A near-lynching in a piggery by a mob of Italians in 1884

“Stretched on a pallet of old mats in a corner of the dilapidated shanty known as McIntosh’s piggery lays the water contractor, C.H. Dacey. Standing guard over him, and seated around the shanty in little groups, are some fifty Italian laborers, who have constituted themselves his captors, and in spite of all civil authority are determined to hold him until their grievances have been adjusted.” — Boston Daily Globe, October 17th, 1884

This is definitely one of the most surreal episodes in Wellesley’s history. A large mob of Italian workers kidnapped their boss and held him captive inside an abandoned piggery because of unpaid wages. But what makes this story even more fascinating (at least to me) is that it’s inextricably linked to the introduction of indoor plumbing in Wellesley. So in a sense, I get to tell two stories in one.

(What’s that? You don’t care about how Wellesley got its running water? Well, boo hoo. This is a blog about Wellesley history. I did, however, keep that part of the post relatively short, so we’ll get to the mob scene soon enough.)

The story begins in May of 1883, almost a year and a half before the near-lynching. The Massachusetts Legislature had just passed a petition by the Town of Wellesley requesting permission to construct a town well and reservoir as well as to lay down the pipes required to deliver the water to its residents both for domestic use and for the fighting of fires. (Water was also needed to hose the dirt roads to keep the dust down during the summer.) Why the newly incorporated Town chose to do this so quickly after attaining its independence was entirely a result of its desire to leave behind its days as a relatively poor farming community. Indoor plumbing was an absolute necessity for any modern suburb.

Point of clarification: Many people seem to think that the Town could tap into the Cochituate and Sudbury Aqueducts, which were completed in 1848 and 1878, respectively. The water in those conduits, however, was reserved for the residents of the City of Boston.

The creation of a water supply system in Wellesley required three steps:

  • locate an adequate supply of potable water
  • construct a pumping station and a reservoir that could hold large quantities of pumped water
  • lay pipes underground that could channel the water (via gravity) from the reservoir to the households

Accomplishing the first task was easier said than done. It wasn’t as if the Town could just pump water straight out of the Charles River or Morses Pond. (I mean, it could…but would you want to drink that?) Instead hydrologists had to find a large enough aquifer with a high enough recharge rate and certain specific soil characteristics.

After three failed attempts to locate an adequate well along the Charles River — first in Lower Falls “just below the dams” (probably around River Street), then adjacent to Echo Bridge near Newton Upper Falls, and finally around River Ridge — success was found when they tested a site 400 feet east of Cedar Street near the current location of Barton Road. The water and soil properties proved ideal and so, beginning in April of 1884, they dug a permanent well, installed the pumping apparati, and constructed the station that provided protection and access to the equipment.


Pumping Station #1 on Barton Road
(Photo taken by Joshua Dorin in February 2014)

Now tell me, how many of you actually knew about this charming little building? After all, it’s completely out of sight from Cedar Street and the only way to access it is by driving down Barton Road. But it’s actually seen more frequently than you would think, if only because its roofline is unavoidable when you’re on Route 128 — especially driving northbound — between Exits 20 and 21.

Source: Bing Maps

Source: Bing Maps

Contrast that view with a map of the area from 1897:

Source: 1897 Atlas of Wellesley

Source: 1897 Atlas of Wellesley

With the exception of the highway and the addition of several houses, there don’t seem to be very many differences. But what this map doesn’t show is that almost all of the area between Cedar Street and the Charles River — which is now heavily forested — was nothing more than a large grassy field.

(One other key difference is the disappearance of the coal shed that once sat adjacent to the pumping station. Coal, of course, was needed to power the pump that brings water out of the ground and into the reservoir.)

Speaking of the reservoir — and I probably should have mentioned this earlier — it wasn’t as if they could construct it right next to the pumping station; rather, the reservoir needed to be located at a high enough elevation so that gravity could do all of the work in channeling the water to the households scattered throughout the town (in contrast to the pumping station which had to be closer to sea level where the watertable was higher).

There was really only one possible location for the reservoir given the distribution of households at the time: Maugus Hill. (Fun fact: Contrary to what many people think, this isn’t the highest point in Wellesley. That distinction goes to a spot just north of Monadnock Road — at 337 ft — which is the primary reason that the Peirce Hill Reservoir was constructed there in 1962 following the development of the Peirce Estates.)

So now that they had a site for the reservoir, all that remained was constructing it as well as laying the thirteen miles of cast-iron pipes connecting the pumping station to the reservoir and the reservoir to all of the households. (There are 149 miles of water pipes in Wellesley today.)

So here’s where the second part of this post comes in. (Finally!) Because this work was far more labor-intensive than simply installing a well and constructing a pumping station, the contractor for the job, Cornelius H. Dacey — the protagonist in our story — had to hire upwards of a hundred men to complete the project.

