Thirty-year-old Michael Connors had gotten a job on the construction team erecting a new stock-house at the Victoria Mill late in 1898 in Johnston. Nearby, a Mrs. Rieux kept a boarding house and …
Thirty-year-old Michael Connors had gotten a job on the construction team erecting a new stock-house at the Victoria Mill late in 1898 in Johnston. Nearby, a Mrs. Rieux kept a boarding house and Michael rented a room from her to be close to his work site. It wasn’t long before gossip made its way through town regarding some of the male boarders at Rieux’s house getting their kicks by roughing up Michael. He didn’t remain there long before he decided to find a new living situation.
A baker and restaurant-keeper named Phillip Hussey agreed to rent a room to Michael and, a few nights after accepting the offer, Michael returned to Rieux’s house to collect his clothes. It was the evening of Dec. 25 and, next door to the boarding house, several people were enjoying a Christmas party. Dr. Ralph Shaw, the 32-year-old town physician; his 22-year-old brother-in-law James William Gratton, a mill operative; and Shaw’s friend and neighbor Thomas Humphries, a 27-year-old mill laborer heard a commotion coming from the boarding house around 11:00 as they were outside saying goodbye to guests who were leaving. They could hear the voices of several men yelling and what sounded like heavy pots and kettles being thrown.
Suddenly, they saw Michael tumble out of house as if he had fallen or been pushed down a flight of stairs. As he stood up and walked toward the street, they could see that his clothing was torn and his head was badly battered. Both sides of his face were bruised and swollen near the temple area and one side was bleeding. Mrs. Rieux then came out of the house, yelling at Michael to get off her property. After his departure, Dr. Shaw and his guests watched five men quickly leave the boarding house.
Michael went back to his new room and, the following day, went to work. He told several people he worked with that a number of men at the boarding house had been mistreating a woman there and that they became enraged when he stood up to defend her. Although there’s no evidence of the fact, it’s possible that Rieux might have been running a liquor establishment or house of prostitution from her boarding house.
Before noon arrived, Michael left work early and went back to his room at Phillip Hussey’s. He complained that he was feeling terribly sick and got into bed. Within a few short hours, he became delirious and a doctor was summoned. After an exam, the Overseer of the Poor was called to make arrangements for someone to stay with Michael as he was quickly going out of his mind.
As news of Michael’s sudden ailment made its way around town, police caught wind of the previous night’s attack. The police chief went to his bedside and attempted to get a statement but Michael refused to say what happened or who was involved. Michael wasn’t keen on the idea of appearing weak. He had once fought a bulldog with both hands tied behind his back because people were placing bets that he couldn’t win such a battle. In the end, he killed the dog and wore the scars he earned for the rest of his life.
Pneumonia eventually set into Michael’s body and he died six days after the attack. The doctor was uncomfortable about listing pneumonia as the cause of death, however, as he felt that Michael might have had internal injuries which facilitated his decline. But after speaking with police, he relented and blamed the death on pneumonia.
Michael was buried in a pauper’s grave at the Johnston Poor Farm. The police went to Rieux’s house and warned her that she had six hours to leave town or she would be prosecuted for keeping a nuisance. She took the warning seriously, leaving behind all her furniture in her haste to depart. It was the smart thing to do. Most of the local population believed that Michael had died as a result of the violent assault at the boarding house and many demanded that his body be exhumed and an investigation carried out.
But because Michael had refused to talk, the police refused to look deeper into the matter. He remained in his grave. His silence over being a victim created the secrecy his perpetrators needed to get away with murder.
Kelly Sullivan is a Rhode Island columnist, lecturer and author.