Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Early Middleborough Police Department and Liquor Laws

Mertie Romaine notes of the Middleborough Police Department in her History of the Town of Middleboro that as late as 1909, “the constables were devoting their attention almost entirely to enforcing liquor laws.” The early Middleborough Police Department’s preoccupation with the enforcement of such laws was the consequence of a strong social and moral imperative within the community which sought to combat public drunkenness during the last quarter of the 19th century and beyond. The Middleborough constabulary which then was emerging as a modern police force was regarded by local temperance leaders as the perfect vehicle to enforce temperance laws and exhibit the community’s moral conscience.

During the mid and late 19th century, temperance (the moderation or total abstinence from drinking alcohol) became not only a powerful social movement, but a political one as well. Locally, temperance organizations such as the Sons of Temperance, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the Good Templars all promoted the temperance cause and were supported politically in their struggle by the Prohibition Party, led locally by undertaker George Soule. Not only did these organizations generally oppose the consumption of liquor, but they supported the criminalization of its sale as well.

The temperance groups were able to wield considerable influence within the community, so much so that prior to the close of the 1874-75 school year, total abstinence pledges “binding the signers to abstain from the use of alcoholic stimulants and tobacco in any form” were freely circulated in the Middleborough public schools.

Undoubtedly the pledges were a response to what the community saw as a resurgence in intemperance with the Middleboro Gazette complaining at the start of the year of the rise in public drunkenness. As if to corroborate the claim, 16 men were subsequently brought before the district court and charged with public drunkenness and engaging “in a free fight with knives, clubs, fists and pistols.”

The crack down on liquor law violators was stepped up during the 1880s simultaneous with the local constabulary’s growth and evolution as a modern police force. In conjunction with the temperance organizations, the Law and Order League, established in 1884 as a predecessor of the Committee to Suppress Crime and active through at least the end of the decade, focused nearly exclusively upon moral issues. Within months of its foundation, the League could claim that whereas in 1882 there had been 20 local liquor dealers in town, by March, 1885, there were none.

Liquor law violations and public drunkenness were considered grave matters at the time and the League consequently supported an aggressive prosecution of the community’s liquor laws. Convictions were frequent, and the sentences meted out harsh. In mid-1887, provisions dealer Randall Hathaway, “a prominent business man of Middleboro”, was sentenced to six months in the county house of correction for public drunkenness. In October of that same year, Michael Monihan, who “got crazy drunk and was smashing up his household effects”, was fined $5 and costs. Undoubtedly, the private nature of Monihan’s indiscretion saved him from a lengthy prison stint.

Throughout the 1880s, operators of local saloons and the bar tenders they employed were the frequent object of police attention, thanks largely to the influence of the Law and Order League. The most notorious and flagrant violator of local liquor laws was Stephen O’ Hara, operator of a bar room on Wareham Street near the Four Corners, who along with his bar tenders “occupied conspicuous places at the last two terms of the Superior Court” in 1887 and 1888.

Convicted in March, 1888, for keeping a “liquor nuisance”, O’Hara “slipped his bail and was supposed to have skipped the state” prior to his October sentencing hearing before the Superior Court. He was later arrested tending bar at Boston and conveyed to Taunton where he was held in a room in the City Hotel. From his hotel room, O’Hara shimmied down a drainpipe and escaped, “taken away in a carriage by friends who conveyed him out of the state” in the summer of 1889. Though one of the witnesses in the O’Hara case alleged that the defendant had offered him a bribe and subsequently threatened bodily harm when the bribe was refused, O’Hara finally agreed to appear in court in December, 1889, and settled all claims against him, acknowledging “that the Law and Order League had beaten him.” Nonetheless, it would not be the last of O’Hara’s encounters with the law.

