Colonel Everitte St. John Chaffee

Inducted: 2014
Born: 1879
Died: 1971

Everitte St. John Chaffee is credited with developing standards of excellence for the Rhode Island State Police when he was appointed as its founding Superintendent on April 2, 1925. The appointment of Colonel Chafee as first Superintendent was not popular, but Gov. Aram J. Pothier, who selected Chaffee, and the General Assembly resisted any efforts to name other candidates. The development of the motor car and widespread defiance of Prohibition had created an acute need for the force. Chaffee oversaw a new concept of law enforcement in Rhode Island that was severely tested on frequent occasions during its early formative years.

Chaffee was born in Dutchess County, New York, on November 15, 1879, and graduated from Yale and Harvard Law School. He came to Rhode Island in 1904 and married Carolyn Peck of Barrington in 1911. His new wife was a member of a powerful Republican family, a fact that facilitated his rise to prominence. His command experience undoubtedly influenced Chaffee’s selection. Chaffee enlisted in Company C of the First Army Infantry Regiment and was made a Captain within two years. Later, he fought Poncho Villa on the Mexican Border under General Pershing and commanded a battalion of the 103rd Artillery in France during World War I. Through a series of battlefield promotions, he rose to the rank of full Colonel and, after the war, returned to Rhode Island as the 103rd’s commander.

Chaffee exercised total control over the Rhode Island State Police’s creation. He designed the uniform, a dramatic ensemble with red and black piping on steel gray fabric, an over-the-shoulder Sam Browne belt, knee-laced boots, and a tan hat. He composed the creed, which still survives, reminding his people of their duty, honor, and service to the state. Even the procedures used in patrolling and investigation were devised by Chaffee through his study of other state police forces. Most importantly, his stern code of moral rectitude set an example that is as compelling today as it was then. It is no accident that Superintendents of the State Police are still called “Colonel” in Chaffee’s honor.

During his early months in office, Chaffee visited other State Police departments. He inquired extensively concerning the mobile and personal equipment that would best suit the purposes of the new force. A special effort was made to use equipment manufactured in Rhode Island. Rhode Island manufacturers produced the original badges, collar ornaments, and other such items. The famous Indian motorcycle, manufactured in Springfield, Massachusetts, became part of the Department’s early history. The Colt 45 was selected for firearms, probably influenced by Chaffee’s strong ties to the Colt family. 

Chaffee made every effort to enlist qualified applicants. The General Assembly had authorized an original complement of twenty-three troopers. A selection board composed of five former army officers was organized. Instructions for applying were carried out in the major newspapers of the state. Applicants were warned that the mental and physical examinations would be stringent. Each applicant had to present certificates from three citizens regarding their fitness and qualifications for State Police responsibilities. Approximately six hundred aspirants applied for the twenty-three positions. After the selections were completed, training began on May 11, 1925, at the Chaffee summer home in Wakefield. A large house, stables, a garage, and twenty acres of land provided an excellent training site. By the close of 1925, the Department was well established. Chaffee, one captain, and one lieutenant were stationed at the headquarters in North Situate. The South County Patrol was quartered at the Wickford Barracks, and an Island Patrol was in Portsmouth.  

The force conducted its first gambling raid while the men were still training. On July 25, 1925, suspected gambling establishments were hit in three sections of the state. The raids failed because the operators had been tipped off hours before the raids began. Chaffee learned a lesson he would never forget – raids had to be carried out with secrecy and swift action. The lesson he learned served well several weeks later with a raid at the Meadowbrook Country Club in Marieville. The troopers hammered on the doors to gain entrance, and the raid was a complete success. The owner, employees, and 60 gamblers were arrested and charged with specific violations of the gambling statutes.

From the beginning, Prohibition presented all types of enforcement problems for Chaffee. Late in the summer of 1925, an “Off Islander” had opened an illicit liquor operation on Block Island, naming the place the “Red Cock Inn.” The owner of another illegal establishment on Block Island, the “Yellow Kittens,” raided its competitor and ordered the owner off Block Island. He left the same day. Chaffee’s raid was described in a Providence Journal article: “The Rhode Island Mounted Police yesterday captured Block Island and made it for the first time since the enactment of the Eighteenth Amendment a part of the United States. A lone State Trooper guarding the popular Yellow Kittens Inn constitutes the whole American Army of Occupation on Block Island, which has been virtually independent of the Eighteenth Amendment for the past five years. It appears that Block Island is coming back into the Union.” 

These enforcement activities proved the value of a statewide law enforcement agency. The ability to strike against law breakers whenever and wherever they operated gained instant public support for the new force. A continuing strength was its willingness to confront criminals and crimes when enforcement action is required, no matter the source or dimension of the problem. Before long, word of the successes of the Rhode Island State Police spread across the country, earning a reputation that persists to this day.

Chaffee called his first band of troopers “The Amateurs” after their love for the job. He explained in a 1953 article, “If you came to know the men as thousands came to know them and their successes, you would know that there was something hidden but very fine about their ideals and pride of service. You would know that the words ‘In the service of the State” engraved on the cap ornament, polished brass numbers on the red-piped black broadcloth badge, and the anchor and seal of Rhode Island on the brass shoulder guard had about them a sense of the elements of greatness and few of us amateurs have ever realized anything finer.”

Chaffee’s tenure was cut short in 1934 when Governor Theodore F. Green chose not to renew his appointment, citing the need to place Democrats in key state government positions. Despite the furor that ensued, Chaffee went quietly, believing that the non-partisan spirit he had initiated in the force would survive his departure. 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 continued to work in his law office until his death on August 9, 1971. 

The Rhode Island Senate passed a resolution on August 6, 2000, proclaiming April 2 as Rhode Island State Police Day. 

Colonel Everitte St. John Chaffee was inducted into The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 2014.

For additional reading: 

  • The Egotistical Account of an Enjoyable War, by Colonel Everitt St. John Chaffee, Hassell Street Press, 1951. 
  • Celebrating the 90th Anniversary of the Founding of The Rhode Island State Police, State of RI General Assembly, April 2, 2015.
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