The Unsolved Murder of Patrolman Michael Connolly, Portland, Maine
Written by Suzan Roberts Norton©2008
Photocopies from Portland Newspapers-Photos by John Marshall
This story was first told to me a couple of years ago. Since then, I have desperately wanted to write something about the unsolved murder which took place on August 15th, 1930. Patrolman Michael T. Connolly left behind a wife and five children, all of whom never received any closure regarding his death. I think he would have been proud to know that so many in his family chose careers that were meaningful and focused on helping others. The story was told by his grandchildren to an audience at the Maine Irish Heritage Center, formerly St. Dominic’s Church. As a member of the audience, I could feel the family’s pain as they revealed what happened to their grandfather, though it was many years ago. Their story was supported by months of newspaper archive photocopies, the written word exposing some rumor, some speculation including a substandard investigation. It is possible that inexperience may have been a factor in the investigation also. At the front of the room was a large portrait of him in uniform.
To understand that period of time in Portland, one must know that the waterfront especially was a hotbed of activity for the bootleg trade. The harbor was busy with illegal shipments, sometimes easier for some to turn their eye, in the event they could get a pay-off for doing so. Maine had been a dry State for nearly 50 years, so bootlegging was a prosperous business for men and women. The role of the bootlegger in a neighborhood aside from selling their alcohol could have been to make loans to people as well as cash their checks. Patrolman William Skerritt, my relative, used to cash his check at the bootlegger. This was revealed through stories his son told about his father who had died when the boy was only eight (1935). I was also told by Skerritt’s family that William Skerritt actually guarded a house on the Western Prom where the high profile men Sacco & Vanzetti were supposedly hiding out. Both men were wanted men. I was told by the Skerritt family that they were led to believe these men were being protected by the Portland Police. These were two Italian immigrants who were accused of terrorist acts against our government, including murder in a few cities in Massachusetts. They were later executed sometimes in the 1920’s at a time when anti-immigrant hysteria was rampant. There is a great deal of information on the web about them. Later ,I read that Skerritt would be a pallbearer for Patrolman Connolly. I am sure the men selected to be pallbearers were close friends to Connolly. The Great Depression left many with loss of trust for the banking industry, hence the reason for cashing checks at the bootlegger.
The patrolmen in those days walked a beat. They were visible in their communities and there were curfews. Telecommunications were very different, as a patrolman would walk an area and report at the call boxes placed throughout the city. He would call in every so often so others knew where he was located. In the event an officer needed back-up, he would rush to the call box and request help at the scene. The patrolman had a long key which fit into the call box. One side of the box had a keyhole in which the key was inserted a short distance and the patrolman picked up the phone to call the switchboard. The other side of the call box had a keyhole which was for the same key; only it was inserted most of the way into the keyhole. This would make a loud alarm buzzing noise that was an emergency call for help. This may have been connected to a flashing light. I am not sure the telephone was in every home at that time as that may have been considered a luxury to some. The old patrolmen, many of them bearing Irish names are buried at Calvary Cemetery in South Portland; their graves marked with police flags. Walking the cemetery with my mother, she recalled many of the patrolmen’s names from her youth. She recalled hearing about the unsolved murder of Connolly when she was a child in the 40’s.
The front page of the newspaper on August 15th was filled with news that Patrolman Connolly was found dead at the foot of Fort Allen Park on the Eastern Promenade along a beach called Fish Point. He was found face down with his hands cuffed behind his back, partially buried in the sand due to shifting tide. High tide was at 3:17 AM and Michael Connolly’s watch had stopped at 4:08 AM. The newspaper account stated that John Lee of 23 Mountfort Street had found the body around 8:15 AM as he searched for driftwood along the shore. Lee called Patrolman Francis Reardon, who covered Connolly’s beat during the daytime. The papers later told how two prominent bootleggers fled the scene of the murder after the body was discovered by John Lee. They departed hastily when they saw Patrolman Francis Reardon approach the body. Curiously enough, their names were never mentioned. Patrolman Reardon called Chief Herman Haskell and a detail of 20 patrolmen. Four medical examiners were called next. At 11:26 AM, one medical examiner named Dr. Goodhue responded to the scene. It seemed a very long time from the time the body was found until a medical examiner arrived. He confirmed that Patrolman Connolly had been handcuffed and thrown into the water alive but that he had died from drowning.
