Theft & Other Crimes
In early Vermont, crimes against property were typically punished more severely than crimes against persons. An assault conviction rarely brought more than a fine and/or thirty days in jail, while even petty theft could send the offender to prison for years.
Thieves and Knaves
Horse stealing must have been considered especially despicable, because it routinely resulted in long prison terms. In 1822 John Page of Minehead and “transient person” John Utley were sent to Windsor Prison for eight years at hard labor. Female horse thieves also did prison time. Alice Day, who stole a hired horse and carriage at St. Johnsbury in 1883, was sentenced to two years in the House of Corrections. Jane Hopkins was sent away for three years and ten months in 1887.
In 1824 William Going helped himself to a new wardrobe by stealing a surtout, four pairs of pantaloons, a vest, a shirt, four neck handkerchiefs, one pair of stockings, and one pocket book “containing sundry writings.” He paid for it with three years at hard labor. But Going got off more lightly than Randall Sumnor, who drew a ten-year sentence in 1823 for the theft of $15 in silver money. Harsh punishment of thieves persisted throughout the 1800’s. In 1896 Eli Gilbert and George Belaire of St. Albans, convicted of stealing and butchering a steer, were sentenced to five years in the House of Corrections. Once the probation system went into effect, in 1898, petty criminals were less frequently imprisoned.
Smuggling on the Vermont Frontier
Trade embargoes of 1807-1808 and during the War of 1812 threatened the livelihoods of northern Vermont farmers and tradesmen. Some resorted to smuggling. They usually evaded punishment, beyond forfeiture of seized goods. Tobacco, horses, oxen, cattle, tea, and “ladies morocco shoes” were among goods confiscated in 1813. Smuggling also brought violence. One deadly episode, the Beach-Dennett-Kibbe affair, is included with murder cases.
Customs agents were unpopular men. Thanks to Sutton agent John Beckwith, poor farmer Benjamin Robinson went to prison for smuggling oxen. On July 6, 1815 John Atwood and several others broke into Beckwith’s house, pulled him out of bed, and cut off his ear. Atwood was fined $200, with no prison sentence. Beckwith sued him for damages and won $1500; fifty acres with a house and barn were seized. A few months afterwards, the agent’s barn was burned, with a loss of 21 tons of hay, 5 tons of clover, a yoke of oxen, and a horse. After multiple lawsuits, Beckwith won a $737 award against Jacob Webster, who also evaded prison.
Arson: Another Barn Burning
Arson prosecutions were uncommon, perhaps because it was difficult to identify culprits and prove guilt. In an 1888 Walden case, state’s attorney Marshall Montgomery improvised “horse and sleigh forensics” to prove that Thomas Ward had burned Harvey Foster’s barn. He rented the same rig Ward had used, and compared runner marks near the crime site. The distinctive sleigh tracks matched perfectly. He also demonstrated that the horse recognized the route. Foot prints in the snow provided further evidence. There was motive; Ward was angry with the Fosters for convincing his girlfriend to end their relationship. Montgomery’s tactics succeeded. He won a conviction and an eight year prison sentence.
The courts seemed to regard assault as a minor infraction compared to property crime. Most miscreants got off with a small fine, although trial costs could add up. This probably reflects liberal attitudes toward using fists to settle disputes, as well as the trivialization of domestic assault.
The courts’ calculations in punishing assault can be seen in several cases. In Franklin County, Salva Stone was fined just $10 for assaulting Betsy Stone in 1819. But Elisha Boyce had to pay $100 for attacking James Casey with a pitchfork in 1833. In Caledonia County, when Robert Bruce was convicted of “disturbing school & assault & battery on teacher” in 1854, it cost him just $15 and court costs. But after Samuel Stedman assaulted three people with a “large club” and threatened to kill them, he was given six months in the county jail.
A serious assault took place in Hardwick in 1912. Pierini Peduzzi was severely injured by Angelo Hilari, who “did…by means of throwing a large quantity, to wit, one half pint, of acid, horribly maim and disfigure the limbs and members and cut, tear and burn off, to wit, the left ear of the said Pierina Peduzzi…” Hilari pleaded guilty and was sentenced to five to seven years in Windsor Prison.
Sexual Assault and Rape
Until the late 1800s sexual assault, like common assault, seems to have been most frequently punished with a small fine or short jail term. In many cases an offender was permitted to plead guilty to the lesser charge of assault. Eventually, sexual assault seems to have been regarded more seriously. Rape convictions, especially those involving young women and girls, brought prison sentences.
Two Caledonia County Court cases typify these light sentences. In 1851 John McDaniels, charged with attempted rape and assault of Olive Morrill, was found guilty of assault only and fined $50. But he still wound up in jail, for refusing to pay the fine plus $55.36 court costs. Likewise, John Currier, charged with raping thirteen-year-old Alfreda Bradley, was convicted only of assault in 1870. He was sentenced to 3 months in county jail.
Beginning around 1890, rape convictions typically brought harsher punishment. Andrew Wilkins, found guilty of assault with intent to commit rape of a 10-year old at Eden, was sentenced to six years in prison in 1891. EJ Courser, convicted of the sexual assault of a hired girl in Franklin County, drew a sentence of five to eight years at Windsor in 1916. His appeal was rejected by the supreme court.
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