Life and Crime in Blue Collar Rhode Island

Choices: You Make ‘Em, You Own ‘Em, The Jerry Tillinghast Story.
By Joe Broadmeadow, as told by Jerry Tillinghast.
Providence, RI: Zebwizard, 2018. 252pp., $19.95

The return of The Sopranos to cable television has memorably recalled what serious screenwriting, directing and acting can do to open up a world not often realistically viewed (despite many efforts), at least beyond literary fiction, since the original Godfather film series.

The problem, from another and less entertaining point of view, is that the blue collar life in which crime—organized and unorganized—has been and remains enmeshed, is generally seen poorly, indeed. Abundant detective novels have often done better, are doing better than politicians and scholars. Kris Nelscott’s recent series on a black detective in Memphis, New Haven and mainly Chicago at the end of the 1960s, for example, offers an especially good description of crime, race and the role of the authorities in accepting and perpetuating atrocities.

Memories being me back to thirty-five years in Rhode Island, the micro-  state with a crime syndicate frequently at the center of public attention.  A new told-to memoir of a reputed enforcer and killer interestingly sharing the last name of eminently dignified predecessors, makes a real contribution. In Little Rhody, the colonial past never seems far away and even a progressive union leader of recent decades was actually named “Roger Williams.” The real eighteenth and early nineteenth century giants were more likely to have been slave traders and then owners of “family” mills where children toiled long hours. So perhaps the shift is not so great after all.

Never mind. Author Joe Broadmeadow, a cop retired from work in  deeply blue collar East Providence, has been writing crime novels until now. This is his venture into new territory, and he does it well.

I am rather surprised to find myself in the story. Back in middle 1980s, a Humanities grant sent me to the Adult Correctional Institution (ACI) to teach and dialogue on….a current crime novel about Rhode Island! Actually, it was a rather poor novel, better forgotten, but the prisoners’ reading group relished attacking it. The novelist, a big city sophisticate, had spent a short time in Providence and “didn’t understand” anything about the way they thought about crime or life. They made a convincing argument.

I was happy to share with the inmates my own experience interviewing older union people in the state and what I had picked up in the local news. The bishop, to take one small example, had been secretly photographed overseeing a mob wedding back in the ‘70s, and it was still part of the local lore, along with odd recollections of “good” mob neighborhoods where actual crime was absent. Or the more troubled memories of gay and lesbian clubs that were, almost invariably, owned by the mob, with predictable consequences.

Enforcer Gerald Tillinghast was regarded highly by his mates, not only because he was an exceptionally tough guy by any standard, but unlike his prison mates, and like almost anyone pulling a big robbery, “he planned.” For their part, they had acted on impulse or carried out orders strictly handed down from above. Also, Tillinghast was—I should say apparently remains in older age, now out of prison to stay—also both affable and intelligent, even charming.

His story, their story, is only incidentally connected with the Soprano-style saga of organized crime. He and his buddies lacked the Italian lineage to become Made Men, as Tillinghast relates without regret to Broadmeadow. These were fringe guys from the get-go. Turning criminal was something that happened to them in Providence, where the mob presence has been evident since Prohibition and made the practices of the underworld highly profitable.

A more sociological explanation of the pervasive crime culture is straightforward. WASP families, residing on College Hill and literally looking down upon the heavily Catholic population (who, by long-standing tradition, would not cross picket lines, forcing factory owners to recruit “Swamp Yankees” from the rural districts) needed to live with the contradictions of the majority. The protagonists of local horror writer, WASPish H.P. Lovecraft, fretted morbidly about the weird, devilish practices “across town,” while the Yankee clan at large rather enjoyed the lesser classes, employing them in a thousand ways, mostly at low wages.

Rhode Island was also, from at least the 1930s through the 1970s a union and welfare state per excellence, unfailingly Democratic. Just as unfailing has been its tradition of working people stealing small things from the workplace whenever possible. And, naturally, looking for ways to escape the factory life—until the factories closed for good. There were talented and even sometimes radical union leaders as well, and the victories won were good for the many seeking escape from the tenements, if not by themselves, then through their children.

Gerald Tillinghast knew nothing about the labor (or any other) idealists, as far as we can tell. His hard-scrabble, racially mixed neighborhood in South Providence of the 1950s was just plain tough. His father, along with his own mates, taught him early how how to use his fists, and he aspired for a while to become a prize-fighter. Instead, he did his fighting as a Marine in Vietnam and, he says, learned how to kill, how to think about killing. He got a DD  (dishonorable discharge), undeservedly according to himself, thanks to the military seeking to put a good face on the horrors exposed at My Lai and elsewhere.

Tillinghast arrived back home without GI benefits or career opportunities. In a city where blue collar life had first been transformed by WWII (they got away from their home neighborhoods temporarily, and saw the world) and then Vietnam (they came home drug-dependent), he turned instinctively toward low-level criminal activity. Over a few years, he built up a reputation for utterly, even foolhardy, toughness. He would cheerfully take on one, two or five guys who insulted him, just to make a point, his main point. His friends were undeniably unsavory, and his several wives could not hold him back. As Gerald, Jr., is quoted as saying, there was no romance in this family life. Dad went from adventure to prison and back, repeatedly.

