Local Lawmen—Both of the local men pictured above had long-term law enforcement careers, Caledonia Country sheriff Lorenzo Sulloway of St. Johnsbury served from 1878 to 1905 and was described as “a terror of evil doers.” Newbury’s Horace Bailey served as U.S. Marshall for Vermont from 1903-1914. Any person who broke federal laws would find himself up against “the real thing.”
Before the State Police—In response to increase highway traffic issues, Vermont created a highway patrol in 1925. This officer, pictured in St. Albans in 1936 was one of the motorcycle unit. The patrol’s limitation to motor vehicle law enforcements and n the inability of county sheriffs to deal with major crimes led to the creation of the Vermont State Police in 1947. (Library of Congress)
“Certainly Vermont should have some officers empowered to enforce the laws and prevent crime, and not try to get along longer with a system that simply seems to lock the barn after the horse is stolen.” Letter to the Editor, Brattleboro Daily Reformer, Dec 28, 1920.
This column examines the history of law enforcement in Vermont and New Hampshire from the Colonial era to the establishment of their state police forces. I have relied heavily on Michael J. Carpenter’s book on the Vermont State Police and the New Hampshire State Police’s Golden Anniversary publication. Additionally, the material is taken from local publications and online sources.
The two local law enforcement officers colonial New England imported from England were the constable and the sheriff. Each town had one or more constables as keepers of the peace and marshals of the militia. A town could not be recognized as legitimate unless it had constables to administer punishments and deliver warrants.
In provincial New Hampshire, constables were authorized to seize lawbreakers, including privateers and pirates. Additionally, they certified weights and measures and oversaw wolf carcasses disposal. In both states, they were authorized to “pursue, or hue-and-cry after Murderers, Peace breakers, Thieves, Robbers, Burglars and other capital offenders.” Responding as a posse-comitatus to a constable’s hue-and-cry was required of every able-bodied man.
In both Vermont and New Hampshire, constables were also collectors of state taxes. In 1788, the Vermont General Assembly authorized the first constable of Mooretown (Bradford) to collect a 10 shillings tax on each one hundred acres.
During the 19th century, newspapers mentioned additional duties of Vermont constables. They included warning the poor out of town, transporting prisoners, killing unlicensed dogs, enforcing liquor laws and supporting local police courts. In 1895, the constables of Fairlee and Orford cooperated to prevent “the traveling public from driving over the covered bridge faster than a walk.”
If there was a town jail, the constable was in charge. Prisoners often escaped. Newbury’s jail was an example of the inadequacy of the local lockups. In 1894, Newbury Constable Weed told the local newspaper, “There is no denying the fact that lawlessness in Newbury village is on the increase.”
Newspaper reports began to refer to local law enforcers in larger communities as police. Soon after the Civil War, those larger communities began to maintain a police force including a night-watch contingent. These were often full-time uniformed officers. This increase in force was more a response to civil disorder than an increase in crime.
In 1898, Woodsville began to have an officer on duty during the night, appointed by the Selectmen, but paid for by the businesses. The term “chief of police” was first used in reference to the Village of Bradford in 1909. By that time, the title had been used in larger communities in both states for some time.
The chief law enforcement of the county was the sheriff. The title has its origin in the early English position of shire reeve. Before 1878, sheriffs in New Hampshire were appointed for 5 year terms by the Governor and Council. In Vermont, sheriffs were elected by the Legislature until the Vermont Constitution was amended in 1850 to provide for their election by each county’s voters. In 1870, terms were increased from one year to four.
The duties of early sheriffs included the collection of debts, criminal prosecution, and punishment of offenders. These punishments, often severe, included whipping, branding, public display in stocks and imprisonment. Early New Hampshire sheriffs also transported election ballots to state officials.
Additional duties included sale of seized property, supervision of the county jail and playing a major role in the county court’s operation. Their duties sometimes carried them beyond the boundaries of their county.
In 1806, Orange County High Sheriff Mica Barron of Bradford traveled to Lower Canada to apprehend Stephen Burroughs, a notorious counterfeiter. Bankers had engaged Barron for this extra-legal investigation.
One local sheriff of note was Caledonia County sheriff Lorenzo Sulloway of St. Johnsbury. He held his position from 1878 to 1905, one of the state’s longest continuous sheriff service records. Sulloway apprehended many notorious criminals in several states, Canada and Cuba. He was described as “a terror of evil doers.”
Sheriffs were sometimes called to keep the peace in the face of social unrest. They were called to deal with labor unrest in Bolton (1846), Newbury (1847), Vershire (1883), South Ryegate (1885), and Bellows Falls (1921). In several of these incidents, the Vermont militia was sent to help the sheriff restore order.
Some sheriffs were not equipped to fully investigate major crimes such as murder. In 1866, in the murder of George Maxwell of Franconia and in the 1922 double murder in Orford, the sheriff relied on hired detectives from out the state. In the latter case, a fingerprint expert was hired to assist in the investigation.
Before state police units were established in the two states, there were several other law enforcement officers whose jurisdiction was above the local county level. The oldest of this position was that of United States Marshal. The federal government created it in 1789 in support of federal courts and federal jurisdictions.
Federal marshals represented the national government throughout the state and were in charge of collecting and distributing information. Until 1870, they were responsible for reporting the census in each state. Until the Secret Service was created in 1865, they were frequently called upon to investigate counterfeiters and smugglers.
As marshals were appointed by the President, the occupants of the office changed with the results of elections. George Washington appointed John Parker of New Hampshire in 1789 as the first U.S. Marshal for that state. In Vermont, the first marshal was Lewis Morris, also appointed by Washington in 1791.
