Tag Archives: Crime

Island Ledge House Scandal Wells Beach

Island Ledge Hotel and map

Boston & Maine Railroad Company built the Wells Beach station in 1872 after much advance press.  Anticipating improved access to “watering” summer folk, resourceful businessmen Harrison B. Davis, his brother Alfred, and William A. Worster, started quietly buying up beachfront parcels of land in 1870.

A large, opulent hotel was erected in 1871 at the ocean end of what is today called Mile Road.  Over 1400 guests were entertained there during the first season.  The proprietors celebrated by adding an ell that contained sixty additional rooms which were occupant-ready by June of 1872.  Island Ledge House was advertised to have large airy single and en-suite rooms, wide halls lighted with gas, extensive verandas with unobstructed sea views on three sides, a billiard hall, bowling alleys, a croquet lawn, sailboats with skillful skippers and a quadrille band in constant attendance.  For the first few years, the day to day operations of the hotel were supervised by the Davis brothers.

William A. Worster took over in 1874.  He placed a new ad that described the hotel as having “four stories with a mansard roof and about 200 rooms.”  Such abundance could be enjoyed for just $3 a day.  In contrast to the success enjoyed during its first few seasons, the hotel was losing money under Worster’s management.

When the vacant, heavily insured complex of buildings burned to the ground on February 15, 1878, after five short years in operation, Worster was accused of incendiarism; a charge he denied.  The case was settled out of court but further investigation uncovers the fact that another heavily insured building owned by Worster had burned in 1870 just months before he invested in the hotel development.

Worster married the Berwick widow Juliette Ricker in 1875.  The fact that she came from a pretty well-connected family probably had not escaped his notice. Julliett’s brother, Sherman A. Ricker, broadly known as the “Corn King of the Chicago Board of Trade”, was, at the time of his sister’s wedding, living a wildly reckless life and Juliette was one of his only heirs.  When the “Corn King” died in 1882 his estate was vast.  William Worster’s bride inherited hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Meanwhile, William Worster fought arson and insurance fraud charges for several years before settling out of court. When his subsequent business practices came under new legal scrutiny he transferred all his assets into his wife’s name to avoid having to pay another settlement.

The Boston Daily Advertiser reported the story on March 27, 1886.

Strafford County Jail tonight contains an exceptional prisoner – William A. Worster of Great Falls. Two years since the Grand Jury of York County Maine found an indictment against him for obtaining $900 by false pretenses from Sewell I. Cowell of Berwick.  He then changed his residence to Great Falls, NH and the indictment still hangs over him.  The Supreme Court at the February term, 1885, rendered judgment against Worster for $6054.  Worster placed his property out of reach of the Sheriff who then had him arrested on suspicion of an intent to leave the State. Worster declared he had no money and wanted to take the poor debtors’ oath, thinking the plaintiff would not push the case any further.  He was astonished to find the council for the plaintiff had lodged $1000 in the jailer’s hands which is guarantee for the prisoner’s board for eight years.  Worster declares he will stay, if necessary, rather than pay.”

Worster served five years in jail.  His stubbornness had been based on the assumption that his wife would continue to fund his litigation but it didn’t work out that way.  Juliette ran off to Europe with prominent Somersworth, New   Hampshire businessman Emery J. Randall in 1888 leaving William A. Worster the pauper he had claimed to be.

Accusations of Witchcraft at Spruce Creek

Alleged: Seven Horses Fourteen Witches

As Halloween approaches, images of witches magically appear in shop windows. We indulge our fancies with an annual flight to a charmingly spooky world where witches wear identifying head gear and brooms fly. At one time in New England, an accusation of witchcraft could end at the gallows, as it did for Wells minister Rev. George Burroughs during the Salem, Massachusetts delirium of 1692.On Oct. 21, 1725 widow Sarah Keen of Kittery was publically accused of being a witch by her Spruce Creek neighbor, John Spinney, the weaver — long after the horrors of Salem neighbors used accusations of witchcraft to ostracize neighbors.

Sarah wasted little time in calling upon Kittery Justice of the Peace, Col. William Pepperrell, to have her accuser arrested. Once Spinney was in custody, Pepperrell heard testimony from a few witnesses to the accusation and he imposed a moderate fine of five shillings plus court fees. If Spinney had paid the fine that might have been the end of it but John had personal reasons for slandering Sarah.

The justice system in colonial York County had three levels: Local Justices of the Peace were like police. They could arrest and fine for minor offenses. Justice William Pepperell Sr. made those decisions at Kittery. If a suspect like Spinney appealed the judgment of the Justice of the Peace with reasonable cause, his case was escalated to the next session of the Court of Common Pleas. That court, held in the Town of York in 1725,  had regular sessions three times a year and quarterly sessions four times a year. The General Assembly met just once a year for only the highest level cases.

Spinney did appeal Pepperrell’s ruling, complaining that he had not had sufficient time to call his own witnesses. His appeal was heard Jan. 1, 1726. Though Spinney denied calling Sarah a witch, his many witnesses described a variety of incidents that served to reinforce the notion. A few of those alleged acts of witchcraft follow.

Elizabeth Pettegrew claimed that one night at about 9 or 10 o’clock, she saw a coven of witches frolicking in the moonlight with Sarah Keen. Elizabeth heard noises down the country road toward the Keen house, from her doorway that night. She moved a little closer to investigate and saw Keen on horseback with a riding hood pulled up over her head and a white handkerchief about her neck. The moon shone brightly on a coven of 14 women riding double on seven horses behind her. They seemed to be very merry, talking and laughing loudly as they rode on by. Clearly the behavior of witches.

