New Book Relives Halifax’s Darkest Hour

By Zane Razzaq
The Patriot Ledger


In the 1870s, a journalist, describing Halifax, wrote that the small agricultural town had “no lawyers and none needed.”

Halifax then had a population of about 600 people, most of whom were either related or knew each other. That’s why a triple homicide in 1874 sent shock-waves throughout the small town.

Brothers Thomas and Simeon Sturtevant and their housemaid Mary Buckley, all in their late 60s to early 70s, were killed on a Sunday in February 1874. Their bodies were discovered in a house on Thompson Street that still stands.

“No one has a factual account of this murder,” said true crime author John F. Gallagher, sitting at his kitchen table in Hanover. “I think with all the research I did, I have an account that can be relied on as factual and truthful.”

Gallagher spent 29 years working for the Boston Police Department. Now, retired, he writes about historical murders on the South Shore.

His latest book, “A Monument to Her Grief: The Sturtevant Murders of Halifax, Massachusetts,” gives an in-depth look at the Halifax murders.

The murders shocked the residents living in Halifax, which saw very little crime.

“It was so violent, (the killer) really did a number on them,” said Donna McCulloch Brown, a past president of the Hanson Historical Society who first told Gallagher about the murders. “He didn’t just shoot them, he really hurt them, it was wholly unnecessary.”

The murder victims were beaten to death with a stake Sturtevant had taken off a hay cart. Gallagher’s book describes Simeon Sturtevant’s face as disfigured and the walls and ceilings as blood-splattered.

During the investigation, William Sturtevant, a nephew who lived in Hanson, emerged as the prime suspect.

“They knew right off the bat it was going to be him,” Brown said. William Sturtevant was poor and his wife had just given birth to a new daughter. He knew the uncles were wealthy and had money in the house.

Because of a hole in his pants, William Sturtevant had left a trail of stolen coins from the Thompson Road house to his own house in Hanson.

At the time of the Halifax murders, police were not able to rely on fingerprints or forensic science. Instead, officials relied mostly on circumstantial evidence.

For example, the district attorney noted at trial that police found a coat with blood on the sleeves at William Sturtevant’s house. In his stockings, police found a couple of dollar bills issued in 1863, the same currency that was in his uncles’ house.

“I admire the police for their work,” said Gallagher, “They were persistent in trying to find out what happened.”

Brown said the community was captivated by the trial. Tickets to the trial were in high demand. “They only gave out so many a day,” said Brown.

William Sturtevant was executed on May 7, 1875. A reporter at the Old Colony Memorial Newspaper wrote that Sturtevant was “haggard, pale, intensely anxious … the true terrors of his situation were contained rather in the terrible suspense of those waiting hours than the short sharp agony of the last moment.”

He was the second to last person to be executed in Plymouth County. In 1898, Governor Roger Wolcott signed a bill that prohibited public executions.

Allan Clemons, a town historian in Hanson, said the execution was well attended. There was even a special train that brought in a crowd.

While researching the murder, Gallagher spent long hours at libraries that have newspapers on microfilm. In addition to collecting newspaper accounts, he scoured digital resources and even visited the Halifax house where the murder occurred.

Gallagher said he sees his work as a type of community service.

“There’s a lot of things lost over the course of time that had an impact on the community at that moment in time,” Gallagher said, “If someone isn’t the recorder, it can be lost forever.”

Historical Society of Old Abington invites local authors to share stories

November 10, 2016


After hosting annual programs for more than 75 years, the Historical Society of Old Abington decided it was time to embrace new ways to stay relevant with the times. This new program is called “Conversations,” and it presents itself with a talk-show format; enabling a relaxing feel and as well as opening the door for more audience participation.

There are six “Conversations” scheduled for 2016-2017 season and each are moderated by Doug Ulwick, President of the Historical Society of Old Abington.

The second “Conversation” was held Sunday, Nov. 6 and featured three local historic authors: John Gallagher, John Galluzzo and Christopher Klein. All three authors covered an array of topics from their books, the process of publishing as well as sharing a glimpse of future works as well engaging a full audience.

Gallagher, a retired Boston Police Detective, turned his investigative skills into telling the stories of historic murders in Norwell and Hanover in his books, “Arsenic in Assinippi” and “A History of Homicide in Hanover: Murder on Broadway.”

“When I retired from the police department after 30 years, I continued to do some police work and consulting,” said Gallagher. “I found a book called “Images of America” and there was a picture in there and a description of a house on Broadway. Someone had written across the front of it, ‘Three Irishman shot here by Seth Perry in 1845 on Saint Patrick’s Day’.

“So I said to myself, there’s got to be a story there!”

After doing the research, Gallagher also stumbled upon information of two additional murders and thus began writing.

“Is that typical for how your stories come about?” asked Ulwick.

“Each one of the stories is more than 100 years old,” said Gallagher. “It’s amazing what I’ve been able to find our through newspaper accounts, microfilm and online. There are so many sources out there. It’s incredible.”

Ulwick went on to describe Gallagher’s second book “Arsenic in Assinippi.”

“The way the book is written is very clever in that the conclusion reached by the jury has one thinking ‘they may have gotten that wrong’,” said Ulwick.

“But I don’t want to give away the ending. It’s a great read and I thoroughly enjoyed it.”

Galluzzo said the history bug hit him when he was merely 11 years old while visiting family in Kentucky.

“We took a visit to a battlefield and I felt the battle,” said Galluzzo. “I knew it was there. That’s where the research of history began.”

