By Dick Tefft
Many people in North East know of the memorial on West Main Street dedicated to the patrolman that was shot on the streets of North East, but I am sure many don’t know the details of what happened that day in 1929 that occasioned the placing of the memorial on the streets of our town.
On Friday, April 19, 1929, the Pennsylvania Highway Patrol had a road check set up on West Main Road near Cemetery Road. They were checking automobile brakes, registrations and driver’s licenses in the eastbound lane of traffic. When they found a violation, they would escort the offender to town to appear at the office of Justice of the Peace, Louis Pease on Vine Street.
One such violation that day occurred when a man and woman were arrested for driving with defective brakes. At Pease’s office they were fined $10.00 plus costs. The woman then said, “I will pay the fine, but I put my curse upon you”, making a peculiar sign over the head of 25-year-old arresting officer Russell T. Swanson.
Soon after Swanson arrived back at the checkpoint he encountered three men in a maroon-colored Lincoln sedan who were without automobile registration. The men claimed that such a registration was not required in their home state of Minnesota, but the officer knew better.
The men were placed under arrest and told to drive to Justice Pease’s office in town. Swanson would follow behind on his motorcycle. Just after getting into town, however, the rear window opened and one of the men shot the patrolman. The bullet entered Swanson’s skull under his left eye and went into his brain. Swanson died at Dr. E.G. Shelley’s office on Main Street within fifteen minutes of being shot.
M.J. Palmer who was working at the Hudson-Essex garage at the corner of Main and Mill Streets heard the shots and looked to see what was happening. For some unknown reason, one of the men had gotten out of the car. Palmer saw a man standing by a tree on the south side of the street pointing a gun at North East Chief of Police Louis Wilkinson on the other side of the street. Wilkinson had heard shots and rushed to the scene to investigate. When he got there he quickly saw this man and drew his gun.
More patrolmen arrived at the scene and ordered the man to surrender while the sedan drove slowly by and the men inside yelled at their comrade to get in. The cornered man surrendered, and the search then started for the other two who had driven away.
A couple of witnesses were Mrs. Margaret Wells and Miss Amelia Wells, who later testified that they were on the north side of Main Street when they noticed a car with Minnesota license plates. As they watched they saw a blaze from the rear window of the car as the patrolman fell to the ground. Miss Wells hurried off to her boarding house to report the shooting. Mrs. Wells looked and saw the man stumbling on the south side of the street and heard several shots. She did not loiter, but continued quickly toward the boarding house.
The other two men had abandoned their car on Wall Street and were roaming town looking for escape. Two young girls, Bea Doolittle (who later married Carl Ahrens) and Dot Tefft (who later married Gus Orton) both lived on Grahamville Street and were exploring the bed of 16-Mile Creek when they came across the two men. The men asked if there was anyplace upstream where the bank was not so steep and they could climb out of the gully. The girls told them that there was not and advised them to go downstream, which they did. As the girls proceeded home they were approached by a big black sedan full of policemen who told of a shooting and asked if they had seen the men. They were happy to report what they had done.
A young Philip Hirtzel was driving Chief Wilkinson along with two other officers from Erie when they spotted the two fugitives heading north on Loomis Street toward the New York Central tracks. Then the men turned toward town along the railroad right-of-way. The two officers jumped from Hirtzel’s car and caught them after a short chase.
The three men were then arraigned at Louis Pease’s office after it was learned that they had stolen the car in Minneapolis where they were wanted for robbery. It was also learned that the day before, they had killed a woman while attempting to rob a bank in Columbus City, Indiana, and had wounded a sheriff in a gun battle that ensued.
The marker that is located in front of the Rite Aid Drug Store on West Main Street was placed there by the State in June of 1931. There was a ceremony on Saturday September 12, 1931. About 50 highway patrolmen marched in a parade with drum and bugle corps and scouts from Erie and North East who were in charge of the exercises. Swanson’s parents also attended the ceremony.
Speaking at the ceremony was Captain W.G. Price, superintendent of the Highway Patrol who suggested that this was the first occasion of its kind and was likely to be adopted in other places where a patrolman had lost his life in the line of duty.