Editor's Note: Two Vermont women mystery writers are researching an unsolved 1935 triple murder in east Middlebury, Vt., as part of their effort to write a realistic novel about the tragedy.
During their interview session with the late Robert Fenn of East Middlebury, writers Roxanna Emilo and Kathy Brande of Bristol, both women helped him search for a piece of cloth evidence removed from the crime scene and stored in his East Middlebury house; the fragment of awning canvas was never found.
Fenn died a few years later. The cloth fragment, as well as the elderly Vermonter's recollections about the incident, went to the grave with him.
Big news, small town
Vermont in the first half of the 20th century was a world away from Vermont in the first half of the 21st century. Violent crime may be old hat in today's 24-hour news cycle, but in 1935 news of the triple murder sent shockwaves throughout Addison County and beyond.
According to news accounts, the state pathologist, Dr. C. F. Whitney, drove down from Burlington to examine the skeletons. A few hours after Dague and her daughter found the remains, the bones were moved indoors by order of Middlebury Selectman George Chaffee. No doubt much evidence was destroyed in the process.
Newspapers reported that "news hawks" flocked to Middlebury including reporters from Boston, Albany and New York City. Reporters asked questions but they didn't get much in the way of definitive answers.
"There was a lot of bootlegging going on around Middlebury back in those days," Emilo said. "Today's Route 116, the East-Middlebury to Bristol Road, was on the main line of rumrunners during Prohibition. At the time, State's Attorney John T. Conley suggested that bootlegging hijackers may have been involved."
Both Emilo and Brande believe the bootlegging theory is plausible. Maybe the three victims saw something they should not have seen and were killed as a result, they suggested. But who really knows?