail’s vegetable cellar.  Hothouses were also on the jail’s grounds.

Some inmates at the jail were vagrants too poor to afford their own housing during the cold winter months.  Knowing well the sentences for a long list of crimes, they plotted carefully to receive a sentence long enough to protect them from the winter.  Upon release, prisoners were given a suit of clothes and shoes, if they were too poor to afford their own.  Some returned, occasionally, looking for a night’s shelter.

After the Jail Closed 

Keith Academy

Keith Academy (Photo credit: uzi978)

The building remained a jail until 1919, when it was closed due to concerns related to rising fuel costs, as well as a lower incarceration rate brought on by the increase in men being recruited into the military to support US involvement in WWI.  When the jail closed, its nine remaining inmates were moved to the jail in Cambridge.

The building remained closed and unsold for seven years before it was purchased by the Catholic Church and converted into a boy’s preparatory school.  The remodeling did little to change the exterior, but completely gutted and remodeled the interior.  Keith Academy remained in the building until 1970.  Today, the building that formerly housed the Lowell Jail and Keith Academy had been divided into 56 condominium units and still stands on Lowell’s Thorndike Street.


A (true) story about Victorian Billerica Center, a church and its scandal

Familiar sites greet you as you step from the twenty-minute electric car ride on the Lowell & Suburban into the Billerica Center of 1896.  Like today, Town Common dominates the view, its Soldiers’ Monument and flagpole just now disappearing behind the late spring foliage.  The Unitarian church and Town Hall (now the Library) bookend today’s Masonic Hall building; in 1896, it houses Frederic Morey‘s General Store.  Looking north, past the Bennett Library and Fred Parker’s home, you see the Stearns Boarding House at River Street.      

You sidestep the ruts left by passing horse traffic on Bedford (now Concord) Road, brimming with stagnant water from yesterday’s rain.  Passing south by the future site of the Council of Aging building, you see instead two residential homes and, beyond that, the First Baptist Church.  Despite threatening clouds overhead, a crowd has gathered outside the church to learn the charges against its pastor, Reverend Samuel D. Anderson.  Reporters and onlookers wait under the 44-star flag on the Common and shuffle about the street, as they steal anxious glances at the sexton, seated on the church’s front porch, blocking its locked doors.  He ‘politely’ advises them to ‘view the beauties of nature outside while the meeting is in progress’.  Several, hoping to hear the proceedings inside, approach the church’s windows only to be disappointed to find them closed due to the cool weather.

The men, in bowlers, and the women, in long dresses with exaggerated sleeves, chat around McKinley’s recent presidential nomination and the supposed atrocities committed by Spanish troops in their Cuban territory.  Not much time passes, however, before conversation returns to the church and Rev. Anderson, who is inside defending himself against these hushed charges.  Rev. Anderson has been reticent to speak on the subject in the weeks leading up to this meeting, saying only that the “church is the proper body to consider reports about him”.

The townspeople, each with their own versions of the case, talk in hushed tones so that the press will not reveal Billerica’s matters to the wider readership.  Increasingly emboldened by the passage of time, however, the papers grow critical of the insular nature of the ‘peaceful, little village’,  ‘its trim housewives’ and their efforts to keep the ‘rude and outside public’ ignorant of the case and begin to speculate in print.  They hint that a fellow church member, a former deacon, has brought the charges months after the alleged event was said to have occurred.  The ex-deacon, they say, has ‘good reason’ to be upset as he is ‘a man of family’.   A seemingly misplaced sentence in one article informs that the man’s daughter had been an organist at the church.

When the 30 or so members leave the church meeting 90 minutes later, several report that the charges were not actually heard; instead, the opposing sides tried, unsuccessfully, to agree on a moderator.  When questioned later, both the ex-deacon and Rev. Anderson state that there is ‘nothing for publication’.  This disappoints the crowd outside and rumors emerge that the ex-deacon brought the charges to light now because he lost his position within the church to a black man.

Confronted by the press, the ex-deacon denies the rumors and tells his story, and says that he had been treated unfairly in the recent election of church officers.  He waited to present the charges, he says, because he learned of them only after his wife’s recent death.  His daughter, the charges do involve the former organist – the paper leaks, told him that his late wife knew, but did not tell him.  Now, knowing the complaint, he must present it to the church, and not to the police.

