Back in the Day

A tale of murder, close to home

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Sixty-nine-year-old Augustus Winsor and his 33-year-old daughter Calista finished picking the last of the ripe strawberries in their farm patch and loaded the harvest into their wagon to bring to the market.

It was a beautiful June day in 1880, and Augustus’s 16-year-old grandson, Walter, stayed behind, watering the strawberry plants for about half an hour before he began thinking about the two spinster sisters who lived on the next farm over.

Sixty-year-old Amelia Potter and 58-year-old Lydia were both seamstresses. Never having married, they had resided there on the farm with their widowed mother Marcy (Alverson), a tailoress, for decades until she passed away seven years earlier.

Walter didn’t like the Potter sisters. He’d accused them of uprooting his grandfather’s corn, stealing farm tools and creating other varied troubles for his family. Out there in the strawberry patch, he decided this was a good day to put an end to any further friction.

Walter went into his grandfather’s house and rifled through a collection of old iron bolts that had once been used as door locks. He selected one about 15 inches long and covered with rust, wrapped it up in a newspaper and slid the end of it into his pocket.

He sauntered over to the Potter farm and let himself in through a back door. Lydia was inside and, catching sight of him breaking into the house, she panicked and ran. He walked around the house until he found Amelia.

“Do you want some strawberries?” he asked.

“What’s your price?” she responded.

“If you come down to the garden, I’ll give you all you want,” he told her.

Amelia followed Walter out of the house, and once they had walked about 50 yards, he turned around and grabbed her by the throat. As she screamed for help, he pushed her to the ground.

“I’ll have you arrested!” she threatened.

Walter pulled the bolt from his pocket and slammed it across her head. Over and over, he beat her head with the heavy implement until she was unrecognizable. His clothing spattered with blood, he picked up her dead body and headed toward an old, unused cellar hole. Suddenly, a noise alarmed him that someone might be coming, so he dropped the body and waited while a pool of blood soaked into the ground just in front of the back door.

When he realized the coast was clear, he dragged her across the yard to the pit, hoisted her up by her clothing and hurled her into it. Looking down, he noticed that her clothing had been ripped off her body. He climbed down into the hole and assaulted her before getting back out and locating a plowed plot of land he could throw the blood-covered bolt into. Then, stained with the evidence of murder, he casually walked to the mill store in town.

Suspicion of a crime cast upon him, Walter, who was on probation from the reform school, was arrested and pleaded innocent of any wrongdoing. Authorities found Amelia’s body but were unable to question Lydia as to what had transpired. She was so traumatized and in such a state of shock that she was incapable of speaking coherently and was transported to the insane asylum.

Amelia was laid to rest in the Alverson family cemetery in Johnston. Ten days later, Walter confessed to the murder and was sentenced to life imprisonment. Lydia died the following month at the asylum.

When the court asked Walter why he had had walked to the mill store after killing and raping his neighbor, he replied. “Because I was hungry and wanted a beer.”

Hauntingly, Amelia’s gravestone reads, “Her trust was in God.”

Kelly Sullivan is a Rhode Island columnist, lecturer and author.

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