Failed attempt to emulate Houdini one episode in tumulus tale of Johnston man

Posted 1/17/24

On the night of Aug. 18, 1935, revelers gathered at the St. Rocco Society’s Feast Day celebration taking place in the Cranston village of Thornton. Eager to enjoy the fireworks, parade and …

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Failed attempt to emulate Houdini one episode in tumulus tale of Johnston man


On the night of Aug. 18, 1935, revelers gathered at the St. Rocco Society’s Feast Day celebration taking place in the Cranston village of Thornton. Eager to enjoy the fireworks, parade and music, the crowd was also excited about the unique entertainment planned for that year. Sixty-five-year-old Napoleon Casimer Barron of Johnston was going to emulate Houdini. Confined in a straightjacket, he would be suspended by his feet high above the crowd while he miraculously freed himself. However things did not go as planned. The pole which his body was suspended from broke and he was catapulted 10 feet to the ground, fracturing his pelvis and spine. He was transported to RI Hospital in critical condition, his unique idea to bring in a few extra bucks proving unwise.

The son of Charles and Adeline (Richards) Barron, Napoleon married Margaret Agnes McDonough on Aug. 23, 1895. The couple resided on Pond Street in Providence with Margaret’s daughter Josephine, born in 1886.

Napoleon worked in a jewelry factory until he gave that up for house-painting and the family relocated to Miller Circle in Johnston. Like the Houdini stunt, many aspects of Napoleon’s life went awry. One weekend in Aug. of 1897, he and Margaret were in the midst of a physical brawl in the doorway of their home when she began screaming for help. Despite being twice the size of her husband, Margaret was receiving the rougher side of the fight.

A police officer responded and observed broken doors and overturned furniture. Napoleon admitted that he was intoxicated and couldn’t recall exactly what had happened. What he was sure of was that Margaret was drunk too and was in the mood to fight. One eye blackened, Napoleon was fined 15 dollars as the result of an assault charge.                          

On Valentine’s Day of 1900, Napoleon and Margaret spent the afternoon arguing over the importance of Josephine getting to school or work on time. Irritated by the situation, he told Margaret that he would show her an example of what happens when tasks are neglected. Instead of going to work, he told Margaret he was going to get “loaded” then ventured into town and partook of several strong drinks.

When he returned home, the argument with Margaret resumed and at 10:30 that evening he slashed both wrists with a razor. Margaret ran into the street screaming for a police officer. A doctor was summoned. The wounds were not deep and only a few stitches were enough to secure them. Napoleon was arrested and held on a charge of drunkenness.

In Feb. of 1902, Napoleon was arrested again after waving a revolver and threatening Margaret while extremely intoxicated. He assaulted her again in 1904 and was fined 20 dollars that Jan. 21 for the crime. Seventeen-year-old Josephine, tired of the situation at home, began to stay away. Margaret thereby contacted the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and asked them to charge the girl as a vagrant and put her on probation.

The Society investigated the matter. The agent who visited the home reported that it was not the sort of home a child should be brought up in. The agent then spoke to police who provided information on the couple’s history of drinking and brawling. Ironically, many of the fights concerned each blaming the other for spending all their income on alcohol.

The agent found Josephine garbed in ratty clothing and worn out shoes while Margaret explained it was the best she could provide. A supervisor at the jewelry factory where Josephine worked told the agent that she was a good girl who would come into work complaining that she’d had no breakfast. On one occasion, he stated, she’d arrived with two black eyes.

Josephine answered the questions posed by the agent. She explained that the black eyes had been given to her by her father. She described having to procure beer for her mother who, at one time, threw a fireplace poker at her, causing a welt on her wrist.

Josephine recounted her claims in court on the afternoon of Nov. 29, 1904 as Margaret sat crying hysterically and rocking herself back and forth. At one point, Margaret called out, “Josie, how can you treat your mother so?” Josephine raised a handkerchief to her eyes, wiped the tears and continued with her stories of abuse which included being ushered off to work without breakfast each morning by her father, while her mother protested the demand. One day the hunger was so severe, she went to the home of a neighbor and begged for food.    

The judge later allowed Margaret to take the stand and address her daughter. As to the charge of having to procure beer, Margaret asked her, “Didn’t I tell you to try and get someone else? Was I not sick in bed and needing a little something?”

Margaret assured the judge that she had never hurt Josephine. “I holler at her and scold and use the strap but I never raise my hand to abuse her,” she stated. She then addressed the elderly neighbor lady who had fed breakfast to her daughter, accusing her of illegally harboring a child. The neighbor loudly retorted and the two women engaged in an argument so disorderly, the judge had to bang his gavel to shut it down.             

Josephine was placed with her maternal aunt in Cranston where she would attend night school while maintaining her jewelry factory work. The chaos went on within the Barron home without Josephine there. On the night of April 1, 1909, while Margaret was at the police station making a charge against Napoleon, he drew a razor across his throat. Again, the cut was not deep enough to cause harm.

Eight years after his failed Houdini stunt, Napoleon entered the RI State Infirmary, suffering with heart disease. He died there of pneumonia just after midnight on Feb. 5, 1950 and was buried in St. Ann’s Cemetery in Cranston.  

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


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