HANSON — “It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents …” is the famously bad opening phrase of English novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s 1830 melodrama “Paul Clifford.”
The evening of Thursday, April 6 was just that, however — and the perfect setting for a tale of a true-life 1874 triple murder in Halifax, and the Hanson man hanged for that crime.
Retired Boston Police Chief of Detectives John F. Gallagher spoke to members and guests of the Hanson Historical Society on his new book, “A Monument to Her Grief: the Sturtevant Murders of Halifax, Massachusetts.” A smoky fire from the historic Schoolhouse No. 4 woodstove and a heavy thunderstorm punctuated Gallagher’s tale of the deaths of brothers Thomas and Simeon Sturtevant and their unmarried cousin and housekeeper Mary Buckley on Feb. 15, 1874.
“This is a perfect night to talk about murder, there’s lightning, it’s gray and gloomy, said Gallagher, who served the Boston Police Department for 30 years.
“It was an interesting career. I loved it — [but] I don’t miss it,” he said.
A Hanover resident, he began researching murders or suspected murders in the area as a retirement project, which eventually led him to the conclusion that there were books to be written on the subject. His first two books were: “Murder on Broadway: A History of Homicide in Hanover” and “Arsenic in Assinippi: The Trial of Jennie May Eaton for the Murder of her Husband Rear Adm. Joseph Eaton.”
Gallagher has also done some post-9/11 security consulting and private investigative work and genealogy since retiring.
“I love local history,” he said, noting a picture in the Arcadia local history book series on Hanover with the notation “three Irishmen shot here by Seth Perry in 1845” captured his interest and launched his writing career.
“All of this [writing] work is so interesting to me because it’s like detective work,” he said. “You have to uncover all the facts, and I do my very best to make sure that I have a very true, factual story.”
He lists his source material at the end of each book.
Besides Internet research, Gallagher used newspapers, libraries, historical societies, genealogy, and original investigative materials for which the Plymouth County Sheriff’s Department granted him access. His research also included the police investigative skills and court processes of the 1870s.
“They opened up all their old records,” he said of the Sheriff’s Dept. “They actually had the booking sheets of [William] Sturtevant when he was arrested.”
His book also includes crime scene photographs.
Nearly everyone in the room was familiar — and fascinated — by the story of the Sturtevant murders. At a Halifax book-signing when the new book was published, 15 descendants of the Sturtevant family attended.
William Sturtevant, a reform school inmate as a youth and Navy deserter during the Civil War, was married with one child and another on the way at the time of his crime. The family lived at 0 High St., Hanson.
“I was trying to find out who lived at 0 High St. tonight and invite them,” said Historical Society Co-president John Norton, but that information was not available in the town Street List.
At about 7:30 p.m., on the cold Sunday night of Feb. 15, 1874, William walked four and a half miles from his home via Elm Street, through a wooded path to the rear of his grand uncles’ home in Halifax. Along the way, he had removed a loose wooden stake from a hay cart.
“People, in those days, used to walk everywhere,” Gallagher said. “He used to walk to work in South Abington and that’s a four-mile walk.”
The job at a shoe factory was not enough to pay William Sturtevant’s debts and he knew his well-off grand uncles did not trust banks and kept a lot of money in their Halifax house. Newspaper accounts at the time indicated there was friction between William Sturtevant and the uncles, but it is thought that William had sought to borrow money from the old men and was turned down.
Gallagher believes William Sturtevant knew his relatives went to a barn every day at 9 p.m. to feed the cows and he encountered his uncle Thomas, who was on his way to do that — William hit him over the back of the head with the wooden stake. Simeon, who was in bed as he is thought to have had an illness similar to Alzheimer’s, was hit eight or nine times with the club.
“As soon as I saw that, I said this is not a crime about robbery, there’s more to this than meets the eye,” Gallagher said.
William Sturtevant then rifled through a nearby sitting room and stole some money, including uncirculated Civil War scrip from 1863. Mary was killed on his way out of the house.
The house, built in 1715, still stands and has been restored by a Bridgewater State University art professor and his wife, who welcomed Gallagher into their home to look around.
William Sturtevant spent some of that 1863 scrip at a store near his home in Hanson and he had dropped some along the path in the woods, Gallagher said, noting the circumstantial evidence was strong enough for a conviction.
“It’s dark history, but it’s history nonetheless, and I think it shapes our communities,” Gallagher said. “The more we know about our community and where we came from, I think, the better it is.”
“If your nephew asks you for money, let him have it,” one woman quipped.
The uncles, buried in Thompson Cemetery, Halifax lie beneath headstones reading “Murdered” with their killer buried in an unmarked plot next to them after his execution, to which tickets had to be issued due to the demand to witness the event.
“Now that I’ve told you the whole story, you don’t have to buy the book,” Gallagher joked. He signed books for those who purchased copies.