The details surrounding their employment are almost as fascinating as the mob scene itself. First off, a day’s pay for each of the men was a paltry $1.25 (for 11 hours of work), which amounts to the equivalent of only 30 bucks in 2014 dollars. But perhaps more interesting than that, the workers — almost all of whom were Italian immigrants from Boston’s North End — lived in Wellesley throughout the 2-3 months it took to complete the project, taking up quarters in an abandoned three-story piggery located at what is now the southeast corner of the Wellesley High School playing fields just north of the intersection of Rice and Paine Streets. (Neither road existed at the time, but there was a cart path that led from Washington Street to the piggery.)

At first, all seemed to go well. But problems arose in mid-October after Dacey had failed to pay the laborers for weeks of work — a total that amounted to $2000. Tempers soon began to rise. Sensing that this situation could get out of control, the Water Commissioners of the Town of Wellesley immediately arranged a meeting with Dacey at 5 Cliff Road, the home of one of the Commissioners, Albion R. Clapp.

Although the meeting went well — Dacey agreed to take the train to Boston, collect the $2000, and head back to Wellesley that evening to pay the workers — trouble began after he left Clapp’s house as he made his way over to the Wellesley Hills railroad station. Apparently, a few of the laborers were loitering at the station after hearing reports that their boss was back in town. Noticing them waiting, and realizing he couldn’t board the train at the Hills station without being seen, Dacey did his best to sneak out to Natick (by carriage) to board a Boston-bound train there. But unbeknownst to him, a few of the laborers had followed him as he tried to get away and had boarded the very same train.

Chaos would ensue once the train reached Wellesley Hills. Forcibly removing Dacey from his seat, the men who had followed him — along with the help of several other workers who had been waiting at the station — pulled him off the train and dragged him down Washington Street to the piggery. One of them then placed a noose around the contractor’s neck and threw the other end of the rope over the rafters. If Dacey couldn’t pay his workers, then they would lynch him.

Why such an extreme reaction, you ask? Well, according to one of the workers:

“We are poor men who want our money. Some of us have families who have nothing to eat. We are strangers here and the traders will not trust us. It is much better to use force than it is to starve. He is inside the barn now, all comfortable and warm, and our little ones are starving at home. It is no worse for him to suffer than for us. If he will settle he can go back, if he don’t we will keep him if we have to fight. If they come with police we will not let him go. We can die here.”

Yikes! Needless to say, the town’s residents were all on edge. A mob of Italian laborers — in broad daylight! — had just kidnapped their boss and were threatening to lynch him. Crowds of curious citizens began to form near the piggery. Even children from the Shaw School on Forest Street snagged a glimpse of the scene when they were let out after their morning session.

But, let’s face it, there really wasn’t much to see. Dacey was completely out of view within the piggery, as were most of his captors. Only a few of them stood outside to act as guards. Despite the presence of witnesses to this scene:

“Some rumors that there had been bloodshed and that several bodies were lying in front of the barn, from which their friends did not dare to rescue them, got in the wind, and many a good housewife laid down last night to dream of having her throat cut before dawn.”

Little did anyone know that help was actually on the way. Almost immediately after the kidnapping took place, Albion R. Clapp, had recognized the seriousness of what was happening and traveled to Boston along with one of the other Water Commissioners, Walter Hunnewell, to ask for help from the City’s Police Department. (At the time, the Wellesley Police Department consisted of no more than one or two officers.)

Unfortunately, it took nearly twelve hours before help could reach Wellesley. First, there was the matter of finding Boston Police Commissioner Jenks, who wasn’t at the station in Scollay Square or at his residence in the South End. (Fortunately, they found him on a return trip to Scollay Square.) And then they had to muster twenty members of the police force, supply each one with two revolvers and four pairs of handcuffs, and then charter two horse-drawn omnibuses from a local livery stable to take them on the 13-mile journey to Wellesley.

They wouldn’t reach Wellesley Hills until 4am, more than three hours after leaving the police station in Boston. (Some of that delay can be attributed to the fact that one of the horses “had a fit and died” at Newton Corner. I guess finding a replacement horse at that hour was a tad bit difficult.)

At this point in the story, why don’t I turn it over to a reporter from the Boston Daily Globe whose eyewitness account of what happened next may at times border on sensationalistic journalism, but at least it makes for a good read:

Among the first to get out was Dr. Jenks, who came forth smiling with a cigar in his mouth, and proceeded to assist Captain White in getting the men in line. “Pass out more handcuffs,” said the captain. “Pass them out; we want a pair for every Italian in the ranch.”

This was arranged to suit, and then he asked the men if they had their revolvers. He received an affirmative reply, and gave the order to forward march. The steady tread of the police made the streets of quiet old Wellesley echo as they marched down Washington street attended by crowds of citizens in front and rear. They followed on nearly half a mile, and stopped on reaching a little road that branched off to the left.

“File left, march,” said the captain, and the squad turned and went down a farm road full of ruts, escorted by the light of a single lantern.

“Now, boys,” said Captain White, “if a man so much as attempts to strike you I want you to hit him back. These men are hot-blooded, and must not have any rope, or there may be bloodshed.”

