Category Archives: Billerica

When Eastern Massachusetts was the Frontier, 1695

Maybe you’ve come through Billerica.  On the northern approach, near the North Billerica commuter rail station, lies the site of the John Rogers homestead, marked by a sign erected by the Massachusetts Tercentenary Commission in 1930.  The sign memorializes an event that happened even longer ago on today’s Billerica Avenue.  Early in Billerica’s history, during the Indian Massacre of 1695, the homestead of John Rogers was destroyed.  The sign once reported that the entire Rogers family was killed.  Later, those words were grayed out after researchers learned that several of the Rogers’ children had escaped and survived.

Photograph of the sign marking the site of the John Rogers Homestead, courtesy of Elizabeth Thomsen (Flickr)

That’s only part of the story.  The massacre at Billerica in 1695 was just one of a series of ‘Indian raids’ that formed part of King William’s War.  Relations between the colonial powers of France and England had been strained since 1689.  Both countries encouraged their respective American Indian allies to raid the other’s colonies in New France (now Canada), Acadia (now Canada and Maine), and New England.  As the war between France and England wore on, the raids crept closer and closer to Billerica and the town militia fervently guarded its borders.  Prior attacks had hit Dover (New Hampshire), Salmon Falls, and Falmouth Neck (today’s Berwick, Maine and Portland, Maine, respectively). Even though Billerica residents had felt themselves safe from the raids, being far south of the frontier with the French colonies, they still cringed at stories of English colonists in the more northerly settlements being killed, or captured during the raids and sold into captivity.

Map of Massachusetts, 1827, Anthony Finley (1790-1840)

With a wary eye, Billerica learned of the raids growing increasingly closer.  During September 1691, two raids hit Dunstable (Mass.).  A raid attacked Lancaster, Mass. less than a year later in July 1692.  The raids did come to Billerica – in 1692, three years before the raid on John Rogers house.

In August 1692, the town’s first massacre occurred near today’s Pollard Street.  Surviving records record little.  Indians raided two households near the current site of the North Cemetery.  In the first, Joanna Dutton, a widow whose husband had died of smallpox, was killed.  Her children, Mary and Benoli Dunkin were also slain.  In the next household, the raids claimed Ann Shed along with her daughters Agnes and Hannah.  Both mothers were 36 at the time; their children ranged in age from two to 16.  Mrs. Dutton was survived by five of her children.  Three of Mrs. Shed’s children survived.

The second, larger massacre occurred in early August nearly three years later, in 1695.  Town records recorded 15 people dead or taken captive, from four of the few houses that then stood east of the Concord River, in Billerica’s northern section.  According to the contemporary account written by Dr. Mather, the Indian raiders came upon the townspeople at high noon and in broad daylight.  The home of John Rogers, its site marked today by the Indian Raid sign, was raided first.  They found the farmer asleep in his bed and shot him through the neck.  Rogers awoke, ripped the arrow from his neck, and died holding it in his hand.  A woman, witnessing the attack, only survived by escaping through a window and hiding inside a pile of flags in the yard.  The Indians scalped a second woman, who survived and lived for many years afterward.  John Rogers’ son, Daniel, 12, and his daughter, Mercy were captured by the Indians.  Another four children escaped.

"The Abduction of Daniel Boone's Daughter by the Indians" by Karl Ferdinand Wimar, 1853

The raid fell upon the home of John Levistone next.  Levistone’s mother-in-law and his five young children were killed.  Another daughter, eleven-year-old Sarah, survived, but was taken captive.  The third house raided belonged to John Rogers’ younger brother, Thomas, who was killed along with his son.  The last home raided belonged to Mary Allen, whose sister, Martha Carrier, had been hanged as a witch in Salem in 1692, and whose husband, Dr. Roger Toothaker, had been accused of witchcraft there and died in prison soon after.  Mary Allen died in the Indian raid; her youngest daughter was captured.  Word of the attacks soon reached Billerica Town Center, whose residents chased after the fleeing Indians.  The Indians easily escaped into the woods.  Town residents soon realized that the Indians had planned their escape well and had even muzzled their dogs.

