Editorial

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

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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. 

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.

Image via Newspapers.com
Lucille Chatterton’s testimony proved invaluable to Earl Woodward. The two appear together in a photograph apparently taken after the charges against Woodward were resolved.

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. 

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.”

Image via Newspapers.com
As details about the case emerged in the press, public opinion began to turn.

“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.

Image via Newspapers.com
Newspapers regularly updated readers about events in Lucille Chatterton’s life, including when she received her first doll, a gift from well-wishers.

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 fifth in a five-part series on a 1925 case that drew national attention.

Mark Bushnell, VTDigger

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