Saturday, April 21, 2012

The Vermont Bureau of Judicial Historic Places

SCOV Law is once again pleased to present the work of Attorney Paul Gillies.  Today’s piece stems in part from Paul’s role as president of the Vermont Judicial Historical Society, which re-enacts famous Vermont trials each June in various courthouses around the state.  The function of the Society, as well as this piece, is to reinforce the connection between the law as it stands today and its origins in the cases and conflicts that mark our shared judicial history. 

Nothing in the law arises in and of itself.  The law is best understood as a great chain of being that links our current government to the democracies that founded and preceded it.  It is often the role of the judiciary to remind the other branches of the common purposes and original principles that govern our society.  It is Paul’s cause to remind us all that these principles are not abstract ideals plucked from the clouds but the results of unique circumstances and landmark moments where judges, lawyers, and citizens acted in ways that continue to affect our lives.

The following is a call to action, a prayer for relief, and a proposal for the next chapter of historic preservation in Vermont.


Those green plaques that spot the landscape in many towns in Vermont are historic roadside markers administered by the Vermont Division of Historic Preservation.  Like most Vermonters, you have probably seen but never stopped to read these memorials.  They are often located at the most inconvenient places to stop . . . or maybe it’s just always an inconvenient time to stop when you pass them. 

Not to worry.  You can read every one from a list organized by town, all 191 of them here.  

These markers are erected at birthplaces of famous Vermonters, or towns where famous people made their home.  They celebrate disasters, quarries, mill sites, industries, speeches, roads, and battles.  Together they represent a history of Vermont plaque by plaque.  Did you know that two future Presidents of the United States taught school in Pownal?  Coolidge wasn’t one of them.  Or that Warren is the population center of Vermont? 

That’s all fine and dandy, but of all of those plaques, only one involves a court.  That’s the one on Route 5 in Westminster Village.  This is what it tells us:


Westminster "Massacre" Northward stood the Cumberland County Courthouse, seat of New York's colonial administration. Opposition to holding a court session let to the "Massacre" of March 13, 1775. Here the New Hampshire Grants on Jan. 16, 1777, declared their independence as "New Connecticut", later Vermont.

There is one other plaque that deals with lawyers, and that’s also in Westminster.  It’s the


Prominent nineteenth century political leader and lawyer, William Czar Bradley (1782-1867) practiced in this building from 1802 until 1858 when he retired. He was a member of the VT Legislature, the Governor’s Council, & U.S. Representative to Congress (1813-15 & 1823-27). As agent for the U.S. under the Treaty of Ghent, he established the boundary between Maine and Canada. William C. Bradley’s law office building and its untouched collection of furnishings, manuscripts, and books were willed in 1908 to the State of Vermont by his granddaughter, Sarah Bradley Willard. For the following 65 years her grandson, William Bradley Willard, who maintained a life interest in the property, cared for the office until it was opened to the public.

That’s it.  Vermont, as seen by plaque, has no judicial history, except for a massacre and a law office.  The plaque celebrating Woodstock’s Village Green, for instance, waxes on about how pretty the place is, how the town has five church bells cast by Paul Revere, and names famous residents, but says nothing about the courthouse—one of the principal features of the town and the venue where many important stories in Vermont’s history played out. 

I say, this must change.  Let us erect a series of plaques at the sites of Vermont’s leading cases.  The courthouses don’t really need plaques; they carry their own significance, but the places where people interacted with each other which led to important legal cases could be marked by plaques so that we never forget.

The first plaque should be placed in Bennington at the location of a stump where in November of 1778 Ethan Allen promised to be hung if the trial of David Redding did not result in his hanging.  The Court had ruled the first trial improper for lack of a proper number of jurors.  Ethan Allen was acting prosecutor at that trial, and the second, where Redding was found guilty, and then hung with the entire General Assembly present for the ceremony.

Moving north, a plaque could be driven into the potato field in Manchester, where Jesse and Stephen Boorn were alleged to have killed Russell Colvin in 1812.  Seven years later the Boorn brothers were arraigned, tried and convicted of murder, in Manchester, on circumstantial evidence.  Two months before Stephen was to be hung, to everyone’s surprise, Russell Colvin returned to town, to great relief of the brothers, but the lasting shame of the court, at least until 1932, when Chief Justice Sherman Moulton wrote his defense of the court, after decades of derision by writers of law reviews and treatises.

These choices are arbitrary, and you can do better, I’m sure.  No number of plaques is going to be definitive, but allow me just a few more nominations, before throwing open the floor to your own picks.  I would include, in no particular chronological order, what was recently the Peavine Family Restaurant south of Bethel, formerly the site of Club 107, where nude dancers danced, which led to a prosecution before the Vermont Board of Liquor Control, and the subsequent reversal of the conviction after the Supreme Court found that the Board had gone beyond its legislative authority in attempting to regulate such behavior in bars.  

There should be a plaque on the Burlington waterfront where the filled land first starts, declared in 1989 to be endowed with the public trust, to the disappointment of the Central Vermont Railway, and another on the shore of Lake Morey, at the outlet, where Sumner Perkins decided to change the lake level, in order to repair his dock, and subsequently learned he had stepped over the line and violated public rights to public waters. 

At Windsor, at the former home of Stephen Jacob, a plaque could describe how a woman he had purchased as a slave years before was turned away when she became disabled and thrown onto the back of the town for support, in 1802, because the Supreme Court found the Vermont Constitution had abolished slavery in 1777, relieving one of its sitting members from any obligation to maintain her in her last days (although destroying his career in the process). 

Somewhere along the Connecticut, a plaque should be erected to indicate how in 1934 the U.S. Supreme Court had decided the boundary between Vermont and New Hampshire as the low water mark on the western side, in spite of New Hampshire’s claims to own a small tributary to the river.

Perhaps that is enough to prime the pump.  We know, in tight fiscal times, you’d expect that a proposal for funding a new program celebrating Vermont’s judicial history by such markers would be treated as an impetuous proposal, rightfully to be flogged as excessive and unnecessary by a legislature more concerned with the future than the past, and perhaps we should not even ask.  But as quixotic as the idea may be, no one can keep us from building a map of the places where such markers should be laid, setting out on a journey to choose the most inspired of those locations, and writing the script that would accompany them. 

Welcome to the Vermont Bureau of Judicial Historic Sites.   


  1. How about a plaque in Newbury marking the unsolved 1957 murder of Orville Gibson - or has not enough time passed? The story was that many in town knew who done it, but no one was convicted after two (I think) prosecutions. Should a plaque go up instead in Chelsea?

  2. That is good one. Perhaps, it is still recent and raw in some memories, but it certainly captures the spirit of Paul's list. Put it in Newbury.

    Let me suggest that another spot, actually three, would be the town clerk's offices in Milton, Shelburne, and South Burlington where the plaintiffs in Baker v. State were first denied their marriage licenses. That is even more recent, but it would be hard to deny the role that case and those plaintiffs had in altering not only the law of Vermont but a significant portion of the national discourse on the issue.