Most Vermont murders were crimes of passion, or were committed by persons adjudged insane. Few were convicted of premeditated murder, and fewer still executed for the crime, although the death penalty was legal in Vermont until 1965.
Smuggling and Violence on the Vermont Frontier
Early 1800s trade embargoes disrupted trade between Vermont’s borderlands and Canada. Smuggling and violence ensued. John Dennett and two others suspected that Samuel Beech was driving cattle to Canada. They confronted him, Beech resisted, and Dennett shot and killed him. Jailed at Guildhall and awaiting trial, Dennett escaped. Soon after he became a victim of similar vigilante justice. Four men pursued Dennett, shot him when he ran, beat him up, and returned him to jail, where he died. Gaius Kibbe bragged of “doing God’s service” in shooting Dennett, but no jury would convict him. All went free.
Murder in Highgate
Luther Virginia, the son of former slave and Revolutionary War veteran Jeremiah Virginia, was sentenced to death for the murder of Rufus Jackson at Highgate in 1819. He had previously been imprisoned for stealing. The killing was considered a premeditated act of revenge by the supreme court jury under judges Joel Doolittle and William Brayton. Convicted in a special December court session, Virginia was hanged the following month at St. Albans. Abby Hemmenway’s Vermont Gazetteer includes a short account of the murder and the bizarre spectacle made of his execution.
Fairfield’s Dream Pond: Legend and Fact
An 1842 case illustrates how historical event becomes popular legend. The marriage of Eugene Clifford and widow Elizabeth Gilmore was rumored to be unhappy. After Elizabeth and baby Mary Ann drowned in Fairfield Pond, Clifford claimed they had fallen out of the boat. Based on the testimony of suspicious neighbors, and the discovery of the victims’ shawls secreted onshore, Clifford was convicted and sentenced to death. Local legend has it that the shawls’ location was revealed in a dream, and that Elizabeth’s ghost now wanders the shore, looking for her baby. Fairfield Pond became known as Dream Pond.
The Mudgett Murder Trial
A Lamoille County jury found Arthur Mudgett guilty of manslaughter in the death of 19-year-old factory worker Amy Shonio in 1920. The two had occupied the same Johnson boarding house, and were rumored to be having an affair. The young woman had been found, bruised and strangled, in a nearby cemetery. Evidence indicated that Mudgett was the father of her unborn child, and there had probably been a botched abortion Big city reporters and crowds of spectators flocked to the Hyde Park trial. Mudgett was sentenced to 30-35 years in Windsor prison. Case files include a photograph of court officials posing with Boston reporters.
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