Lifetime prisoner had no visitors

Posted 5/3/23

Biennin Crovagreer had been laying upon a bed, paralyzed, at the RI State Infirmary in Cranston for 26 years. For the 17 years preceding that, he had been behind bars at the prison. In all that time, …

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Lifetime prisoner had no visitors

The Nixon
The Nixon

Biennin Crovagreer had been laying upon a bed, paralyzed, at the RI State Infirmary in Cranston for 26 years. For the 17 years preceding that, he had been behind bars at the prison. In all that time, not a single visitor had ever passed through a door to see him.

At 1:00 on the morning of Oct. 16, 1911, 16-year-old Wilfred Brigham was awakened by the explosion of a gunshot and the sound of shattering window glass. The lamp had been left burning in the room where he slept and he glanced over at his father whom he shared a bed with. ln the dim light, he saw a large wound on his father’s head and blood flowing from it freely. He jumped up and called loudly to an upstairs boarder then ran through the darkness to nearby Rock Ledge Farm, where he and his father were employed, for help.

The lad’s father, Joseph Brigham was a 45-year-old Wakefield woodchopper and farmer. He and his wife, 44-year-old Josephine, lived on McSparren Hill with Wilfred and their other son, Joseph Jr. Josephine and Joseph Jr. had journeyed to Conn. to visit relatives that Oct. and hadn’t yet returned when the elder Joseph was instantly killed by a gunshot which tore away his eye, entered his head near the temple and penetrated his brain.

The sheriff was called to the scene and discovered footprints outside Joseph’s room. He followed them for two miles, eventually veering down a path that came out at Narragansett Pier near the Nixon Hotel, a resort run by Charles Bennett. Charles told police that he had recently seen a man run past his place. He joined the sheriff and the deputy on a walk down the lane leading to the farm of Joseph Johnson where Biennin Crovagreer was employed. They asked Mr. Johnson if Biennin was there and the man went into the barn where Biennin should have milking at that time. He was not there, however.

The trio gazed around and suddenly spotted Biennin, in a crouching position near the farmhouse. A few moments later, he entered the lodging house where he and the other farm employees slept. The sheriff walked into the lodging house to find Biennin washing his hands at the sink. He told the sheriff that he had just gotten out of bed. When the bed was inspected, it showed no signs of having recently been occupied. Biennin explained that he had slept outside on the piazza after returning from Narragansett Pier with his friend Henry Lacey who also lived and worked at the Johnson farm.

Henry confirmed that he had indeed gone to the pier with Biennin that night and that they had returned home on the last trolley car from the pier at about 10:20. It was then noticed that the bottom of Biennin’s trousers were covered with mud and his coat was very wet. The sheriff put him in the car and transported him to the scene of the murder so his footprints could be compared to those left behind by the shooter. They matched exactly.

The sheriff believed that Biennin purposely aimed at Joseph through the bedroom window, aided by the light left burning in the room and the short and stocky farmhand was arrested. Having come to America from Poland at the age of 24 in 1904 and known to many by the alias “Jack Shaperjohn”, Biennin had engaged in an argument with Joseph the previous week. Joseph had accused the Pole of paying attentions to his wife and later informed the sheriff about the showdown, explaining that Biennin had threatened to kill him.

Two other men claimed to be aware of such threats. Charles Carr said that Biennin had told him about the argument and declared, "I'll fix him sometime when he's asleep." And Henry Handell, another employee on the Johnston farm, claimed that Biennin said of Joseph that he would “blow his head off," adding “I will trim Brigham so he would know he was trimmed."

On the Johnson property, police found a 12-gauge gun with powder on the barrel and shells of No. 8 shot nearby. Joseph had been killed with No. 8 shot. Mr. Johnson said he had not personally used the gun for about six weeks. He explained, however, that he kept a piece of string tied to the weapon which he always left twisted into a figure-8 so that he would know if the gun had been toyed with. The string before them remained shaped in a figure-8. In addition, only five cartridges were missing from the box of ammunition. The owner confessed to using three of them himself while another man used one and the fifth remained in the gun.

Despite all evidence that seemed to clear Biennin, the court believed there was more evidence which showed him to be guilty of first-degree murder and he was sentenced to be locked away for the rest of his life. When asked if he had anything to say, he told the court, “You have sentenced me for nothing. I did not do it.” He was placed behind bars in Cranston and assigned prisoner #2835.

Biennin professed his innocence for the remainder of his days. In 1929, he suffered a paralyzing stroke and was moved from his cell to the State Infirmary where he lay still for over two decades. Twelve years later, due to his declining health, a conditional pardon was sought for him and recommended for Senate approval by Governor Howard McGrath. He died there at the infirmary on Feb. 1, 1955, without a single family member or friend to mourn his passing.


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


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