The Bicycle Bandit and the Brother Who Loved Him
Part 3 (Conclusion)
Everett Willis was seriously wounded in the attempt to help his brother Herbert escape from state prison, but a month later he was well enough to be arraigned in Suffolk County Superior Court on two counts of assault with intent to kill, one for each of the prison guards who had been most seriously injured in the shoot-out. Only 17-years old and intending to plead guilty at trial, Everett refused to allow his mother to hire a lawyer to defend him, and he awaited his day in court in a cell at the Charles Street Jail in downtown Boston. Built in 1851 with all the charm of a medieval dungeon, none would have guessed that in 2007 the jail building would reopen as a 300-room luxury hotel called the Liberty.
Everett’s trial, held on September 22, 1897, lasted less than an hour, and he offered not a word in his own defense. He was alone in the courtroom; no family members were present. His father had deserted the family and his mother was overcome with grief at the death of one son and the pending imprisonment of the other.
The jury deliberated for only twenty-five minutes before finding Everett guilty on both counts. Before sentencing, Superior Court Judge Dewey asked the defendant if he had anything to say. Addressing the court in a clear, steady voice, the young man made a brief statement: “All that I have to say is that I am very sorry. I was influenced by my brother. I am only 17-years old, and I hardly realized what I was doing. Your honor, I throw myself on the mercy of the court.” After returning to his seat, Everett heard Dewey sentence him to 15–20 years in prison.
Later that afternoon, as he was preparing to be transferred over to the state prison in Charlestown, Everett gave an interview to a Boston Herald reporter. The writer expressed surprise that when he recounted his actions of before and during the break-out attempt, Everett spoke as if the event had taken place in the distant past instead of just a few weeks earlier. While expressing deep regret for his crimes, the young man wept as he recalled his jailhouse conversations with his brother. “Herbert had told me that he would rather be dead than stay in that place,” said the young man, “but I guess he did not consider the risk I was running in order to get him out.” As he was being led away to the transfer vehicle, he looked back at the reporter and offered a final comment: “There is nothing more I can say about it except that we were two fools.”
So Everett Willis, now 18-years old, again found himself under the rotunda of the Charlestown State Prison, this time as a convicted felon facing the same grim conditions that had brought despair to his brother. In his Spartan cell, Everett enjoyed only a water pail, sanitary bucket, bed and a table. The prison had contracts with six manufacturing firms, so inmates worked at producing shoes, chains, harness, hats and other items. During his time at Charlestown, Herbert had labored in the shoe shop, but there is no record of Everett’s assignment.
With Everett in prison, the story of the “bicycle bandit” and his misguided brother quickly disappeared from the newspapers, but not from the thoughts of the people whose lives they had harmed. In December 1897, after an absence of six months, Samuel Willis returned to Taunton, and despite the tragedy that had befallen his family, they retained the respect and goodwill of their neighbors. In 1903, the Willises left Taunton and resettled first in Fairhaven and later in Cranston, Rhode Island.
In the summer of 1905, after Everett had been in prison for almost eight years, a movement began in Taunton to secure a gubernatorial pardon for him based on the fact that he had been only 17-years old at the time of his offense. Additionally, Everett’s supporters pointed out that aside from trying to help his brother, the impressionable young man had never been in trouble, and that since his incarceration had served as a model prisoner. They hoped that Massachusetts governor William L. Douglas would take all of that into account and free the young man.
Dr. Frederick Abbott, a Taunton physician who over the years had treated members of the Willis family, led the petition drive. While he thought that reading too many cheap dime novels had left Herbert “erratic” and “crack-brained,” the doctor held an entirely different opinion of Everett. Thanks to his efforts, more than 100 Tauntonians, including the chief of police, the judge of the Taunton District Court and the Bristol County district attorney signed the petition backing clemency. They joined almost every civic and business leader in the city. Finally, Dr. Abbott also secured a letter of support from James L. Abbott (no relation), one of the two Charlestown state prison guards who had been most seriously injured during the Willis brothers’ escape attempt.
Dr. Abbott’s petition reached Governor Robinson’s desk in the second week of September 1905, and there it died a quick, quiet death. A similar request, submitted a few years later to a different governor, suffered the same fate.
Thirty-five year old Everett Willis walked out of state prison on March 7, 1912, three months shy of his full 15-year sentence. The Boston Journal, noting his release, said that he would move to “a distant city, where he will find employment and start life anew.” All that we know about that new life comes through piecemeal glimpses of public records, for Everett sought happiness as far away from New England as possible. By 1917, he was living in Tampa, Florida, where he worked as a motorman for the Tampa Electric Company.
Everett stayed in Florida for about twenty years, and sometime around 1920 married Alice Stansell, a native of Kissimee. Census records show that ten years later husband and wife were working in a candy factory near Tampa. In the mid-1930s, during the worst years of the Great Depression, he found part-time government work, most likely in one of FDR’s New Deal programs.
What made Everett decide to leave Florida is unknown, but by 1940 he and Alice were living in San Jose, California. We know nothing about the ten years left to her except that they were spent in the northern part of the state. She died in April 1950, at age 64, and is buried in Oakland. We have no idea what, if anything, she knew about her husband’s early life.
Sometime before or after Alice’s death, Everett found work in Lower Lake, California, about two hours north of Oakland. He was almost 71-years old when he died there, on April 8, 1958. His obituary in a local newspaper said that he was retired from the restaurant business, perhaps at one of the resorts that dot the lake region. There was no mention of children. Everett was buried in the Lower Lake Cemetery, about 100 miles from Alice’s grave.
The heartbreak that befell the Willis family belongs now to the distant past, beyond the memory of anyone living. The Charlestown State Prison closed in 1955 and the site is presently occupied by the Bunker Hill Community College. Meanwhile, Herbert Willis rests in the family plot in the North Burial Ground, by the water, in Bristol, Rhode Island. Dead at age 21, the “bicycle bandit” was heedless not only of the damage done to his adoring family, but most tragically seems to have cared nothing for the lifelong tragedy that his recklessness brought to the brother who loved him.