As Frank Martin Rittman grew weaker, police officers repeatedly approached his bed at Rhode Island Hospital in an attempt to gain further information regarding who had shot him. But Rittman had given …
As Frank Martin Rittman grew weaker, police officers repeatedly approached his bed at Rhode Island Hospital in an attempt to gain further information regarding who had shot him. But Rittman had given all the information he was willing to give and, in the end, he would allow someone to get away with murder.
Rittman was a 37-year-old plumber who resided at 709 Cranston Street with his wife of eight years, Emily (Downing), and their two children. He had once been employed as an engineer at the Sassafras Point pumping station, and had also worked as a constable in the Town of Johnston. Many of those who knew the Rittman behind the badge accused him of often misusing his power of authority and having a habit of enforcing the law with greater force than necessary.
Others who knew him, including members of his own family, were aware that he enjoyed a troubling hobby; secretly peeping on people who were unaware of his presence.
Rittman was not without a criminal history. As a youngster, he had been sentenced to the reform school after attempting to feloniously assault a young girl. He was later found guilty of breaking and entering when he and several other young men forced their way into a tenement where an elderly man lay sleeping. Hoping to intimidate the man, Rittman pressed a cold key to his head so that the man would awake believing a gun was being held to him.
At about 9:00 on the evening of June 12, 1897, Rittman left his house wearing “sneakers”, described by police as being regular leather shoes fitted with rubber soles so that no one could hear his footsteps. He would later tell police that he set out to visit a friend with the surname White, who lived near the Concord Schoolhouse in Johnston. He went on to say that he eventually walked his niece to her home on Waldo Street and was crossing the schoolhouse lot to return to his own home, at about 9:30, when he noticed two men who were also passing through the lot. He alleged that, without conversation or provocation, one of the men shot him. He recalled how he saw the light from the shot then felt pain in his abdomen.
At about 10:00, Seth Capwell and a man with the surname Rylander came upon Rittman laying on the ground in front of the schoolhouse steps in a semi-conscious state. The two men put Rittman into their wagon and took him to Fenner’s Drug Store. Within a few minutes, Rittman had recovered his faculties enough to walk across the street to his home. A short time later, the police ambulance was summoned and he was transported to Rhode Island Hospital.
Doctors probed for the bullet in his abdomen but finally had to give up on the task as there was too much risk of internal hemorrhaging and causing additional damage. The bullet had entered his body just below the left side of his naval and was believed to be lodged near the spinal vertebrae. They had little hope that Rittman would survive the injury.
Police, in the meantime, probed for answers and were not satisfied with the story Rittman gave them. An investigation was begun and a witness located. An unnamed man who claimed to have been standing within 50 feet of the shooting told police that a man and woman had been sitting on the schoolhouse steps and that Rittman stood before them as he and the man argued with each other. The witness said that the man then told the woman, “Now you get out of here, Cora” and the woman departed. Words continued to be exchanged by the two men and then five pistol shots rang out.
Based on Rittman’s reputation, police theorized that he was spying on the couple and the man caught him and became angry. They believed that Rittman fired the initial shot at the other man in the heat of a quarrel. This theory gained support when Rittman admitted to police that he’d had a pistol with him and had fired four shots during the altercation. He told them that he had hidden the firearm inside the pocket of an old coat while he was waiting for the ambulance to arrive at his house. Police also learned from an unnamed source that, while at Fenner’s Drug Store, he had placed a pair of night goggles in another’s custody.
It was evident that Rittman’s story had been false. He had been fired at from close-range by an assailant who was seated on the steps, not at a distance by someone walking or standing. He had not been walking through the lot when he was struck, but was standing at the foot of the schoolhouse steps. However, despite the urging of police to provide them with the truth, Rittman declined to change or add to his story. At 9:30 on the evening of June 14, he died at Rhode Island Hospital due to a perforation of the intestines with blood poisoning resulting. Whatever Rittman had been doing that summer evening, he chose to die without sharing the details.
Kelly Sullivan is a Rhode Island columnist, lecturer and author.