Next, County Attorney Ralph Ingalls ordered Police Chief Haskell to check on all sailors who had shore duty that evening to ask if they had witnessed anything unusual. This would entail checking 3 cruiser ships which were in port at the time, the closest one being the USS Memphis. It was anchored 300 feet from where Patrolman Connolly’s body was found. At this time, more medical examiners were called and they all believed he had been slain as he had 2 gashes to the head. There was a major concern during the whole investigation regarding the missing hat of Patrolman Connolly. It was mentioned over and over and the harbor was even dredged, divers searched and people walked the shore looking for the hat.
Patrolman Dennis Flynn was on duty at the switch at headquarters and reported that Patrolman Connolly had pulled a duty call at 6:09 AM. Connolly had really made his last duty call at 3:10 AM. Patrolman Flynn admitted he’d written that he received the hourly call from Connolly at 6:09 AM to “protect” Connolly. It was later mentioned that Connolly had worked a double shift and Flynn believed Connolly may have been overcome with drowsiness. Patrolman Flynn was later suspended for failure to report Connolly hadn’t pulled his customary duty on time.
Connolly was found with the key to his call box tied around his neck and with his hand extended towards his back pocket perhaps an attempt to reach for his flashlight and gun. His handcuffs had been placed upside down on his hands indicating that maybe his hands were in the air when he was cuffed. When his body was turned over, the gun was found but not fired. It had been found in his left hand pocket, not the holster. The family said the theory was that his own gun may have been used against him. It was unusual that it was found in the left hand pocket considering Patrolman Connolly was right handed. His face was purple indicating he struggled in the water. At noon, the body was taken by the police ambulance to Maine General Hospital. Found with his hands cuffed, many believed it was an act of a gang of bootleggers. At the time, many sailors were helping with the search for the patrolman’s hat. Connolly’s hat seemed to be of great importance during the investigation as it is mentioned several times. Perhaps it was because it was so personal, or that it was an extension of the deceased. One sailor said he heard nothing unusual spoken about what had happened on shore earlier that evening. A few drunken men had been interviewed and 16 sailors were questioned.
It was said that a cargo of Rum landed at Fish Point in the wee hours of Friday morning. It was an ideal evening, foggy and high tide at 3:17 AM. It was believed that Connolly may have been tipped off by rival bootleggers about the arrival of a shipment of illegal liquor. The newspaper stated the boatloads upon boatloads of rum shipments entered the harbor between 2:00-4:00 AM. Perhaps he had caught them and was marching them to the call box to call for back-up patrol. The police believed he would have fought against being shackled though his body showed no signs of struggle. Questions lingered. Could he have been marched at gunpoint or was he drugged? Regardless, Connolly was known as a good sober family man, and described as home loving with an excellent record. He was also fearless, unafraid to go up against a few troublemakers.
The newspapers mention a mystery automobile with lights out and the motor stilled with no occupant. Later accounts [Sept 3rd] mention that it was a prominent bootlegger’s car and it was occupied by five men. There had been a group affiliated with a Boston ring of bootleggers who had been kicked out of Detroit and operated along the Maine Coast. The car was near Connolly’s beat close to Fort Allen Park around 2:00 AM. Meanwhile Councilman Ralph Brooks “took the law into his own hands” because the murder probe had been delayed for 3 hours. He ordered the police inspector Harold Maguire to turn over the body. County Attorney Walter Tapley gave authorization to Brooks to interfere to delay the investigation no further. Then police called off the search for the gun. Perhaps the original gun found on his body was not his own. It was unclear.
