Chief fired, then rehired

A century ago, a 3-2 vote by the Board of Selectmen ousted Fire Chief David DeCourcey, shown here at the wheel of the fire chief’s car, parked in front of the Skillings house which formerly stood opposite Town Hall. After firefighters threatened to go on strike and demanded a public hearing, DeCourcey was rehired.

WINCHESTER – With the country back at peace, the year 1919 began in Winchester with much joyous news. The boys were coming home.

There were still problems around the town. The influenza epidemic had not yet ended. A coal shortage emerged as a result of it. But through the first half of the year, the major news was war-related, as the newspaper continued to print soldiers’ letters from France, announced medals awarded, and noted the return of individual servicemen. The town planned and carried off a huge welcome-home parade for its heroes that July.

The year 1919 was also a triumphant one for women with the passage of the 19th Amendment in Congress. However, though ratified by Massachusetts three weeks later, the required ratification by 36 states did not occur until 1920.

A sign that success was anticipated was the change in the activities of the Winchester Equal Suffrage League from promoting legislation for women’s suffrage to educating women about government and the coming new opportunity to vote.

Taxes

A century ago, Winchester boasted that its tax rate was the lowest but one among surrounding towns, but the subject of taxes was not a happy one for town officials when the town was ordered to return thousands to a former resident.

One of Winchester’s more colorful former residents, Thomas W. Lawson, was renowned as a sportsman, horseman, and financier who made a fortune through highly dubious stock manipulations.

Townspeople occasionally benefitted from his wealth, particularly at Christmas time when he distributed over 100 boxes with the fixings for turkey dinner and gave clothing or coal to the poor, over a period of about 20 years. Though begun anonymously, his identify as the benefactor was revealed in 1897, 4 years after he moved to Winchester.

His name was also well known by high school boys who competed for the Lawson Trophy in canoe races held on the Mystic Lakes.

But Lawson’s fortune seesawed. His properties in Back Bay (in his wife’s name) were sold to pay back taxes in 1905. The same was threatened in 1915 with regard to his Winchester properties.

In 1917, a Middlesex County deputy sheriff showed up at Lawson’s office with a tax warrant issued by the tax collector of Winchester for $5,836.06 of unpaid taxes from 1916 (plus interest).

Lawson opposed it on the grounds that he was no longer a resident of Winchester, having moved to Scituate. Whatever property remained in the name of Lawson in Winchester, he reportedly said, had belonged to his wife who died in 1906.

No stranger to threats of arrest or court proceedings over financial disputes, Lawson, expecting the deputy sheriff’s arrival, sought an injunction to restrain him from making the arrest but was denied by a Superior Court judge. So when the man appeared at his office, Lawson handed him the amount of the disputed tax bill (in cash) along with two writs, one against the town for the taxes paid and the other for an action for slander against one of the selectmen.

In January of 1919, a jury spent eight hours deliberating the case, failed to agree, and was dismissed. A judge of the Supreme Court then awarded Lawson $6,343.45 in his suit against the town, though it was not explained how Lawson, as administrator of his wife’s estate, was not obliged to pay the taxes. For whatever reason, the town lost the case and had to pay up.

Ultimately, Lawson lost his fortune. His estate in Scituate and his Winchester properties were sold in 1922, and he died in poverty in 1925.

Secret Societies

A great controversy arose in April of 1919 when the School Committee decided to stamp out so-called “secret societies” by denying any of their members eligibility to office in any school organization, to the staff of any school publication, or “to represent his school on any intellectual or athletic contest or in any public manner whatever.”

These societies were not so much secret as they were exclusive. The committee considered them a distraction and an undemocratic influence. It could not prevent children joining them so decided to oblige students to choose between society membership or participation in high school activities.

Since the societies operated outside the schools, students and parents alike felt that the committee exceeded its authority, and letters to the editor of the Winchester Star questioning and debating the committee’s action were published through the rest of the year.

One protest was that the fraternities Phi Beta and Gamma Eta Kappa and the sororities Sigma Beta and En Ka had actually been doing good works ever since the first was organized in 1902. Soon after the committee announcement, for example, Sigma Beta made a commitment to support a French war orphan for two years.

Some students resigned their school positions in protest, but gradually all of the groups disbanded. Former members of En Ka reorganized their group in 1932 as an adult society to resume charitable works.

Fire Chief

The year 2019 saw the appointment of a new police chief, something attempted in 1919 by the firing of David DeCourcey as fire chief. But two days later he was rehired.

By 1919, DeCourcey had been with the Winchester Fire Department for 25 years, eight of them as chief. At a meeting in July, in a surprise action, the selectmen voted 3 to 2 to remove him “for the good of the service.” A new man was chosen to replace him.

But DeCourcey was popular. The firemen declared that they would go on strike unless the chief received a hearing. Further, Woburn’s firemen declared that, in case of a strike, they would not attend any alarms in Winchester.

At a hastily called special meeting, the Board of Selectmen reinstated DeCourcey. When the firemen heard the news, they gave up the idea of striking and, according to the Boston Globe, gave three rousing cheers.

(The Globe suggested the real motive centered on DeCourcey’s advancement over another candidate eight years earlier, but the reinstatement precluded any public discussion of the matter.)

Machine Gun Company

Winchester’s Machine Gun Company, trained as part of the State Guard to defend the Commonwealth during the war, went into action in 1919 during the Boston Police strike that September.

Along with other members of the State Guard, they were called out due to rioting and lawlessness. The Winchester contingent spent most of its time doing night patrol duty in Dorchester, Roxbury, and Boston. Working 8-hour shifts, they made arrests and dealt with drunks, crap shooters, Sabbath card players, reckless drivers, and numerous others.

The Company returned home on Oct. 25 and was given a banquet in the Town Hall auditorium.

Building

In 1919 the building inspector stated, “Because of its location, its steam and electric railroad facilities, its small amount of undeveloped land available for residential and building purposes, the Town of Winchester can never become what is called a ‘Boom Town,’ and its building construction will doubtless be gradual and real.”

But he continued with a perceptive observation resonating today that “there are men who, for selfish reasons, would despoil and mar the beauty of valuable sites and localities and also disregard the wishes and interests of the entire community for their own selfish personal financial gain.”

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CAPS LOCK.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.