Murder in Rindge!

One of the Fitchburg Sentinel articles quoted in ‘Dunns in the news’ mentions the fact that Archie Brown, the East Rindge ‘village blacksmith’, was giving up his business to move to Rindge Center “where he will assist Mrs. J. C. Wheeler at the Rindge Hotel, which is to be reopened soon”. The story doesn’t mention one of the reasons why Mrs. Wheeler may have needed help.

It turns out that Mr. J. C. Wheeler, the proprietor of the hotel, had been murdered the previous December, “almost in broad daylight, and right in the heart of an orderly and quiet New England village” in the words of a reporter for Keene’s New Hampshire Sentinel.

The murderer (the word ‘alleged’ never appears in the story) was one John Brunnell, “a worthless and notorious character”. He and a companion, Arthur McSoley, had been hauling wood for a farmer in Fitzwilliam earlier in the day. After being paid, Brunnell and McSoley were in the mood for a drink, and they stopped in East Jaffrey in search of liquor. Brunnell asked the local town agent for some alcohol “for use in treating a horse”. The agent was familiar with Brunnell and his fondness for drink, and so added an ounce of saltpeter to the half pint of alcohol he gave him, “thinking that would prevent Brunnell’s drinking the stuff”. He was wrong.

Having downed the alcohol and saltpeter, Brunnell and McSoley arrived in Rindge, and “stopped at the hotel for more rum”. J.C. Wheeler, described as “an old man, sixty years of age and nearly blind”, told the men the hotel was closed. Brunnell argued with Wheeler, with “threatening language”, but eventually appeared to give up. Then, in an apparently conciliatory manner, he asked one of the hotel employees to come out and talk to him. The employee, Fred Crocker, did so, and Brunnell attacked him viciously. Crocker, however,  managed to get the better of Brunnell, and pinned him to the frozen ground. At this point, McSoley, who had not taken part in the fight, went to his friend’s defense, and managed to pull Crocker off, and pin him “to the ice”.

Brunnell, freed, “ran back to his sled and deliberately unfastened a heavy ‘whiffletree'” (the wooden crosspiece linking the draft horses harness to the sled). He began beating Crocker with the whiffletree. Several residents rushed from the hotel to come to Crocker’s defense, including Wheeler. Brunnell went after them with the whiffletree, saw Wheeler, and despite Mrs. Wheeler’s frantic pleas, dealt him a fatal blow to the head. Brunnell then turned back to Crocker, apparently not satisfied with the beating he had given him so far. Before he could deliver more blows, however, he saw the town constable and a large number of townspeople running towards the scene. Knowing he would be captured, Brunnell dropped the whiffletree, and ran down the road towards Winchendon. He managed to outrun the crowd, and made it all the way to his father in law’s house in Ashburnham, where he was arrested the next day by the local constable, and transported to Keene (where he was nearly lynched by an angry mob), to await trial.

McSoley, meanwhile, ran off in the opposite direction, towards East Rindge. That’s as far as he got, though, because he was apprehended there by none other than Archie Brown!

And what was the outcome of the trial? Good question- unfortunately, the online archive where I found the story only has issues of the New Hampshire Sentinel through December 30, 1891, the next edition after the one quoted from here