Plaque unveiled in Boston to honor officer killed in bank robbery 50 years ago

Boston Police Officer John J. Gallagher wasn’t supposed to be working that early morning shift in Kenmore Square. But the father of three small children had switched nights off with another officer, so when a burglar alarm at the Shawmut National Bank branch went off, Gallagher and his partner were among the first to respond.

In the shadowy basement of the bank, Gallagher found Charles E. Tracey, a 37-year-old cook with a minor record. He had broken into the bank and was holding a long-barrelled .38-caliber firearm he had found inside a closet, according to news accounts of that confrontation on May 25, 1962.

Tracey fired first, striking Gallagher in the abdomen and right leg at point-blank range. The officer managed to fire back, hitting Tracey three times. Tracey was struck twice more by other officers, but survived. Gallagher, however, died at 6 a.m. at Beth Israel Hospital, three hours later.

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He was 33 years old and the 50th Boston police officer at the time to die in the line of duty.

Today, the 50th anniversary of his killing, two of his children, Mary O’Donnell and Anne Gallagher, stood with dozens of Boston police officers at 540 Commonwealth Ave., the site of the gunfight, and helped unveil a plaque dedicated to their father. O’Donnell, 58, and Gallagher, 54, stood silently before the plaque as a lone bagpiper played “Amazing Grace.”

“I’m just very, very moved by the ceremony we had today,” said O’Donnell. “It seems like a long time ago, but sometimes it seems like yesterday.”

Gallagher pinned a tiny, sterling silver replica of her father’s badge on Commissioner Edward F. Davis’s lapel as a thank you.

“My dad really liked helping people,” she said. “He was a good man and that’s how I remember him. I remember feeling very loved by him and liked. He enjoyed being with us,”

His wife, Rita, raised their three children alone, helped by funds raised to assist the family, which had relied on Gallagher’s $105-a-week salary. Her two daughters remained in Boston while their brother, John Jr., 57, moved to London, where he is now an executive at the American Bureau of Shipping.

Through the years, Gallagher has pored over transcripts of Tracey’s trial and collected newspaper clips and photographs of the shooting, including a picture in the Record American that showed her father lying on the ground, still alive and in agony.

The picture angered some in the public and the police department who saw it as exploitative, but Gallagher said the photograph captured her father’s sacrifice.

“I know someone doesn’t want to see that on the coffee table in the morning when they’re having breakfast,” Gallagher said. “But that’s the reality and it’s brutal. That’s what was done to him.”

Tracey was sentenced to die by the electric chair for Gallagher’s killing, but he received several reprieves. He finally died of lung cancer in prison in 1982, Gallagher said.

Seventy-seven officers in the city have been killed in the line of duty. Every year, Davis said, their names and the dates and times of their deaths are broadcast over the police radio.