U.S. District Attorney Frederick Dyer felt he had an angle on the murder. He would speak to no newspapermen and would only confer with the District Attorney. He also stated he may speak about his theory with Police Chief Haskell. Meanwhile, Mrs. Connolly spoke of having a premonition when her husband was transferred to the Waterfront Beat two weeks ago. She worried for her husband. “He was nearly killed several years ago on the Gorham Corner Beat and the beat he was killed on is as bad a Gorham’s Corner.”
Since the death of Patrolman Connolly, a relief fund for the Connolly family had been started in which citizens and businessmen in Portland contributed with the progress reported in the newspaper daily. Within six days it had reached $1486 dollars. The City of Portland also offered a $1000 dollar reward for the arrest and conviction of people or person responsible for the death of Patrolman Connolly. There was also a benefit dance at the Gem Ballroom on Peaks Island where the Connolly’s had a summer home. Stories continued to unfold over the following weeks filling newspapers with details.
Bootlegging was the hot topic, with no mention of any local bootleggers by name. The newspaper didn’t spare any other names of those who spoke about the death or had information. The bootleggers were kindly referred to as local prominent bootleggers. It seemed there was a great deal of cover-up on many sides of this story, with the newspapers taking part in that role as well. There was a price-cutting war between the bootleggers. It did not affect the retail price but it did cut into the price formerly paid by dealers for huge shipments from the same source. It created dissention amongst the bootleggers. It split the rum dealers into two factions. There was an increase in the guards, who were usually out of State gangsters, employed to guard liquor which was at risk for being hijacked. [Taken from August 28th Portland newspaper]
One person wanted by police for questioning was a bootlegger, though not a local one. His name was Johnny Panica who was a former middleweight champion boxer also known as Johnny Wilson. He had been questioned three or four years ago regarding the slaying of a racketeer named Frankie Marlowe in NYC. Supposedly he had a run-in with the Patrolman who covered Connolly’s beat on an alternate evening. On August 22nd the newspaper reported that Johnny Wilson had been eliminated from the case as the last time he had been to Maine was in 1929 regarding slot machines.
Also of interest, there had been two Portland Policemen in Connolly’s vicinity that evening, off duty. County Attorney Ingalls did not respond to that allegation. Another story surfaced about a cab driver named Samuel Valinsky. Mr.Valinsky told of a customer he picked up around 4:55 AM the morning of the slaying at Union Station on St John Street. The person had his head bandaged and told the cab driver that he burned his eye lighting a cigarette and was on his way to see a doctor in Yarmouth. After reading the facts from the newspaper, supposed the man meant a doctor in Yarmouth, Massachusetts? He got out of the cab en route to get into a car with Bay State plates [Massachusetts]. This story appeared in the paper on August 25th. Yarmouth, Maine at the time had two doctors and both were questioned. Neither had treated a man of that description.
The focus changed to the railroad along the waterfront in the August 27th edition of the newspaper. Within 100 feet of Connolly’s body was a condemned box car. County Attorney Ingalls mentioned that rigor mortis had not set in with the patrolman’s body at 1130AM suggesting that maybe he had been held prisoner for a few hours.( A practicing mortician told me that rigor mortis is not a good indication of time of death. It can be a reoccurring condition) At the time there were four tracks in that area. Track four nearest Fish Point had 28 cars on it, Track three had 9 cars. Track two had 28 cars and Track one had 31 cars. Railroad detectives completely denied any liquor landing near the Railroad tracks. It is possible that could have been a cover-up as well. Patrolman Connolly was in that area because he sensed trouble that morning. The Sept 4th edition of the newspaper, Patrolman Leo Roach spoke about Connolly having the courage of a lion. He said the nearest Connolly would have come to a call box in that area would have been the one at the corner of Fore Street and Waterville Street if he needed help. He believed Connolly’s inexperience on that beat lead to his trouble that night.
