My Two Visits to the Old Kent County Jail – Trip 2

by | Dec 8, 2022

Above: The Nike missile launch site in Bristol, built in 1956. Photo credit: The Military Standard

This is the second of two stories about Don Rice’s visits to what we now refer to as the “old jail” at the bottom of King Street. You can find the first story HERE.

I’ll be surprised if anyone recognizes the scene above. In fact, I’ll be surprised if most of you know what it is even after I tell you. It’s a Nike Missile Launch site. Between 1953 and 1962 the United States Army created 240 such installations around the country. They were equipped with missiles capable of shooting down Soviet bombers intent on destroying key targets. The site pictured above (PR-36) was constructed in Bristol in 1956. It was one of seven such sites in Rhode Island, placed there to defend Providence and Quonset Point. The site that concerns me is PR-58L in Davisville, but I couldn’t find a picture of it. They were all pretty similar, each one having crews of 109 officers and enlisted men who lived on the site. If one hadn’t been constructed in Davisville, I would never have made my second visit to the Kent County Jail. I’ll explain.

After graduation from high school I got a minimum wage job at Rueckert Manufacturing Company in the old Bay Mill (now 25 Water St.). I was assigned a work area in the cutting room on the second floor. There were two men – Gene and Bucky – who spent their days in that room cutting up various materials on what looked like huge paper cutters with 4-foot blades. 

We were situated in the northeast corner overlooking the jail. Every Monday morning at 9 we’d watch as all the weekend arrestees were marched from the jail to a transport vehicle, which carted them to West Warwick for arraignment. If we saw people we knew – which was often the case – we’d yell out their names and laugh. The charges were usually reveling or disturbing the peace – to which the men would plead nolo (nolo contendre or no contest) and be fined $10 and costs. And that would be that. Well, one Monday morning at 9 I heard Gene and Bucky yelling, “Hey, Ricey! Ha ha!” Yeah, I was one of the abject arrestees being loaded into the vehicle. 

It all started the night before. I’d just returned to East Greenwich after spending Saturday and Sunday as a guest at Lee Steele’s family cabin in Connecticut. I stopped at Jigger’s Diner to see if I’d missed anything Saturday night, and it turned out I had. There’d been a battle royal between a bunch of soldiers from the Davisville Nike site and an equal bunch of local boys – and the soldiers had gotten a thrashing.

Over the years Townies had peacefully coexisted with the sailors and marines stationed at Quonset, mostly because they regarded East Greenwich as drive-through country on the way to Providence. The Nike soldiers hadn’t figured that out, and they saw E.G. as the nearest place to pick up girls. That didn’t go over too well with the Townies. There’d been some minor scuffles, but nothing serious. Then, on that Saturday night, the soldiers came in force, intent on establishing a secure beachhead. Instead, they’d had to retreat.

All this was explained to me as I walked home with a few other boys – Courtney Regan, Lennie Harris, and one or two others. As we neared the Kent Theatre three soldiers in uniform stepped out of an alley about 50 feet or so ahead of us. I glanced behind and saw two more soldiers. A classic pincer move. Then they charged. The other two or three boys ran across the street, leaving Courtney and me to deal with the assault by ourselves. We were both knocked down almost immediately. The kicks and punches I received were in retaliation for the previous night, even though I’d been out of town.

Then there occurred one of those rare moments when you’re glad to see a cop. It gets a bit confused from this point on, but I do remember that in spite of our being the victims, Courtney and I were treated no differently than the soldiers. After a quick stop at the police station in the old town hall, we were all taken to the jail and installed in the cellblock behind the windows on the south side. There were four cells, each containing two iron bunks attached to the wall that were topped with thin straw-filled mattresses. In the corner there was a bucket where we might relieve ourselves. It was like something out of the last century, which, of course, it was.

I woke the next morning feeling quite sore and able to wiggle all my front teeth, but I was looking forward to breakfast prepared by Mrs. Sunderland. She was renowned for serving prisoners the same delicious food that she and Fred ate. There were homeless men on the waterfront who, it was said, deliberately committed crimes in September serious enough to keep them in jail until March. They would emerge in the spring fattened up on Mrs. Sunderland’s cooking and ready to face life once again in the White Shanty. What we got were tin cups of unsweetened black coffee. 

Courtney and I, following the established practice, pleaded nolo. The five soldiers pleaded not guilty. They had little choice; otherwise the Army would find them guilty of being AWOL, and that was serious business. Suppose the Russians had attacked Sunday night, and they were locked up in the local hoosegow unable to defend the Free World? The judge looked at Courtney and me, neither of us showing any signs of battle, and the five soldiers with their previously earned black eyes and split lips, and said, “I cannot accept those pleas.” That was not a good result for any of us.

Taken back to E.G., we had to pay a $20 bail to be set free – and I didn’t have it. So everybody else walked, and I was left sitting on a chair in the hallway. Fortunately, Sheriff Murray saw me and asked what I was doing there. I explained, and he shook his head. “You can leave. I’ll tell them you’re not liable to skip town to avoid a $10 fine.” 

A couple of weeks later we had our trial. Courtney’s family had gone to what I considered the extraordinary expense of hiring a lawyer. He argued that Courtney had every right to defend himself when being attacked on a public thoroughfare, and the judge agreed. That automatically made me innocent. Thank you, Mr. and Mrs. Regan. The soldiers, I’m sorry to say, were all found guilty, paid their $10 fines plus costs, and were probably further punished by the Army. The brass at the camp must have decided that East Greenwich was off-limits, because we never saw any soldiers in town after that.

Do I regret all this? Heck, no. Being locked up in an ancient jail for a night and then being found not guilty was an adventure any young guy would welcome. I might feel different if Mrs. Sunderland had recognized me as that cute little towhead she’d given some stamp hinges to 10 or so years earlier, but she hadn’t.

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5 Comments

  1. Donna RICE

    Don, you never cease to am amaze me.. THANKS again for sharing this story.
    Donna

    Reply
  2. Kathryn

    Great stories. Thanks for sharing

    Reply
  3. Mark Thompson

    Delightful tale, Don. Thanks for telling it!

    Reply
  4. Donald Tunnicliff Rice

    I learned today–quite by coincidence–that Martha Sunderland was born in Australia. Does anybody know how she ended up in East Greenwich as Fred’s wife? Surely, becoming a jailer’s wife in the U.S. is something she never dreamed of as a girl in the old country.

    Reply
    • Christine Payne

      Don, do you know if Martha, through marriage, was related to Cyril Sunderland of East Greenwich? He was quite an eccentric fellow who lived in my neighborhood.

      Reply

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