Galluzzo has penned a number of local history volumes, several coauthored with Rockland resident Donald Cann. The most recent book, “Rockland through Time,” compares historic views to current day views.

“He’s one of our more prolific authors and he’s paired up with a coauthor in other works that he’s done,” said Ulwick, who then asked Galluzzo what he felt the biggest surprises were when working on the “Then and Now” book series and whether he was finding a variation from town to town of what has been preserved and what has not.

“I would say the biggest surprise is how much has survived and how much you can get almost the exact same photograph today,” said Galluzzo. “In one picture in Rockland, we had a picture from 1940 of a car parked in a driveway and sure enough there is a car in the exact same spot.”

“It’s amazing how close you can get those images,” said Galluzzo.

“As far as town to town, once you get away from the coast and you see where the tourism infrastructure has fallen away, that’s where most of the change is.”

Klein’s book, “Strong Boy, the Life and Times of John L. Sullivan, America’s First Sports Hero,” tells the tale of the great fighter who lived out his days on his farm on Hancock Street in Abington. He has also authored “Discovering the Boston Harbor Islands” and “The Die Hard Sports Fan’s Guide to Boston.”

“I had always wanted to write a narrative, nonfiction,” said Klein. “Working on the Boston sports book I came across the John L. Sullivan story.

“I’m not really a boxing fan but his story was so incredible and touched on Boston, the Gilded Age and the story of the Irish coming of age in America that really appealed to me,” added Klein. “No one had done a biography on John in over 20 years, so I think the story needed a reboot.”

To everyone’s delight, Ulwick was able to dust off a pair of boxing gloves from the Historical Society of Old Abington archives that Sullivan used to show the audience.

To learn more about the Historical Society of Old Abington, visit the Historical Society of Old Abington on Facebook.

Sleuthing the coldest of cold cases


HANOVER — The crime scene was grisly.
A woman’s body lay face-down outside the old rambling farmhouse in Halifax. When police arrived, they opened the back door and found a man – Thomas Sturtevant — his head smashed in. Dead.

In a first-floor bedroom, Sturtevant’s younger brother Simeon had suffered the same fate, his blood splattered against the walls. A triple homicide.
Police immediately suspected the wealthy brothers’ grandnephew, William Sturtevant, a shady character and a suspected thief who worked at a nearby shoe factory in Whitman.

When they confronted him, they noticed blood on his collar and on his hat. And on his coat. The guy had a million excuses, but it was the beginning of an evidence trail that pointed toward guilt.

“It’s detective work for me,’’ John F. Gallagher, who wore the badge of the Boston Police Department for 29 years, told me the other day.

“It’s digging up these facts and discovering these things that nobody ever knew at the time. I’m basically putting together a package for the district attorney to prosecute the case in front of a grand jury.’’

Except the cases, like the 1874 Halifax murders, are more than a century old.

Gallagher’s detective work, which he used to conduct on the streets of Boston, now takes place in university libraries, state archives, and in front of microfilm machines where he pieces together parts of a puzzle that — through two books now and a third about to be published that examines the Halifax killings — add up to cold-blooded murder.

“It’s dark history,’’ he told me across his kitchen table here. “You’re not going to make a lot of money doing it. But it’s kind of like a community service. And it’s a way to honor the memory of these murder victims long ago.’’

It’s also sort of a bookend to a career in police work that had its own bloody beginning.

Gallagher, the oldest of nine children, was born in South Boston. His father was a traffic manager for a trucking firm. His mother was a telephone operator. And the family was friendly with another man named Gallagher, John J. Gallagher.

That Gallagher, a Boston police officer, former Marine, and father of three young children, was just 33 in 1962 when he was gunned down by a bank robber after he responded to an alarm at what was then the National Shawmut Bank in Kenmore Square.

“He had made a huge impression on me,’’ Gallagher said of his namesake. “I’m sure that’s why I became a policeman.’’ And in June 1979, that’s what he did.

John F. Gallagher worked his way up the ranks of the BPD, making sergeant in 1988. Later, as a lieutenant detective, he supervised the drug unit, which he was asked to “tighten up” after a police SWAT team in search of drugs mistakenly broke down the door of the Rev. Accelynne Williams in 1994. They broke in without warning and handcuffed the 75-year-old minister who, minutes later, died of heart failure.

Gallagher later was assigned to the major case unit, investigating organized crime. He was promoted to superintendent in 2000, the same year he donated part of his liver to his mother, extending her life by a year – enough for her and his father to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary.

“How many of us have an opportunity to save the life of a parent, one who has given us life?’’ Gallagher asked. “If I could risk my life for strangers, how could I not risk it for my own mother?’’

After his 2008 retirement, he took deep dives into history, writing books chronicling the 1913 poisoning death of a retired Navy admiral, whose wife stood trial in Plymouth before an all-male jury, and the 1845 shooting deaths of two Irish railroad workers by an illegal rum dealer in Hanover.

“I found a lot of excellent police work,’’ he said. “What was different is that people then were more willing to come forward to testify about what they had seen. Today, people are more reluctant to come forward for whatever reason. But in those days, it seemed like they got a lot more cooperation from witnesses.’’

Gallagher turned 65 last month. When he’s not watching his five grandkids, he can be found writing and researching in his basement office.

On the wall are framed mementoes of his police career. All the badges that had been pinned to his chest – from patrolman to superintendent – are there.

It’s where he’s still on the job, combing through musty archives, tracing genealogical histories, reviewing trial transcripts – the long arm of the law reaching back 100 years in search of the truth.