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The Deadly Summer of 1912

Murder in 1912

The South End of New Hampshire’s only seaport was in "a state of siege". In just 10 days in August of 1912 four marines were found dead in the region. Residents were angry. President Taft was on his way. When the smoke cleared, the police marshal was out and the city’s flesh trade was shut down. Reform was in the air, and Portsmouth’s water front would never be the same.




READ: Seacoast Teen Abducted to Brothel
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The body of David H. Carlson lay propped against the wall of the Portsmouth whorehouse like a discarded puppet. His head, unsupported by a recently broken neck and a severed spinal cord, drooped to one side and both his legs were doubled up unnaturally beneath the body.

Marines in Portsmouth Harbor, turn of the Century / Portsmouth AthenaeumOver the next 10 days, during August of 1912, three more marines turned up dead in the Portsmouth Harbor area. Their unsolved cases, in the midst of a summer crime wave, drew the media spotlight onto the city's smoldering South End and helped unseat a corrupt city marshal and break down the city's flourishing red light district.

For over two hours the body of USMC private Carlson, aged 24, leaned awkwardly against the infamous Asay House off Portsmouth's busy "combat zone" near present day Prescott Park. A passing sailor spotted it early Saturday morning and notified the police. Carlson, a well-liked marine just back from a tour of duty in Cuba, had reportedly gone "on liberty" with a significant amount of cash. He had, according to the men who knew him, an affinity for gambling. The dead marine's uniform, the newspaper reported, was immaculately clean. In his pockets police found only a knife, a dollar bill and a full bottle of whiskey.

Initially Mr and Mrs Asay, owners of the brothel, denied ever seeing Carlson. But a female "inmate" of the house, the Portsmouth Times reported, told a Navy board of inquiry that Private Carlson had indeed been inside the Asay House. He left an undisclosed amount of money with a woman on the second floor there, promising to return to spend the night. Before leaving the house, Carlson got into an argument with USMC Corporal Newton, a Portsmouth resident. Newton admitted he had pushed Carlson, but swore that he then left him unharmed outside the building at approximately 11 pm that night.

Thomas Entwistle in 1912 / SeacoastNH.comBrent Armstrong, bartender at "The Home" next to the Asay House testified that he saw the body in the alley at about 10:30 pm that night. He identified Carlson from a police "flashlight photograph" of the corpse. Armstrong assumed, he said, that the man in the alley was just another Friday night drunk. Crorpoal Newton was arrested on manslaughter charges, but never tried. Police, instead, quietly turned him over to Navy officials without a public trial. The Carlson case, however, was just the tip of the iceberg.

In the summer of 1912 Portsmouth was already in "a state of siege" according to the Portsmouth Times over a series of unsolved daylight robberies. Families rushed to store household valuables in bank deposit vaults. Wives hunkered in upstairs windows with opera glasses scanning the neighborhood for thieves. Husbands bought shotguns in record numbers and filled them with rock salt to discourage midnight prowlers. Crime was on the rise everywhere, it seemed, and aging Portsmouth police marshal Thomas Entwistle appeared unwilling or unable to bring order. In fact, Entwistle and his patrolman were known for keeping the brothels open and busy in exchange for bribes, favors and protection money. Under marshal Entwistle, at least a dozen bordellos thrived along the waterfront.

On August 15, five days after the Carlson murder, the bloated body of what appeared to be a sailor, "evidently a Greek", was discovered floating on the Kittery side of the Piscataqua River. Twenty-year old John Costing, it turned out, had been a fireman on the USS Hannibal. It was not uncommon for sailors who fell overboard, many of whom could not swim, to disappear in the swirling Piscataqua. Costing's death went unexplained.

Four days later, the body of Army Private Reardon (also spelled Riorden) stationed at Fort Constitution was discovered floating in the river at New Castle. Investigators initially concluded that Reardon was pushed off the New Castle bridge by other marines. South End residents reported hearing a loud angry group of men moving from the red light district on Water Street (now Marcy Street) and up the New Castle road.

Reardon's death was ultimately ruled accidental, but the newspapers were quick to tally the score. A local fisherman discovered the fourth body in the river by the New Castle breakwater scarcely two days later. Private Everett Lesher, aged 28, had been missing from the USS Southery since August 10, coincidentally, the date of the Carlson murder off Water Street. Lesher's body was too decomposed to determine if he was a victim of foul play, according to the medical examiner. At least three of the four dead marines, according to the local buzz, had been under the influence of booze easily available in waterfront bars.