Today, the sign near the North Billerica commuter rail station memorializes the site of the John Rogers homestead, the only raid site that has been definitively identified.  The identification was possible because, at least as late as the 1880’s, a well used by John Rogers was still visible.  Also, bricks that had been brought from England were found in the homestead’s cellar.  Historians have since proposed that the Levistone household was located  southeast of the Rogers Homestead, perhaps along present-day Mt. Pleasant Street or High Street.    Estimations of the locations of the homes of Thomas Rogers and the Toothakers have placed them at the site of the present-day MBTA west parking lot and the point where the Middlesex Canal leaves the Concord River, respectively.

Other People’s Ancestors – How House Histories Bring the Unrelated Together

When I started researching my family tree in 1988, the hobby was quite solitary.  I spent hours in the local history room of the Pollard Memorial Library in Lowell, Massachusetts, threading microfilm reels of the local papers through the microfilm readers and leafing through dusty, yellowed City Directories.  I remember the excitement of the first time I found my great-grandparents listed as young parents in the 1910 US Census, then the most recent census available, and constructing my first family tree from there.  I traced them back through the earlier censuses and found their parents.  I located birth, marriage, and death records; before long, I had traced almost all of my branches back to my gateway, or immigrant ancestors.  You’ll notice that there is a lot of first-person narration here.  In those days, genealogy was about as social as reading a book.  At most, you might have found family members who shared various levels of interest in your discoveries.  Or, you might have come across a distant relation willing to share information or your interest through snailmail correspondence.

By Free Public Library Commission of Massachusetts [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Pollard Memorial Library - 1899, via Wikipedia Commons

Six years ago, my wife and I, both avid readers of publications like Old House Journal and This Old Housebought a century-old home ‘for the charm’ and, at least in my case, to capture a piece of the past.  We certainly accomplished this – and many fascinating, non-genealogy-related accounts narrating the joys and trials of owning older homes already abound in the blogosphere.  One day, while trying to escape one of our old home tasks – it may have been repointing the fieldstone foundation or insulating the crawl space under our enclosed porch; the fond memory escapes me – I got the idea that I would research the house’s history.  Within our closing documentation, I knew we had some death certificates of previous owners.  And, more importantly, the deed of the previous owners referenced, within its last lines, the prior deed that had conveyed ownership of the home to them some thirty-five years before.

Armed with these documents, I took a day off from work, and traveled down to the Registry of Deeds, and set to find the Book and Page referenced in the Deed.  And I did, and within the last lines of that deed, I found the book and page number of an earlier deed.  I spent a couple of hours, in the basement of the Courthouse, tracing one deed to the next, solitarily leafing through increasingly older deed books.  As the dates on the deeds grew earlier, typed text gave way to the elaborate handwriting of an earlier time.

And among the earlier owners of the house, I found a series of families who had lived in the house for a few years each.  And then, I came across a woman, Grace Petrie, who owned the house for thirty years, preceded by her parents who had owned the house for the previous twenty.  I diligently noted their names and the dates they lived in the house, and set to employ my genealogical sleuthing skills in combing through census records and newspaper archives.

Front Page Headline from The Lowell Sun, Feb. 23, 1944

Luckily, by the time we had bought the house, these records were online and I quickly found obituaries and marriage notices and other interesting facts about the previous owners of the house.  I learned that Grace had lost a twenty-five-year-old son, Chandler, in World War II when his plane crashed during a night combat training mission in Pueblo, Colorado.

And, while digging near the flagpole in the yard, a few years later, I came across “CHAN” and “1944” etched into the concrete at its base.  A search of earlier newspaper records revealed that Grace’s father, Harry Chandler, had been the station agent of the now-defunct South Lowell station.  Being quite comfortable with trains, Harry had one day alighted from the train, before it had completely stopped, and was struck by another oncoming train.  All of this happened in the woods, directly behind the house.

From The Lowell Sun, January 26, 1915, Pg. 4

While doing all of this research, I heavily relied on the newspaper records of and on the census records and city directories scanned into the vast online resources of  I also created an online family tree for Grace, in an effort to find surviving family members, who might have had old photographs of the house or property that could provide insight into how the property appeared in earlier decades (which is something us old home enthusiasts salivate about).  I found no living relatives (or old home photos), but Ancestry’s “shaking leaves” soon revealed Grace’s passport applications from the 1920’s.  She had travelled annually to Cuba in the 1920’s to see her husband who had been working there as an expatriate accountant.  And with those records were photographs of Grace, and her children.

