Archive for the ‘History/Mystery’ category

Red Sox Home Opener 2011

April 8, 2011

In honor of today’s game, I present an excerpt from my book Dedham: Historic and Heroic Tales from Shiretown describing a little known episode in the history of baseball. Go Sox!

Dedham or Cooperstown?
Imagine you are in the bleachers at Fenway Park watching a playoff game between the Red Sox and their longtime rivals, the New York Yankees. It’s a close game, with Boston leading 59–55 and nobody out. The Sox have a man on second base. The New York twelve are spread out on the rectangle, waiting for the home team striker to take his knocks. Here’s the pitch—it’s a long fly ball, caught by the Yankee outfielder; he catches it and hurls it toward home, plugging the Sox runner square in the back. “You’re out!” hollers the referee, and the Yankees run off the field to take their knocks.

Had a group of local baseball club presidents meeting in Dedham in 1858 gotten their way, scenes such as this one would be played out on ball fields around the country each summer, and Dedham would be known today as the birthplace of modern baseball. On May 13, 1858, the Phoenix House hosted a convention of the Massachusetts Association of Base Ball Players, which came to the High Street hotel to draft a set of rules and regulations for the “Massachusetts” version of the popular sport.


The Phoenix stood on the corner of Washington and High Streets, where the K. of C. building is today. It burned down in 1880.

Representatives from ten local ball clubs, including three from Boston and one from Dedham, worked all morning on drafting a constitution before breaking for a bountiful lunch supplied by Phoenix landlord J.D. Howe. According to Article I of the constitution adopted that day, the purpose of the association was to “improve and foster the Massachusetts game of baseball and the cultivation of kindly feelings among the different members of Base Ball Clubs in this state.” While B.F. Gould of Boston’s Tri-Mountain Club demonstrated “kindly feelings” as he addressed his fellow presidents that day, he made it clear that his club would be withdrawing from the association in order to play the game under the rival “New York” rules.

The seventeen rules adopted by the association that day describe a game more like English rounders. The field of play was rectangular, unlike the diamond shape of modern baseball. Each team was allowed only one out per at-bat. Runners did not have to be tagged in order to be called out—a fielder could strike or “plug” the runner with the ball in order to make an out. The game ended when one team scored one hundred runs.
The New York game, introduced by the Knickerbocker club in the 1840s, was much closer to modern baseball. There was a great rivalry between proponents of the two versions of the game, and for a while after the convention the Massachusetts game was becoming more popular than the New York game. But the New York rules were easier to follow and made for a more exciting game, and as the city itself emerged as the center of trade and industry in America, the New York game became the standard. The Civil War helped to spread the popularity of the New York game, and in 1871, the establishment of the first professional league, operating under New York rules, signaled the end of the Massachusetts game. The only rules from the Dedham Convention that exist in modern baseball are the overhand pitch and the called strike.
After their long day’s schedule of meetings, the gentlemen who had gathered at the Phoenix naturally celebrated their hard work with a ballgame, which was well attended by townspeople.

LIFE in Dedham Part 2

April 6, 2011

On May 1 and 2 1952, LIFE magazine came to Dedham to report on a play presented by Mrs. Elizabeth Gurley and her fifth grade class at the Avery School. According to the Transcript, photographer Robert Mottar took over 1000 photographs of the performance of “The Terror of New England,” a historical drama written by Mrs. Gurley’s husband Franklin.


The caption reads: Scuffling spectators, younger brothers of actors, roll on floor during dress rehearsal, which was attended by mothers who could not get to the show.

The play might be considered a little politically incorrect by today’s standards, and the article seems condescending; focusing on the mishaps and backstage antics of second grader Phillip Wisowaty, who was on “loan” for the production. Other students pictured in the article were: Billy McElhinny, Larry Bolestra, Eleanor Schoener, and the daughter of Mrs. Theodore Wiskont. One interesting fact mentioned is that some of the costumes were leftover from a movie that had been filmed in town. This undoubtedly refers to the Dedham Tercentenary movie filmed to commemorate the town’s 300th birthday in 1936.


