The Needham Trust Company Robbery
Gloria Polizzotti Greis, Executive Director, Needham History Center & Museum
Policing was one of the earliest functions of the town’s government. Along with the Moderator, Selectmen, Town Clerk, and Treasurer, the annual election of the Constable was a feature of Needham town meeting from our first days in 1711. The Constable was, as you would expect, the town’s law-enforcement officer; he kept order and made sure that laws and regulations were obeyed. He also had numerous other duties – the constable collected the taxes on the town’s behalf; he enforced school attendance and kept idlers and drunkards out of the taverns and off the streets. The constable was the night watchman and fire warden. He gave evidence in the event of an infraction (and this was Puritan Massachusetts – so there were always infractions). In all, there were some 25 civil and criminal duties that fell to the responsibility of the constable.
Needham maintained this antiquated method of policing well into the latter half of the 19th century. When the town was founded in 1711, there were only 250 residents and everyone knew everyone, so maintaining order was easy. By 1880, the population had risen to nearly 5300. It was becoming increasingly evident that policing in Needham was no longer a job for part-time amateurs.
By the 1880s, the town’s business owners and the Needham Chronicle began advocating for a paid night watchman on regular patrol, rather than the antiquated and haphazard system still in place. Finally in 1893 Town Meeting finally passed a resolution to hire a permanent night watchman for Needham Center. The first watchman was George Wragg, a baker and general store owner in the Center, who had also been a volunteer constable for many years. He was also made Keeper of the Lockup, the town’s makeshift jail cell. Wragg was assisted at need by the roster of part-time volunteer constables, but Needham now had its first official policeman. A second hired watchman, for the Heights, followed shortly after, and the Needham force was up to two men.
This situation prevailed for the next 15 years – two official officers who patrolled at night, assisted at need by a corps of around 20 volunteer ‘special police’ made up of town residents and business owners. Nevertheless, the town’s population continued to rise – due to the trains and trolleys that made transportation convenient, the mills that were growing and in need of workers, and a determined effort on the part of the Board of Trade to market Needham as a suburban residential destination. And with the increased population came more crime.
The need for a full-time police administration was clear, and in 1913 Needham hired Norman MacKenzie – a long-time night watchman and keeper of the lockup – to be Needham’s first police chief. MacKenzie took over a department of two men, and a roster of 33 special police. MacKenzie continued to advocate for more officers, but it was not until 1927 that the force was enlarged and the police station staffed for all 24 hours of the day.
But there was one incident that, perhaps more than any other, moved Needham’s police force into the modern age – certainly one of the most traumatic incidents in the history of both the police department and the town. This was the Needham Trust Bank robbery in February 1934.
Abraham Faber, Murton Millen, and Murton’s younger brother Irving grew up together in Roxbury. In 1927, Faber graduated from Boston English High School and was accepted into the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, graduating in 1931 with a degree in Aeronautical Engineering. Murton, along with his brother Irving, had both been truck drivers for rum runners during Prohibition. They had also committed several petty crimes together, usually robberies of gas stations and grocery stores. Abe and Murton met again after five years apart, and in the summer of 1933 struck up an unusual partnership – a “business organization” with the sole purpose of stealing money. In the 1930s, America was in the depths of the Depression, and Faber had become frustrated with his inability to find work. He blamed society for not being able to provide him with the dream job he so desperately wanted. For Murton and Irving, robbery was already a way of life.
Over the next six months the gang carried out a series of increasingly-ambitious robberies in the Boston area. Finally, they chose a bigger target – a bank – a chose Needham because they figured that the small local police force was no match for them. They planned the robbery carefully – touring the town to see the layout and map out escape routes, learning the local train schedules, and stealing the guns from the State Police’s own armory.
Everything started off according to plan. The thieves broke into the vault, wounding several bank personnel. Officer Forbes McLeod, on downtown patrol, was shot through the windows as he rushed toward the Bank upon hearing the alarm. The robbers escaped in their 1932 Packard, timing their departure to the train schedule so that the train crossing Great Plain Avenue would impede the police response. As they passed the old firehouse on Highland Avenue, they saw Officer Frank Haddock out front speaking with Firefighter Timothy Coughlin. Assuming that the two were mobilizing for the alarm, they shot both – Haddock was killed and Coughlin was wounded.
A real estate agent later testified that three men in an expensive 1932 Packard drove around town with him a few days before the robbery, claiming that they wanted to rent a house. The car was later discovered abandoned on a quiet road in Norwood. The robbers had tried to burn it, but it was solidly built, and enough was left intact to trace its owner, allowing the police to identify the thieves.
Faber, the Millens, and Burton’s wife Norma escaped to New York, where they hid in a hotel. Although they had been identified, the police did not know where to find them, so they staked out their homes. Fortunately for the police, Murton was corresponding with a friend, and mentioned their location. The robbers were quickly caught, and the men were tried and executed.
Both Haddock and McLeod were popular officers around town, and their murder hit the town hard. The Needham police force was small – only 10 patrolmen – so they were familiar figures to schoolchildren being guided across the street, and to local merchants passing the time as they patrolled past. The officers lived in town, and attended local churches; Haddock had kids in the Needham schools. In gratitude for the officers’ sacrifice, the town approved pensions for their widows, and the bank established a fund for the education of their young children.
The slain officers were given heroes’ funerals; schools and offices were closed so the town could pay its respects. Officers from neighboring towns volunteered to take over the Needham shifts so the entire Needham police force could attend the funerals. Haddock and McLeod are the only Needham officers to be killed in the line of duty.
The robbery and murders were nothing like the small-town crimes that the department was accustomed to. This crime spotlighted the need for Needham to modernize, to upgrade its lagging equipment and emergency infrastructure – shortages that delayed the initial response and hampered the investigation. Shortly after the crime, a long-promised teletype system was finally installed so that the police station could communicate with others. On February 6th, the very day of Officer Haddock’s funeral, the Board of Selectmen authorized the addition of three new police officers, as well as the purchase of a Thompson submachine gun, a tear-gas gun, bullet-proof vests, and rifles. By the end of the year, two more full-time and two more part-time officers had been hired. The crime also resulted in new protocols for cooperation between local and state police. The Needham Police Department shed the last of its ancient practices and became a modern force.
In 2019, the Needham Community Revitalization Trust Fund created the Haddock-McLeod Plaza on Chestnut Street to honor the two slain officers. The NCRTF has made some recent improvements, including the installation of a new pedestal with graphics and information about the officers. The incorporation of this memorial into our town streetscape assures that we will continue to remember their sacrifice.