About 80 years ago, residents of St. Mary’s County stayed indoors after dark. Shops closed and people kept guns close at hand. For three weeks, a gang roved the county, robbing stores, beating and robbing people on the road. The wave of terror revealed the limitations of the local sheriff’s office.
The criminals were dubbed the Black Shirt Gang in the newspapers, and they made their appearance in Southern Maryland just before gangsters made names for themselves nationwide in 1933 and 1934.
Before the crime wave finally ended, county residents were anxious and divided about the inaction of law enforcement and how St. Mary’s was portrayed to the outside world.
In the fall of 1932, the country was still in the early stages of the Great Depression, which began three years earlier.
St. Mary’s residents made do, continuing to farm the land. The county was never rich to begin with, but the Great Depression didn’t make things any easier.
By 1930, the U.S. Census Bureau counted 15,189 people living in St. Mary’s County, 355 fewer people than had been counted here in the first census of 1790.
Trouble first appeared on Oct. 5, 1932. Richard Sears of Helen was driving his truck along the road from Mechanicsville to Leonardtown (Route 5) when he was stopped and severely beaten “by a crowd of hoodlums,” the Beacon newspaper reported on Oct. 7. Sears’ pocketbook was taken and $10 was stolen, though his pocketbook was recovered.
It was the beginning of a crime wave.
Five people were injured Oct. 8 when two cars were driven off the road in Milestown “by the gang of bandits which has been terrorizing St. Mary’s County since Wednesday,” reported The Washington Post on Oct. 9, 1932.
“Sheriff Richard T. Hammett, his five regular deputies and four special appointees combed the haunts of suspected members of the gang yesterday, but without result. Meanwhile, additional State police moved into the area in an attempt to reduce the depredations along the highways. J. Allen Coad, State senator, led one of the posses,” the Post reported.
Several people in different areas of the county had their money and jewelry taken from them.
The gang tried to rob William F. Longmore at his store in Ridge, but he ran them off with his shotgun. Gunfire was exchanged but no one was hit, the Post reported.
On Oct. 12, 1932, the IGA store on Washington Street in Leonardtown was broken into and robbed of $200. The Beacon reported Oct. 14, “This job bears the earmarks of professionals, who gained entrance by the use of skeleton keys or some lock-opening device.
“The burglars left a note saying: ‘Please have Herbert [Tareton] cig the next time we come — Shirts.’”
“Local authorities assisted by Baltimore detectives are at work on the case,” the Beacon said.
“Virtually all of the store owners and gasoline station managers have been closing their places at sundown each evening since the gang’s operations for fear they may be held up, and residents say that it is difficult to purchase gasoline after dark in the surrounding territory,” reported The Associated Press on Oct. 14.
Then The Washington Post reported that the state police pulled out of the hunt for the Black Shirts on Oct. 19. The action “was due to the refusal of Sheriff Richard T. Hammett of St. Mary’s County to deputize members of the State force as peace officers. Under Maryland laws, State police may make arrests only in matters pertaining to highway regulations.”
Deputy John T. Smith was censured by Hammett for working with the state police, the Post said. Smith threatened to resign.
A citizens meeting was held Oct. 19, where the public and the county commissioners criticized Hammett for his inaction and refusal to deputize state police.
“Although the sheriff would not reveal his reasons for refusing to deputize the State policemen as peace officers, he told this correspondent some time ago that once given the authority, the State patrolmen would ‘interfere in everything.’” The Washington Post reported on Oct. 20.
Hammett was quoted as saying, “I alone have the power to deputize these men and as long as I am in office it will never be done.”
The county commissioners offered a reward of $300 for the capture and conviction of the gang and asked the governor for help in their pursuit.
By then it had been several days since the Black Shirt Gang was seen in the county, but they were suspects in the robbery of a Baltimore doctor in his office on Oct. 19.
The editor of the St. Mary’s Beacon was furious with the unwanted attention brought down to sleepy St. Mary’s. Aloysius Fenwick King wrote in the Oct. 21 editorial, “after examining all of the facts in the case, we are decidedly convinced that the officials of St. Mary’s County have done everything in their power to uphold the law and preserve order that could properly be done. And in saying this we wish it to be understood that we do not consider that officials charged with law enforcement are under the slightest obligation to make known in detail what has been, or is being done, by them in matter of apprehending criminals and law breakers.”
Divulging those details would only make it more difficult to capture the criminals, King wrote.
He continued, “We also wish to point out that a great deal of unnecessary and unfair notoriety and publicity has accrued to St. Mary’s County due entirely from the insatiable desire of unscrupulous and unprincipled newspaper correspondents to secure sensational, spectacular news.”
It was the Beacon’s hope that Gov. Albert Ritchie “will refuse to become party to any move that will make greater the injustice already done this county by a thoughtless few.”
Another community meeting was held at the courthouse in Leonardtown on Oct. 27. The Washington Post carried a story from the Associated Press on the meeting, with the headline, “St. Mary’s Peace Parley is Failure.”
Some wanted the state police to be deputized. Some feared what would happen if they got authority. Publicity from the robberies and holdups were “deplored” according to Joseph M. Mattingly, clerk of the circuit court.
King, editor of the Beacon, said at the meeting of the county’s sheriff and deputies, “they were fully able to handle the situation without outside interference.”
Senator Coad defended county officials and condemned “the newspapers in general” for “alarming untrue stories of outlaws existing in the county.”
The next day, the St. Mary’s Beacon reported Sheriff Hammett appointed two new deputies and said one or two state policemen could be deputized if they were needed.
The paper said Hammett lived outside of Leonardtown and had no telephone, but had since moved to the county seat at “great personal inconvenience” where he had a telephone.
The county jail (in front of the circuit courthouse today) had a telephone installed and a deputy placed on duty there.
The Nov. 4 Beacon reported that seven state policemen had been locally deputized, but that same day, The Washington Post reported, “4 Gang Suspects to be Heard Today.” They were arrested in Charles County for possession of a stolen car.
A total of seven men were arrested. Herman Meredith was sentenced to four years for theft of an automobile. Two others were released and the other four drew sentences on various counts, according to a 1933 article.
Back in St. Mary’s, Sheriff Hammett asked for Deputy Smith’s resignation in November 1932.
Hammett served only one term as sheriff and did not run for re-election in 1934. He died on Oct. 19, 1962, at the age of 84.