On July 3, 1896, after several weeks of speculation, the charges are finally read to the church and revealed publicly.  Once, approximately two years before, the pastor ‘acted improperly’ toward the man’s daughter.  Several witnesses are called.  Mrs. McCoy, a boarder at the ex-deacon’s house, states that the woman confided in her after the event and that she, in turn, confronted Rev. Anderson, who admitted his fault.  The woman herself testifies that she cannot remember the event’s actual date, but that it did indeed happen.  Then, Rev. Anderson testifies, stating that the woman had ‘gone absolutely silly over him’ and that she said she ‘would seek revenge if she did not get him’.  He admits the conversation with Mrs. McCoy, but denies admitting any fault.  A last parishioner, siding with Rev. Anderson, speculates that the ex-deacon was angry with Rev. Anderson after he had been dropped as the church deacon and Sunday school teacher, and replaced by a black man.

With the testimony concluded, the church votes and Rev. Anderson wins by a vote of 25-3.  He is invited to speak the following Sunday; the Sun reports and then speculates that he would not stay long in Billerica.  Indeed, he does not.  The town directory shows another pastor leading the church just five years later.  The church itself closed due to decreasing membership in 1923.  With time, the 1896 church scandal faded from memory; today, it provides an interesting insight into Billerica Center society during the Gilded Age, their views of the larger Greater Lowell community, and how that larger community viewed them.


Billerica, 1904: The Peddler’s Sons and Their Buried Treasure

In May 1904, ten yards beyond a barbed wire fence in the East Billerica woods, James Marnell stumbled over a small mound of dirt, uncovering an ornate silver serving tray.  “Sanborn’s treasure!” Marnell, a railroad worker, excitedly deduced.  Townspeople knew Sanborn’s treasure to contain silverware, jewelry, and furs stolen the year before from Billerica’s plush Talbot and Holden estates and valued at some $10,000, a worthy sum when $13 was the average weekly wage.

Edgar Sanborn (Credit: Lowell Sun, 3/22/1904)

Two months before, Edgar Sanborn had confessed to ten high profile heists in five cities, including the Talbot and Holden burglaries, spanning a six month period beginning when he escaped from the Insane Asylum in September 1903.  He was also wanted for an arson of the Auburn railroad station house in that Worcester suburb.   A cunning negotiator, Sanborn had won a high price for that confession.  Held for breaking and entering in Mt. Holly, NJ, law enforcement officials there had not yet determined his true identity when they began sending circulars to local police departments to determine if he was wanted elsewhere.  Some police departments of the time saw these as excellent opportunities to enhance their salaries with bonus reward monies.

One such circular found its way to Worcester police officials, who contacted Mt. Holly about their captive, who they believed to be the Sanborn they wanted for arson and burglaries in Massachusetts.  Mt. Holly officials were quite responsive to Massachusetts inquiries until they learned there was no reward offered for Sanborn’s return to Massachusetts.  Enter Sanborn’s stellar negotiation skills.  For his written confession to the burglaries and arson, Sanborn gave Deputy Sheriff Fleetwood and NJ State Detective Parker his personal assurance that he would lead them to the site of his buried plunder.  And surely the Talbot and Holden estates would pay a reward for the return of their stolen valuables and heirlooms.

The Sanborn House (Credit: Lowell Sun, March 23, 1904)

Fleetwood and Parker graciously (and promptly) accompanied Sanborn to the family’s East Billerica homestead – so prompt, in fact, that they did even notify Massachusetts that they were returning Sanborn.  Upon arriving at his home, Sanborn sent Parker inside to retrieve two revolvers while he led Fleetwood into the woods.  Surely, the next step or turn would lead to the treasure, Fleetwood hoped.  They meandered near the train tracks.  At last, they came to the barbed wire fence.  ‘It’s right there.’ Sanborn told Fleetwood, pointing to a spot on the other side.  Sanborn watched as Fleetwood slowly climbed the fence, carefully negotiating the handcuff attached to his wrist.  At a precise moment, Sanborn shoved him and wrenched the loosely fastened handcuff from his wrist.  Fleetwood landed with a thud as Sanborn escaped into the woods.  Fleetwood fired one shot into Sanborn’s arm before Sanborn disappeared from view.

When Fleetwood did not return, Parker feared he had been murdered and uncomfortably reported to local police their surreptitious effort to return Sanborn to Massachusetts.  A 24-hour manhunt through Billerica, Tewksbury, and Wilmington ensued.  Ultimately, local officials found Fleetwood the next day, disgusted, tired, and perhaps ashamed, still in the woods, cursing his bad luck.  Sanborn was found shortly after, at a friend’s house four miles away.

