The death of Mary Dolan

Posted 3/21/23

On the afternoon of July 13, 1908, a man who gave his name as Fred J. Beardsley walked into the Evening Bulletin office and submitted a death notice to be published. The man commented that he had …

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The death of Mary Dolan


On the afternoon of July 13, 1908, a man who gave his name as Fred J. Beardsley walked into the Evening Bulletin office and submitted a death notice to be published. The man commented that he had actually witnessed the death, which occurred on the 11th, along with his friend Dr. Frank H. Reed, from a streetcar they had been riding in.

He explained that the deceased was a 22-year-old woman named Mary E. Dolan, a resident of West Warwick and a 1907 graduate of the State Normal School in Providence. A teacher at River Point and the daughter of Thomas Dolan Sr. and his wife Margaret, she had been stepping out to cross the highway in the village of Crompton when she sighted an electric car approaching and paused. After it passed, she accidentally walked directly in front of a large automobile coming from the opposite direction. Beardsley commented that the driver didn’t stop and that, the following morning, Mary died of a concussion caused by a skull fracture without ever regaining consciousness.

The death notice announced that Mary’s funeral would be held at the Crompton home of her brother, Thomas S. Dolan, on July 14 at 10:30 and that carriages would be meeting members of the Pocahontas Lodge, the Shepherds of Bethlehem, and the National Protective Legion at the Clyde Square post office at 10:00 to take them to the funeral.

On July 22, the National Protective Legion Bristol branch #1755 voted to make a death payment of $1,000 to Mary’s father. The NPL was a fraternal order for men and women chartered in NY in 1891 which counted close to a quarter of a million members nationwide. The Bristol branch had been instituted in Dec. 1906 and was comprised mostly of local leading businessmen. The benefits of being a member included accident, death and dividend benefits. For each five years of membership, a member would receive $15 per week for 25 weeks in case of sickness or accident. There were also payouts to the families of deceased members. Mary had joined the NPL only 18 days before her death.

Upon joining the organization, Mary signed up for a life insurance policy at $1.16 per month, whereby $1,000 would be payable to her father. She submitted a post office money-order for three months’ dues and a note for the secretary explaining that her parents expected to relocate to Bristol in Sept. and that while she would soon be going away on a summer vacation, she would be able to attend meetings regularly once she settled into her parents’ new home. 

On the day of Mary’s death, the district manager of the NPL, William Cummings, called the branch secretary, 40-year-old local printer Dewitt Elwin Bolster, to inform him that Mary Dolan had been killed. During the meeting of the 22nd, Cummings submitted a copy of her death certificate, signed by Dr. Edward F. Carroll of Providence who was noted to have been at her bedside when she passed away. It was also signed by undertaker James F. Gough of Arctic. A notary public of Crompton noted on the document that he had witnessed both signatures. According to routine, all necessary papers would be forwarded to the organization’s main office in NY and, in about a week, the branch secretary would receive a check for $1,000 to turn over to Thomas Dolan.

People, however, were beginning to whisper. There had been no reports of an auto accident in Crompton. Carroll and Gough both denied signing the death certificate. There was no record of any Dolan families living in Crompton. The Commissioner of Public Schools determined that no Mary Dolan had ever attended the State Normal School. No Mary Dolan had recently been buried in Crompton either. In addition, several members of the NPL had traveled to the Clyde post office at the announced time of the funeral and found no waiting carriages nor proceedings in sight.

Mary’s NPL application had been signed by Dr. Frank H. Reed, the person recommending her membership to the organization and, strangely enough, the man who was allegedly with Fred J. Beardsley when he witnessed the accident. There was no person of that name registered to practice medicine in RI. And while the Pocahontas Lodge, an auxiliary for women founded in 1885, and the Shepherds of Bethlehem, a fraternal order founded in NJ in 1896, were actual organizations, neither had braches in RI. 

Cummings was tasked with investigating the odd situation and police were notified as it appeared that someone was trying to defraud the NPL. Cummings eventually declared that he was confident no fraud was taking place. He did state, however, that he had previously received a letter which had been sent from River Point on July 15, listing the names of six NPL members whom had attended the funeral. The letter was signed by secretary Bolster. Cummings reported that the letter was not in Bolster’s handwriting and that when he brought it to his attention, Bolster denied writing it. Bolster, however, denied any knowledge or any communication between him and Cummings about any such letter.

No one attending local NPL meetings had ever met or seen a Mary Dolan. No one in the organization had any idea in what manner Cummings had received her application as she’d apparently never been present. Authorities searched for Fred J. Beardsley, the man who placed the death notice in the Evening Bulletin but could find no such person.

By 1910, another man had replaced Cummings as the NPL’s district manager in Bristol. No money had been paid out to the non-existent Thomas Dolan for the imaginary death of his daughter and no records have been found concerning legal action having been brought against anyone for fraud. The NPL continued on with its oyster supper meetings and clam chowder get-togethers, going back to business as usual. The once-valuable fantasy of Mary Dolan was left to rest in peace.

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


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