RHODY LIFE

Shot over a sewing machine

Posted 1/27/21

By KELLY SULLIVAN When the sewing machine manufacturing plant for the Wheeler & Wilson Machine Company opened in Connecticut, the Singer company suddenly had stiff competition. Wheeler & Wilson machines were said to be of great quality, and Jeremiah

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RHODY LIFE

Shot over a sewing machine

Posted

When the sewing machine manufacturing plant for the Wheeler & Wilson Machine Company opened in Connecticut, the Singer company suddenly had stiff competition. Wheeler & Wilson machines were said to be of great quality, and Jeremiah Sullivan of Cranston wanted one.

Sullivan was a harness-maker who maintained a shop on Park Avenue. He contracted with Wheeler & Wilson to buy a sewing machine in 1886 on an installment plan. The agreement was that he would pay $10 per month toward the $75 purchase price and that the company would repair any malfunctions within the machine for the next five years, free of charge.

By June 15, 1889, Sullivan still owed a long-overdue $20. The matter wasn’t brought up until after he had contacted the company three months prior to inform them that the machine wasn’t working properly and he would like it fixed, per the agreement. When reminded he still owed the company money, Sullivan argued that he would pay nothing until repairs were made.

That June day, at about 10 o’clock, an unknown man sauntered into Sullivan’s shop and stated he was there to collect the $20 owed to the Wheeler & Wilson Company. Sullivan told the man that he wasn’t paying anything until the machine was back in working order.

Another man then entered the shop – W.E. Belt, the manager of Wheeler & Wilson. He was followed by two additional men. Belt walked over to the large chimney, turned around and leaned up against it. He pulled out a revolver. “If you move, I’ll shoot,” he told Sullivan.

Belt instructed the men to take the sewing machine and bring it out to the buggy. As the men went toward the machine, Sullivan tried to block them. One of the men picked up a chair and slammed it over Sullivan’s head, knocking him to the floor.

Belt left the shop and climbed into his buggy as Sullivan scrambled to his feet. The harness-maker then ran toward the man walking out the door with the sewing machine propped up on his shoulder. He grabbed for the machine and as the other man struggled to hold onto it, it crashed to the floor and broke.

Watching this, Belt was infuriated. He pulled the revolver back out and aimed it at Sullivan, who was standing there with his hands at his sides. With a pull of the trigger, a bullet raced through Sullivan’s forefinger and thumb, becoming lodged in his thigh.

The sound of the gun frightened Belt’s horse, which began violently jumping around. By now, a crowd was gathering around the harness shop in this quiet corner of town where things like this didn’t normally happen.

Belt leaned out of his buggy to take aim at Sullivan again, but the other three men were now clamoring into their own buggy after collecting the pieces of the broken sewing machine. As both buggies raced away with the four men and the sewing machine inside, Sullivan directed one of the witnesses who had gathered to go fetch a police officer.

Belt was arrested for the attack two days later when he returned from a trip to Boston. Kelly Sullivan is a Rhode Island columnist, lecturer and author.

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