That capture in Tewksbury presaged his third return to the Worcester Insane Hospital.  His first had started after a standoff with his parents occurring during Christmas 1896.

Seven Years Earlier

Lamps at the eyeglass peddler’s house on East Billerica’s Gray Street flickered brightly late one night.  Inside, his grown sons, Edgar and Arthur Sanborn intendedly studied their Greek bibles, each trying to produce the best English translation.  An argument about God’s nature ensued, each brother increasingly vexing the other.  By the time Mr. and Mrs. Sanborn quietly stole worried glances into the room, their sons had climbed atop their chairs, flinging their books into a pile.  Horrified, they watched as Edgar and Arthur jumped to the floor and began an “Indian dance” around the pile.

Arthur Sanborn (Credit: Lowell Sun – March 23, 1904)

At this, they intervened, trying to calm their sons.  The men suddenly grew sullen, and secured the family’s two revolvers.  Their parents stared in disbelief as Edgar and Arthur stood shoulder to shoulder, soundlessly, in the middle of the room, pointing their revolvers at their parents.  Neither responded to their parents’ pleadings.  Neither spoke at all.  Hours began to pass.

Eight Hours.  Sanborn and his brother, Arthur, stared down their parents through the length of their revolvers.  At dawn, the brothers weakened, allowing their parents to wrench away the revolvers.   The respite was brief, however.  The next night, their sons again experienced a fit of insanity, violently descending into their home’s cellar.  There, with crowbars, they began digging twin three-foot deep pits.  Were they graves?  Their parents fled and contacted town constables, who rammed through the house’s door the next morning.   Constables Livingston and Conway eventually subdued the men, after four hours, but not before the Sanborn’s dog tore Conway’s clothing and one Sanborn nearly bit off Livingston’s finger.

Edgar Sanborn spent most of his life in insane asylums – Worcester first and Bridgewater later.  Arthur too was committed to Worcester briefly, but never again fell afoul of the law.  He lived on Gray Street with his widowed mother until her death in the thirties.  He died in Boston in 1945.  And the treasure?  No further mention is made, prompting one to wonder if it still lies in Sanborn’s woods, which today are bucolic backyards in East Billerica.


Understanding Crime in Edwardian-Era Massachusetts – Arrests in Lowell, 1904

So, say you’re writing a scene about Edwardian-era police officers in New England, or researching the life and times of a police officer ancestor.  Or, perhaps you’re trying to get an idea of how people got into trouble with the law in the first years of the twentieth century.  You’ll need to know why Edwardian-era people got arrested.

West Gate Towers and Museum, St Peter's Street, Canterbury, Kent. Victorian photograph of policemen, via Wikipedia

In writing newspaper columns and blog posts, it’s interesting to see which topics attract the most interest.  And one of the most popular topics tends to be crimes.  But, what were the most common crimes a century ago?  In a typical year (1904), in a typical New England mill city, like Lowell, Massachusetts with its population of about 100,000 people, police made just over 5,000 arrests.

Old post card of Lowell MA jail house

Lowell City Jail (now apartments) on Thorndike Street.

What was the nature of the typical arrest in 1904?  Nearly 73% were for public drunkenness.  Another 13% were for other crimes against the public order, like truancy, which tended to happen in good weather.  Other crimes against the public order were for things that people today are no longer arrested for:  adultery, fornication, lewd cohabitation, and something called bastardy, which today would be called ‘failure to pay child support’, but in this case for a child born out-of-wedlock.  About a dozen arrests were made for those ‘violating the Lord’s day’ in 1904, or operating a business on a Sunday.
A far smaller component of the number of arrests in 1904 was for crimes against property, at just over 10%.  Almost all of these were for larceny, the theft of personal property; a smaller percentage of these arrests were for breaking & entering.  Lastly, the smallest percentage (4%) of arrests involved crimes against people.  In 1904, most of these arrests, about 80%, were assaults; only one was for murder.
The typical person being arrested was likely to be adult and male, nearly 80% fit this description.  About 12% were adult women; the remainder were minors.  Nearly half of those arrested were US-born; about 20% were from Ireland.  The remainder came from other countries.
Knowing how people got into trouble years ago not only tells us what sort of dangers our ancestors faced, but also what sort of dangers they caused too.  And, for those of us with police officers in our family tree, it gives an idea of the nature of the arrests that they made and the demographics of the people they arrested.  Either way, it makes for a fuller picture of the past and for a more interesting story to accompany a family tree.