The local constabulary’s relentless pursuit of liquor law transgressors sometimes brought retaliation from defendants who sought to create legal issues for Middleborough constables. In July, 1890, Stephen B. Young, convicted of the illegal sale of liquor and keeping a liquor nuisance at his barbershop brought legal suit against the Middleborough constables for wrongful arrest in an incident unrelated to his liquor law conviction, seeking damages of $5,000. “Middleboro constables are in warm water and Stephen B. Young is poking up the fire below them,” reported the local press.

Similarly, Stephen O’ Hara was back in the news in September, 1903, when he was arrested with 12 pints of whiskey in his possession. O’Hara was charged with the illegal transportation of liquor in a no-license town, but the charges were ultimately dropped by Judge Nathan Washburn who contended that there was no proof that O’Hara actually intended to sell the alcohol. Like Young before him, O’Hara subsequently brought suit against Officer William A. Green of the Committee for the Suppression of Crime, one of the arresting officers.

For over 35 years, the Middleborough Police remained preoccupied with the enforcement of the community’s liquor laws. Following the crackdown upon local saloons, attention was directed following 1900 to the town’s hotels, primarily the Central Inn and the Linwood House on Center Street, which were constantly (and successfully) raided for liquor-related violations.

Eventually, with the decreasing political influence of the temperance movement, the Middleborough Police’s preoccupation with liquor law enforcement came to be seen as verging on monomania, the butt of not infrequent jokes. During the summer of 1901, after a spate of false fire alarms occurred following the installation of glass-fronted key boxes at and about the Four Corners, the Plymouth Old Colony Memorial quipped that “someone ought to rub a little rum on the alarm pullers, and then perhaps the Middleboro police, so successful at liquor raids, can perhaps catch them.”

Ultimately, the attention given to liquor law enforcement would evaporate for a number of reasons, including the waning strength of the temperance movement, the decision of the community to permit liquor licensing and the rise in other, more serious crimes, which forced attention elsewhere. These developments, as well as the growing reaction with the constabulary’s liquor law obsession would ultimately help contribute to the establishment of a reformed modern police organization in town.

Family Temperance Pledge Certificate, late 1800s
Such decorative temperance pledge certificates for families, individuals and schoolchildren were common in the mid and late 1800s and pledged the subscriber to abstain from the consumption of alcohol as well as tobacco.  The generally widespread support for temperance encouraged the Middleborough constabulary to direct much of its attention to violators of local liquor laws during the post-bellum period.

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Pre-History of the Middleborough Police Department

While the establishment of the Middleborough Police Department is typically dated to 1909 when Harry W. Swift was named the first Chief of Police, the department in fact has a lengthy pre-history dating back decades prior to 1909 and newspaper accounts attest to the department's early characterization as a police force, as well as the existence of earlier chiefs heading the department.

Constables constituted Middleborough's earliest law enforcement force. Answerable to the Board of Selectmen, constables were responsible for upholding the laws passed by the General Court at Plymouth and later Boston, as well as local by-laws adopted by the community. In contrast to the respect with which law enforcement officials are generally held today, the 18th century constable held a thankless position, one which was frequently fraught with frustration and which involved no financial recompense. Not surprisingly, men usually tried to avoid the duty whenever possible.

Over time, however, the role of the constable within the community grew, particularly in the post-Civil War era when new responsibilities were assumed by the constabulary as the conception of public safety broadened and more and more demands were made for a full-time professional organization. By 1879, Leander M. Alden was not only serving as one of Middleborough's constables, but he was engaged as a special police officer and a truant officer who was also responsible for overseeing the town lock up or jail six nights weekly.

The public's growing concern over law and order matters was motivated by the rapid growth of the community, particularly around Middleborough Four Corners, and a perception of an increasing crime rate and was bolstered by the advocacy of the Middleboro Gazette and the Middleboro News, both of which supported an expanded and strong police force. The attention given local law enforcement concerns was but one aspect of the era's preoccupation with "improvement" which entailed the provision or expansion of municipal services including fire protection, public water and sewerage, gas and electric lighting, telegraphic and telephonic communication and naturally police protection.

