Map showing location of Chase Farm

Farmer and auctioneer Isaac Chase may have killed Charles Porter in 1903, but the issues involved in this case could come out of our headlines today. The right to defend one’s life and home, racial division and the lack of police protection all come into play during the legal proceedings against Portsmouth farmer Chase.

Before we get into the issues and headlines, lets go over the timeline of the case as reported by witnesses at the inquest.

Case Timeline

  1.  Charles Porter had been employed on Isaac Chase’s farm in Portsmouth for nearly three years. Porter seemed to be living at West Broadway in Newport.  Little was known about him and we even find his name confused.
  2. During the month before the shooting, there were several altercations between Chase and Porter.  Chase had a large farm off Wapping Road and his produce was sold to Newport kitchens and restaurants.  Chase discharged Porter and had warned him not to come back to the farm.
  3. On Feb 19, 1903, attorney F.F. Nolan had a visit from Porter.  Porter told him he had some trouble with Chase and wanted to get a settlement from him.  Porter told the lawyer that Chase had been circulating damaging stories about him.  Nolan reported that Porter did not seem violent, just a trifle unbalanced.  He talked about the blowing of horns.
  4. Also on Feb 19, a black man purchased a revolver and box of cartridges at Mr. Southwick’s store.   The clerk could not identify Porter as the purchaser.
  5.  On the morning of Feb 20, 1903, Isaac Chase and his daughter, Augusta, were leaving their home on a sleigh.  A man was standing near the gatepost and her father stopped to talk to him.  The man said that her father had been talking about him.  Her father denied this.  Chase’s daughter testified that the man drew out a revolver and fired it. The shot went wild even though Porter was right next to the sleigh.
  6. Chase drove on in the sleigh until he met Fillmore Coggeshall.  He asked Coggeshall to go to Oakland Farm to telephone for an officer.
  7. Frank Paquin (perhaps a constable) was sent to Newport in search of an officer.
  8. At around 2 PM, after asking Coggeshall to telephone for an officer, Chase and his daughter returned to their home.
  9. Chase armed himself with a shot-gun and loaded with both barrels with buckshot.
  10. Owing to a number of reasons, there was a long wait for an officer.
  11. Augusta Chase reported that the man in the road (Porter) followed her father around to every spot he went.
  12. The man (Porter) had his hands in his pocket when he started into the yard.  Her father shouted a warning and then he shot.  Chase claimed he did not deliberately aim or shoot to kill.
  13. Chase requested someone to go to Oakland Farm and call up the Sheriff.  He gave an accounting of the shooting and offered to give himself up.  The sheriff sent out two deputies to arrest him.  They returned with Chase and locked him up in the county jail.
  14. Dr. Steele, medical examiner for Portsmouth found Porter’s body lying across Chase’s driveway – entirely within Porter’s property.  He found a seven shot fully loaded revolver on the body and evidence that the gun had been recently fired and reloaded.

Racial Tensions

This case raised some issues of racial tensions.  Because the victim was a black man and the shooter was white, the black community rallied.  Newspapers reported threats against Chase, but there were also calmer voices.

Let us look at the threats first.  The headline in the Feb 27th Boston Herald read:  “Farmer Chase Threatened – If not Imprisoned for Killing Porter, He Will Be Murdered, Letter Says.”  Although I couldn’t find the original article this quotes, the Herald reports that the Newport News (Maybe the Newport Daily News?) says:  The News is in receipt of an anonymous letter – “We colored men are to form a delegation to see that the law in enforced and that the murderer  be sent to prison for life; if not, we are pledged to murder him within a year’s time. The statement is also made that Chase owed Porter $73 for work, he having received only $7 for four months previous.”  These threats were viewed seriously by the police and Chase was protected.

Daily News accounts report a large group of blacks (hundreds) attended the hearing.  Members of the black community “have raised a sum of money to defray the funeral expenses and to secure a counsel to look after the interests of” Porter.  Indeed, the counsel (F.F. Nolan) participated in the interrogation of witnesses even though there was an attorney representing the state.

