A tragic tale of neglect


Joseph Matthew McPhillips contacted the authorities on Sept. 22, 1935, to inform them his 1-year-old daughter, Rita Claire, was dead.

After the medical examiner determined that the child had died from “malnutrition – actual starvation,” the attorney general ordered an investigation by the RI Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, which led to Joseph being arrested on a charge of manslaughter.

Rita had been born on Sept. 2, 1934, to Joseph and Catherine Frances (Wilde). Joseph had grown up with his widowed mother and numerous siblings, becoming a Linotype machine apprentice for the Providence Journal at the age of 20. He remained in that line of work his entire life, later gaining employment with the Brown & Sharpe Manufacturing Company.

In 1921, he married Catherine and they raised 11 children on Sherman Street in Pawtucket. At the time of Rita’s death, the family was staying at a residence on Linden Street in the beautiful seaside village of Conimicut in Warwick. Catherine was in the hospital, having given birth to another child 10 days earlier.

The investigation into Rita’s death showed that she weighed just over five pounds and measured 22 inches in length. A healthy year-old child should have weighed about 20 pounds and measured about 29 inches in length. It was determined that the child had not been given sufficient nutrition since birth and the home was discovered to be void of food.

The medical examiner’s report stated that the children were often left in the care of the 10-year-old and that “the father was continuously intoxicated and the mother had not recognized baby’s lack of food.”

Joseph was arrested by Warwick Police and arraigned in Apponaug on Oct. 1 of that year. He pleaded not guilty and was held on $10,000 bail. Not being able to pay the bail, he was transferred to the Kent County Jail pending a trial.

It came to light that reports had been made to authorities in the past concerning Joseph’s non-support of his family, but the Director of Public Aid had them dismissed. Now, the court would decide to suspend his sentence so that he could be free to financially provide for his wife and many children.

The remaining children went on to live productive lives; the boys joined the military, the girls became nurses and legal secretaries. One daughter entered the “Little Sisters of the Poor” organization after graduating from St. Mary’s School.

On April 13, 1954, Joseph was returning home after visiting his mother, Mary (Reilly) McPhillips, and had just stepped off a bus on Main Street in Pawtucket when he became the victim of a hit-and-run driver. There were no witnesses and three men driving by at 1:07 that day contacted police about a man laying in the street. Joseph’s shattered watch was stopped at 1:03. The watch had been torn from his wrist by the impact and his hat lay 40 feet away. Injuries included a fractured skull, pelvis, ribs and left arm as well as internal injuries.

A saved newspaper article was discovered in his pocket, concerning the activities of Joseph’s son Edward, who had joined the Army the previous year and was stationed in Austria. This gave police an idea of who the man was. Catherine was called to Memorial Hospital to identify the body of her husband.

Joseph was laid to rest in St. Francis Cemetery in Pawtucket where baby Rita had been buried 19 years before.

Kelly Sullivan is a Rhode Island columnist, lecturer and author.

tragedy, neglect


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