The principal is Mr. James O’Connell
These fifth graders would now be close to 70 years old. Perhaps you know one or two if them and could ask them to give you their story of their brush with fame. Go to Google books to see the entire article.

LIFE in Dedham

March 30, 2011

One of the stories listed in this table of contents from the May 26, 1952 edition of Life magazine is about a group of Dedham residents. The article and accompanying photographs made minor celebrities of the group for a while, and you can read all about in my next post…

Happy Presidents’ Day!

February 21, 2011

George and Abe. Two of our most famous, accomplished, and popular presidents. Both of whom visited Shiretown. How many towns can claim that such important figures in U.S. history spent time within their borders, and be able to point out the exact place and time of the visit?

Washington spent the night of April 4, 1776 at the home of Samuel Dexter. Then General Washington was on his way to New York after having successfully driven the British out of Boston. The house still stands on High St., although it has been much altered over the years. There is another Shiretown tale associated with this house which involves the Battle of Bunker Hill, a suicide, a curious soldier, and a rotting corpse. That tale will be told here at a later date.

Just down the street from the Dexter House is the Community House, also known as the Judge Samuel Haven House. It was here that Illinois Congressman Abraham Lincoln was entertained for lunch on September 20, 1848, while traveling New England in support of presidential candidate Zachary Taylor. Later that day, Lincoln spoke at Temperance Hall on Court St., before catching a train at the station that once stood in the Square where the town parking lot is now located. Below is a map commemorating Lincoln’s Massachusetts visit. See if you can find details of the Dedham trip on the map!

Other presidential visitors to Dedham include Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams.

Circle the Wagons!

July 3, 2010


Transcript, 1963

I’m pretty sure that Dedham is the only town in the U.S. with a town ordinance that reads like this:

“No person shall set fire to or burn, or cause to be moved through any way or street of the Town, any waste material, paper, wood or any inflammable substance on any wagon, cart, buggy, push–cart or on any vehicle, with the intention of setting fire to or burning same on any way or street of the Town.”

The bylaw was adopted in 1959 in response to the resurrection of a dangerous, unique, and beloved Dedham tradition- the burning of old farm wagons in Oakdale Square on either “the night before” of July 3rd, or the night of the 4th itself. Beginning some time in the early 20th century (my research found the oldest recorded reference to be 1922) thousands of people would gather in the square to witness the event. In the 20’s and 30’s, police and fire officials merely watched and made sure nobody got hurt. The spectacle usually began at midnight when some brave youth would climb the roof of the Good Shepherd Church and ring the bell.

The wagons came from local farms in Dedham and surrounding towns. As authentic farm wagons became scarcer, teenagers would make their own and hide them in back yards and garages until the big night. In 1938, no wagons were found or made, so an old outhouse had to do. Usually the fires got so intense the windows of the stores in the square would crack and the tar underneath would melt. The last Oakdale Square burning was in 1963, when revellers threw rocks and full cans of beer at police and firefighters when they arrived on the scene. After that the burnings disappeared for a few years before the tradition was revived in the Manor. After an explosion and the melting a vinyl-sided house in 1990, police chief Dennis Teehan finally put an end to the burnings.


Transcript, 1957

I remember hearing about the wagon burnings when I was a kid, but I never witnessed one. Every time I have been out promoting my book, dozens of people have come up to me and shared fond memories of this one-of-a-kind tradition. Maybe you have some more tales to add to the collection? Pass them along, and have a Glorious Fourth!