Saying this he gave orders for the men to cock their revolvers, and he and Lieutenant Kendall went up and took hold of the sliding door in the end of the barn, which yielded with difficulty to their strength. When the door slid away it revealed a queer sight. Around a fire on the ground near the entrance stood four or five sentinels warming their hands, for it was getting on toward daylight, and visitors were not expected. To the left, as far as the dim light could penetrate, was a row of closely-packed human bodies lying prone in a slumber. The police hastened inside in regular order. Awakened by the noise, each Italian rose to a sitting posture like a jack-in-a-box.

“Get down, get down.” “Down with you.” “Quiet there, will you?” “Stay right where you are, if you don’t want to get hurt,” cried a score of voices issuing from under their helmets. The police brandished their clubs, but did not use them.

The warlike Italians were completely cowed by the sight of so many men in uniform, and gave in trembling with terror. The lodging-house, which is an ex-barn, has three stories, the upper part of which is reached by a ladder on the inside in front. From the upper floors whole rows of glittering eyes looked down, shining in the lantern lights like diamonds set in jet. Taking the first one they came to, the officers proceeded to put on the steel wristers, using all alike. Soon a double row of dark laborers in their picturesque garbs of corduroy and velveteen was marched outside the door, guarded by cops on either side. Two dozen had thus been disposed of when Captain White discovered that his supply of hand-cuffs was giving out. The men aloft were ordered to dress and come down, while a man was sent to Mr. McIntosh’s for a rope. It came in a few minutes and the others were marched out in single file with the line made fast to their arms. The line was secured to the right arm of the first man and the left arm of the second and so on, giving them the appearance of smoked herring strung on a stick. It was growing daylight, and gray and brindle streaks were streaming up in the east when the last man was hitched in line. While those who were tied first were waiting for their companions to join them, they indulged in several tug-of-war games, and laughed and chatted in apparent good humor. An old man was taken down from the loft shivering from sickness. When the police found his condition he was allowed to return to bed. The boarding-master and several of his assistants were also allowed their freedom. All the rest, excepting those who jumped out the back windows in the early part of the row, were drawn up in line. Two of those who escaped came back and gave themselves up, swelling the number to sixty-eight. They and the police and the crowd formed a line nearly a quarter of a mile long. The line of march was then taken up for the Wellesley almshouse [the old clubhouse of the Wellesley Country Club], over a mile away. Nearly an hour was consumed on the journey [almost surely down Forest Street]. The road ran along by side of pleasant fields and orchards. Stately maples, radiant in their crimson autumn foliage, cast showers of leaves upon them as they passed, and the rustic residents turned out in full force. Wellesley never saw such a pageant before, and will probably never see such again.”

But the story isn’t over yet!

Once they reached the almshouse, the scores of Italian workers were taken up to the main hall on its second floor where they were untethered from the ropes and asked to empty the contents of their pockets into a large milk pan (yielding numerous stilettos and other “cruel-looking blades” in addition to tobacco, matches, and about two dollars in change).

They were then lined up and Dacey picked out the eight workers complicit in his abduction, allowing for the release of the other men. At this point, there was a bit of uncertainty about what to do with the alleged culprits. Should they stay locked up at the poor farm? Or should they hold an impromptu trail right then and there?

Why the latter, of course! So a judge from Dedham was brought in, evidence was presented, and witnesses were called to testify — including Dacey, Clapp, and “a pudgy little Irishman” who witnessed the initial assault on the train.

But the judge was unable to determine the guilt of the eight defendants without the aid of a grand jury. Alas, completion of the trial would have to wait until the next session of the Norfolk County Superior Court. So bail was set at $100 for each of the men — an amount that seems almost unfair given the fact that they hadn’t been paid in weeks. Thus unable to post bail, they were hauled off to the Dedham jail where their fate remains a mystery.

As for life in Wellesley, it’s safe to assume that things quickly went back to normal. In fact, it appears that work on the Town’s water supply system was barely interrupted. So by early 1885, residents of Wellesley were able to indulge themselves for the first time in the luxury of having indoor plumbing. And eventually other amenities began to arrive in the town: electricity, telephone service, and sewerage, to name a few. But with each of those, there were no mobs, no omnibuses filled with Boston police officers, and certainly no piggeries.

So who would want to read about that?


  • Chapter 166 of the Massachusetts Legislature of 1883: An Act To Supply The Town Of Wellesley With Water
  • Boston Daily Globe: 17 October 1884; 18 October 1884; 19 October 1884; 24 October 1884
  • Wellesley Town Reports: 1884-1886
  • The Wellesley Water-Works by Frank L. Fuller in Journal of the Association of Engineering Societies, Vol. 3-4 (1885)
  • Atlas of Wellesley, Massachusetts by George W. Stadley & Co. (1897)
  • Wellesley Townsman: 24 May 1956; 9 August 1962
  • Wellesley Historical Commission files — Pumping Station #1
  • Massachusetts Water Resources Authority website
  • Town of Wellesley website