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Monday, July 6, 2020

Wed and Gone To Housekeeping

Journal Opinion, July 1, 2020

WED AND SET TO GO: This mid 19th century couple are ready to go to housekeeping.  Local weddings at that time were likely to be simple. Her gown would be chosen for later use and his suit was his Sunday best.  The wedding was probably held with only family and close friends attending. (Bradford Historical Society)

This 1922 advertisement for the wedding services of Bradford's Opinion Publishing Company was similar to those offered by other publishers. Invitations and cake boxes were sold and wedding announcements were included in local columns.  Editors often requested a piece of  wedding cake in return. 

"Shall we marry when we are young and poor, or wait until we get older and better off? And that is the real question in their minds when they inquire as to the 'right time to be married.'"
Bradford Opinion, Aug 16, 1876

The questions of whom and when to marry have perplexed young New Englanders for four centuries.  This column explores marriage stories before the 1960s. Information is from online sources, local histories, and newspaper archives.  I have also included insights gained from three books I have written on my wife's and my New England ancestors. 

The Protestants who settled New England brought wedding traditions from Europe. Marriage contracts had both a religious and civil significance. While Puritan marriages were held in connection with religious services, many others were, by provincial law, performed by magistrates or justices of the peace.  Later, the laws in both New Hampshire and Vermont added ministers to the list of those who could solemnize marriages. 

The province or state usually demanded a small fee for a marriage license, as did the officiant.  One poor Warren groom offered a bushel of beans as payment to the magistrate.  In the end, he paid only half as his new wife kicked him out of bed. 

Young men and women were expected to marry. Given the division of labor between men and women, it was difficult for single individuals to maintain a household.  After one partner died, remarriage was often immediate. It was not unusual for a widower to married the sister of his deceased wife.

In the case of second marriages, a "smock wedding" was sometimes held.  The bride, hidden in a closet and dressed only in a smock, would reach out a hand to accept her new husband. It was thought that this prevented the man from being responsible for her debts or those of her previous husband.  

Premarital fornication was prohibited and could be cause for punishment.  My 7th great grandfather was James Ross, a Scottish prisoner of war and an indentured servant in Groton, MA.  In 1657, he received 39 stripes on his bare back for fornication with Mary Goodenow, daughter of his master. The punishment was for "shameful abuse and violence toward his master."  Within the year, however,  they were married and became prominent members of the community. 

The diaries of 18th and 19th-century midwives reveal that many first-born children came less than nine months after the marriage of their parents. These early babies, however, suffered no stigma.  Bundling was one way New Englanders dealt with the ardor of young lovers. In need of some privacy, but not too much, the couple was allowed to lie together, fully clothed, in the same bed, but with a board dividing their natural appetites.

Early New England marriages were as much about economics as romance.  For many, marriage was like a business agreement between partners, one of whom might be the father of the bride.  One was expected to marry within their class and economic situation and with the permission of the bride's parents.  It was expected that wedding intensions would be published in advance. Sometimes youthful eagerness upset this expectation.

 The following is an example involving other great grandparents. The wealthy parents of Mary Loker of Sudbury, MA rejected the suit of Jonas Prescott. Just a blacksmith, he was not considered suitable for their only daughter. The parents sent her away to a frontier town 22 miles away. Jonas sought her out and, despite her parents' refusal to provide a dowry, they were married in November 1672. For the first years, their household was sparse. But their fortunes changed.  Mary lived to see 176 of their descendants. 

Elopement such as this allowed a couple to escape from the boundaries placed on them. In 1898, a 15-year-old Fairlee girl ran away with a Newbury man to be married in Ryegate.  A similar flight caused an Orford couple to trail their daughter and her lover to St. Johnsbury in 1920. When, in 1903, a prominent Bradford businessman eloped with a woman, not his wife, it made front-page news. 
Sometimes a couple wished to keep their marriage secret. But it’s hard to keep secrets in a small town. In 1897, one of Orford's "young townsmen  having decided to take unto himself a wife laid plans to circumvent everyone by bringing home a charming bride in the middle of the night."  The couple was surprised at 12:45 am by friends, family and a band.

Cohabitation without a license was known as common law marriage and was recognized by early courts. But in the 1800s, states began to enact laws expressly to prohibit such legal arrangements.  Vermont has never recognized them as legal. New Hampshire does for probate only, thus recognizing the rights of the survivor.

By the 1850s, young couples had greater choice in whom to marry.  The Ladies Indispensable Assistant, published in 1852, suggested the following "preliminaries for marriage."  "According to the urges of society, it is the custom of the man to propose marriage, and for the female to refuse or accept the offer as she may think fit. There ought to be perfect freedom of the will in both parties."  It went on to suggest that the man should seek from her parents or guardians “permission to address her."  

 It was common in early marriages for couples to be from the same town or county. The couple was likely to have known each other for a time, gone to the same church or school.  In our area, that extended across state lines to adjourning river communities.  After the coming of the railroad in the mid-19th century, one of the two individuals might have come from as far away as New York, Ohio, or even Texas.    

Still, long-distance travel was not common. As a result, marriage between cousins was not uncommon. Until the mid-19th century, cousin marriages were legal in most areas. My great grandparents, Ida Rice and Lyman Randall were married in Windsor, VT, in 1878.  They were first cousins.  That gives an example to the saying that sometimes a guy would "go to family reunions to pick up girls."

Even as laws were enacted to prevent this practice, they were not enforced.  In 1867, a bill was introduced in the Vermont Legislature to prevent first cousin marriages.  It did not pass.  New Hampshire made such marriages illegal in 1902 but grandfathered in those that already existed.

Local marriage between couples of different religions or races was extremely unusual until the mid-20th century. A bride that broke that rule might be disowned by her family, a repudiation that might extend to her children.  Growing up Catholic before the 1950s in predominantly Protestant Bradford meant that a young man had few choices for courting.   

Marriages were usually held in the home of the bride or groom or in the home of the officiant.  Those in attendance were only the most intimate friends and family members and limited by the size of the house. These weddings have been described as small, sober, and simple. No doubt, at some weddings, the self-restraint was washed away by a bit of whiskey or rum.  Weddings could be a "season of excess."

Both bride and groom dressed in their finest. While white bridal gowns became more popular after Queen Victoria wore one in 1840, many brides continued to wear colorful dresses that could be used for later occasions. The groom might buy a new suit, expecting to wear it to church and perhaps even to the grave.

Increasingly, the couple was married in a church. Sometimes a wedding in an important family was “a principal social event." Among my New England ancestors, June weddings were the exception.  In an agricultural community, there was more time during winter months for taking time off for a wedding.  

But one extravagant June wedding took place in the Bradford Congregational Church in 1891. The bride was Florence Farnham, the daughter of ex-Governor Roswell Farnham. An extensive article described the bride who entered the church, "leaning on the arm of her father, who gave her away.”  The reception was held a few doors down Main Street at the Farnham home.  Both the wedding and reception sites were elaborately decorated with arches of flowers and evergreens. 

One or more wedding cakes were standard for weddings in all classes. Many believed that sharing the cake showed hospitality and would lead to prosperity and fruitfulness. 

Often slices of spiced cake were pre-boxed for the guests to take with them.  For a time, local newspaper editors expected a slice in return for the inclusion of the wedding announcement. Sometimes, editors were not hesitant to remind readers that no cake had been presented.

 Until the middle of the 19th century, there was little notice of a post-wedding trip. 
Couples often just "went to housekeeping" in their new home.  Among the Scottish residents of Ryegate, that short trip was accompanied by a crowd of well-wishers. Depending on the economic means of the groom, it was not uncommon for the bride to remain in her parents' or employer's home for a time until a new home could be provided.

By the 1880s, bridal tours to romantic locations were expected for middle-class couples. Newspaper accounts reported that the happy couples left by wagon to the local railroad station for a trip to Burlington or Manchester, or perhaps, even to Montreal or Boston.