One of the most interesting headlines was in the Boston Journal of February 28, 1903.


Rev. I. Derricks so Advises Newport Colored People.

The article relates Reverend Israel Derrick’s remarks at the funeral of Charles Porter.  “I want to caution all my people, you grown up men in particular, to be careful what you say, as well as what you do in this regrettable tragedy.  You are living in enlightened New England, where the torch and rope are presumed to be unknown.  Be calm and let the law take its course.  I should be sadly grieved to see any of my brethren attempting to take the law into their own hands, as has been threatened by some of you.  I am a law abiding citizen, and I want all of you to be, at the same time I agree with you to this extent.  ‘Let justice be done, though the heaven’s fall.'”

Did He Shoot In Self-Defense?

One of the witnesses at the preliminary hearing, William Butler (Town Sergeant)  quoted Chase as saying he had to protect himself.

“Butler, I hated to do it but I had to protect my life and family.”

Chase himself testified that he thought he saw a suggestive movement towards the hip pocket where the revolver had been produced in the earlier attack.

The white community was sympathetic to Chase.  A Newport Mercury article on Feb. 28th, commented that “Little else has been talked of in the towns on the Island since the affair happened and sentiment seems to be greatly in favor of Mr. Chase on the ground that his action was entirely justifiable under the circumstances.

The view of the Black Community was quite different.  The headline on Feb 26, 1903 Boston Journal reads:
“Not Satisfied, Chase Shot in Self-Defense:  Colored Citizens of Newport Aroused Over Killing of Potter.” (Note that there was confusion about Porter’s name).  The newspaper account talks about the funds raised not only for the burial, but also to investigate the affair.  Porter’s father and others in the community believed Chase owed Porter and had been keeping items at the Chase home (a trunk with clothing, a gold watch and money) that rightfully belonged to Porter.  The reasoning was that Porter had just come for what was owed him, but Chase willfully shot him.

The Boston Journal (Feb. 28) reported that “the negroes as a unit, are on the side of the dead man.”

Lack of Police Protection

Because of the threats, Portsmouth town authorities were advised that they had to provide reasonable protection for Chase and his family.  There was a constable assigned to the Chase house every night.  A March 11, 1903 Boston Journal article brings up another issue – that of  police protection.  “On the day of the shooting about seven hours elapsed before an officer of the law appeared upon the premises, and this is being used as an argument that the citizens do not have proper protection.  Because of the slow means of communication about the town it is difficult to locate the town officers in emergency, though they do their best to respond to calls when they receive them.”

In an age where we carry cell phones and can call 911 in an emergency, it is difficult for us to understand the length of time it took for Chase to get help.  When Charles Porter fired a wild shot at Isaac Chase, Chase tried to do the right thing.  He sent someone to a telephone at the Vanderbilts at Oakland Farm who had the closest phone.  When they did reach the authorities, no officer was available.  It was an hour or two after the death of Porter when a deputy sheriff arrived.  Instead of arresting Porter, Isaac Chase was offering himself up.

We have no record of how long the constables protected Isaac Chase.  We do know that he lived sixteen more years.  The courts did not indict Chase for the shooting of Charles Porter and the newspaper records do not show any reaction from the black community.  Perhaps they listened to Rev. Derrick and let justice be done.

I encountered this story as I was researching Isaac Chase’s auctioneer’s book for a display at the Portsmouth Historical Society coming spring of 2018.  There are still many questions left to explore.  What was the racial climate on the island at the turn of the century? Was this case representative of a general divide between black and white?  The lawyer describes Porter as “a trifle unbalanced” and reported that Porter said he had been “hearing horns.”  Is this another incidence of mental illness creating a confrontation?  How did the development of the telephone help the response time of the police?  Was there enough of a police presence in the town of Portsmouth?

As a community we seem to grapple with some of the same issues as Portsmouth residents in Isaac Chase’s day.  Racial tensions, questions of self-defense, and the effectiveness of the police force are on the national news today.  Some issues never get resolved.