John Harmon and Samuel Remich testified that they were with Paul Wentworth at a tavern in Portsmouth one night. Wentworth told them that he saw Mistress Keen strike the fire and make it fly all over the house, thereby bewitching her daughter.

Paul Williams testified that he had been present when Sarah threatened to put a bridle on Spinney and ride him like a horse to Justice Pepperrell’s house. Others reported that Sarah had ridden Spinney from the eastward and kept him tied to her plum tree all night.

Reference was made to widow Keen’s extra nipple. It made even Sarah wonder, from time to time, if it might not be there to nourish the devil. She had expressed concern to other women in town that around the time of the Salem hysteria she thought she might be a witch and not know it.

Many of Keen’s neighbors from the tiny hamlet of Spruce Creek turned up to support Spinney’s claim. When all was said and done the judgment against Spinney was reversed for insufficient evidence.

Examination of earlier court documents reveals some possible clues as to why Sarah’s neighbors were so willing to throw her under the wagon. Throughout their residence at Spruce Creek, Sarah and her deceased husband, Nathaniel Keen had made plenty of enemies.

Nathaniel Keen fought with his neighbor Paul Williams over ownership of a field between their properties. Keen and Spinney’s in-laws, the Shepards, had been in and out of court for  13 years over ownership of a  10-acre parcel of land between their houses. Keen’s ownership of the land was eventually affirmed. Samuel Spinney, John the accuser’s father, was among those who petitioned Kittery selectmen to install a landing on the creek. The approved road to the landing encroached on Keen’s property and he legally succeeded in blocking Spinney’s access to the creek.

Nathaniel Keen was also notorious for his temper that on more than one occasion turned to physical violence. He was arrested for beating his slave Rachel to death in 1694. The value of a slave’s life being what it was at the time, charges were reduced from murder to cruelty and Keen was fined five pounds plus court costs.

Sarah Keen also had a volatile temperament. In one instance she went after William Godsoe with an axe. When chided for unchristian-like behavior by one of her neighbors, she reportedly replied, “I did not profess no Christianity.”

It seems that when an opportunity presented itself to exact revenge the Keen’s neighbors lined up to take it out on Sarah in court.

Old Alfred jailhouse saw inmates come and go

A jail with porus walls

Alfred became a half shire-town in 1802. A log jail was built there the following year, which according to an 1833 legislative report, proved to be “grossly insufficient and unsuitable for the purposes for which it was built.”

A new, more secure jail made of stone was clearly necessary by the time Alfred became a full shire-town in 1832. Even though four successful escapes were recorded between 1831 and 1834, taxpayers were vehemently opposed to the required expenditure of $7,737.12. A stone jail was built nonetheless.

The 1834 jail was not adequate for long. Alfred became the principal shire-town for York County in 1860, and by 1869 legislators were lobbying for funds to build another new jail at Alfred. The project was finally approved by the Legislature in 1872, providing the construction could be completed for less than $30,000. To that end, authorization was granted for the contractors to use “any and all materials” of the 1834 jail to build the new jail within budget.

The brick jail was just nearing completion in March 1873 when Louis H.F. Wagner was arrested for the famous double murder at Smuttynose Island. Wagner was incarcerated at Saco and then at the Cumberland County jail in Portland while his quarters at the new York County correctional facility were being readied. He was finally transferred to Alfred on April 29, 1873, as the first inmate of the new jail.

On a Wednesday evening in June, not quite two months into his stay, Louis Wagner and two other inmates walked unnoticed out the front door. A reporter for the New York Times went to Alfred to see for himself how the prisoners were able to escape from the brand new modern jail.

“As I approached the building, prisoners could be heard laughing and singing inside,” wrote the reporter. “I entered, and a dozen prisoners flocked about me. They are all at perfect liberty to roam about the corridors. They have no handcuffs and, seemingly, no restraint.”

The locks on the cell doors had been ineffectual since they were installed. One of the prisoners demonstrated for the stunned reporter that all the cells could be unlocked simply by sliding any narrow strip of wood into the lock.

“Such being the case, the jailer makes no attempt to keep the prisoners in their cells,” revealed the big city newsman.

Two special guards were stationed less than 20 feet from Wagner’s cell. They had been assigned to guard only him, but for several days before his escape, Wagner had cleverly desensitized the guards by repeatedly hiding himself only to pop out of his hiding place, laughing when they summoned the warden.

On the night Louis Wagner, William McCarley and Charles Harrington escaped, Wagner put on quite a performance for the guards, convincing them that he was feeling quite ill and planned to confine himself to bed all evening. By the time the guards took their posts at 9 p.m., Wagner was already gone. He had fashioned the likeness of a man huddled under the blankets on his cot with a short broom and a stool from his cell. It was hours before the guards noticed that the “man” wasn’t moving and when they did, they were reluctant to call the warden for fear the murderer would make fools of them again.

The prisoners had made their way through a scuttle in the jail, up through a ventilator and onto the roof with the intention of lowering themselves down a rope of blanket strips. Noticing a skylight into the warden’s quarters, they decided instead to remove a pane of glass and reach in to unlock the large window. Once inside, they quietly made their way down the stairs and walked right out the door.

Wagner was recaptured by a farmer in Farmington, N.H., three days later. Unaware of the $500 reward on his head, he had been driven by hunger to the farmer’s kitchen door.

