The car accident

The weather in the Boston area on Sunday, July 17, 1932 was warm, with a high of 86°F and moderate easterly winds, and it was time for a family outing.  Martin J. Conlon’s two sons with his late wife Elena (Fogarty), Bill (9) and Joe (6) could have some fun at the beach, and his new wife Ella (Fox) and their six-week-old newborn Martin could get some fresh air.  After church, Martin and Ella, along with Bill, Joe, Martin, aunt Mary (Lyons) Fitzgerald and family friend Annie Mahoney bundled into the car to drive out to Nantasket Beach.  It was to be a quiet day summer day together, away from the world’s troubles and triumphs.

Governor Roosevelt’s yacht had arrived in Brighton the day before and he was traveling to Portsmouth, New Hampshire to address a large crowd as the recently nominated Democratic candidate for President.  The bonus marchers were still in Washington, D.C. but with Congress adjourning were losing momentum.  The Olympic trials were underway and Clarence Crabbe was earning his moniker ‘Buster’ by demolishing swimming records.

Martin was a merchant who sold Atwater Kent radios and operated the Jenny Oil gasoline station in Whitman, home of Bostonian and Regal shoes.  After Elena died of breast cancer in 1927, her widowed aunt Mary had moved in to 9 Elm Place in Whitman to look after the boys.  Across the street were their grandmother Alice Lyons Fogarty, and aunts and uncles –Lena’s brother’s Bill and Patrick and sisters Mary and Alice.  Elena’s cousin Ella must have been a presence as well, so when Martin and Ella married in April 1931, it must have brought the Conlon and Fogarty families still closer together.

On the way home, as Bill recalled 70 years later:

“I was about nine years old then. He also had another son, my brother Eddie was born about 1932. And then that summer, we had an unfortunate auto accident. My father was driving and my stepmother was in the front seat. And I was in the backseat with my brother Joe and my half brother. Eddie was in the arms of a Great aunt.  My father was making the turns when a truck hit us in the side where my stepmother was sitting and she was killed. The rest of us were hospitalized for varying amounts of time. I was in for about four or five days and I had a concussion and a couple of cuts in the face. My father had a broken shoulder. So he was in for several weeks. And my brother Joe had I think he had about five dents in the skull right about here. So he was in hospital all summer long for about two months, maybe 10 weeks. But he, he finally recovered okay.”

According to the newspaper report, the injuries were severe, with 4 of the seven expected to die from the collision which occurred at about 6:30 p.m. on Main Street, near Green Street, with a vehicle operated by Patrolman Henry Wigmore of the Hingham Police. “The car was in head-on collision with [police officer] Wigmore’s machine, but Conlon, in his efforts to avoid the crash, stepped on the gas and swerved his machine so that it ran up on a small green near Green st, crashed against a pole and caromed against a large tree, throwing the seven occupants of the car on to the ground.” 

Boston Globe, 17 July 1932.

Four of Eight Injured at Hingham May Die

The main route from Nantasket currently goes through a rotary in Hingham, but according to the Patriot Ledger, “construction of the rotary started in 1933,” the year after the accident, so the actual route taken that day is unknown. 

Hingham rotary

Martin was charged with “operating a motor vehicle so as to endanger” and appeared in Hingham District Court that September. There are conflicts between the accounts from the newspaper, Bill’s recollection, and the scene

  • how was it a head-on collision if Martin swerved and went of the road onto the green where he hit a pole and a tree?
  • how was it a head-on collision if Wigmore’s car hit the side where Ella was sitting?

Perhaps court records still exist that could shed further light, but it seems possible that the Conlon vehicle turned left from Summer Street onto what is now Route 3A and into the path of the oncoming car.  Bill remembered going to court but thought that he hadn’t had to testify.
Boston Globe, 17 July 1932.

Ella died of her injuries on 20 July 1932, five months to the day after giving birth to her only child.  The others survived, and Martin’s sister Winifred Conlon McCarthy came down from Holliston with her two teenaged daughters, Mary and Rita, to look after the three boys for the rest of the summer. 

Newpaper clipping  

After burying his second wife, Martin moved the family to 903 Washington Street, where they lived for another decade, before he bought the house next to the gas station and moved it to 31 Legion Parkway.

From somewhere in France

These letters by my grandfather, Martin J. Conlon to his girlfriend Lena Fogarty, who became his wife and my grandmother, were written during his World War I service in France with the 306th Infantry Regiment of the 77th Division, American Expeditionary Forces.

They were married in Lena’s hometown of Whitman, Mass. on November 23, 1921, and had two children, my father William Martin (pictured with them) and uncle Joseph Francis.  Lena passed away at 38 years in 1927.

I recently (August 2020) found these letters as I was shredding my Dad’s old papers.  They were among recent (at the time of his death) bills, mail and other assorted items, and I assume he got them out of safe-keeping (probably in his bureau) to scan them for us, but didn’t have the chance to do so.  Or perhaps, he just wanted to read these letters before joining his parents on the other side.

May 30, 1918

This letter was written on Decoration Day (now called Memorial Day) from somewhere in France.  He mentions Lena’s brother Tom (Patrick Thomas Fogarty) who saw difficult action in the Fifth Division.

July 13, 1918

This letter was begun on the eve of Bastille Day and completed the following day.  He mentions that he would like to take in a show at the Old Howard, the famous Howard Athenaeum in Boston.  Also of interest is the censor’s stamp and his signature on the last page.

October 21, 1918

This was written from the Red Cross hospital where he was evacuated following his shrapnel wound during the Meuse-Argonne offensive.   Their letters were clearly not reaching each other, which  would have undoubtedly caused worry and anguish.  There is also a reference to widespread illness, which probably referred to the pandemic flu.

November 12, 1918

This was written from the Red Cross hospital as the armistice is signed.  Mail hasn’t caught up yet.

January 29, 1919

After rejoining his company, this is the last letter from France, and for the first time, a location is disclosed — Sexfontaines, a small village in the Haute-Marnes department. Mention is made of two men killed in action, one in my grandfather’s company at St. Juvin, and a mutual friend, named Frank who was dating Teresa.  Teresa was mentioned often in these letters, and is very likely Martin’s older sister.

In Dad’s words

Back in 2002, on the occasion of my parent’s 50th wedding anniversary, we asked Gino Thomas to interview my father to gather his recollections of important events.  I thought that using an unrelated third party might pull out stories that he might be reluctant to tell his kids, either because we already had heard them, or because we might be reluctant to ask.  Gino did a fabulous job and he and my Dad had a great time over the roughly three hours that they talked on camera.

I had planned to make a transcript and add captioning, and also try to clean up some sound issues.  But after 15 years, I decided it was better to just release this unedited and as-is.

Dad’s fabulous memory is on display as he talks about growing up in the small town of Whitman, the aunts and uncles that cared for him after his mother and step-mother died, his high school and college experiences and the war years.  The interviews continues to his fascinating professional career beginning with the first facsimile systems at Western Union, followed by jobs in the aerospace field, including his role in charge of test engineering for the Lunar Module.

William Martin Conlon talks about growing up in Whitman, his WWII service, education, and work life from Bill Conlon on Vimeo.