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Monday, April 15, 2024

Wrong Side of the Law Part Three


The Orange County Courthouse in Chelsea was built in 1847 in the Greek Revival style by master builder Horace Carpenter.  He also built the Caledonia County Courthouse in 1856 in St. Johnsbury. County courthouses were the site for the adjudication of criminal and civil cases, often with juries composed of county residents. 


This is the third part of a series on crime in the area before 1950. Part one in January covered counterfeiting, horse and auto theft, and prohibition. Part two in March covered robberies, drugs, and adultery.

 In 2020, this column also featured a three-part series entitled “Murder Most Vile.” All of these columns can be found at larrycoffin.blogspot. com or in the archives of the Journal Opinion.

This column deals with assault, animal cruelty, vandalism, black marketeering, domestic abuse, and debt imprisonment. It covers area news items from the early 19th century to 1950.    

Assaults reported in local newspapers during this period ranged from misdemeanors to felonies and from fisticuffs to murderous assault. Some resulted in fines, others in imprisonment. 

Several cases of assault and battery occurred at local election meetings. In March 1875, there was an altercation at the Orange town meeting. Three men attacked Fred Harriman and seriously injured him.

A United Opinion report in 1889 noted that “some years” before, a “party of ruffians” murderously assaulted the clerk at the Corinth District 2 school meeting. As more women were permitted to vote in local meetings, disruptions became less likely.

 On July 2, 1901, Ray Perkins of Orford was seriously injured “as a result of a tussle with a gang of fellows he discovered loitering about the farm where he was employed.”  Perkins was severely wounded. The entire community was “aroused” and a posse formed. The desperadoes, however, made good their escape. 

A newspaper search for assault or brawls, resulted in fewer than one might imagine. Drunken scuffles rarely rose to the level of breach of the peace. If an alcohol-fueled tussle at a Saturday night dance resulted in a black eye or bloody nose, it was usually forgotten on Sunday.

Some actions that are not initially criminal become so as societal attitudes changed. Cruelty to animals is one of those. Prior to the early 1840s, there were no laws regulating the treatment of domestic animals. What a man did to his animals in the privacy of his home was not a legal concern.

Most households had animals, including horses, dogs, and farm animals. Since horse and dog-drawn vehicles were in full public view, it was difficult to hide abuse. There was also organized animal cruelty, such as dog or cock fighting.

New Hampshire and Vermont passed laws against animal cruelty in response to a growing humane movement. Laws carried fines and jail sentences. At first, charges could only be brought against a person for cruelty to animals belonging to another. These were considered offenses against private property with punishments of imprisonment and/or fines “at the discretion of the court.”

New Hampshire’s animal protection law was passed in 1843, and Vermont followed in 1846. Within several decades, these laws were amended to include animals abused by their owners. The Vermont Humane Society was established in 1898.

In 1871, Newbury’s Aurora of the Valley carried an editorial about Keene, NH. “We are almost daily pained at the sight of some uncalled-for abuse.”

 As the animal rights movement gathered support, cases were heard in municipal courts with punishments dependent on the judges’ attitudes. The following are some of those cases. 

In 1903, William Morris of Burlington was fined $14.60 for “driving a horse in a pitiable condition. The court ordered the horse to be shot.  In 1926, a Vermont man received a suspended sentence of six months for leaving “his horse out in the winter cold without a blanket.”

In 1948, a Strafford man was fined $25 and given a suspended 60-day sentence for neglect of his farm animals.

Domestic violence was another “crime” that often remained hidden until the last third of the 20th century.

 As with animals, a man’s family was his property, and what he did in the privacy of his own home was outside of the law. 

Liquor often caused “ruffianly brutality, “a phrase used to describe domestic violence. The Vermont Union newspaper concluded that “with no liquor, there would be no wife beating and no cruelty to little children.”

The following are several cases of spouse abuse reported in local newspapers. There were undoubtedly many more, as victims often did not come forward. In the 19th century, child abuse and spousal rape were not considered crimes and, therefore, not reported.

