AUGUSTA — There is a former chief who became county sheriff. There’s an officer who designed the city’s seal. And then there was the time the whole department came under the leadership of a Civil War hero who put his intelligence and integrity to work to help stave off a battle over ballots.
The men and events have been uncovered, and rediscovered, by Augusta police Sgt. Christian Behr during his ongoing search for department history. Behr, whose search included an open house last month for people to share their photos and stories, said what he has discovered so far has added important pieces to the picture of the department’s past.
“Now I have a good starting point,” Behr said.
Augusta police have collected a handful of historical items over the years, typically when people would drop off items or share stories unsolicited, but Chief Robert Gregoire had the idea of ratcheting up the effort in early 2012 after a descendant of an Augusta police officer gave him two badges that date to the late 1800s.
Behr, the department’s unofficial historian, intensified the search last year. Part of that effort was an open house in December during which people were invited to share stories and artifacts from the department’s history. Behr said about a dozen people showed up for the event and provided a treasure trove of old photos, newspaper articles and stories.
One of those stories explained the police department’s role in creating the current city seal. Patrolman Carroll W. Black, who was also a commercial artist, submitted the winning entry in the late 1940s. The uniform worn by Behr and his fellow officers includes a patch depicting that seal.
“It was created by an Augusta police officer,” Behr said.
One of Behr’s primary goals was nailing down the year the department was officially formed. His search uncovered a pair of history books, both written in the latter part of the 1800s, and an 1880 census. All three documents indicate the first city marshal, or chief, was elected in 1850, the same year as the first city mayor and first Kennebec County sheriff. There were other forms of law enforcement before 1850, including night watches, but the election of the first chief by the city’s aldermen is proof that the city’s first full-time police department was created in 1880, Behr said. The marshal oversaw four officers, each of whom worked 12-hour shifts to earn $2. Each was required to purchase his own $40 uniform. Each officer covered an area between five and 15 square miles, Behr said.
Rufus Lishness, one of only two Augusta police officers to die in the line of duty, was killed in 1884, four years after the department was formed. Lishness died just a month after Thomas Malloy, the only Kennebec County sheriff’s deputy to die in the line of duty. Both Lishness and Malloy were shot and killed in Augusta while investigating crimes involving the illegal sale of alcohol. Whether alcohol or drugs, officers then, as now, spent much of their time trying to combat the sale of illegal intoxicants.
“Almost 150 years later and we’re still dealing with the same stuff,” Behr said.
Of course, there have been unique periods in the department’s history, like the time it came under the authority of the general of what is now the Maine National Guard. That general, Joshua Chamberlain, received permission from Mayor Charles Nash to quell a potentially violent uprising that resulted from disputed results of the 1879 fall election.
“For a short period of time, he was in charge of the Augusta police,” said Behr, a former member of the Maine National Guard, which was once commanded by Chamberlain.
Dubbed the Twelve Days, the uprising occurred after members of the Democratic and Greenback parties disputed voting results that gave Republicans control of the House and Senate. After an investigation by Gov. Alonzo Garcelon, control of both houses was given to Democrats.
U.S. Sen. James Blaine, a Republican, responded by organizing an armed group of men. Garcelon, joined by members of the Greenbacks party, in turn organized his own group of armed men. The confrontation outside the State House threatened to boil over into bloody battle, Behr said.
Garcelon called upon the state militia, which was under the authority of Chamberlain, who was also president of Bowdoin College. Behr said Chamberlain, fearing the presence of the militia would escalate tensions, instead ordered his men to stand ready, but to stay clear of Augusta.
Chamberlain, who remained unarmed despite death threats from both sides, used Augusta police officers to establish and maintain security around the State House.
Chamberlain, a Republican, refused to take sides in the dispute, for which he was despised. At one point he confronted an armed mob ready to kill him and in the press he was called “The serpent of Brunswick,” Behr said.
The siege lasted 12 days, from late 1879 into early 1880, when the state’s supreme court validated the election results and decided Republicans should control both the House and Senate.
“He kept a cool head and he kept the peace,” Behr said of Chamberlain.
Other influential figures with ties to the Augusta police also have emerged during Behr’s search. Edward Harwood, a patrolman for the city at the turn of the last century, became a deputy marshal, the position that’s now chief of police, in 1912. Harwood went on to serve three terms as sheriff for Kennebec County before dying in 1931.
Patrick Pelletier, son of Bernis Pelletier, who worked for the department from 1935 to 1964, came with two of his father’s badges. Bernis Pelletier retired as a captain.
Behr was particularly pleased to uncover more information about Seldon Jones, who in 1930 became the second and most recent Augusta police officer to die in the line of duty. Jones was killed in a motorcycle crash after hitting a pothole on North Belfast Avenue.
Jones, who was just 25 years old when he died, served in the Maine Army National Guard. Behr discovered that Jones’s name was misspelled on the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Washington, D.C. The department is taking steps to have the spelling corrected, Behr said.
Jones’ death was a cause for city-wide mourning, according to newspaper accounts. Mayor Robert Cony offered a eulogy.
“He laid down his life in the line of duty,” Cony said. “Augusta, in my judgment, has lost one of its most faithful servants, and the community a young man of character and promise.”
Craig Crosby can be contacted at 621-5642 or at: