Back in the Day

Getting away with murder

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On Sept. 6, 1915, someone in Rhode Island got away with murder.

Willis Sidney Knowles was a native of Ohio who immersed himself in law studies before removing to Rhode Island. Here, he served as judge of the Eighth District Court.

Knowles had a reputation for being relentless when it came to enforcing the law, and his punishments were as harsh as his position allowed them to be. Because of this, he was especially unpopular among bootleggers, saloon-owners, poachers, illegal hunters and anyone else who took the liberty of breaking other fish and game laws.

Knowles lived on a farm situated on Hopkins Avenue in Johnston but spent the summer months at his bungalow on Lake Moswansicut in North Scituate. The 46-year-old lawman had employed the same live-in housekeeper for 21 years – Cora Etta Wardwell, also 46. Unbeknownst to most, however, Cora’s purpose in the judge’s life went beyond cooking and cleaning.

On that September morning, Willis left his bungalow at about 7:30 and walked with Cora toward the yard’s front gate. His intentions were to walk down the road to the trolley stop and take a car to the city, where he had some work to conduct.

According to Cora’s later testimony, he bid her farewell with a kiss at the gate then he continued on his way while she walked back toward the house. She claimed she suddenly heard a shot and a foreign voice utter, “Now, Judge, I’ve got you.”

Because of the bushes that lined the road between the yard and the fence, Cora could not see what was transpiring when she spun back around. Two more shots rang out and she ran to the roadside, where she found Willis laying on the ground.

It was later surmised, during the investigation, that after being struck by the first shot, Willis had turned and gone back toward the gate and was then struck two more times. One bullet went through his hand and the other two through his back.

Cora ran into the house and called for help. It was too late, however. The judge was dead about 100 feet from his home.

Suspects were systematically arrested and then let go when they provided solid alibis. Two local Italian laborers were hauled in. A man recently arrested for robbery in Massachusetts was brought in. Henry Edwards of Providence, an illegal hunter who had previously threatened Willis, was detained. One after another, they came and went, leaving detectives to create a variety of theories.

How did this person, hiding in the bushes, perform the act and escape without anyone witnessing anything? Whoever it was knew the judge’s routine and the time he would be leaving his house. Perhaps it was the owner of the saloon right down the street, which Willis had been complaining about? Perhaps it was a bootlegger or poacher he had imposed a heavy fine or jail time on? Or maybe it was a woman they should be looking for?

A few days after the murder, Louise Bowen visited the police station to provide some information. Employed as a clerk at the State Library, she stated that she was engaged in a romantic relationship with Willis, and he had promised to marry her as soon as he broke off his relationship with another woman he was involved with.

Armed with this information, detectives called in Cora, who had already fled to the home of friends in Massachusetts, explaining that she could no longer comfortably remain in the bungalow.

When presented with Louise’s statement, Cora began to weep. “I loved him dearly and could never believe, after the way he has treated me all these years, that he was engaged to another woman,” she told the detectives. She assured them she had never been aware of Willis having another relationship and that she did not believe Louise’s story.

Willis’s body was transported to West Virginia and the home of his 77-year-old father, steamboat captain Horace Knowles. The funeral was held there before he was laid to rest in the village cemetery.

It was discovered upon the reading of the judge’s will that he had left the Johnston property to Cora along with all of his household goods, furniture, farm implements, wagons, buggies, and other assets there. He left the remainder of his belongings to his father and siblings.

By October, the rewards being offered for the arrest and conviction of the murderer totaled over $5,000, with Willis’ brothers announcing they would make it their life’s mission to find the assassin.

That mission went unfulfilled. It’s been 104 years, and we still don’t know who killed Judge Knowles.

Kelly Sullivan is a Rhode Island columnist, lecturer and author.

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