After 1910, newspaper accounts sometimes mentioned that the couple left on their wedding trip by auto.  There were several examples in local columns of trips of up to eight weeks. But most could not afford that time or the expense. The Groton column for Dec 7, 1912, reported, "The happy couple took a short wedding trip to Newbury."   

The gifts that couples received, along with the bride's trousseau of linens and blankets, helped them to establish their home. A "wedding quilt" and a set of coin silver teaspoons from Bradford's Hardy Jewelry store were typical. Otherwise, new couples often had few possessions, to begin with.  

During the Great Depression, the number of marriages dropped significantly as couples were unable to afford to establish a new home.  During the first half of the 1940s, with so many in the service or working in war production, weddings were postponed.  If men were going overseas, weddings might be hurried. 

At that time, double rings ceremonies became more frequent, perhaps to serve as reminders of partnerships during long periods of absence. The increase in the number of weddings during the post-war years led to the baby boom. The post-war prosperity was reflected in more of the weddings of the period.

Following the tradition of posting wedding intension, the United Opinion printed the announcement along with the photo of the bride-to-be.  A picture of the couple and a description of their wedding often followed.  

While weddings took place year-round, the summer of 1956 brought many weddings to the area. Two stand out for their similarities. They involve sets of high school sweethearts, members of the Bradford Academy Classes of 1952 or 1953. The brides were from Piermont and the grooms from Bradford.  Their romanceboth survived four years of college. 

Their weddings took place at the Piermont Congregational Church before at least 100 guests.  A common practice in that small town was for some to attend uninvited. Both brides and grooms were dressed in the expected outfits of the times, the brides in white, and the grooms in formal attire. The brides were presented by their fathers. Each ceremony was followed by a reception at Piermont’s Robbins Inn.

When asked, both brides mentioned that they feel their nuptial event was one of the social events of Piermont's summer that year and were representative of the many local weddings at the time.  One added that most were "meant to last and did." 

AS a Justice of the Peace, I have officiated scores of weddings.  Those in attendance have ranged from just the couple alone to hundreds of guests. Some have been quick to meet an immediate need, whereas many have been elaborately planned.  Virtually every couple had been living together before the ceremony.

As our definition of what constitutes a family has changed, so have those who asks to be married or choose to ignore the marriage ceremony altogether. If two individuals are willing to live their lives together, to actually go to housekeeping together, that’s what really counts.  

Friday, June 5, 2020

Murder Most Vile (Part III)

THE STONE CRIES MURDERED.  Despite speculation that Piermont's Alma Emerson's death may have
been an accident, there is still suspicions that she was murdered in 1875 by Moses Sawyer.  After  two
trials in Plymouth, Sawyer was freed. ( Courtesy photo Valley News)

ORFORD'S UNSOLVED MURDERS.  In November, 1922, John and Charles Davis were bludgeoned to death
at their home in Orford.  Despite an extensive investigation, authorities were never able to fine anyone responsible for their deaths.  (Courtesy Orford Historical Society)
Journal Opinion, May 27, 2020

“This is a chapter we would most gladly omit, but we should not be deemed a faithful historian if we did not write it.” William Little, “The History of Warren, New Hampshire.” 1870    

 Little’s introduction to his chapter on two local murders begins each of the three columns covering untimely local deaths prior to 1923. The first two parts were published in March and April and are posted at larrycoffin.blogspot.com. As with the first two, the following stories involve local homicides.  

What makes these cases different from those covered previously is that either no one was found guilty of the crime or that there was not actually a crime committed. Sources for the column are locally printed and online histories and newspaper archives.

There were two incidents that involved children. In July 1843, The Caledonian carried the story of a “serious and fatal occurrence” in Topsham.

 An 8-year old boy was following two older lads on a hunting excursion. The older ones told the youngster to go back, and when he refused, one of them deliberately aim his gun and fired. “The whole charge entered the breast of the small boy, causing his death.” The article reported, “It is said the lad who commuted the act made no denial or excuse whatever.”

The following March, The Vermont Watchman reported “The story of a murder in Topsham is put to rest. After a long examination, the person implicated has been discharged.” As there was no other incident in Topsham at that time, we can assume this referred to the boy who committed the act the previous year.

In October 1914, the bodies of two boys were found in West Fairlee. They were Gordon Bell, age 11, and Harold Whitney, age 12. The two boys had been missing since the previous day. A search party was led to the bodies in a nearby field by the barking of their dog. The bodies were found side by side with Whitney’s arm resting on Bell’s body. Both had been shot in the left breast. A revolver, taken from a local barn, was found nearby.  This “puzzling tragedy” was never solved. Was this a murder-suicide, and if so, which boy was the perpetrator? There was no gunshot residue testing at the time, and no further investigation was undertaken.

As the prosecution in a criminal case has to prove the accused guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, there have been homicides in which the accused, and only suspect, was found not guilty.  Where there was an actual murder these “cold cases” remain unsolved. 

An 1860 quarrel over debt led to the murder of Vanness Wyatt of Warren. The other party in the quarrel was James Williams. Fearing a physical confrontation with Wyatt, Williams had armed himself.  On July 27, the two confronted each other. Wyatt was shot and Williams was arrested.

 The following January, his trial was held in Plymouth. Witnesses from the deeply divided village were called to testify. After deliberation, the jury deadlocked, although they apparently agreed it was not a case of murder. The case was continued for a year before it was dropped.

Quarrel also led to the death of Joseph Eggleston on June 1, 1896. Eggleston and John Evans were returning separately from the Wells River Creamery. Evans stopped to talk with two men working roadside.  Eggleston came along and demanded he move out of the road.

 The St. Johnsbury Caledonian reported, “There had been trouble between the men. The wife of Eggleston, a women of violent passions, had her full share of it.” That trouble erupted that day into a “sad affair” with verbal threats, a battle of horsewhips and finally a hand-to-hand “real fisticuffs.”  Eggleston was thrown to the ground.  Injured, he was taken to a neighboring house, but died upon arrival.

It was first thought he had been kicked to death, but an autopsy indicated he had died of a heart attack, perhaps “frightened to death.”  Evans turned himself in and was incarcerated in Chelsea.  After the testimony of two doctors, the grand jury did not bring charges against Evans. The newspaper account concluded, “This whole unfortunate affair seems to be a case of accidental discharge of violent temper.”   

In January 1906, George Baird shot and killed Samuel Howe of Benton. Baird and his wife had recently moved to a remote section of Haverhill. Baird told the authorities that Howe came to the house late at night and “upon being refused admittance broke in a window and threatened to kill him.” Baird picked up a revolver and shot Howe through the window.

At an inquest in Woodsville, Blaird was charged with the death. In June, Blaird’s week-long trial was held in Plymouth. The jury returned a verdict of not guilty. Baird’s lawyer, Robert Simonds, was “warmly praised by the Manchester and Boston papers for his defense.” 

The demise of Newbury’s Orville Gibson in 1957 was not the first time the issues of suicide vs murder have been raised locally. In September 1900, Burns Nelson was found dead in Wells River.  Nelson had recently sold his failing grocery store and had gone drinking with Charles Bostock. They had gone to Nelson’s father’s house to spend the night. But later that night Nelson was found in his bedroom, dead from a gunshot to the head.

Bostock was arrested and charged with manslaughter. At trial in Chelsea in June 1901, Bostock testified that Nelson had gotten out a shotgun that Bostock had wanted to purchase.  He went on to say that he had left the bedroom, but, upon hearing a gunshot, returned and found Nelson dead.  The prosecution argued Bostock must have fired the gun after introducing evidence that the gun was a distance away from the body. The defense claimed the gun was defective and could discharge if dropped or hit.

 In support of a suicide theory, it was claimed that Nelson was in debt and despondent. Even Nelson’s father testified that he thought Nelson had shot himself.  The jury initially voted 6 to 6 for manslaughter, but as the evidence was all circumstantial, eventually brought a verdict of not guilty. It was concluded by the press that the deceased had been “killed by Woodsville whiskey.”

