Sunday, July 18, 2010

Murder on North Main Street, 1925

Mercifully, murders in Middleborough and Lakeville have been relatively few, though they are not entirely unknown. One of the more lurid crime stories in Middleborough's history is little recalled today despite the fact that it spanned nearly the entire second quarter of the twentieth century. The gruesome shooting death of forty-one year old Katherine Harriet Cooke on April 13, 1925, was locally unprecedented, for it was only twenty-three years later that her estranged husband, Napoleon J. Cooke, would be acquitted of killing her "in a fit of jealous rage."

Cooke, a native of Canada and a French-speaker, had emigrated to the United States either in 1908 or 1910, settling at Newport, Vermont, where in 1920 he was engaged as a sawyer in a veneer mill. Cooke's wife, also a Canadian emigrant who arrived in 1911, was ten years younger than her husband. Sometime in the early 1920s, the Cookes came to Middleborough from Vermont, opening a small restaurant which they relocated a short time after their arrival to the Nemasket House hotel on North Main Street. The middle-aged Cookes, like many during that period, struggled financially, and Cooke had held jobs as a boat pilot and Boston & Maine Railroad worker prior to coming to Middleborough.

Though they hoped that Middleborough would provide them a new start, the Cookes continued to experience financial difficulties, as well as marital problems, so much so that Mrs. Cooke moved out of their small apartment in the Norris Building on North Main Street next to the hotel, in the early spring of 1925.

Cooke was stated to have appeared "morose" at the time, and when he failed to appear at the restaurant the evening of Sunday, April 12, Nemasket House proprietor Fred L. Hammond went to Cooke's apartment, but could get no response. Concerned, Hammond notified patrolman William Murdock who, gaining admittance to the apartment, found Cooke suffering from a headache. While not an extraordinary circumstance, it was later "thought that he was planning the affair which took place the next day."

Though she had moved from their apartment in the Norris Building, Mrs. Cooke returned there on Monday, April 13, to conduct errands for Mrs. Sarah Matheson, who was confined to her neighboring apartment by a case of the measles. As Mrs. Cooke was returning from the post office and climbing the stairs of the Norris Building, she was met by her husband standing in the open doorway of their apartment. Raising a revolver, he pointed it at his wife, and fired point blank.

The first shot missed and struck the wall, and Mrs. Cooke fell, breaking her glasses and scratching her face. Cooke's second shot missed as well. "She vainly tried to reach Mrs. Matheson's room but before she got there, Cooke seized her and dragged her through his own rooms to the bedroom and throwing her on the bed sent a bullet crashing through her head, killing her instantly." Mrs. Cooke's futile struggle had been made all the more difficult by a fact little reported at the time - she had previously lost her left arm while working in a laundry in Vermont.

While Mrs. Matheson, alerted by the shots in the neighboring apartment, shouted for help, Cooke fired two additional shots - one into his side, and one into his head.

When Chief of Police Alden C. Sisson and Patrolman Alton R. Rogers arrived, they found a horrific scene. Mrs. Cooke was pronounced dead by Doctors Edward L. Perry and C. S. Cummings, both of whom held little hope for her husband's survival. Mrs. Cooke's remains were removed to Soule's mortuary and Rogers left in charge of the scene, which had begun to attract the curious, the shooting having occurred just before noon in the business district of town when many people were present.

"Later in the afternoon, Cooke regained his senses and asked for water. He was then rushed to the hospital." Cooke, in fact, recovered sufficiently to be arraigned for murder on April 22, before Judge Nathan Washburn of Middleborough. Cooke at that time presented a pathetic appearance, "haggard and worn", he could only partially comprehend the situation around him. He sat "with a glassy stare in his eyes ... apparently not able to hear what was going on, owing to the deafness caused by his attempt of suicide by shooting himself in the head."

Cooke only mumbled at the arraignment hearing, and Washburn ordered a plea of not guilty entered on his behalf. Cooke was held without bail at the Plymouth County House of Correction until his indictment by the grand jury in June, 1925. In accordance with the law, Cooke was then examined by two psychiatrists who found him to be not of sound mind, and he was committed to the State Farm at Bridgewater to a ward for the criminally insane. At the time, many believed this to be the final sad ending to a sad affair.

It was not. Twenty three years later, in August, 1948, Cooke, then in his seventies, was transferred from Bridgewater to the House of Correction preparatory to standing trial for his actions years earlier, it then being believed that he was competent to stand trial.

District Attorney Edmund R. Dewing nolprossed the murder charge on which Cooke had initially been indicted, and entered a charge of manslaughter, a lesser offense. Judge Frank E. Smith presided and the few witnesses then still alive, including Sisson, Rogers, Mrs. Matheson, Dr. Perry and Dr. A. V. Smith, then assistant medical examiner on the case, testified to the recollections of an event nearly a quarter century earlier.

On October 28, 1948, the jury found Cooke not guilty by reason of insanity, some twenty-three and a half years after he had shot his wife, and following twenty-three years of confinement at the State Farm. He was remanded to Bridgewater following his trial, a sad and broken man.


"North Main Street - Business Section Looking South, Middleboro, Mass.", picture postcard, "Tichnor Quality View", Tichnor Brothers, Inc., early 20th century
North Main Street as it appeared about a decade before the Cooke murder was a busy mixed commercial and residential street. The Nemasket House where the Cookes operated a small restaurant appears as the columned building at the right. Immediately adjoining it though out of view to the right was the Norris Block, the residence of the Cookes and the scene of the murder.

View of North Main Street, Middleborough, MA, photograph, early 20th century
Few views of the Norris Block remain. Here it is seen as the building at the far right sometime in the mid-1910s during a less tragic time in its history. Originally occupied by shoe manufacturing and retail firms, the building was acquired by T. A. Norris of Brockton in 1905. The upper floor included a number of apartments, including one occupied by the Cookes. The building was later used by Winthrop-Atkins and a Community Center operated by the District Nursing Association before being demolished along with the Nemasket House in 1939. The site of the Norris Block is now occupied by the western end of the Grant Building.


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