NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

Opinion

February 13, 2014

A murdered police officer remembered

During a recent conversation with Ron Guilmette, a retired head of the Massachusetts State Police, I learned that he and Salisbury police Chief Tom Fowler are collaborating to honor the memory of Salisbury police officer Willie Heath, who was killed in the line of duty over a hundred years ago. They will be submitting documentation to have his name inscribed on the National Law Enforcement Officer Memorial in Washington, D.C.

The story of Willie Heath’s murder, as in all murders, is a sad and tragic one.

In the early morning hours of Oct. 9, 1913, Elbridge Collins, the night watchman at the Salisbury Square car barn of the Massachusetts Northeastern Street Railway Company saw flashes of light in the post office building across the road. He quickly realized that thieves were after the contents of the safe, as they had been a couple of times previously.

Salisbury at the time had only a part-time police force and nobody on duty at night. Police Chief Samuel Beckman did not even have a telephone in his house. However, officer Heath did have a phone and he lived on Pleasant Street, only a short distance from the Square. Mr. Collins immediately called officer Heath and informed him of what he had seen. Officer Heath quickly dressed, grabbed his weapon, which was a long, wooden nightstick, and headed to the scene. He joined Collins in the Square and the two approached the post office and as they neared the building a man jumped out of the darkness, ordered them to halt and then fired shots that missed Heath and Collins. The gunman then ran to the rear of the building, where he was joined by two others who had been inside attempting to crack the safe when they heard the shots.

Officer Heath who, according to that day’s Daily News account, had always been known for his bold courage, pursed the gunman with only his nightstick to the rear of the building, where he was quickly shot in the chest and died almost immediately. The three burglars, unsuccessful in their evil efforts, ran off in the direction of the railroad tracks west of the Square.

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