There are murders in which no suspect was identified. One example arose from a riot between Irish railroad workers in Newbury in September 1847. The disturbance was between men from the Irish counties of Cork and Connaught and was over the availability of work on the unfinished railroad.
Railroad overseer Michael Kelly and a deputy sheriff arrived at the Irish workers’ shanties and attempted to arrest Patrick Gallagher, a leader in the row. A group of Gallagher’s friends surrounded them and Kelly was shot dead. The deputy barely escaped with his life.  Gallagher and several others fled before reinforcement could arrive.

Despite an offer of a $500 reward, none of the “inmates of the shanties” provided information.  Later, one of the men being held identified Michael Welch as the person who caused the death of Kelly. A court hearing was held in Wells River in January 1848, and some of the rioters were sent to the state prison.  As the actual shooter was never determined, no one was found guilty of murder. 

In Piermont’s Cedar Grove cemetery a headstone stands with the inscription “Was Murdered.” This is the grave of Alma Emerson, who on January 22, 1875 was killed with a blast from a shotgun as she sat sewing in her home on River Road. A double-barrel shotgun was found nearby. The Bradford Opinion carried a graphic description of the murder scene and reported “that hundreds flocked to the scene of the tragedy.” 

Moses Sawyer, a visitor to the home from Massachusetts, was arrested and charged with the murder.  The victim’s husband, John Emerson, was never considered a suspect.

Sawyer’s trial was held in Plymouth in July. The court house was filled to capacity. Sawyer testified that he had heard talk of lynching him. His counsel indicated there was no possible motive for the crime.

 As the jury could not come to a unanimous decision a second trial was held in February 1876. That jury deliberated for 20 hours and voted five for conviction and seven for acquittal.  Sawyer was freed under $12,000 bail. No further action was taken against him.

Because of the interest in this “Piermont tragedy,” the Bradford Opinion printed 500 extra copies of its weekly and carried a full description of the trials.  After the trials were over, it was suggested the death might have been a tragic accident caused by the gun falling over and discharging. The lonely grave marker still cries out “Murdered.”

The last murder to be covered in this series was a double murder. In November 1922, the bodies of brothers John and Charles Davis were found at their Orfordville home. 

Both had been killed by blunt force from an ax several days earlier. They had been employed as lumbermen and were known to carry considerable sums of money on their persons. They had reported that their home had been broken into earlier. 

The investigation team included the High Sheriff along with a prominent Boston detective and a fingerprint expert from Dover, NH, The Selectmen of Orford offered a reward of $500.  Robbery was considered the main motive although Charles’ body had not been robbed. Some other money may have been missing, but other potentially valuable items were left. A theory of possible revenge was short lived.

The bloody ax was found concealed in the nearby woodshed, but no clear fingerprints were produced. Investigators tried unsuccessfully to locate two young men seen recently with the two brothers. Evidence seem to indicate that the murders had been carried out by someone familiar with the brothers’ home and habits.

Within the month, Orford was further shocked when two other men associated with the local lumber industry committed suicide.

On Nov. 15, lumberman Earl Hubbard committed suicide at an Orford lumber camp.  On Dec. 8, lumber merchant Frederick Bedell took poison and then shot himself in the head.  Both were clear cases of suicide. Hubbard had left a suicide note that read “I am tired of life. Something ails my head.”

 While speculators wanted to create a connection between these suicides and the Davis murders, there as none found.  The Davis murders remained unsolved. 

The crimes covered by this series brings one characteristic into sharp focus. That is the male dominance of the criminal system. Not only were most of the defendants men, so were the law enforcement personnel, the judges, lawyers and jurors. Women were thought to be too emotionally vulnerable for involvement in such affairs.

 The inclusion of women in the judicial system was tied to the women suffrage movement. While the first woman to become a lawyer in Vermont was in 1902, it was not until 1929 that the first female lawyer independently tried a murder case. In the 1940s women were first allowed to serve on juries in New Hampshire and Vermont. The first female trial judge was appointed in 1965 in Vermont and in 1970 in New Hampshire. Women still make up a significant minority of law enforcement officers at the local and state levels.

It seems reasonable for readers of this series to ask the question, “What about murders in Bradford?” Bradford was one of the largest communities in the area during this time and there were undoubted motives for murder during the period. But I found none.

Had I found one, to paraphrase William Little, I should not be deemed a faithful historian if I had avoided writing about it.

Thursday, June 4, 2020

Murder Most Vile (Part II)

This is a chapter we would gladly omit, but we should not be deemed a faithful historian if we did not write it.”  William Little, The History of Warren, New Hampshire, 1870

I am using Little’s introduction to his chapter “A Brief Account of Two Murders” for each of the three columns on local untimely death prior to the 1920s. Part one of this series was published last month and is posted on my blog at larrycoffin.blogspot.com.  As with those in the earlier column, most of the following cases involve proven criminal actions.

The information for the series is taken from local histories, online sources and newspaper archives.
When compared to modern day, the era covered by these articles had relatively few murders.  While New Hampshire and Vermont are currently considered two of the safest states, they reported 21 and 10 murders respectively in 2018. New Hampshire’s Attorney General’s Office receives reports on 40-80 deaths annually. Many of these are eventually ruled accidents or suicides. Over the past decade the number of homicides in New Hampshire has ranged from 15 to 32.

Alcohol plays a role in violent crime. In Nov 1859, The Caledonian reported the murder of Mrs. Frank Wright of Woodsville. The family had moved from Bradford the previous summer and 30-year old Frank Wright worked as a shoemaker.

On Nov 25, Wright, after drinking rum, attacked his family in the home with a butcher knife. His sister Mrs. George Campbell was cut on the back. She fled seeking help. Wright then turned on his pregnant wife, stabbing her through the heart. Wright was arrested and held in the Haverhill jail.
The newspaper reported that “He acknowledged both the deed and the intent of committing it.” He claimed he was either “drunk or crazy.” It went on to say that folks were not surprised as “Wright has always borne the worse reputation, and had more than once threated murder.” A considerable amount of arsenic, perhaps secured for that purpose, was found at his home.

On April 1, before the court at Haverhill, Wright pleaded guilty to murder in the second degree. He was sentenced to 30 days of solitary confinement and 30 years imprisonment at hard labor in the state prison. The editor of The Lancaster Republican wondered why it was not capital punishment.

On April 28, 1905, Richard Harvey, a 35-year old farm hand from South Ryegate killed Perley Hartson of Hardwick on Central Street in Woodsville. Both had been drinking. Harvey met Hartson on the street and attacked him without provocation. They apparently did not know each other. Hartson was knocked down, striking his head on the curbing. Harvey started to run toward the nearby bridge but was pursued and arrested.

Hartson was taken to the Cottage Hospital where he died of a skull fracture. Harvey was charged with manslaughter by a grand jury meeting at Plymouth. A Randolph newspaper reported that Harvey had been previously charged with stealing in Bethel, but escaped authorities. That report concluded “Harvey was considered the most dangerous character in the vicinity.”
Before the court, Harvey claimed he remembered nothing. He pleaded guilty to the charge and was given a sentence of eight to ten years at the state prison. 

Marital infidelity can also be a cause for murder. On Sept 9, 1842, Adaline Comings of Bath was found dead in her bedroom. Around her neck was her own handkerchief, tied in a “halter knot.” The other end of the handkerchief was tied to the bed causing her strangulation.   

Her husband William admitted that his wife knew he had been unfaithful to her and was depressed. The couple had suffered financial hardships and had actually separated for a while. The inquest ruled that Adeline Comings had committed suicide.

People in a small town are often aware of others’ personal lives and it is unlikely that an individual could commit a crime like this and not become a suspect.  William could not find employment and his former lover indicated their affair was over. He left town and moved to New York.  On Feb 21, 1843 he was arrested and returned to New Hampshire for trial.  

