Commentaries Community Police & Fire

Downtown View: It Takes a Village

Have I ever told you about the time I caught a criminal?

It was spring in the early 1970s. My husband’s mother and father were visiting. My husband’s father had had several heart attacks. We were spending a quiet afternoon.

I heard an unfamiliar sound upstairs where our little girls were taking their naps. I checked on them, and they were just waking up. I still heard the sound so I went into the garden behind our building.

A man in dark blue denim was hanging from the windowsill of the top-floor apartment. Our tenants at the time were a young couple, and they had some strange friends, so I asked him, “Can I help you?”

He scrambled back through the window into their apartment.

I reconsidered. This was no guest. This was a robber. (The correct term is actually “burglar” but robber sounds more dramatic.)

I called the police. In what seemed like seconds they arrived. I handed them a key to the top floor apartment and ran back into the garden. The robber was leaping on the roof to the building next door. I ran through the house to the front sidewalk. I shouted to the police officers. The robber came bounding out the door of the adjacent building, and I tackled him.

It was like Peter and the Wolf. This is how things stood. I was reaching for the robber. My husband’s father was reaching for me. His mother was reaching for his father, pleading, “Buell, your heart, your heart.” Our little girls by this time were in the action, clinging to their grandmother’s skirt.

I had grabbed the robber but I couldn’t restrain him. Fortunately there were men installing gas lamps on our street. They were there because I had put one girl in a back pack and held the hand of the other one, and we had gone up and down our street asking neighbors to sign a petition putting Phillips Street at the top of the list for gas lamps and brick sidewalks to be installed.

I had handed this petition to the Beacon Hill Civic Association and Laury Coolidge, chair of streets and sidewalks, told me at the time that they thought there was an insurrection on Phillips Street so they put it at the top of the list for that spring’s work. Laury doesn’t remember that today. He says what he remembers is that they did do Phillips Street early in those years they were bricking and lighting Beacon Hill because it had only two street lights. He said he agreed to chair the committee if he could be the only committee member. He took a guy from Public Works out to lunch, pleading for help, and that city employee snagged a grant from the feds. Richard Nixon had gotten a bill passed to provide money to fight crime. Better street lighting qualified.

In any case, the gas men were there, they saw what was happening, they did their own tackling, brought the robber down and sat on him until the police ran down from the upstairs apartment.

Our neighbor Ivan Hansen scoured the fire escapes and found several stashes of loot from surrounding apartments. He spent the next several days handing out items to neighbors who came to recover their stolen goods.

Ivan and I testified at the trial. The judge sent the robber off to Concord. Our little girls, who had seen the robber scrambling around, hanging from the windowsill, now had matters to deal with.

They didn’t ask about the robbery. Instead they wanted to know: “Can men climb walls?” It looked as if they could.

Every neighborhood has stories, not this one exactly, but interesting all the same and often quirky. Someday I might tell you about the experience of a friend of mine. A man jumped off a building to commit suicide and landed on her old car. He died. The car was never the same.

Downtown View is a regular column by Karen Cord Taylor who founded The Beacon Hill Times weekly newspaper in 1995 and served as its editor and publisher until late 2007. She also founded and served as editor and publisher of the Charlestown Patriot-Bridge and The Back Bay Sun weeklies. Her column appears in those newspapers as well as the Regional Review, which serves Boston’s North End. These weeklies are now owned by the Independent Newspaper Group. She is the author of “Blue Laws, Brahmins and Breakdown Lanes: An Alphabetic Guide to Boston and Bostonians” and the co-author of “The Lady Architects,” a book about three women who practiced architecture in New England and elsewhere in the early 20th century. She lives in downtown Boston and blogs at