Grace Chandler with her Children, 1920, from her US Passport Application

Up to now, however, all of this research was still quite solitary . . . and solitary it stayed.  After all, while the art and science of genealogy and even house histories is frequently discussed – even quite animatedly – in groups, the fruits of those labors are often only interesting to those directly related or connected to the subjects.  One day, however, several years later, I was contacted through Ancestry by one of Grace’s distant relatives, the grandnephew of her second husband, Earle Petrie, who had lived in the house, first as a boarder, and then as her husband until his death around 1950.  Petrie’s grandnephew had found me through a “shaking leaf” in his tree.  I shared with him what I had on Earle, who had left New Brunswick as a young man, settled in Massachusetts, and had lost contact with his Canadian family.

On something of a lark, I searched old newspapers for further news of old Earle, who had worked as a car dealer in the area.  I found a few advertisements for the car dealership where he worked, as well as an article of two that listed him as a salesman there.  I forwarded these to his grandnephew, who was grateful to have them.

And then, I found the real gem of the research – Earle’s Uncle David, who frequently visited the home.  Uncle David, a police officer in nearby Lowell, Massachusetts, was something of a celebrity in the local papers, and this quickly came up when I ran his name through the search engines at  In 1913, Officer Petrie had stopped a pair of wild horses charging through one of the Lowell’s busiest squares.

Front Page Headline, Lowell Sun, Jan. 22, 1913

Picture this:  On a Wednesday afternoon in late January 1913, two runaway horses came charging onto Merrimack Street, the main thoroughfare of Lowell, Massachusetts, then a city of 110,000 people.  The spooked horses pulled a heavy truck loaded with several tons of waste bales from the nearby Boott Mills.  The driver of the truck, Francis Kennedy, had been thrown from the vehicle on one of its wild turns, but still held onto the reins, loudly warning pedestrians, motorists, and other cart riders of the runaway cart while he was being half-dragged across the uneven cobblestones of Merrimack Street.  Officer Petrie turned at the commotion and took off on a run after the truck, while the horses plunged it and the flailing Mr. Kennedy toward a slower-moving electric car.  With a failing grip on the reins, Kennedy managed to steer the truck past the electric car, but lost half of the heavy bales onto the road.   Just beyond Merrimack’s intersection with Central Street, Officer Petrie waited and watched as the horses thundered closer, and into the path of Milo Hale, who sat in an automobile, unable to move from their path.  Amidst the cautions shouted from the crowd of onlookers, Petrie waited for his moment, and as they crossed Central Street, he jumped at one of the horses’ heads, grabbing onto it, and, with Kennedy’s assistance, was able to sway the horses to the left, missing Hale’s car by inches.  Kennedy and Petrie finally stopped the horses some 25 yards further down the road, avoiding any injury to pedestrians and other motorists and were considered to have saved many of them from certain tragedy.

Via Library of Congress - Merrimack Street Looking East from the Palmer Street Intersection, 1908

David Petrie, Front Page Photo, Lowell Sun, Jan. 22, 1913

Soon after I found the article, I sent it to the great-grandnephew of Officer Petrie, in Montreal.  He excitedly thanked me for my help with his family tree research and said he would share the story with his family. Although he had heard the stories of Uncle David, he and his family had not seen the newspaper articles from the Lowell Sun.  And, although I had no real connection to David Petrie (other than the fact that I live in his nephew’s former home), I felt an interest in this man, who long ago saved lives, my own ancestors’ likely among them, on Merrimack Street in crowded Downtown Lowell.  And, I realized that, with the advent of the internet and sites like, genealogy has expanded so far past those solitary days back in the 80’s when I strained my eyes under flickering fluorescent lights in the basement of the Pollard Memorial Library, on the same Merrimack Street where David Petrie performed his heroic act some 75 years earlier.

Readers, do you have any research stories to share?  Has your genealogy or house history research into the past made you any connections in the present (or resulted in any interesting tales)?  

The Town Farm – A Victorian-Era Solution to Poverty

Town farms were Victorian society’s equivalent to today’s homeless shelters, nursing homes, and mental hospitals.  Often relegated to a far corner of town, unseen, forgotten, and hopefully self-sufficient, the town farm was created to instill a sense of industriousness and self-sufficiency in paupers who would, in turn, provide what labor they could to help run the farm.  And, throughout most of the nineteenth century, it worked.  The town farm in Billerica, Massachusetts once spanned over 150 acres, including 75 acres of forests.  In 1880, the Billerica town farm housed some twenty employees and paupers, in addition to its horses, cows, pigs, and chickens.

