Since colonial days, police have been shields against crime

Republished with permission from the March 10, 2021 Journal-Opinion, the community newspaper published weekly in Bradford.

by Larry Coffin
“Certainly Vermont should have some officers empowered to enforce the laws and prevent crime, and not try to get along longer with a system that simply seems to lock the barn after the horse is stolen.” –Letter to the Editor, Brattleboro Daily Reformer, Dec 28, 1920.

Antique sheriff’s badge from Proctor, Vermont. Photo credit FlyingTigerAntiques.com

This column examines the history of law enforcement in Vermont and New Hampshire from the Colonial era to the establishment of state police. I have relied heavily on Michael J. Carpenter’s book on the Vermont State Police and the New Hampshire State Police’s Golden Anniversary publication. Additionally, local publications and websites served as sources.

Colonial New England imported two offices from England: the constable and the sheriff.

Each towns had at least one constable as a keeper of the peace and marshal of the militia. A town lacked legitimacy unless it had a constable to administer punishment and deliver warrants.

In provincial New Hampshire, constables were authorized to seize lawbreakers, including privateers and pirates. Additionally, they certified weights and measures and oversaw wolf carcass disposal.

In both states, they were authorized to “pursue, or hue-and-cry after Murderers, Peace breakers, Thieves, Robbers, Burglars and other capital offenders.” Every able-bodied man was required to respond to a constable’s hue-and-cry. They formed a posse comitatus.

In both Vermont and New Hampshire, constables also collected state taxes. In 1788, the Vermont General Assembly authorized the first constable of Mooretown, the name of Bradford at the time, to collect a 10-shilling tax from property owners for each 100 acres.

During the 19th century, according to newspaper reports, the duties of constables expanded. They ushered the poor out of town, transported prisoners, killed unlicensed dogs, enforced liquor laws and supported local police courts. In 1895, the constables of Fairlee and Orford collaborated across state lines to prevent “the traveling public from driving over the covered bridge faster than a walk.”

If there was a town jail, the constable was in charge of it and its prisoners, who often escaped.

Newbury’s jail was a good example of the inadequacy of local lockups.

“There is no denying the fact that lawlessness in Newbury village is on the increase,” Newbury Constable J.R. Weed told the local newspaper in 1894.

It was during the 19th century when newspapers started describing law enforcement in larger communities as “police.” Soon after the Civil War, big towns started to maintain a police agency, which included a night-watch contingent. Members were often full-time uniformed officers. The growth in law enforcement was less the result of an increase in crime and more a response to rising civil disorder.

In 1898, Woodsville had an officer on duty during the night, appointed by the selectmen, but paid for by businesses. The term “chief of police” was first used in the Village of Bradford in 1909. By that time, the job title was a familiar one in larger communities in both states.

Horace W. “onto his job every time” Bailey of Newbury served as U.S. Marshall for 11 years, 1903-14.

The sheriff was the chief law enforcement of the county. Its name was derived from the early English position of shire reeve. Before 1878, sheriffs in New Hampshire were appointed for five-year terms by the Governor and Council. In Vermont, sheriffs were elected by the Legislature until a state constitutional amendment in 1850 provided for their annual election by county voters. In 1870, terms were increased from one year to four.

The duties of early sheriffs included debt collection and criminal prosecution. They carried out sentences, which were often severe, by whipping or branding. Convicts were publically displayed in stocks or imprisoned. Early New Hampshire sheriffs also transported election ballots to state officials.

Sheriffs also seized property, supervised the county jail and played a major role in the county court’s operation. Their duties sometimes carried them beyond the boundaries of their county.

In 1806, Orange County High Sheriff Micah Barron of Bradford traveled to Lower Canada to apprehend Stephen Burroughs, a notorious counterfeiter. Bankers had engaged Barron for this extra-legal investigation.

Another local sheriff of note was Caledonia County Sheriff Lorenzo Sulloway of St. Johnsbury. He held his position from 1878 to 1905, one of the state’s longest continuous service records as a sheriff. Over the years, Sulloway apprehended many notorious criminals in several states, Canada and Cuba. He was described as “a terror of evil doers.”

Sheriffs were sometimes called to keep the peace during social unrest. They responded to labor unrest in Bolton (1846), Newbury (1847), Vershire (1883), South Ryegate (1885) and Bellows Falls (1921). In several of these incidents, the Vermont militia was sent to help the sheriff restore order.

Some sheriffs were not equipped to fully investigate major crimes, such as murder. In 1866, the murder of George Maxwell of Franconia prompted the local sheriff to hire detectives from out of state. More than half a century later, in 1922, a double murder in Orford also required out-of-state help. In the latter case, a fingerprint expert was hired to assist in the investigation.

Before state police units formed in the two states, there were several other law enforcement officers whose jurisdiction was beyond the county level. First, there was the United States Marshal. The federal government created the post in 1789 to support federal courts and federal jurisdictions.

Federal marshals represented the national government throughout the state and were in charge of collecting and distributing information. Until 1870, they were responsible for reporting the census in each state. Until the Secret Service was created in 1865, marshals were frequently called upon to investigate counterfeiters and smugglers.

As marshals were appointed by the president, there was a lot of turnover among occupants of the office. George Washington appointed John Parker of New Hampshire in 1789 as the first U.S. Marshal for that state. In Vermont, the first marshal was Lewis Morris, also appointed by Washington, in 1791.