A grand jury meeting in Plymouth indicted Comings of beating and strangling his wife. The trial jury found him guilty of murder in the first degree. An appeal was unsuccessful and, in 1844, he was sentenced to be hanged. However, at this time the continuance of the death penalty was in question, with a bill to abolish it stuck in legislative committee. The sentence was delayed and, in 1853, after being in prison for nine years Comings was pardoned.

The killing of Orrin Steere of Lisbon in 1888 has the elements of alcohol and family discord.  On April 18, Steere, his wife Jennie and his brother-in-law Louis Williams had gone to Lisbon village to drink. Upon returning to their home, a quarrel ensued. Orrin was described as an “intemperate man and had a bad reputation generally.” The family was said to bear “a hard name.”  

Later that night, Steere was found shot to death. His discharged double-barreled gun was found next to his body. Williams and Jennie Steere were taken into custody, jailed in Haverhill and indicted for first degree murder.
At trial in November, Williams testified that Steere had been shot by someone outside the house. Jennie and a young man who was there at the time collaborated this testimony. The two were acquitted by the jury. Many of those present believed they were guilty, but the evidence was purely circumstantial.  As with others found “not guilty”, but still guilty in public opinion, they found “life decidedly uncomfortable” in their community.

Marital infidelity played a part in what one 1916 newspapers call “one of the most atrocious murders ever committed in Vermont.” It was the April 22nd death of Joseph Felch of Topsham. His body was found in his sugarhouse the next morning with a bullet hole through the temple. Not satisfied with a suicide theory, the authorities’ investigation led them to the victim’s wife Anna Felch and their hired man Otis Williams.

It was discovered that Anna and Otis “were on friendly terms” and conspired to get rid of Joseph. They had planned that Williams would divorce his wife, leaving them free to relocate to Meredith, NH.  It was determined that the victim had been shot through a small crevice in the outside wall and that the rifle found near the body was Williams’.

While being held in the Chelsea jail, Williams gave separate confessions to two private detectives acting as inmates. He said that Anna had tried to poison her husband prior to asking him to shoot Joseph. He added that Anna had asked him to bring his rifle to the farm and that she was the actual shooter.

After Anna was arrested, the grand jury indicted both on first degree murder. Separate trials were scheduled. Williams’ trial was held during two of the hottest weeks in July. Despite that, the Orange County courtroom was filled to overflow capacity daily. In addition to the known details, the prosecution brought out the fact that Anna was “in a delicate position” with Otis’ child.

The jury found Williams guilty of second degree murder because, while not actually shooting the victim, “he had known the facts of the crime.” He was given a sentence of life imprisonment.
Anna Felch’s trial was not held until June 1917. She had been held in the jail across the road from the Orange County court house and during that time her infant daughter was born.

As with Williams’ trial, impaneling a jury was difficult because of the widespread publicity and interest. The prosecution introduced witnesses that testified to Anna’s apparent lack of grief over the death of her husband. Otis took the stand to testify to their relationship and plans. Anna took the stand in her own defense and was “emphatic in repudiating” the charges against her. 

After only four hours of deliberation, the all-male jury returned a verdict of not guilty. A “wave of revulsion” in both the lawyers for the state and the community at large, led the prosecution to appeal the verdict to the Vermont Supreme Court. Anna was remanded to jail awaiting that appeal.

This was the first time that a case had come to the Supreme Court following the acquittal of a defendant in a murder trial. The Court ordered a retrial. It was later determined that such a trial would constitute double jeopardy and, that further, the Supreme Court had acted beyond its jurisdiction.
The debate continued both in the courts and in the Vermont Legislature during which time Anna had remarried and had a second child born in jail.  In June 1919, Anna was released, a free woman.  Otis Williams was granted a parole in 1924 and in 1946 he received a full pardon from Governor Mortimer Proctor.
 An individual who commits murder while mentally deranged creates a problem for the judicial system. Although the policy for dealing with the insane differed between the two states, individuals who were determined to
 be insane were not always held criminally liable.

 State mental asylums that opened in Vermont in 1836 and in New Hampshire in 1840 provided assistance for those individuals who were mentally ill and violent. This led to a decline in both spousal and family murders. It is generally true that juries are reluctant to accept a plea of insanity. What follows are two cases in which mental illness played a role.

On Feb 19, 1880, Aaron Ferin attacked and killed another aged pauper at Corinth’s poor farm. Newspaper reports described the following: Just after breakfast, Ferin asked where the sharp ax was. After sharpening it further, “He, by a stealthy movement, advanced upon William Terrill, 79, killing him with a single blow.” By the time the farm overseer arrived, Ferin was found on his bed having cut himself and bled to death.

 At the farm Ferin had often talked of visions or dreams about murder and death. He thought he was insane and  that the overseer’s wife was paying more attention to Terrill than to himself.

On Sept 30, 1904, Laura Wilkins of Wentworth was found dead in bed, her head crushed with an axe. Her husband William Henry Wilkins was missing. The selectmen offered a $200 reward. On Oct 4, Wilkins turned himself in, stating that he was tired of wandering around the nearby forest, surviving on berries. He believed that he “must just as well face the music now as at any time,” but repeatedly stated the murder was justified.

Wilkins was held in jail in Woodsville until brought before the county court at Lebanon the following November. At that time, he was sentenced to the state prison for an indefinite period after the government accepted a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity. The presiding judge explained the sentence was not a punishment, but rather a way to keep the public safe.

 Each of the above cases turned on its special circumstances. Added to the actual events are questions about guilt and punishment as well as the role of law enforcement and the courts.

Murder has an impact on the individuals directly involved and on the community at large. Murder disrupts the community, often dividing it into factions. Some of the cases mentioned above were covered by the press in great detail and sometimes the coverage was “intense and lurid.” As in the case of Frank Almy, mentioned in the previous column, the public was so inflamed that 1,000 armed men joined in the search for the accused and called for his lynching. 

That coverage, as well as community gossip, draws people to the crime scene and to the trial. In 1880, the death of William Terrill at Corinth’s poor farm brought the following reaction: “There was great excitement in Corinth and adjoining towns and hundreds flocked to the scene of the tragedy during the day and the next forenoon.” 

This is the same morbid interest that brought so many thousands to watch public hangings in Haverhill, Portsmouth and Burlington before that practice was halted in both states.
Part three of this series will be published in May and  will involves cases of homicide  in which no one was found guilty or in which it was determined that no crime had actually been committed.. 

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Murder Most Vile (Part I)

LAST PUBLIC HANGING IN NEW HAMPSHIRE: On May 6, 1868, Samuel Mills was hanged on a special gallows next to the jail in Haverhill Corner. Thousands gathered to see the execution. Mills can be seen in a white shroud at the upper center of the photograph. 

CHRISTIE WARDEN'S MURDERER: George Abbott aka Frank Almy was executed at the NH State Prison on May 16, 1892 for the murder of Hanover resident Christie Warden.  His execution brought to an end a long career of crime that impacted a number of the towns in the area.

CROWD SURROUNDS ALMY'S HIDEOUT:  To avoid capture for the murder of Christie Warden, Frank Almy did out in the Warden's barn.  On August 19, a crowd of local men surround the barn. With shouts of "lynch him," Almy was hauled away.

This is a chapter we would gladly omit, but we should not be deemed a faithful historian if we did not write it.”  William Little, The History of Warren, New Hampshire, 1870

This is how Little introduced his chapter “A Brief Account of Two Murders.” I have avoided this topic before, but tackle it now. As with Little, I give brief accounts of local murder cases from 1739 to 1925.

As there is more information than one column can accommodate, the topic will be presented in two or three parts. The first one will cover local first degree murder cases in which the perpetrator was found guilty and punished. The others will be published over the next couple of months and will cover other local cases. The information for both columns is taken from local histories, online sources and newspapers archives.