Courts did not hand out consistent punishment for those found guilty.  In 1876, a Vermont man who “whaled his wife” for not having his breakfast ready, as reported by The North Star, was fined $20. In 1885, a New Hampshire man was fined one cent and costs for wife beating.  He went to jail rather than pay the fine.

In the new century, punishments intensified. In 1901, an Essex Vt man got a 90-day jail sentence. A Bethel man was sentenced to 1 to 3 years. Despite local feelings that this sentence was too lenient, Vermont Governor John McCullous pardoned the man. .

In 1907, a Lamoille County court sentenced a man to 15 months in jail, and in 1919, a Rutland man received a two-year sentence. 

Not all courts were as severe. In 1933. a Rutland court handed down a sentence of 10 days, and in 1939, the same court punished a third-time offender with a 30-day sentence.  In 1947, a man who threw a cup of hot coffee on his wife and then beat her got a fine of $10 and costs. 

It was not until the 1970s that laws against domestic violence began to take effect.    

Debtors prison sounds like something from a Dicken’s novel. One could be imprisoned in New Hampshire and Vermont for debts owed.  Essentially, “it inflicted punishment on those men whose misfortune was made a crime.”

Debtors could be jailed for debts as low as $1. In 1825, one man was confined in the Danville debtors’ prison for 14 years.

The Prison Discipline Society, a reform group, estimated in 1831 that more than 4,000 Vermonters served time each year for debt, in some cases for less than $5.

An imprisoned debtor would be released if supporters paid the debt or if he took the poor debtor oath, stating that he did not have sufficient assets. That was the equivalent of declaring bankruptcy. In practice, debtors’ prison sentences were an incentive to disclose hidden assets.

The reform movement to eliminate imprisonment for debts was successful, first for women in the 1820s, and for men in Vermont in 1838 and in New Hampshire in 1840.

In the years after, persons could still be jailed for non-payment of a civil award. This court order, known as a “close jail certificate or execution,” made the news in three cases in 1949-1950.

The first involved two veterans who were imprisoned in Rutland for indefinite terms for non-payment of an award stemming from automobile accidents.  One of the two had been held in a German prison camp. Veteran groups came to their rescue.

In 1950, the nation’s attention was turned to the case of Hattie Cooke of St. Albans.  The mother of six was imprisoned for non-payment of an auto damage suit of $1,966. She was released after 143 days when she promised to seek employment and make payments.

 “Vandalism is a crime, punishable by fines and free board in an institution.” That is how The United Opinion responded to break-ins in Newbury’s public buildings in 1929. In 1944, The Caledonian-Record added, “Vandalism, hoodlumism, and sloth must be put down by whatever punishment is required,”

Between 1870 and 1950, there were frequent reports of vandalism, “both hostile and malicious.”  It was often accompanying Halloween and the Fourth of July celebrations and carried out by older boys.

Public buildings, cemeteries, signs, and vacant buildings were the targets. In some cases, extensive damage was reported. If the vandals were apprehended and made to appear in local municipal court, they were rarely punished by more than a stiff reprimand and required retribution.   

One exception to this treatment was handed out to two older North Danville men for their 1931 Halloween prank. They removed the planking from a local bridge, creating a serious safety issue. They were sentenced to two to five years of hard labor in the state prison.  

In March 1932, the infant child of Charles and Anne Lindbergh was abducted from his bedroom. It was called “the crime of the century.” The kidnapping and the search for, capture, trial, and execution of the abductor Bruno Hauptmann made headline news in all the local newspapers. Many asked, were local children in danger of being kidnapped?

In July 1931, two children were seized from their front lawn in Strafford by two men. Word was broadcast around the area. Subsequently, their father turned himself in. No criminal charges were pressed.

Sixteen-year-old Charlotte O’Brien of Concord, VT, was held for five days by Kenneth Ingalls, a lumberjack and farmhand, at a location within yards of her home.  He was described as a “jealous suitor.” Ingalls received a prison sentence. He was later given probation but committed suicide. 