Acquiring a reputation as an enforcer (as he accurately insists, the law never nailed him for this), Jerry took part in the locally famed Bonded Vault case of 1975, now considered one of the biggest heists in US history. A vast treasure trove of cash, bonds, jewels and such lay in a seemingly well guarded office in South Providence, a place where rental rates were obviously high and no questions asked. Tillinghast and his friends burst in, filling endless bags of loot and leaving behind a small mountain as too much to carry in a van! Like much else along similar lines locally, this robbery has the suspicious feeling of an Inside Job.

The other crucial detail here is that the four thieves made about $45K each for the caper. By contrast, the boss who hired them got millions, pretty much as a blue collar worker might earn a tiny fraction of the profits of any large company. Jerry was still a sort of wage slave, after all.

Tillinghast actually beat the rap, after police realized all they had for evidence was the DNA of someone else’s pubic hair in the seat of the van. He also had a working alibi. Three of his colleagues were ratted out by a participant who were sent straight into Witness Protection. Tillinghast, for his part, actually went back to work as an Environmental Control Agent, a fine union job arranged by charismatic and reputedly Connected mayor Vincent “Buddy” Cianci, who in turn got all the votes of the union local. Jerry soon went on to be shop steward. His reputed patron in the mayor’s office—between mayoral and jail terms—had a locally popular radio show. Cianci even invited me to talk about the oral history of Rhode Island working people that I had just published: a little revenge against the WASP gentility who sneered at him.

Tillinghast’s charmed life, with only minor terms in prison, began to wane with the disappearance of a couple of criminal upstarts at a marina in picturesque, historic Warwick. (When more bodies showed up, he recalls, the local police asked him to dump future victims anywhere else). Questions were raised in the press, but his luck was still somehow holding out. Then he knocked off a character known to lack the necessary respect for the famed boss of the New England mafia, Raymond L..S. Patriarca, for decades one of Rhode Island’s most prominent citizens, by reputation also a grand benefactor of The Church. Tillinghast found himself convicted and sent to the ACI, where he was instantly popular but regarded by authorities, for good reason, as a troublemaker, if an astute intellect as well. Long years went by.

Deported from the ACI to a federal prison in New Hampshire, Jerry Tillinghast discovers….Wicca, the pagan spiritual something that has found a secure place in popular culture, from New Age summer festivals to the plots of recent television series. There he formed a Coven, which must  be one of the stranger moments of his life-story. Back in Rhode Island, paroled out in 2007, he seemed to lead a quiet life, until arrested in a flea market sting for selling, in an abandoned former textile factory building, knock-off celebrity-brand sneakers. It was a typical Rhode Island crime in so many different ways. By 2011, nearing seventy, he was out of jail and off the streets….to stay.

Hinted, not quite articulated by the author, are details that help make  fuller sense of the story. Tillinghast’s union local, in the halcyon recession years of the 1970s, demanded more from Mayor Cianci for a crisis response to a snow storm. In a remarkable direct labor action, members stole hundreds of manhole covers that mostly found their way into the Providence River. The Mayor ordered city helicopters to search them out, prompting a standoff that ended in the usual trading of favors. More remarkably, the same union’s national leader, having inherited the mantle from his father, cast the deciding vote, in 1995, for the reform slate at the AFL-CIO national convention, against the caste of bumbling, reactionary bureaucrats led by Lane Kirkland and Albert Shanker.

This remarkable gesture was said to be motivated equally by the Providence-based scion’s twin inspirations: Liberation Theology and the Godfather. Can this widely circulated rumor be anything but apocryphal? Or is it a tribute to deeply Catholic and deeply fatalist working class culture in a world where better answers seem ever elusive?

Readers will not find the answer in Choices. But page after page, we get the sense of a life shaped by genuinely tough choices, the brutalization of war, and one dubious decision after another, leading ever downward. That it did not lead further downward is perhaps evidence of the dubious legal system around us: the same judge who handed down the long sentence to Tillinghast also reversed the conviction of European playboy Claus Von Bulow for murdering his aristocratic wife, in another of the other biggest Rhode Island crime stories of the era. Newport is not South Providence, as everyone knows.

An announced 2019 caper film, Vault, is not likely to offer us more along the sociological line, or to discount the “Rhode Island Dysfunctional” impression of blue collar life left by the remarkable Jim Carrey as a long-standing cop in Me, Myself and Irene (2000). Gerald Tillinghast does not appear in Vault, even in fictional form, and after reading the script, author Joe Broadmeadow was suitably disgusted.

Tillinghast, in real life these days one more Rhode Island senior citizen in a state famous for its depressing retirement towers of former textile workers, is more philosophical than bitter. The descendants of the real crime families, it is said, shifted their fortunes into local fast food franchises, decades ago, leaving the drug trade mostly to more recent ethnic arrivals. And so it goes, with no end in sight or even imagined. ##

Paul Buhle is a retired, former Senior Lecturer at Brown University and a founder, with Scott Molloy, of the Rhode Island Labor History Society. Together, they published several books about working class life in the Ocean State.




Paul Buhle is a retired historian, and co-founder, with Scott Molloy, of an oral history project on blue collar Rhode Islanders.