Vermont's Prohibition Era
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Prohibition reigned in Vermont long before the national law of 1920. The Vermont Temperance Society formed in 1828, and by the 1830s towns were petitioning the legislature to end liquor sales. As temperance forces grew, statewide referenda against licensing were held. 1850’s Act 30 established a permanent ban on licensing alcohol for beverage purposes; two years later Act 24 banned manufacture. Vermont became a dry state for the next fifty years. In 1902 liquor law shifted to local option, so towns could still opt to forbid sales. Enforcement of Vermont’s liquor laws during this long period is such a complex, richly detailed topic -- even for only four counties -- that it is beyond the scope of this exhibit to treat it at any length. The following topics and examples touch on a few highlights.
Pre-Prohibition: Affirmations and Remonstrances
Liquor licenses were issued by the county courts in early Vermont. Local citizens recommended tavern keepers with affirmations, or opposed licensing with remonstrances. Caledonia County’s fervent temperance supporters issued vehement anti-liquor appeals to their court. An 1840 Walden remonstrance states that “intoxication is prevailing among various individuals in Walden to an allarming extent & the suffering of women & children consequent upon the improper use of spirits by husbands & fathers is but in too many instances extreme.”
Enforcement of prohibition was wildly inconsistent. County courts veered back and forth between ignoring illegal sales and alcohol use, to prosecuting with a vengeance. Some notorious lawbreakers never faced justice, while lesser offenders received stiff sentences. In 1865 the Franklin County grand jury scolded public officers: “[T]here seems to prevail a great indifference on the part of the local magistracy towards the illegal traffic in intoxicating liquors. Aside from the poisonous composition of the liquors so sold, the increase of their illegal sale should excite general attention and alarm on the grounds of public health as well as morality.”
The Adventures of Catherine Dillon/Driscoll
St. Albans’ Catherine Dillon persisted in the illegal liquor trade for many years. Her scrapes with the law were often covered by the local press. An 1855 conviction for 25 violations brought a $500 fine and four months in jail. In response, she sued the sheriff who arrested her for assault, but dropped the case. Dillon divorced in 1857, charging spousal abuse. Patrick Dillon’s attorney argued, unsuccessfully, that his client was no match for “a strong vigorous female with whom he would under almost any circumstances be wholly inadequate to cope in a scuffle & that in fact he has ever been kept in complete and perhaps commendable subjection to his wife.”
Now operating independently as Catherine Driscoll, she was again fined and jailed in 1860. She broke out, managed to stay out, and went back to business. Police seized ten barrels and a keg of hard liquor, valued at $1000, from her premises in 1862. Indicted for manslaughter after a drunken Peter McQuinney died in her saloon, Driscoll escaped prosecution in 1864 with a nolle prosequi. In 1869 she was back in court, assessed $1062 for failing to pay for her brother’s granite and marble grave monument. Age did not seem to slow her down. In 1872 Driscoll was still pressing a lawsuit over an 1868 incident. In her version, Edward and Joseph Messier tried to rob her, and assaulted her. In their version, they went to collect a debt, she pulled a pistol, then threw a pan of boiling water at them after they disarmed her. They didn’t get the money. The suit was dropped. Later that year Catherine Driscoll died, and joined brother William in the St. Albans Catholic cemetery. She must have eventually paid for that gravestone.
A Drop in the Bucket?
Some state’s attorneys went to great lengths to stop liquor sales. Charles P. Hogan’s indictment against JW Buck of Sheldon listed every person he had supplied with liquor over an eight month period, and all of the times every day that each had been served. Convicted, Buck protested on appeal that the indictment was insufficient. It didn’t specify witnesses or provide enough information for each offense. The appeal was denied. Buck’s punishment consisted of $90.32 fine and costs.
Sporadically, there was serious enforcement. In 1890 Sarah Ann Richards sued Dan Moore after her husband was killed in a horse-and-wagon accident caused by his drunkenness. Moore had illegally supplied him with liquor. The supreme court affirmed the lower court verdict and award of $1463 to the widow. In 1900 Franklin County cracked down on selling and furnishing in St. Albans, Swanton, and Enosburg. In the March term alone 30 were convicted. Those found guilty of second offenses were fined $200 and sentenced to hard labor at Rutland for one to six months. It was probably a small drop in a very large bucket.
Local Option Prohibition
Statewide prohibition ended in 1903, replaced by local option. In some areas enforcement became more stringent than it had been before. Lower courts had the latitude to both fine and imprison offenders. Prosecutors made abundant use of the alternative sentence, which permitted imprisonment if a fine was not paid within 24 hours, for three days for each dollar of the fine. Almon White’s 1906 case illustrates the extreme of alternative sentencing. The supreme court upheld a Franklin County decision fining him $2000, or an alternative sentence of 6000 days, for selling liquor without a license at his father’s Richford store. But there is more to the story: White had mistakenly sold wood alcohol to several customers. Three died and two went blind. In a separate case, charges of manslaughter against White and his sister had been dropped. He was released after three years in prison.
Italians and Prohibition in Caledonia County
Many native Vermonters opposed prohibition, but to a European immigrant it must have been a culture shock. Italian granite workers and their families in Ryegate and Hardwick disproportionately wound up in court on liquor violations. In 1905 Giscomo Bardelli's attorney informed the jury that “it is the custom of the Italians to keep wine and beer and sometimes stronger liquors for family use, and to use it upon their tables with their meals.” He argued that prosecution witnesses “testified under a feeling of ill will and prejudice ... towards the Italians in Hardwick” and “from a desire to drive the Italians out of that town.” The jury was not swayed: Bardelli was fined $600. The supreme court affirmed.
In 1920 somebody reported Guisto Oliosi of Ryegate for liquor violations, and police showed up with a search warrant. Rumor had it that G. Cerutti was to blame, and he was shunned by fellow Italians. Cerutti sued for slander, claiming people had heard Oliosi accuse him: “Voi siete una spia. Adesso avete fatto tutto. Voi avete spionato. Nin vi rimane altro da fare. Ora vi uccidero e vi tagliero a pezzi, vi levo il fegato e lo faccio friggere e lo mangiero come fosse fagato di maiale.” Cerutti discontinued the lawsuit.
In 1918 fifteen Caledonia County Italians, eleven of them women, were prosecuted for liquor violations. Most were from Hardwick. Nine received sentences of nine to twelve months at Rutland, plus $400 fine. Their prison sentences, but not the fines, were suspended in favor of three years’ probation, during which time they were not to “furnish or give intoxicating liquor of any kind to any person other then members of [his or her] own family (and the word ‘family’ does not include boarders) at any time or in any place…”
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