124 Alden Street

The Welsh family memorial. [2011, Dunlap]

Walter Welsh (1869-1933). The House of Welsh — a four-generation judicial dynasty at Orleans District Court — is older than the House of Windsor.

The courtroom dynasty was established in 1914 (three years before the throne-room dynasty) when Walter Welsh was appointed justice of the Second District Court of Barnstable, predecessor of the Orleans court, by Gov. David I. Walsh. He presided until his death in 1933, at which time he was succeeded by his son Robert Aloysius Welsh (1903-1986), who would head the court until 1973. On his retirement in 1973, he was succeeded by his son Robert A. Welsh Jr., who occupied the bench until retiring in 2008. There followed a six-year interregnum during which Brian R. Merrick was the acting and then the formally appointed presiding judge. When Merrick retired in 2014, the Orleans courtroom returned to Welsh family hands in the person of Robert A. Welsh III. On that occasion, Judge Merrick observed, “I can’t say that I don’t feel like Bill Clinton in between the Bushes.”

The family’s Irish heritage is made plain at St. Peter’s Cemetery, where the principal memorial bears a bas-relief Celtic cross. Walter was the youngest of four children born to Mary (Connors) Welsh (1825-1909) and Thomas Welsh (1827-1906), a teamster, both of whom had immigrated to the United States from County Tipperary. Walter was graduated at age 15 from Provincetown High School. He owned an ice business in town. In 1891, he and Annie Caroline Cook (1869-1947) were wed.

Annie’s parents, Hannah [Anna?] and Frank Cook, had immigrated from São Jorge in the Azores. She would go on to become a director of the Cape Cod Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, presumably a unit of the statewide organization, founded in 1878 “for the purpose of awakening interest in the abuses to which children are exposed by … parents and guardians, and to help the enforcement of existing laws on the subject, procure needed legislation and for kindred work.”

The memorial for Walter Welsh’s parents, Mary and Thomas, seen from behind. [2012, Dunlap]

Judge Walter Welsh, in an uncredited portrait that ran in The Boston Globe of 1 July 1924, from Newspapers.com. [Copyright © 2021 Newspapers.com]

The home of Annie and Walter Welsh, 3 Court Street. [2011, Dunlap]

Welsh advertised in the The Provincetown Beacon of 9 May 1914. [Community History Archive / Provincetown Public Library]

At age 33, Walter Welsh entered the Boston University School of Law. Admitted to the bar in 1903, he worked as a trial lawyer, with offices at 198 Commercial Street in Provincetown and in Sandwich.

Governor Walsh, a fellow Boston University Law School alumnus, named Welsh presiding justice of the Second District Court in 1914. At the time, the court met in Provincetown — in what is now the Judge Welsh Hearing Room at Town Hall — much to the ire of Upper Capers. (It also convened in Harwich on Fridays for their greater convenience.)

Appropriately enough, Judge Welsh lived on Court Street — in a handsome Federal-style house at No. 3 with a deep front porch. Annie and Walter had two children beside Robert: Walter J. Welsh (1896-1952) and Beatrice May Welsh (1902-1991), the supervisor of vocal music in the Provincetown school system from 1926 to 1962, and a landowner of no small consequence, having held the First National Bank building at 290 Commercial Street, Cutler’s Pharmacy at 296 Commercial Street, and a sweet waterfront cottage at 415 Commercial Street in her portfolio.

You’ll recognize the Judge Welsh’s other namesake, opposite Town Hall: Walter Welsh Council, No. 2476, of the Knights of Columbus, at 277 Commercial Street. Judge Welsh was a founder of the council in 1923 and served as its first grand knight. At heart a charitable organization, the knights created a powerful Catholic presence in the temporal world. Large Portuguese businesses would not hire anyone who was not a member of the Knights of Columbus, for example. The local council could all but compel retailers — of any religious stripe — that they would be better off to close on Good Friday if they expected to keep the custom of Catholic shoppers.

The Knights of Columbus was also an important counterweight to the nativism that was gaining tremendous strength in the 1920s, especially with the renewal of the Ku Klux Klan, whose membership reached into the millions. The new Klan expanded its enemies list from black Americans to include Catholics, Jews, and immigrants, too. It was so widespread and influential that it split the Democratic Party during the infamous 1924 convention at Madison Square Garden.

The Judge Welsh Hearing Room in Town Hall honors Walter Welsh and Robert A. Welsh, both of whom presided here before the Second District Court was moved to Orleans. The event this particular day was a farewell party for Doug Johnstone, the town clerk. [2017, Dunlap]

Across the street, at 277 Commercial, the Knights of Columbus meeting hall also honors Walter Welsh, one of the founders of the local council in 1923. [2011, Dunlap]

The meeting room at the Knights of Columbus overlooks Town Hall. [2018, Dunlap]

The knights’ banner is carried proudly during parades through town. [2018, Dunlap]

Anti-Klan delegates, largely those for Gov. Al Smith of New York, a Catholic, pushed the party to adopt a plank in which the Klan would be censured by name as an organization that interfered with religious liberty and political freedom, and that sought to limit the civil rights of Catholics, Jews, immigrants, and blacks. Opponents of the plank did not embrace the Klan (at least not publicly) but expressed fear that the plank would tend to tie the Democrats too closely to the Catholic Church in voters’ minds, or remind them needlessly of the incredibly bitter schism in American life that was embodied by the Klan.

