A LOOK BACK with Dr. Scott Eckers

The Spragues' Misfortune Brings a Man to Justice

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The Sprague Family was prominent in East Meadow in the late 19th century. Maps from 1859, 1873, 1886, and 1891 detail the properties of several generations of Spragues (or Spraggs). At 6:30 in the morning on January 25, 1884, a masked man entered the home of Mr. Sealey Sprague, who lived on a farm located behind the current East Meadow High School athletic fields (The network of colonial-era roads in that neighborhood no longer exists, having been decommissioned by the creation of Salisbury Golf Club and, later, Eisenhower Park). Mrs. Sarah R. Sprague was knocked to the ground and robbed of $38. She summoned help from her neighbors, the Pettits, who found her husband badly injured on a barn floor. Sealey was struck in the head with a fish plate, a metal bar used to hold railroad tracks together, and suffered a serious fracture to his head. His physicians initially believed that Sprague would not survive, but he made a slow and steady recovery over many months.

The unknown black assailant fled through snow to a store in Westbury. The storekeeper, already aware of the suspect's description, caught Charles H. Rugg and held him until police arrived. Rugg was scheduled to be taken by train to Hicksville for examination by a local official. Twenty men assembled in East Meadow and took an oath to capture Rugg from Hicksville. They planned to bring the man to justice by dragging him behind a horse if they could not find a suitable tree. Hundreds of locals, both white and black, apparently supported the effort. The District Attorney, upon the advice of a few sensible residents who felt a lynching would bring shame upon the local populace, decided to change the January 29 venue to Long Island City. Rugg narrowly escaped vigilante justice.

The East Meadow investigation was instrumental in solving several recent high-profile cases in the nearby town of Oyster Bay. On November 17, 1883, Lydia Maybee and her daughter Ann were strangled and murdered while an unknown criminal stole a gold watch, gold chain, cameo breast pin and cash with a total value of $130. The husband, Garret, survived the assault. A few weeks later, Mr. and Mrs. James Townsend were found beaten in their Oyster Bay home. These crimes rocked the town and police followed many leads, accusing men who were later exonerated. After the arrest in the Sprague assault, it became clear that Rugg was connected to the Maybee and Townsend cases. Around the same time, a pawnshop owner identified Rugg as the man who brought in Maybee's gold watch.

In February 1884, Rugg penned a jailhouse confession in which he admitted to the highly-publicized crimes. The jury took only one hour to find him guilty of seven counts of murder, assault, and theft. He was hanged on the morning of May 15, 1885 at the Queens County Jail, to quite a bit of fanfare among Sheriff Garrett Furman and his police acquaintances. Before he was executed, Rugg requested and received a final breakfast. Having recently converted to Catholicism, Rugg received spiritual guidance from Father Maguire and walked to the gallows to "meet his fate without exhibiting any feeling." The denizens of East Meadow breathed a collective sign of relief and were free to continue their safe and simple farming lives. Mr. and Mrs. Sealey Sprague had no children; Sealey lived until 1917 and Sarah until 1937. Her family members claimed that in her 94 years, Sarah left Long Island but once.

Dr. Scott Eckers is the author of East Meadow in Arcadia Publishing's Images of America series. He is Vice President of the East Meadow Board of Education as well as Social Studies Chair for the East Williston School District. Scott is also an entertainer and recording artist.