The residents of Cranston were on edge.
On June 23, 1907, three patients described as being “dangerously insane” had escaped from the Rhode Island Hospital for Mental Diseases.
The most concerning was 30-year-old Frank M. Weeden, who had dived through a screen window at the back of the hospital to make his escape. Due to his long criminal history, Weeden was known as a “homicidal maniac” and over 300 people were scouring Cranston and nearby towns to capture him before he killed again.
Frank was born in 1877 to the beautiful Avis Ann (Smith) and George Merven Weeden, the keeper of the Warwick Town Asylum, which housed the poor and sick. Frank and his older brother Walter grew up within the asylum, in regular contact with the troubled bodies and minds of those who ended up there.
In 1890, George died, leaving Avis alone with 13-year-old Frank. Seven years later, Frank began having romantic feelings toward his 21-year-old cousin Daisy Frances Coulters, a student at Brown University. He asked her to marry him, and when she said no, he was furious.
One evening in October of that year, as Daisy sat doing her homework inside the Cranston home she shared with her parents, John and Amy Coulters, Frank stepped up to the window and fired off birdshot and lead slugs. With the ammunition lodged in her chest, Daisy lingered at the edge of death.
In his cell, Frank wrote out a confession, stating that he intended to kill her so that she would not go and marry someone else. The gun, he wrote, could be found in the pond near his mother’s house, where he had thrown it.
Miraculously, Daisy survived and went on to become a schoolteacher for disabled children. She died of a heart attack in 1958, having never become a wife to anyone.
Frank was found guilty of assault with intent to murder and was sentenced to serve 18 years at the State Prison. In 1902, he was transferred from the prison to the State Hospital for Mental Diseases.
Frank looked every bit the “maniac” he was described to be in headlines. With a dazed look in his eyes, long disheveled hair, an untamed beard and thick moustache, he made no attempt to even appear civilized.
Two days after the escape of 1907, Frank was spotted and pursued into the woods of East Greenwich by the authorities. Once he was captured, he was returned to the hospital. He spent the next 20 years at the facility, successfully escaping 15 times. The last escape, in October of 1927, came on the heels of his again being denied parole in the attempted murder of Daisy.
For two years, authorities could find no trace of Frank. However, he had promised to “get back” at Dr. Ransom Harvey Sartwell, the superintendent of the hospital who Frank felt had blocked his chances of parole.
On Jan. 11, 1929, the doctor was sitting in his home on the grounds of the hospital, peacefully writing, when a shotgun was fired through the window, killing him. Frank was finally located, at his mother’s home, and arrested. He admitted he had taken the shot that killed the 42-year-old husband and father and said it was “the best deed I have ever done.”
In his statement, Frank said, “Sartwell was no friend of mine when I was up for parole. Self-defense will be my argument. I have been persecuted by the doctors in the state hospital.”
These persecutions and “cruelties,” as he called them, included the hospital staff decorating the facility with holly at Christmas time. He went on to name the specific staff members who he would like to “blow up,” including director of state institutions Louis Putnam, psychiatrist Dr. Arthur Harrington, and acting superintendent of the hospital Dr. George Coon.
Frank pleaded not guilty to the charge of murder and was found to be not guilty by reason of insanity.
Eleven months later, at 4 in the morning on Dec. 23, 1929, a prison guard noticed Frank hanging in his cell, the victim of a successful suicide attempt. The 52-year-old was laid to rest in East Greenwich.
Kelly Sullivan is a Rhode Island columnist, lecturer and author.