Woburn under lockdown
Compiled from 1908 Boston Post archives
Woburn, Feb. 7 — Two men mortally wounded, one man seriously wounded, and anther slightly, tells briefly the story of a desperate raid on this city and vicinity at 7 o’clock last night by a gang of bloodthirsty highwaymen.
The mortally wounded are Patrolman Timothy E. Welsh and Edward J. Holland, both of Woburn. They are at Massachusetts General Hospital, and at this hour no hope is entertained of their recovery. Patrolman Edward T. O’Neil received a bullet in the leg. Sherwood Van Tassell, aged 12, was another victim of the highwaymen. He was, however, only slightly wounded.
The highwaymen made their appearance in the own of Burlington early in the evening. Near Pinehurst Park, three men suddenly appeared beside the road and held up William P. Adams, the proprietor of Pinehurst Hotel, and farmer William Essex. They were on the way home from a pond in Burlington, where they had been cutting ice to help friend T. I. Reed of Reed Ham Works in Burlington.
One of the highwaymen seized the bridle and the other two pointed revolvers at Adams and Essex, at the same time demanding that they throw up their hands. One of the robbers searched the men in the wagon, but failed to find any money, although Essex had some in one pocket. No attempt was made to harm either Essex or Adams, and they were told to drive on, the three strangers keeping their revolvers leveled until the carriage was out of sight.
Adams and Essex noticed that the men continued on the road towards Woburn. When Adams and Essex reached a house which had a telephone pole, they notified police here. Word was sent to Woburn to be on the lookout for them, and the entrances to the city were guarded by Officers Fountain, Welsh, Murphy and O’Neil.
The highwaymen made their appearance on Winn Street. They succeeded in getting past officers Fountain and Murphy, but Officers O’Neil and Welsh, who were stationed near the Universalist Church, spied them and started after them. The highwaymen turned into Church Avenue with O’Neil and Welsh close behind.
“We want you a minute,” said Welsh as he closed in on the men. He was about to lay his hand on one of the men’s shoulders when the other broke away and ran.
Before Welsh could grab his man, a revolver flashed. The bullets flew like hail. Six shots were pumped at Welsh as quickly as the trigger could be worked. Welsh fell at the first shot, a bullet in his stomach and another in his leg. O’Neil, who was behind, attempted to aid his fellow officer. But before he could draw his revolver was brought to the ground by a second revolver at the hands of Welsh’s assailant.
Welsh lay unconscious in the gutter beside the railroad tracks. O’Neil, crazy with pain, stumbled to the railroad, falling across the tracks. One highwayman had disappeared and the other two turned to go when Bert J. Donahue, janitor of the library, who heard the shooting, ran to grapple with the man with the gun. The highwayman proved a veritable arsenal. It is not known yet whether he worked two guns at once, but Donahue’s hat was shot to pieces, his head grazed by flying bullets and his face filled with powder and his eyes blinded by the revolver flashings.
Donahue attempted to seize his assailant. He clutched him and was dragged over the fence between the railroad and the Dow estate. He made a last futile lunge at the disappearing highwayman, touching his clothes, but could not hold. He landed in a pile of snow while the other two desperadoes fled in the direction of Horn Pond.
The three highwaymen had become separated. After the shooting, one had continued up Church Avenue in the direction of Medford. The other two fled down the tracks, jumped the fence of the Dow estate and made for the ice houses at Horn Pond.
Sherman Van Tassell, a boy of 12, was encountered on Arlington Road just as he was returning from an afternoon’s skating. He started towards the pond to recover a hockey stick, when without warning, a flying, panting pan appeared on the brow of the hill near the pond and, jerking a revolver from a pocket, pumped five bullets at the startled youngster. One brought him to the ground. His assailant, apparently satisfied that he could not pursue or aid in his capture, fled towards the pond.
Meanwhile, O’Neil ad Welsh were carried into Dr. Caufield’s house by Gate Tender Dockham and others, who gathered, and every effort was made to relieve their pain. The suffering of the two officers was intense. Each sympathized and cheered the other. “May God help you, Tim,” said O’Neil, unmindful of his own wound, as the doctor worked over Welsh. “It’s all right, Ed, they haven’t got me yet,” returned Welsh, his face twitching with pain as the flow of blood was being staunched. “How are you? Did they get you as bad as thy did me? I hope not. It’s awful.”
