Columns, Weeks Gone By

Vermont Girl’s Disappearance Sparked Massive Search, Part I

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A sheriff swears in volunteers to join the posse searching for Lucille Chatterton, who was shown in an inset in this photograph that appeared in newspapers across the country.

VERMONT – The last time anyone had seen Lucille Chatterton was at 6 o’clock on April 24, 1925. That’s when the 11-year-old girl told her father she was going to fetch some water from the spring, which was 50 yards from the family’s home in Granville.

Her father, Walter, wasn’t worried when she didn’t return right away. He later said he assumed Lucille had decided to walk to the village, where her mother was working. It’s also possible he didn’t notice she hadn’t returned. The Chatterton home was a busy place: Walter and his wife, Eva, had eight children. They had even taken in a 27-year-old man to help work the 65-acre farm they rented. 

It wasn’t until Eva returned at about 7 p.m., without having seen Lucille, that the family knew she was missing. They also noticed that someone else was missing from the household, the farmhand, Earl Woodward. 

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Earl Woodward was wanted “dead or alive” for the apparent kidnapping of Lucille Chatterton.

Walter found two sets of footprints, a man’s and a child’s, leading off into the woods from the vicinity of the spring. He phoned Deputy Sheriff Herman E. Ford to report his daughter had been kidnapped. Thus began what contemporary newspapers called the “largest manhunt” Vermont had ever known.

Walter Chatterton and Deputy Ford began their search immediately, heading in opposite directions to cover more ground. After sunrise the next morning, Ford spotted tracks in the mountains above Granville but soon lost the trail.

Local men and boys, many of them armed, joined the search. Ford and the selectmen of Granville, which is located near the geographical center of Vermont, initially took the lead in organizing the hunt. They would soon be joined by officers from the Addison County Sheriff’s Department. 

News of the reported abduction spread by word of mouth at first. Lucille had disappeared on Friday evening, too late for newspapers to carry reports on Saturday. Vermont papers didn’t publish on Sundays, so the first time that most Vermonters heard about the girl’s disappearance was Monday morning.

“Posse Seeks Little Girl and Man Said to Be Kidnapper: Lucille Chatterton, 11, of Granville Thought to Have Been Lured Into Hills,” read the headline on the Rutland Herald’s front page story. 

In another headline, the newspaper added a distressing detail: “Grim Searchers Have Been on Trail for 48 Hours; Suspect Has Prison Record.” 

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A member of the posse examines tracks in the woods.

Woodward had been on parole from the Vermont State Prison in Windsor the previous fall after serving time for a breaking and entering conviction. 

“(He) is not considered here as a man of much morality,” noted one newspaper. One detail particularly alarmed investigators: a rifle and ammunition were missing from the Chatterton homestead.

“It is generally believed that the child will be found dead,” the Montpelier Argus reported on Monday evening, April 27. Next to its story that day about the search, the St. Albans Messenger ran a national story about a 16-year-old girl in Indiana who had been abducted and then shot to death, her body burned beyond recognition. Journalists seemed to be bracing for the worst.    

The posse steadily grew. The United Press news agency, which along with the Associated Press reported the story to the rest of the nation, estimated that 100 volunteers were searching that weekend.

“Their way lighted by flares and torches, a band of men tonight is probing the gloomy mysteries of the mountain fastnesses surrounding this village,” the Rutland Daily Herald reported from Granville on Monday. 

Gov. Franklin S. Billings offered a $100 reward from the state to whoever located Woodward or Lucille. He soon added another $100 of his own money to the reward. At a time when many trades paid less than $1 an hour and a Ford Model T cost $260, the reward no doubt attracted some of the searchers. State Attorney General Frank C. Archibald, who took over directing the search, ordered Woodward captured “dead or alive.” 

With no statewide police force (the Vermont State Police wouldn’t be founded until 1947) the professionals on the ground were officers from various county sheriff departments, aided by scores of volunteer “citizen-searchers,” as some newspapers called them.

Newspapers published descriptions of the pair. Lucille was described as being “frail and sickly and small for her age,” with light brown shoulder-length hair and light blue eyes. When last seen, she had been wearing a dress and a blue sweater. Officials expressed concern that she was underdressed to survive long in the woods but noted that the weather had fortunately been temperate. 

Woodward was described as standing 5-foot-10 and weighing 160 pounds with a sallow complexion, dark brown hair and blue eyes. He had tattooed arms from his time in the Navy and stooped when he walked. 

Woodward wasn’t known to be violent. Several years earlier when arrested for theft, he had immediately dropped his gun. That sort of response might save Woodward’s life. According to Attorney General Archibald, whether Woodward was shot on sight would depend on how he reacted to being caught.

This is the first of a multi-part story. Part Two is here.

Mark Bushnell, VTDigger

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