Sketch of the Life of Willard H. Nickerson
A Resident of Vineland for Many Years
Soon after arriving in Vineland, I went to work at my trade-shoemaking-which I continued for several years. My first business as police in Vineland after I had been here 3 or 4 years. I was elected Constable, to fill an unexpired term of 2 years, for a man who resigned. I was elected by the township committee, because there were two candidates, and we were voted on. When I finished my two years' term I was re-elected by the votes of the township, and from that time have been almost continuously on the force. I joined the "Pioneer Fire Co." and served my time and so became an exempt fireman.
During my career here in Vineland I have done more or less detective work, and will relate a few of the more interesting cases.
Frank Loughran went to New York on business on the "Central," and on his way back, just after the train left Whitings, he went into the smoker. After the train passed Atco, he went back into the car, and his valise was missing, containing a suit or two of clothes and some papers. He made inquiries of the conductor, but found no clue except that one or two people got off at Atco. The next day he came to me and told me about it, and I told him we would go up and look over a couple of towns and we might find it. I would go as a buyer of berries for a New York firm and he would go as a salesman. He had some cards from a market in New York that he gave to me and gave me a description of the valise. When we got to Atco, he went one way and I another. I soon found out that there were 2 people who came from New York, and got off at Atco the day before, and they were on for the purpose of buying berries to be shipped to New York for market there. I found they were stopping in a building not far from the station. I came down to the building and found about a dozen men there, all down to buy berries, and were mostly from New York. I introduced myself as somebody and passed out my cards. One man said: "Oh, you represent "goose market," and I said "yes," though I didn't know what goose market meant. They were sitting around here talking and having a good time, and I asked this man if he was from New York and he said "Yes." I asked him when he came over, and he said "Yesterday." He began to ask me questions about the price of berries, etc., and I told him that I had a friend with me who was better posted than I was. In the meantime I had discovered the valise. I told him I would go out and find that man and bring him in. I found Frank and told him I had found his valise and wanted him to go down and look at it, so as to be sure. He said, "Supposing they put up a fight?" I said, "All right, I've got a gun. I'll cover your retreat and you can get away." He went down and went in, and I introduced him as my friend, and we got to talking, and I told him to take a pencil and figure up what the berries would cost by the time we got them to New York. He figured awhile, and then passed the card to me to see if it was right. When I took the card it read "Nick, that's my valise. What shall we do?" I didn't answer, but got up and told the New York man, who said he came down yesterday that I wanted to speak to him outside. When we got out I turned to him and said: "I've changed my business: I'm after that valise you stole off the train yesterday afternoon." He says: "Why, we didn't steal it; some passenger left it, so we took it when we got off the train." I said, "Well, I want it. You knew very well who it belonged to. You've been through those pockets, and found letters addressed to Frank Loughran, Vineland, N. J." We took the valise up to the railroad station, opened it up there, and found everything all right except a large silk handkerchief, which was missing. I told Frank that I would go down and get the handkerchief, but he said, "No, never mind, it will only cause trouble." I said, "I'll go, anyhow." So I went back to the cabin and found the handkerchief around the other fellow's neck. I told him I wanted that handkerchief he had on his neck, that it belonged to the valise. He took it off and gave it to me. When I got back to the station the agent told us that these two men, when they got off the train, came into the station and opened up the valise. They said they bought it in New York, at a pawn-shop, and they wanted to sell him a suit of clothes that was in it. He didn't care to buy. The next day Frank got a letter from one of them saying that if he would come up to the station this side of Atco they would be there to pay all damages. But Frank, as far as I know, never went near them. After I had been a constable in Vineland for several years, we had 3 or 4 robberies in town and just outside, that we couldn't get any clue of. One night the stone house opposite City Hall was robbed by some person who broke in, by hoisting a window. At that time there was an old man and his two daughters, who were school teachers, and a visiting school teacher from Laurel Springs staying there. He went into their rooms and stole their purses under their pillows while they were sleeping. A few months after that a store in Rosenhayn was robbed of a small sum of money, and the party who robbed started towards Vineland. Three or 4 men came after me from Rosenhayne, and they thought the robber was in an old house on Mill Road. I went over and in the neighborhood of that house I saw a negro who had just come out of the unoccupied house. I arrested him and searched him. I found nothing on him, but a large book of shorthand writing. Claimed he was writing up "tramp life." I brought him in and locked him up; then I went back to the house to see if I could find any plunder. This school-teacher from Laurel Springs told me, besides the money in her purse, there were some postage stamps. She was in the habit of buying a dollar's worth of stamps, and with a pen and ink, marking them on the back so she would know just how long they lasted.
I went into this vacant house and found nothing but one penny on the floor. It is quite sandy over there, and I took his track from that house to an old shack right near the Central R. R. and went inside. The plastering was broken off in a good many places, and the laths broken, and looking through down into the wreck, I saw something shining- looked like the top of a tin can. I lifted them out and they proved to bi two gold watches and a chain. I searched further and found a purse full of pennies, nickels and dimes, supposed to have been stolen at Rosenhayn. I also found a bunch of keys and a book that he had been writing in, and in that book I found about a dozen pawn tickets-watches and jewelry pawned in New York, Providence, R. I., and Boston. A gold watch and chain that belonged to the assistant postmaster here in Vineland, was pawned in Boston. He lived out on Main Road-he sent and got his watch. The two gold watches and chain were stolen in Bridgeton.
I also found 6 or 7 of those postage stamps that belonged to the visiting teacher. The bunch of keys had a registered tag on them. I wrote to the Chief of Police of New York to find out who they sold the registered tag to, and gave him the number. I found they belonged to a man in Princeton, N. J., who kept a hotel. I wrote to him and he said that the keys were stolen from his house one night when the place was robbed.
We had 6 indictments against him in Bridgeton for 6 different robberies. He was tried on 5 cases and convicted. The 6th they didn't do anything with. He got 5 years for each case, making 25 years all told. This negro was never seen in Vineland in the daytime-would come in and operate nights and get out.
In 1885, on my birthday, my wife died, leaving me with the three children, which I kept with me, by having different housekeepers, for several years. My boys all married young and had homes of their own, and after 7 years I remarried. The young lady was Miss Josie Hopkins, a popular singer here at that time, and considerably younger than myself. We lived at her home, she having a mother, and invalid sister to care for. The sister died within a year after we were married. In 1907 the mother died at the age of 84. A fine woman to the end.
We have three children. Allan, who lives in Paris. May, who is Mrs. Ralph B. Speace, and lives in Cape May, and Maurice, the youngest, who is in the army, and is stationed in Texas. Of my three boys, by my first marriage, William, the oldest, is dead; John and George reside with their families, in Philadelphia and Ocean City, respectively. I am now 85 years old and have always enjoyed remarkably good health, and am still "Chief of Police." During the icy spell this winter, which we will all remember for years to come, I took a fall, and though there were no broken bones, I was considerably shaken up, and after being kept in the house for seven weeks, which, by the way, was the longest confinement I ever experienced, I took up my work again, but with not quite my old-time vigor.
During my residence in Vineland I have held a number of offices, including "constable," "deputy sheriff," "under sheriff," "overseer of the poor," "board of health inspector," "truant officer," fireman, etc.
This is about all I have to say for myself.