But, what was life like on the town farm?  Appropriate “separations” were encouraged.  Male inmates were to be separated from their female counterparts absolutely and entirely, in the living rooms, halls, stairways, and even yards of the town farm.  It was also considered important to separate persons of “good character” (who might have been forced to seek refuge at the Farm due to infirmities) from the “vicious and degraded”.  Indeed, of the Billerica town farm’s 13 paupers in residence in 1880, three had been recently released from the Worcester State Hospital.  All three were required to be kept “under lock and key” at night and two had been classified as “homicidal”.

Also, as it might be imagined, hygiene was considered paramount.  Prevailing thought reasoned that appropriate personal hygiene led to healthful, pure air and encouraged caretakers to search for “defects in the cleanliness and purity of air . . . at every visit.”  Weekly baths were required; the water for the bath was included in the six gallons of water set aside for each inmate’s weekly allotment.  Also, clothing was to be washed weekly and the wearing of day garments when abed was strongly discouraged.  Inmate compliance with these suggestions and rules was not always a foregone conclusion; over half of the paupers listed as living at the Billerica town farm in 1880 were mentally or physically debilitated.

Comforts such as heat and individual beds were considered important – shared beds were discouraged.  Sheets and blankets were to be aired daily.  The straw of each bed was to be made over regularly.  Food was delivered to the inmates at regular meals and was eaten with knives, forks, and cups.  At least four days a week, inmates could count on seeing beef or mutton at their meals, complemented by potatoes and bread.  On the others days, they were served vegetable soup.  Tea and rye coffee were the beverages available.

In their nineteenth century heyday, the town farm provided a much-needed support system for society’s poor, infirm, and undesirable,  Records from even earlier than 1880 show larger groups of paupers, some seemingly from the same families and a number of healthy, yet poor people, among them widows and children as young as four months old.  Despite their challenges, town farms managed to produce hay, milk, livestock, beans, potatoes, and wood products year after year before ceasing operations in the first years after Social Security was implemented.  The increasing standard of living during the early twentieth century coupled with the implementation of social welfare programs enabled families to become increasingly able to care for their sick, elderly, and troubled members.  The town farms quietly seeped into the forgotten history of their towns, sometimes only remembered in the street names of the roads they once occupied.


  • Olmstead, Frederick.  Hand-book for visitors to the poorhouse.  4th ed. New York:  G. P. Putman’s Sons, 1888.
  • U.S. Federal Census – 1880 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations Inc, 2010.
  • U.S. Federal Census – 1880 Schedules of Defective, Dependent, and Delinquent Classes [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2010.

The Boston Road Waiting Room, 1902

The Victorian era (and the years immediately following) is well-known today for controversies that seem antiquated, even quaint, from a 21st century perspective.  So, how does one set off said controversy in a small town of approximately 2,800 people in the first years of the twentieth century?  The answer is this:  propose the construction of an electric car waiting room in a bucolic town center and within a stone’s throw of the town common.  As electric car (perhaps today better known as ‘trolley) travel became increasingly popular in the years approaching the dawn of the twentieth century, the need for a electric car stop (and waiting room for passengers) in the town center of Billerica, Massachusetts became apparent.  A map of the town center area of Billerica, Massachusetts, is shown below.  Town Common appears as a triangle, bottom center.

Billerica Center, 1888

The Waiting Room, when it was proposed for the lawn of the Hillhurst Hotel in 1902, resulted in heated protests, and even threats, from Billerica, Massachusetts residents, especially those living in the Town Center area.  The Hillhurst, shown in the above map as The Stearns House, its predecessor, had hitherto served as a vacation home for traveling theological students, clerks, and teachers.  It was even the site of the town’s first (and at this point, still the only) pay telephone station.  With the construction of this ‘roadhouse’, residents reasoned, the ‘lower elements’ of society would be attracted like ‘moths to a flame’. And they were able to accumulate some evidence that they saw as supporting their assertion.  Residents of the town common area, especially abutting, or directly opposite the new Waiting Room, crafted plans to discourage those awaiting the electric cars from lying in their lawns, and leaving their empty whiskey bottles behind.  Several prominent residents went so far as to replace their lawns with potato patches, which, when well-watered, resulted in a muddy mess that succeeded in warding off loiterers.