At least one category of criminal activity was short-lived. Whenever a product is made illegal, black marketing is inevitable. During World War II, the Office of Price Administration (OPA) enforced rationing on a number of consumer goods to control inflation and equalize distribution. These ranged from sugar, coffee, and meat to tires and gasoline. Americans were issued stamp-filled ration books to be used when purchasing rationed items.

“A Black Market,” The United Opinion reported, “is any violation of price or rationing regulations.  Buying above ceiling, deals and purchase of counterfeit stamps to cover staples sales or get more than their share, sale of meat without collecting ration stamps, all of these things constitute black marketeering.”

With shortages and price freezes, violations of the controls were mentioned in local newspapers. In November, 1942, widespread violations of gasoline rationing were reported. About that time, OPA inspectors ran an automobile check in Woodsville and found 15% in violation, especially among out-of-state motorists. 

In January 1943, all pleasure driving was banned. There were assurances that the “rumors of prosecution for use of gasoline in going to and from church are ridiculous.”

There were stories of “unscrupulous persons selling goods at exorbitant prices regardless of the law.”  As with other prohibitions, charges were brought against dealers rather than consumers.

Even after peace, rationing continued, and local sentences were handed down for illegal tire and gasoline sales as well as “under-the- counter bread sales.”

Several conclusions can be drawn after reviewing newspaper reports of local actions that were on the wrong side of the law during the period before 1950.

When searching for reports of particular felonies, relatively few were found. Crimes elsewhere, especially in urban areas, were fascinating to readers. It might also be assumed that actions that could have risen to the level of felonies were either unknown or underreported. Changes in attitudes changed society’s perception toward what was considered a crime.  

Most locals were law-abiding and had little tolerance for attacks by outsiders on their property or residents. In the 19th century, locals were willing to join a posse to pursue those who broke the law.  

Most felonies were perpetrated by men, and alcohol often played a role. Women were frequently victims, and violence against them went unreported. The closeness to neighboring states and Canada which had laws dissimilar to those of New Hampshire and Vermont created problems for local law enforcement.  

With the exception of those actions covered by federal law, efforts to deal with criminal actions were mainly in the hands of local law enforcement and local courts. This began to change with the creation of state police in New Hampshire in 1937 and Vermont in 1947.        

Perhaps, at some time in the future, I may revisit this topic and focus on the period after 1950 to see if these conclusions continue

Friday, March 15, 2024

Wrong Side of the Law Part Two

 Journal Opinion March 6, 2024

This is the second part of a three-part series on crime in the area before 1950. Part one can be accessed by searching In Times Past, larrycoffin.blogspot.com. It covered counterfeiting, horse and auto theft and prohibition. This column deals with crimes involving robberies, drug violations, and adultery. 

The information is from local newspapers, town histories, and online sources. Orford historian Art Pease generously allowed me to use some examples from his research.

Before establishing a uniformed state police force in New Hampshire in 1937 and Vermont in 1947, the county sheriff was the primary law enforcement officer. A growing number of local police officers, game wardens and private detectives augmented this official.  Federal law officials included U. S. marshals, customs officers and FBI agents.

Criminal Court cases were tried in the county courts with both grand and trial juries selected from the legal voters of the county. Violations of federal statutes were remanded to federal courts. Newspapers carried reports of court sessions.  

Newspapers also reported break-ins at area banks and other businesses. In part one of this series, I wrote of the capture of William Warburton, known as Bristol Bill.

In 1849, he and his gang of counterfeiters were apprehended in Groton. Warburton was also charged with the possession of “burglarious tools for breaking open stores, banks, etc.”   

At trial in Danville, witnesses testified that Warburton and his comrades had considered breaking into a number of area banks. In the winter of 1849, they attempted a night-time robbery of the National Bank of Newbury.

Bank cashier Oscar Hale testified at trial that Warburton had attempted to giant cutters to cut into the bank iron vault door. Warburton was found guilty only on the counterfeiting charges and sent to prison.

