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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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