Some police officials referred to George E. Swain as a monomaniac, obsessed with one thing. In his lifetime, he stole more than 1000 horses.
Born in Wilmington in 1851, he was a member of a respected Wilmington family. As a young man, he worked for the Sheldons. Horace Sheldon would drive cattle to town every Tuesday.
His father, Benjamin Swain, Jr. was a shoemaker, as had been his father. In September 1850, he married Maria Gowing, of an old Wilmington family. George Everett Swain was their only child. Benjamin, Sr. had married Assenath Trull in 1823.
The name Benjamin Swain does not appear on historical maps, but given George’s association with the Sheldons, it would be a good guess that he lived near Perry’s Corner. The Gowing-Swain house stood on one corner, and nearby were two shoe-shops.
By the time he was 25, though, he had turned to a life of crime. In 1876, he was sentenced to three years in Concord State Prison for stealing a horse in Wilmington.
His typical theft would be of a horse and buggy. He might rent a horse at one stable, drive it to another town and trade it for another. Or he might attempt to sell it or possibly abandon it. Sometimes he would give the Sheldons as a reference, enabling him to hire a horse and buggy that would not be returned.
“He has used the Sheldon name everywhere in New England,” the Boston Globe wrote.
He was sent to prison in New York, emerging in 1882. A short time later, he was up to his old tricks, earning another three-year term.
Released in December 1885, he went to a livery stable in Wilmington, saying he was employed by Mr. Sheldon to search for some stray cattle in Watertown. He was allowed to take a chestnut horse and a phaeton top buggy, the Globe reported.
That would set the pattern for the rest of his life. With brief interludes of liberty, he spent nearly 38 years in prison. Most of the prison time was the result of being adjudged a habitual criminal in 1893, which earned him a 25-year sentence. He was twice paroled, only to soon return after a petty crime. It was as if he considered the prison his home.
He was reported to be a model prisoner, never in trouble and popular with other inmates. As he was leaving Charlestown State Prison for the second time, a fellow prisoner presented him with a handsome leather wallet with the inscription, “He who commits no crime needs no law.” He was carrying that wallet in his pocket when he was picked up a short time later.
It was not as if he needed money. His parole in 1900 was granted after he had inherited $15,000 from the estate of John Trull, a distiller of rum, probably his great-uncle. Trull had died in 1867, leaving over a million dollars. It took many years to settle the estate. Swain also inherited $10,000 from his mother, a few weeks before he left prison. After his parole, though, he was picked up for passing worthless checks. One was for $2.80 for some underwear. The other was for $5.
There was no trace of the $25,000 when he was arrested in 1901. Police speculated that he had gambled it away. Some of the money, though, may have been kept from him.
Swain remained in prison until April 3, 1909, when he was again paroled, having come into another inheritance. He announced his intention to go back to Wilmington to live an honest life among his friends. That evidently did not work out.
The following advertisement appeared in the Boston Globe on June 13: Horse stolen, June 3, gray mare, low wheeled piano-box buggy, ... let to a man by the name of George E. Swain, 58 years old, gray hair and mustache, rough in dress, wide-brimmed light soft hat. Frank T. Lewis, Nashua, NH.
As spring turned to summer, police were looking for him. A headline in the Globe on July 14, 1909 read, “Swain must go back if found.” He was "found" the next day in the East Cambridge jail, where he had been since June 22. He had been arrested in Lowell for larceny, and was sentenced to three months in jail under the name John Smith.
He could not be transferred out of that jail, but when he completed his sentence in September, an officer was waiting for him, to return him to the Charlestown State Prison. There he remained for another five years as his health slipped away.
In May, 1914, he was released in poor health. He was taken to a farm in North Troy, Vermont, where he died less than a week later on May 18, 1914. He was buried in Wildwood Cemetery in Wilmington. In his will, he left $300 to the Congregational Church of Wilmington; $500 to the Home for Aged Women in Woburn; and $1,000 to the Winning Home, a vacation home for Boston children. It is not known if there was enough money to fund the bequests.
Levi Swain, a cousin, was an officer in the railroad police and a town constable. Another Swain was Charles W., who founded the Wilmington Public Library. He kept clippings of newspaper stories about Wilmington, beginning about 1870. His daughter May continued the collection until 1955. Her scrapbook is now in the Wilmington Memorial Library, and on-line. Her two sisters, Carrie and Henrietta were teachers in the Wilmington schools for decades. The Swain School was named in their honor.
But there is nothing in the scrapbook about George, the black sheep of the Swain family. Several articles about him did appear in the Boston Globe, which have served as a source for some of this story. He was on the front page several times.