Credit: Robert Wallace
Author Robert Wallace/ Credit: Ev Dow Photography

Robert W. Wallace’s recent novel “Machine Guns and Typewriters” chronicles one of the darkest days in Needham’s history. On Feb. 2, 1934, a Boston-based gang gunned down Needham police officers Forbes McLeod and Francis Haddock. Firefighter Tim Coughlin also was shot but survived. Two others were injured. The murders happened during and after the robbery of the Needham Trust Company, the predecessor of Needham Savings Bank located at the same spot on Great Plain Avenue.  

The gangsters, Abraham Faber and brothers Murton and Irving Millen, were caught, convicted and executed.

Wallace began his research for the book about 30 years ago by going through the card catalog and microfilm at the Needham Public Library. 

“My history with Needham has deep roots,” Wallace said. He attended the Dwight School in kindergarten and first grade. His great-grandfather, a Boston Globe reporter who lived on Oak Street, was instrumental in finding the killers. 

Wallace tells the story as historical fiction. “A book that made a big impression on me when I was young was ‘Killer Angels,’” he said.  

Although he said that he has a long way to go to reach the storytelling ability found in that Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the Civil War by Michael Shaara, he is convinced this style is the best way to reach many readers.

There’s plenty of action and lots of moving parts in Wallace’s novel. Needham was the gang’s third target. They had attempted robberies in Fitchburg and Lynn where they also committed murder. 

Wallace footnotes historical sources — which is unusual for a novel — to prove  that some of the most unusual aspects of the crime are not fabricated. “In this case, truth is stranger than fiction,” he said.

After the brutal crimes in Needham, the police were unable to find the killers without the help of private investigators and two intrepid rival reporters, Wallace’s great-grandfather, Joseph Dinneen from the Boston Globe, and Lawrence Goldberg from the much more widely circulated and Pulitzer Prize-winning Boston Post. 

According to Wallace, the ineffectiveness of the police was a result of a complex set of political and social changes.

“It was the end of Prohibition and it was the beginning of the bank robber era,” said Wallace. “Gangsters are moving from booze to cash.”

At the same time, Massachusetts was thinking about consolidating its police departments. A pending bill in the state Legislature would have eliminated local police forces. That made the state and town police forces very suspicious of one another.

Meanwhile, having just lost two officers to machine gun fire, the Needham PD struggled to get back on its feet. 

“They had the wind knocked out of them,” Wallace said. 

The killers had stolen their cache of weapons from the police themselves, including the Thompson submachine gun used to gun down the three Needham public safety officials, which they took from a State Police display at an auto show.

Boston Globe reporter Joseph Dinneen, the author’s great-grandfather/ Credit: Courtesy Robert Wallace

According to Wallace, the police were there “to show off their arsenal of riot guns, machine guns and all this equipment to keep you safe.” The effort backfired. 

Wallace describes how a group of monied vigilantes in Needham hired a private detective agency to get things going. Dinneen was a critical conduit of information between the detective and the police.

Because the police were so slow on the uptake, Dinneen and Goldberg were often first on the scene at several key junctures of the investigation. The reporters were in a hurry to get to the bottom of the story also because two cab drivers from Lynn had been found guilty of the first two crimes committed by the gang, and the state was moving quickly to put them to death. 

“There was a desire for swift justice,” Wallace said. “That’s why Dinneen and Goldberg could not wait for the police to get its act together.”

Wallace’s description of the crime itself and the topsy-turvy effort to find the culprits is fast-paced and engaging. He said there may be another book in the works about the history of heroic journalism in his family.

In addition to a career in writing and media, Wallace is also on the board of directors of the Harpswell Anchor, a nonprofit newspaper in coastal Maine. 

“I’m proud that my work connects itself to their legacy,” said Wallace. “These were reporters who were not afraid. Yes, they were trying to get the right headline, but they were also trying to get justice for the victims.”

Wallace’s story details how, in the end, typewriters turned out to be even more powerful than a machine gun. 

“Machine Guns and Typewriters” was published in December. Mindstir Media Publisher 316 pages $25.99.

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