WEST ORANGE, NJ — On Aug. 22, 2019, a historical marker placed by the Downtown West Orange Alliance was formally dedicated in front Main Street Liquors at 56 Main Street, marking the former location of the West Orange Police Department (WOPD) in rented quarters from 1894 to 1905.
The marker dedication has a special significance with surviving writings still visible inside the former police station although now hidden from plain view. The author of these writings has long been a mystery but was solved by a series of related events beginning in 2017.
In 1902, Newell Smith purchased a grain and feed business on the corner of Lindsley Avenue which is now Main Street Hardware. Next door in the same building now occupied by the liquor store were the WOPD as his tenants. At that time, Sergeant John Heslin of the WOPD was making notations of dates and occurrences on the wall of the basement stairs. He was also writing the same entries in a journal he was keeping.
In 1903, Smith, the owner of the building, recorded in his own journal that these writings were present on the wall but never made mention of Heslin. Smith and Heslin were contemporaries and certainly would have known one another and likely saw one another on a daily basis.
Heslin passed away in 1917, only three months after his retirement from the WOPD and he was eventually forgotten about as the author of the writings. Heslin's police journal however was eventually passed on to his great granddaughter Mary Jo Connolly but no connection between the wall writings and the jouranl was never known.
Smith passed away in 1948, and the building's ownership eventually passed to Stanley Rickle one of Smith's descendants through marriage. In 1978, the proprietors of the liquor store at that time rediscovered the same writings on the wall leading to the basement as noted by Smith in 1903.
Rickle had previous knowledge of the writings on the wall but never knew they were made by Heslin. Rickel was never able to generate much interest in them and they were mostly forgotten about with the passage of time.
It was long speculated that perhaps the writings were done by prisoners who were held in jail cells once located in the basement.
In 2017, Mary Jo Connolly, the great granddaughter of John Heslin, was moving out of West Orange and invited me to look at his journal. This would ultimately lead to a series of events discovering Heslin as the writer because she also allowed me to make a digital copy for further research.
In 2018, Barbara Smith Rickel Ochs, the great grandaughter of Newell Smith and I visited the basement of the building to search for the writings. We rediscovered them in the same place where they have been since 1894.
Shortly after our visit, I was able to make the determination that they were written by John Heslin because of the existince of his journal. The writings on the wall and in his journal are identical in every detail including the same style of doodling he used.
In 2019, at the brief dedication ceremony of the Downtown West Orange Alliance's historical marker, members of the WOPD with the great granddaughters of John Heslin and Newell Smith participated in the unveiling.
On this occasion, both Mary Jo Connolly and Barbara Smith Rickel Ochs met for the first time and retraced the steps of both their great grandfathers who knew one another over a century ago.