Protect Tiverton's History

top photo "This is more than a picture of an old RI farm house. It is a scene of a battle. It is, the house on the Tiverton Farm just above Adamsville where bootleggers shot out with hijackers during prohibition. "

 

 

bottom photo:"These men are pointing to bulletholes made as highjackers shot at bootleggers within."

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THE GOOFY YEARS BY DAVID PATTEN

 

Police Chief Widens His Friendships; Bullets Fly In Tiverton; Stills Clutter Woods

Nineteen-twenty-eight was the year of President Coolidge's puzzler, “I do not choose to run;” of the lengthening shadow cast by Governor Al Smith's brown derby; of the Sunday evening in Georgiaville, R.I. when 8,000 Ku Kluckers, in full regalia excepting hoods, listened to the rancid invectives of Sen. J. Thomas Hellin of Alabama; of the midnight scene on Exchange Place when a company of Marathon dancers started to tango their way 44 miles to Boston and during the excitement two cars parked near the corner of Westminster and Eddy Streets were stolen.

It was the year when hijacking had grow to such proportions that “honest” bootleggers feared it far worse than they feared the law, for few of whose agents they had any fear of at all.

But, for Chief of Police George W. Potter of Tiverton it was a year not very different from all other years of the prohibition era.

Near midnight of June 23d the rum runner “Goose” came up the Sakonnet River and tied up at the old stone s wharf just around from Fogland in the Four Corners section of Tiverton. Out on the Row she had done business successfully with the “Good Luck,” and her crew hoped that the connotations of that name would apply equally to the remaining activities of the night.

There was some doubt about this, because a band of hijackers was suspected of being privy to the coming of the “Goose” and to the fact that she bore between 800 and 900 cases of liquor garnered on Rum Row.

Night Secrets Bared

Afterward, when prohibition had ended, the chief participant bared the secrets of that night to Garrett D. Byrnes of the Journal-Bulletin and Mr. Byrnes ghosted the narrative into his serial, “I Ran Rum.”

While a shore gang of 15 men unloaded the “Goose,” one of Chief Potter's policemen kept watch up on the road that runs down the spine of Punkateese Neck. Presently this minion of the law went down to the wharf and told the boss bootlegger that “the thieves is here.” The boss of the bootleggers walked up to the road and stopped by a touring car parked there. In the touring car was the boss of the hijackers, a character known to the trade as Johnny Campbell. There were several other men in the car but Campbell did the talking.

Campbell said he wanted $1,500 for himself and his boys and another $1,500 for a prohibition agent. He said he was this prohibition agent's bag-man.

Said the bootlegger boss. “The only thing I'll give you boys is poison. If any Feds want some money they know where to find me.”

Each side had guns but neither side wanted to start the shooting. Chief Potter happened along and naturally inquired what the roadside gathering was all about. Campbell told him that he wanted $3,000.

Chief Potter was a reasonable man. He advised the boss bootlegger to pay. He said, “Then you won't be bothered by ‘em any more.”

Probably the boss of the bootleggers had his doubts about the accuracy of this statement. At any rate, he refused to pay.

Chief Makes Exit

The hijackers retired, and so did Chief Potter.The boss bootlegger walked back to the wharf. Presently two trucks loaded with the cases of liquor chugged up to the road, turned left through the Four Corners and, keeping straight ahead, crossed the Tiverton hills to a farm on Crandall Road just above Adamsville. This was a farm the bootlegger captain had bought, but not with the purpose of farming its acres. Some of the cases were stored in the house and the rest were h'isted into the hay loft and covered with hay.

 

Two of the hijackers walked into the yard.They said they had a falling out with Campbell and that he was going to move in on the bootleggers.They said that if Campbell "didn't take the goods he was going to get the Feds to knock 'em off." The bootlegger boss gave each of these men $100. Next day he sent for more guns and ammunition and when these came he had a pump gun and a pistol for each of his men and a machine gun mounted on the skylight.