The Middleborough constabulary that existed in the nearly half century between the close of the Civil War and 1909 was a force of eight to a dozen men engaged in the maintenance of public safety and order during the day time hours and included men such as James Cole, Samuel S. Lovell, Sylvanus Mendall, Everett T. Lincoln, Benjamin W. Bump, George W. Hammond and John W. Flansburg.

These men, like their colonial predecessors, received little financial remuneration for their efforts though they were reimbursed for out of pocket expenses. Because the men who occupied constabulary positions were not compensated for their duties, they more often than not were employed full-time elsewhere and attention to their law enforcement duties consequently sometimes proved irregular. Additionally, the constabulary's attention was by and large focused upon the downtown district, and rarely extended beyond the outskirts of Midleborough center. Yet despite these criticisms, Middleborough was afforded a level of public safety previously unknown.

More frequently than not, Middleborough's Victorian-era constables were engaged in the prosecution of laws related to the moral purity of the community, being seen especially by temperance leaders within the community as a bulwark against public drunkenness and general moral depravity. Consequently, much of their attention was devoted to the enforcement of local liquor laws. Fortunately, crimes against property such as burglary, larceny and arson (then known as incendiarism) were much less frequent, and violent personal crimes were virtually unknown.

For transgressors of the law, the town provided a lock up which according to one pundit of the era was "one of the most popular places in Middleboro'... It is almost constantly patronized, mostly by hen thieves and fast drivers." Located in the basement of Middleborough Town Hall constructed in 1874, the lock up consisted of brick-walled cells with concrete floors and iron doors. It was cold, damp and unhealthy. The condition of the lock up prompted the editor of the Middleboro News to advocate for its improvement in the summer of 1888, but little change was made and the dank cells remained in use for decades.

An important adjunct to the constabulary was the night watch, a generally lone individual charged with patrolling the community during the overnight hours as a deterrent to criminal activity. Certainly the value of the watch was proven many times over such as in May, 1874, when through the vigilance of the night watchman a potentially devastating fire was discovered and quelled before it could cause much damage. Voters demonstrated their appreciation of the night watch by appropriating the then considerable sum of $50 in 1875 to help fund it. (A decade and a half later, that figure reached several hundred dollars and remained there until formal establishment of the police department in 1909).

So satisfied were downtown residents with the night watch (and wary of nocturnal criminal activity) that they favored its expansion into a nighttime police force, most notably in 1887. These calls however went unheeded. The night watch would continue to operate for decades, in time becoming the most visible aspect of local law enforcement, the image of the sole night watchman on his lonely rounds eclipsing the view of the daytime constabulary in the public's mind. Prominent among Middleborough's night watchmen during this period were George Rich, Herbert L. Leonard and George E. Hatch.

Somewhat naturally, the strong element of protection afforded to the community during the evening hours and the desire for the creation of a night police was reflected in a demand for comparable protection during the day. In 1877 local residents called for the establishment of a permanent police force. Four years later, more specifically, "a day police [was] called for ... by the Middleboro Gazette." While such a police force was not formed, support for the constabulary was maintained and a Committee for the Suppression of Crime was eventually created to provide the local citizenry with a voice in local law enforcement matters. While the committee served a useful purpose in dramatizing the need for a modern police force, it also had the unfortunate result of politicizing public safety issues.

Throughout the last quarter of the 19th century, the Middleborough constabulary continued to evolve, assuming administrative functions and roles that would presage the modern police department. Modernization brought with it, too, a change in the way in which the constabulary was perceived by the public with records indicating that at times prior to 1909, the force of constables was referred to as a "police force" and a "police department". Additionally, the adoption of a modern organizational command structure brought with it the creation of the position of chief of police. As early as 1887 that title was in use, receiving official sanction in 1901 when long-serving constable Herbert L. Leonard was named Chief of Police by the Board of Selectmen.