That was not the last time the National Bank of Newbury made the news.  In September 1874, a gang of thieves attempted a night-time robbery. According to the North Star account, the gang jimmied a window and, using explosives, attempted to break open the vault. They were successful only in their escape. 

To avoid robbery attempts, that bank’s cashier never carried the bank keys at night but distributed them to several locations.  An attempted burglary the following year in barre illustrated the point of that practice.     

On July 6, 1875, a gang of thieves, including notorious bank robbers George Miles and Peter Alphonsos, invaded the home of Charles King, cashier of the National Bank of Barre.

They tied up his family and then led King to the bank. The thieves entered the building and the vault using the keys from King’s pocket.  However, as the bank had recently installed a chronometer or timed lock they were unable to access the safe. “No one,” King said, “could open it until morning.”

The gang departed with only a bundle of unsigned bank notes. Barre historian Paul Heller wrote of what followed. The local constable sent telegrams to neighboring towns informing them of the gang’s escape.

Orange County Sheriff John Bailey of Wells River took up the chase on a southbound train from the local area.  He captured one of the four who had jumped from the train. The other three escaped.

The bank hired Bailey, who, along with a Boston detective, followed leads to New York City where they apprehended the remaining fugitives.

Newspapers began to use the term yeggs or yeggsmen in reports about professional safecrackers. This pseudonym originated around 1900 and was popularized by the Pinkerton detectives.  It was taken from John Yegg, a well-known professional thief. 

During the night of Aug. 5, 1905, an out-of-state gang, part of a “desperate class of burglars,” attempted a bank heist in Newfane, VT. This yeggs gang used explosives to break open the vault at the Windham County Saving Bank. The noise awoke the neighborhood, which led to an armed response. One of the four professional safe breakers was captured and the others fled.  By January 1906, all were in custody.   

Banks were not the only targets of burglaries. Businesses and private homes were marked for break-ins.  In May 1873, The Bradford Opinion reported the following concerning Orford: “Thieving is getting quite common in this town.”

 What was happening in Orford was occurring in all local towns in varying degrees before 1950.  What follows are samples of such incidents.

The Opinion continued its description of the situation in Orford in August 1874. “As considerable thieving has been going on in town for the past two years, the public will be relieved in knowing that some of the parties now stand a promising chance to learn by law that such work is altogether wrong and reprehensible.”

Within two months,  the responsible gang of thieves had been captured. They were held in the Haverhill jail, tried at Grafton County court in Plymouth, and remanded to the state prison in Concord for terms of 4 to 5 years.

In the summer of 1925, local newspapers reported that “the entire countryside has been aroused” by a series of robberies. Notorious burglar and jail-breaker Stephen Hoppe led the gang.  Hoppe had escaped from a Maine jail and began the spree in Warren on June 24. This was followed by break-ins at the Newbury town office, and then at several locations in Lyme, Woodsville, and Fairlee.

The newspapers reported, “A posse of 50 men led by Fairlee and Orange County authorities were pursuing a band of robbers, last seen fleeing toward Bradford.” The gang of yeggsmen escaped.

 In August, Hoppe was shot while trying to burglarize a store in Proctorsville.  He was tried and given a 14-year prison sentence at Windsor State Prison. He escaped twice. In 1928, he was given a life sentence in Massachusetts for the slaying of a patrolman.

In November 1930, Doe Brothers store in Bradford was robbed during  the night by three men. They stole guns, silverware, watches, and clothing.

The three were captured in Albany and returned for trial. One of the men was still wearing a suit of clothes stolen from the Bradford store. They admitted that they were just passing through Bradford with a carload of liquor and realized there was no nighttime police. They received eight-year maximum sentences for a whole series of burglaries.

 Changing social morals has an impact on what is considered a crime. One example of that is divorce. Before 1840 there were few divorces granted in New England, and many were for adultery.

After 1860, states began to add circumstances for which divorce could be granted. While Vermont was not as quick to add circumstances to the law, desertion, cruelty, and refusal to support were added as causes.

Divorce was considered a social weakness, and there remained “a strong sentiment of indignation” against it. Newspapers began to include names and dates in court reports, probably to the embarrassment of the parties involved. 