The axe-murderer was transferred to the Maine State Prison in Thomaston, where he was later hanged for his crimes. The locks on the cell doors at the Alfred jail were disassembled and sent to Boston for repair, but escapes were frequent throughout the 100 years the building served as the York County House of Correction.

The last escape from the old brick jail took place in September of 1974. The familiar story appeared in the Lewiston Journal.

“Four young inmates escaped from York County jail Friday night. The men apparently forced a section of the ceiling and climbed out through an air duct to the roof and then used blankets to lower themselves to the ground.”

The death of an epileptic inmate from untreated seizures on Sept. 27, 1975, was the catalyst for a riot that closed the old brick jailhouse for good. The 15 inmates ripped out sinks, bunks and electrical wiring in every cell, causing significant damage. Forty law enforcement officers, including state police and firefighters with hoses, quelled the riot. All the inmates were transferred to the Cumberland County Jail and the cellblock at the Alfred jail was closed by order of the court.

The old jailhouse was deemed unfit for prisoner habitation but it was used for a number of years as York County’s first homeless shelter before being auctioned in the year 2000. It still stands on Route 111 in Alfred, as a somber reminder of the darker side of our history.

The Kennebunk Racket

A Popular Violation

“NATIONAL PROHIBITION BECOMES EFFECTIVE AT MIDNIGHT TONIGHT!” screamed newspaper headlines across the United States on Jan. 16, 1920. Maine had been dry since 1851 and the Kennebunks since 1833 but a federal law against liquor caused crime rates to skyrocket.

Enforcement of the Maine Liquor Law had been intermittent at best. Federal Prohibition made smuggling alcohol by land and by sea far more profitable. Seth May of Auburn was appointed Maine’s Federal Prohibition Director. The unorthodox methods he employed to gain compliance from incarcerated informants invited corruption in county and local law enforcement.

In 1926, May’s methods were scrutinized during a corruption case against the sheriff of Kennebec County. Testimony revealed that the feds had allowed a large shipment of alcohol from a known Massachusetts bootlegger to be delivered to inmates of the Kennebec County Jail. They looked the other way with regard to gambling among the inmates. Women, who would later report relevant conversations to the feds, were procured for “private visitation” with informants.

Meanwhile, local law enforcement officials were expected to use all the resources at their disposal to arrest every tipsy teenage flapper doing the Charleston at the summer beach resorts. Tensions grew. Corruption spread.

On July 18, 1930, the following notice appeared in the Biddeford Weekly Journal.

“A Kennebunk Traffic Officer, who from his post of directing motorists, allegedly acted as a go-between for bootleggers and their customers, was held on a charge of violating the federal prohibition law when arraigned before U.S. Commissioner George O. Gould at Portland Wednesday.”

Officer Thomas F. Nadeau and Edward Brown, both of Kennebunk, were caught red-handed delivering a gallon of whiskey to undercover federal prohibition agents who had been posing as summer visitors at Kennebunk Beach. Also arrested were James McBride, Howard O. Hatt and George F. Clough. Edward Brown and James C. McBride were employees of the Kennebunk municipal lighting plant, where it was alleged, the liquor was being stored.

It was reported in the Biddeford Journal that Seth May had moved his men in to break up a longstanding conspiracy he called the “Racket of Kennebunk Square.”

“Federal Prohibition Director Seth May of Auburn, believes that he has broken up one of the rum rings operating at Kennebunk Beach, Kennebunkport and vicinity among the summer visitors with the arrest of the five men there Tuesday night. Director May considers that the arrest of George F. Clough, a summer resident of Kennebunkport, who he terms ‘a high hat bootlegger delivering the best that could be procured,’ to be highly important in breaking up the rum-running to the summer people at that point. Clough has been arrested by deputies on liquor charges in the past and spent six months in a Rhode Island jail for a similar offense last year. He is one of the ‘boys’ referred to on the golf links who could tell where he could buy ‘It,’ which is the high hat way of referring to liquor among the elite of the summer colony.”

May suspected that the Kennebunk ring was also responsible for the liquor supply at Wells, Ogunquit and York beaches, where canvassers made daily rounds to take orders and liquor would be delivered the same evening.

Residents of Kennebunk anonymously told the Journal reporter that most of the supply has been coming in by water through Cape Porpoise and through Fortunes Rocks and Biddeford Pool. One resident who claimed to have known the operations of the ring for some time, stated that an airplane had also been used when the water routes were too closely guarded but mostly the supply was delivered by speedboats.

Three men renting the Reid cottage near the mouth of the Saco River had been arraigned for conspiracy the previous November. Their confiscated code book contained characters and messages which indicated the place was being used as a satellite base for a large band of rum-runners out of Gun Point at Harpswell. Schooners full of European liquor were unloaded at Ragged Island. From there speedboats took the liquor in and out of  Maine coastal resort harbors delivering to go-betweens onshore. The Gun Point operation was thought to be part of an even larger crime syndicate delivering prohibited liquor all up and down the east coast of the United States.

When former Liquor Czar of the Boston Police Department Oliver B. Barrett, was on the lamb in 1930 to avoid charges that he extorted protection money from Boston hotels, Maine Prohibition Director Seth May speculated that he was the secret kingpin of the Harpswell/Saco/Kennebunk Racket. Though Barrett served time for his Boston shenanigans, no connection to the Maine Liquor Racket was ever proven.