Death was a constant fear for early settlers of the Connecticut River Valley frontier, but a series of murders around 1779 shocked local inhabitants. At that time, Toomalek, step-son of the legendary local scout Indian Joe carried out several murders in Newbury and Haverhill.

 Toomalek causes his mother Molly and the whole native community along the Oxbow much trouble by his”lawless conduct and ferocious and revengeful disposition.” Rev. Grant Powers, in his description of the events, described Toomalek as being “truly fiendlike with a murderous disposition.”
Toomalek fell in love with a Lewa, native woman, but she rejected his advances were rejected, marrying instead Michael of the native community. In an attempt to shoot Michael, Toomalek missed and killed Lewa instead. A native council found him not guilty as the death was accidental. Subsequently, Toomalek confronted Michael and Michael was stabbed to death. The council called Toomalek’s actions self-defense.

Toomalek’s character proved true when he became involved in another affair leading to the death of Pial-Susup, , son of Capt. John Vincent, a leader of the local native community. This time, Toomalkee was found guilty and sentenced to being executed by Capt. John, in keeping with the tribal customs.
 Interestingly, Toomalek was allowed to be free on the assumption he would show up for his execution. It is said that he did showed up at the appointed time and “with a steady firm voice exclaimed ‘Now kill me! Kill me quick.”  Capt. John shot him through the head.  
The first person to be hanged at Haverhill was 21-year old Thomas Powers, an African-American.  He was executed for rape on July 28, 1796.  In a document entitled “Last Words and Dying Speech,” Powers explained that he was born in Connecticut and admitted that he had “from very early began the practice of villainy and debauchery.”

He came to Lebanon in 1793 and, on Dec 7, 1795, waylaid a young woman on horseback and raped her. Three days later, he was apprehended and imprisoned in Haverhill. Escaping on April 5, he stole a horse from Frye Bailey of Newbury. But unfamiliar with the territory he got lost. “Suspected on being a rogue,” he was again imprisoned, and again escaped. He found his way to Capt. John Mann’s in Orford where he hid before going to Lyme. There he stole a horse and rode to Hanover, where he was recaptured for the final time. 

He was tried for rape at Plymouth, found guilty and returned to Haverhill for public hanging. Noah Worchester, pastor from Thornton, preached the sermon. In his final message, Powers stated he had sold his body to doctors for $10. The two doctors took the body for dissection. One of them, a Dr. Lacy of Hopkington, NH, skinned the body and tanned the skin and had it made into a pair of boots.

The practice of public executions had been used in New Hampshire before. In Dec 1739, Sarah Simpson and Penelope Kenny were both publically executed in Portsmouth for the crime of “feloniously concealing the death of an infant bastard child.” At that time the Provincial law required the death penalty for murder, rape, homosexual acts, abortion, burglary, counterfeiting and treason.

 Eliphaz Dow of Hampton Falls, NH was found guilty for the Dec 1754 murder of Peter Clough. Clough’s death came during a fight resulting from a long-standing feud between the two men. Dow struck Clough with a hoe. Despite pleas of self-defense, he was found guilty and on May 8, 1755 he was executed in Portsmouth. He was the first man executed by New Hampshire.

 A similar fate befell Daniel Davis Farmer who was hanged in Amherst in 1822 for the murder of Ann Ayer of Goffstown. 

 Vermont also held public executions. In 1808, Cyrus Dean was executed in Burlington before a crowd of 10,000. He was a member of the crew of the Black Snake, a boat used to smuggle items from Canada via Lake Champlain. In Aug 1808, a confrontation between federal agents and the crew of the Black Snake caused the death of Lt. Daniel Farmington. Dean was tried and found guilty and sentenced to be hanged.

A second execution and a nation-wide movement against the death penalty caused the Vermont legislature to debate such public spectacles. On Feb 8, 1839, Archibald Bates was executed for murder in Bennington. He had shot his sister-in-law. The jury handed down a verdict of guilty after 15 minutes of deliberation.

 Estimates of the crowd at the time ranged up to 25,000, but later revisions settled on about 10,000. One woman was said to have walked 40 miles so as not to miss the event. One observer wrote: “The conduct of the spectators was degrading to human nature.” After discussing such public spectacles, the Vermont Legislature pass a law that all future executions would be within the prison yard at Windsor.

 The county seat at Haverhill continued to host is share of public executions.
On the evening of Dec 17, 1805, Josiah Burnham killed Russell Freeman and Capt. Joseph Starkweather. The three men were incarcerated for debt in Haverhill. The deed was done with a double-edged knife that Burnham had concealed. 

In May 1806, in Haverhill, “Bloody” Burnham was convicted of murder on both counts and sentenced to be hanged on July 15. He was granted a stay of execution “so that he might have further time to prepare for death.” Because Haverhill was the county seat, the execution was held near Powderhouse Hill. On Aug 12, a crowd of 10,000, including people of all ages, gathered. A group of Bradford residents went to the top of Wright’s Mountain that day and through a telescope watch the hanging about 6 miles away.   
After a service that included prayer and an “execution sermon,” Burnham was given an opportunity to speak.  He confessed his crime and accepted his punishment.  

In 1848, Rev. Enos Dudley of Grafton, NH was accused of murdering his wife. He had taken her out for a sleigh ride and returned several hours later with her dead body. He said that the sleigh had overturned resulting in her death. However, when he built a homemade casket and organized a quick funeral, suspicions arose. When her body was exhumed it was found she had been strangled. Dudley was arrested.

In the subsequent trial, evidence seemed to indicate he had been involved in an “improper intimacy” with a young woman. In late 1848, Dudley was found guilty of murder. He was hanged at Haverhill on May 23, 1849. “He solemnly protested his innocence and met his sentence unmoved.”    

Samuel Mills, the Franconia murderer, was executed at Haverhill on May 6, 1868. The news of his crime and execution was carried in varying details from the local National Opinion to newspapers as far away as Iowa. 

In Dec 1866, Mills had killed 68-year old George Maxwell of Franconia in what was described as “a cruel massacre…a crime of a most brutal character.” Maxwell had been bludgeoned to death in his own home after giving Mills shelter. Mills then stole Maxwell’s horse and buggy and made his escape.  He eventually ended up in Montreal and beyond.  

Authorities hired Boston private detective Moses Sargent to follow Mills’ trail. On Jan 20, 1867, Sargent arrested Mills in Illinois and returned him to Boston. He was brought to Littleton and in early April 1867 was found guilty at Haverhill.  Before the appointed date he escaped from the local jail twice.

Reports of the crowd that gathered on the appointed day ranged from 3,000 to 5,000. Some came by special train. One reporter wrote: “Hundreds started at midnight and trudged into town to form a part of the novel and imposing throng.” A notable feature of the crowd was the number of women and children.

After the execution, “the multitudes departed with the gratifying satisfaction that the world is relieved of at least one of the most heartless wretches that ever disgraced it.” That common attitude toward public executions was not shared by the Boston Traveler. Their reporter wrote “Such an execution as this is a disgrace to the civilized state.”

 That view reflect continued criticism of these public events. Within a year of Mills’ death in Haverhill, the New Hampshire Legislature mandated that executions be carried out only within the prison walls in Concord. 

Probably the most notorious local murder of the 19th century took place in Hanover in 1891. The murderer was George Abbott, aka Frank Almy. The victim was Christie Warden. 

Abbott grew up in North Thetford, the grandson of Eliphalet Abbott of Fairlee. From his early years he displayed a tendency toward lawlessness. He was kicked out of the Thetford school for theft and left town. However, he returned to the area in the early 1870s and began a series of burglaries from Barnet, VT to Lyme NH. He broke into one Orford home twice.  In 1874 he was apprehended and spent four years in the NH State Prison. 

Upon release he came back to the area and by November he and his gang was again being sought by lawmen from Woodsville to Lyme. He was apprehended and sentenced to 15 years in Windsor State Prison. In 1887, he escaped and avoided capture by changing his name to Frank Almy.

