- Historic Sites
Coatesville, Pennsylvania, dozed fitfully in the oppressive heat of August. Then two shots rang out, and set off an ugly train of racial violence
June 1964 | Volume 15, Issue 4
Shortly before 9 P.M. , two shots rang out from the woods. They were heard by Edgar Rice, a company policeman employed by Worth who had stopped into the grocery store of a Slovakian immigrant, Leon Miclcorck. Rice hurried toward the woods and met an immigrant fleeing from them. A Negro had tried to hold him up, the immigrant said, and when he ran, the Negro fired at him twice. The policeman went into the woods. Soon there was another shot, then two more.
Rice came staggering out, reeled along the road some sixty yards with his arms flung out before him, dropped face down near Miclcorck’s grocery. The terrified storekeeper and other immigrants carried the policeman into the store. One bullet had torn through his shoulder and another was lodged in the left side of his head at the base of the brain. In a few minutes Rice stopped breathing.
The immigrants had scarcely realized that the policeman was dead when the August skies broke into a torrential rain. One of the immigrants, a Hungarian, went running into town, sloshing through the mud and shouting the news in a frenzy of broken syntax. Coatesville heard of the killing with a gasp. Edgar Rice was widely known and just about as popular as anyone in town. Middle-class Coatesville thought of him as the middle-class ideal, a hard-working, church-going man, good husband and good father to his five children, properly proud of his oldest boy, Thomas, who was serving on the U.S.S. Chester. Working-class Coatesville knew him as a highly unusual company cop, a friendly, good-humored fellow who rarely used his pistol or stick and was more likely to take a troublemaker home than to jail him. All kinds of people remembered Rice as the victim of highhanded politics. For six years he had been a member of the regular town police force but two years before, he had had the temerity to run for the office of chief of police and, worse still, to come within forty-four votes of winning. Rice was promptly fired and had to settle for the lower-paying job of company cop.
As the news of the killing raced through town, bars, movies, and homes emptied and angry groups gathered on the street corners. Everybody was soon agreeing on much the same story: Edgar Rice, always the brave man, had gone into the woods with his pistol in its holster. He found the Negro, grabbed him by the arm, started leading him to the nearby Worth lockup. The Negro wrenched himself free, tripped Rice, and as the policeman fell, shot him in the back. The more the story was told, the bigger and the more restless the crowds became. The largest number gathered on East Chestnut Street, just off Main Street, in front of the boxlike, two-story, red-brick building that functioned both as borough hall and borough jail but served above all as the headquarters of Charles E. Umsted, Elk, Mason, Eagle, leader in the Washington Hose Company and the United Sportsmen’s Association, pillar of the First Baptist Church, constable, high constable, and chief of police of the Borough of Coatesville.
Several years before, Chief Umsted had unceremoniously dumped a reporter from the Coatesville Record out of his office and the Record’s editor, William W. Long, replied with an editorial that compared the Chief to the elephant Jumbo, which P.T. Barnum had imported from England. Jumbo, the editorial explained, was so big he nearly sank the ship and so dumb he had trouble learning to eat peanuts. From that day on, to everybody in Coatesville Chief Umsted was “Jumbo” or “Jummy”—depending on the mood--and the nicknames were not without their appropriateness. A huge hulk of a man, six feet three inches in his flat policeman’s shoes and sending the scales over 250 pounds when he was eating lightly, Umsted crunched his way through the jungle of Coatesville police life.
Everybody had stories of the Chief’s mastodonic law enforcement. Was there word that three New York pickpockets were arriving on the morning train to work the local fair? Umsted met the men as they alighted, bundled them together like so many bags of potatoes, deposited them back on the train. Had a steelworker in the Speakman Bar pulled a knife? Umsted arrived with an impatient glower, knocked the knife out of the man’s hand, removed him forthwith by the seat of his pants and the scruff of his neck.
But the roughhouse Chief also had his own deft sense of how to get along and get ahead. Starting out as a butcher, he had quickly tired of cleaving steaks and in election after election he kept winning the post of chief of police despite Coatesville’s endlessly intricate politics. Among the town’s steel executives, men used to smile and say, “Jummy knows what we want.” Ladies’ clubs passed more than a few glowing resolutions about the Chief; he managed to give his roughest manhandlings the aura of law and justice. Even the drunks of the town could find good words for Umsted. At the back of the borough jail was a square room, with concrete walls and narrow slits for a door and a window, that was known as “The Tank.” The man who had had too many would be put in the Tank, doused by the Chief with a hose and permitted to sleep it off, then sent on his way the next morning with a friendly, if paralyzing, shake of the hand. “Jummy was the most lumbering man I ever saw,” one Coatesville resident remembers, “but he always lumbered, clumsy as could be, to exactly where he wanted to get.”