Civil War soldier honored by Bethany veterans

BETHANY - A 19th century "murder most foul," to quote Shakespeare, has come to light with the recent installation of a new gravestone for a Civil War veteran in Carrington Cemetery on Rainbow Road.

When Eugene "Timer" Downs joined fellow members of Bethany Veterans of Foreign Wars in placing American flags on local veterans' graves before Memorial Day each year, he always wondered about the small gray slab marker that only had the anonymous number "370": on it.

It "sort of bugged me," Downs said, to put a flag on the grave of a known veteran whose stone did not identify him.

Town records confirmed the man's name was William Ford, a civil war veteran, who died as a pauper at 50 in 1886 and was buried at town expense. The horrific details of his brutal death long after the war were retold more than 85 years later in The Amity Star, a local newspaper, published in the early 1950s in Bethany. The editor, the late George Vaill, longtime town moderator and a Yale University official, couldn't rouse federal interest in providing a proper headstone for Ford, however, and the story faded from all but a few memories.

When Downs, who recalled Ford met a violent end suggested action on a grave marker, BVFW members quickly agreed. Post 2448 Commander Peter Horbick, a master stone carver and World War II Army veteran, volunteered to inscribe the monument. His friend, Pat Giordano of Orange, president of Giordano Monuments in West Haven, donated a handsome 350-pound Vermont granite stone 4-inches thick and 4-feet high (1-foot lies underground).

"Peter did a beautiful job," Downs said, noting that Horbick created a distinctive design above the wording. A Civil War enlisted man's cap is surmounted by an eagle with outstretched wings, inspired by the U.S. seal. Below the cap is a pair of laurel branches.

Laurel has long been used to symbolize victory, "whether athletic or military," Horbick said. He has designed many other local gravestones, one for President Coolidge's wife, Yale commissions, the Town Hall veterans monument and the new memorial for Momaugin, Quinnipiac tribe sachem, in East Haven.

But who was Ford, Bethany's long unrecognized soldier? And how did he fall victim to a murder "so fiendish" that contemporary newspaper reporters wrote its brutality hadn't been equaled in years in Connecticut?

Ford, who enlisted from Bethany in Co. D, 27th Regiment, Connecticut Volunteer Infantry, served from Sept. 10, 1862 to July 27, 1863. Of Irish descent., he was an itinerant shoemaker and harness repairer who lived in and around Bethany for many years, according to Vaill, who researched contemporary accounts of the murder. This reporter wrote about the Star a number of years ago, but relocated the Ford story for details.

One report said Ford was "a quiet, peaceable laborer with more than an ordinary education." He was small in stature and not very strong.

He was employed by Wales Doolittle of Wooding Hill Road to repair harness and do farm work. Doolittle, 38, and a farmer stood 6-feet tall and was "one of the most powerful men physically that Bethany contains." He was reportedly quarrelsome and loved strong drink.

The details of what occurred Saturday, Feb. 6, 1886, are truly gruesome and, out of consideration for its readers' sensibilities, The Bulletin will only summarize them.

Doolittle had taken two drinks of whiskey before breakfast that day and flew into a rage when he found Ford had overlooked some harness repair, according to Vaill's recounting of the events.

A New Haven newspaper reported Doolittle knocked Ford down with almost his first blow; "then began one of the most unmerciful beatings that a man in Bethany ever received." From fists, Doolittle graduated to kicking the prostrate man, then whipping and finally jumping on him. The brutality went on for two hours, during which he also was said to have thrown Ford downstairs and scalded him.

Various people tried to intervene "but no one dared tangle with Doolittle," Vaill wrote.

Doolittle's four motherless children witnessed some of the scene and a housekeeper was whipped when she tried to help Ford.

Ansonia Buck, a hired hand and "half-witted," both admitted and denied witnessing or assisting at the murder. Although arrested he was not tried and died later in a snowstorm under somewhat suspicious circumstances, it was reported.

William L. Wooding, 18, and later first selectman of Bethany, went to chop wood at the Doolittle farm that morning and heard the commotion. When Doolittle's oldest son, Walter 17, said his father was "training old Ford," Wooding went home and told his father.

Word spread but no town official dared arrest Doolittle. A Naugatuck sheriff was called and he sent a doctor, who found Ford near death. He recommended Doolittle's arrest. Sobered up, he reportedly held out his hands to be cuffed. At the hearing witnesses testified to the facts. Doolittle was jailed, held for murder after Ford's death and sentenced to life in state prison, where he died at age 79.

Noting that accounts of the murder differ in some respects, Vaill interviewed Wooding at age 83 for "practically an eye witness point of view" for the Star, Wooding "recalled the tragic events of 1886 as though they had occurred yesterday."

Wooding said he had gone to retrieve a mended boot from Ford and that the fight started when Doolittle, returning from a night of drinking, found Ford in bed and unable to rise, perhaps from indulging himself. The beating was in progress when he arrived and he must not have stayed long. He remembered Doolittle came to his parents' home later to ask for medication for Ford and said he regretted jumping on him. It was mainly due to young Wooding's efforts that authorities were called in at the time, Vaill said.

Wooding recalled Doolittle as "a jovial companion, a great story teller and mimic. When drunk he was a brute."

In a subsequent letter to The Amity Star reader Gilbert Whitlock commended the newspaper for preserving "fragments of history," however, "bloodcurdling." But Mrs. R.H. Norton canceled her subscription, saying the story was in "extremely bad taste" and "journalism in the worst form."

Because of Vaill's documentation and Bethany's VFW, William Ford no longer has to "continue to lie forever in a nameless grave merely because he had the misfortune to be buried at town expense," as Vaill feared.

"Now he has a proper stone," Downs said.

An explanation for the numbered headstone used by the town for paupers like Ford was given to this reporter by the late Alice Bice Bunton, a Bethany historian an author. She said the stones were believed to have been used as mileage road markers by the state before the town acquired a miscellaneous number of them.