125 Years Ago: 12-year-old boy saved from drowning, lives to age 92

Herron saves Ryan’s life, slain nine years later

SOUTHBRIDGE — In Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, a young George Bailey saves his younger brother, Harry, from drowning when he falls through the ice. Harry goes on to save countless troops in World War II. Around the same time the fictional Harry Bailey is narrowly saved from an icy drowning, so too was the very real Bert Ryan.

The incident was recorded in the February 6, 1896 edition of The Southbridge Journal, with independent research of various records and sources by The Citizen Chronicle helping to fill in the details.

Bert, as he is referred to in the newspaper, was Herbert Ferdinand Ryan. He was just 12-years-old at the time of the near-drowning, having been born in Southbridge on June 27, 1883. Records suggest Bert was the lone child of Ferdinand “Ferd” and Myra (Chamberlin) Ryan of Southbridge.

According to the newspaper report, Bert’s “exceedingly narrow escape from drowning” on the afternoon of January 31, 1896. “Along with other boys he was skating on the big pond when venturing too near where the Hamilton Woolen Co. had been cutting ice he fell into the water and would doubtless have been drowned but for the timely assistance of Ernest Herron who succeeded in helping him out.” Records suggest the hero of our story, Ernest, was a slightly older boy, aged 15.

Herbert Ryan’s signature on his World War II draft registration card in 1942, nearly 50 years after he almost drowned as a 12-year-old boy.

With disaster averted, the Ryan family remained in tact. In 1921, Bert would marry Frances C. Walker, the daughter of Frederick and Capatola Walker. Records suggest Bert and Frances went on to have one child of their own, a son named Donald, born in 1923. Bert, who nearly was killed at the tender age of 12, lived to the ripe old age of 92, passing away in 1975. Frances passed away in 1973 at the age of 82. Their son, Donald, lived to age 78, passing away in 2001.

The February 6, 1896 edition of The Southbridge Journal shared the near-drowning of Herbert “Bert” Ryan.

Hero turned “Insane” villain

While Bert survived and lived another 80 years after this near-tragic event, Ernest was not so fortunate.

Ernest C. Herron was born in Southbridge to Robert and Emily (Congdon) Herron in December 1881. Multiple times in his youth, including the same year he saved the life of Bert Ryan, Ernest was recognized for his academics in annual reports of the Town of Southbridge.

Soon after the dawn of the 20th century, the Herron family moved out of Southbridge, first to Webster, and later to northeastern Connecticut. It was while residing in Cheshire, Conn., that something dramatically changed within Ernest, ultimately leading to his death.

At approximately 4:00 a.m. on March 25, 1905, 23-year-old Ernest was apparently attempting to break into the home of a lawyer in Woonsocket, R.I., when he was fatally shot. Multiple contemporary newspaper reports describe Ernest as being a “maniac” or “violently insane.”

According to the March 26, 1905 edition of the New York Daily Tribune, homeowner P. Francis Cassidy reported he “heard some one pounding on the front door, and found a stranger there, using a brick and a piece of iron pipe, with which he had inflicted considerable damage.” The Alexandria Gazette‘s account of the incident, published as “Maniac Killed” on March 27, 1905 in Alexandria, Virginia, reported Ernest had “smashed his way with a brick into the home” while “violently insane.”

Cassidy reportedly told the man, whom he did not know, to leave before firing a warning shot in the air. When Ernest did not leave, Cassidy fired his revolver at the intruder, but missed. He fired once more, striking Ernest “in the right eye.” When police arrived, Ernest was taken to the police station, dying there “without showing signs of consciousness,” reported the New York Daily Tribune. The Alexandria Gazette reported Ernest expired roughly two hours after the shooting.

The New York Daily Tribune labeled Ernest as “insane,” explaining he “was under charge of his brother, from whom he made his escape” the day prior. The Alexandria Gazette said members of Ernest’s family said “he had been acting strangely of late. He had become deranged over religion, they said.” The Providence News, which lead the March 25, 1905 edition of its daily newspaper with the story, explained: “By reason of religious fervor he had become mentally unbalanced and was therefore not responsible” for the attempted home invasion. That newspaper later cited police as describing Ernest as “demented.”

The family reportedly said that while Ernest was working on a hen farm in Cheshire, he “had devoted a large portion of him time to the study of the Bible.” The Alexandria Gazette continued: “He appeared at his mother’s home in Fall River Wednesday, and after talking a few moments in an irrational manner burst open the door and left the house.” A day after leaving his mother’s home in Fall River, Ernest reportedly showed up at his brother George’s home in Providence. The Providence News reported Ernest had told his brother “he intended to go to Southbridge, Mass., to see Rev. Sylvester Hayward.” George endeavored to stop Ernest from returning to their old hometown, which led to an outburst. Ernest “had a violent spell … escaping from the custody of his brother after a fight,” reported the Alexandria Gazette. The Providence News reported Ernest had “turned upon George, and scratched and beat his face until his brother’s hold was broken.” According to newspaper reports, authorities believe Ernest was attempting to break into the Cassidy home in Woonsocket in an effort to find shelter and rest.

Cassidy was not taken into custody by law enforcement, according to the New York Daily Tribune, as police said “the shooting was justifiable.” As noted by The Providence News: “Mr. Cassidy has been completely and absolutely exonerated by the police and medical examiner who say he killed the intruder while himself and his family were in great danger.”

The tragic story of Ernest Herron was front page news with a remarkably large headline atop the March 25, 1905 edition of The Providence News.

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