In March 1841, Micah Barron’s son, William, was appointed U.S. Marshal for Vermont by President William Henry Harrison. As Harrison only served for 31 days before passing away, his signature is the rarest of presidential autographs. In 1985, Barron’s letter of appointment bearing Harrison’s signature was found in the Bradford Public Library attic. It was sold to finance improvements to the children’s room.

Two other local men were also appointed to the office of U.S. Marshal for Vermont. They were Jacob Kent (1845-1849) and Horace W. Bailey (1903-1914) of Newbury. Bailey received wide acclamation for his service. In 1905, one newspaper editorialized: “Horace is onto his job every time and the fellow who tries to get ahead of Uncle Sam by any crookedness whatever will find himself up against the real thing as long as the U. S. Marshal for Vermont is Horace W. Bailey.”

The FBI had officers in Vermont after the agency was founded 1908. Agents carried out investigations for the U. S. Department of Justice, and they were active in tracking interstate crimes and civil unrest.

From 1920 to 1933, federal prohibition, U.S. Customs agents and the FBI attempted to enforce Prohibition. Throughout this area, local roads served as supply routes for smugglers of illegal alcohol from Canada bound for communities to the south.

Both states also enforced fishing and hunting laws. In New Hampshire, towns were authorized to hire wardens as early as 1880. In 1890, the first state enforcement officer was hired. They became known as game wardens in 1915 and by 1926, they wore uniforms.

Vermont game wardens were first mentioned in 1899. The statewide game warden system was established in 1904 and, by 1930, the officers were uniformed. In 1921, the state started requiring licenses for hunting and fishing. An article in the United Opinion noted that wardens were “considerably worried” about how it would look if they had to arrest women.

With the proliferation of automobiles, both states coped with the enforcement of new traffic laws. Even with the revenue that might come from tickets, highway patrols were often beyond the capacity of constables and sheriffs. Coordination between local police was difficult as offenders fled in high-speed automobiles. In addition, increasing tourists, car-centered events, speeding and drunk driving were additional burdens on local law enforcement.

The idea of a state police in New Hampshire predated these developments. In 1869, in response to a petition, Gov. Onslow Stearns suggested legislation to create a state police force to act where local authorities could not. Suppression of illegal liquor sales, gambling and “houses of ill fame” were among the motives. A statewide vote failed to obtain the necessary two-thirds all-male vote.

In 1915, the New Hampshire Legislature created a uniformed motor vehicle highway patrolmen unit to enforce traffic laws. The Attorney General was authorized to employ investigators with the power to enforce laws and make arrests statewide.

The idea of a state police was revived in 1931 when a legislative report called for the state to overhaul its “archaic system of policing.” As a result, a state police commission was created with 22 uniformed motor vehicle motorcycle officers. A state detective bureau and a bureau for criminal and gun purchase records were also established.

On July 1, 1937, a law upgrading the highway patrol to a state police with broad powers went into effect. The New Hampshire State Police was the 15th such organization in the nation.

Progress toward a state police was slower in Vermont. In 1918, the Vermont Secretary of State’s office was authorized to hire trained motor vehicle inspectors to enforce motor vehicle laws. That year, Ara Griggs was hired as the one officer assigned to cover the entire state.

In 1925, despite opposition from sheriffs, a motor vehicle bureau was established with a highway patrol. The 10-man unit, often using motorcycles, however could not effectively enforce criminal laws and was hampered by winter weather.

In 1931, a Vermont study committee recommended creating a full-time trained state police to coordinate enforcement and reduce duplication. Vermonters’ attitudes toward centralized state control, threats to personal liberty and a strong tradition of frugality coupled with significant opposition from the Sheriffs’ Association delayed legislative action on the proposal. Additional recommendations in 1935 and 1937 met the same fate in the Legislature.

Opponents to these proposals stated they were too expensive and that there was “no crime wave and no crying need” for a state police agency. This was despite favorable newspaper backing and support from the Vermont Grange and Vermont Farm Bureau.

World War II delayed further progress until 1946. There continued to be considerable criticism of sheriffs for their ability to deal with serious crimes. Meanwhile, questions were raised about how sheriff’s reported and collected fines.

One farmer was quoted as saying, “Getting a sheriff is like trying to raise the dead!!!”

As is often the case, a serious and widely publicized crime involving one individual caused enough alarm to lead to legislative action. In this case it was the disappearance of Bennington College sophomore Paula Welden in December 1946. This was one of six unsolved missing persons or murder cases in the Bennington area. Despite help from outside sources, the local sheriff did not have the manpower for a successful search.

Now there was widespread support for a statewide police agency. In February 1947, a new bill overwhelmingly passed the Vermont Legislature and Gov. Ernest W. Gibson signed it into law.

Ten years after similar action in New Hampshire, the Vermont State Police became a reality on July 1, 1947. Vermont was almost the last state to create a comparable unit. The new agency was composed of 48 uniformed officers, many of them with considerable experience as motor vehicle inspectors.

The 1920 letter cited at the beginning of this column hoped that a state police would be “a protector of the farmer’s stock, crops and home, an effective enforcer of our road laws and would make Vermont highways a safe place to travel on again, would adequately, and without a lot of scandal, perform all the duties of private detectives, saving money for Vermont, and beside, perform them in such a way as to not bring the law of enforcement of Vermont into dispute. … ”

Finally, by 1947, trained state police were on call in both Vermont and New Hampshire.

Categories: History

Tagged as:

2 replies »

  1. The proponents of abolishing police claim that actual police forces are distinct from earlier constabulary. They claim that police forces were formed to break labor strikes.

Leave a Reply