Saturday, October 15, 2022

Cape Cod History - What Happened to Thomas Powers?

    In the early morning hours of Thursday, April 14, 1898, James Jennings was heading out of his Sandwich, Massachusetts home on his way to work. Jennings spotted flickering light coming from inside his neighbor James Keenan’s stable. Curious, Jennings walked over and peered in through a window. What he saw was something of indescribable horror. The light was fire and it was consuming a human body.

    Jennings burst into the stable and beat the flames out. It was far too late. The young man was dead and his body was nearly charred beyond recognition. He was Thomas Powers who had been working for Keenan as a stableman. How had he ended up in such a condition?

A similar stable to Keenan's(John L. Hildreth)

    A further inspection of the scene was performed when State Detective Sim Letteney and Sheriff Eugene Haines were called to the scene. Though Powers’ clothes had been almost entirely consumed by the fire the investigators found the metal hooks of his suspenders by his feet. It appeared as though someone had tried to remove his pants before he had caught fire.

    Word of the horrific scene at Keenan’s stable quickly spread around Sandwich and beyond. It was like nothing that Cape Cod had seen before. Powers’ body was eventually removed from the stable with an autopsy scheduled for later in the week.

    Rather quickly it became apparent that Powers had not been alone the previous night. Detective Letteney and Sheriff Haines spoke with half a dozen witnesses who said Powers had been in the barn with at least two other persons. The investigators were able to ascertain that whatever happened to Powers likely occurred around midnight.

    Several questions were at the forefront. Who was with Thomas Powers the night before? How did Powers meet his end? Was the fire the cause of his death, or an attempt to cover up the true cause? The answer to the first question came shortly thereafter.

    Those interviewed told the investigators that Powers had been hanging out with four men the previous night. They were identified as Philip Smith, Eugene Allen, Eben Battles, and Allen Webster.

    Detective Letteney interviewed Eugene Allen first. Allen admitted to being a part of the group at Keenan’s stable the night before. He said the five young men had all been drinking heavily. In fact, Webster and Battles were so inebriated that Allen had to walk them home. The three men left Thomas Powers and Philip Smith in the stable.

    Letteney sought out Philip Smith for an interview. Smith also admitted to being with the group the previous night, drinking heavily. However, he said he had passed out in the office around ten. The fire had awakened him as it began to creep its way into the office. Smith claimed to have thrown water on the fire and called out to Powers. Not hearing anything he passed out again. Upon awakening, Smith said he simply walked home.

    The stories of Allen and Smith did not seem to match up, especially with the evidence that Letteney and Haines had already collected. Legend has it that Detective Letteney did in fact uncover the truth about what happened to Thomas Powers that night in 1898. So why is this case still classified as unsolved?

    Detective Letteney brought his evidence to District Attorney Andrew Jennings of Fall River, no relation to the man who had found Thomas Powers’ body. At the time of the investigation, it was reported that Jennings had ordered the case to be further investigated. The problem was that Jennings was far more interested in a case he was pursuing that involved Alicia LeBau Berger. She was the daughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt who was the richest man in the United States. To Jennings that was more important than the potential murder of a poor Irish boy from Cape Cod. Detective Letteney had to do it himself.

Barnstable County Court House in the early 1900s.

    The investigation was brought before Judge Frederick Swift at Barnstable District Court on April 15, 1898. Letteney was not a trained attorney and therefore was at a huge disadvantage when it came to presenting a case before a grand jury. Although Philip Smith was never officially named a suspect it was believed that he had something to do with Powers’ grisly demise.

    Letteney did the best he could to present a compelling case. He brought twenty-two witnesses before a grand jury. Nearly the entire day was spent individually examining them. Unfortunately, much of the evidence was circumstantial and the grand jury chose not to indict Philip Smith or anyone else for that matter. This meant that nobody would end up being held responsible for the death of Thomas Powers. In the end, it was reported that the belief was Powers died from smoke inhalation and subsequently the fire. How exactly the fire was started was never answered.

    The outrage on Cape Cod was palpable. If D.A. Jennings had tried the case perhaps a resolution could have been had. The locals saw Jennings as someone who didn’t care about the Cape unless he was being paid by the uber-wealthy Vanderbilt family. They had their chance to extract some revenge in short order.

    Mere days before the horrific death of Thomas Powers Cape Cod’s congressional representative, John Simpkins, died. D.A. Jennings quickly announced his candidacy for the open spot. The Republican party caucus took place a few weeks later. It was here that Jennings got his comeuppance. He received no support from Cape Cod and finished dead last out of all of the prospective candidates.

    Jennings did not run for district attorney again. He also promised to run again for Congress but that also did not materialize. One interesting twist to the Jennings saga came during the May 31, 1898, special election for the Simpkins seat. One lone person from Cape Cod gave Jennings a write-in vote. It leads to speculation as to whether that write-in vote came from Thomas Powers’ murderer who never was apprehended partially due to the lax attitude of Jennings.

    In the end, young Thomas Powers' death remains unsolved. Was he murdered? Was it simply an accident? Was Philip Smith at fault? Or was it someone else? Sadly that answer will likely never come. Regardless of who was at fault, it was a horrific way for someone’s life to end.


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