Morality Offenses & Abortion
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Adultery: Minor Sin or Moral Outrage?
Prosecution and conviction for adultery were highly inconsistent. Indictments were often filed and then dropped as “nolle prosequi.” When cases did come to trial, some juries and judges acquitted defendants, while others convicted both men and women and handed out long prison sentences. Adultery was more likely to bring a conviction and a prison sentence in the late 1800s and early 1900s than it had been in early Vermont.
Franklin County seems to have been an exception to the rule of leniency toward adultery in the early 1800s. In 1811 John Dunbar was sentenced to three years in prison for adultery with Sally Jewell. In December 1823 a jury found that John Johnson “feloniously, and by the suggestions of his own corrupt heart, willfully and wickedly did commit the abominable crime of adultery by …having carnal knowledge of and copulation with one Hannah Boomhower…” He got a two-year prison sentence -- as did Catherine Pitts, convicted in 1827.
In December 1877 the Lamoille County Court indicted eighteen men and women for adultery. Eleven men were charged for relations with the same woman, Helen Stowe. None was prosecuted. An indictment against Stowe for keeping a house of ill fame was also dropped. Of the remaining seven cases, five were not prosecuted, and two men absconded and left their bondsmen to pay the penalty. Marcus Chaffee assured Charles Wilson he would pay him back: “Mr. Gleed [his attorney] says it will not be but 75 dollars & perhaps not but fifty for they will cut it down half any way now Charles don’t be mad at what I have done…” Chaffee was right -- bail was reduced from $150 to $50. Although these defendants got off, in later years the Lamoille court took a harder line with adulterers.
The Blanket Act Persists
In 1935 the supreme court upheld two Orleans County Court adultery convictions. Leo Shurfelt had lived apart from his wife for several years. He went to Reno with Myrtie Belle Woods, got a divorce, married Woods, and eventually returned to Vermont. The two were prosecuted under the “Blanket Act” after being found in bed together. Judge Walter Chaney told the jury they should not be influenced by the knowledge that Mrs. Lula Shufelt “made life a hell on earth for her husband for eight years” because she was not on trial. He also told them Vermont did not have to recognize the Nevada divorce. In affirming Shurfelt’s sentence of hard labor at Windsor Prison for eight to twelve months, the supreme court concluded that “ignorance of the law excuses no one.” Myrtie Belle Woods was sent to the Rutland Women’s Reformatory for eight to twelve months.
There were relatively few prosecutions for abortion found in these Vermont court records. In some of the cases that did come to trial, it was noted that the procedure was done or attempted after “quickening.” This may indicate an overall liberal attitude toward ending a pregnancy before this stage of fetal development.
In 1859 John Hand, Willard Brown, and George Martin were charged with procuring abortion in Caledonia County Court, after Abigail H. Davidson delivered a dead child “from 4½ to 5 months advanced.” It’s unclear who the father was, and the Peacham men may have feared bastardy charges after Davidson said “she might swear it onto whom she was a mind to…” All three failed to appear for trial, and forfeited their bonds. There is no record of prosecution for the mysterious Doctor Prevost from “Cabot Branch way” who was said by several witnesses to have performed the procedure.
A Caledonia County jury declined to convict Barnet physician HJ Hazelton of procuring abortion in June 1877. The indictment stated that he had “used a certain instrument known by the name of “Uterine Sound” on Achsah Holmes of Ryegate. Hazleton also gave Holmes “three ounces of a certain noxious thing, called spurred rye” to induce miscarriage.
The case of Alvin Stokes, a St. Johnsbury physician, illustrates conflicting public opinion about abortion. In 1881 the supreme court quashed a Caledonia County Court indictment against him for performing an abortion on Lizzie Aldrich. The document had omitted a clause specifying that the procedure was not necessary to preserve the life of the mother. Two years later, he was not so lucky. Alice Gerry was described as “quick with child, with a living child” at the time of the abortion, and Stokes was sentenced to seven years in prison. The supreme court affirmed. He was paroled in 1886 due to poor health, after one hundred St. Johnsbury citizens signed a petition to release him.
Prostitution and Houses of Ill Fame
As with adultery, prosecution for prostitution was variable and inconsistent. There were far fewer indictments for prostitution than for adultery, and convictions were rare. In all cases the charge was for keeping a house of ill fame, not for practicing prostitution, although there might be an associated adultery charge.
In 1852 and 1853 Jonathan Blaisdell was charged with keeping a house of ill fame in St. Albans. It was colorfully described as a place of “whoredom and fornication” and “dreadful filthy and lewd offenses,” where people engaged in “tippling, cursing, swearing, quarrelling, and otherwise misbehaving themselves.” Blaisdell got off with $10 and $5 fines for obstructing the sidewalk. So did Merritt Darrow, in June 1853.
Caledonia County treated prostitution as a more serious offense than other areas of Vermont. Its county court sentenced James Lezar of Peacham to a year in prison in 1853 for keeping a gathering place for “certain persons as well men as women of evil name and fame and of dishonest conversation.” In 1896 and 1898 three were imprisoned for one to two years for keeping brothels in St. Johnsbury, Wheelock, and Lyndon.
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