The most significant step towards modernization, however, came in 1909 when ongoing challenges with the operation of the constabulary system of law enforcement prompted the Board of Selectmen to appoint constable Harry W. Swift to oversee the reorganized force of experienced constables as the modern Middleborough Police Department, thereby inaugurating a new chapter in Middleborough's public safety history.

Middleborough Police Department, Middleborough, MA, photograph, c. 1909
Pictured on the steps of the former Peirce Academy is Middleborough's "first" police department with Chief Harry W. Swift standing front row center.  The nine man force was representative of a long tradition of constabulary-based law enforcement in Middleborough as well as a more modern organization and approach to law enforcement which was adopted in 1909.

Monday, November 14, 2011

South Middleborough History

Recollecting Nemasket is pleased to announce the publication of South Middleborough: A History by historian Michael J. Maddigan.  Produced by the History Press, a publisher of the highest quality local and regional history titles from coast to coast, South Middleborough is a comprehensive history of the South Middleborough community from its first settlement through the present day.  The history is profusely illustrated with over 80 images and maps from the author's personal collection, the Middleborough Historical Association and South Middleborough residents. 

In the late 1700s, settlers flocked to South Middleborough, Massachusetts, for the tall white pines that fed a booming lumber industry. Despite this early promise, residents struggled with frequent fires, financial losses and bitter debates within their young community. Local historian Michael J. Maddigan charts the history of South Middleborough from its early years, with stories of the contentious ministry of Reverend Ebenezer Jones and the original Hell's Blazes Tavern, into the twentieth century, with memories of Wareham Street's "milk shake king" and feisty candy maker Lucy Braley. Join Maddigan as he reveals the fascinating history of South Middleborough and pays tribute to the indomitable spirit of a New England village.

Michael J. Maddigan has been active in the fields of local history and historic preservation for nearly thirty years, and he currently serves as the vice-chairman of the Middleborough Historical Commission. He was responsible for the successful listing of South Middleborough on the National Register of Historic Places in 2009, much of the research for which forms the basis of South Middleborough: A History. His other works of local history include Images of America: Middleborough, Elysian Fields: An Illustrated History of Rock Cemetery and Lakeville's King Philip Tavern. He is the author of the popular local history column "Recollecting Nemasket," as well as the website of the same name.

The History Press

To order your copy of South Middleborough: A History today, simply print the order form below, complete, and mail with your payment to the address indicated.  (To print, click on the form, then right click and select "print picture").

Friday, November 11, 2011

Soldiers & Sailors Monument, 1896

On May 30, 1896, Middleborough dedicated its impressive Soldiers' and Sailors' Memorial on the Town Hall lawn to the memory of the community's civil war veterans.  Though the initial proposal for the memorial was met with skepticism and concerns that the monument would be neglected in time, the Soldiers' and Sailors' Memorial has since become a focal point of both Memorial and Veterans' Day observances now held at the neighboring Veterans' Memorial Park.  At the time of its dedication to "the defenders of our country" in 1896, the Middleboro Gazette published the following brief history of the memorial's origins.

The first movement looking towards a soldiers’ memorial was soon after the close of the war, when the town made an appropriation of $1000 for a monument, but the matter was overshadowed by the urgent need of a new town house, and was disposed of on that account, and nothing ever came of it. The following item in the MIDDLEBOROUGH GAZETTE of June 9, 1866, perhaps best explains the final disposition of the affair: “A town meeting has been called for the 18th to see what action the town will take in regard to building a Memorial and Town Hall. The town has already voted $1000 towards building a monument, and it is found a much larger sum will be needed to erect a shaft that shall be at all honorable to our people. We are at the same time greatly in need of a decent town house. It is therefore proposed with great unanimity on the part of our heaviest taxpayers to drop the matter of a monument, and erect a good Town and Memorial hall. This building will in the end be much cheaper than to build both; and at the same time, its design as a memorial of the sacrifices of our citizen soldiers, will be secured.” It is evident that though the Town house was finally built, the memorial hall in connection with it failed to materialize.