CONTINUE The Deadly Summer of 1912 



There was actually a fifth mysterious corpse, but Mrs. Richards Sears] was never linked to the four dead marines. Sears, a summer tourist visiting from Brooklyn, was found drowned in the water near Fort Constitution a month later on September 24. Despite bruises and scratches, the fact that the victim was female, had not been robbed of her gold wedding ring and was reportedly despondent over her poor health, led the coroner to quickly rule her death a suicide.

Local police appeared increasingly inept as each new death and robbery occured. The South End summer crime wave churned up even more damning headlines for Thomas Enwhistle's police force. In mid-August a woman was arrested on charges of "white slavery" and held on a heavy $5,000 bond. Constance Perry, 25, was accused of luring a minor female from Dover to work in a Portsmouth brothel. In a rare public acknowledgement of the city's sex trade, Ethel Duffy, aged 14, was interviewed on the front page of the Portsmouth Times. Mrs. Perry, she said, had given her a drink that made her dizzy and taken her to a Portsmouth bordello.

"That day we were in a restaurant," Duffy told the newspaper, "and all the while the woman kept talking to me that if a man came to see us that night I should do what he asked me to."

Marines in Portsmouth Harbor / Portsmouth AthenaeumAnd there was more. In one published instance a man "touched in the head" terrorized South End locals and fought off police for reasons unknown. In another, a group of marines were reported brawling, shouting and using profanity neaer the South Mill bridge at midnight. They carried on for over an hour without police intervention. During this time one marine was knocked senseless. A witness heard the group plotting to throw the man into the river if he did not recover. When a South End resident called out that he was going to notify the police. A marine threatened to "blow his head off" if the witness interfered.

"The residents of the South End pay their taxes," an anonymous South Ender wrote to the Portsmouth Herald on September 12, "and naturally expect to have some police protection – but I’m sorry to say they haven’t any whatsoever. Two policemen are kept on the upper end of Water street for the protection of the dens of infamy that are allowed to flourish. They are given police protection, but the residents of this section of the city are forced to be annoyed by their dumpings after closing up time."

The Water Street red light district did not disappear immediately, but the public had finally had enough. So had the administrators of the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard who now learned that President William Howard Taft was planning a visit to the Kittery facility. With shipyard work at a near standstill and the region dependant on federal contracts, it was time to clean up the messy South End, and fast.

On September 21 the Portsmouth Herald announced the resignation of Marshal Entwistle in large bold letters accompanied by a front page photograph, rare for that era. Entwistle, best known for his capture of Louis Wagner the Smuttynose Island ax murdered in 1873, received a laudatory farewell. But the next day the Herald was forced to retract its story when Entwistle reported that, although the police commissioner had asked him to resign – he had not, and would not ever do so.

The battle lines were now drawn. Entwistle, the newspaper pointed out, a former member of the governor’s council, had actually appointed the police commissioner who then requested his resignation. When Entwistle refused to go, the commissioner threatened to shut down the Water Street bordellos in retaliation. When Mayor Daniel Badger reluctantly made the Water Street bordellos a campaign issue in the upcoming election, Portsmouth’s dirty little secret finally became a public issue.

"As Mayor of this city," Badger announced, "I call on you to close forthwith and permanently keep closed all houses of ill repute in this city, and to close forthwith and keep closed all places where intoxicating liquor is sold illegally."

Marshal Entwistle, then in his 70s, wrote a blistering attack on Mayor Badger. Was the city also going to shut down all the tobaccos shops, auto garages, newsstands and drugstores too? Entwistle’s comparison between prostitution and selling newspapers failed miserably with local citizens in an era of rising social reform. The memory of four dead marines in August was still fresh in the public mind. Badger easily won his re-election. Thomas Enwhistle quickly resigned, the major bordellos were closed and Water Street was renamed Marcy Street. Whether it was named after a recent mayor or a former Portsmouth ship captain seemed not to matter. Either way, the "cleansing" of the Portsmouth waterfront had begun.


READ PART TWO: Two elderly South Enders, the Prescott sisters, suddenly become millionaires and set out to build a park in honor of their father. Images courtesy of Portsmouth Athenaeum. Copyright © J. Dennis Robinson, All rights reserved.

SOUCES: Portsmouth Herald and Portsmouth Times in 1912, They Came to Fish by Raymond Brighton.



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