Heroin, Heists & a High Speed Chase: North Berkshire, 1932

It was like a gangster film had leapt off the silver screen and onto Route 8 in north Berkshires. A young tough fleeing a botched larceny nearly runs over a beat cop in the street with his 1930s Dodge coupe.
On foot, the cop flags down a young mother and asks to borrow her car.
“I’ll drive,” she says and he hops in the passenger seat.
The 20 year old civilian driver gains on the crook’s as they speed south from downtown Adams to Cheshire harbor, where she pulls ahead and forces the coupe to the side of the road. He reverses, backing up the road several hundred feet as he hurls a package out the window, toward the river.

This was the scene on April 18, 1932, as longtime Adams police officer Albert Baran apprehended a suspect fleeing capture after a North county shoplifting spree, with the high speed assistance of Viola [Maxwell] Jarrett* of Pittsfield, who lived with her husband Leo and 1 year old son Robert on Pomeroy Avenue at that time.

The suspect turned out to be Michael McHugh, a 25 year old North Adams native suffering from narcotics addiction. Now living in Troy, he and his accomplices, 27 year old Joyce Bolger and 35 year old Elizabeth Myers, had been making shoplifting forays in the Berkshires for at least the past two weeks. The package McHugh tossed contained dresses and suits, taken from the Boston Store in North Adams and the Bay State Clothing Store in Adams.

The Boston Store, North Adams

At the time, the boyish-looking McHugh was going by James McCue, and gave his age as 19. “An admitted dope addict,” according to the Transcript, McHugh pleaded guilty to the North Adams charges and was sentenced to 6 months in the House of Correction. He detoxed there, and appeared in October to be tried on the Adams charges from the April 18 spree. Indicating his sobriety from heroin and promising to be “an upright man,” he was given two months probation for the other offence.

Michael McHugh

He relapsed sometime after that. One year later, New York papers tell of his arrest in Troy in the raid of a major heroin selling operation on October 23, 1933. His apartment was searched as an associate of the raid’s target, Sam “Big Shot” Valenti, the largest narcotics distributor in eastern NY at the time. Also known as Samuel Valente, he was a major figure in the capitol district underworld for two decades, up until his deportation to Italy in 1947. His family was associated with restaurants in Troy for many decades.

McHugh’s connection to both North Adams and the Troy drug selling operation briefly made him a person of interest in two unsolved slayings recent at that time, Leah Lloyd Johnson in North Adams, and Bennington cab driver Michael Kane closer to Troy. There had been vague rumors of “drug rings” being involved in both deaths, and while it was not seriously believed, state police wanted to speak to McHugh just to be thorough.

There wasn’t time for that interview to take place. On October 28, he died at the Troy hospital “from bronchial pneumonia resulting from tuberculosis, and the use of drugs.”

At his death, it was revealed in Troy papers that his birth name was Frank Pawquette, an orphan who had taken the name of his foster family. Other records of his short, tumultuous life seemed to be lacking. The only major evidence of his life interactions with the legal system, the narrative of one of many casualties in the most recent cycle of the country’s centuries-long opioid crisis.

*Note: The original arrest article from the N.A. Transcript lists the driver as “Adela Gerrett, of 37 Pomeroy Ave in Pittsfield”- however, there is no apparent record of this name in Pittsfield at the time- rather, there is a listing for Viola Jerrett in the city directory that year, at 39 Pomeroy. I think we can safely conclude her name and address to be listed incorrectly, in the manner common to rapid court reporting. Viola [b. 1912] was a PHS graduate and a 35 year employee of the A.H. Rice Silk Mill. She and her husband Leo raised two children, eventually moving from Pittsfield to Dalton, where she died in 1998.

Author: Joe Durwin

Berkshire-based writer Joe Durwin's "These Mysterious Hills" has run on a semi-regular basis for over than a decade, first in the former Advocate Weekly (2004-2009) and iBerkshires.com (2010-2015), along with his local history column Sagas of the Shire. His work on lore and mysteries of the region has also been featured in Fate Magazine, Haunted Times, the North Adams Transcript, as well as William Shatner’s “Weird or What” on the SyFy Channel, Jeff Belanger's "New England Legends," MSG Films’ “Bennington Triangle,” and numerous other programs for public television and radio.

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