In 1890 he began living with the farm family of Andrew Warden of Hanover. “Some sort of courtship” developed between Almy and daughter Christie Warden. Worried, Warden fired Almy.  Almy continued to hang around Hanover and on July 17 confronted Christie walking on the road with several others.

Almy dragged Christie away and shots were fired. When help arrived, Christie’s body was found. She had been shot in the head and once in the genitalia, destroying any possible evidence of rape.  Hundreds of armed men began searching for Almy and a $5,000 reward was posted.
Instead of running away, Almy hid in the Warden’s hay barn and for a month lived by stealing food.  His hideout was discovered and on Aug 19, a party of up to 1,000 men surrounded the barn. With cries of “lynch him” ringing out, Almy was hauled away. 

Local newspaper coverage was “intense and lurid” and inflamed local citizens. Almy decided on a bench trial in Plymouth before a two-judge panel. He took the stand in his own defense but the verdict was guilty. But Almy was not there to hear it. He had been removed to Concord for fear of a lynching.

But that removal raised questions about the trial and in April 1892 a second trial was held, again with a guilty verdict. On May 16, 1892 he mounted the gallows at the State Prison. Despite an initial bungling in the procedure, 14 minutes later ”the Thetford terror” was declared dead.

The Orleans County Monitor of Nov 11, 1910 carried a news item about a drunken brawl between two Ryegate men. The headline read “May Mean Another Murder Trial.” The confrontation took place on Saturday night, November 5, 1910 between Andreani Andraguillui and Pietro Nicoli. Nicoli was struck down and found unconscious the next morning.

When, three days later, he had not regained consciousness, an Italian doctor from Barre was summoned. The diagnose was a fractured skull. Andraguillui was arrested.  Nicoli, the reporter wrote, “probably will not live.” There was no further news about this case.
This was not the only case where alcohol played a significant role in the death of a local resident as we will see in the next column. . 

Thursday, February 13, 2020

1945: Hanging On Toward Victory

7TH BOND DRIVE. In May 1945, the U.S. Government called on citizens to buy additional war bonds. This effort to raise funds for the war effort and to combat inflation exceeded all expectations with over $156 billion raised.  

THETFORD RINGS OUT VICTORY.  Citizens, young and old, gathered at the Timothy Frost Methodist Church in Thetford Center to ring the church bell to celebrate the end of World War II. (Thetford Historical Society)


HOMECOMING MARINE. On October 13, 1945, The Saturday Evening Post featured this Norman Rockwell tribute to returning servicemen. This local study of hero worship features a local garage handout in Arlington, VT in which the young man worked before the war. 

”We are just getting into the toughest part of the fighting in the shooting and killing war. The toughest days for us on the home front are ahead of us.”  Charles A. Pumley, U. S. House of Representatives, January 30, 1945.

“This is the day we have waited for since Pearl Harbor. This is the day when fascism finally dies, as we always knew it would.”  President Harry S. Truman, August 14, 1945

In the seven months between these two statements, Americans continued to struggle with the challenges of total war. However, there was a light at the end of the tunnel. This column deals with those challenges and expectations, especially on the local home front. The public seemed to recognize that this last difficult period was just an interlude before the end, before victory.

To understand the yearnings for peace, one needs only to understand the local contributions to the war effort. Hundreds of young men and women joined the services in numbers equal to that of the Civil War. Many more left to work in war production. Vermont had 38,000 men and women in service and New Hampshire had 60,000. Dozens of local men and hundreds statewide lost their lives.

Daily life on the home front was challenged by a state of total war, with virtually every aspect of life affected. The prospects of peace meant the end of food and gas rationing, news censorship, the blackouts, the scrap and war bond drives and so many loved ones stationed far from home.

The winter of 1944-45 was one of the most difficult of the entire war. Despite successes in both theaters, America suffered 77,000 casualties in the Battle of the Bulge and the Pacific campaign was taking a heavy toll. That winter brought the war-weary nation increasing costs for consumer goods, increased rationing and continuing concern for local men and women in the service.

There were continued shortages of food, fuel and manufactured consumer goods such as automobiles, farm machinery and household appliances. It was reported that civilian supplies were at their lowest level than at any point and every effort would be made to “assure equitable distribution.” It was also reported that there was a flourishing black market for many rationed or unavailable items.

 In an effort to conserve fuel, gasoline continued to be rationed. In February, several local libraries were closed until coal could be obtained.  Residents were encouraged to conserve electricity. They were also encouraged to limit evening telephone calls and unnecessary train and bus travel, allowing service personnel easier access to those services.  

As the nation had to feed millions in the armed services as well as well as citizens in ravished war zones, food continued to be rationed. The United Opinion continued to feature point-saver recipes to help families deal with shortages. Gardens for Victory were still encouraged, an encouragement that probably was not needed as family gardens were a time-honored tradition. Extra sugar was made available for home canning.  

The importance of agriculture locally was reflected in almost weekly newspaper articles. Farmers were encouraged to increase production but struggled with severe shortages of grain for livestock. As with virtually every other enterprise, they suffered from the lack of labor.  

The government continued to rely on bond drives to pay for the cost of the war. Asking citizens to loan their extra money to the government at a time when there were fewer consumer products available helped to fight inflation. In May 1945, the 7th War bond drive was announced. There was concern that the defeat of Germany might weakened the appeal.  However, the drive exceeded all expectations and over $156 billion was raised. The United Opinion carried both news items and advertisements for this drive.

Local newspaper columns continued to report newsy items of civilian life. They also reported on the various stages of military life of local men from induction to discharge. While news from the war fronts was fragmented and censured, the news of  citations, injuries and deaths of local service men was common during this time. With the surrender of Germany in May, more information became available.  

The following is a sample of those news items about local men beginning in Jan 1945. S/S Harry Hinman of Newbury and Pvt. Harvey Oliver of Fairlee both killed in Belgium; PFC Arthur Bean of East Thetford awarded the Bronze Star; Bernard Bean of Orfordville “has seen plenty of action for one boy”; Lt. Harold Chase of Ely “in the thick of the European scrap.”

Additionally, PFC Daniel Bennett of Piermont was killed in Italy; Charles Zwicker of Bradford home on leave having shown “high standards of courage, initiative and discipline required during long periods of combat.” Sgt. David McLam of Ryegate returned after participating in eight major battles.  

Another local man who was assigned to the European Theatre was Major General Ernest Harmon. Harmon had grown up in West Newbury and graduated from Bradford Academy.  In Jan 1945, Harmon took command of the newly-created XXII Army Corps and led its invasion of Germany. After the surrender, he was assigned the command of the VI Corps in Germany and developed it into the US Constabulary.

Harmon was not the only man with Newbury connections in Germany after the war ended. PFC Robert Atwood was in Germany and, in 1946, served as driver for Judge Walter Beals, the presiding judge in the Nuremberg trials of major Nazi leaders.

The United Opinion featured weekly syndicated columns on war news, Hollywood gossip, sports and government activities. There were several serialized action or love stories.  Kathleen Norris’ weekly column for women warned its readers about extramarital affairs while husbands were in the service. It then turned to the subjects of the joys and challenges of a returning husband who had seen action.

As Germany and then Japan lost territory to the Allies, private American citizens as well as military personnel were freed. Lieutenant Gerald Smith of Piermont was released from a German POW camp as was Milton Partington of Topsham. The Allied capture of the Philippines brought freedom for the Day/Harrell family of Orford and the Wells family of Newbury, both of which had been imprisoned after the fall of Manila in 1942.  

Popular music mirrored the feelings of the nation during this period. The need for hope and the dangers of negative thinking were reflected in the January hit “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive.” During the last few months of the war and during the period of reductions of military forces, popular songs reflected the changes. Reunion was a popular theme reflected in the musical hits “It’s Been a Long, Long Time” and “My Guy’s Come Home.”   

