To this day nobody really knows what happened in August of 1877 to Deacon Ezra Smith of Vergennes, Vermont. Was he engulfed by madness? Was he always secretly evil? Or was he an innocent man who chose the worst possible moment to slip from the path of righteousness?
Either way, within a year he would be penniless and on the run for his life with his reputation destroyed.
Ezra was 54 in 1877. He was considered a well-off businessman (worth perhaps $20,000). He was a dealer in stoves and tin ware with two other men – Baldwin and Stewart – in Vergennes. And he had a sizable farm in Addison.
Ezra was long married to his wife Cordelia, and they lived in a nice home in downtown Vergennes on Green Street. Their son Frank was 21; daughter Mary, 25. Ira Mills, the ten-year-old orphan son of Cordelia’s sister, Adelaide Mills, lived with the family in Vergennes. Son Frank, meanwhile, had recently married and was living at the family farm in Addison. Ezra was a deacon in the Addison Baptist Church and the family were members of the Baptist Church in Vergennes.
The marriage between Cordelia and Ezra Smith, benefiting from Vermont’s growing economy, seemed cordial and peaceful – an appearance that was never challenged.
The trouble started simply enough when Cordelia started feeling ill on August 4. Doctors concluded she had cholera. Because of her age, doctors presumed, she struggled to shake off the illness. After eight days of vomiting and diarrhea, Cordelia died.
During those eight days, Cordelia’s neighbors, friends and relatives would come to visit. They would later note that it seemed the Smiths received a lack of support from church friends, and Ezra was left to provide much of his wife’s care.
Ezra was later described as exhausted, frazzled and haggard during the period of Cordelia’s illness. His major support came from a young neighbor, Mary Champlin, who attended to Cordelia and stayed in the house during the illness.
On August 12, Ezra prepared some beef broth for Cordelia. She complained of its bitterness and later passed away in her sleep. Ezra closed Cordelia’s open mouth and bound it shut with a sheet to prepare her for her funeral.
Then, neighbors say, he slipped into the next bedroom and made love to Mary Champlin while his wife’s body was still warm.
Mary Champlin, 31, lived in Vergennes with her four children. Mary’s husband worked in Essex, New York and was home only for a day or two a month. Mary’s husband had left her once because Mary had taken up with a lawyer from North Adams, Massachusetts. But their marriage had been patched up.
In January of 1877, Ezra first met Mary. The occasion was a church social held at Ezra and Cordelia’s home. The children and the adults at the social played a game and as penalty for losing, Ezra had to kiss Mary. Mary was not particularly attractive, as her friends describer her, but that silly kiss was Ezra’s undoing, he would later say.
As Cordelia lay sick, tongues began wagging in town. Mary’s presence in the home was deemed improper. Mary’s husband Wilbur tried to persuade Mary to leave town, but she refused and he left with their children.
Cordelia’s father only learned of her sickness a day before she died. He ordered doctors to investigate, and they grew suspicious. They suspected poison, and Cordelia’s father hired one of Ezra’s friends to secretly act as a private investigator. That investigator would masquerade as a friend to Ezra and worm his way further into Ezra and Mary’s confidence.
Wilbur Champlin acknowledged that he had a quantity of arsenic that he used for preserving birds as trophies, and that his wife Mary would have access to it. Cordelia’s father had her body investigated by Peter Collier, a chemist at the University of Vermont.
Finally, the sheriff made three arrests: Ezra, Mary and Solon Burroughs, the man hired by Cordelia’s father to investigate. Ezra confided to Solon that he believed that all three of them would hang if they couldn’t find a way to stop the investigation. Egged on by Burroughs, Ezra wrote to Professor Collier; he would pay the professor $350 to stop his investigation.
All Ezra accomplished in writing the note was to add another piece of evidence to the case against him.
The local Vergennes prosecutor had his case sewn up by December. He invited two high-powered lawyers to assist him –ex-Governor J.W. Stewart of Middlebury and Col. W.G. Veazey of Rutland.
General J.H. Lucia of Vegennes and Henry Ballard, a dynamic young lawyer from Burlington, would handle the defense. Ezra’s lawyers had the trial postponed in December of 1877 to give them a chance to prepare. It would finally begin in June of 1878.
Meanwhile, in December word leaked out that Ezra, Deacon Smith as the newspapers called him, and Mary were in adjoining cells in the Middlebury jail. They had been passing love notes to each other through a stovepipe hole in the wall between their cells.
“Their affection for each other seems as ardent as before their arrest,” the newspaper reported.
In March of 1878, with Ezra Smith locked in jail, his creditors seized his house and property in Vergennes and his farm in Addison. They were put up for sale. With his property valued at $6,300, Ezra’s debts were more than $8,000.
By the start of the trial, there was little doubt in anyone’s mind about Ezra’s guilt. We was labelled a wife-poisoner and perhaps a serial killer. His sister-in-law, Adelaide Mills, had died in circumstances similar to Cordelia’s. Ezra’s father-in-law had that case investigated, though after four years little evidence could be found.
Testimony established that the relationship between Mary and Ezra had been unwholesome. Stolen kisses witnessed by a shopkeeper, whispering between the two and glimpses of Ezra with his arm around Mary cemented the story.
The professor, Peter Collier, testified that Cordelia’s internal organs seemed unusual. And he found traces of arsenic in her internal organs, but he acknowledged he didn’t find enough arsenic to prove she had been poisoned to death.
Solon Burroughs testified that his old friend Deacon Ezra Smith was not all he appeared. He told of crooked business deals that Smith had participated in. And, he said, Smith swore that as long as he had a penny to his name, Mary Champlin would never go hungry.
On the final day of testimony the court was packed as the crowds anticipated they would finally hear from Ezra. But they were disappointed. The final push from Ezra’s defense came from a Doctor Goldsmith:
“There is a form of insanity in which an old man who has always lived a virtuous life becomes morbidly infatuated with some woman and has an uncontrollable desire to have sexual intercourse with her at unusual places and times. It is a disease which commonly attacks one of advanced age in which there is not only abnormal desire, but unusual power. It is called satyriasis; I have met with such cases. This desire follows many species of insanity it becomes an overruling passion; an old man with not only the great infatuation, but also the unnatural power such as the State has claimed in this case, I should judge was inflicted with this disease to such an extent, that he would be in a manner irresponsible; never saw a person afflicted in this way when under 50 or over 80 years of age; this is most common in women.”
Even Solon Burroughs acknowledged that he questioned his old friend Ezra’s sanity.
"I would say of his actions that he was insane; could explain some things I saw in no other way."
The prosecutors pounced at the defense maneuvers. It was clear, they explained eloquently, that Ezra Smith had been backed into a corner by their case. Finally, he was left only with a ludicrous claim of insanity.
Ezra’s lawyers, meanwhile, hammered at the circumstantial nature of the case against Ezra. No proof, only possible motive, had been entered into the record. It was a stunning coup that would help build the young defense lawyer’s career. The prosecutors had been so sure of the motive they had failed to nail down enough sure evidence.
On the jury’s first ballot, it voted 11 to 1. Finally that one hold out juror was persuaded to change his vote. Ezra was found innocent. Vermonters were shocked at the decision. It left Ezra and Mary facing only a charge of adultery. Mary had moved to New York, where she followed the trial with interest.
Ezra was bankrupted and disgraced. Soon after the trial he relocated to New York. And Cordelia’s father vowed to pursue him and tirelesslydig for new evidence in the case.