Provided Photo Emeline Meaker was the first woman sentenced to death in Vermont.
In 1905 the state of Vermont executed Mary Rogers for murder despite a national protest and a coordinated effort to commute her sentence. A petition with 43,000 signatures was presented to Gov. Charles Bell entreating him to stay the execution, and a pointed letter printed in The New York Times bore the heading, “A Plea for Mary Rogers.” It enumerated the social ills that contributed to her plight. The state should “give her proper training and a second chance,” opined the writer, a Massachusetts poet. One prominent Vermonter, Lloyd Clark, wanted the portrait of his brother, Adm. Charles Clark, which was displayed in the Statehouse, “turned to the wall” if the execution went forward.
When a four-month reprieve was granted to the condemned prisoner, the hangman, Sheriff Henry Peck, wept with relief, so distressed was he at the thought of executing a woman. Rogers was the last woman to be executed in Vermont.
Just 12 years earlier, the first woman Vermont sentenced to death for murder, Emeline Meaker, stoically walked to the gallows on March 30, 1883, amid no outcry or complaint. In fact, the Burlington Free Press reported that “the wretched woman died friendless and alone, not a relative being present to offer consolation in her last hours.” After her hanging, The New York Times noted, “Probably no murder ever committed in Vermont created more interest than the Meaker murder, which was partly owing to the atrocity of the crime and partly to the fact that the principal criminal was a woman.”
Alice Meaker lived with her brother and parents in the town of Charlotte. When her father died in 1878, the family, suddenly destitute, became wards of the town. There were suggestions that the children’s mother, Mary, was not a fit parent. There were also intimations that Alice, the oldest child, was willful and disobedient.
The overseer of the poor in Charlotte offered $400 to Horace Meaker, of Duxbury, their closest relative, to care for the 10-year-old Alice and her brother, Henry. Horace, his wife, Emeline, and their son, Almon, rented a farm in Duxbury from Joseph Sommerville. Horace was described by the Free Press as “a farmer in a small way,” living about a mile and a half from Waterbury, “and though poor, has heretofore borne a good character. He is a man about forty-five, and his family consists of his wife, a woman about forty years of age, and his son, Almon Meaker, a young man about twenty. Young Meaker is described by a lady who was his Sunday school teacher several years ago as ‘a not very bright boy but orderly and apparently well-intended.’”
When in late April the neighbors noticed that young Alice was missing and Horace and Emeline had no excuse for her absence, they contacted the local authorities, who, upon confronting Almon, were rewarded with his full cooperation and confession, so great was the guilt he harbored for his part in the murder of the 10-year-old girl. His confession was printed in the newspaper.
The substance of the confession is that the previous Friday night at about 9 o’clock he and his mother took Alice Meaker in a team, drove to a distance of about two miles from their dwelling, and there gave her strychnine in a dipper of sweetened water. They then drove about three miles further on. The poison at once began its fatal work and the unfortunate girl was soon in the agonies of death. At the end of the three miles mother and son were the only living occupants of the team, the poor girl having breathed her last. The guilty couple then stopped, took the lifeless body and buried it in the dark recesses of a swamp nearby.
Accompanied by an officer, young Meaker went to the scene of the dreadful tragedy and pointed out the spot where the remains of the girl had been buried. Search was at once made and the body found. There was no appearance of violence, and everything thus far attests to the truth of the young man’s story. In order to shed further light upon the shocking affair, the stomach has been sent away for analysis. Mrs. Meaker and son have been imprisoned.
The newspaper further reported that “an infuriated mob threatened to lynch the perpetrators of the horrible tragedy.” Neighbors admitted that they knew that the children “have been shamefully abused by their guardians. Very many times has Alice been whipped very severely by Mrs. Meaker, and this abuse has been frequently spoken of by the good people and gossips of the town.” The neighbors said nothing of the abuse, fearing more violent attacks on the child.
When asked why they had murdered the girl, Almon Meaker said: “She wasn’t a very good girl; no one liked her, and she was hard to get along with. I thought she would be better off dead, and so I killed her.” It was assumed that Emeline planned the deed and persuaded Almon to carry it out. It was later revealed that she had ordered Almon to buy strychnine at the pharmacy in Waterbury. He was to tell the shopkeeper it was for poisoning rats.
The fact that Emeline was quite deaf may account for her being less communicative than her son. But when Alice’s body was examined, “a black spot about the size of a man’s hand on the girl’s hip” seemed conclusive evidence of a severe beating and spoke of the woman’s treatment of Alice. Neighbors said she had once “threatened to beat Alice to death, and struck her with sticks and a barrel stave.” The Free Press described Emeline as a “virago,” a term that meant a harsh, domineering woman, a characterization that helped excuse Horace from blame in the crime. She was also disparaged as an unnatural mother, a censure that would not be fully understood until after her execution.
Emeline had been born in Barre in 1839 and married Horace in Plainfield in 1858. Almon was born there in 1861. The family had lived in Berlin, Stowe and Waterbury, and in 1878 moved to the rented farm in Duxbury.
The census for 1880 finds both Almon and Emeline in the jail on lower Elm Street in Montpelier. At one time she attempted to set fire to the jail, and she reportedly attacked the sheriff “with all the ferocity of a wild beast.”
