Back in the Day

Family quarrel leads to tragedy

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Early in the evening of Jan. 10, 1891, Mary (Owen) Cady sat in her dining room. Across the room, her 41-year-old stepson Ezra sat in a rocking chair.

Mary’s husband, Ezra Sr., had died in 1885; the former president of the Warwick Institution for Savings, he had also owned the Acid Works on Arctic Road, furnishing acid to the local print works.

Mary’s Centerville village home was shared with the younger Ezra and her other stepson, 38-year-old Moses. Moses had previously left to engage himself in an unsuccessful marriage but had returned a couple of weeks earlier.

Just before 6 o’clock that evening, Moses came into the house in a happy mood.

“I’ve been cutting ice for Mr. Clapp,” he announced. “He’s got 200 men working for him.”

Ezra felt this was an exaggeration. “I doubt if he has that many,” he replied.

“Well, there are at least 150 and he pays 50 cents per day,” Moses informed him.

Ezra wasn’t buying it. “Ice men don’t do business that way,” he argued.

Tiring of his brother’s remarks, Moses walked over to Ezra and hit him in the face with the hat he was holding.

Mary later testified, “I was frightened and cried out. And Moses came up to me and raised his fist above my head saying I was no better than Ezra.”

Ezra got up and walked toward his brother. Moses turned, grabbed Ezra by both shoulders and shoved him backward about 10 feet. He landed in the splint-back rocking chair, his head violently striking the back of it.

“Ezra didn’t say anything but I was frightened and went out on the piazza and hollered ‘help’ and called for Miss Merrill,” Mary’s later testimony included.

Anna Merrill was the daughter of 60-year-old carriage maker Lewis Merrill and his wife, Betsey, who lived in a house about 50 feet away.

Moses rushed outside and held his hat over his stepmother’s mouth. “Why are you making all that noise?” he asked.

Suddenly Ezra came outside and went down the steps toward the woodshed. Moses ran after him. In the darkness, Mary heard a loud thud. She then heard the voices of Moses and Lewis. The Merrills were eating supper when they heard Mary’s screams. Anna went out first and then reported that Moses was being foul to Mary. By the time Lewis got outside, he saw the two boys by the woodshed, Ezra wrestling Moses’s grip.

Lewis climbed down the banking that ran between the houses.

“What’s the trouble here?” he asked.

Moses let go of Ezra. “There’s no trouble here,” he replied. “You mind your own business.”

Moses hit Lewis in the neck and walked away, leaving his neighbor dazed. He returned to the piazza and took hold of Mary, leading her into the house. “You stay. I haven’t hurt you,” he told her.

Moses then left the property. A few minutes later, Ezra came inside with a cut beneath his eye about an inch long. He said he was going into town to buy the daily newspaper. Upon his return, he read the paper and went to bed around midnight.

The next morning, Ezra arose around 9 o’clock, complaining of a headache. The pain worsened and by 11 o’clock, he was vomiting nearly half hour. He retired at 10 o’clock that evening and, the following afternoon, the doctor came and gave him a powder for the pain.

He awoke at 6 o’clock the next morning and completed all the barn chores despite the medication not working. Later that day, he went into town to get the newspaper. When he returned he was in such poor shape that Mary called for the doctor again. At just 7 o’clock, he received more medicine.

The pain was even worse the next morning, and at noontime he went back to bed. Before long, he was unable to move his head and his body was partially paralyzed. Mary asked him where it hurt most and he put his hand behind his left ear. In just a short time, he would be unable to comprehend anything anyone said to him.

Ezra had fallen unconscious by the morning of Jan. 20. He died just before midnight.

Moses had been arrested at the depot, for assaulting his stepmother and neighbor, the night of the attacks. Now he would be charged with murder.

He had begged police to let him go so that he might ask Mary and Lewis for forgiveness. When that was refused, he attempted to escape during his transport to the jail.

On the way to the lock-up, he told police that Mary and Ezra were trying to cheat him out of his share of his father’s estate. His father’s will, written just five days before he died, left a house, a lot and $1,000 to his daughter Abby; $1,000 each to his daughters Maggie, Mary, Susan and Emma; and virtually everything else to Mary and Ezra. Ezra was to get the homestead after Mary’s death.

Mary and Ezra were named as sole executors of the will. Ezra was directed to provide for Moses at his discretion.

The elder Ezra, who had been left a widower with seven children when his first wife, Hannah, died in 1858, might have been dismayed by his younger son’s criminal history. In 1888, Moses was arrested for stealing a horse and carriage from Providence and spent time in jail.

“I knew I hit a man in my yard,” Moses told police the evening of the assault, “But I didn’t know it was Merrill.” Now, he stated, he wanted Merrill arrested for trespassing.

“Ezra was irritating me so I shook my cap in his face,” he went on. He said Mary then went outside. “She began to cry ‘Murder!’ so I went outside to quiet her. A man appeared and grabbed me by the throat the same time Ezra had hold of me. I swung my elbow back.”

He said his efforts to shake off both men are what pushed Ezra backwards into the woodshed.

During the autopsy on Ezra, doctors discovered a tumor in his head. They believed that when his head struck the back of the rocking chair, the tumor caused the injury to be fatal.

During his trial, the thin, mustached perpetrator sat nervously tapping his foot and biting his lip incessantly, his plea of not guilty standing strong. The jury deliberated for two hours before finding him guilty of manslaughter. They later decided on clemency and a deferred sentence. But Moses did not gain freedom. He ended up an inmate at the State Hospital for the Insane.

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

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