Columns, Weeks Gone By

Then Again: The State of Vermont vs. Earl Woodward, Part III

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Of Lucille Chatterton’s testimony in court, one newspaper wrote: “No little actress could have faced an audience more calmly and blithely than she did.”

Part One is here.

RANDOLPH – An alleged kidnapper faced the legal system and the court of public opinion.

The public assumed the worst when Earl Woodward and Lucille Chatterton disappeared one evening in April 1925 from the Granville farm where they both lived. 

It seemed obvious that the 27-year-old farmhand had kidnapped Lucille, who was only 11. Newspapers speculated that Woodward, who had a criminal record for theft, probably killed Chatterton shortly after she vanished.

People wanted Woodward dead. Vermont Attorney General Frank C. Archibald said he could be shot on sight. Hundreds of armed volunteers, law enforcement officers and Norwich University cadets scoured the woods of central Vermont in what was called the “largest manhunt” in the state’s history.

A week after he disappeared, Woodward was arrested without incident. He was discovered under a mound of hay in a deserted barn in Brookfield. With him was a quite alive Lucille Chatterton. The two were hungry, and their clothes were wet from heavy rain the day before, but otherwise they appeared healthy. 

Lucille, however, was visibly upset. She was crying and kept saying, “Don’t take me home, father will kill me.”

The pair were driven to an inn in Randolph, where scores of onlookers — some press reports said there were hundreds — met the automobile. Among the throng was Lucille’s father, Walter Chatterton, who leaned into the car to hug his daughter and mutter a few choice words to Woodward. 

Reporters from local and national newspapers started interviewing anyone they could, and law enforcement officials allowed press photographers to pose Lucille for a variety of shots: hugging her father, perching on his knee, kissing him. They also snapped shots of Woodward and the men who had captured him. They even photographed the police dog that had led them to their quarry. The photos appeared in newspapers as far away as Alaska and Hawaii.

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Earl Woodward was locked up in the Addison County jailhouse while awaiting trial for kidnapping.

For the next few weeks, Woodward and Lucille would sleep under the same roof — Woodward in a cell at the Addison County jail while awaiting trial, and Lucille in the home of the jailer and his wife, who had agreed to look after the girl until after Woodward’s trial.

Even as Lucille and Woodward were adjusting to their first night in a strange place, press coverage of the case and, as a result, public opinion about it were shifting. Newspapers carried comments by the two that this had been no kidnapping: Lucille had left willingly with Woodward, trying to escape her abusive father, who she said had beaten and threatened to kill her on the day she ran away. Woodward said the man also abused his wife. 

The Chattertons also found themselves accused of being unfit parents to their eight children because of their extreme poverty. Newspapers reported pitiable details: The family had only three beds in which to sleep and had gone for two weeks the previous winter with only potatoes and salt to eat 

Lucille was behind at school because her parents often kept her home, according to Woodward, who told investigators he had planned to take her to friends in White River Junction or New Hampshire, where she could live and attend school.

Woodward was being transformed from a villain to a hero. A Boston Globe reporter reported overhearing a conversation between Angie Sanford, the jailer’s wife, and Woodward, after his first night behind bars. 

“Well, they did not do as well for you as they did for Lucille,” Sanford said. “She is up in Pauline’s bed, my daughter who is away, and she looks like a little fairy.” 

To which Woodward replied: “Well, I’m glad she has a good comfortable bed for the first time in her life.”  

The Hardwick Gazette editorialized that “the sordid life of the Chattertons is not uncommon,” indeed families living in similar conditions could be found in the backwoods sections of Vermont, Maine, New Hampshire and many other states. “If Earl Woodward has succeeded in saving one child from the living death of stagnation in a hovel in the mountains, his prison term, in case he serves one, will not have been in vain. Simple fellow that he is, his act will stand out as one of the vicarious sacrifices which are the glory of life.” 

Countering this narrative of Woodward as savior was an article by the Rutland Herald, which ran under the headline “Sordid Village Tales.” The story claimed that an incriminating letter to Woodward had been found at the Chatterton home, congratulating him for having a “little sweetheart.” The reporter assumed this was a reference to an inappropriate relationship with Lucille. Few people seemed to take the article seriously. No other newspaper followed up on the claim and the state prosecutor never mentioned such a letter in court.

Still, the state of Vermont argued that Woodward deserved serious punishment for his role in Lucille Chatterton’s disappearance, charging him with kidnapping a minor under 16 years of age, a crime punishable with up to 20 years in prison and/or a fine of $10,000. After Woodward pleaded not guilty, Judge Albert W. Dickens set bail at $10,000.

If Woodward’s prospects were looking bleak, Lucille’s were improving. Lucille started attending fourth grade, where she was older than her classmates because she was behind on her education. Lucille received more new clothes and was given a haircut, her shoulder-length hair trimmed into a short bob. The manager of a local riding school even gave her use of a horse to ride around the village. 

She was also photographed with a new doll, her first ever, according to the Burlington Free Press. 

“Her daddy was too poor to buy any,” the newspaper wrote, “and the cold, repressed New England temper of him and his wife did not permit them to invent a makeshift on which little Lucille could lavish her affection.”

“Until Earl came, I didn’t know what kindness was,” the Free Press quoted Lucille saying. “He never abused me, either on the farm or while we were together in the hills.”

Meanwhile, Walter Chatterton had an epileptic seizure. He’d had them periodically since childhood, but this was more severe than usual because of the strain he’d been under, according to his doctor. 

The Rutland Herald, in an editorial, called for a calm analysis of the facts. 

“In the heat of the man hunt for Woodward, there was entirely too much talk of ‘shooting on sight,’” the Herald wrote. The paper noted that Woodward had not harmed Lucille, adding, however, that “it would not be surprising if the court should return Woodward to some kind of permanent restraint” — in other words, return him to prison.

Physical abuse, like that which Woodward accused Walter Chatterton of inflicting on his daughter, was “all too common, not only on back farms, but in better class families,” the paper wrote. But given Woodward’s previous run-ins with the law, it was going to take more than his word to justify “taking the child away from her natural protectors.”  

The Associated Press adopted a less supportive tone, reporting that the Chattertons wanted their daughter back “even though they have seven other children to care for with their meager resources.” Newspapers published photographs of Eva Chatterton with five of her younger children — Leonard, Lindy, Louis, Lucy (not to be confused with Lucille) and Loren. 

This is part Three of a five-part story. Part Four is here.

Mark Bushnell, VTDigger

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