In 1875, Fitchburg had been a city for just three years, and business was booming, although there were clouds on the horizon, since a larger national event, the “Panic of 1873” was affecting banks, businesses and the railroads throughout the country.
Fitchburg had a growing middle-class, but statistics tell another tale, which is that poor families were moving in at a fast clip. The year of the Panic, the Overseers of the Poor were put in a tough place. Led by Cyrus Thurston (who was also the leader of the “Old Folks Choir”), the Overseers reported the Almshouse “furnished partial support for 78 families” (240 individuals).
In this era, cities or towns were obliged to support former residents in the period that they left town and relocated. However, Fitchburg had the cost of immediate care of these people and had to provide food, lodging, and other supports (clothing, medical, and other supplies) for the newest arrivals.
Next, the City was in the position of trying to get payment from the towns these individuals and families move from. Thus we find that Springfield paid six dollars to support Daniel Shay, and Palmer provided $182.45 to support “Mrs. Pearson and family.”
Costly indeed, but probably not as much trouble as the “travelers” who came to town, seeking work on the railroads, or day-labor in the mills. In 1873, a total of 573 travelers were accommodated, including 415 at the Police Station (in the basement of City Hall; the Chief’s office was in the western Main Street corner of the building, now a meeting room).
Unfortunately, some of the travelers brought habits of crime with them. Fortunately, Fitchburg’s first police chief, Russell Obad Houghton was a highly capable Civil War veteran. Houghton was a blacksmith who’d risen to Captain in the 26th Mass. Volunteer Infantry. He’d survived being shot in the shoulder during Sheridan’s Shenandoah Valley Campaign.
Fitchburg’s first Mayor Amasa Norcross described him as “a man of fine presence, dignified and courteous.” He was also deeply dedicated to his tasks, which included hiring and organizing the work-force, assigning duties, keeping track of the costs as well as criminal behavior.
That first year, there were 381 arrests; 246 for drunkenness, but six for assault on an officer; 28 for assault and battery, 25 disturbing the peace (more if you count anti-social behavior like “disturbing public school,” and “escaped from reform school”). With just six officers (five assigned to night duty), Chief Houghton soon realized that substantial improvements must occur to ensure Fitchburg residents and property owners received better protection.
In his final report as chief, he noted: “As the Patrol force now stands with its small numbers, we find it impossible to perform the work assigned us in a satisfactory manner. With the present arrangement the night Patrol go on duty at six pm and immediately commence lighting the street lamps – thus occupying the time until seven. Between those two times our shops close work and there are more people on the street than at any other portion of the twenty-four hours. It is essential that the officers should be on the main streets to preserve order. At eleven o’clock they commence to put out the lights, and until twelve no officers are on the main streets, except the Captain of the night watch. This leaves our business places unguarded.”
Chief Houghton recommended that an additional rota of officers go on duties in two shifts — one beginning at 6 p.m. to light the lamps and patrol; and the other to work from 1 a.m. until 7 a m., when the day officers come on duty. He spoke from experience when he wrote: “Much better order can be maintained. Another result of keeping officers on their beats is that if an officer is wanted, people know where to look for him and are not obliged to go to the station house.”
Within a couple of years, the Fitchburg Police Department more than doubled the number of constables, and hired many other Civil War veterans, some of whom stayed on the job into their 60s and even 70s! (George Flagg). After Chief Houghton stepped down, making way for Chief A.F. Whitney, he continued his participation in the local veterans’ association, the Grand Army of the Republic. And he retained his involvement with the police, serving as a Constable to the end of his life.
History comes to life
To learn more about Civil War Veterans who joined the Fitchburg Police Department, the public is welcome to attend “Brothers In Blue – from the Battlefront to Main Street” a theatrical, historical walking tour at Forest Hill Cemetery, Tuesday, June 13 at 6:30 p.m., Mt. Elam Road entrance (raindate: Wed., June 14, 6:30 pm). The tour is produced by Stratton Players, Fitchburg Historical Society, Fitchburg Cemetery Commission, and Fitchburg Police Department and featuring Fitchburg Public School students, Chief Ernie Martineau and City Councilor Amy Green. The event is free.
Thanks this week to Chief Martineau, and former Chief Ed Cronin for background information on policing.
Sally Cragin is a Fitchburg city councilor and an award-winning journalist.