Newspaper accounts covered all aspects of the case, and a ballad by Mrs. A.B. Curtis, of Barre, eulogizing Alice Meaker, was published in the Free Press. The final stanza spoke of justice for the murdered girl:
We trust that justice may be done;
That Alice avenged may be;
That neither the mother or the son
Shall ever again go free.
The 10-day trial occurred in May 1880 at the County Court in Montpelier, and the evidence substantiated the confession of Almon, who had entered a guilty plea in exchange for being spared the gallows. Various eyewitnesses testified that they saw Emeline, Almon and the girl in the rented wagon. The courtroom was filled to capacity with an audience composed primarily of women who were often moved to tears by the testimony. The Montpelier Watchman noted that so great was Emeline’s deafness that “every question had to be put to her on the slate.” The Watchman further speculated that no adequate motive had been put forward for the murder. “Had the child, as has been whispered, the knowledge of some terrible crime committed by them fouler than murder?”
“The jury, after hearing the case for ten days, during which the courthouse was packed to its utmost capacity, rendered a verdict of guilty of murder in the first degree. The verdict was handed to Emeline in writing and she cried out that she was innocent, and she did not want to be hung.” Emeline Meaker, convicted of murder and condemned to death, became the first woman in Vermont to be so sentenced.
The New York Times reported that the hanging was “the most remarkable case in the criminal records of the State.” The Free Press agreed: “One of the most remarkable executions of modern times was the hanging of Emeline Meaker in the State jail today. Such wonderful nerve and composure on the scaffold is seldom seen.”
When moved to the state prison in Windsor, Emeline continued her disruptive behavior until a few weeks before her execution. Then her behavior improved and she spent most of her days “quietly in her cell, knitting socks for the other prisoners.”
The day before the hanging, Emeline was permitted a last visit from her son, Almon, also a prisoner at Windsor. He was spared the gallows for his cooperation and confession but would serve a life sentence. At first Emeline exhibited “a very vengeful spirit” toward Almon, but at the end of their visit he kissed her and she appeared to show “signs of softening.” Almon would live 10 years in prison, dying in 1893 at the age of 32.
The execution was covered by the national press as well as the Vermont papers, and an audience of 125 assembled in the gallows corridor to witness the hanging. The New York Times noted that she wore a dress made for the occasion. It was comprised of “black cambric, with white necktie and ruffles.” On the appointed day she ate a hearty breakfast, reported the Free Press, of “a large beefsteak, three potatoes, a slice of bread and butter, a piece of meat pie and a cup of coffee.” Lunch included “two boiled eggs, two slices of toast, a potato, a doughnut and a cup of coffee.”
Emeline wanted to survey the gallows in advance of the execution. “Accompanied by Sheriff Amsden, she marched through the corridor and, after looking at the grim gallows, walked up the steps, looked at the trap, eyed the rope, but did not touch it. The rope was of strong hemp, half an inch in diameter, and had been used in three previous executions.” “Why, it is not as half as bad as I thought it was,” she observed.
After a visit from the Rev. J.M. Hull, Sheriff Amsden and his deputies entered her cell at 1:25 p.m. and tied her hands. Supporting her on either side, they walked her to the gallows, where Emeline sat on a chair that had been provided for her on the trap door. “Her face was pallid, lips compressed and she showed no emotion except by her hurried breathing. She sat facing Chaplain Hull. The Chaplain kneeled and offered an earnest prayer that made a perceptible effect upon the features of the wretched woman.”
Sheriff Amsden then handed her a note on which he had printed: Emeline Meaker: Have you anything to say why the sentence of the law should not now be executed upon you? There is now an opportunity.”
She looked sharply at the slip of paper held before her and read it intently. Then in a low voice hardly audible to the audience, she said: ‘May God forgive you all for hanging me, an innocent woman. I am as innocent as that man standing here,” raising her hands toward Deputy Locke.
Deputy Lovell then pinioned her ankles, while she moaned, “Oh, Christ! Oh, Christ!”
The noose was then adjusted about her neck by Deputy Wallace. She stepped upon the fatal drop taking care to be very exact about getting in the right position. The sheriff then handed her this slip of paper which she read slowly through: The time has now arrived when the extreme penalty of the law will be executed upon you. The Lord have mercy upon your soul.
The black cap was drawn over her face and before anyone was scarcely aware of it, Emeline Meaker was dead. The drop fell at precisely 1:36:45 p.m. Boston time, or 1:30:45 p.m. Windsor time. (Standard time zones would not be instituted until November of that year, 1883.) Her neck snapped instantly with the 8-foot drop. Doctors witnessed the decline of the pulsations of her heart rate, and at 1:44 p.m. she was pronounced dead.
There were far more requests to witness the execution than could be accommodated by the officials at Windsor Prison, and there were even requests for pieces of the rope for keepsakes. The execution of any woman was bound to make sensational news in the press, but the circumstances of this case added to its notoriety.
It was not until four days after Emeline’s execution that the Montpelier Argus printed a rumor that was rife in central Vermont and may have led to the heightened interest in the proceedings.
The only reason for this awful crime that could be suspected was that the mother and son had been living in incestuous relations, and that Alice knew of the fact; and that, as she was in a day or two to leave their house and go and live with a neighbor, they feared she might tell their guilty secret.
Paul Heller is a writer and historian who lives in Barre.MORE IN Central VermontThis week I heard from some commercial truck drivers. Full Story
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