An Execution in Charlestown- Part 2

June 18, 2010


Crowds in front of the Dedham Court House during the trial

The scene at the Readville train station on March 2, 1934 was just a preview of the frenzy that would surround the Millen Brothers’ case over the next year. Several thousand people gathered at the station to greet the brothers upon their arrival from New York. The crowds continued to gather throughout the trial, with curious onlookers from all over the country heading to Dedham to get a look at the accused and the beautiful young bride, Norma. School kids played hookey and waited in front of the court house to see the defendants brought from the jail. People dressed in suits and carrying briefcases tried to pass themselves off as lawyers in order to sneak into the court room. With Faber’s confession already in hand, the trio would have had a difficult time proving their innocence, and so their lawyers pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. Incredibly, Faber’s confession in late February included the details of a Lynn theater hold-up and murder for which 2 cab drivers were on trial in Salem. The judge suspended the trial and freed the 2 men just as the DA was about to present his closing argument. This bizarre chapter in the Millen Brothers case was later dramatized in the 1939 film “Let Us Live,” starring Henry Fonda.

After a two month trial, all three men were found guilty and sentenced to death. The men certainly did their best to avoid their fate by attempting several escapes from the Dedham Jail, but by June of 1935, all appeals had been exhausted and the electric chair awaited them at the state prison in Charlestown. After the executions, the drama continued as a mob of onlookers tussled with members of the Millen families at the cemetery dusing burial services.

Twenty-year old Norma Millen was released from the Dedham Jail two months later, and disappeared into obscurity. Although the case received as much attention in 1934 as the Sacco-Vanzetti trial had a few years earlier, today it remains a little known chapter in Norfolk County legal history. Look up my May 23, 2010 post “The Cage is Removed” to see a courtroom sketch of Faber and the Millens sitting in the “cage” during the trial.


Above- the “lovely” Norma Millen, Below- Norma exercising in the yard of the Dedham Jail

75 years ago- An execution in Charlestown

June 7, 2010

June 7, 1935- Irving Millen, Murton Millen, and Abraham Faber are executed in the electric chair at Charlestown State Prison a year after their convictions in the Dedham Court for the murder of a Needham police officer during a robbery at The Needham Trust Company. Faber and the Millen Brothers, all in their early twenties, had begun a short but violent crime spree in the fall of 1933 and winter of 1934, robbing banks and other businesses in the Greater Boston area and leaving four men dead.

The Needham robbery on February 2, 1934 was like a scene right out of a gangster movie, with sub-machine guns blazing and a terrified bank employee hanging on to the running board of the getaway car as it raced through town. Needham police officers Forbes McLeod and Frank Haddock were gunned down by the robbers; McLeood when he responded to the bank alarm and Haddock as he stood with a Needham fireman in front of the Needham firehouse.

After finding the burned out wreckage of the getaway car in a wooded area of Norwood, police were able to trace a battery repair job to Irving and Murton Millen and their friend Abraham Faber. Millen, his 19 year old wife and brother Irving manged to escape to New York, but were captured after a wild gun battle in the lobby of a New York City hotel. Faber was apprehended in Boston. While the brothers and Murton’s young bride rode the famed Yankee Clipper train back to Dedham to face justice, Abraham Faber began to talk. NEXT: The TRIAL


NY Times February 24, 1934

Happy 200th SIDFAHT!

June 4, 2010

On June 4, 1810, the Society in Dedham for Apprehending Horse Thieves was founded by group of men in town who were fed up with “the nefarious practice of horse-stealing” in Dedham and the neighboring towns of Norfolk County. Membership gave you the full benefit of the Society’s crime detecting and thief apprehending powers, which consisted mostly of putting up posters and taking out newspaper ads such as this one from 1822:

By the end of the nineteenth century, the usefulness of such a group had lessened considerably, and as other such societies in nearby towns disbanded, Dedham’s began a new life as a social organization. Entertainment was featured at each annual meeting, and charitable donations were made to such groups as the Dedham Emergency Nursing Association. Today the Society is believed to be the oldest such organization still in existence, and will celebrate 200 years of protecting Dedham and Norfolk County at its annual meeting in December. I am proud to be the vice-president of this venerable institution, and invite all of you to join up and do your part to keep our town and county safe from felonious thieves of horse-flesh for the next century.

