Slander, Libel, & Broken Hearts
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In rural and small town life a good reputation was essential. Social and professional networks could close to a person regarded, rightly or wrongly, as dishonest, immoral, or otherwise disreputable. Slander and libel cases were common in early Vermont. The courts rarely made large awards, but plaintiffs probably felt that they were publicly clearing their names. Slander cases involved verbal defamation, while libel alleged printing of untruthful information.
In 1831 Asher Persival accused John Vance of stealing one of his sheep. Vance sued, claiming to be “greatly injured in his good name fame & credit and brought into public scandal infamy & disgrace amongst his neighbors & other citizens.” Vance insisted it was not slander because it was true. The first jury couldn’t decide. The second convicted Persival, but judged Vance to have suffered only one cent’s worth of damage. Rather than pay a penny and be done with it, Persival appealed and lost again. He refused to quit until he ran out of courts. When the supreme court affirmed in 1833, Persival still owed only one cent in damages. But court costs had mounted to $169.92, and he was jailed in Irasburg for nonpayment.
Lucy Paine of Fairfield and James Brown of Sheldon battled it out in Franklin County Court in the 1840’s. She charged that that he had publicly accused her of catching “the loathsome disease call the pox” in Montreal, and of attempting to poison her parents. Jury number one found Brown guilty, jury number two found him innocent, and jury number three split the difference and found him guilty of the second count. He was fined $62.08, plus $84.81 for court costs.
In 1870 the Lyndon Vermont Union poked fun at the spiritualist fad, and identified two Waterford men in their account of spirit drumming, “Indian dances,” and a canine medium. John Ladd and Fielding Bugbee were not amused. Both sued publishers WH Carr and CM Chase. Ladd abandoned his suit and left town, but Bugbee persevered and collected $102.31 in damages and costs. He had sought $5,000. The Union publishers may have earned back the fine in newspaper sales.
Vermont Attorney General John Sargent charged David Hildreth, owner and publisher of the Newport Express and Standard, with contempt of court for his 1908 editorial “ N.E. Telephone Company Wins.” Orleans County Court had found the Boston and Maine Railroad in violation of the Vermont telephone law for refusing to allow People’s Telephone to service the Orleans train station, along with New England Telephone. The supreme court reversed the decision, and Hildreth disapproved: “The above decision might have been expected. It is in harmony with monopoly. It ignores the general wants of the people for the sake of catering to a big concern. And this is called law.” Hildreth apologized and asked for mercy. But the court, under chief judge John Rowell, found him guilty.
“Heart Balm” Disputes
In 19th and early 20th century Vermont a person could be sued for interfering with a marriage or jilting a fiancée. Alienation of affection charged loss of love, while criminal conversation included adultery as well. Both men and women were accused of these offenses, but only men seem to have been charged with breach of promise for reneging on marriage proposals. Defendants sought, but rarely won, large damage awards in these kinds of lawsuits. Many were discontinued before reaching judgment.
Estranged Wives and Abandoned Fiancées
Charles Keopka of St. Johnsbury sought $10,000 damages in a 1932 alienation of affection suit against Alfred Cushman. His wife Martha had divorced him to marry Cushman. Caledonia County Court assessed $2,740 for the loss of her affection. Cushman appealed, but the supreme court affirmed for Keopka.
Women suing for breach of promise generally asked for substantial damages, but wound up with more modest compensation. In 1872 Lyndon resident Mary Jane Blake demanded $25,000 for being jilted by JD White -- but she accepted $250 for dropping the suit, along with her writ of attachment for much of his mercantile stock.
One Caledonia County woman whose fiancé refused to honor their marriage contract managed to collect larger damages. Lois Meader asked for $8,000 when John Gibson married another. Meader had managed his household affairs for six years, counting on their eventual marriage. She was awarded $1,366 by the supreme court in 1880.
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