In the spring of 1945, the war in Europe came to an end with the surrender of Germany in May. In the Pacific, the island-hopping continued to make the Americans pay a heavy toll with the capture of Iwo Jima and Okinawa adding an additional 70,000 casualties. Many feared that to take the Japanese home islands by invasion would add thousands of American casualties.  

In April, President Roosevelt died. There were memorial services locally and many stores closed for two hours during the national funeral service.  The editor of United Opinion, a Republican-leaning newspaper, wrote of Roosevelt’s as a master politician with a “charming personality.”  He went on to say Roosevelt “was idolized by millions and hated by many. Few people were lukewarm toward Franklin Roosevelt.” Articles implied that most Americans were unfamiliar with President Harry Truman.

As the end of the war came into view, the United States began to move away from a war-time economy. In early June there was news of the relaxing of production controls on heavy metal products including automobiles. The newspaper also carried an advertisement that read: “Take care of your refrigerator, new ones will not be available in quantity for a long, long while.”

 Leaders were determined to avoid a post-war depression. War production began to be scaled back and Congress passed the Serviceman’s Readjustment Act, known as the G.I. Bill.   Post-war projects began to be mentioned in the United Opinion as winter turned to spring.    

Another aspect of post-war planning was to prevent international conflicts.  In 1944, an international conference was held to formulate what was to become the United Nations.  Vermont’s Senator Warren Austin helped to create the draft model for that organization.

 In March 1945 most New Hampshire town meetings considered a resolution in support of “a general system of international cooperation…having police power to maintain the peace of the world.” Both Orford and Haverhill were among those that considered the issue. State-wide the support of 2-1 in favor, but in Haverhill the vote was 178 in favor and none opposed.  

 V-E Day in May was accepted with quiet thanksgiving as Americans realized that the end of the war in Europe gave the world only partial peace. Observances were largely confined to schools and churches. In Fairlee, the children from the elementary school walked to the monument in the park for a brief ceremony. In West Newbury, the church bell rang out an invitation to an evening service of thanksgiving.

The war against Japan came to an end in August with the dropping of two atomic bombs. Locally, V-J Day emotions ran the gamut from celebration to sadness.

 In Bradford, plans had been underway for several days to welcome peace. In the previous week’s edition of the United Opinion, businesses that would be closed on whatever day peace arrived were listed in bold print. Plans were underway for a community victory church service that would be held on “the evening of the announcement.” Wood was collected for a bonfire. But when peace came, it came in a wild “orgy of celebration.”

The Opinion’s front-page article described the celebration. “The fire siren kept up a continuous noise with the whistles of the Veneer Mill and Vermont Cooperative Creamery adding to the din. Later the two churches and the school added the ringing of the bells to the other noises of joyful observance. Impromptu parades were formed; the fire truck and apparatus, autos full of delirious citizens and a host of people on foot filled the Square and street to overflowing.

 A piano on a truck appeared and dancing was indulged in. Three caskets, donated by A. E. Hale, were burned with appropriate ceremony thus committing the three War Lords to their proper places. Fun waxes fast and furious for the remainder of the evening.”

In Woodsville and Wells River a similar spontaneous outpouring was taking place. Dean Rowden, 17 years old and owner of a Model T Ford, gave little thought to gas rationing as he joined “an endless parade of people and automobiles that snaked its way back and forth between the two communities.” Six locomotives added their steam whistles to the clamor from auto horns, mill whistles and church bells.

Smaller town centers experienced smaller but no less joyful celebrations. In Thetford Center, a group gathered at the Timothy Frost Methodist Church to ring the bell. A local columnist described it as follows: “The people of the town welcomed the surrender of Japan with ringing of the church and school bells, and by several people out ringing cow bells and blowing horns. James Hovey, 88 years old, was one who helped ring the church bell on Tuesday evening. With him was the son of Mr. and Mrs. Sperry, giving the oldest and the youngest the honor of ringing for victory.”

The war had consumed the lives of Americans since Pearl Harbor. It seemed as though it would go on forever. And now it was over. Americans had survived the Great Depression and total war.  These, the military personnel and the laborers who supported them, have been called the Greatest Generation. And they were now ready to get on with their lives.


Friday, December 20, 2019

The Best Christmas Gift Ever

VINTAGE SANTA CLAUS: The post card below was sent to Anna Wilson (later Denny) of Bradford about 1912.  The written message assured her that her name was on Santa's list of good children. By that tie, Santa Claus as a bearer of gifts was well established in the minds of little children. (Bradford Historical Society).


CHRISTMAS WISH BOOK. This 1950 edition of the Sears Christmas catalog may bring back memories for readers of a certain age who looked forward to its annual arrival with anticipation.  It was normal for children to leaf through its pages and create a Christmas wish list by circling those items they desired.

MIDDLE CLASS CHRISTMAS- -For many families the gift-filled image in this advertisement was beyond their means.  Unless local organizations like Operation Santa Claus assisted, parents struggled to meet even a portion of their children's wish list.t 

HISTORICAL COLLECTION--From 19th century dolls to cap guns, toy tractor and telephone to a 1960s Fisher-Price school bus, these toys from the collection of the Bradford Historical Society were likely Christmas gift. (Larry Coffin)  

“Those parents who know that a Toy at suitable times is as useful as a book, are invited to select from our assortment some time for Christmas and New Year’s Presents for their Children.” Brinsmaid & Brothers, Church Street, Burlington, January 5, 1844.  

This advertisement in the Burlington Free Press is one of the earliest that specifically mentions toys as holiday gifts. It went on to describe a selection of blocks, crying dolls, balls, toy whips, tin horses and china animals.

The column that follows describes a variety of children’s Christmas gifts from the late 19th century through the 1970s.  Portions of the article are taken from my December 2008 column. I have added comments from folks in my bowling league, my church and at senior meal sites and from just about anyone I came in contact with who looked like they were a child before 1975.

This was unscientific and readers are invited to use their own experiences as a reflection.

 Author Stephen Nissenbaum describes the history of Christmas and notes that until the early 1800s “there were no intimate family gatherings or giving of Christmas presents to expectant children…it was neither a domestic holiday nor a commercial one.” But that started to change as a result of activities of a group of New Yorkers including Washington Irving and Clement Clarke Moore.

The writings of these two men focused on child-centered family celebrations and depicted Santa Claus much as we picture him today, the kindly maker of toys for children.

The first Christmas advertisements began to appear in New England newspapers in the 1820s. Santa Claus was included to encourage sales. Almost as quickly as these promotions began to appear, so did concern that to avoid spoiling their children, parents needed to balance indulgence with restraint.

 The “invented tradition” of Santa Claus in a domestic gift-centered setting encouraged the use of the Christmas tree after 1830. Public Christmas trees were used in Vermont and New Hampshire by the 1850’s, if not before.  By the time of the Civil War, Christmas had become a legal holiday in many states.  

 Local newspapers from the latter half of the 19th century reflect the growth of the celebration of the Christmas season. While Bradford’s National Opinion had only a few seasonal advertisements in the 1860s, local columns told of Christmas Festivals from West Fairlee and Lyme to Newbury and Woodsville. A Christmas Eve service at the West Bradford Methodist Church featured “a Christmas tree, well-filled with fruits of all kinds.”

  In a custom that continued in some towns until the 1920s, families would exchange presents in this community setting. Santa Claus appeared in Orford at the Congregational Church in December1871 “along with a large lot of presents for all.”

 In the years that followed, area merchants took full advantage of Christmas sales.  In 1874, a front page article announced that “Agents for Santa Claus have been in Bradford and called upon most of the traders in town and left a large quantity of goods suitable for Christmas and New Year’s presents.”  This “lively realization of the fancies of childhood” included rosy-cheeked dolls, whirligigs, teetotums, puzzles and games.
 A later edition reported that M.P. Warren of Fairlee “Just returned from Boston and it is surprising what Christmas gifts you can buy for 10 cts.”

