Patrolman slain walking his beat

By Daniel Dunkle | Feb 15, 2018

On Wednesday, Feb. 16, 1938, Harry B. Hall was on a mission.

The 60-year-old arrived at his home at 38 State St. in Rockland at about 3 o'clock and rummaged through his bureau and two trunks until he found what he was looking for, a nickel-plated, pearl-handled, .32-caliber revolver.

At 6 p.m. that night, patrolman John Donald Chapman, 39, started walking south from the police station. At some point, Hall fell in behind him, following him up to Winslow-Holbrook Square at the junction of Park and Main streets. On that evening the tall, stately Hotel Rockland overlooked the square (it would burn down in December 1952 and Sears would stand in that location later).

The downtown was busy with people headed out to evening movies and shopping.

Chapman was in excellent spirits. He had recently purchased a new radio, and was looking forward to buying a car the next day, according to the Courier.

It's impossible to know whether Hall entered his thoughts that evening. At 4 a.m. that same day, Chapman had been called to deal with a drunken disturbance involving Hall at a local hotel. According to some of the newspaper reports, the patrol officer was friendly to Hall and offered him a ride home in his own automobile, but had to arrest the man after he became abusive or argumentative. Hall had been forced to pay a fine of $7.70, The Boston Post would report.

"He walked up to Chapman on the street last night, and said to him, according to the confession: 'How good are you on the draw?'" The Courier-Gazette reported. By now it was 6:25 p.m.

According to the Boston Post, Hall shouted, "Chapman," and when Chapman turned, added, "You fool with me and I'll fix you."

Hall aimed the gun at the police officer and pulled the trigger. The first shot merely clicked, due to an empty chamber. He then pulled back the hammer and fired again, shooting the officer through the right eye.

Clothing store proprietor Mike Armata witnessed the shooting and said it seemed as if Chapman tried to draw his gun after being shot as he slumped to the ground. Other reports said Chapman never had a chance to draw his weapon.

Police take it seriously when it is one of their own.

"Meantime there had swung into action one of the most powerful forces of law and order that has ever assembled under one roof in Rockland -- police, sheriffs, State police and officers of the Inshore Coast Patrol," the Courier reported.

Hall was arrested and questioned; witnesses were interviewed, and by the next day the police had his signed confession.

"I had but one thing in mind," Hall said. "And that was to shoot Chapman or be shot."

It's hard to believe that even in the 1930s, when $7.70 was undoubtedly a more significant amount of money, that such a minor incident could have stirred such passion in the perpetrator.

Chapman had been born in Union March 21, 1898, and the family moved to the city when he was 2 years old. He attended Rockland schools. He had worked as an engineer at one of the quarries of the Rockland & Rockport Lime Corp. Then he had worked for Maine Central Railroad as a fireman. He had become a patrolman four years prior to his death.

He was active in the community. He was a member of Aurora Lodge of Masons, King Solomon's Temple Chapter and several other local organizations.

The Courier reported that he was survived by his mother and one brother. He was divorced, according to the Portland Press Herald.

Shortly after the shooting incident, The Courier-Gazette wrote a highly editorialized article pushing back on some apparent criticism in the community concerning the way the investigation was handled.

"Criticism first as to the 'great expense' to which the investigation went," the article states. "Would the critics be willing to draw up an itemized bill, as they see it?"

The article goes on to argue that the work of the state pathologist, state police and various others who provided service during the investigation had not resulted in increased costs to the taxpayers. "Do they know that the entire expense incurred thus far by the County Attorney and sheriff is less than $25, and that the principal item was the expense of having the photographs made at the scene of the slaying -- a necessary and important step on the part of the prosecution."

The article also defended against apparent criticism that an autopsy had been performed unnecessarily. "A murder case may appear simple enough at the time it is committed, but the prosecution must necessarily fortify itself against shrewd defense when the matter comes to the high court."

The article also reports briefly on the funeral held at the Universalist Church.

"The sermon preached by Rev. H. R. Winchenbaugh was of an unusual character and listened to with much interest."

Statements like that in these old articles drive me crazy. Nowhere else could I find any information about what the reverend said that was so unusual. Ah, to actually have a time machine! And I'm sure we do the same thing today. Quite often when I read or hear any news story I come away with more questions that are not answered.

Hall was committed to the state's psychiatric hospital in Bangor to have his mental condition examined. He was later sentenced to life in prison, to be served at Thomaston.

The lesson, of course, is obvious and captured perfectly in the old Chinese proverb: "If you are patient in one moment of anger, you will escape a hundred days of sorrow."

Editor Daniel Dunkle of The Courier-Gazette lives in Rockland. Send in your stories, photos and memories via email at: ddunkle@villagesoup.com; or snail mail to: 91 Camden St., Suite 403, Rockland, ME 04841.

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