It is difficult to imagine a more tragic scene than that which unfolded 95 years ago this month on Ship Street in Newburyport.
Late in the afternoon of Dec. 10, 1917, the body of Mrs. Annie Spiewok was found in the basement of her home at 26 Ship St. She has been savagely beaten with an ax. Upstairs in the house Wlaydslay Bill, age 3, and his sister, Frances, age 5, were found unconscious and also beaten.
Mrs. Spiewok and her husband Mike owned the house and it was a well-known boarding house for Polish people. Annie Spiewok babysat the two Bill children while their parents worked at the mill on Federal Street. The Bills were also residents of the house. Mr. Spiewok was employed in a mill in Ipswich.
Following the gruesome find, the children were taken to the Anna Jaques Hospital, and the police under City Marshal John McLean began an intensive investigation aided by the state police. It was discovered that $1,700 in cash the Spiewoks kept in an old trunk was missing. It was felt that Mrs. Spiewok surprised the thief in the act of the crime, which led to the beatings. Unfortunately, on Dec. 12, little Wladyslaw Bill died from his injuries at the hospital. His sister Frances recovered from her injuries.
For several days the investigation continued with little progress being made. It then became known to police that Antonio Szczepanek, a carpenter, who lived at 14 Atwood St., with his wife Victoria and their two children, was missing. He was well known among the Polish of the city and was a friend of the Spiewoks and had actually paid a visit to Mike Spiewok on the night of the incident to express his condolence. He became a suspect and warrants were issued for his arrest.
On Dec. 19, Szczepanek was arrested at the home of his brother in the western Massachusetts town of Easthampton. He was brought back to Newburyport the following day by state police officers and arraigned in local district court on Dec. 21. The court assigned local attorney Timothy Herlihy as defense counsel. Much of the stolen money was found in Szczepanek’s possession at the time of his arrest.
On Feb. 5, 1918, Szczepanek was committed to Danvers State Hospital for observation and then on June 12 he was ruled not insane and fit for trial.
The Superior Court jury trial started Dec. 16, 1918, at the courthouse on Bartlet Mall in Newburyport with Judge Webster Thayer presiding. District Attorney Henry Wells prosecuted for the state and attorney Herlihy based the defense on insanity of the defendant. There were no locals on the jury.
Following several days of testimony, the jury, on Dec. 23, found Antonio Szczepanek guilty of murder in the first degree after three hours of deliberations. At this time attorney Herlihy requested Judge Thayer to delay sentencing so he could study some legal facts. Judge Thayer approved the request and sent Szczepanek back to Salem Jail.
Then on March 26, 1919, Judge Waite of Salem ordered Szczepanek back to Danvers for further observation as a result of his destructive behavior while at the Salem Jail.
On the morning of April 16, 1919, the shocking news was released that Antonio Szczepanek was missing from Danvers State Hospital. He apparently picked the lock on the door of his room during the night and slipped out of the building unseen by anyone. A huge manhunt throughout Essex County and beyond failed to find any trace of the convicted killer and he was never again apprehended.
Authorities theorized that his escape was assisted by friends who shielded him and arranged for him to be smuggled out of the country and back to his native Poland. There was never any indication given that any locals were involved in this scheme.
Joe Callahan is a former fire chief of Salisbury who is interested in historical accounts of the area.