Helping Claim his place in history
JAFFREY: The story of a local turn-of-the-century policeman — and one man’s journey to help get him recognized for his heroic life and death
It was Oct. 9, 1913, in the dark hours of the morning, when a railway night watchman noticed a light in the Salisbury, Mass., branch of the Newburyport Post Office in the square. The watchman put in a call to a local constable to investigate.
That constable was William W. Heath, a man that had made his home in Salisbury for several years, before heading out on what would become his final encounter as a police officer on that October night. But prior to that, he and his wife, Lillie Etta Hodge, met and wed in Hodge’s hometown of Jaffrey, where he split his time between running various hotels in the area as a proprietor, and becoming one of the first police officers in Jaffrey to occupy the town’s newly constructed police station.
Heath was the only officer who had a telephone installed in his home in Salisbury, and coincidentally, also was living in a house rented from the assistant postmistress, and lived scant hundreds of yards from the post office itself. When the call came in, Heath quickly dressed, and armed only with his policeman’s billy club, went out to face what he would shortly learn were three “yeggman,” as the papers of the time called them. Today, they would just be referred to as burglars. His wife, fearing for his safety, followed him out into the street.
The robbers had been attempting to break into the post office safe with explosives, but when interrupted by Heath, fired five shots as they ran. One hit home in Heath’s breast, and his wife heard him declare, “I’m shot!” The bullet passed through Heath’s breast bone, passing between the two lower back ribs, causing a massive hemorrhage, and resulting in death within moments. The burglars who shot and killed Heath were never found, and at some point over the years, the story of his death faded and was lost.
Until now, that is.
Retired Massachusetts State Police officer Ron Guilmette of Salisbury recently learned of Heath’s death while researching for the Massachusetts State Police Museum and Learning Center, of which he is vice-president. He once again brought the story to light, and has been attempting to get Heath’s name added to the Washington D.C. monument for officers killed in the line of duty, which he said he expects to happen at some point next year.
Often, said Guilmette, those officers who lost their lives in the early days of policing get lost in the shuffle of time. Certainly, he said, he had never heard the story of William Heath before he began to research it. And as he embarked on a journey to see if he could locate a family member or descendant of the fallen officer, or even just a picture of better quality than the scan of a photo from an archived newspaper that reported on his death in 1913, he discovered that pretty much no one else knew of him, either.
There was no justice for William Heath following his death, said Guilmette. Despite a manhunt spanning several states for the safecrackers that had fired the shot that killed him, they were never found. Salisbury police called in additional officers from Haverhill and the state, as well as utilizing resident volunteers to search local barns and woods and closed off roads heading out of town, but the three robbers never surfaced.
“Things were different back then,” said Guilmette. “There were no forensics. There wasn’t much you could do.”
Guilmette said his hope is to ensure that Heath’s sacrifice is at least acknowledged in the present day, now that his tale has once again resurfaced. In addition to his efforts to get Heath’s name placed on the national monument for fallen officers, he also made sure that the town of Salsibury once again became familiar with the name of William Heath, when he made a presentation on the life of William Heath at the Salisbury Police Department Law Enforcement Memorial Day on May 15.
Who was William W. Heath?
As Guilmette learned more about the death of William Heath, he began to scour town records and histories to try to piece together the man’s life. The ultimate hope, he said, was to locate relatives that might either have more information or photographs of the officer.
Heath died at age of 56 in Salisbury, but before his career there, he was a businessman and police officer in the Monadnock region. Though he was born in 1857 in Stanstead in Quebec, he eventually made his way to Jaffrey, and in 1876, at the age of 19, married Lillie Etta Hodge, the daughter of Jonas “James” Franklin Hodge and Lydia French Streeter of Jaffrey.
Heath was the co-proprietor, along with Mortimer E. Cutter, of the Granite State hotel in East Jaffrey and he also managed the Everett House Hotel in Wilton, which was a staple in town until it was demolished in 1948. And in 1890, when Jaffrey first formed its police department, it had three officers: The Chief of Police, Harlan Franklin Hodge and two part time officers, W.A. Lakin and W.W. Heath.
Later in life, Heath and his wife would move to Haverhill, first appearing on the census there in 1910, where Heath would continue in the hotel business, and managed the Eagle Hotel. Eventually, he and his wife would make their way to Salisbury, where he would work employed as a motorman on a street car line, and later joined the police force, serving one year as police chief in 1912, for only a short period of about three months, before the position rotated to anther officer and Heath was appointed a constable.
Constables, at that time, said Guilmette, were not salaried police officers. Like police officers, constables can serve both civil and criminal processes and make arrests, and have broad law enforcement authority. But they aren’t expected to devote a considerable portion of their time to police work, and often maintain ordinary occupations, such as Heath’s work as a hotel proprietor or motorman. Any compensation that Heath was receiving when he was doing his duties that night would have been small, said Guilmette.
“Constables were just people that had a strong sense of civic duty. Obviously police work was something that called to him,” said Guilmette.
Guilmette said that at the end of his search, even after consulting with a local historian and genealogist, it appears that William Heath has no direct descendants left. Though he and his wife had a daughter, Grace Lillian Heath, born in 1877, who married twice, Grace never had any children, and died with only a stepson from her second marriage to Frank Briggs of Manchester. One of his hopes, though, he said, is that some other line of the family continued and may want to hear the story of their distant relative, or have their own materials to add to his research, to include in the information that he has gathered for the Massachusetts State Police Museum and Learning Center.
Those with potential information about Heath can contact Guilmette at the Massachusetts State Police Museum and Learning Center at 978-686-8702.
Ashley Saari can be reached at 924-7172 ex. 244, or firstname.lastname@example.org. She’s on Twitter @AshleySaari.