The illegal liquor trade in Maine may seem tame in comparison to the organized crime that sprang out of Prohibition in the big cities, but there was plenty of excitement here. Seth May’s men charged with protecting his cache of recovered alcohol were armed with machine guns. An arsenal of firearms was recovered from the bootlegger’s cottage in Harpswell. Shots were fired at York Beach in 1927.

Federal agents flagged down a bootlegger driving a Packard down Main Street in Kennebunk in 1924. The car was loaded with 150 gallons of whiskey and the driver Anthony Rossi did not want to stop. Agent Ernest L. Jones managed to jump onto the running board of the car. Rossi cut in and out of side streets in an attempt to shake the agent off but was brought to a stop when Jones shut off the power and wrestled Rossi into submission.

The failed experiment that was National Prohibition was repealed in 1933. Maine held onto it for another year.

Message in a bottle

Dodging Creditors by Drowning

A scribbled note sealed in a bottle and tossed into the capricious waves was the only hope some shipwrecked sailors had of letting their sad fate be known. Occasionally, such messages did make it to shore. Sometimes they turned up many miles away and many years later but the closure they brought to loved ones was almost always appreciated.

Old newspapers are full of poignant message-in-a-bottle stories. The first Minot Ledge Light, off Cohasset, Mass., was a barrel-shaped structure held high above the waves on iron stilts. When one by one those spider-like legs snapped during the great nor’easter of 1851, lighthouse assistants Joseph Antoine and Joseph Wilson tossed their bottled good-byes into the sea that would soon swallow them up.

United States Navy Collier, USS Cyclops, mysteriously disappeared between Barbados and Baltimore, Md. in March of 1918. No trace of the vessel or her crew were ever found. Theories have been floated ever since that she succumbed to the mysterious forces of the Bermuda Triangle or that she sank suddenly in a ferocious storm. A message in a bottle purporting to be from the USS Cyclops washed ashore at Baltimore in August 1918. It said, “Captured by German submarine off coast of Virginia our ship Cyclops. John Ramann Chicago, Ill.” Another message in a bottle supposedly written by one of the engineers of the Cyclops appeared northeast of Cape Lookout Lighthouse near Beaufort, N.C. in 1922. This note stated that a German submarine was close by, that all hands had been ordered on board the U-boat and that the ship was to be torpedoed.

In November 1922 a message in a bottle was thrown into the surf by the crew of the schooner Lizzie D Small ashore off New Bedford, Mass. The bottle was found by Frank Columbia of Westport Point. He organized a search party and the shipwrecked crew was rescued after having been exposed to the elements and starvation for four days.

A misleading message in a bottle could occasionally provide an alibi for those who wished to disappear for one reason or another. Such was the case in 1894 when a corked bottle was found on Old Orchard Beach. A scrap of paper in the neck of the bottle had been torn from a notebook. On one side of the paper the words “Henry Schambier, Merchant of Medicine, Lewiston, Me.,” were imprinted with a rubber stamp. On the other side of the paper the following words were handwritten, “Dr. Hudson of Manchester, NH and Dr. Schambier of Lewiston, ME, lost at sea while fishing Monday Oct. 8.”

An investigative reporter from the Boston Daily Globe traveled to Lewiston to find the poor Dr. Schambier’s next of kin. There he spoke to Henry’s sister, a Mrs. Eugene Rimfret. Last she knew, the 25 year old traveling cough medicine salesman had been living in Biddeford. Though Mrs Rimfret knew Henry to be fond of fishing she hadn’t heard from him in months and could offer very little additional information about his habits.

On Oct. 26, another item appeared in the Boston Daily Globe. Dr. Henry Schambier, previously thought to be at the bottom of the ocean, is alive and well and peddling his Menthol cough drops in the peaceful little village of Kennebunk.” Diligent investigation by the reporter had revealed that Schambier had skipped out on his bill at hotels in Saco and Biddeford.

The proprietor at one of the hotels remembered that Henry and his companion did go fishing quite often while he was a guest. On Oct. 15, a full week after they had supposedly drowned but before the story appeared in the paper, a man called at the hotel and said that Dr Schambier, who was stopping in Kennebunk, had sent for his clothes. That same day, the dandy young doctor was seen in Saco.

A later update in the Globe read, “The rubber stamp that made the impression on the piece of paper found in the bottle was discovered in Dr. Schambier’s Kennebunk room today, as was the note book from which the scrap was torn.”

Much to the public embarrassment of Henry’s sister in Lewiston, all of his clothing and belongings were confiscated and divided up to satisfy irate hotel proprietors in coastal York County.

Mutiny and murder on the Jefferson Borden

The ultimate act of malcontents

The first three-masted schooner ever built on the Kennebunk River was the 533-ton Jefferson Borden. She was launched from the Lower Village shipyard of David Clark on Oct. 19,1867. After a wreck near Miami, Fla. in 1870, the Jefferson Borden was rebuilt and sold to new owners.

Her master, Capt. William Manson Patterson of Edgecomb, owned a one-third share of the schooner and he protected his investment by sailing her hard and often. On almost every voyage, the captain was accompanied by his wife, Emma. In contrast to the seamen’s quarters, the captain’s quarters onboard was reportedly as elegant as any cabin on any merchant vessel afloat. Patterson’s brother Corydon and his cousin Charles served as first and second mate, respectively.

In the spring of 1875 they sailed from New Orleans for London with a cargo of cotton-seed oil cake. Besides the usual family members the crew consisted of the German steward/cook, Albert Aiken, a French cabin boy, Henry Mailluende, and four sailors who had just been hired in New Orleans. Seaman George Miller was described in contemporary newspaper articles as a “large Russian Finn.” Ephraim W. Clark of Rockland went by the alias, William Smith, on this trip. John Glew was from Nottingham, England and Jacob Lingar was a Swede.

