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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
READ: More about the Combat Zone

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 

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