Murder at Rocky Point Park: Tragedy in Rhode Island's Summer Paradise

Murder at Rocky Point Park: Tragedy in Rhode Island's Summer Paradise

by Kelly Sullivan Pezza

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Overview

On a summer day in 1893, little Maggie Sheffield was murdered. Maggie's own father did the unthinkable against a backdrop of laughter and barrel organ music at Rocky Point Amusement Park. The tragedy aroused a strange reaction from the peaceable community of Warwick, Rhode Island. Many seemed to be more concerned for the murderer, Frank Sheffield, than for his young victim. Frank was rumored to be insane or addicted to drugs, and after a trial, he was found not guilty by reason of insanity. The murder did not tarnish Rocky Point's reputation as a premier destination, and the park operated until 1995. Investigating official records and newspaper archives, author Kelly Sullivan Pezza uncovers the facts and oddities behind a grim crime in Rhode Island's summer paradise.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781626196254
Publisher: History Press, The
Publication date: 08/05/2014
Series: True Crime
Pages: 128
Sales rank: 634,085
Product dimensions: 6.07(w) x 9.01(h) x 0.36(d)

About the Author

Kelly Sullivan Pezza is a native of Hope Valley, Rhode Island, and has worked as a journalist for southern Rhode Island newspapers for seventeen years. With an education in law enforcement and many years of experience as a Rhode Island historian and genealogist, she has written hundreds of articles and several books concerning historic true crime and unsolved mysteries in Rhode Island.

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

THE MURDER

I Have Killed My Daughter

All the laughter and gay chatter of the massive crowd drifted on the salt air toward the ledges. However, strangely, those sounds seemed to be enveloped somewhere in the center of the music. It was not too far in the distance that carousels and flying swings and roller coasters and train rides rang with the melody of barrel organs.

Closer by, there was only one sound that seemed real, and that was the gentle sound made by the rippling water that lapped against the slippery rocks, slapping them softly before quickly retreating back and dispersing into the vast Atlantic Ocean.

The gaiety and the cheerful din, the music and the ocean, what was real and what was not real all swirling together in amplified chaos — this is what Frank Sheffield heard for a moment. Then he bent down and picked up a large rock that had crumbled from the tall, jagged ledge behind him. He turned to face his five-year-old daughter. The next sound he heard was a scream.

Two young couples, sitting on a knoll not far from the ledge, had been enjoying the beautiful summer day there at Rocky Point Amusement Park in Warwick, Rhode Island. They were immediately startled by the chilling sound that had come from the other side of the ledge, shattering the peaceful atmosphere. One of the boys, Arthur Skirron, quickly got up and rushed toward the area from which the scream had come. When he was about halfway there, Frank came out from behind the ledge, looked at Skirron and then kept right on walking without uttering a single word.

Well aware that something horrific had probably just taken place, Skirron didn't stop to talk to Frank but instead continued on toward the ledge. Once there, he peered over the rocky edge, shock befalling him at what he saw there. Skirron stared in horror. A little girl lay still on the ground, a pool of blood surrounding her. Neatly clad in a pretty dress and shoes, her head was crushed terribly. A gaping hole on the upper part of her forehead continued to gush blood as it accumulated in a scarlet mass on the ground around her small body. Unbelievably, the child was still alive.

Having no idea what type of terrible accident might have just occurred, Skirron nervously hurried toward the main office of the park. Once he arrived there, he notified the park manager, thirty-nine-year-old Randall Augustus Harrington, that a child was severely injured on the northwestern section of the grounds.

A twenty-one-year-old house painter named Robert J. Quinn was standing nearby as Skirron talked and happened to overhear the conversation. Going along with Harrington, he rushed to the scene, where they found the little girl unconscious but still breathing.

With no time to waste, the two men gently but quickly picked the small, limp body up off the hard ground and carried it into the nearest building, which was the park's large theater. They immediately summoned a doctor for help. However, it took twenty minutes for medical assistance to arrive, and by that time, the young life before them had already slipped away.