Newspapers went on to report a relatively new practice: “Many of the citizens of Bradford had Christmas trees at their homes. “The earliest trees often had candles that were lit under close supervision and with a pail of water close by. The United Opinion of 1909 mentions that the Piermont church had given up candles “less Santa Claus’s whiskers catch on fire.” Stockings were hung to be filled with small gifts and fruit.  Children were admonished to be good, for bad children might receive just a lump of coal or a rotten potato.

 A number of local elders have shared their Christmas memories for the 2008. Other than Eris Eastman, the ones identified below have since passed away.  Their memories reflect Christmas in generally simpler times.

Many years ago my neighbor Florence Workman of Orford recalled her childhood experience at a community celebration in the early 1880s. She arrived with her family to see an array of gifts under the tree. “That beautiful doll could not be for me.” she thought. But, as gifts were distributed, the doll was for little Florence, a gift from her parents.

 Often money was scarce and therefore gifts were simple and usually homemade. Robert and Priscilla Fadden of North Haverhill, recalled Christmas as they were growing up in Piermont in the 1920s. Robert recalls that he received homemade gifts such as knitted items or a homemade toy. Some store-bought items such as pants or gloves were purchased in Bradford. Priscilla recalls the Piermont school pageant and tree at the town hall, but also recalls that “slow but sure, gifts began to be given at home.”

Lucy Dutton Farley of Wells River recalled that in the 1930s, Christmas was a simple time. Homemade gifts and homegrown food were among her favorite memories. Her family joined others for free movies at Woodsville’s Tegu’s Theatre complete with small gifts. Roland Moore of Woodsville has similar memories: of a whole fifty cents to spend on gifts for his mother, brother and grandparents. Ten cents for each left young Roland with a dime to buy a game for himself, something he purchased after bargaining down the price at a local store.

 The amount of anticipated gifts depended on the fortunes of one’s family, with a bag of marbles or small doll being a major gift for some. Roy Tyler, born in Haverhill in 1920, recalled that when his family lost their farm in McIndoe Falls, their Christmases were “lean.” In contrast, Eris Eastman recalled that her Taplin Hill family was able to provide “lots of gifts at home.”

 After the lean years of the Depression and World War II, the prosperity of the post-war years had its impact on Christmas. But as before, each family fashioned its own traditions. Perhaps it was saving in a Christmas Club or the arrival of packages from distant relatives. Santa shopped at the overflowing stores in Bradford, Wells River or Woodsville.  There was the Sears and Roebuck Christmas catalog and the Saturday Evening Post with its Rockwell Christmas cover.

  I asked a number of folks what childhood holiday gift still holds the best memories for them. Many responded without hesitation. Dolls were the most frequently mentioned gifts for little girls. Bride Doll was purchased at a local First National Store for a seven year old. “Sucker” was the name given to a “wonderfully realistic baby doll” for one little Orford child. Baby Ann for a Bradford girl’s Christmas doll.

Some gifts were fulfillments of a child’s wish list to Santa. In Jean Shepard’s classic A Christmas Story, Ralphie Parker’s wished for an official Red Ryder air rifle. The film based on that book is a regular part of current television festival schedule. Fiction became reality in 1958 for a 12-year-old West Fairlee boy who received a double barrel shotgun for Christmas. For a Bradford boy, 9, it was a pair of new skis to replace an older set. Several other men recall receiving Lincoln Logs, sleds, Tonka trucks or Erector Sets.  

Sometimes gifts were unanticipated, but became quite special. In 1945, Molly from Ryegate, 5, was told to tug on a rope poking from under her bed on Christmas morning.. Out came the sled she had wished for. In 1955, a Brownie box camera was so for a 10-year old Orford child. She recalls “I loved that camera.  It was a super gift for me.”  In 1967 a complete cowgirl outfit fulfilled the Christmas desires for a Bradford 7-year- old.

A chemistry set arrived for a self-described tomboy in 1958. It help to satisfy her interest in science. She told me she still has the gift sixty years later. Not all gifts keep such an important place as times pass.   Although she was important about 1953 for one Fairlee child, Susie Walker Doll is long gone, barely remember by her owner.

The December, 1955 editions of The United Opinion described the seasonal rush: “Stores in the village reported Christmas trade was excellent.  The Christmas lights sparkled in store windows and in streamers across Main Street.  Christmas music poured forth at frequent intervals from loud speakers, small children stared in admiration at the vast collection of toys waiting for Santa Claus…”

 On the 23rd, the newspaper reported that 30 below readings that week must have meant that Santa had left the door open when he left the North Pole. It went on to say that Christmas sales hit a record and, “Trains ran late throughout the week, so great was the burden of Christmas mail, Christmas travelers, and crippling cold.”

 One might receive Tinker Toys, Scrabble, a Barbie doll, Flying Saucer, or G.I. Joe action figure. The latter was not to be confused with a doll, of course.  If good, Santa might bring a Radio Flyer wagon or a toy John Deere tractor. Radio and later television programs such as Father Knows Best or Leave It To Beaver told of Christmas practices beyond the scope of many local families.

In most families, these gifts were in addition to new clothes or boots.  For younger children with older siblings, this was relief from hand-me-downs. Many recalled homemade hats and mittens knitted by family members or neighbors.

 Parents knew it was important to give equal presents to their children. To do otherwise might ruin a family holiday. One Fairlee resident vividly recalls how, when she was 3, her older sister got a giant bride doll while she only got a stuffed monkey. Sixty years later, she told me she still goes back to that Christmas morning memory.

The prosperity of middle class family resulted in multiple gifts under the Christmas tree. Not all shared that plenty. While those around her got a Raggedy Ann doll or a pull-behind toy elephant, another elder   recalled Christmases during the 1930s were complete devoid of gifts and celebration.

 One 80-year old Bradford resident recollected growing up in East Corinth with 10 siblings. She said that her mother made Stocking Monkeys for the girls in the family. These were dolls made from heavy duty socks. Additionally, each child had their Christmas stocking filled with an orange or apple and a popcorn ball.  Christmas morning in the late 1940s in that family was “fun, a lot of grabbing in hopes one got the right gift.”

Asked if she felt envious of children from other families, she said classmates’ experiences were about the same as hers. When asked if she remembers a special gift she gave her two sons, she immediately recalled a mid-1960s Christmas when each of the two boys received a model tractor with trailer and miniature cars.

  In 1943, 12-year old Pete got a football for Christmas.  It was extra special because it was delivered by his older brother Bill, home from service in the Merchant Marines. Asked which was the better gift, the football or his brother, Pete said both were very special.

Since the 1800s there have been the plea for considering gifts for the poor in the community.  Gift giving and charity were encouraged by commercial interests, organizations and religious groups. In 1857, the Vermont Historical Magazine included a poem by Brandon’s Mrs. A.H. Bingham.  Entitled “Christmas Gifts,” it concluded with the admonition “So give to the poor Christmas Gifts next Christmas Day.”

The Newbury column in an Dec. 1890 United Opinion called on readers to “Remember the poor with Christmas or New Year’s gifts…they will go a long way towards cheering the hearts of those whose hearts need cheer.” In Union Village, Mission Boxes were distributed around 1913.  During the Great Depression, as in the periods after World War I and the Flood of 1927, there were calls for donations to help the less fortunate.

In 1979, Operation Santa Claus began fulfilling this charge for hundreds of needy children in the area. Initially begun by members of the Bradford Lions Club, it continues to operate with the help of a large group of volunteers. For 40 years it has distributed toys, food bags, warm clothes and other gifts.

Toys for Tots and Barbara’s Red Stocking are two of similar programs helping children in both states this holiday season. I am sure those who spend so much effort to make these programs successful have the same heart felt satisfaction as many parents. That is, knowing on Christmas morning, the best gift, the one that may create memories for a life time, is one that is given to a child.