It was recorded in the captain’s log that Miller, the Russian, had been insubordinate just a few days out and he was clapped in irons for 48 hours. No further disciplinary measures were recorded, but on the 47th night at sea, Miller’s discontentment again came to a head — the first mate’s head, to be precise.

While Patterson, Emma and the cook were fast asleep on the night of the April 20, 1875, the Russian sailor hit Corydon Patterson over the head with an iron strap, killing him instantly. Young Henry, the cabin boy, hid below when the trouble started. Jacob Lingar was occupied at the wheel from where, he later claimed, he did not see or hear the assault.

Clark and Glew helped Miller toss the mate’s body overboard. Then Glew cut the jib sheet while Clark went to inform the second mate that the jib sheet had parted. When Charles Patterson was trying to secure the jib Ephraim Clark pushed him overboard to his death.

The captain was unaware of what had happened on deck. When George Miller knocked on his cabin door and asked him to come on deck right away, as someone had broken a leg, Emma became suspicious. Normally, one of the mates would have delivered such news. She begged her husband not to go out into the night and he locked himself in the cabin with her until daybreak.

Patterson emerged from his cabin in the morning wielding a shotgun and a revolver and demanding to know where the officers were. With the help of the steward, he succeeded in seriously wounding all three mutineers and restraining them in the forecastle. Fearing for their lives, the mutineers finally admitted to murdering Patterson’s kin.

With the assistance of a sailor from a passing vessel the remaining crew managed to sail the Jefferson Borden to London. There the prisoners were given medical attention and passage back to Boston to stand trial. Clark and Miller were convicted of murder and sentenced to be hanged. Glew was convicted of a lesser crime, the penalty for which was 10 years in prison.

After the trial, it was revealed that the Jefferson Borden had been overloaded with cargo and was one crewman short right from the beginning. She was leaking badly and in addition to their regular duties her overburdened crew was ordered to pump her continuously — each crew member, at times, working for 36 hours straight.

The drinking water onboard was made brackish soon after they left New Orleans when a storm  splashed salt water into the casks on deck. The crewmen were allowed one cup each of the brackish water a day and very little to eat — while the captain, his wife and the two mates lived luxuriously in comparison. The crewmen had also been severely beaten by the officers almost every day for even the slightest hint of defiance.

The steward, Albert Aiken, who had been with the Pattersons for nearly two years and had testified on the captain’s behalf at trial, finally admitted to the press that it was Patterson’s modus operandi to starve and abuse his crewmen to such an extent that as soon as they made port on the way out, they would run away to avoid the return passage. This way Patterson did not have to part with their wages. In all the voyages Aiken had been on with Patterson, he had never seen a single seaman stay for the return passage.

Before the Jefferson Borden left New Orleans on that fateful voyage, customs officials had come aboard to arrest the captain for abusing the previous crew. But Patterson managed to avoid capture and as soon as the officials had left, he set sail even though the schooner was barely seaworthy.

The last straw to swing public support behind the convicted mutineers was on the Jefferson Borden’s first voyage after the trial. The vessel had to be towed into port because her crew was too feeble to sail her in, with all suffering from starvation.

A petition was drawn up and submitted to President Grant to pardon the two sailors on death row. Their sentences were commuted to life in Thomaston Prison. Miller died in confinement in 1894. Ephraim Clark’s sentence was reduced again in 1903 to time served — by President Roosevelt after the Atlantic Seaman’s Union pressed for his release.

Patterson continued as master of the Jefferson Borden until 1883 and never faced any legal consequences for his inhumane treatment of the hundreds of sailors that crewed for him over the years.

Pirates in Casco Bay in 1817

Marauding under an alledged foreign flag

Mainers have heard stories about pirates Dixie Bull, Captain Kidd and Samuel Bellamy cruising the coast in the 17th and early 18th centuries, but little has been written about the pirates caught trying to smuggle stolen Spanish cargo into Portland, Maine in September 1817.

During the War of 1812, patriotic privateering was a lucrative business for American mariners. The United States Congress issued Letters of Marque and Reprisal authorizing designated ships to attack and pillage enemy vessels. The law required that prize ships be condemned and that booty proceeds be divided between the privateer owners and crew. Goods seized were often delivered to reputable merchants at a lower than usual cost in exchange for financial backing for the privateer. No matter how temptingly profitable it may have been, it was never legal to plunder vessels from countries the United States was not at war with.

When U.S. peace was restored in 1815 some of the privateers and their U.S. merchant partners could not bring themselves to give up the huge profits of privateering. They set up dummy registrations and residencies in South America to subvert U.S. piracy laws.

Buenos Aires was fighting for independence from Spain after the War of 1812 and it proved a convenient location for Baltimore, Maryland pirate, Joseph Almeida, to set up a second home. Whenever necessary to avoid conviction for looting Spanish ships, Almeida would claim citizenship in Buenos Aires even though his family still lived handsomely in Maryland and his 10-gun Privateer El Congresso, was built and armed by Baltimore merchants.

Five American sailors, who had all arrived in Portsmouth, N.H. on the sloop Aurora, out of Portland, aroused suspicion on Sept. 7, 1817 when they each tried to exchange $1,000 in Spanish gold and silver coins at a Portsmouth bank. The purchasing power of $1,000 in 1817 would equate to about $170,000 today; an unusual sum for low-level seamen to receive in payment for a voyage.