Incredibly, Judge Welsh, a member of the Massachusetts delegation, sided with the plank’s opponents, even though he was a supporter of Governor Smith (who was a Catholic) and a grand knight in the Knights of Columbus. No one in Welsh’s caucus could persuade him to vote otherwise, not even Senator Walsh — the man who, as governor, had appointed Welsh presiding justice of the district court.

“He believed that it was unwise to raise at all a question which might be magnified into a religious issue,” John D. Merrill of The Boston Globe reported on 30 June 1924, “and he voted in the way which he thought would best express his opinion. Whatever people may think of his attitude, they cannot fail to give him credit for courage.”

A day later, The Globe reported by special dispatch from the Cape end: “Provincetown is proud of a man who disregarded religious feeling and the urging of his friends to voted as he believed.” The article further noted how firmly entrenched Judge Welsh was in the Provincetown establishment — president of the Board of Trade, chairman of the School Board, member of the Tercentenary Commission and of the Board of Water Commissioners.

Welsh’s dissent helped the plank’s opponents defeat the anti-Klan measure on the convention floor by a whisper. As a result, the Democratic Party did not categorically censure the Ku Klux Klan in its 1924 platform. Nor did it win the presidential election with the compromise candidate John W. Davis. (Who?)

A year later, on 11 August 1925, the Provincetown chapter of the Ku Klux Klan burned a 14-foot-high cross on the hillside behind St. Peter’s Church. They repeated their hateful performance on 22 January 1926.

Judge Welsh died of a coronary embolism on 3/3/33. Two weeks later, Gov. Joseph B. Ely appointed the 29-year-old Robert Welsh to succeed his father as presiding justice of the Second District Court. The younger Welsh had attended the College of the Holy Cross and, like his father, Boston University School of Law, from which he was graduated in 1928. Following his father’s footsteps, Robert Welsh was tied to the civic life of Provincetown — serving as town counsel and town moderator — and to the affairs of the Knights of Columbus, which he served as district deputy.

Robert Welsh was no stranger to celebrity, as Robert Jr. recalled. “It was my dad who was blessed with a lot of funny, well-known people in his court, in his days,” the younger Welsh told Robert Phelps of the Banner in 2008. “Marlon Brando, Jane Fonda, Gregory Peck. I missed all that.”

Robert Welsh I made a conspicuous statement about the family’s standing in 1936, when he purchased the magisterial 554 Commercial Street, among the great gems of the East End, at once sprawling but restrained by its handsome Colonial Revival design, framed by a deep and abundant lawn. He and his wife, Alma Margaret (Danforth) Welsh (1903-1973), had six children: Alma M. (Welsh) Swanson, Anne Clare Welsh, Charles F. Welsh (1945-2020), Mary V. Welsh, Robert Jr., and Walter D. Welsh.

Charles served as assistant clerk magistrate in the Orleans District Court for a half century. “With his puckish smile, impish personality, and old-world charm, Charlie’s presence lent a heartwarming small-town feel to what can be a cold place,” K. C. Myers wrote in The Provincetown Independent in 2020. Myers recalled the story of a Boston reporter who showed up in Orleans for a high-profile arraignment before Judge Robert A. Welsh Jr. Noticing the portraits of Judge Walter Welsh and Judge Robert A. Welsh on the courthouse walls, she couldn’t help but ask Charlie whether he was related to the sitting judge.

“He’s my brother, but he didn’t appoint me,” Charlie answered. “My father did.”

Josephine Del Deo said this about Robert A. Welsh in 1976: “He was a powerful figure in the community and his supporters are equally as numerous as his detractors. He had a biting, down-to-earth approach to the judgeship and is known to have rebuked former U.S. Attorney General Francis Biddle when a now-famous obscenity trial was being conducted here in the ’60s.”

The home of Alma and Robert Welsh at 554 Commercial Street. [2009, Dunlap]

Judge Robert Welsh, presiding over the 1961 trial in Town Hall at which he found the Provincetown Review guilty of publishing an obscene story. The Review‘s art editor, Alf Zusi, did the courtroom sketches that appeared in the Winter 1961 issue. [Copyright © 1961 Provincetown Review]

That’s a reference to the trial of William V. Ward for printing “Tralala,” a short story by Hubert Selby Jr., in the Provincetown Review, which Ward edited, and subsequently selling a copy of the magazine to a teen-age boy. The issue at bar was whether the magazine was “obscene, indecent, or impure.”