They saw the Waiting Room, constructed in 1902, as an eyesore, a blot on their townscape.  The Room was intended to serve as a shelter for those awaiting electric cars with destinations around and outside of town.  In retrospect, the bungalow-style building, with a large elm tree poking through its roof, was not devoid of architectural interest.

From the Lowell Sun, April 19, 1902

The odd tree arrangement of the much-maligned building did not escape the notice of the town gossips.  They jested that the tree served as an escape route for the builder to flee the contemptuous public or, rather, as an anchor that would prevent that same public from throwing the House, perhaps preferably with its builder inside, into the nearby Concord River.  Town residents were so taken aback by the plan to construct the Waiting Room that they, at one time, offered its builder an amount equal to a laborer’s annual wages, to halt construction.  This effort failed.

Veiled threats against the Waiting Room even emerged, with some residents recalling an earlier story in which a rather controversial bridge spanning the Concord River was constructed, and then burned by the insensed public.  This act, which resulted in a fine against the town, prompted the gossips to suggest that the town should start a fund to cover the eventual damages, should the Waiting Room face a similar fate.

The Waiting Room remained in the town center for some years, but today is no longer extant.  During its years of operation, it served to connect the town with the larger Greater Lowell (and even Greater Boston) community, shuttling its residents to cities such as Lowell or Boston to see the larger entertainments offered in the theaters of the day.

Yankee Doodle and its tie to Billerica, Massachusetts

Every September, Billerica, Massachusetts celebrates “Yankee Doodle” weekend.  But, what is Billerica’s tie to the popular patriotic tune?  And how does Billerica claim to be the birthplace of Yankee Doodle?  The origin of the Yankee Doodle’s tune is said to stretch back as far as 15th century Holland, where it may have been a harvesting song that incorporated the words “Yanker dudel doodle down”.  In England, around that same time, the tune was set to the words of the Lucy Locket nursery rhyme.  The English thought the tune so engaging that men critical of Oliver Cromwell, the mid-17th century Lord Protector of England, replaced its words to mock him.  The tradition appears to have continued, and later in that same century, in 1689, British soldiers again exploited the tune to ridicule the troops from New England who joined their forces against France in the French and Indian War.  The tradition (and association with American soldiers) continued right up through the early months of 1775 when the city of Boston in the Massachusetts Bay colony found itself in the midst of Revolution and on the cusp of the Revolution War.

On March 8, 1775, Thomas Ditson, Jr., a Billerica farmer in his early thirties, had come to Boston to sell his wares, and to buy a new gun.  Perhaps unbeknownst to Ditson, the British soldiers in charge of the city had been starting to worry about colonists’ possession of arms, so much so that, only a few weeks later, a troop of 700 soldiers marched to Concord, Massachusetts in an effort to capture and destroy militia arms stored there.  That march ended badly for the British and sparked the Battles of Lexington and Concord, which represented the first armed conflict between the American colonies and the Kingdom of Great Britain.

But, in March, none of this had happened yet, and what Ditson sought to do was perfectly legal.  Upon arrival on Fore Street of Boston, Ditson asked around, trying to find a gun to purchase.  Finally, a man, who appeared to be a British soldier, stepped forward.  Ditson likely knew that many British soldiers supplemented their income by selling the King’s property.  The man, who introduced himself as McClenchy, told Ditson he wished to sell a “very fine gun”.  Ditson followed McClenchy to a house where another British soldier, the Sergeant, told him that he also had a gun to sell – a cheaper one – that he described as a “rusty piece”.  Ditson, wary of the soldiers, asked several times if the men had the right to sell the guns, and as many times, they replied that they did.  McClenchy went so far as to reassure Ditson that he had stood sentry often and recently, and that he had personally let American colonists pass by with the same such guns.

Ditson began to relax and negotiated his price.  He would pay $5.50, $4 for McClenchy’s fine piece, and $1.50 for the rusty piece offered by the Sergeant.  The men made ready to get the guns as McClenchy’s wife entered the room.  She shot a look at her husband and said, “What are you trying to do . . . to bring the man into a scrape?”  Ditson lost his nerve for the transaction at that, and asked for his money back.  The British men refused.  McClenchy damned Ditson for a fool and said his wife’s “oration was nothing”.  Ditson wasn’t convinced and insisted on a refund.  He was refused and finally gave in, anxious to end the transaction.

