HOPKINTON – In this day and age, we are not quite as accommodating as our ancestors were. Should a stranger appear at our door asking for food, we would probably be on the phone dialing 9-1-1 before a full minute had passed. In earlier centuries, people were much more trusting than we are. However, such willing acts of trust and kindness sometimes proved to be dire mistakes.
Everett Brown, a 66-year-old picker tender at a local woolen mill, wasn’t home on Tuesday afternoon, Feb. 18, 1919. His Canadian-born 63-year-old wife Harriet was in the house alone that day when she suddenly heard a knock. She opened the door to find a tramp standing there, and felt sympathetic when he asked her if he might have something to eat.
Harriet invited the man out of the cold and into her warm home. He settled down at the kitchen table while she prepared a filling lunch for him. However, as hungry as he proclaimed to be, once he was served, he didn’t eat much. He remained seated there at the table for quite some time, despite his sudden apparent lack of appetite.
Having been most patient, Harriet finally asked him to kindly leave if he had satisfied himself. When the man failed to get up from the table, she asked him several more times to please vacate her residence. Finally, she gently took hold of him and attempted to move him toward the door.
The 25-year-old tramp immediately lunged into a brutal attack, physically injuring his gracious host quite severely. Instead of running off after the assault, he remained about the house for a good period of time. He stayed until nearly 4:00 before leaving the residence, which stood about a quarter mile away from Hopkinton City, and brazenly made his way toward Hope Valley.
Despite her injuries, Harriet immediately went for help, announcing what had just occurred to her 60-year-old neighbor, carriage-builder Roger Williams Lewis. Along with his son, Roger went to search for the man. They traced him to Hope Valley where they alerted the constable as to the crime that had been committed. Authorities apprehended the tramp just before dark, in Richmond.
He was arrested and placed in the Wyoming jail for the night. The following morning, he was transported to the jail at Westerly where he gave his name as George Govan. He claimed that he had been born in Iron Pond, Vermont, though authorities could find no such town to be in existence. He stated that he had been living with his sister in Lynn, Massachusetts. The tramp swore that he had never seen Harriet Brown before, but the woman positively identified him as the man who had assaulted her in her home.
Two months later, after a hearing in Superior Court, the accused was found guilty of the attack and sentenced to serve eight years in Rhode Island State Prison. At that point, authorities believed they could positively connect the man to another similar crime which had occurred in Massachusetts and they made plans to bring up those charges at the time of his eventual release.
Undoubtedly, the kindly intentions which came so naturally to Harriet Brown and others in the area, were permanently scaled back after this traumatic event. Unfortunately, trust could not be given so freely, and sympathy could no longer come before personal safety. Not even in a little country town where charity was a natural instinct.
Kelly Sullivan is a freelance history and features writer for Southern Rhode Island Newspapers.