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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