Skip to content

A high-speed police chase in 1905

PJ Smith story police chase

Transcribed from this 1905 Lowell Sun article

PJ Smith, the junk man with a long and checkered career, after leading a respectable life for a few years, has fallen back into his old ways again, according to police, and this morning he landed behind the bars again.

He was arrested on the road between Billerica and Burlington early this morning by Constable Livingston of Billerica, after the most exciting chase that the official has had since the memorable night 10 years ago when Duray S. Foster was murdered in the same vicinity, and only a short distance from the scene of this morning’s chase.

Both Smith and the officer were behind fast horses, and they madly raced over a mile of rough country road until a shot directly across Smith’s face brought him to bay.

Wire thievery among us

For some time past, the telephone and other companies have been experiencing great trouble from wire thieves who, in the dead of night, have gone into the country and deliberately stripped the poles along the roadside of their wires. The telephone company, in order to protect itself, placed an employee on the work of inspecting the wires between Boston and Manchester every 10 minutes during the night. Thus as soon as a wire was cut the fact was known.

About nine this morning, Officer Conway of North Billerica received a telephone message to the effect that the wires were being tampered with somewhere in the vicinity of Burlington. Officer Conway immediately notified Officer Livingston by telephone at the centre and instructed him to take the Turnpike to Burlington, while he would go to Burlington by way of North Billerica and meet him on the Turnpike on the way back, thus completing the circle.

Officer Conway got the horse and buggy of Street Superintendent Twombley and started for Burlington, Mr. Twombley accompanying him.

The culprit discovered

Meanwhile, officer Livingston hitched up his buggy and started away accompanied by his son. They drove along in the dark through southeast Billerica until they reached a point near the Burlington line when they discerned the shadowy outline of a democrat wagon ahead of them. As they approached the wagon, the driver whipped up his horse whereupon officer Livingston cried for the driver to stop, explaining that he was an officer of the law.

Instead of stopping, the the unknown driver yelled to his horse to go ahead and put the whip over the animal until it started into a mad gallop. Officer Livingston whipped up his animal too, and went right after the receding fugitive.

Both had good horses and they went along at a mad gallop, the officer yelling at the fugitive to stop as they dashed along over the roughest kind of road. In a short time, officer Livingston reached the rear of the other wagon, but owing to the narrowness of the road, could neither pass nor go abreast it. As he drew near he cried out, “Stop or I’ll shoot you!”

His warning had no effect on the unknown, who only urged his horse more. Then Officer Livingston drew his revolver and fired a shot over the head of the driver, who did not pay the slightest attention to it, but kept going at full speed. After warning him again, Officer Livingston fired a second shot over the driver’s head but failed to frighten him.

Shot across his face

Finally after they had raced about a mile, they came to a place where the road widens for quite a distance, and here Officer Livingston, taking careful aim, fired a shot directly across the face of the fugitive. The bullet must have gone dangerously close to PJ’s nose, for it made him duck back and pull up his horse, and in a few moments the two teams came to standstill in the road, the horses badly winded and white with foam.

Officer Livingston jumped from his sleigh and mounted the wagon and there he found that the man he had been chasing was none other than the “celebrated” PJ Smith, one of the coolest men on earth.

“Hello PJ,” said Constable Livingston.

“Hello, old boy. How’s the health?” calmly responded Smith.

“Why didn’t you stop when I told you to?” demanded the constable.

“Why bless your soul. I took you for a highwayman. If I thought for a minute that it was you, I would have stopped. Why didn’t you tell me who you were? You scared the life out of me,” said PJ.

When asked what he was doing out there at that time in the morning, Smith coolly replied, “I was taking a drive down here to attend to some business the first thing in the morning, and I just met two fellows who sold me some wire. I’ve got it in the wagon.”

“You met two fellows on the road?” asked the constable.

“Why sure. You don’t mean to say you didn’t meet them? Why, they were up that way just a few minutes ago. I don’t see how you missed them unless they went into the woods,” answered Smith.

Officer Livingston then looked into the wagon and there found about 150 pounds of telephone wire and a pair of tin shears such as are used for cutting wires.

“What were you doing with those wire cutters?” asked Officer Livingston, holding up the telltale shears.

“Were those in the wagon?” asked Smith, apparently in great surprise. “I’ll bet those two fellows I met threw them in there when they were leaving,” he added.

Meanwhile, Officer Conway came up, and all started back to Billerica, with PJ expressing great surprise that officer Livingston had let the two men he had met get by him. Smith was locked up in this city and will be arraigned later.

When daylight came, an investigation was made of the wires in the vicinity, and the place was found where the wires had been cut. It seems that Smith, in order to cut the wires, climbed the pole and cut one end off at the pole, which would cause the wire to drop and trail along the ground until raised again at the next pole. Going to the second pole he would cut as high as he could reach. The wire was then rolled up and deposited in the wagon.

Smith’s record and escapades

There is perhaps no more interesting character in local police annals the PJ Smith. Whenever police inspectors discuss the celebrated events that have happened in Lowell, someone is always sure to quote from the escapades of PJ Smith. In April, 1895, he was sentenced for nine months for larceny. In April and May 1897, he was in on charges of larceny, and was defaulted in the superior court, but on May 13th of that year he was taken before the court and sentenced to 10 months and four months on those complaints. He did a term from another town for another offense. He has also had trouble with the police of Beverly and Waltham.

Down in Billerica several years ago, he stole 190 pounds of block tin from the chemical company and was caught by officer Peter Cawley in the dead of the night. At the Tewksbury almshouse some years ago, he bought a large quantity of brass and boxed it up for shipping from the Tewksbury station to a firm in Boston. It was put on a freight car at Tewksbury which was to leave the next morning, but when morning came it was found that the car containing PJ’s shipment had been entered and the brass stolen. PJ entered a claim against the Boston & Maine. The goods were recovered afterward from PJ himself.

Another time he was accused of going to the old nickel mine in Methuen, near the Dracut line, and selling a stationary engine that had been left there. The mine, needless to say, was not his property.

Once under arrest in Ayer, PJ was brought down by a police officer from that town, and upon arriving in Lowell, he asked his custodian to take him to city hall to see Mayor Crowley, whom he claimed was a friend of his. The unsuspecting officer complied with his request, and then they reached the mayor’s office, PJ said to the officer, “Now you take a seat here and I’ll be out in a few minutes.” The officer sat down outside the door to the mayor’s office and felt proud at the thought that he was the custodian of a prisoner who was on intimate terms with the mayor of the city. After he waited about a half hour for PJ to come out, he began to get nervous and, shortly after, he decided to enter the mayor’s office, which he did, only to find that PJ had left the office by another door a moment after he had entered.

Said he’d reformed

Smith was an important witness in the Biondi murder case. When Lawyer Owens for the defense produced his record, PJ made an eloquent speech stating that he was getting along in years and had seen the error of his ways and had determined to live an honest live henceforth. He admitted the records against him and said that he was deserving of more punishment than he got. His remarks left a deep impression on everyone in the courtroom at the time, since that time up to the present he had not been arrested.

It is remembered that at one time, PJ Smith was a respected citizen, running a junk business on a large scale. He served as president of the common council and overseer of the poor.

One thought on “A high-speed police chase in 1905 Leave a comment

Leave a Reply