by Lou Varricchio
Republished from The Sun of April 9.
MIDDLEBURY | The fight against alcohol in the United States didn’t begin with the passage of Prohibition’s Volstead Act in 1919. It started long before with religious reformers mostly leading the way to ban liquor nationwide.
Vermont, which excelled at smuggling illegal booze through the state from Canada — via both Lake Champlain and Lake Memphremagog — from the 1800s through the 1930s, had its share of fundamentalist reformers as well as lawbreakers.
Enter 25-year-old Catherine (nee Driscoll) Dillion, a fiery, redheaded Irish immigrant who arrived in New York City in 1851 followed by a short stay in Oswego.
Somewhere along the way, Catherine had married fellow countryman Patrick Dillion. The couple soon found their way north to the Champlain Valley.
Meanwhile, in 1853, Vermont legislators passed a prohibition law rendering liquor sales illegal in the Green Mountain State.
According to a research paper published by the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, in 1844 a popular handbill helped fire up Vermont temperance groups which led to the ruling of 1853:
“While other countries are only chargeable with the amount actually consumed within their borders, it is a notorious fact that yearly inundates at least one-fourth part of the state with alcohol, producing drunkenness and pauperism. Washington, Lamoille, Caledonia, Franklin, and Orleans counties look here for the means of sustaining the traffic; and the flood-gates once shut down, by the voice of the freemen of this country, they would abolish the trade almost from necessity.”
No matter, the couple left Oswego to Rouses Point, New York, then crossed Lake Champlain to St. Albans, Vermont. There, with Patrick managing affairs, Catherine looked to find work entertaining the local laborers.
In Vermont, the couple’s services for local railroaders — working on laying tracks for the Vermont Central R.R. and the Vermont & Canada R.R. — and assorted roustabouts, included cut-rate tenement housing, possibly red-light amusements, and definitely liquor.
The Dillons operated two saloons near Lake Champlain but their business eventually ran afoul of the 1853 state law forbidding the sale of liquor.
Appearing before a judge in the Franklin County Court House, Patrick and Catherine were fined $40 for illegal alcohol sales. Consider it: the fine was quite outrageous for the time. With today’s inflated dollar, $40 amounted to more than $1,300. Now, just where would the Dillons find that kind of cash on hand?
Unable to pay the fine, Patrick was sent packing to a St. Albans jail. Later, starting in January 1855, Catherine spent three months, most likely, in a nearby women’s house of detention.
According to the New England Historical Society, “Catherine fought the charges with a vengeance all the way, at one point losing her case only because her lawyer didn’t get an appeal filed fast enough. In March of 1856, the police found six barrels of (ill-gotten) liquor on her property during a raid. No one was willing to step forward and admit they owned the booze, and so it was ordered dumped (while Catherine was still detained).”
By 1857, Patrick was out of jail but the couple had a falling out upon his return home.
Catherine was no longer in love with her “loud-mouthed, drunken husband.” She claimed abuse and the pair quickly parted ways.
“The story of how she finally rid herself of Patrick goes like this…,” the New England Historical Society’s account continues. “One day they arrived back in Vermont on a train and Patrick went to collect their luggage. Catherine pointed out a suitcase and told him to take it. It didn’t belong to her, however, and she reported her husband to the police and had him jailed (in Windsor). The incident was enough to send Patrick packing, off to the Army as a bugler (in the Vermont Cavalry Regiment).”
Is there any truth to Catherine ratting on Patrick? Hard to say. No newspaper or police records exist of the incident and nothing more is heard of Patrick. Today, we only have a copy of Catherine’s published Burlington Free Press obituary of Jan. 11, 1872, which includes a recounting of the story.
No matter, after Patrick’s departure Catherine continued off-and-on success in the Vermont saloon business. She was back to operating an establishment in St. Albans City.
During the Civil War, 1861-1865, temperance leagues fought the sale of alcohol in Vermont even though thirsts and illegal sales continued unabated.
Three years after the war ended, Catherine was in front of a Vermont judge again, this time, for smuggling Canadian whisky.
Also, in 1868, two men told the judge the Irish woman pointed a loaded pistol at them when they visited her at the saloon to collect on an outstanding bill of sundries. She was fined $1,500 ($24,000 today).
Time appeared to finally run out on Catherine’s shady business career.
In September 1871, the Great St. Albans Fire destroyed a large area of the city including the Dillon saloon. With a $5,000 loss ($100,000 today) but with some insurance we assume, Catherine decided to close the book on her enterprises — for good.
But did the pioneering female saloon keeper end up destitute on the streets of the largely ex-French Canadian settled city of St. Albans? Au contraire.
The grand dame of Vermont saloons died at the young age of 45, but with considerable wealth — all thanks to her savings and real estate portfolio built up after the Civil War.
What Catherine’s activities in town were between the great fire and her death are beyond the scope of this story, but she left behind a large estate to a sister and two, nearby squabbling brothers. The estate included 125 acres of prime Vermont farmland, several downtown tenements, and a couple of commercial buildings.
Estimates put Catherine’s estate value at somewhere between $50,000 and $75,000 (over $2 million today), according to the New England Historical Society. Not a bad legacy by a fiery redhead who flouted the law during her brief 45 years around the sun.
Sources: The New England Historical Society and the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum.