Friday Flashback #4

Today — dwarfed by a 40,000-square-foot office building — it’s hard to imagine that Gorham Island even is an island.

But the spit of land now joined to Parker Harding Plaza was once home to a gorgeous Victorian home. (Though — like many other structures in Westport — it apparently was built elsewhere, then moved.)

Gorham Island house

In addition to being a favorite subject for artists, the Gorham Island home was known for something else.

Early on July 4th morning of 1961, Brendan McLaughlin — a former Marine working as a New York advertising executive — shot and killed his father during a family argument inside the house.

McLaughlin fled.  An hour before dawn he burst into the police station on Jesup Road.  He pulled out a semi-automatic pistol and fired at 2 policemen behind the front desk, wounding Donald Bennette.

Officers chased him into the parking lot, where he shot officer Andrew Chapo.  A shootout ensued; McLaughlin was wounded.

Chapo and Bennette recovered.  McLaughlin died several weeks later.

40 responses to “Friday Flashback #4

  1. Danny! Where do you dig this stuff up? Amazing.

  2. Robert Mills IV

    My dad Robert R Mills III was friends with Brendan. I can remember my dad telling me the story about this incident. I do have the original newspaper article describing the story, and pictures of Brendan with my father together in the hospital while he was trying to recover from the gun shot wounds.
    My dad said he was never the same after this day and never said a word about what happened while be was in the hospital. My dad never saw him again after he visited him that day the picture was taken. He always spoke about him, with his friend Gail Keith, also from Westport which lived on Morningside Drive behind the Kowalsky property.

  3. William Adler

    Great story. Thanks !!! I never heard that before. I guess it would not have made good bedtime stories for my parents to tell us, at the time. The island and that house were so beautiful and iconic – who knew? And interesting to be reminded that maniacs with guns and shootouts with the police are not simply a current-day phenomenon.

  4. Interesting story! I had forgotten. But about the house – it wasn’t built on the island. It was moved there from a little way up Main Street long ago. It was demolished in the early 1980s after efforts to save it, and was replaced by an ugly building covered with yellow reflective material. Lots more foliage over the years has improved that view.

  5. I think that the house was a rooming house at the end.

    • There were kids (post high school age) living rough there – squatting – not renting from anyone.

  6. I was friendly with Officer Bennette, who retired about 30 years ago. He told me that the scary thing was that the Murderer was shot at the last moment heading back into an empty Police Station to get at their unlocked Shotguns. It could have been quite a mess. For many years that was Westports’ only murder.

    • Jack Whittle

      Not true (the “for many years” part), Harliss Miller murdered Isabel Sillian in 1962 in Westport

        • There is an obituary posted online for Harlis Miller saying he died in 2012 in Vidalia Georgia. It appears as though he was convicted of 2nd degree murder after first being convicted of 1rst degree murder. Aside from newspaper articles from the time – there are trial records that come up after a quick general search of his name. This is a heartbreaking story for this Westport family that I’d never heard of.

  7. Mary Schmerker, Staples 1958

    Wow! I was living in Westport still, a college Jr. and working at Girl Scout Camp Asapetuck that summer and have no recollection of that incident.

  8. Jacques Voris

    When I was a young Cub Scout we took a tour of the Police station, and they pointed out the bullet holes still in the high desk at the entrance

    • Thanks – I never knew that. I just posted (whilst you were posting – so didn’t see your comment – please see below) that people were squatting there in 1980. Perhaps they were even squatting there whilst other people were renting (?). When were you renting there? $90 per month sounds like it may have also been around 1980. Who was the landlord/lady? Did they live there? …or did you pay rent to a legal absentee landlord etc.?.

  9. Maybe at the end there were squatters living there but earlier I rented a studio there $90 a month

    • Sorry Ric – my post in response to yours ended up in the wrong place 🙁 Please see above yours. I answered about you renting for $90 per month there and asked you some questions 🙂

    • Hey Rick, you lived in all the flop houses! I played alot of back-alley (card game) in there. With Lloyd, Jack and Dana. It was very rundown then.

  10. Betsy P Kahn

    Dan, I love your stories!!!

  11. The destruction of this house was such a severe loss for the landscape / streetscape downtown. Like The Penguin on the drive to the beach & the Asylum driving East on the Post Road it was an emotionally orienting landmark that told you you were in Westport. The view driving & walking past was so stunningly charming. Every time I passed the Gorham Island house I felt so lucky to live in Westport. I had never heard this sad story of the murder till about fifteen years ago. (My parents moved to town in 1960 – the year before). Which is really really surprising given all the other tales repeated over & over by locals. Probably because people didn’t want to talk about patricide. I did hear later that the house had been moved from Main Street and that the barn at the bottom of the hill off of Main which had the men’s clothing shop in it (Mitchell’s before it moved and/or another shop?) originally went with the house. I always remember the house as empty – except for some kids (late teens or early twenties) living there toward it’s end. (They lived there in 1980). It’s surprising that it didn’t develop one of those small town haunted house mythologies: given that it was a large many roomed Victorian – on an out of the way but on view plot of land – where a tragic murder had taken place.

  12. Aspetuck Land Trust removed 3.2 acres of invasive Phragmites from our adjoining Taylortown Salt Marsh property. We have been in contact with the current owner of Gorham Island requesting that we be allowed to remove the invasive reed currently engulfing the Gorham Island property in the marsh.

  13. The story that I had heard it was basically a suicide by cop type thing. It was really hot (and pre-airconditioning) so the cops at the desk had their gun belts off when the guy came in through the old police station entrance. They held down the talk button on the radio to the patrol cars and the guys on the road came in and shot him.

  14. Bob Weingarten

    Many of you may not remember but there were two houses on Gorham Island. The other one was designed by Frazier Forman Peters and built in 1935 by the Hunt Family, then purchased by Helen Barker. The stone facade of the house was obtained by Leon Hunt from the widening of Post Road. Even then Peters was concerned about using materials that were local to the house site.

    The stone house was demolished when the Victorian House was demolished and there are newspaper articles about the Peters’ stone house. This is one of the only three Peters houses that have been demolished in Westport of the 41 houses he designed and built from 1924 thorugh 1937. More information on Peters can be found at the Westport Historical Society. . . .

    • x Bob Weingarten – That’s really interesting. I don’t remember it. (The stone house). I don’t remember the land there being large enough to support two houses either. But then I never walked around on the property. Is there a photo of the stone Peters house at the WHS? Aside from not renembering it (from any angle of Gorham Island) it’s not visible in the photos of the wooden shingled Victorian either.

    • I met and became friends with Gerry (Jerry) mcgloughlan in 74 ish and he was still living at his home on the island. His artwork was in major museums at the time. He was fighting depression (or something). If he is still alive I would love to be back in touch. Re Peters…he was the architect of many more than 41 homes in town…Rayfield Road for instance. …unless you’re including those.

      • x Mary Gai – There is a Gerald McLaughlin b.1925 listed at askart.com where it said he is ‘known for his surreal nightmares’ – if this is who you are referring to. (It’s no wonder given the above story – as he must have been the brother and son of the people in the tragic Gorham Island house story?). I haven’t seen any of the work yet. He would be 91 now. I’ll see if I can find anything else about your friend. You should be able to contact his gallery or agent.

        • PS x Mary Gai – I couldn’t find anything else on Gerald McGlaughlin other than what was on askart.com which said he is ‘active/alive’ and lives in ‘New York’ – but I don’t know how accurate that is. Beside that – there was a recent auction of a painting (or rather assemblage – it looked like) which was from the collection of a previous owner and not the artist (a 1989 painting)… and also some listings of his paintings on Ruby Lane. (Which is an online site for vintage & antiques sellers w/ fixed prices vs. auction sales). If he is ‘active’ he is not very ‘active’ (at 91). A quick search online showed too many people in the NY area w/ the exact same name for you to search for – should you choose to look him up the old fashioned way. Apparently it’s a VERY common name (both first & last name together). Btw – there are other artists w/ similar names that are much younger – so keep that in mind if you are going to do further research. I figured this person based in NYC & born in 1925 whose name begins w/ ‘G’ vs. ‘J’ is the one who is your friend. Bittersweet… but Good Luck…

  15. Long, long, long ago there was a movement to secure this island as a town park. There was a committee. We can skip the rest…

  16. Jacques Voris

    So I dug deep into my sources….and asked my uncle. Homer “Larry” Mills was a patrolman with the Westport Police during that period. His recollection confirms most of what has been said already. McLaughlin coming into the police station, firing on the police there, the radio call to all officers, him being shot and wounded in front of the police station. On a side note, apparently Larry was one of the officers that guarded him in the hospital.

  17. Peter Gambaccini

    Two people I know quite well say in their posts here that they have no memory of this murder. They’re both two years younger than I am, and I guess two years can make a huge difference, because I remember every bit of this saga quite vividly. This was big doings for a town like Westport. The reporting at the time (I guess it must have been the “Town Crier”) was evocative and detailed. I have always remembered McLaughlin’s name and even his age.. The old house, due to its appearance and its remoteness, forever reminded me of the house in “Psycho.” As a reporter more than a decade later, I had some dealings with Officer Chapo (there’s no reason he should remember me), and whenever I saw him, I thought back to this murder. It was a macabre and indelible story, It was part of my youth, and I admit to feeling some weird kind of loss when I first saw that the island was no longer an island.

  18. Hey Brad don’t forget the old house behind the Mobil gas station and when we all lived above the Surfside in Fairfield!!

  19. Bob Weingarten

    For those that don’t remember the Peters Stone Cottage on Gorham Island you can access the following article and photo at the WHS archives.

    WESTPORT NEWS, Friday, September 1, 1978, titled “Gorham Island House” with a caption of “DESIGNED BY FRAZIER PETERS in 1932, the stone cottage on Gorham Island is still in good condition.” :

    My research found that the house was built in 1935 and not 1932 but it was on Gorham Island. This was an initial article of “Untouched by downtown Main Street, Gorham Island is Westport’s paradox” an article published in The WESTPORT NEWS by Elizabeth Gerteiny, Wednesday, August 21, 1974 which discusses the Peters Stone Cottage. But the article that contained a photo was in the Sept 1, 1978. A photo is also included in the book “Frazier Forman Peters, Westport Legacy in Stone” available at the WHS, page 157.

  20. Wendy Crowther

    The Bpt Post, Sep 6, 1966, reports details of the coroner’s report and the incident. It says that McLaughlin’s family had reported that Brendan “had acted radically since receiving a severe head injury in an auto accident three years ago.”

    I researched a bit more and I found articles claiming that Brendan had been in a head-on collision in 1957 with a tractor trailer truck on the Post Rd. near Roseville Rd. He was near death for days and underwent several operations but recovered. He’d reported headaches since that accident – these had become severe in the months prior to this sad event. However, he did not seek treatment despite his family’s urging.

    The Bpt Post reported on July 30, 1966 that he had shot his father “as the culmination of an argument over a girl friend to whom the parents objected.”

    The McLaughlin family expressed extreme gratitude to the Police Dept. in a July 16, 1966 Bpt Post report. They said that the police “acted calmly, intelligently, and with deep understanding at all times.” They were grateful for the concern and kind treatment shown by the Police Dept.”

    This same July 16th article mentioned that the attorney representing Brendan was Fairfielder John H. Norton. Norton mentions that 9 years earlier he defended Willie Davis who was accused of murdering Penny Evans, a Westport woman. Wow…perhaps another Westport murder??

    • x Wendy Crowther – Giant trucks on the Post Road pre-I95! (= pre-1959). That must have been horrible. This is such a sad story that I never knew all the years I loved that home. Now I want to know more of the family who built / lived in it when it was up on Main Street. (I’m going to get the 1999 ‘Westport’ book off the shelf & have a look if there’s anything in there)…This is all very Shirley Jackson (1916-1965 North Bennington Vermont author born in SF) New England gothic: The Haunting of Hill House – The Lottery etc. Have you researched Penny Evans yet? (There goes a chunk of my weekend…). This is so very interesting but as I did some research online last night I discovered family still living here (re. The Sillan case posted about in the thread as a response to a comment on the McLaughlin case). So I’m now mindful of that. (I found something online that I decided not to post about). I’m sure things that seem like interesting town history to us are other people’s half-closed wounds. I’m not casting aspersions on any comments / commenters – it’s just something that struck me as important to be mindful of since I began reading & researching these posts. Despite the early 60s seem like ancient history (inc. to those of us alive then!) – apparently some of the principals in these sad Sagas are still alive – or their children & close relatives are. <3

  21. Wendy Crowther

    Yes…I ended up researching Penny Evans. It led to mention of another Westport slaying in the 1960s, and oddly enough it occurred on the same street as that of Ms. Evans. The crimes were unconnected but they shared some similar elements. It’s sensitive, sad stuff and I won’t go into any further detail about them. My research usually ends in fascinating places and reveals great stories. Today…not so much. May they all RIP.

    • 🙁

    • x Wendy Crowther – The Montgomery Evans papers archived at Southern Illinois Univ. Special Collections Research Center are fascinating (re.arts & letters & politics).

  22. The suburban legend when I was a teen in the early 70’s was that it was/had a history as a hore house!