Another story surfaced from William Fyfe whose occupation was a garage attendant. He told how he had spoken with Connolly just before 6:00 AM as he was filling his car when Patrolman Connolly passed him. County Attorney Ralph Ingalls said he did not believe that Fyfe saw Connolly at all.
The police department requested Patrolman Connolly’s notebook be returned on Saturday afternoon. Frank Farrell, author of a story in the Portland newspaper office, wrote that the notebook had been tampered with as there was some erasure on the date of Connolly’s death. However on the previous day of August 14th was noted the registration plate, auto and name of the best known bootleggers, still intact undisturbed in his daily report book.
It was also suggested that the night before the murder, a gang was threatened by a Patrolman who looked very much by Connolly, and maybe sought revenge. Through all of the stories, rumors, speculation and investigation, Mrs. Connolly in all her grief, had to keep fighting as the stories came to print regarding the death of her husband. She had to endure much and she continued to fight back to defend what she felt were outright lies. On August 29th, Mrs. Connolly told the newspaper that she was enraged at Captain Stephen Cady’s theory that her husband may have committed suicide. She said if it took every penny she had, that she would hire a private detective to find her husband’s killer.
Captain Cady claimed a conversation took place between the two men two days before Connolly’s death. Connolly told Cady he knew that Cady did not like him. Cady then said that Connolly mentioned something about if you were going to be leaving the world, “Our kind of people doesn’t want to leave any enemies”. They supposedly shook hands as Connolly cried and muttered something about his soul. Mrs. Connolly said that her husband would never have confided in Captain Cady as he disliked the man. She said, “Mike would never do away with himself. He thought too much of me and the children”.
She said the family had been down to Peaks Island when her husband took the boat for Portland on Wednesday. He was anxious to get some painting done before they came back to Portland at their home at 141 ½ Spring Street. He had gone to the neighborhood market and talked with the clerk as he purchased some groceries and supplies so his family would be all set when they came home.
A photo appeared in the Sept 4th paper of Mrs. Mary Connolly at her home surrounded by her five children: Edward , John , Catherine , James , and Margaret . The oldest son John said, “I will take care of my mother”. He was going to be helping in the search for his father’s hat. Mrs. Connolly told that her husband may have had troubles with men on the Promenade that she never knew about. He wouldn’t have told her because he wouldn’t have wanted her to worry if he had been threatened. Mrs. Connolly stated that she did not have a cent, only paychecks that her husband had left. She told that she had not paid the undertaker yet and the taxes amounting to $201.24 due on the house were also unpaid. Four of her children were expected to start school the following month. Her husband paid all the bills and would give her the rest of his pay. He had let a life insurance policy for 500 dollars lapse and she was unaware of that. The City of Portland considered paying the widow for 300 weeks at $18 dollars per week. Mrs. Connolly filed a petition with the State Industrial Accident Commission. It would be up to the City to oppose or agree with payment of half of the Patrolman’s salary under the Workmen’s Compensation Act. The Connolly Family Relief Fund continued to grow and by the beginning of September it had reached over the 3000 dollar mark. The fund for any information leading to arrest had also grown to 1800 dollars.
` As the days passed resentment grew amongst City Officials, Investigators and the Police Department. The community was shocked by the death of Patrolman Connolly resulting in an outpouring of generosity for one of their own. A shakedown was about to take place. There were a few more stories that made the papers that needed to be written about first.
Another woman who lived on the corner of Commercial Street and India Street was awakened at 2:00 AM as she heard someone yell, “Can you hear me?” and then the box slammed. Patrolman Dennis Flynn who was on the switch said he received no calls. Another newspaper article stated that Samuel Bernstein, owner of the Liverpool Tavern, at the above mentioned address said he heard two men talking loudly beneath the window above the tavern at 3:00 AM. He was awakened by his wife ,Madeline ,who heard a man, maybe Connolly, shouting into a police call box, “Can you hear me?” then the box closed and the voices died out. These two accounts may have been the same person.
