Constable Fieldson

One of the more remarkable characters in the early history of Webster Groves, one you’ve likely never heard of, is Constable John Fieldson. The story is common that our city was incorporated in response to a terrible crime, the murder of Bertram Atwater, visiting from Chicago. Influential citizens, fearing that the growing village of Webster Groves was inadequately patrolled by the constables sent by the County, determined that incorporation was the only way to ensure a strong local police presence. What we can learn of the career of Constable John Fieldson makes it sound like Webster Groves was pretty well patrolled already.

The first time we hear of Fieldson is in July 1895. One day that month a painter named Jack Wurtz grew angry that two of his employees had ‘done him up’ for $10. (PD, 07/17/1895) He got drunk on ‘a fighting brand of whisky,’ and announced that he was hunting for the two. He set his bottle of whiskey in the middle of Lockwood Avenue near Old Orchard, and sat there with his shotgun, inviting people to step up and take a drink, warning that he would fill the first man who did with buckshot. People naturally gathered to see the commotion, but nobody stepped forward.

Constable Fieldson, who normally covered Webster Groves, was called, and arrived shortly. He approached Wurtz with his revolver in hand, but Wurtz had his shotgun cocked and leveled at the Constable. After a few moments of this standoff, Fieldson retreated to swear out a warrant against Wurtz, hoping that would have some effect.

Meanwhile the local men determined to form a posse, and about twenty of them gathered with shotguns and pistols. This caused Wurtz to retreat to his home. When he went indoors, the posse secured the door so he could not escape. This only infuriated him and he began firing his shotgun through the roof and out the door. They let him out. He sat on his porch still threatening anyone who came near.

Constable Fieldson arrived with his warrant, but saw that it would make no difference in the situation. He snuck around the house, up under the porch, and seized Wurtz’s hands. The others jumped in and threw the gun away. Wurtz was arrested and sent to Clayton.

In January 1896, after the murder of Bertram Atwater, Constable Fieldson was assigned to deliver the suspects in the case to the Clayton jail. Three men had been involved in the crime, but one, John Schmidt, had been severely wounded by Atwater during the attempted robbery. The other two, ‘Cottonhead’ Schmidt and Sam Foster, were taken in a surrey with Fieldson and three deputies. But at Manchester Road they were accosted by a crowd of nearly 200 men who brandished guns, held up nooses, and swore to hang the men right there. The three deputies deserted Fieldson on the spot, one taking the Constable’s own gun with him, leaving Fieldson unarmed.

He managed to whip his horses into an escape, though Schmidt was wounded by a gunshot in his thigh, and Foster got a bullet through his coat. Fieldson made for Kirkwood, where he planned to take the train to Clayton. But word had preceded him, and there were mobs all about looking to lynch Schmidt and Foster. They spent the night sneaking along railroad tracks and through the woods until they reached the jail. All this time, both suspects were aware that they were in the custody of an unarmed man–but they felt safer as prisoners of law enforcement than being caught by the angry mobs.

A month later, in February 1896, there is another story involving Fieldson in the Post-Dispatch, this time called ‘Rescued from an Angry Mob.’ (PD, 02/15/1896) A young man named Fred Young had assaulted a seven-year-old girl in her home, though her screams frightened him off before he could do more than throw the girl on her bed. When her father returned home and heard what had happened, he roused his neighbors to help him find Fred Young. The crowd took the young man to the same bridge where Bertram Atwater had been murdered, planning to hang him, but soon Constable Fieldson arrived. He was far outnumbered, and at first the mob refused to hand over Fred Young. It was fortunate that there were cooler heads present, who pointed out that this was the same Constable Fieldson who had stood down the mob in the planned lynching of Atwater’s murderers, and they released the young man to be taken to jail in Clayton.

In lauding John Fieldson’s work, a reporter for the Post-Dispatch wrote, ‘Constable Fieldson belongs to that rare band of heroes whose heroism is displayed in the simple performance of the duty of preventing the violation of law by a mob and of giving persons accused of a brutal crime the protection of the law. His courage and ingenuity are in marked contrast with the mawkish cowardice and stupidity of many law officers under similar circumstances that he deserves to be held up as an exemplar.’ (PD, 01/25/1896) Perhaps rougher than necessary on other officers, but it sounds like Webster Groves was fortunate to have the services of Constable Fieldson.

 

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‘Webster Groves’

We recently found an article from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch dated November 3, 1903. It was titled ‘Founder of Suburb Dies.’ It was an article about Benjamin F. Webster, the man for whom, as the article states, Webster Groves was named. Very interesting article, except it is wrong.

In 1845, Dr. Artemus Bullard was sent by First Presbyterian Church in St. Louis to organize a church in the area that was to become Webster Groves. At the time it was a settlement of farms and of large country homes for St. Louis businessmen. Bullard was taken with the lovely forested environs, and he built a school for boys there, naming it after the great statesman, Daniel Webster. His Webster College opened in 1850.

When the Pacific Railroad opened a line that passed through the developing village, its station was named for the school–Webster Station. Once it was learned that there was already a Webster Station in Missouri, the name was changed to Webster Groves. Dr. Bullard’s school did not outlive the strife of the Civil War, though its main building still stands on the grounds of the Great Circle campus on Gore Avenue.

Benjamin Franklin Webster was born in Boston in 1835, but was brought to St. Louis when he was two. He was educated at Amherst College and returned to St. Louis to practice law. He was also involved in real estate, and bought an existing home at 470 East Lockwood in the 1870s. The Sisters of Loretto purchased the Webster house in 1897 for a girl’s academy, naming it Loretto College. The Webster house burned down in 1905, to be replaced by the current Webster Hall. In time, they changed the school’s name to Webster College, which eventually became Webster University.

Coincidences abound in this history, so there is plenty of reason to be confused. Adding to the confusion is the fact that Benjamin F. Webster was involved in an early attempt to incorporate the village of Webster Groves into a city: the committee working on the incorporation even selected him as its mayor-designate, should their efforts become successful. They were not. Webster Groves would not be incorporated until years later, and Benjamin F. Webster never served as mayor.

But the fact is the name of Webster University has little to do with the fact that it is situated in Webster Groves–and Benjamin F. Webster, though important in local history, had nothing to do with the naming of the town.