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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."