BELFAST, Maine — More than 150 years ago, a Maine man who was part of a Civil War-era police posse was killed by outlaws in a violent gunfight on the banks of the Sebasticook River.
Despite the dramatic circumstances of his death, history has largely forgotten him.
But Belfast Police Chief Mike McFadden hasn’t. He wants William J. Jenkins of the Somerset County town of Detroit to be recognized on the Maine Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Augusta, and for Mainers to know his story.
“We may never know whether Jenkins was a police officer,” the chief said last week. “What we do know is that he most certainly died as a police officer, and that’s what matters.”
The bloody events that unfolded in June 1863 came to McFadden’s attention this year when a retired police officer from Cheyenne, Wyoming wrote him a letter. Rick Walsh has a hobby of collecting historical information about police departments and frequently stumbles upon stories from other police agencies around the country, the chief said.
Walsh had found out some things about Jenkins, and McFadden asked Megan Pinette, the president of the Belfast Historical Society & Museum, to help nose around and see what she could learn. What the two uncovered sounds like the stuff of fiction.
But it wasn’t, the chief said.
“It’s something they make movies about.”
Outlaws on the run
The story discovered through old newspaper clippings and other sources began on June 21, 1863, when then-Belfast Police Chief Charles O. McKenney answered a call about two men, reported to have deserted from fighting in the Army during the Civil War. They were wanted in connection with horse-stealing and store-breaking.
The men, whose first names were not given in news reports, were called Grant of Palmyra and Knowles of Troy, and the chief managed to track them down. He tried to arrest them and bring them to jail, but they didn’t go without a fight.
“There was a struggle, and a gun fight erupted,” McFadden wrote in a post he shared Thursday on the Belfast Police Department’s Facebook page. “Chief McKenney was seriously wounded in the exchange of gunfire. It was believed that Chief McKenney did return fire and did wound at least one of the outlaws before they made their escape into the woods.”
But the citizenry didn’t just stand by and let the men quietly disappear. Soon after the chief was injured, a posse was formed to hunt down the outlaws, McFadden said.
“Punishment back then was pretty severe and swift,” he said. “And in 1863, when you were asked to assist as a posse member, you were bound by law to do so.”
For two days, the three men in the posse tracked Grant and Knowles through the woods between Troy and Palmyra near the Sebasticook River. Eventually, the men of the posse put a boat in the river in Detroit and floated down the stream for about three miles before they caught sight of fresh tracks leading into the woods from the river bank.
A violent fight
The three — identified in news stories of the time as Jenkins, Myrick and Heard — gave chase to the outlaws, following their tracks from the river bank into the woods.
“A short distance into the woods, they were surprised by the two outlaws who were crouched in the tall grass waiting for them in ambush,” McFadden wrote. “Suddenly, the outlaws sprang to their feet and engaged the posse members with yelling and gunfire.”
Jenkins was killed instantly, and Myrick and Heard returned fire. Grant fell to the ground with a scalp wound but managed to quickly get back to his feet, the chief wrote. Heard rushed the outlaw and shattered the stock of his rifle over the man’s head, which incapacitated him. Then both surviving posse members turned their attention to Knowles, who had been injured in the gunfight.
“After what was described as a savage fight, both Grant and Knowles were tied up,” the chief wrote.
But the game wasn’t over yet. Evidently Grant, the alleged outlaw, knew Myrick and pleaded with him to loosen the ropes because it was causing him discomfort. Myrick eventually gave in to his pleas, but Grant, who had been injured by both gunshot wounds and blunt head trauma, leaped up to attack his captor. The other posse member saw what was happening and used his broken rifle to hit Grant in the head a second time, finally killing him, the chief wrote.
The two remaining posse members brought Knowles back to Belfast, but he had been “desperately wounded” by a skull fracture that had exposed his brain and died two days later.
Recognition of bravery
According to historical research, Grant had been charged twice with desertion from the Army, and married just a few months before he was killed. Knowles, who also had served in the Army, had been discharged after suffering an injury and was not a deserter. Jenkins, described in a newspaper article of the time as a “peaceful citizen” from Detroit, was 35 or 40, married and had no children.
The chief had a copy of a picture of Jenkins’ gravestone at the Detroit Village Cemetery, which gave his date of death as June 23, 1863. Written on the stone is the inscription: “In memory of William Jenkins who died in defense of law and his life.”
McFadden said he is glad to see Jenkins, and the other men involved in this action, receive some attention for their bravery. He said that while many things have changed in the 150 years since the posse went looking for the outlaws, for police officers, some important things have not.
“Make no mistake, we have far more technology today than we did, obviously, in 1863, but today, outlaws run into the woods to avoid apprehension just like they did back then,” he said. “And we send police officers into the woods to chase after those bad guys. It still requires an actual human being to put his life on the line.”