Leaving his daughter dying painfully on the ground, Frank Sheffield had calmly walked out of the park and begun heading in the direction of the nearby Warwick Club, a private association of local jewelry manufacturers and other successful businessmen. Once in the club's parking lot, he approached fifty-five-year-old Newell Warren Belcher, a hardware dealer from Providence, and another man named Daniel Remington.

"I want to be turned over to an officer," Frank boldly announced to the men. "I have killed my child."

Belcher and Remington were totally unprepared to hear such an utterance come from the stranger's mouth. They weren't sure what to think as Frank went on.

"Why I did it, I don't know. I did not know that I had done anything until I had killed her. I did not know I had struck her until I saw the blood."

At that point, Frank suddenly began to shake quite badly and act in a manner so strange that Belcher and Remington believed the person before them was simply a victim of insane delusions, spouting out words that had no basis in reality. However, when Frank made his request again, asking that he be turned over to authorities, the men figured it was better to be safe than sorry and complied with his wishes.

They walked him back onto the grounds of Rocky Point Park and delivered him into the custody of manager Harrington, who also happened to be a police constable.

They reported what Frank had just told them, and as Harrington had just left the scene of the dreadful crime and witnessed the agonizing death that followed, he immediately placed Frank under arrest. While awaiting transportation to the county jail, Frank was held in the lockup cell that was kept on the grounds of the park.

News of the terrible tragedy that had just occurred made its way around the busy amusement park quickly. Suddenly, most of the visitors at the park that day were much more interested in learning about the grisly details of the murder than they were in popcorn, cymbal-playing monkeys or famed trapeze performer Madame Zoe. It was later reported that Zoe herself had conversed with patrons about the shocking event and stated that whoever killed the child should be hanged by the neck.

While awaiting the arrival of police officers, Harrington returned to the bloody scene near the water. There, he retrieved a broken piece of ledge that was lying on the ground and that he assumed could very well be the murder weapon. The club-like piece was nearly ten inches long and two inches wide on one end. The other end was tapered to a point with square edges. The thicker portion was smeared with Maggie's blood, and strands of the little girl's hair had adhered to it.

Sitting in the park's cell, Frank began to act extremely nervous. This soon gave way to his behavior becoming completely bizarre. Repeatedly, he asked aloud why he had committed the deplorable act that had resulted in the death of his daughter. Each time he posed the question, he waited for someone else to give him reasons for his own violent behavior. No answers were offered by anyone present, and finally, he begged to be shot.

At about seven o'clock that evening, thirty-year-old police officer Sanford Eldredge Kinnecom and another officer, Frank Holden, arrived to take Frank to the East Greenwich County jail, located on King Street. Frank explained to the officers that he had a history of mental problems and believed that he had killed his daughter while under the influence of something beyond his control. Great efforts by him, later joined by the great efforts of his attorney, to rid himself of all responsibility in the murder would begin at this time.

"I could not have struck her if I knew that I was hurting her," he said.

The officers began to pose specific questions to Frank in an attempt to gain some type of understanding concerning his ability to kill his own daughter. They asked him what it was that had caused him to bring Maggie to Rocky Point that day. He stated that he did not know the answer to that question and claimed he had no recollection at all of when he got there or even how he got there.

"I remember going to Attleboro to bring her home," he admitted. But the hours between his departure from Attleboro, Massachusetts, and the fatal blow to his daughter's head were allegedly missing from his memory. It was the sight of his daughter's blood that finally snapped him back into reality, he said.

Authorities sent telegraphs out to Frank's family, informing them of all that had transpired. Frank had been incarcerated. And their little Maggie was dead.

CHAPTER 2

THE PARK

The People's Popular Place

Before and after the unspeakable occurrence on August 28, 1893, Rocky Point Amusement Park was one of the country's premier destinations. It was known as the place to go for exciting rides, amazing attractions and the most delicious seafood dinners money could buy.

During the early 1800s, the Warwick, Rhode Island seaside property was merely an untouched portion of the beautiful estate owned by two daughters of Thomas Stafford and Polly Rhodes, who had a total of twelve children. Thomas had purchased the magnificent land with the breathtaking ocean view in 1726. Phebe Smith Stafford, who married Jasper Lyon, and Mary Eliza Stafford, who married Thomas Holden, had inherited the serene property that would eventually be transformed into a nationally famous Rhode Island park.