Adultery continued to be the cause of marital breakups. In Vermont, there were 571 divorces granted in the five years after 1861, with 175 being for adultery.  

Generally, adultery lead to a civil case resulting in a divorce, often with alimony granted to the injured party.    

However, when other circumstances, such as intolerable severity or non-support, were added it was considered criminal.

 In January 1877, William Arnold was tried for adultery in Orange County Court. He was accused of having an affair with Mrs. Rosanna Whitney in a tryst witnessed by two boys. He was found guilty and sentenced to 5 years in Windsor State Prison. The Vermont Supreme Court apparently upheld the penalty.

 As the punishment was deemed very harsh, the Orange County state’s attorney and members of the jury petitioned the governor to pardon Arnold. Arnold died in prison before a pardon could be granted.

In 1924 Eddie Brown, a local man, was charged with the crime of adultery, and after pleading guilty was sentenced to 4-5 years in Windsor.

At that same time a couple from Newbury were charged with the crime of adultery and released on bail. The man was subsequently found not guilty, and the case against the woman was dropped.

In 1929 a Corinth couple was found guilty of adultery and received prison sentences for not less than a year at Windsor and Rutland Women’s Reformatory. In 1931, a man and woman from Strafford were sentenced to 1-2 years in prison. 

In most of these cases newspaper reports did not mention the extenuating circumstances that led to the prison sentences.

Sometimes, legal notices gave more details.  The courts dealt with physical altercations between married couples, resulting in jail time for the perpetrator.

 For example, in 1905, the Orange County court granted a divorce to a Randolph couple based on intolerable severity, neglect and refusal to support. This was just one of a number of similar cases.

In 1949, a Chittenden County man was given 90 days in jail for non-support, and a Corinth woman was arrested for “alienation of affection.”

Part one of this series dealt with violations against prohibitions of alcohol and marijuana. But those ware not the only drugs society has struggled with.

Another prohibition that has led to lawlessness is that against opium. In the early 19th century there was little evidence of opium addiction. However, as the movement against alcohol use began to restrict access, there was increased use of opium.

Available from physicians and druggists, and in patent medicines, there was unrestricted access to opium, morphine and codeine. 

In 1915, to adhere to the new national anti-narcotics law, Vermont passed the first drug law limiting access to narcotics.  

Almost immediately, the smuggling of narcotics from Canada increased to meet the needs of addicts. One newspaper reported in 1915, “A smuggler could secret in his overcoat pocket enough morphine for 10,000 “fiends.”

By 1918, smugglers were making numerous trips to and from Canada. In 1919, two men were captured in Newport with several suitcases “filled with morphine and kindred drugs estimated to be worth $100,000” on the urban black market.

This was part of the increase in illegal narcotics that led to “a wave of addiction.” Virtually all the reports of smuggling linked the drugs to addicts in New York and southern New England

In May 1922, an editorial in The United Opinion suggested there were about 250,00 drug addicts nationwide and “the drug habit is causing serious alarm these days.”

Despite this local alarm and numerous newspaper articles about drug activity nationwide, there were few arrests of Vermonters as drug addicts. Those that were arrested were confined to Waterbury State Hospital for treatment. At least one Vermont physician was arrested for illegal prescribing practices.  

A bold headline in the Rutland Daily Herald in March 1924 reported the seizure of $60,000 worth of bootleg narcotics being smuggled by an international drug ring. 

The following year, a Burlington speaker on the war on opium smuggling spoke on drug addiction in Vermont. He stated that the Champlain Valley was “the gateway of the North for smugglers.” 

The illegal traffic of narcotic drugs through Vermont continued through the period before World War II. Smugglers captured by federal enforcement officials were tried in federal courts throughout the state.

In 1933, William and George Nichols of Barre were found guilty of selling heroin to federal agents. On appeal, they were released because of entrapment. 

In 1940, a Bureau of Narcotics spokesman reported “illegal sale of narcotic drugs has been no problem in Vermont since 1931.”

