Everitte St. John Chaffee (1879- 1971) was born in Dutchess County, New York in 1880. Upon graduation from Yale and then from Harvard Law School, he traveled to Rhode Island in 1904, and married Carolyn Peck of Barrington in 1911. As a member of the politically connected Peck family (William Peck was GOP state chairman), Carolyn was able to aid in her husband’s rise through the ranks of the police force.
Chaffee’s first law enforcement assignment was as commander of the Rhode Island battalion stationed at the Mexican border in 1916 and was instrumental in reducing the danger caused by Pancho Villa’s marauders who raided towns along our Southwestern border. After the entrance of the U.S. into World War I, Chaffee led a battalion of the 103rd Artillery in France, which was recognized for their bravery during skirmishes near the Chateau Thierry in July 1918. For his courage and leadership, Chaffee was then promoted to the rank of full colonel.
Upon his return to the states, he was called upon to tame the rampant lawlessness caused by the passage of the Eighteenth (Prohibition) Amendment. In part, because the state refused to ratify the legislation, bootlegging became commonplace, especially in the burgeoning cities of Providence, Central Falls, and Pawtucket. In 1925, the General Assembly passed legislation, which called for a Superintendent of the State Police, thus streamlining and centralizing the police force. Its creation was caused in part by the 1924 disruption of the General Assembly (the “Stink-bomb” incident) and by the increasing use of the automobile. Governor Aram J. Pothier appointed Colonel St. John Chaffee the first superintendent.
Although the Republicans hoped that they could use Chaffee to dole out additional patronage, he refused to succumb to pressure, and instead ensured that his department would be comprised of well qualified men free of political ties.
Colonel Chaffee enforced strict discipline to enforce excellence and rigor. He fashioned a uniform of red and black piping, which adorned a heavy gray material, high-laced boots, and a “Smokey the Bear” hat, and established rigorous procedures for patrolling and inquiry. He was also instrumental in increasing the number of police barracks constructed during his nine years in office. Chaffee’s men proved quite successful in capturing known bootleggers, gamblers, and raiding houses of prostitution.
Nonetheless, Chaffee was forced to step down when Governor Green refused to sanction his reappointment preferring a Democrat Edward J. Kelly. Despite his loss, Chaffee hoped that his demand for nonpartisanship would continue in his absence.
Despite his forced retirement, Colonel Chaffee continued to serve the state. In 1931 he was appointed to a state board tasked with reviewing the performance of the state police. Nine years later, Republican Governor William H. Vanderbilt chose him to serve on the state Liquor Appeals Hearing Board. He also continued to work at his law office, Sturges, Chaffee and Hazard until his death on August 9, 1971. He was survived by his four children and his wife and was laid to rest at Swan Point Cemetery in Providence.
Debra A. Mulligan