In the 1840s, it was common for pleasure boats to take passengers sailing down the picturesque Narragansett Bay. Sea captain William Winslow had recently arrived with the Argo, a short, wide boat he co-owned with Captains Barton and Drown out of Newark, New Jersey. Winslow ran the boat between Warren and Providence and always marveled at the beauty of the Stafford sisters' land as the boat passed calmly by.

Situated along the shore between Conimicut Point and Warwick Neck Light, the property was a picture of beautiful confusion, appearing as if Mother Nature had simply tossed ledges, caves, plants and bushes into a hasty disarray of enchanting wonder. One summer day, Winslow decided to approach Jasper to ask if his wife and sister-in-law might give him permission to anchor there during his sails so that his passengers could enjoy stepping into the wondrous scene. The sisters consented, and Winslow's first passengers to disembark on the land were a small group of students from Dr. Hall's Sunday school. The following week, he arrived with another class of Sunday school children and 520 members of the Providence First Congregational Church, all ready to enjoy a memorable picnic. He began to make stops there often, sending parties from the Argo ashore via smaller boats.

By 1847, Winslow's pleasure sails, with their added attraction, had become so popular that he made arrangements with forty-three-year-old Mary Eliza to buy her half of the eighty-nine-acre estate for $1,200. Not long after, he made the same deal with Phebe and became the new owner of the property in its entirety. Twice a day, he transported passengers from Providence to the new "Winslow's Rocky Point" for just twenty-five cents per person. Admission to the park was free.

While the view was enough to be appreciative of, Winslow wanted to offer his passengers even more enjoyment. In 1852, he added a sea swing to the grounds. A large apparatus, built several feet out into the water, it spun around in a circle to the delight of those seated in its suspended swings. Adding further excitement, a Spanish Fandango roller coaster was also erected. Winslow built a wharf that jutted out into the sea so that the Argo and other boats carrying passengers bound for Rocky Point were able to sail directly to the park without having to use the smaller boats to get everyone on dry land.

As other parks along the bay were experiencing the same popularity as Winslow's, the owners of other excursion boats desired to sail their passengers to Winslow's wharf as well, where it was convenient for them to walk to the destinations of their choice. Issues concerning the use of the wharf persisted for years. When J.A. Littlefield opened a new resort called Horn Spring just down the bay, its excursion boats began docking at Winslow's wharf, where passengers disembarked and walked the short distance to Horn Spring. Winslow wasn't at all happy about this. Horn Spring had quickly become known as a haven for gambling and intoxication. Its shore dinners were managed by bake master Smith Shaw, and there were many who patronized the resort for its great food. However, it was also popular due to its roulette wheel, large dance hall and free-flowing liquor. Winslow didn't want the likes of such people leaving Horn Spring and venturing back to his family-oriented, sober grounds. He built a high board fence across the beach to keep patrons from other parks off the Rocky Point property. He also built a tall picket fence across the end of the wharf, with a large double gate permitting entrance only to those who were there to visit his park.

For those boat owners not commissioned by Winslow but desiring to deliver passengers to his park, such as the owners of the Canonicus, the New Clifton and the Golden Gate, he charged them a twenty-five-cent landing fee. In 1865, he added another boat, the Bay Queen, to the fleet of vessels making their way daily to Rocky Point.

Perhaps the smartest idea the sea captain came up with was that of following the tradition of parks providing seafood dinners. He had a large restaurant constructed on the park grounds that he called the Shore Dinner Hall. His wife, known as "Mother Winslow," cooked all the food, and the menu in 1859 offered a dinner of baked clams, baked potatoes, sweet corn, baked fish, fish chowder and brown bread, all for a grand total of forty cents. It didn't take long for the Rocky Point dining experience to become nationally famous, and people came en masse just for the food alone.

By July 1862, the park had become so busy that Winslow published the following ad in a local newspaper: "On and after July 21, Winslow's Rocky Point will be open for private boarders. Parties intending to visit the above place, expecting accommodations, must first make application to the proprietor. Due notice will be given as soon as arrangements can be made for a boat to make regular trips."