The first written plea for a monument appeared in the columns of the GAZETTE, from the pen of that gifted writer, so well and favorably known by our townspeople, today, Miss Nellie Brightman, now of Boston, and was probably called forth by the action of the town in regard to the soldiers’ monument, and was published July 7, 1866.

It was an earnest appeal for a distinct soldiers’ memorial, and decried the idea of a combination of a Town and Memorial hall, as will be seen by the following extract: “Can we raise utility to so great a height that sublimity will not become ridiculous in the effort to descend to its level? Does not the idea of commemorating the great deeds of the brave soar beyond and above all thought of earthly use and convenience, carrying the mind away from business, amusements, and the gathering of hundred, onward to the glorious assemblage of our gallant thousands in celestial halls of light?”

We wish we might be able to reproduce the article entire, but the closing sentences are especially fine: “One objection to the shaft is that it will become defaced in time, and will be neglected. A hard commentary on the gratitude of future generations. Will children forget the brave deeds of their fathers? We are lower than the heathen if we cannot educate our children to look with awe and affection on the commemorative stone, and it is especially our duty, which neglected now will never be performed, to institute, theirs to perpetuate, this emblem of the soldier’s valor, and of events that called it forth. Are there ‘none so poor to do them reverence’ – the gallant boys, who full of hope and eager for the fray, left their beautiful village homes to return no more? Don’t give up the monument! Wait, work and hope, and in time see the glorious workmanship arise majestic and grand. Let the sun’s latest rays at his setting gild the half raised visor of the soldier’s cap, and as he slowly sinks behind the hills they loved, let his light play lovingly round the glistening steel of the bayonet, which in the hands of men we venerate, brought back sweet peace to our native land.”

The matter of a monument seems to have languished from this time on with faint attempts to revive it until about 1889, when the first committee was appointed to forward the work and was organized with John C. Sullivan, past Commander of Post 8, as chairman, and W. B. Stetson, then Commander of the Post, as secretary, and George H. Walker, treasurer. Sylvanus Mendall and Alvin C. Howes were the other members of the committee.

From the resignation of J. C. Sullivan and the death of the late George H. Walker, the committee was composed as follows: Alvin C. Howes, chairman, Warren B. Stetson, secretary, Sylvanus Mendall, treasurer, John N. Main and Jairus H. Shaw, which committee continued at the head of the movement. The following were added as a citizens’ committee to co-operate with them in 1894: Joseph E. Beals, Rev. M. F. Johnson, Rev. J. H. O’Neil, Rev. R. G. Woodbridge, Rev. George W. Stearns, David G. Pratt and George W. Stetson, Esq., and this number was augmented by the addition of six more members, Rev. W. F. Davis, George H. Shaw, Hon. M. H. Cushing, Sprague S. Stetson, Henry D. Smith.

"Soldiers Monument, Middleboro, Mass.", F. N. Whitman, Middleborough, MA, publisher, postcard, early 20th century.

“Soldiers’ Memorial”, Middleboro Gazette, May 30, 1896.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Six Brothers in War, 1861-65

Locally many may know of the Marra brothers, the sons of Angelo and Josephine Marra, who served their country in World War II. Eighty years earlier, a similarly remarkable contribution had been made by another Middleborough family, the Nickersons, with the service of six of its sons in the Civil War.

Hiram Nickerson (1826-1910) served December 2, 1861-November 1, 1862; Ivory Harlow Nickerson (1829-1920) served December 26, 1861-June 5, 1863; Frederick U. Nickerson (1833-1915) served February 12 1861-June 17, 1865; Maranda R. Nickerson (1838- ) served August 22, 1861-August 27, 1864; James Thomas Nickerson (1844- ) served February 20, 1864-July 16, 1865; and Simeon Leonard Nickerson (c. 1846-1921) served December 16, 1864-May 12, 1865, were the six sons of James and Sylvia Nickerson who did service to their country.

