Rufus Bartlett (aka “Bassett”) Hilliard – Fall River City Marshall

12 Dec


May 5, 1849 Rufus Bartlett Hilliard born in Pembroke, ME; later Chief of Police of Fall River 1886-1909.
December 30, 1912 Rufus B. Hilliard (FR Chief of Police) dies in Fall River.

Hilliard was the son of David and Elizabeth (Wilson) Hilliard. In 1879, he was hired by the Fall River Police Department.  By 1886 he was named City Marshall.  He  married Miss Nellie Smith Clark of Fall River.

It was Marshall Hilliard who was in charge of the investigation of the murders of Andrew and Abby Borden.  The fact half the police force was at an annual outing at Rocky Point was only a slight disadvantage compared to the fact this crime – a brutal double hatchet murder of a prominent banker and his wife with a “Borden” name in broad daylight – was an event outside the realm of comprehension let alone experience of this mill town founded by Bordens.  (Note: “The Hilliard Papers” were donated to the Fall River Historical Society two decades ago and will eventually be published and perhaps reveal Hilliard’s personal comments on the case).

Hilliard had advanced rapidly in the police department, partly perhaps to his savvy social networking, such as membership into the Republican slanted Washington Club.  In fact, Hilliard and Assistant Marshal Fleet advanced through the ranks like a pair of competitors in a foot race, with Rufus eventually leapfrogging over the more senior John Fleet.  Anyway, here is his Washington Club membership pin from my collection which I donated to the Fall River Historical Society on my last visit.  (Click on images for larger view).

As stated, half the force was out of town but the Marshal did manage to send nearly two dozen remaining officers to 92 Second Street.  Scrambling throughout the house, yard and barn looking for evidence and clues as to who could have done this dastardly deed, they trampled here and there, compromising the crime scene.  Hilliard himself went across the river to the Borden’s Swansea farm on Gardner’s Neck Road to check out the “Swede” who worked there.  Before he left and even after he returned neither Hilliard nor anyone else even thought of replacing citizen Charles Sawyer from doing back door guard duty with a member of law enforcement.   Sawyer had been commandeered by Officer Allen (first to respond) at around 11:20 a.m.  Sawyer finally asked if he could go home for dinner about 6:00 pm.

Hilliard’s boss was Mayor Coughlin, who gave instruction to handle the poor Borden girls lightly until they were sure they had grounds for an arrest.  The same applied when District Attorney Hosea Knowlton came aboard and took over the investigation the next day.

By Saturday, still without evidence, but Lizzie herself being the key suspect for the past 3 days, the Mayor and the Marshal called upon 92 Second Street and spoke to the sisters and Uncle John Vinnecum Morse in the parlor.  The Mayor asked the family to remain in the house and when Lizzie abruptly asked if anyone in the house was suspected, Mayor Coughlin stated:  “I regret to inform you, Miss Lizzie,  that you are suspected.”  Odd duck that she was, Lizzie responded with:  “I am ready to go now or any time.”  Coughlin back peddaled at that and assured the family they were only there to advise them to remain indoors.  Since the Marshal had an arrest warrant for her in his hip pocket one can just see him rolling his eyes at the Mayor’s remark.  That remark would work in Lizzie’s favor at her Trial when her Inquest Testimony was excluded on the basis she was virtually under house arrest as far back as August 6, 1892.

Hilliard shows himself to be a competent law enforcement “chief” (as he became in 1893) and it’s difficult to fault him for all the mistakes his “keystone kops” made that infamous day.  But golly gee, going to Swansea himself after being at the house and seeing Charlie-“ornamental painter” Sawyer at the back door and not replacing him with a uniformed officer, has always struck me as obvious negligence.

I also wonder if there were hushed conversations in corners of the Washington Club between the Marshall and some of its prestigous members.

Note:  The middle name of “Bassett” instead of “Bartlett” is used both in the letter from the FRHS President and in the link to the Hilliard Papers.  It’s also the name on the pin.  So which is it?  Bartlett or Bassett?


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