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.
Neighbors awakened by the gunshots came to the scene and with Collins tried to help officer Heath, but it was too late. Dr. Jacob Spaulding, who lived on nearby Mudnock Road, soon arrived and pronounced officer Heath, still holding his nightstick, dead.
Officer Heath’s body was placed in a wagon and taken to his home, where it was placed in the front room where his grieving wife was consoled by friends and neighbors. Later in the day, his body was removed to Newburyport, where an autopsy was performed.
Meanwhile, Chief Beckman had arrived at the scene and an investigation was started. Capt. Charles Wells of the Newburyport police was notified. He sent officers to guard the two bridges over the river and also sent other officers to Salisbury to assist in the manhunt. Similar action was taken by Amesbury police.
State police took over the investigation and for several days an intense manhunt continued throughout the entire area. Suspects in several communities including Haverhill, Sandown, N.H., and Dover, N.H., were questioned but were not held. No evidence was ever found as to how the trio arrived in Salisbury or what route they used in fleeing town.
In my research covering decades of the Newburyport Daily News, I never saw any information that even suggested that there were at any time any serious suspects, let alone any arrests, in Willy Heath’s murder.
Willie Heath was a native of Vermont; he was buried in Jaffrey, N.H., and left behind, besides his wife, a daughter in Raymond, N.H., at the time.
Willie Heath’s name belongs on that memorial in Washington.
Joe Callahan is a former fire chief of Salisbury who is interested in historical accounts of the area.