Other officers, close behind O’Neil and Welsh when they had tackled the highwaymen, were in pursuit of them. The trail of the two men who had fled down the railroad tracks was found and followed over Academy Hill into Sturgis Street and toward the pond. There it was lost.
The shooting of Edward Holland occurred about 10:30. With Officer Keating of the Woburn force, he had neared the Lexington boundary line. On Lexington Street they encountered a young man who walked along apparently unmindful of the suspicious glances by the two men in the team.
Getting in front of the pedestrian, Keating started to question him, but apparently he knew nothing of the terrible affray in Woburn. He saw nobody answering the meagre description the officer could furnish.
It was an illustration of the poor description the police had obtained. Hardly had the officer returned to the team, satisfied that the man could tell him nothing, when the man stole around to the back of the wagon and treacherously and cruelly emptied a revolver at Keating and Driver Holland. Five shots were fired. Holland tumbled from the wagon, shot through the abdomen.
His assailant jumped a wall upon the last revolver flash and disappeared as if swallowed by the earth. Keating was in a quandary. Should he pursue the desperado or aid Holland, who was dying? He decided on the latter course and Holland was taken back to Woburn, where he was treated and rushed to Boston.
Mayor assembles a posse
With the city in an uproar and the police unable to cope with the situation, Mayor Willam E. Blodgett called on the members of the local company of the militia for aid. Twenty members of this organization, Company G of the Fifth Infantry, answered the call with rifles. They were immediately sent in teams on the trail of the highwaymen in he direction of Lexington.
Later, a number of other members of the same company, under Captain Thomas McCarthy, answered the call, and they, too, went in pursuit. Shortly afterward, Mayor Blodgett issued a request that all men owning firearms would join in the search. Some 150 of the residents of Woburn and vicinity answered, making the largest posse of such a kind seen in Massachusetts for many years, if ever. Local hardware stores supplied the ammunition.
The fugitives were traced by the aid of a lantern for many miles through the woods, to the trail leading to Arlington Heights and back to Lexington to the State Road, one of the men coming out at the home of George Menchin, at Menchin’s Hill, just over the city line. The militia and citizens are in an ugly mood, and it is believed no quarter will be shown he fugitives.
The police and members of the militia believe they have run down the most desperate of the highwaymen in Lexington. This is the man who, it is believed by police, did all the shooting. Is it he that the officers charge with fatally wounding Welsh and Holland, and painfully injuring Officer Edward O’Neil and the young boy, Sherwood Van Tassell. It was he, also, who fired at Donahue, who so miraculously escaped injury.
The desperado is believed to be in Jerry O’Neil’s race track, just off Woburn Street in this town. The members of the militia had followed him all the way from Woburn to Lexington, helped by information given them by people living along the road. He was seen to disappear in the direction of the track.
The militia was joined upon arriving at Lexington by Chief Frank and Officers Maguire, Sherman and Jones. The soldiers and loaded their rifles with ball cartridges and the officers had their revolvers. They had surrounded the track and all outlets from it had been guarded. The orders have been given that if they run to cover the murderous highwayman and he shows resistance to shoot him down. At this hour, 2 o’clock, they are gradually narrowing their circle about the track, and if he is there, his capture or death is a matter of an hour or so.
One of the soldiers who ventured near enough to get a general view of the track reported that he was unable to see anybody there. But it is very dark and there are many hiding places thereabout. The officers and soldiers are supplied with lanterns and the most careful arrangements have been made to prevent any possibility of escape. One of the neighbors reported seeing a man making his way toward the track, but in his opinion, he did not enter it but continued his way beyond it.
At 2 o’clock this morning, Woburn was virtually under martial law. There was no possible outlet which was not seemingly guarded. Only the brave dare approach the boundaries, so risky is the chance of drawing a bullet from either highwaymen or pickets.