The Portsmouth Customs collector was alerted to the suspicious circumstances and he immediately seized the Aurora under the command of a Capt. White from Portland. All her passengers and crew were rounded up for interrogation. As a result of the investigation, three of the crewmembers, John Palmer, Thomas Wilson and Barney Colloghan, all of Massachusetts, were indicted for piracy. The following details of the case were revealed in newspaper reports and court transcripts.

The three accused pirates had sailed the previous May from Baltimore, in the ship El Congresso, under the command of Capt. Joseph Almeida. During the cruise, the Congresso captured several Spanish vessels and after having taken valuables out of them, sank, burned or destroyed them.

On July 4, 1817, the Congresso captured a most valuable Spanish ship, the Industria Raffaelli, as she sailed from Havana to Cardiz. Her cargo included 500 boxes of sugar valued at $20,000; 60 pipes of rum worth $6,000; honey, coffee and hides that together were valued at $6,000; and $60,000 in gold and silver specie.

The Industria’s Spanish crew was replaced by a prize crew under the command of Capt. Diggs. According to the prisoners’ testimony, Capt. Almeida ordered the prize to sail for Buenos Aires, but four or five days later, a Portland man named Davis took control of the Industria and sailed for the coast of Maine. She came to an anchor in Hussy Sound, between Peaks Island and Long Island in Casco Bay. There, a fishing boat met them and carried Capt. Davis ashore. The next morning the captain returned with three sloops. Cargo, sails, rigging and iron salvaged from the Industria was loaded onto the Betsy and the Abby and brought quietly into port without attracting the attention of the customs collector.

The whole crew except for Capt. Davis was put on board the sloop Aurora, with their cut of the Spanish gold and silver. What was left of the Industria Raffaelli was disguised and abandoned. When she was recovered some time later near Cape Elizabeth, it took a while before she was identified. Her name had been blacked out and a piece of canvas with the name John of Norfolk painted on it, had been nailed to her stern.

There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that an act of piracy had been committed, but the United States piracy laws in force at the time only applied to acts of piracy against the United States. Because El Congresso sailed under the Buenos Aries flag and attacked a Spanish vessel, the American pirates were acquitted. The only action that could be taken was to condemn the sloops Betsy and Abby for knowingly subverting U.S. Customs collection. As a result of the impotence exposed in U.S. Piracy Law by this case, an expanded legal definition of piracy was adopted by U.S. Congress on March 3, 1819.

Joseph Almeida, also known as Don Jose Almeida, plundered hundreds of Spanish vessels before he was captured in 1827. He was imprisoned at El Morro in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and was finally executed for piracy against Spain on St. Valentine’s Day 1832.

Saco crime actually did pay in 1887

Mc Neally Biddeford & Saco Savings factory island
Saco’s First Bank Robber

Within his first few months of employment as assistant bank clerk at the Saco and Biddeford Savings Institution in 1887, young Frank McNeally was given a raise to $6 a week and assigned the task of assisting the treasurer with monthly bond reconciliations in the inner vault.

Frank was the picture of disarming innocence. At 19-years-old, his complexion was as smooth as a little girl’s. He carried his tall, handsome, impeccably-dressed frame with perfect posture, as if he had nothing in the world to hide. Bank treasurer Melville H. Kelly never wondered how this young man was able to afford such an expensive wardrobe. He had apparently not been made aware of some messy business at Old Orchard Beach the previous summer when someone else’s wallet had been found in McNeally’s possession.

On Monday afternoon, Aug. 28, 1887, Mr. Kelly was called to Biddeford a few minutes before closing time. He left instructions with McNeally to settle up the day’s business and close the bank. No one but the treasurer and the bank president were supposed to know the combination of the inner vault, but when the bank opened on Tuesday morning, $3,500 in gold, $285,500 in government, railroad and municipal bonds and Frank C. McNeally were missing.

Detective True, of Saco, rushed to the home of James and Frances McNeally on the New County Road. Mrs. NcNeally said she hadn’t seen her son since Monday afternoon. Harry McNeally, Frank’s respectable older brother, offered to assist the detective in tracking the boy down. They traced him to the Eastern Railway Station in Biddeford and then on to Portland, but from there the trail went cold. True left for Montreal on a hunch and Harry headed for Nova Scotia to search for his brother.

Management at the Saco bank made every effort to keep the heist quiet but by Thursday morning it made headlines in local papers as well as The Boston Daily Globe and The New York Times. Rumors were rampant. A reporter for the Globe wrote that probably Frank had, with the help of his good friend, the local dressmaker, disguised himself in fine women’s wear and sauntered onto the afternoon train to Boston. Someone in Buffalo, N.Y. became suspicious when a tall woman at the train station there smoked a pipe through her veil.

Depositors rushed the bank fearing their money was in jeopardy but Maine State Bank Commissioner F.E. Richards gave assurances that the bank had a healthy surplus even after the robbery. As the facts were disseminated, depositors calmed down and from all outward appearances, bank business returned to normal.

Kelly was determined to recover the stolen bonds. He believed the naive young criminal would soon learn that Registered Government Securities would be of no use to him and that the stolen negotiable bonds would not be so easy to dispose of once bankers were alerted to the robbery. But Frank McNeally had vanished without a trace.