While the availability of illegal drugs declined during World War II, there was a resurgence of smuggling nationwide in the post-war period. 

In 1947, the U.S. Border Patrol considered a reduction of personnel along the Vermont-Canadian border. One official reported that the patrols have “managed to keep smuggling down to an inconsequential trickle.” Of greater concern was smuggling along the border with Mexico and other ports of entry.

A review of area newspapers from 1860 to 1950 confirmed that Vermonters were less likely to be involved in criminal activity than the residents of other states, especially those with large urban centers.

 It also established locals’ interest in criminal activity when nearby or elsewhere. Local headlines were often boldly sensational even when the news was not from the local area.  As with news outlets today, bad news sells.

What was initially a two-part series on criminal activity in Vermont now has expanded into three. Next month, the series will include assault and battery, black marketeering, fraud, and other illegal activities.

Windsor State Prison served as Vermont's maximum security prison for men convicted of felonies.  It operated in that town from 1809 to 1975. It was also the location for executions.  In its latter period of operation, it was described as "ancient, decaying and depressingt."


Friday, February 9, 2024

Wrong Side of the Law (Part One)


Counterfeiter William Warburton, nicknamed "Bristol Bill" operated out of a house in Groton.  In 1849 he and his gang were arrested and their printing press and coper plates seized. 
During Prohibition, Vermont was on the frontline for smuggled Canadian liquor. In this photograph, U.S. Customs officials pose at the Swanton border in 1923 with captured alcohol. ( Courtesy of the Vermont Historical Society)  

Journal Opinion January 24, 2024

This is the first of a two-part series on crime in the area before the 1950s. The information is from local newspapers, town histories and online sources. Orford historian Art Pease generously allowed me to use some examples from his history of crime in that community.

I have not included murder in this series, as I completed a three-part coverage of that crime in the past.  That is posted on my blog at larrycoffin.blogspot.com under “Murder Most Vile.”

In this column, I explore some examples of counterfeiting, horse and auto theft, and violations of alcohol and marijuana prohibitions. 

Before establishing a uniformed state police force in New Hampshire in 1937 and Vermont in 1947, the county sheriff was the primary law-enforcement officer. A growing number of local police officers and game wardens augmented this official. Federal law enforcement officers included U. S. marshals and FBI agents.

From the 18th century well into the 20th century counterfeit money was a chief crime.

Counterfeiting of local bank notes added to the mistrust of currency in early New England.  Counterfeiters not only printed fake bank notes but altered real bills to manipulate the face value.  It was difficult for the average person to distinguish between the real and the bogus.

Counterfeiters also altered or fabricated replicated coinage. Sometimes, it was as simple as paring off the silver from the edge of coins. To prevent this coin clipping, later coins had a reeded or ridged edge which they continue to have today.

 In 1874, the Bradford Opinion carried the story of Devil John Martin, an early Bradford resident. Using a nearby cave for his operation, Martin and his gang melted down old teapots and other items to create coinage. They also counterfeited currency. This may be just a good story, as I could find no other references to Martin.

While some counterfeiters escaped punishment, others did not. In 1795, Vermonter Seba Beebe had his right ear cut off and his forehead branded with a “C” after being convicted of counterfeiting.  

In 1804, the Thomas Call gang operated out of a private home in New Boston, New Hampshire  They were apprehended with as much as $20,000 in fake currency and tried. Call escaped from jail and was spotted in Lebanon, NH. Soon after, it was reported that he drowned.  

Three other notorious counterfeiters operated locally. The first, Stephen Burroughs was described as a “most shrewd and accomplished villain.” In 1806, Orange County’s Sheriff Mica Barron of Bradford traveled to Lower Canada and apprehended Burroughs. 

In 1808, Augustus Bartlett was caught with counterfeit $10 bills and, after a trial in Caledonia Superior Court, was sent to the newly-opened Windsor Prison. At that time, about one-half of the convicts there were counterfeiters. 

In 1849, counterfeiter William Warburton, nicknamed “Bristol Bill,” and his partner Christian Meadows operated with their gang out of a house in Groton. Recognition of a gang member by a local bank employee led to the arrest of the entire gang, Their printing press and copper plates were seized.