It began in the summer of 1960 when Ward sold the Review to a young visitor from Warwick, R.I., named Glenn Stuart. The issue included Selby’s short story about a prostitute named Tralala. She works the waterfront around the Brooklyn Army Base during World War II, when there are plenty of sailors and soldiers to entice — and then roll. Tralala has become such a moral husk that she feels no remorse as her male posse beats an Army hero nearly to death. When one of her johns shows some tender affection, she rejects him in a heartbeat. Time passes. Tralala, now a physical as well as a spiritual wreck, provokes a gang rape in a parked car during which she is — there may be no other way to put it — fucked to death. It’s strong stuff, even by contemporary standards.

In 1960s Warwick, it was too much. Glenn’s father — reportedly scandalized — sent the magazine to the Rhode Island Commission on Youth, which forwarded it to the Massachusetts attorney general’s office, which contacted Police Chief Francis H. Marshall of Provincetown, who arrested Ward on two counts: publishing obscene material and corrupting the morals of youth. The latter charge was dismissed when it turned out that Glenn was 18 at the time he bought the book.

The one-day trial convened in the hearing room of Town Hall on 17 August 1961. The poets Stanley Kunitz and Allen Tate; Norman Podhoretz, editor of Commentary; Jason Epstein, vice president of Random House; and the author Seymour Krim appeared as witnesses for the defense. They testified that “little magazines” like the Review were important incubators of new talent, and that Selby’s tale in particular was a highly moral one told in a compellingly naturalistic style, and that it certainly warranted inclusion in the magazine. Both Podhoretz and Epstein invoked Ulysses as they sought to explain its significance.² The rebuke of Biddle to which Del Deo referred was the judge’s reprimand of the spectators who applauded Kunitz.

In the end, Judge Welsh was appreciative of but unmoved by Kunitz and the other experts, saying their testimony of the experts — impressive as it may have been — was largely unresponsive to the question of whether “Tralala” was obscene, as the Commonwealth defined it. At the time in Massachusetts, a book was deemed obscene, indecent, or impure if it had a “substantial tendency to deprave or corrupt its readers by inciting lascivious thoughts or arousing lustful desire.”¹

Welsh convicted Ward and fined him $1,000. “It is a question of law … whether or not the defendant, William Ward, did publish a book which was obscene, indecent, or impure,” Welsh said from the bench at the end of the trial. “Upon all the evidence, if there is a reasonable inference to be drawn therefrom, I am satisfied, having read the story ‘Tralala,” that I find the defendant guilty.” The next stop was to have been an appeal at Superior Court in Barnstable. But then, from the state capital, an astonishing twist came in November: the office of Attorney General Edward J. McCormack declared it was “nolle prosequi,” unwilling to prosecute.

Judge Robert A. Welsh presided at the district court until 1973, when he was replaced by Robert A. Welsh Jr.

After the third Judge Welsh retired, Brian R. Merrick was named acting justice. But the formal title of presiding justice eluded Merrick for three years. “He was getting a little despondent,” Merrick’s colleague Judge W. James O’Neill recounted. “I saw him heading to probate court [and] I said, ‘Brian, what are you doing?’

“He said, ‘I have this petition to change my name to Welsh.'”

A Celtic cross adorns the principal family memorial. [2011, Dunlap]

On the reverse is a recitation of family members. [2011, Dunlap]

In memoriam

• Find a Grave Memorial No. 11547431. (Alma)

• Find a Grave Memorial No. 11547418. (Annie)

• Find a Grave Memorial No. 11547426. (Beatrice)

• Find a Grave Memorial No. 11547494. (Mary)

• Find a Grave Memorial No. 11547429. (Robert)

• Find a Grave Memorial No. 11547492. (Thomas)

• Find a Grave Memorial No. 11547415. (Walter)

¹ That’s the language of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts in its decision of 17 September 1945 that Lillian Smith’s novel Strange Fruit, a national best-seller that centered on the relationship between a black woman and a white man, was obscene. The book had effectively been banned in Boston on its publication in 1944 because dealers would not carry it for fear of interdiction. To see whether the police would actually prevent Strange Fruit from being sold, the Civil Liberties Union arranged for a purchase to take place in the presence of police officials. The date was 4 April 1944. The prospective buyer was the historian and literary critic Bernard de Voto. The setting was the University Law Book Shop on Boylston Street in Cambridge, owned by Abraham A. Isenstadt. When Isenstadt attempted to sell the book to de Voto, the police intervened. Finding that Strange Fruit was obscene, a district court judge in Cambridge fined Isenstadt $200 for possessing and selling the book. The case was appealed all the way to state’s top court, which upheld Isenstadt’s conviction. (Commonwealth v. Abraham A. Isenstadt, 318 Mass. 543.)

² “Tralala” put Selby on the literary map. It was gathered with several other short stories into a collection called Last Exit to Brooklyn, published in 1964 by Barney Rosset at the Grove Press. It is arguably Selby’s best known work. A 1989 movie of the same name, starring Jennifer Jason Leigh as Tralala and directed by Uli Edel, was well received. Selby died in 2004.

¶ Last updated on 23 December 2021.

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