Annie Keough of Warwick was having dinner with her daughter Viola (Mitchell) Aiken and Viola’s employer James Graham when the subject of Viola’s estranged husband John arose. "Let him …
Annie Keough of Warwick was having dinner with her daughter Viola (Mitchell) Aiken and Viola’s employer James Graham when the subject of Viola’s estranged husband John arose. "Let him come up here and come right in. Nobody will ever know what has become of him,” Graham said as he stood up from the table. He went to the ceiling rack from which a shotgun hung and took the weapon down. “Let him come. That’s what he’ll get. And if that’s not enough…” James pulled out a second gun.
Viola had been raised in Warwick by her mother, who was married several times, divorced and widowed. She helped pay household expenses by working as a cotton mill spinner at the age of 14. The next year, she married 25-year-old jewelry polisher John Francis Aiken. The couple resided on Dodge Street in Providence and Viola gave birth to three children; John Jr., Charles and Viola. After a falling out, Viola took the children and left, becoming a live-in housekeeper for farm laborer James Graham. James was a boarder at the farm of 37-year-old Edgar Eugene Mowry, on Pound Hill Road in North Smithfield.
On May 24, 1924, James was out plowing a field several hundred yards from the house with the assistance of Leonard Romblad, the 12-year-old son of Edgar’s own live-in housekeeper, 34-year-old Finnish widow Selma (Carslon) Romblad. Leonard went to the house and informed the older Viola that James wanted a drink of water. Leaving 7-year-old John and 3-year-old Viola on the steps of the farmhouse, Viola brought James his water. About 40 minutes later, when Edgar returned to the farm, John was on the steps alone and his mother had not yet returned to the house. “Viola is gone,” he told the landlord.
The police were notified. It was assumed the child had wandered away from the house and gotten lost. Throughout the night and into the morning, police searched the woods and, on the second day, the search was taken over by residents and the Boy Scouts. Viola told police that she suspected her husband had taken the child simply to cause trouble. She alleged that she’d heard noises at the farmhouse window the night before the disappearance.
Authorities searched for John Aiken, a member of the US Navy, at his last-known place of residence, a rooming house on South Main Street in Providence but were told he had left three weeks prior, planning to go to Hartford. Police finally tracked him down and found he had a solid alibi in Conn. He stated that he wouldn’t put it past his wife to arrange for someone to take his daughter so she could have him arrested for kidnapping. Allegedly, she had attempted to have Viola put into a state-run home just a few months earlier.
Police questioned the Mowry farm residents. While all swore they had no idea where the missing girl was, little John Aiken couldn’t manage to keep his story straight and told numerous different tales. He allegedly told his 14-year-old neighbor Lauriston Smith that his sister had disappeared from the yard when he went into the house to butter some bread. However, after a police interrogation which lasted an hour and a half, he was said to have told Lauriston, “I know where my sister is but I am not going to tell anyone.” Later, he informed an unnamed individual that Viola had gone away in an automobile with two men. His mother eventually noticed that he had a nickel in his possession and asked where he had gotten it. He said that little Viola had found it on the ground and given it to him.
A day was spent searching the Mowry farmhouse and property. Police found some tattered clothing, discolored sticks and bits of paper which appeared mysterious. Two weeks after Viola went missing, her mother and James Graham were arrested.
It was later discovered that the paper, rags and sticks were the remnants of a kite which had been flown several weeks prior by a farm employee and not evidence concerning the disappearance of Viola Aiken. However, police had discovered a man’s and woman’s shoeprints, side by side, in a pasture about 50 feet from a blood-tinged sand pile by the side of the old Douglas Pike. The prints went toward a path through the woods which led to the field which James had been plowing.
Unable to afford bail, Viola and James were held in jail. The judge decided to reduce James’s bail from $2,500 to $1,500 while a reduction for Viola was refused. The judge explained his decision. “The woman, if she had any heart in her bosom, would show some emotion over the unsolved disappearance of her three-year-old daughter for whom the police have been searching since May 24.”
On the afternoon of June 13, a nearby mill pond was lowered and dragged. Hundreds of men waded in the water searching for a body. In addition, all water was brought up from the wells on the Mowry farm while John Aiken assisted police in their ongoing search. Still, not a trace of the child was found.
On July 2, Edgar heard gunshots in the woods near his farm. Some boys were shooting crows around the swamp about ¾ mile away and he decided to join them and grabbed his gun. The water in the swamp was lower than it had been for quite some time and Edgar saw Viola, face down with her head and shoulders sunken into the thick mud. Her dress was deteriorating, one of her stockings was in the mud near her head while the other was in the sticky swamp about two feet away, near her shoes. John sped to the scene and broke down so badly when he saw her that he was led away by the police chief.
An autopsy determined no foul play. It was believed that Viola had wandered into the woods, fell into the swamp and suffocated. Still, her death certificate reads “Place of death – Pound Hill Road, North Smithfield; Date of death – unknown; Causes of death – unknown.” She was buried in Slatersville Cemetery.
James and the older Viola were released from jail. Viola rekindled her marriage and she and John moved into Eva Woods’s rooming house on Pine Street in Providence. John found work as a restaurant cook. Their only living child, John Jr., moved in with his grandmother Annie. The elder Viola Aiken died in San Francisco on March 8, 1971 at the age of 70.
Kelly Sullivan is a Rhode Island columnist, lecturer and author.
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