In the collections of the Middleborough Public Library is an unidentified newspaper clipping dating from August 14, 1904. Written by Middleborough newspaperman James H. Creedon, the clipping documents the contributions of the Nickersons during the war:

The record of the six sons of James and Sylvia Nickerson of Middleboro, who bore arms on the union side during the civil war, is one which is rarely equaled.

There were 11 members of the family, nine of whom were boys, and of this number six enlisted under the stars and stripes, and all six returned from the war. One has since died, disease contracted during the war having caused death, but the other brothers are still in fairly good health.

On the call to arms the brothers were interested, as were many of the young men of that period and on their first opportunity the enlisted.

The one who served the longest was Frederick U. Nickerson, now a resident of New Bedford, who enlisted early in the war and remained till the end. His first enlistment was in Co. E, 32d regt, as a private, and when his term had expired he reenlisted, this time with the rank of corporal.

He served in many important battles, including Gainesville, second Bull Run, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Rappahannock station, Wilderness, Spottsylvania, Cold harbor, Petersburg and Appomattox, where he was discharged on account of the close of the war June 17, 1865. He was a member of E. W. Peirce post, G. A. R., of Middleboro for some years, and later transferred to the New Bedford post.

Hiram Nickerson of Middleboro was another brother who went to the front, and after receiving a wound in the second Bull Run was discharged from the service. He enlisted in Co. E of the 32d Mass regt, and after camping at Boston awhile they went to the front. The second Bull Run was the only battle he had an opportunity to participate in. He now resides on Warren av, and is a member of E. W. Peirce post of Middleboro. Mr. and Mrs. Nickerson recently observed their golden wedding anniversary.

The youngest brother of the number is Simeon L. Nickerson, the keeper of the Middleboro poor farm. When less than 18, having secured his parents' consent, he started for the front. This was in 1864, and the young man went out with the 24th regt unattached.

He was in camp some months, but did not have an opportunity to participate in any engagements. Mr. Nickerson is well known in Middleboro, and recently celebrated his silver wedding anniversary. He is a prominent member in the local G. A. R. post.

Ivory Nickerson, the fourth brother, resides at Tremont, where he has a comfortable place. He was with Co D of the 32d Massachusetts regt and was in the battles of Antietam, Fredericksburg and the second Bull Run. At Fredricksburg he received an honorable discharge, having been a sufferer from dropsy.

He was employed for several years at the iron works at Tremont, but of late has worked but little. He was a member of the local G. A. R. post, but owing to the inconvenience of attending the sessions he took a demit.

Another brother, James, lives in Rochester. He was the next oldest after Simeon, and he, too, was anxious to get to the front while still in his teens. He served in the 40th regt, participating in several engagements.

The brother who died was Maranda Nickerson. He went out with the 18th Massachusetts regt, but contracted measles while at war, and this brought on consumption. He was discharged and returned home, dying some time later.

It is a notable fact that this family of fighters descended from a fighter, their father, James Nickerson, having served in the war of 1812. He was a member of the crew of a merchant vessel which, after a desperate struggle, was pilfered by a pirate ship commanded by Capt Simms, who, after subduing the crew and burning their boat, landed them on British soil.

The brothers are anxiously anticipating the exercises of encampment week at Boston, and will doubtless participate in the celebration.

In his article Creedon describes the Nickersons as a “family of fighters”, and it should be noted that the family, following 1904 when Creedon was writing, continued to serve their country in the armed forces. Most notable was Hiram Nickerson’s grandson, Simeon L. Nickerson, who was killed in action in World War I. It is for him that Nickerson Avenue and the local American Legion post are named.

"Six Brothers in the War", unidentified newspaper clipping, August 14, 1904, Middleborough Public Library