In 1958, in one of the most bizarre crimes in Norton's history, nearly 10,000 turkeys were released from the Turkey Farm in Winnecunnet. This was more than one turkey for every man, woman, and child in town. The criminals were never caught.
Years later, when the statute of limitations expired a short sarcastic letter was sent to the Sun Chronicle from two individuals calling themselves Bonnie and Clyde taking responsibility for the act. They provided some details but nothing that would reveal their identities. With the story dormant for over a decade, the published letter created a stir and brought back the memories of all the commotion caused that day in 1958. From then on, the legend of the incident and the renegades only grew with time.
So finally after over thirty years there would finally be an explanation. Angela Hanratty, the celebrated activist nurse and her husband Pat, professor and author, were confessing their crime. They were addressing a gathered crowd at Ann’s Place on the occasion of their departure to Africa to build a school and health clinic. The audience stared at them enraptured with the details as they were revealed.
Angela was 16 and Pat was 17 just about to turn 18. They were kids. They spent summers in Norton on the Reservoir, but for the rest of the year she was in Roslindale and he was in South Boston. In the summer of 1957, Pat fell for Angela. He wanted her heart. She said he would need to earn it. He said he would do anything.
Angela had recently read an article about cruel treatment of chickens in Arkansas and she knew that there was a giant turkey farm in Norton. If Pat was to earn her heart she declared that they needed to strike a secret and symbolic blow against the poultry trade.
She laid out her idea. They would strike at midnight on Halloween night. This would be perfect timing to save all the turkeys from a Thanksgiving demise in the coming days and weeks.
The rest of the plan was up to Pat. All the necessary equipment for this type of job was easily accessible in Southie. He secured a car, some wirecutters, and a dozen smoke canisters. Angela needed to find a friend willing to say she was staying over her house. Pat was at the age where his parents weren't expecting him home every night.
The made the drive south from Boston. They parked at the Winnecunnet cemetery. In advance they located a canoe at a nearby cottage on the shore of the pond.
They scaled the short fence of the farm and Angela laid out the smoke canisters on the perimeter. Pat began cutting the fence on a downslope where the farm spilled down toward the Pond. When he had cut a 20 foot opening he rejoined Angela. Starting from back to front they lit the canisters and the smoke began to fill the air. For amateurs, the plan worked pretty well. They were always a little ahead of the pack of turkeys and the growing smoke mass created a gentle wall that pushed the turkeys through the opening in the fence.
Pat and Angela scooped up the wirecutters and the matches and made a dash for the getaway car. They stopped for a quick moment at the shore of the pond. They soaked the wirecutters and matches, they put them in the canoe and launched it as far as they could toward the center of the pond.
They drove out of town on their carefully mapped escape route and the plan went off without a hitch. Angela had struck a blow against the establishment and Pat has proven his love. Angela fulfilled her promise to Pat and that became their first mercy mission, however misguided.
The breaking dawn in Norton exposed a comic scene of chaos. The smoke had long cleared. There were turkeys everywhere in Winnecunnet. Bay Road looked like a street festival but there were no people, only turkeys. The owners of the farm didn’t know where to begin. The police were called, the fire department arrived and all of the neighbors were all on hand but nobody really knew what to do. The local press began to arrive and they had more photo opportunities than a political rally. Every angle created visual scenes that would look great on film. As time went on what began to sink in that by and large the turkeys didn’t really want to go anywhere, they were just congregating. Realizing this, the farmer took massive bags of feed placed them in the highest point on his farm and cut them open. His sons opened any gates they had and they took down an additional section of fence where the criminals had cut the twenty foot opening.
Then they took scoops of the feed and began to make a trail from the high point toward the Pond. The liberated turkeys started to figure things out. In a much more orderly fashion than just a few hours ago, they began to climb back up and make their way back in to their more comfortable environment, back to where they were fed regularly, back where predators were fenced out. By noontime it was over. The fence was repaired and they gates were closed. In all it’s estimated that about 100 turkeys didn’t make their way back into the farm. Other than a lost morning of productivity and about $40 in repairs, the farm barely missed a beat.
As far as the investigation, Gus Schaeffer had some explain to do about why his canoe was in the middle of the pond with matches and wire cutters. It didn’t take long for him to clear himself of any involvement. But the limited evidence found floating in the pond was enough to get the Police looking in all the wrong places. Within days the trail had turned cold.
What endured were the images. The images of the turkeys who appeared more inconvenienced than freed. The images of all the curiosity seekers and the volunteers who wanted to help put things back together. Not much happened in Norton in those days. This was a big deal. The only real victim, the farm owner, didn’t suffer a catastrophic loss and seemed to be coping well with the circumstances. All in all the incident it created a unique nearly festive atmosphere. It was the type of thing that people would talk about for years and they did.
Since things remained unsolved what was always missing for the people of the little town was an explanation of why. Why would someone go to such great lengths to commit the odd crime?
Now more than three decades later, the mythical Bonnie and Clyde of Winnecunnet stood before the enquiring citizenry of Norton and provided the long awaited explanation. They both started by admitting that it was exhilarating. Angela explained that for years she had no idea why she did it. As she grew, she concluded it was an ill-planned youthful expression of a deeply rooted need to stick up for those who needed help. As for Pat, he acknowledged that for him it was one of the oldest motives known to man. He did it to get the girl. While not exactly glamorous explanations they certainly were motives everyone could relate to.
Given the amount of time that went by there seemed to be no sign of hard feelings and even more fascination about the whole thing. When they finished, Angela and Pat Hanratty shook extended hands, hugged many, posed for pictures and then walked out of Ann’s Place. They drove to Boston, they flew to Africa, and built their school and hospital. Before anybody could think about reopening the case they were gone. In their wake, they left their town with a lasting legacy and a story for the ages.
The next time you see a rafter of wild turkeys roaming around Norton, you can thank Angela and Pat Hanratty, the Bonnie and Clyde of Winnecunnet.