Barre Historical Society photo
This image shows Barre around the time of the Enright murder.
The 1893 murder of Thomas Enright in Barre was never solved.
His bludgeoned body was found on the railroad crossing at Granite Street in late April. Reports of the case are remarkable for what they say about the Granite City in the years of “strikes and booms” as Barre was characterized by the Vermont Watchman, the then-newspaper of record for central Vermont.
The growing pains of a city that had seen its population increase by a factor of five from 1880 to 1894 are evident in a careful reading of the circumstances of Enright’s demise. The observations of a young divinity student and future settlement house worker, George Ellsworth Hooker, complete the picture of a city at odds with its destiny.
Thomas Enright came to Barre, as did almost everyone else in those days, for the opportunities in the burgeoning granite industry. Employment in the stone trades and related fields was the impetus behind the dramatic growth of the city, and Enright, described as a middle-aged tool sharpener, was no exception. The necessity of keen-edged implements for cutting granite made his trade essential and, for Enright, his vocation also included serving in the Tool Sharpener’s Union. The Watchman noted that he was a strong advocate who had “made many enemies among the non-union sharpeners.” The newspaper also speculated that “a war of words on that subject Saturday night had stirred bad blood and that some non-union sharpener gave Enright his death blow.”
This was just one of several theories posited by the press.
The account in the Granite City Leader, a weekly newspaper for Barre, described the discovery of Enright’s body: Policeman M.B. Nichols on the night shift was making his last round of the streets at 5 a.m. Sunday before leaving for home. “As he drew near to Granite Street he saw something lying beside the track which he thought at first to be a blanket that had fallen from Frenier’s outside stairs, but as he drew nearer he found it to be a body of a man lying in a curled up position on his left side outside the rail with his right leg over the rail and his overcoat pulled up over his head. While Nichols was engaged in trying to help the man to rise, Charles Recor came down the track.” Nichols noted of Enright, “he was all smashed up and his overcoat was covered with blood.” They were soon joined by Will Jackson, the milkman, Frank Coffran, and Nelson Gay. With the help of these men, Nichols was able to move Enright, still alive, into Frenier’s house. From there Enright was taken home and the services of Dr. Scribner.
Enright died at 10 a.m. without regaining consciousness. Mrs. Enright had died over a year earlier; they had several children. The Leader reported, “He is spoken of as a man of kind disposition and liberally disposed but accustomed to periodical drunkenness.” At the time of his death he had lived in Barre for seven years.
At the request of the board of civil authority, a post mortem examination was conducted. “The physicians made a report to the selectmen that death was caused by external violence. The outside of the head showed a slight contusion and the inside gave evidence that a terrible blow had been struck.”
The Vermont Watchman reported that, in particular, “Saturday night was one of the blackest in the history of the Granite City. There were gambling dens in full blast until daylight Sunday morning and some of them appear to have been the cause of several fights.” The newspaper suggested that Enright could have been the victim of one these gambling-related disputes.
By Monday afternoon a preliminary hearing was conducted by J.W. Gordon for the state’s attorney. A large number of witnesses were said to have been examined. Although no details were made public, the newspapers speculated different rumors and theories. They determined that W.H. Cochran of Montpelier, who had been considered a suspect, exonerated himself at the hearing. A monkey wrench sold to Charles Recor on Saturday may have been involved, they concluded. Patrolman Nason reported that Nelson Gay had told him about 4 a.m. on Sunday that “Charles Recor had got a bad blow but Tom Enright had got a worse one with a monkey wrench. This wrench is said to have been covered in blood.”
The Free Press reported another scenario. “The theory is also advanced that Enright was with a crowd of gamblers who had conducted a resort over the office of the National Granite Company, although many who claim to have been present in the gambling room all night say Enright was not there during the evening. Others claim to have seen him there.
“Further investigation shows that Enright had been with a gang of rowdies during the whole of Saturday evening. He was seen at ... the engine house near where his body was found.”
The inability of the authorities in Barre to charge anyone with Enright’s murder was noted when, more than a year later at a meeting of city officials, citizen J.P. Marr wondered what, if anything, had been done to apprehend the murderer. Some citizens “made some significant remarks bearing upon a common expression of opinion in other states that Barre was becoming a safe place in which to kill a man. Mr. Marr said that a prevailing remark in other communities was that the only object that received the attention of officials in Barre was beer and he wished to see a murderer, at least, considered in the same category as a barrel of beer. Mr. O.B. Boyce (who often served as an attorney for the city of Barre) then proceeded to hold up the reputation of Barre and Vermont and cited the sensational Borden case in Fall River, Massachusetts, as an instance in which a double murder was committed in broad daylight and the officials couldn’t locate the perpetrator of the deed.”