“Take care of yourself.” McClenchy told Ditson ominously as more British soldiers burst into the room.  Ditson was seized and brought to the Guard House on Foster’s Wharf.  There, a soldier read an unfamiliar law.  He understood very quickly that they were charging him with buying a gun from a soldier, which meant, in their eyes, he was “enticing a solider in the King’s army to desert and take up arms against his country.”  He had been set up.

He spent a restless night in the Guard House, devising plans to procure the proceeds to pay the five pound fine he expected.  At 7 o’clock the next morning, the Sergeant came through the door.  It became clear quite quickly that Ditson was in for more than just a fine.  He was ordered to strip to his breeches.  The soldiers stepped forward and painted him head-to-toe, breeches included, with black tar.  And, to this, they applied a thick coat of feathers.  They then marched him out of the Guard House, forced him into a chair that had been perched atop a donkey cart.  A sign was placed around his neck, first facing forward so that he could read it, and then it was spun around so that it hung on his back.  It read:

“American liberty, or Democracy exemplified in a villain who attempted to entice one of the soliders of His Majesty’s 47th Regiment to desert, and take up Arms with Rebels against his King and Country.”    

By Ditson’s estimate, 40 to 50 soliders of the 47th regiment, McClenchy included, marched him through the streets of Boston, in what today is the Financial District.  Along King Street (now State Street) and past the old state house (which still stands near Government Center), they marched the tarred-and-feathered Ditson.  The soldiers did their best to ridicule him, first playing the Rogues’ March, on their fifes, and then singing their own version of Yankee Doodle, which had the words:

“Yankee Doodle came to town

For to buy a firelock,

We will tar and feather him

And so we will John Hancock.”  

Ditson was marched past Boston's Liberty Tree by the 47th Regiment

The citizens of Boston grew increasingly irate at this treatment of one of their own, and began to press into the troops.  The order went up to halt on Frog Lane (now Boylston Street).  Then, the order to load their firelocks followed.  Lt. Col. Nesbit, perhaps remembering the Boston Massacre, which had occurred nearby five years before, stopped the march and released Ditson into the crowd.

Ditson returned to Billerica soon after.  Selectmen there were predictably outraged at the injustice suffered by Ditson and penned a scathing letter to General Thomas Gage, then the provincial governor of the Massachusetts Bay colony.  He promised to investigate the incident, but nothing resulted from it.  Ditson, for his part, went on to fight with the Minute Men of Billerica one month later at the Battles of Lexington and Concord.

And the Yankee Doodle song?  The Ditson incident marked a turning point in its use in the American colonies.  What had been an tune used to mock the colonists was adopted by them and turned back against the British soldiers.  Later that year, Edward Bangs, a student at Harvard wrote a fifteen-verse version that was entirely American in its perspective and humor.  And when the British surrended at Saratoga in 1777, much to their dismay, the Americans played Yankee Doodle there, to mock them.  And it all started with a farmer from Billerica, Massachusetts who just wanted to buy some guns.


  • The Lowell Sun – Page 5 – September 17, 1925.
  • The Beginnings of the American Revolution, Vol.2 ., Ellen Chase, 270-273, 1910

Listen to your wiseacres

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.

Midnight Murder in Billerica – September 1894

Under a full moon near midnight on September 11, 1894, Henry Cox, Charles Nichols, and Deroy Foster, all of Burlington, Massachusetts, roused Constable Everett Whitton Livingston at his home on Billerica‘s Pond Street.  Deroy Foster, a retired milkman, had been robbed of his week’s pay ($7.50) by three men in a covered wagon on today’s Winn Street in Burlington at the intersection of Peach Orchard Lane.  Foster, Cox, and Nichols had followed the covered wagon’s tracks into the Pinehurst section of Billerica before passing it on Main Street (today’s Boston Road/Route 3A) near Brook (now Webb Brook) Road.  They continued on until they reached Billerica Center where they asked at the Stearns House for a constable.

With Constable Livingston, a law man well-known locally, the men left Billerica Center, traveling south toward Burlington, on Main Street.  Despite the late hour, Livingston awoke quickly – he had been seeking a band of highwaymen responsible for a rash of barn thefts in Pinehurst and Burlington.  In the road’s loose dirt, they soon found the covered wagon’s tracks, odd due to its mismatched wheels and its horse’s strangely narrow horseshoes, oddities noticed by Henry Cox’s keen blacksmith eyes.  The men passed Brook Road and soon came to Lexington Road.