A large residential dormitory for the park's employees called Rock Cottage was built on the grounds, as well as a theater called Forest Circle, which later became known as Forest Casino. The theater provided some of the best minstrel shows and stage performances around, including Buckley's Serenaders, an Ethiopian burlesque opera troupe and a thirteen-piece brass band under the supervision of banjo player and tenor G. Swain Buckley. One of the most popular shows was Duprez & Greene's Minstrels, composed of French Canadian Charles H. Duprez and local theater professional J.A. Greene, who performed their show at the park for many years. Greene later organized J.A. Green's Mocking Bird Minstrels, a group of African American men from Pennsylvania. That group also performed at Rocky Point and was later managed by "Big Dick" Melville; however, it was not overly successful. Duprez had begun his employment at the park by running the Fandango. He went on to become one of the most well-known minstrel managers in the country. After forty years of success in his career, he returned to his amusement park roots, taking a job at Crescent Park as a merry-go-round operator.

The Forrest Amazons were another popular act at Rocky Point. Organized by Noah D. Payne, who also went by the name of Frank Forrest, the minstrel group was unique in that it was composed of only women. Payne later went on to publish the Providence Morning Herald.

The Four Cohans, a vaudeville family that included the not-yet-famous George Michael Cohan, his parents and his sister, also entertained crowds at the park's theater. Despite the memories of fun and laughter that would be made, it was this building that would serve as Maggie Sheffield's place of death.

A carousel, a bowling alley and other simple amusements were added to Rocky Point, which Winslow intended to be the most sought-after picnicking area in the state. Surrounded by the majestic backdrop of rolling hills, jagged cliffs and the sea, the new park was a sight to behold.

After enjoying the great success of his venture for nearly twenty years, Winslow sold the park to Byron Sprague in 1865 for $60,000. Sprague was the cousin of millionaire governor William Sprague of Cranston, as well as Amasa Sprague, the county sheriff who would later refuse to sign the petition allowing Frank to undergo a psychological examination at the jailhouse. Sprague had just retired from his position at the family business, A&W Sprague and Company, and spent about $300,000 developing Rocky Point into an unforgettable resort where caterer Hiram Maxfield served up delicious shore dinners. A large, pleasant-looking bearded man who was born on October 20, 1823, Maxfield later opened his own park called Silver Spring along the bay in East Providence. His son later took over that resort. Had Frank's wishes to disembark at Silver Spring been granted that fateful August day many years later, Maggie's murder might have occurred there instead of at Rocky Point.

As a young man, Maxfield had worked as a confectioner. In 1860, he became a sheriff in Providence County. Before and after the Civil War, he kept a hotel and offered "entertainment" in the form of billiard tables and beverages from his retail liquor business, and it was during the war that he became an expert at preparing shore dinners. By the time he opened Silver Spring, he was known as the "king of the shore" for his catering abilities. The dinner hall at his resort was a spacious building able to seat six hundred people. Cottages were also available for rent on the grounds. The former dealer of intoxicating drinks advertised his park as keeping within strict temperance principles. He died in the summer of 1884, nine years before Maggie's death.

(Continues…)


Excerpted from "Murder at Rocky Point Park"
by .
Copyright © 2014 Kelly Sullivan Pezza.
Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgements 7

Introduction 9

1 The Murder: I Have Killed My Daughter 13

2 The Park: The People's Popular Place 17

3 The Family: A Wife Immaculate 38

4 The Abduction: Why Are You Looking at Me Like That? 44

5 The Arrest: I Can't Remember of Killing but One 49

6 The Hearing: He Might Have Brought It upon Himself 55

7 The Drug Rumor: On Coca 59

8 The Trial: I Don't Think the Man Is Crazy 61

9 The Aftermath: Guilt Is the Motive, Not the Result 70

10 Those Left Behind: Shadows Flee Away 77

11 The Players: Ministers, Medicine Men and Millionaires 82

12 The Site: Fires, Lawsuits and Baseball 87

13 The Hand of Fate: Hurricanes and Other Disasters 104

14 A Final End 116

Bibliography 125

About the Author 128

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