Boyce made no mention of the fact that the populace of Fall River generally believed that daughter Lizzie Borden was the perpetrator of her parents’ murder. Nevertheless, Barre in 1893 appeared to be in a state of dissolution and confusion, a condition that did not go unnoticed by George Ellsworth Hooker.
Hooker had been a student at Jacob Spaulding’s highly regarded Barre Academy ,and his brother B.W. Hooker established a furniture store in Barre that was to exist for generations in central Vermont. He earned a bachelor’s degree at Amherst College followed by a law degree from Columbia and divinity degree from Yale. An early pioneer of the science of city planning and sociology, he was to spend much of his adult life working with Jane Addams at Hull House in Chicago.
His study of the conditions of Barre’s granite workers in 1895 may have been among his earliest contributions to the literature of sociology. While it is mainly concerned with the denizens of the boarding houses on Millstone Hill, Hooker’s descriptions of quarry life offer insight into everyday life in Barre 120 years ago.
The community he studied predated the immigration of the Italians and many other ethnic groups that came to characterize the cultural mix that was later to define the Granite City. In 1895 he discerned only four: Scotch, French, Irish and Americans. “Labor and Life at the Barre Granite Quarries” (1895) is a brief, well wrought, observation of the conditions facing the young men who came to Barre for work. Hooker noticed that the industrial development was “so considerable as to have transformed a quiet Vermont village into the third largest city in the state” so quickly that standards of behavior were ignored in favor of “coarse substitutes.”
He also noticed the preponderance of young men seeking their livelihood. “A salient feature of the workers as a whole is their youthfulness. Probably they would not average above 28 years of age.” Single men, he noted, earned a good livelihood through their hard labors and were not reluctant to spend freely.
“They swear in a most senseless manner. They rarely quarrel, sometimes gamble, and oftimes get drunk. On the other hand, it is, as elsewhere, the minority who thus greatly discredit local life and defy the better judgment of the community. ... The boys call it ‘going after the sewing machine’ when they drive to Barre to fetch a consignment of whiskey from outside the state.
“What do people do here to have a good time?” was recently asked of a number of persons. An intelligent engineer answered, “They hire a team, drive to Barre, get drunk, smash the wagon, pay a fine or go to jail,” he wrote.
Drinking was such a major recreation that Police Chief Howland reported that over a third of the arrests his department made were related to intoxication. Hooker deduced that the unusually rapid growth of the population on Millstone Hill was to blame for the problems in the community. “To the social student, such a development as has taken place in this quarry district, has a unique value, being so rapid, it epitomizes a series of events which, in other cases, extend over long periods. Where a community takes 50 years to grow, the people have time to re-adjust themselves to abnormal conditions.
“Abuses of renting, lack of sanitary, intellectual and recreative institutions, have had no critic and no serious recognition,” Hooker added. Although many attributed Barre’s rough and tumble image to the character of the men who flocked to the quarries for good-paying jobs, Hooker found the men exploited and suffering from the lack of social growth in the community. The absence of positive social and cultural institutions were to blame, especially for the men in the boarding houses of Millstone Hill. He accused commercial interests of behavior that was irresponsible and selfish and using the community “as their promising milch cow.”
However one assesses the situation in the 1890s, there is no denying the fact that the city faced abnormal growth patterns and that the surge of the granite industry presented a fertile medium for the proliferation of social ills.
The murder of Thomas Enright was yet another indicator of the once-sleepy town’s growing pains. In any case, the troubled city of 1895 became Vermont’s economic juggernaut of the early 20th century. While the dislocations that accompany explosive growth in population would plague Barre for years to come, the economic benefits of the granite boom would result in an expansion of the housing market that extended home ownership to working class families in the Granite City. Schools soon dotted most downtown neighborhood; and a full complement of churches brought pastors who often served as social workers of sorts into the rough-and-tumble city.
Paul Heller is a writer and historian who lives in Barre.MORE IN Central VermontThe gubernatorial debate Wednesday night in downtown Rutland kicked off with the news of the day. Full Story
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