South Of Boston: A Tale Of Alcohol, Murder And Robbery From Days Gone By

Today’s posting of the daily Boston Criminal Lawyer’s Blog takes us back in history. It is a history remembered, however, kept alive by Fall River’s Herald a day or so ago. Actually, in reprinting the article online, they even provided a You Tube video tape of the Fall River Public Library’s presentation of the story to the Fall River History Club introducing the story about the “bad family” involved.

The story fits with this week’s motif of alcohol and crime, so I figured I would treat you to a some Massachusetts history. No extra charge.

The elements of the event could well have been taken from newspaper heading of today. They included a teenager under the influence of a controlled substance, a robbery and a shotgun blast to the face.

The deceased was John Bullock. The year was June 19, 1862. The place was Freetown..

Obed Reynolds was the 17 year old lad (hereinafter, the “Defendant”) who apparently pulled the trigger. He was drunk on not only liquor, but gunpowder. No, not in the figurative sense such as in “he is drunk with power“. Reynolds was actually intoxicated on a concoction of alcohol and gunpowder. He told investigators that the combination helped to give him courage.

You see, Bullock was a New Bedford saloon keeper who had come to Freetown to deliver a 20-gallon keg of liquor to what some at the resulting trial described as a “parlor bar”. In other words, the bar may not have been a legal one. “He’d been walking around town for a couple weeks with a sawed-off shotgun,’ Diman Regional Vocational Technical High School English teacher William Goncalo told the library’s audience last week, as he described the tale.

The Defendant, apparently, was not exactly the pillar of the community either. His family, he told his audience, was described in the local papers as a “combination of scoundrels.”

Apparently, the Defendant had been married to a Freetown servant girl, Goncalo said. Her name was Eliza Maloney, but she lived with the family she served and he lived on his family’s farm. According to Goncalo, “he may have been trying to get money to live with his wife,”

On June 19th, these plans ended. Bullock headed for Freetown, sold his liquor and spent the rest of the day in the parlor bar. Goncalo indicates he was “Probably having a few drinks,”

On his way out of town, about 7 p.m., Bullock met the Defendant. One would imagine that a confrontation of some kind took place because the result was that the Defendant shot Bullock in the face.

Now, for most people, that would be it. But not for Bullock. The blast to the face did neither killed nor incapacitated him. Instead, he is said to have gotten off his wagon and grabbed the Defendant in a headlock.

The Defendant then drew a dagger and stabbed Bullock, following the stabbing by bludgeoning him with the sawed-off shotgun. Later, when they cleaned Bullock’s body, they found 23 stab wounds,” and that the Defendant “broke the stock of his gun hitting Bullock.”

The Defendant then apparently ransacked Bullock’s clothes, taking his watch and wallet, but missing $11 in Bullock’s vest pocket. Goncalo opined that this was probably the money earned from selling the keg of “spirits”.

The murder was a high profile one. The outcry was loud. The murdered man’s brother put an ad in a New Bedford paper, offering $100 for information leading to the arrest of his brother’s killer.

Even without today’s “high tech” methods of media and law enforcement, it didn’t take long. The source, however, might surprise you.

You see, after the murder, the Defendant stripped naked and ran home through the woods to the farm of his father, William Reynolds. According to Goncalo, William was a good father and a good farmer. Apparently not a part of the “combination of scoundrels, he was simply plagued by unruly children.

The Defendant told his dad about killing Bullock.

Being a good branch of an otherwise bad family tree, Dad Reynolds wanted to turn his boy in to the police. However, the other branches were not for the idea. They threatened to kill him if he did. Today, this, too, would be prosecuted as domestic violence and, naturally, intimidation of a witness. However, such laws were not available back then.

Caught in what seemed to be an unwinnable situation, Reynolds fled his own farm for a relative’s home in Dartmouth, stopping on the way to cut his own throat with a straight razor.

Meanwhile, the investigation began and trackers followed footprints and blood tracks from the spot where Bullock was killed to the Reynolds farm.

Between the bloody tracks and father’s testimony, the Defendant was arrested for the homicide.

The Defendant was tried in Taunton Superior Court. He had two criminal defense attorneys who were from the “big city”, aka Fall River.

Who was the Commonwealth’s star witness?

Dear old dad.

You see, the deceased Mr. Bullock’s tenacity to life was matched by Dad Reynolds’ penchant for near indestructibility. Slitting his own throat had not killed him. As Goncalo explains, ‘It wasn’t a very good razor”.

In any event, Dad Reynolds lived to testify against his son.

The jury convicted the Defendant as he cried, “I’m innocent, O Lord, I’m innocent!”

In those days, the Commonwealth had the death penalty and the Defendant was sentenced to be hanged.

The Defendant went to jail in New Bedford to await sentencing. There, he learned to read and write. Writing letters to newspapers, he admitting the crime but explained that he’d been driven to it by the combination of rum and gunpowder and by drinking in general. His letters referred often to those competing forces, God and demon rum.

Cynics among you might sneer at this seemingly pathetic attempt to save his own life. After all, since that time this approach has been tried by the more famous killers among us. The late Ted Bundy, for example, comes to mind, as does the 2005 tale of Stanley Tookie Williams.

One difference. It did not work for them. It did for the Defendant, though.

In 1864, Massachusetts Governor John a. Andrew commuted the Defendant’s sentence to life in Charlestown State Prison, where he died in 1876, possibly from tuberculosis.

“He is buried in a small cemetery on Pine Island Road,” Goncalo said. “It’s not far from where he lived.”

And next to him? Dad Reynolds, the Commonwealth’s star witness with the cut throat, rests as well.

And if the forgoing is not enough to interest you in the tale, there remains a particular mystery about it.

On Bullock Road, Goncalo said, a sickle-shaped piece of granite juts from the ground where John Bullock was murdered. It looks like a natural outcropping of rock.

It is not.

It was erected by those who lived along the road, not long after John Bullock died, to mark the spot of his murder. And since then, over 100 years ago, unknown parties have apparently splashed red paint on the stone from time to time.

No one knows why.

Attorney Sam’s Take:

This historic, if violent, tale of alcohol, murder, robbery, and intimidation of witnesses could have been ripped from today’s headlines. Of course, other than the potential robbery angle, we do not know why the murder took place. But then, the Commonwealth, in order to meet its burden of proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, is not mandated to prove motive.

It is not clear why the governor commuted the Defendant’s sentence. It may well have been his pointing to the “demon rum” as the true villain in the tale. Back then, it was more widely accepted that liquor and such things were actually temptations put on earth by the devil in the never-ending quest to corrupt souls.

By today’s law, however, this defense is not really helpful in most cases. “Voluntary Intoxication” is not generally an acceptable defense.

Nor is “The Devil Made Me Do It”.

For the full articles concerning today’s posting of the Boston Criminal Defense Lawyer Blog, go to

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