Patrolmen Ridge and Connolly had a conversation in the doorway of the Liverpool Tavern near 3:25 AM, which was 15 minutes before last duty call. This may have been what the Bernstein’s heard. Ridge said it appeared Connolly had something on his mind and felt he wanted to be alone. Fred Flaherty, the undertaker, told as he embalmed Connolly’s body, that he noticed a shiner on his eye. Patrolman Ridge said when he had spoken with Connolly at that time, there was no shiner.
There were many problems with the investigation which had ugly implications according to the press. County Attorney Ingalls was very frustrated with the Medical Examiner Holt’s ruling on the death as a drowning, rather than a homicide. He asked if there had been any tissue samples from Connolly’s brain or had his wrists been checked for signs of struggle with abrasions. There was a delay in information. Councilman Ralph Brooks urged an outside post mortem examiner to check Connolly’s body. He wanted Dr. McGrath from Boston to perform the work. Medical Examiner Holt still refused to call the case a homicide. This was frustrating to many officials.County Attorney Ingalls had earlier withheld Holt’s report as he felt it was too meager. The report stated that the internal organs looked ok, stomach contents had nothing and his brain appeared normal. The wrists showed nothing unusual. On August 23rd the newspaper stated the implications were indeed very ugly surrounding the case. County Attorney Ralph Ingalls had waited too long to call Dr. George Burgess McGrath of Boston to examine the body, an expert in his field. He should have been called first. The whole mention of the suicide theory was an ugly chapter. Patrolman Connolly could not swim. Portland was full of liquor and none of it made on the premise. There was also trouble at a rooming house in that vicinity which had not been mentioned in the paper.
In the August 29th edition of the newspaper, there was a column entitled UTTERLY UNCONVINCING and it outlined the questions many had regarding the investigation which made no sense. The first question was about Capt. Cady’s claim about a conversation between the two men. Why would Connolly talk with him? The second question was: How could Connolly conceal his despondence from the intuitive perceptions of his wife? The third question was: Why would he choose a place so difficult to access to commit suicide and that would be patrolled by railroad detectives? The fourth question was: If he did commit suicide, why did he choose a beach to which he could wade back instead of deep water into which a jump by a non swimmer would be irrevocably final? The fifth question was: If he did commit suicide, why was his cap not found near the scene? The sixth question was: If he did commit suicide then why were his handcuffs on upside down? Question number seven suggested that if Connolly was dying, he would have struggled, so why were there no abrasions on his wrists? The last concern was about fingerprints on the handcuffs. There is no doubt that these accusatory questions lead to the shakedown that was about to occur in the Portland Police Department.
On August 30th, Councilman Ralph Brooks, also held position of Chairman of City Council, was ready to ring his hands of the whole affair. He would shake the Portland Police Department from top to bottom and rebuild it with an organization of young men who are “not contaminated” to ferret out the murderer. He attacked the police department when he told of a patrolman on an adjoining beat who took a $500 dollar bribe offer by bootleggers if he would allow them to operate unbothered. “Police Chief Haskell will have to go. All the tops will go”, Brooks threatened. They would be replaced with younger men. He would wait until Chairman of Committee of Public Safety, Arthur Jordan, who had been ill for a few months, was well enough to return for the next Council Meeting. Brooks stated, “We will clean out the Police Department within six months.”
Brooks continued to rant about the problems he had witnessed with the Police Department. He said he had given several leads and tips to Chief Herman Haskell only to hear nothing in return or follow-up or any report if the tips were investigated or not. Brooks informed Haskell of the attempted bribe and Haskell never acknowledged that piece of information. Brooks said that the City of Portland was paying its patrolmen $5.00 per day to protect the city, yet walking the city for the past two years, Brooks had found Patrolmen asleep on duty, and recalled one Patrolman was drunk while on duty. Another time, there wasn’t an Officer anywhere to be found in a walk from the Eastern Prom to the Western Prom at 5:00 AM. As far as Brooks was concerned, Sheriff Lloyd Johnson, nicknamed “Half Pint Grabber” because once in awhile the Sheriff department would seize half a pint- that’s all -, yet there was no shortage of liquor in the city. Brooks most certainly had a lot of guts and backbone, and was not afraid to speak his mind. He envisioned that Colonel Edward Farnsworth, a retired Army Colonel, and also on the State Highway Commission would make a trustworthy Chief for the Police Department, once the shakedown took place.