On All Hallows Eve, almost two months after the heist, Kelly received his first proposal from Frank. It was postmarked Cairo, Egypt. In it the boy expressed remorse for having betrayed his trust and offered to send back all the bonds in exchange for $20,000 cash and a commitment that he would not be prosecuted. Kelly wanted to accept the offer but both the bank’s lawyer and Commissioner Richards strongly objected. A non-committal response was drafted by counsel and mailed to McNeally. The Commissioner publicly made the point that Kelly did not have any authority to negotiate with the thief. Kelly, meanwhile, had announced a reward of  $7,500 for the return of the bonds.

On Dec. 22, 1887, the reporter from the Globe who had been following the case, recognized  Harry McNeally in the lobby of the Halifax Hotel in Nova Scotia. Further investigation revealed that he had checked in under an assumed name with a younger man who turned out to be his brother, the bank robber. Frank McNeally was arrested by the Halifax Police and taken to a cell at the marshall’s office.

The Globe reporter was present when the police and the American Consul General searched McNeally’s hotel room. Contents of a heavy English leather portmanteau were catalogued in the Globe. It contained several silk-lined suits made of the world’s finest materials, silk underwear, 10 pair of variously colored kid gloves, and an assortment of merino socks. In a hidden compartment was an impressive array of jewelry. Not a single bond was found anywhere among Frank’s belongings.

Much to the surprise of the Halifax Police, Harry McNeally was carrying a dispatch from the Saco bank treasurer, requesting that the prisoner be set free.

Young McNeally had travelled all over the world for two months and when his negotiable currency ran out he made Kelly another offer that he could not refuse. Against the warnings of the Maine State Bank Commissioner and the Trustees of the Bank, a deal was struck.

Harry McNeally travelled to England to retrieve the bonds that had been stashed there and for his assistance, received the $7,500 reward from the bank. Reportedly, he turned the reward directly over to his younger brother.

No further record can be found of Frank C. McNeally in Saco or in any of the other United States, for that matter. The well-dressed absconder disappeared again under an assumed name and was lost to history.

Wells Landmark named after infamous prophet

The troublesome Mr. Baker

Baker’s Spring, that bubbles out of the earth near the boundary between Wells and what used to be York, was, according to Wells historians Hubbard and Greenleaf, named for a person who had participated in bringing King Charles I to the block for beheading. When King Charles II ascended the throne in 1660, Baker supposedly concealed himself under a rock near the spring for two years.

Like most historical legends, this one is probably based on a distortion of actual facts. E.E. Bourne wrote in his “History of Wells and Kennebunk,” that there were indeed three men who signed the death warrant of King Charles I and fled to New England when Charles II succeeded his father to the throne, but each has been accounted for and none were named Baker.

There was a John Baker who might well have been hiding in the woods from the law, but he was living in New England in 1649 during the trial of King Charles I. He was, however, later accused and convicted for conspiring to kill King Charles II.

John Baker had a colonial rap sheet as long as your arm. Most of his offenses were violent arguments that followed alcoholic over-indulgence or “haranguing and prophesying” in his own form of fanatical religion. John Winthrop described John Baker in his journal as an unprincipled drunk whose professed faith was of the opportunistic variety.

Winthrop wrote, “One John Baker, a member of the church of Boston, removing from thence to Newbury for enlargement of his outward accommodation, being grown wealthy from nothing, grew there very disordered, fell into drunkenness and such violent contention with another brother, maintaining the same by lying, and other evil courses, that the magistrates sent to have him apprehended. But he rescued himself out of the officer’s hands and removed to Agamenticus (York).”

In 1653, Baker was living in Cape Porpoise when, according to historian Charles Bradbury, he was again admonished for “abusive and approbrious speeches uttered by him against the minister and ministry and for upholding private meetings and prophecying to the hindrance and disturbance of publick assemblings.”

John wandered from town to town in New England attempting to stay two steps ahead of the law from 1639 – 1653. After a third attempt to establish himself in Boston, Baker was finally banished from the colonies as a “blasphemer, atheist and a liar.”

Meanwhile in England, Parliamentary Representative Oliver Cromwell had long been an outspoken critic of royal policies. With little military experience he convinced Parliament to establish an army to protect their interests against the King. While John Baker was hiding from colonial law in New England, Cromwell was effectively leading Parliament’s military forces.

King Charles I was defeated by Cromwell’s army in two civil wars and was subsequently dethroned,  tried and beheaded in 1649 for his efforts to negate Parliamentary power. Oliver Cromwell, who sought to make England a republic and abolish the religious intolerance promoted by Charles I, signed his death warrant.

Parliament’s enemies were defeated and the war ended, but in 1653, just as the banished John Baker was arriving from the colonies, Cromwell dissolved the Parliament with military force and appointed himself Lord Protector, the equivalent of a military dictator.

Baker became a guardsman for Oliver Cromwell. He grew accustomed to his new financial comfort and religious freedom. After Cromwell died in 1658, his circumstances changed once again. He was reduced to grinding knives for a meager living and according to later trial testimony, he often expressed a certain bitterness about his poverty.

The republic could not be sustained without Oliver Cromwell. The monarchy was restored and the beheaded King’s son was invited to take the throne. Several former New Englanders actively opposed King Charles II. Thomas Venner, another religious radical who had been an early resident of York, led an uprising against the monarchy in January 1661. Chaos reigned in the streets of London for several days. Although Venner was captured and immediately executed, King Charles II became acutely aware of the number of radical Protestants that opposed the monarchy.

