Man posing as God bilks hundreds from believers

Posted 6/12/24

William Henry Shillan walked into the room of his Pawtuxet home where 49-year-old Mrs. Charlotte Littolf was waiting. She couldn’t take her eyes off the long red robe with lacy collar or the …

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Man posing as God bilks hundreds from believers

Rocco and Charlotte
Rocco and Charlotte

William Henry Shillan walked into the room of his Pawtuxet home where 49-year-old Mrs. Charlotte Littolf was waiting. She couldn’t take her eyes off the long red robe with lacy collar or the lengthy beard that hung down from his chin. He was “the Almighty” and “the Redeemer.” At least, that’s what he had told her. She suddenly noticed that his mustache was oddly crooked.

Shillan was born in Mass. in 1904. In October of 1926, he was residing in Brooklyn, New York when he pleaded not guilty to a charge of obtaining money under false pretenses by defrauding several people out of money. Three years later, after relocating to a house on Dexter Street in Rhode Island, he was arrested and charged with embezzling $300 from the dry goods chain store C.F. Adams Company. He pleaded guilty and was placed on probation.

Probably, by that time, trusting that the crime of lying to get money would always carry little more than a slap on the wrist, Shillan embezzled $35 from Henry Smith, owner of a gas and oil service station on Point Street in Providence, six months later. Shillan identified himself as a representative of the American Credit Adjustment Company, and assured Smith that there was a debt to be collected. Shillan was arrested and sentenced to 30 days in jail, a $50 fine and court costs.

During the 1930s, he moved with his wife and daughter into a home on Broadway in Pawtucket where he was employed as a novelties salesman and then later relocated to homes on Point Street in Providence, June Street in Cranston and Peace Street in Pawtuxet – each house containing a room which acted as a sort of ‘chapel’ for Shillan’s spiritualistic interludes.

In 1933, was arrested and charged with being a common cheat for obtaining money through false pretenses from two different women: Lillian Allen of Allston, Mass. and Martha Colvin, a Point Street neighbor. Shillan later made it clear to police how easy it was to convince women that he was a psychic medium or even God himself. After serving two years in prison on the charge, he was released and went right back into business, promising women that, for the right price, he could connect with ‘the great beyond.’

Charlotte Littolf of Hemlock Street in the Oakland Beach section of Warwick, was the wife of renowned music man Rocco Littolf. A native of Greece, Rocco was employed by Rhodes on the Pawtuxet and as a popular radio musician. Charlotte had begun to attend the séances that Shillan held and even scheduled private meetings with him so that he could reach into the great beyond and receive messages for her from the dead. He mastered his performance over the course of four years as a ‘psychic medium’, incorporating strange dances and tapping noises into the séances and even set up small alters in the rooms where he met clients. He told them he was ‘the Redeemer’, he was ‘the Almighty’, he was ‘God’ speaking through the mouth of William Shillan, described at that time as being a shabby, skinny little man.

During an early meeting with Charlotte, Shillan allegedly channeled the New York millionaire John Jacob Astor, who summered in Newport and had gone down with the Titanic. The ‘spirit’ of Astor instructed Charlotte to hand over $7,000 in stocks and cash to Shillan and she commenced to do so. During a later meeting, Shillan was channeling God, who began to show Charlotte his extreme displeasure in what he considered to be small donations from her. The failure to provide greater amounts of money, ‘God’ explained, showed that she did not believe Shillan was in direct communication with him. If Charlotte had indeed believed in all of this, her faith began to slip at the
moment he suddenly noticed that the mustache on Shillan’s face had begun to tilt. It then became clear that even the beard was fake.

Charlotte filed a complaint and in May of that year Shillan was arrested in New York on a fugitive warrant from Rhode Island where police had learned that he had allegedly swindled residents out of nearly $40,000 in money, stocks and jewels as a result of his fake spiritualistic practice. Charged with being a common cheat, he was brought back to Rhode Island and arraigned. He smiled as Charlotte’s complaint was read to him, finding amusement in how simple it was to make people believe things. He told the police that when he first began telling people that he had supernatural powers, it was only a joke. He insisted that had only swindled a total of $7,000 from the trusting women who came to him. Found guilty of being a common cheat and obtaining money under false pretenses, he was sentenced to serve two years in the Rhode Island Reformatory for Men. Released in 1938, he was incarcerated at the reformatory yet again by 1940.

In November of 1943, God actually did appear for Shillan. Once again charged with being a common cheat and faced with a punishment fitting for someone who had been committing the same crimes since 1926, Shillan had an angel at his side in 44-year-old Baptist minister Elmer Herbert Murdoch of Pawtucket who stood before the court and made a plea on behalf of the accused swindler. He explained that Shillan was ready to give up his criminal ways and lead a law-abiding life and was therefore hoping that the court would go easy on him. In response to the clergyman’s plea, the court deferred Shillan’s sentence. By 1950, however, “the Redeemer’ was incarcerated at the Norfolk State Prison in Mass.

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


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