The side streets are practically deserted, the timid remaining awake in their homes, and the less frightened ones crowding the police station and the doorways of stores on Main Street. The police of Medford, Winchester, Arlington, Waltham, Burlington, Billerica, Lexington, Concord and other neighborhood towns are on the lookout.
The police are changed men. Angered at the shooting down of their comrades, many vow that they will not rest until their assailants are put behind the bars.
William P. Adams, proprietor of Pinehurst Hotel, who was one of the two men held up by the desperadoes, said: “As soon as I looked into that trio I knew they were desperate men. My first inclination was the put the whip on the horses, but an ugly look in the faces of all three, coupled with their quick, approach , made me change my mind. I then thought of watching my chance and starting a little something in the fighting line. I didn’t, however, and I am mighty glad of it. No, we are lucky, we took things as we did. We would be in the hospital or the morgue if we hadn’t. That is all. I would know them anywhere, though, and would be glad to identify them when the time comes.”
William Essex, a Billerica farmer, said: “I have had such an experience in all my life. Two of the fellows handled their pistols so confound carelessly that I though they would plug me at any moment. Without guns, I would take a chance with either; yes, any two of them. With guns on their side, though, I made up my mind to give them plenty of rope. I did not think they were quite as bad as they proved to be, although I knew they were ugly customers and desperate. Weren’t we lucky to get out of it with whole skins? I hate to think of what would have happened to us if we had not decided to let them have their way. I saw them for a moment before they jumped at us with guns leveled, but never dreamed what their little game was until I looked down the barrel of three big revolvers. To say I was surprised it putting it mighty mild. I think the whole of them were Italians. They certainly talked in a sort of broken way, and they looked it. Still I have thought since they might have been putting it on. No more of it for me, though. Would I know them if I saw them again? You bet I would. I took a good look at them as they were doing their job on us that. That will keep their faces in my memory for some time yet.”
Bert Donahue, library janitor, said: “I was coming down Main Street when as I neared the railroad tracks, I heard the shots. I thought at first that they were railroad torpedoes and ran over toward the station to see what the excitement was. As I neared the station, a fellow rushed out and cried, ‘Burglars! Burglars’ He was one of the highwaymen. I shouted, ‘Where?’ and ran over to him to better hear what he had to say. As I reached his side he seized me by the coat and, drawing out a revolver, fired four shots. I saw him as he raised the revolver the first time and kept dodging and dodging. The powder from the revolver flew into my face, and at the fourth shot, I fell down more from my efforts to get out of the way than anything else. All four the shots went through the derby I was wearing. As I fell, the fellow let go and ran down the tracks. The fellow I saw was short, stout and good-looking. He wore a black soft hat and dark grey mixed suit. He was about 26 or 27 years. He did not have an overcoat.”
Postscript — All shooting victims recovered. Two of the highwaymen were captured two days later in Arlington, thanks to an astute electric trolley conductor. He profiled them as suspicious passengers and possibly the Woburn highwaymen, so he thought of a ruse. When they paid their fares, he told them their coins were “probably no good.” But, he said, he would be willing to stop and ask a local merchant. He strategically stopped near the Arlington police station and darted in there. The men could not read English and didn’t realize the conductor had entered a police station. They were caught off guard and promptly arrested, with several guns and lots of ammo in their pockets. One of the men was identified by Burlington farmer O.C. Hodgdon as the same man who beat him weeks earlier and stole $17.
Arrested, and paraded through Woburn before a huge crowd, were Bristol Karneiosy and Peter Rosa. A dragnet was slowly closing in on Chris Seltin, the ringleader and primary shooter. He was never found.
A closer look:
Wow, what a riveting story! Reads as horrifyingly real as the day must have been. Though I full well realize this was over a hundred years ago, I was pulling for a recovery of the victims and justice for the yeggs. And I learned a new word.
The research on our towns histories always amazes me!
Interesting story. I love that you put this site together. I actually have a Francis Wyman Middle School yearbook (1975-1976) that I would like to send you, but couldn’t find a better way to contact you. Here is a Flickr link, click it, then click Albums, and you can then download the whole album. 😊