In October of the same year, John Baker was approached by fellow Cromwell soldier, John Bradley, who inquired how he had been reduced to such lowly employment. Baker scoffed and told him he had to be willing to do whatever he could to make a living. Bradley offered to pay Baker to recruit Cromwell’s former soldiers and “Fifth Monarchy Men, Anabaptists, Fighting Quakers, Levellers” and other religious radicals to participate in a plot to kill King Charles II. He showed Baker huge ammunition stores at his disposal and convinced him that victory was theirs for the taking.

Baker was a most enthusiastic henchman. He spent many an evening drinking and boasting in London pubs and eventually recruited a crowd of eager malcontents. Before anything but barroom conspiring had been accomplished they were all arrested and tried for participating in a grandiose plot to kill King Charles II.

The would-be assassins had been duped. Bradley was working for the King. There never had been a viable plot to overthrow the government but unknowingly they had rounded up most of the King’s enemies.

Baker was quick to turn against his partners in crime but that wasn’t enough to save his life. He was hanged for being willing to “wash his hands in the blood of the King.”

The trials of the Webber brothers from Wells

A Badge of Shame
A Badge of Shame

Counterfeiting was a huge problem in Colonial America, so much so that it was considered a capital offense in the 17th century. By 1752, the year the Webber brothers of Wells were accused of the crime, the death penalty was no longer enforced but the sentence did stigmatize perpetrators for life.

The Webber family of Wells had settled near Kennebunk Beach around 1722, on what is today known as the Sea Road. Neighbors were still few and far between in 1724 when Indians killed three of them at Gooch’s Creek. By 1752, John Webber and his wife, Abigail Harding Webber, had raised at least two daughters and five sons there. Most of the men in the family were mariners, coasting frequently to and from Boston on their own vessels built in Wells. The perils of a frontier and seafaring life must have been acutely familiar.

John and Abigail Webber gained some notoriety with local historians for being shunned by their neighbors at the Second Parish Church. A sailor in their care had reportedly died from injuries he sustained in a shipwreck at Iron Ledge about 1750. Daniel Remich wrote in his “History of Kennebunk” that parishioners judged the Webbers to be neglectful caregivers and therefore responsible for the sailor’s death.

Two of the Webber’s teenage sons, Jonathan and John Jr., sailed to Boston on a new coasting sloop in late October 1752. They spent a few days in Boston and Cambridge “conducting their business.” At dusk on Monday, Oct. 23, they were apprehended for the crime of knowingly passing counterfeit Spanish pieces of eight and were confined to prison in Boston to await trial.

Evidence against the boys was pretty strong. Some of the suspicious coins were found on their persons as was a lump of the composite metal from which the coins were fashioned. The police told a reporter for the Boston Post-Boy that the material was likely a blend of hard pewter or tin, since with some strain it could be bent. Jonathan, 19, and John Jr., 14, were clumsy counterfeiters. Their coins were not of the proper weight and their artistry was sorely lacking.

“The stamp is thick and obscure and the decoration round the edge very uneven and irregular,” wrote the Post-Boy reporter. Further investigation revealed more raw materials stashed away on their new coasting sloop.

Two months after the Webber brothers’ arrest, it was reported in the Boston Gazette that they had appeared before a judge and pleaded guilty to “forging and uttering a piece of pewter and other mixed metals to the likeness of a Spanish milled piece of eight.”

On Jan. 4, 1752, according to the Boston Gazette, “John and Jonathan Webber, own brothers of Wells, were sentenced at Superior Court of Judicature, Court of Assize, to be set in the pillory for the space of an hour to have each of them one of his ears cut off, to be publicly whipped twenty stripes and then to be committed to the house of correction and there kept to hard labor for three months and to give bonds for their good behavior for a year.”

Both young men served their time and were married within a year of their release from prison. Jonathan and his wife moved in with his parents at Kennebunk Beach. No record has been found of Jonathan’s children, but he and his wife still owned the family homestead in 1760. John Jr. and his wife Mary had a large family. They moved for a time to land on the banks of the Saco River, but had returned to Wells before the start of the Revolutionary War. Both brothers were middle-aged in 1777 and of Wells, when together they enlisted in Capt. Daniel Wheelwright’s company to fight for American independence.

Wheelwright’s company marched as rear guard with Col. Ebenezer Francis’s regiment in the retreat from Fort Ticonderoga that left Lake Champlain, the coveted highway between the colonies and Canada, in the hands of the British. On the morning of July 7, 1777, while the colonial soldiers were eating their breakfast, British forces caught up with them and attacked.

The Webber brothers were in the second line of defense. Their company resisted valiantly but in the end the British forces prevailed. Some 300 American soldiers died that day. Among the casualties was Jonathan Webber of Wells. For a time it was believed that his younger brother John Jr. had suffered the same fate. He had in fact been captured by the British and taken to Quebec. From there, he was carried to Great Britain where he remained a prisoner in the goal until Dec. 15, 1781. At that time, he was exchanged for a British prisoner and sent to France. John Webber Jr. arrived home in Wells on April 28, 1782, and filed with the General Court of Massachusetts to have his back wages granted.

Life in Colonial Wells was hard. The Webbers and their neighbors faced harsh treatment from the unforgiving environment, the Indians, the law, the war and each other. If the Webber family was shunned at the Second Parish Church in Kennebunk as has been claimed, the fact that their two sons Jonathan and John Jr. were each missing an ear for their youthful crime of counterfeiting might have had something to do with it.

Special thanks to Hugh Spiers for his assistance with the confusing Webber family genealogy!