In 1865, the U.S. Secret Service was created to deal with widespread counterfeiting.  At that time, as much as one-third of all currency was bogus. The number of newspaper notices of counterfeiting declined in the late 19th century.  But it did not disappear completely.

In 1933, The United Opinion noted that the Secret Service reported that counterfeiting had increased due to the rise in unemployment due to the Great Depression.   “When we have hard times, we also have more counterfeiting,” the report declared. “More counterfeit has been seized since 1929 than in any other period.”

In 1937, the newspaper carried the report that a New York gang that had been operating in Vermont had been apprehended. They were responsible for one-half of the counterfeit funds in the nation.

Of course, counterfeiting was not the only crime. Throughout the 19th century there were frequent reports of horse theft. It was a serious offense as personal horses were both a family’s mode of transportation and essential to farming and businesses.

 Some horse thieves were accomplished professionals and others quite amateurish. An example of the latter occurred in May 1856 when a young man from Lyndon Center “helped himself to a horse in Waterford.” He took the horse to St. Johnsbury and attempted to sell the horse to Hiram Hill. It turned out that the horse was Hill’s. Despite a quick getaway across the Passumpic River, the thief was caught and convicted. 

In January 1860, John Leger, “a notorious horse thief” who had recently been released from Concord State prison, stole a horse and sleigh in Charlestown, NH. Notice of the theft was sent by telegram to towns up and down the valley.

Fairlee Police officer Kibey, having received the telegram about the theft, recognized Leger and arrested him. He held the thief until officials from Charlestown arrived.  Leger was notorious enough to have his arrest carried in most Vermont newspapers.

 After the 1850s, Anti-Horse Thief Associations formed in several western and southern states. These groups developed methods for apprehending those who stole horses and other animals and lobbied for strict punishments.  Despite western stories to the contrary, they did not lynch horse thieves. I found no evidence of similar organizations in Vermont or New Hampshire. 

Edward Montague, a “noted horse thief,” was arrested for theft and held in the Grafton County jail in August 1872. He had stolen teams in both Orford and Lebanon. Montague confessed to having taken 17 horses within the last year and about 80 in the previous three years’ time. This was not his first arrest, as he had previously been arrested in New York for obtaining funds under false pretenses.

In 1896, Frank Emery was captured in Rutland. The 45-year-old man had been stealing horses for most of his life and had spent a good deal of it in prison.  Horse thieves were getting up to 6 years of hard labor at that time.

In 1894, horse thief Charles Rufus Young was given ten years at Windsor. He was released for good behavior and again began to steal horses.  He was re-arrested in Rutland in 1903 but died “as a result of injuries received when captured.” In all, he stole at least 75 horses and spent decades in jail.  

Local newspapers carried many news items about the theft of other animals, including cattle and chickens. They were primarily stolen from backyards or barns. In 1871, three residents of Orford were apprehended for stealing sheep. Thefts increased during hard times, when food shortages forced individuals to turn to robbery. 

The arrival of the automobile and the decline in the number of horses after 1913 led to the following editorial in the local newspaper, “The thief seems to be a permanent member of society varying his field to keep abreast of the inventions. We used to have the horse thief, then came the bicycle thief, and now the automobile thief has appeared.”

In 1913, the Opinion featured several notices warning people to lock their cars. It went on to suggest, “The auto thief has many things more his way because all he needs to know is how to drive a car. He can then make a quick getaway…” 

Some cars were “simply misappropriated, sometimes by persons who needed a ride and, sometimes, by joy riders…who left the car after a night of pleasure.”

 It was reported in the mid-1920s that “about 92% of all stolen cars are recovered, although many were damaged.” This recovery rate resulted from “organized co-operation and unremitting effort on the part of automobile clubs and the police.”

As with other crimes, there were organized gangs of auto thieves. One unlucky bunch was apprehended in Groton in December 1927.  They had unfortunately stolen the car of a retired sheriff in Montpelier, resulting in “an exciting man-hunt.” They were found with the “loot” from a Bradford break-in and lodged in the Caledonia Jail. 