The covered wagon emerged as they passed a clump of birches at the top of Lexington Road, opposite Mrs. Leonard’s place.  “There they are!”  Foster called.  The men proceeded cautiously.  “Don’t use your revolvers unless it is a case of life or death”, Constable Livingston warned.

When they pulled up opposite the covered wagon, the constable, Nichols, and Cox hopped from their own wagon, leaving Foster to hold the horse.  One highwayman stood outside the covered wagon, holding the horse. Constable Livingston approached the man, pointed his revolver at his chest, and announced “I arrest you!”.  There was no reading of Miranda rights in those days.

Livingston grabbed the man’s collar and handed his handcuffs to Nichols, while Cox approached to help.  A struggle ensued when the man protested his innocence.  Constable Livingston first noticed the shots.  The man they struggled to subdue escaped as Cox, Livingston, and Nichols saw the other two highwaymen emerge from beyond a stone wall.

More bullets soon followed.  One grazed Livingston’s cheek, another the low branches above the mens’ heads.  Livingston, Cox, and Nichols retreated as the gunfire continued, readied their weapons, and fired.  Livingston’s revolver jammed.  Just then, they heard a cry, behind them.  Nichols turned to see that their horse had retreated, pulling their wagon several yards further down Lexington Road.   Their horse pranced uneasily and one particularly strong jolt pushed Foster from his seat, to the ground below. Nichols ran to his aid, but found him dead.

From The Lowell Sun, September 12, 1894

From The Boston Daily Globe, September 13, 1894.

Constable Livingston approached the body and, finding Foster quite dead, announced “This is murder!”.  Amidst the commotion, Cox’s horse, and their carriage, disappeared down Lexington Road and out of sight – not to be seen again until the next night, when it was found in Lexington Center.  The highwaymen saw their chance and lashed their horse and covered wagon north off Lexington Road and toward town center.  Constable Livingston, stranded without a horse, left Nichols and Cox to watch Foster’s body while he broke into a run behind the highwaymen.  Their horse quickly outpaced him, but in the quiet of the country night, Livingston followed the creaks and rattles of their fleeing wagon.  At the bend on Main Street, he finally lost sight of their wagon, but noted the odd tracks it was still leaving in the dirt of the road.  He also noted the horse collars, harnesses, and carriage robes, all stolen from the recent barn raids he had been investigating, that had been dropped from the wagon and strewn into the dirt of the road.

He came to the town water pump one mile later, then at the crossing of Andover Road and Main Street.  Despite the late hour (it was now after midnight), Livingston found town residents George Smith and James Coulter there, told them of the night’s events, and quickly got their agreement to help pursue the highwaymen.  Constable Livingston needed a new horse and carriage, which Coulter procured at the Stearns Boarding House.  He also needed to send a doctor to tend to Deroy Foster’s body, growing colder on Lexington Road.  Smith fetched Dr. Tyler, who left to meet Cox and Nichols.  Full moon overhead, one o’clock in the morning, the men regrouped in Billerica Center, freshly armed with two revolvers and a double-barreled shotgun.  The men got in their carriage and rode into the quiet of the night.  They soon found and followed the covered wagon’s odd tracks in the dirt of the road.  Not long later, they again heard and followed the creaks and rattles of the covered wagon retreating eastward.

The men followed the tracks, and the rattles and creaks of the highwaymen’s covered wagon eastward into Tewksbury, Wilmington, and North Woburn.  There, they lost the tracks amidst the many wagon tracks near a horse car stable there.  Constable Livingston was loathe to give up the chase.  Still hearing the wagon far ahead, he persevered, even rousing the horse car stable’s hostler.  He directed them to Woburn Center, where they lost the trail entirely.  Constable Livingston turned the wagon back toward Billerica, but warned the authorities of each town they passed on their return.

Meanwhile, at Lexington Road . . .

