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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.


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