On September 3rd, Brooks charged against a lax police department. Fourteen points of laxity were pointed out to Chief Herman Haskell by City Manager Barlow. Councilman Brooks wanted Chief Haskell and the heads of the department to resign. Haskell said he would not resign. All patrolmen over 65 would be forced to retire. Haskell had notified some but had not asked McDonough yet. The Chief would then make provisional officers, those who had already served six months, permanent positions.
The Civil Service Commission held hearings regarding four patrolmen before the forced retirement took place. Patrolman Flynn was found guilty of falsely reporting “pulls”, a first time offense for him. He was discharged. Reinstatement could be possible but only under rules of Commission. Attorney Sullivan thought it was too severe.
Patrolman Michael McDonough was put on trial by the Civil Service Commission as he forgot to lock a cell door and prisoner David Dyer, convicted auto thief, escaped. Patrolman Place was also put on trial by the Civil Service Commission because he had accepted bribe money.In the end, those Patrolmen forced to retire were Hugh McDonough, Fred Emery, John Keating and Charles Cousins.
One Portland Newspaper dated August 18th, 1930 showed a large split photo taken by John Marshall, showing the funeral procession in front of St. Dominic’s Church. It is a compelling photo showing a large crowd, including children. Patrolman Connolly’s casket was carried by pallbearers, from the Portland Police Department. They were listed as Patrolman William Skerritt, Patrolman James Ridge, Patrolman Festus Kearns, Patrolman Michael McDonough, Patrolman Timothy Glynn, and Patrolman John Malloy. They can be seen in the photo.
I found this story compelling and I was appalled as the story unfolded. Patrolman Michael T. Connolly’s story needed to be told again for two reasons. It is an unsolved murder and someone knew what happened that night. After seventy eight years, it is possible that there someone still knows what happened to Connolly. Secondly, his family needs closure and healing. They need to honor his memory and have it not be clouded by the method in which he died. Many of the family members never spoke of it again. The newspaper stories stopped after six weeks, and perhaps the investigation also ceased. His story faded away over time and he was forgotten by the community he patrolled. His family never forgot him but it was not the topic of conversation as it caused a great deal of pain. His memory was clouded by his death. It is time to tell his story.
In Calvary Cemetery in South Portland sits the stone of Patrolman Michael T. Connolly. The stone is located in the older section of the cemetery where many Irish families are located, amidst the common names of Foley and Flaherty. His stone is a large Celtic Cross intricately designed with Celtic knots, done by a stonecutter years ago. His modest surname is carved across the bottom, C-O-N-N-O-L-L-Y in a Celtic style font.There are no other names on the stone. Officer Connolly’s grave is marked with a blue and white police memorial flag.
Badge 197 was a badge that would have been worn on a coat and badge 25 shows Portland’s ‘Resurgam’ symbol and would have been worn on the police cap. Patrolman Skerritt was #91. Patrolman Michael Connolly may have worn # 26.
There is a Part 2 of Patrolman Michael T. Connolly’s Story .
[ Entitled- Patrolman Michael Connolly’s Untold Story]
Story printed with family’s permission through Kathleen Alfiero, granddaughter.
Thank You to Mrs. Skerritt for recollections of conversations with her husband.
Thank you to Sergeant Michael Sanphy, retired Westbrook PD for photos of antique badges & info on old call boxes.
All information taken from Portland, Maine newspaper archives from August 15th, 1930 through September 4th, 1930
Reprint permission with author’s permission @ firstname.lastname@example.org