Dr. Tyler arrived to help Cox and Nichols move Foster’s body to Benjamin Heald’s barn, which stood at the present-day site of Stromboli’s Express on Boston Road.   As dawn came to Billerica, the spreading news brought neighbors to the barn while the autopsy was conducted inside.  The neighbors speculated that the men who murdered Foster were the same who had robbed them of their horse collars, harnesses, and cracked corn the night before.  One neighbor, Selectman Haskell, told the crowd of the  two-and-a-half foot shaft he had recovered recently from nearby Skunk Hill, which had broken off from the highwaymen’s wagon.

The Heald Barn – Boston Rd., Billerica
From The Boston Daily Globe: September 13, 1894
By the day following the murder, Livingston’s efforts began to produce clues which led him and Selectman Haskell to a Somerville stable yard where they found the covered wagon, still sporting twigs and branches clinging from its hurried escape through the country lanes of Billerica.  Selectman Haskell then produced the broken shaft from Skunk Hill, which fit perfectly into a piece missing from the wagon.  They quickly noted the name etched into the side of the wagon, and within an hour, had arrest Patrick Sullivan, 28, of Somerville.  Soon after, they arrested his two accomplices, Patrick Foley, 24, and Cornelius Nagle, 20.

From The Boston Daily Globe: September 15, 1894

The apprehension of the men only fueled the public’s already rabid interest in the murder.  The grand jury for Middlesex County indicted Sullivan, Foley, and Nagle jointly on charges of first-degree murder.  Some 200 Middlesex County residents were considered in the juror selection process, and many were dismissed on grounds of their opposition to capital punishment or due to disabilities. One man even claimed he was deaf, which the court clerk knew to be untrue.  Despite the clerk’s complaints, the judge dismissed the man, explaining ‘if he’s deaf, we don’t want him, and if he’s a liar, we don’t want him”.  So many dismissals eventually exhausted the juror list and the sheriff was ordered to recruit bystanders into the juror pool.  The sheriff creativity was proven when he summoned the eventual foreman of the jury, a Lowell grocer named Horace Ela, while he was making his rounds outside the Lowell courthouse in his delivery wagon.    
The trial was widely followed in the press.  The prosecution’s alleged that the men had come to Billerica on that September night to steal from the country barns, determined to eliminate anyone who opposed them, even if that meant murder.  They charged that their resistance to a lawful arrest led to Foster’s death and for that reason, they were guilty of murder.  The defense argued that the men had never left their families in Somerville on the night of the murder and therefore could not have set foot in Billerica or be responsible for Foster’s death.  In June 1895, the trial came to its end, with the men being found guilty of second-degree murder.  in January 1896, all exceptions had been resolved and the men were sentenced to life prison terms in Massachusetts State Prison. 
In 1904 and 1917, respectively, Nagle and Sullivan were ultimately pardoned.  Second thoughts about their guilt, and the realization that no evidence could be presented to conclusively prove who had fired the fatal shot that killed Foster, led to the pardons.  They came too late for Patrick Foley, however.  He died in prison in 1902 of tuberculosis.   
  • Sherman, Edgar Jay.  Some Recollections of a Long Life.  Salem, MA:  Newcomb & Gauss, 1908.  Print.
  • “Midnight Murder in Billerica.”  The Lowell Daily Sun.  [Lowell, Massachusetts] 12 Sept. 1894: 1.
  • “Two Men Held on Suspicion.” The Boston Daily Globe. [Boston, Massachusetts] 13 Sept 1894: 1, 5.
  • “Under Arrest.”  The Lowell Daily Sun.  [Lowell, Massachusetts] 13 Sept. 1894: 1.
  • “Men Identified.”  The Lowell Daily Sun.  [Lowell, Massachusetts] 14 Sept. 1894: 1.
  • “Crowded Court.”  The Lowell Daily Sun.  [Lowell, Massachusetts] 24 Sept. 1894: 1.
  • “Foster Tragedy.”  The Lowell Daily Sun.  [Lowell, Massachusetts] 25 Sept. 1894: 1.
  • “Now the Defence.”  The Lowell Daily Sun.  [Lowell, Massachusetts] 26 Sept. 1894: 4.
  • “The Murder of ’94 Caused Great Excitement Out in Peaceful Billerica.”  The Lowell Sun.  [Lowell, Massachusetts] 3 Aug 1935: 5.
  • “For Nagle.”  The Boston Globe. [Boston, Massachusetts]  18 May 1904: 8.
  • “Freed After 23 Year Term.”   The Lowell Sun.  [Lowell, Massachusetts] 27 September 1917: 5.