The Bird Man who never got caged

Posted 11/29/22

On Jan. 11, 1896, Johnston police were notified to be on the look-out for Frederic Howard Carpenter, a noted bird expert throughout the East Coast. Carpenter had checked out of the Park Hotel in …

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The Bird Man who never got caged


On Jan. 11, 1896, Johnston police were notified to be on the look-out for Frederic Howard Carpenter, a noted bird expert throughout the East Coast. Carpenter had checked out of the Park Hotel in Attleboro that morning just before the proprietor learned that he had paid his bill with a $200 forged check and stolen nearly twenty dollars from the cash register.

Having received information that Carpenter was headed to Johnston, the proprietor of the Park Hotel notified authorities. A Johnston detective was put on the case and, a few days later, learned that Carpenter was staying at the Elm House, on Hartford Pike about a mile from Manton. The detective started toward the location but crossed paths with Carpenter in Olneyville Square. Carpenter was arrested and locked up at City Hall before being transported back to Attleboro at 10:00 the next morning.

The crime might have been shocking. Carpenter was a highly intelligent and hard-working man. In 1887, he had served as curator for the Bristol Ornithological Club in Mass. on their editorial and publishing staff. That same year, he conducted a project in Bristol County, Mass., studying the occurrence of osprey in the area. Author and fellow ornithologist Arthur Bent, who worked as Carpenter’s field partner, later mentioned his longtime friend in a book he wrote called “Life Histories of North American Birds of Prey.” He praised Carpenter for bringing attention to the large breeding colonies of osprey in southern Mass. Carpenter’s expert opinions added to the content he wrote for the weekly journal “Nature” and in the editing he was asked to do on manuscripts for books about bird life. He searched for and gathered nests and was known as having some of the best collections on the East Coast. He captured screech owls and noted how they raised their young. He served as founder, director and curator of the Bristol County Academy of Sciences. Yet, despite the high regard everyone had for his accomplishments, no one was shocked when he was arrested because it wasn’t the first time.

In May of 1893, a Boston broker who sought to exchange musical instruments, bicycles and guns, ran a business ad in the newspaper. This resulted in a letter from a man who claimed to live in Warren and the postmark matched. The writer stated that he wished to exchange a bicycle for a gun. The broker instructed the man to come to Boston and make the trade. The man wrote back claiming that he did not have the time to travel to Boston but really wanted to make the exchange somehow. The broker decided they could trade through an express company. He wrote back and told the man to send him the bicycle through express service and he would send the gun the same way. Shortly after sending out this last letter, the broker was at his store when a man appeared, carrying a large book like those carried by express messengers. The man explained that he was employed by the express company and provided a receipt for the exchange, allegedly signed by the proper official. He assured the broker that the bicycle had been left at the express office in Providence and would be transported to him soon, and added that he had been told to pick up the firearm.

The broker gave the man the double-barreled gun, valued at $85. The bicycle never arrived at the Boston express office and it was soon discovered that the receipt had been forged with an express official’s name. When a search for the customer in Warren produced nothing, detectives took over the case, which soon led them to Frederic Carpenter of East Providence. When the detectives arrived at Carpenter’s home on Nov. 13 of that year, they learned that he had left for Boston. Police in Boston were notified and arrested him as he disembarked from the train.

By the time he was captured in 1896, he had charges against him for forging checks, passing worthless money orders and embezzling merchants and hotel-keepers in RI and Mass. The members of the United Order of American Mechanics, an organization of which he was a national representative, were among the least surprised. They had been whispering amongst themselves, behind Carpenter’s back, for quite some time concerning what appeared to be his questionable handling of the organization’s funds.

During a trip to Des Moines, the other members had given Carpenter the money to pay their hotel fares, which they learned he failed to do until after they returned from the trip. He had also failed to place a certain sum of collected money in the organization’s treasury. His closest friends felt sorry for him, believing he was not in complete control of his behavior. One man stated that he had noticed increasing signs of insanity in Carpenter for quite some time. His own mother had come very close to having him institutionalized on several occasions.

Carpenter, however, landed in neither prison nor institution, but back out in the wild collecting specimens for his bird projects. In 1911 and 1912, he applied for and was granted permits to override fish & game laws to remove birds and eggs from their habitats, for study. From 1910 to 1918, he worked as editor of the publication “Ornithologist and Oologist” where he became a well-known voice in the defense of taxidermists, who were scorned by many scientists. “Taxidermists are no more destructive than ornithologists,” he announced. He also came to the public defense of amateur bird enthusiasts, who were usually disrespected by the professionals. “The arrangement and records of unknown workers in ornithology compare most favorable with those of the scientist,” he wrote. While the honesty and sanity of Frederic Carpenter may have been seriously questioned, his contributions to the scientific study of bird life, and his dedication to the subject, could not ever be diminished.


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


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