In the early 1930s, automobile theft rings operated in Vermont. One gang operated a “stolen car racket” in which they brought stolen cars from Massachusetts.  In August 1931, one such car was found in Wells River. The FBI reported that 70% of auto thefts were by individuals under 25.  

And then there was alcohol.

“No crime is, perhaps, attended with more evil consequences to society and individuals than that of drunkenness.” This statement from the Vermont Council of Censors in the early nineteenth century reflected an attitude that, as its support grew, led to a state-wide prohibition on the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages in Vermont in 1853 and New Hampshire in 1855. In 1918, the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the resulting Volstead Act extended this prohibition nationwide.  

There is no doubt that, despite these laws to the contrary, liquor was manufactured and consumed in the area, creating a whole group of outlaws. Prohibition just drove underground what had been widely practiced beforehand.  Except for actions resulting from public drunkenness, only those who manufactured or sold alcohol were actually considered lawbreakers.

Several articles about illegal activity appeared in the Bradford Opinion in the summer of 1879. In the Corinth column was the following, “Several illicit distillers of cider brandy in Corinth have been arrested.” The following week this notice appeared, “Our correspondent concludes that West Fairlee Center is getting to be a dangerous place for peaceable people. Is it on account of cider brandy leaking down through Bear Notch?”

That August, three businesses in Bradford, including the Trotter House and the Vermont House were investigated for the sale of intoxicating drinks.  By the time investigators arrived, all evidence of this illegal activity vanished.   

Alcohol sales were legal in Canada, and as a result, Vermont and New Hampshire were on the frontline of smuggling. The United Opinion carried news reports of illegal activities and law-enforcement responses almost weekly. 

Elders interviewed by students in my Oxbow history classes told stories of bootleggers of illegal alcohol hiding “hooch” in innocent neighbors’ outbuildings. In more than one local community, smugglers of Canadian alcohol established regular delivery routes.  A heavily loaded car would arrive at a designated time and place, flash its headlights as a signal, and out of the darkness would come the customers.

While efforts were made to interrupt smuggling at the border, smugglers made their way along local supply routes to markets south. Elders told of heavy automobiles speeding along local roads, often followed by pursuing enforcers. 

Some smugglers were apprehended. In May 1927, a car with 375 bottles of Canadian ale was captured at Wells River. The individuals were brought to court in Bradford and the contents were destroyed by being poured off the Bradford bridge into the Waits River.  

Even after Prohibition came to an end, smugglers, to avoid federal taxes, still moved large amounts of Canadian liquor through northern New England. One “rum-running fraternity” operating out of East Barnet and Lyndonville, used stolen cars.

The other prohibition that received local news coverage was that of narcotic drugs, including cannabis.   In 1915, Vermont prohibited its sale for recreational use. In the 1930s, there was increased publicity against marijuana. Several Vermont newspapers carried the warning that “its most diabolical use has been in the form of cigarettes which have been sold by unscrupulous peddlers to high school students.”

Patches of wild marijuana were found in several Vermont towns and in neighboring New York. Despite the statement by officials that “though investigations failed to disclose any traffic in the drug in the State, there was a campaign against this “Devil’s Weed.” This included local programs to inform citizens. 

The 1936 film “Reefer Madness” reflected the image that the use of marijuana was likely to cause insanity, with its user becoming “a raving maniac.” The film was shown in Vermont theatres in 1940, including at Barre’s Opera House.

In 1947, Vermont adopted the Uniform Narcotic Drug Act that included a mandatory prison sentence of one to five years for the manufacture, sale or possession of narcotics including marijuana. After the 1960s, the growing and use of marijuana became a local issue. By the early 1980s, the region had become “a garden spot for marijuana cultivation.”     

 The next chapter in this series will include a section on legislation to deal with Vermont’s opium epidemic as well as the crimes of arson, assault, robbery, and black-marketing. Look for it in late February.