 

About midnight the men on the machine gun shouted that three had stopped out on the road. One of the cars drove down the lane to the house. The boss stepped out of the house behind one of his gang and just then the visitors began to shoot. The man walking ahead of the boss dropped and said "They got me." The boss got a dose of 67 birdshot in a leg-at least that was the Adamsville doctor's count next day.

 

Two of the bootleggers were shooting with their pump guns and three with their revolvers. The boss emptied his gun-seven bullets-into the back seat of the car but the hijackers had ducked down behind the door. The boss tried to shoot through the door. The men jumped out of the car, one hid behind the cellar door and the other disappeared. Five men had been wounded when the boss stopped and told the other men in the car to "drive the hell out of here and never come back."As they were leaving one of the men shot back with a rifle. The bullet went into the house under the eaves. When the car got out to Crandall Road the other two cars switched on their lights and all three drove away up the  road.

 

The Expected Happened

Next day the Feds came. All the liquor, worth $74,000, they trucked away. The boss was arrested, fined $750 and given a suspended jail sentence. Three of his boys were fined.

 

Three years later the raiding officer who headed the Feds that night was dismissed from the service after hearing on several charges. One of these charges was that he accepted the gigt of an expensive automobile from a prohibition violator.

 

One day two state troopers, Robert and Walberg, called upon Chief Potter. The troopers had been tipped off to the existence of liquors stills in the Tiverton woods and they wished the chief to help them follow up on the tip. Before the winter was over the came upon over 120 small stills.

 

In most of these shore towns it didn't cost the trade much tp induce local officers to keep out of the way.A story was told by gentlemen "in the know" of a biog truckload coming up from a drop one night when the town sergeant appeared. It was a valuable load and the boss was prepared tp pay real money.

"What's it worth to you?" he asked.

"Well," drawled the town sergeant, would $5 be too much?"

Some local officers were more aggressive than others and stories circulated in the trade of instances where they seized stuff just landed at a drop and in short order sold it back to bootleggers. Losses incurred in such transactions and "reasonable" payments for protection were accepted as legitimate cost of doing business. "Fixing" Coast Guard captains, who were willing, was likely to be more expensive. There were captains who could be induced to discover engine trouble or to suffer suddenly eyesight failure when a load was coming into the bay. Gossip said that as much as $500 were paid for such accommodations.

 

One bootlegger was fined $200 when he pleaded nolo to a charge of attempting to bribe Troopers Robbins and Nolan by offering to pay the $150 a week for protection- not a very punishing impost when a defendant was known to have a about $40,000 in currency in a safe deposit box.

 

This was the time when reportedly the big , bad man of Chicago, Al Capone, came to Providence, put up with two body guards at Narragansett Hotel and spent some days trying  to make and arrangement with the boys who were bringing stuff ashore from Rum Row. He seems not to have brought it off at once, but later his agents were known to have bought liquor here for shipment to Chicago.

 

The big New York and Boston syndicate hadn't yet brought the small fry to hook in Rhode Island. The men who landed the contract were mostly local characters who by unspoken agreement confined their operations to certain parts of the bay and were careful not to trespass upon the territory of others. Boats using the east side of the bay landed their cargoes mostly at wharves in Newport, at the Stone Pier and along Colt's Drive and the shores of the Kickemult River in Bristol and on both sides of the Sakonnet and along the coast from Warren's Point in Little Compton easterly.

But thing were beginning to change. The South County politician who was the chief provider of protection on the west side of the bay had it all his own way until newcomers in the trade so inconsiderate of him as to run their boats right past Hamilton up to Warwick Neck and beyond, and finally even up the Seekonk to Pawtucket.

 

But Tiverton's faith in Chief George W. Potter was unchangeable. For 30 years later he led the town's police until an accident suffered on the Stone Bridge during the 1938 hurricane forced him to retire. He died Nov. 1, 1939.