In March 1841, William Barron of Bradford was appointed U.S. Marshall for Vermont by President William Henry Harrison. As Harrison only served as President for 31 days, a document bearing his signature is the rarest of Presidential autograph. In 1985, Barron’s letter of appointment with Harrison’s signature was found in the Bradford Public Library’s attic. It was sold to finance improvements to the children’s room.
Two other local men were also appointed to the office of U.S. Marshal for Vermont. They were Jacob Kent (1845-1849) and Horace W. Bailey (1903-1914) of Newbury. Bailey received wide acclamation for his service. In 1905, one newspaper editorialized: “Horace is onto his job every time and the fellow who tries to get ahead of Uncle Sam by any crookedness whatever will find himself up against the real thing as long as the U. S. Marshal for Vermont is Horace W. Bailey.”
The Federal Bureau of Investigation has had officers in Vermont since 1908. Their duties included investigations for the U. S. Department of Justice. Their jurisdiction involved federal crimes, and they were active in interstate crimes and civil unrest.
From 1920 to 1933, the FBI was joined by federal prohibition agents and U.S. Customs agents in an attempt to enforce national prohibition. Through this area, roads were supply routes for smugglers of illegal alcohol from Canada bound for communities to the south.
Both states also had officers to enforce fish and game laws. In New Hampshire, towns were authorized to hire wardens as early as 1880. In 1890, the first state enforcement officer was hired, a position that became known as game wardens in 1915 and became uniformed officers in 1926.
Vermont game wardens were first mentioned in 1899.The state-wide game warden system was established in 1904, and by 1930, the officers were uniformed. In 1921, licenses were required for hunting and fishing. An article in the United Opinion noted that wardens were “considerably worried” about how it would look if they had to arrest female violators.
With the proliferation of automobiles after 1910, both states had to deal with offenders of traffic laws. Even with the income that might come from local tickets, patrolling the highways was often beyond the constables and sheriffs’ capacity. Coordination between local police was difficult as offenders fled in high-speed automobiles. Added to this was the increase in tourists, events involving many automobiles as well as speeding and drunken driving.
The idea of a state police in New Hampshire predated these developments. In 1869, in response to a petition, Governor Onslow Stearns suggested legislation to create a state police force to act where local authorities failed to do so. Suppression of illegal liquor sales, gambling places, and “houses of ill fame” were among the motives. A state-wide vote failed to obtain the necessary two-thirds all-male vote.
In 1915, the New Hampshire Legislature created a uniformed Motor Vehicle Highway Patrolmen unit to enforce traffic laws. The Attorney General was authorized to employ investigators with the power to enforce laws and make arrests statewide.
The idea of a state police was revived in 1931 when a legislative report called for the state to upgrade its “archaic system of policing.” As a result, a State Police Commission was created with 22 uniformed Motor Vehicle motorcycle officers. A State Detective Bureau, as well as a bureau for criminal and gun purchase records was also established.
On July 1, 1937, a law upgrading the highway patrol to a state police force with broad powers went into effect. The New Hampshire State Police was the 15th such organization in the nation.
Progress toward a state police force was much slower in Vermont. In 1918, the Vermont Secretary of State’s office was authorized to hire trained motor vehicle inspectors to enforce motor vehicle laws. That first year, Ara Griggs was hired as the one officer assigned to cover the entire state.
In 1925, despite opposition from sheriffs, a motor vehicle bureau was established with a highway patrol. This 10-man unit, often using motorcycles, however could not deal with criminal violations and was hampered by winter conditions.
In 1931, a Vermont study committee recommended creating a full-time trained state police force to coordinate enforcement and reduce duplication. Vermonters’ attitudes toward centralized state control, threats to personal liberty, and a strong tradition of frugality coupled with significant opposition from the Sheriffs’ Association delayed action on the proposal. Additional report recommendations in 1935 and 1937 resulted in similar rejection by the Legislature.
Opponents to these proposals stated they were too expensive and that there was “no crime wave and no crying need” for a state police force. This was despite favorable newspaper backing and support from the Vermont Grange and Vermont Farm Bureau.
World War II delayed further legislation until 1946. There continued to be considerable criticism of the sheriff system for its ability to deal with the number of serious crimes and questions about their reporting of fines collected. One farmer was quoted as saying: “Getting a sheriff is like trying to raise the dead!!!”
As is often the case, a serious and widely publicized crime involving one individual caused enough alarm to lead to legislative action. In this case it was the disappearance of Bennington College sophomore Paula Welden in December 1946. This was one of six unsolved missing persons or murder cases in the Bennington area. Despite help from outside sources, the local sheriff did not have the manpower for a successful search.
Now there was widespread support for a new police force. In Feb 1947, a new bill overwhelmingly passed the Vermont Legislature and Governor Ernest W. Gibson signed it into law. On July 1, 1947, ten years after similar action in New Hampshire, the Vermont State Police became a reality. Vermont was almost the last state to create a comparable force.
The new force was composed of 48 uniformed officers, many of them with considerable experience as motor vehicle inspectors.
The 1920 letter cited at the beginning of this column hoped that a state police force would be “a protector of the farmer’s stock, crops and home, an effective enforcer of our road laws and would make Vermont highways a safe place to travel on again, would adequately, and without a lot of scandal, perform all the duties of private detectives, saving money for Vermont, and beside, perform them in such a way as to not bring the law of enforcement of Vermont into dispute…”
Finally, by 1947, the trained state police forces were on call in both New Hampshire and Vermont.