To read a more detailed history written by Clerk-Treasurer Robert Hanson, and to learn about becoming a member, go to our website: http://www.dedhamhorsethieves.org
Look for more posts about SIDFAHT during this, our bicentennial year!

The Community House will be rockin’ on Saturday!

June 2, 2010

Come on down this Saturday, June 5th from 10:00- 8:00 and enjoy the Dedham Square Music and Arts festival. I am pitching a tent and selling and signing my book, so be sure and stop by and say hi. Check out the festival’s website for the complete schedule: http://dedhamfestival.org/

While you’re there, take a look at the front door latch of the 1795 mansion. Some people believe the X shaped mark inscribed into the metal is a hexmark to keep witches out. What do you think?

2 Dedham Heroes- John A. Barnes III & Henry Farnsworth

May 31, 2010


A member of the 173rd Airborne Infantry Association keeps vigil at the John Barnes Memorial on May 30, 2010.

From Dedham:Historic and Heroic Tales from Shiretown:
John A. Barnes III grew up in the Greenlodge section of Dedham and graduated from Dedham High School in 1964. After graduating, he enlisted in the Army and trained at Fort Benning, Georgia before serving a one year tour of duty in Vietnam, where he was awarded the Bronze star, the Purple Heart and several other medals for valor. Barnes began a second tour of duty in the fall of 1967 in the active central highlands, where he was a grenadier with the 503d Infantry. On November 19, Barnes and his unit came under attack by a battalion of North Vietnamese. When an American machine gun crew was killed, Barnes quickly manned the gun himself, killing nine enemy soldiers while under heavy attack. As he paused to reload, Private Barnes saw a hand grenade land directly in the midst of a group of wounded Americans. In an act of extreme bravery and selflessness, Barnes threw himself on the grenade just before it exploded, saving his fellow soldiers.
Private Barnes was laid to rest in Brookdale Cemetery, and two years later was posthumously awarded the highest military decoration, the Congressional Medal of Honor. A portion of the citation accompanying the medal reads:
Pfc. Barnes’ extraordinary heroism, and intrepidity at the cost of his life, above and beyond the call of duty, are in the highest traditions of military service and reflect great credit upon himself, his unit, and the U.S. Army.
On April 19, 1970, Memorial Field was rededicated as John A Barnes III Memorial Park. An impressive gathering of dignitaries, V.F.W. members from dozens of towns, and local marching bands processed to the corner of East Street and Eastern Ave., where a marble monument was unveiled. Congressman James A. Burke was one of several speakers who spoke of Barnes’ heroism.

Henry Farnsworth of Westfield St. was one of the first American casualties of World War I, having died in the Battle of Champagne in September, 1915 while fighting with the French Foreign Legion. Farnsworth attended Groton and Harvard, graduating in 1912. He lived a life of adventure in the short time between his graduation in 1912 and his death on the French battlefield, reporting from the Balkan War in 1912 and traveling to Mexico when U.S. troops arrived there in 1914. His exploits in the Balkans were published as “The Log of a Would-be War Correspondent.”

Farnsworth was working in the Boston office of his father, a wool merchant when war broke out in Europe. His need for adventure compelled him to sail to France and enlist in the French Foreign Legion on New Year’s Day, 1915. Soon his unit was on the front lines and in the trenches. He wrote this passage to his mother on March 15: “I long to be with you all again, once the war ends. I think it will be this summer some time; then for the rest and peace of Dedham.”

Farnsworth’s last letter home was dated September 16. On September 28, he was killed while fighting in the trenches outside of Champagne. Many of his fellow Legionnaires spoke of Henry Farnsworth’s remarkable spirit and bravery. His letters were later published by his father and can be found on Googlebooks. In 1920, an elaborate monument was dedicated to the memory of Farnsworth and 130 other foreign Legionnaires killed in the Battle of Champagne. The monument was paid for by the Farnsworth family.


Boston Globe/January 2,1921