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

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Part One is here.

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

Image via Newspapers.com Earl Woodward said he was done getting in trouble after the Chatterton case. It was a promise he found difficult to keep.

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. 

Woodward faced a challenging childhood. At a young age, he had been put up for adoption and had never known his birth parents. A week after he was arrested, however, Woodward received an unlikely visitor: his mother. Mrs. Jennie Sturtevant of Brockton, Mass., traveled to Middlebury to meet the son she had given up. For two-and-a-half decades, Sturtevant said, she had thought her boy was dead.

Sturtevant, whose family name was Woodward, was only 15 when she gave birth. (The father was apparently a French-Canadian handyman who lived with the family.) She eventually left her child in the care of Elizabeth and Charles McIntyre of Granville, promising to send money regularly for the boy’s care. 

When Earl was only three, Sturtevant’s father told her that her son had died. Sturtevant had moved to Massachusetts and married, not telling her husband that she’d had a child as a teenager. Press reports of the search were the first she heard that her son was still alive. 

Image via Newspapers.com After Earl Woodward’s arrest, Jennie Sturtevant of Brockton, Mass, came forward to say she was the woman who had given him up for adoption more than two decades earlier.

Mother and son talked for four hours. They had lots of catching up to do. Though reporters were not privy to the conversation, newspapers were able to offer biographical sketches of Woodward’s troubled life. 

The McIntyres had given the boy “a good home and chance,” according to the Randolph Herald and News, which ran an extensive report. Woodward, the paper wrote, seemed to dwell in a fantasy world in which he played “the role of the dime novel heroes of which he read voraciously.” In reality, the paper stated, Woodward proved to be “untrustworthy, light-fingered.”

Woodward lived in the woods in cabins he built, “using a gun much too freely for the comfort of the family whom he terrorized at times.” During World War I, he enlisted in the Navy, but later deserted and returned to Granville, where he took up residence in his childhood home, which the McIntyres had abandoned when they moved out of town. 

One day during the summer of 1917, Woodward fired his rifle toward the village, which was a half mile away. 

“(S)everal people walking about the street in Granville heard bullets whistling above their heads,” the Herald and News reported. Woodward was arrested and returned to the Navy, where he was court-martialed and given a five-year sentence. 

Instead of prison, the Navy sent Woodward to a hospital in Washington, D.C., for psychological evaluation. He was judged sane and, at war’s end, given a dishonorable discharge. 

Back in Granville, Woodward was arrested for breaking into the village store. Officers had no trouble discovering the culprit. Indeed, Woodward could hardly have made it simpler for them — tracks led from the store to the old McIntyre place, where Woodward was found hiding under a bed. Officers pulled him out by his heels. 

After serving a short sentence, he was hired as a farmhand in Randolph. He robbed the family’s home his first night there and found himself back in prison. He was paroled after serving part of his sentence and returned to Granville, where he found sporadic work as a laborer and lived in an unused schoolhouse. When he fell ill that autumn, a local family, the Chattertons, took him in. He might have felt at home — the Chattertons lived in the former McIntyre place.

Image via Newspapers.com
Lucille Chatterton said she ran away from home to escape her abusive father.

We don’t know if Woodward shared any of these details with his mother. We do know she left saying she would help him find a lawyer and, if acquitted, he could come live with her. Woodward said “when this scrape is over you can bet that it will be the last one for me, for hereafter I shall have someone to look up to.”

The case of State of Vermont vs. Earl Woodward was due to start May 13 in Middlebury. 

That day, the Boston Globe reported: “This town is the mecca of hundreds of extremely curious persons from miles around, who . . . came in farm wagons, motor vehicles and on foot and made the town look as if a county fair or anniversary celebration was on.”

Those who managed to squeeze into the Addison County courthouse witnessed a surprising scene. State’s Attorney Wayne Bosworth said the prosecution wasn’t ready to proceed with the kidnapping case. Instead, the state wanted to try Woodward first for two lesser charges involving the theft of a rifle and horse blanket from the Chatterton home. 

Woodward’s attorneys objected, saying they had prepared a defense of the kidnapping charge, and moved that if the state wasn’t ready to proceed, that charge should be dropped. Judge Dickens sided with the state and scheduled a jury trial on the rifle theft charge for the next day. The judge moved the hearing on the kidnapping case to the following week.

During the trial about the rifle, Walter Chatterton admitted that he had let Woodward use the gun whenever he wanted. But he said that on the day Woodward and Lucille disappeared, he had told his farmhand not to use it because Woodward didn’t have a hunting license and never cleaned the rifle after using it.

Chatterton’s daughter was the star witness for the defense. 

“Little Lucille came into the courtroom this morning with a hop, skip and a jump,” the Globe reported. “She smiled at the judge and she smiled at the jury. No little actress could have faced an audience more calmly and blithely than she did.”

Lucille told the courtroom that Woodward had taken the rifle for defense against bears and bobcats they might encounter. She said he planned to return it once the two reached White River Junction because they wouldn’t need it anymore.

All the testimony and arguments were completed by midday and the court recessed for lunch. Then jury members began their deliberations. It took them seven minutes to reach a verdict: not guilty.

Woodward still faced the far more serious kidnapping charge.

On May 20, Woodward, witnesses, and attorneys were back in court for a hearing to determine if the case should be presented at a jury trial in June. The daylong inquiry featured Lucille Chatterton and her parents on the witness stand, explaining events surrounding the case. Newspaper accounts suggest that the testimony contained almost nothing that hadn’t already been reported. Everyone stuck to their previous version of the facts. 

Image via Newspapers.com
After Lucille Chatterton was found hiding in a disused barn, Vermont authorities allowed newspaper photographers to pose the girl with her father, Walter.

At the end of the day, Judge Dickens reviewed the testimony for 20 minutes and then told those in the crowded courtroom that to try Woodward for kidnapping, the state needed to show that he had “inveigled” Lucille to run away with him “by deception for an evil purpose.”

“When this case broke upon us, in fact, broke upon the entire United States, the thought was that Woodward’s purpose was an evil one,” Judge Dickens said, “but there it was that the State’s case broke down. His purpose was not evil and his intentions were kindly.”

Dickens ordered Woodward released “for lack of evidence sufficient to warrant holding him for jury trial.”

A Boston Globe reporter described the scene: “The crowd in the courtroom arose as one and a great cheer broke forth, intermingled with handclapping and the baying of a hound, which one interested spectator had on his lap during the afternoon session. At the verdict the dog was forgotten, but his voice was heard. Children ran around the courtroom and infants in the arms of their mothers yelled lustily at the unexpected outburst.”  

Earl Woodward, who many people would have been happy to see die just three weeks earlier, left the courthouse an unlikely hero and a free man.

Postscript: That’s where Hollywood would want to end the story. But it’s more complicated than that. Although all the charges against Woodward in the Chatterton case failed to stick and he promised to mend his ways, in the ensuing years he had several more run-ins with the law involving thefts and forgery.

Despite his troubled life, however, his mission to free Lucille Chatterton from her desperately poor childhood and get her an education seems to have worked. 

A week after Woodward’s kidnapping charges were dropped, Lucille became a ward of the state and for several years continued to live with Angie Sanford and her husband, Noble, the Addison County jailer. She went on to attend Middlebury High School, where she acted in plays, sang in the glee club and worked for the school newspaper. She graduated in 1933, with honors.

This is the fourth in a five-part series on a 1925 case that drew national attention. Part Five is here.

Mark Bushnell, VTDigger

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