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Vermont’s Disappearing/Reappearing Catherine Packard

In August of 1929, police in Chester, Vt., discovered the body of a young woman buried in a grove of spruce trees. She could not be identified by her remains. But police thought they might know who the woman was – Catherine Packard.

George Packard of Rutland, a candy store clerk, had reported his wife Catherine missing just months earlier. Catherine Packard was a troubled young woman with two children. She was a ward of the Vermont Children's Aid Society. Police presented George with a description of the dead woman they had found. Then they showed him a note that was found with the body. The suicide note said, "I am sick of life and I am going where I will be happy."

An autopsy showed the girl in the field had poison in her system. George Packard identified the handwriting as belonging to Catherine. Clothing, dental records and the note convinced police that the body was, in fact, Catherine Packard. She was buried.

George, meanwhile, remarried in the summer of 1930 to Margaret MacFarland. But not everyone was convinced that Catherine was dead. The Vermont Children's Aid Society refused to accept the proof that Catherine was dead.  George's mother had an insurance policy on Catherine’s life, but the insurance company refused to pay the death benefit of $459. The company said the proof of Catherine's death was not certain.

Catherine Packard

Catherine Packard

Then, in August of 1930, Vermont was shocked. Catherine Packard reappeared in Manchester, N.H. She was returned to Vermont and questioned. Packard had run off with Robert "Romeo" King, and the couple had been living together in Erie, Pa. Catherine said she was astounded to discover people thought she was dead.

George, stunned by the reappearance of his wife, sued for a divorce, which was granted. He remarried Margaret MacFarland. King was prosecuted on civil charges for taking up with a married woman and sentenced to a short stay in jail.

But what of the girl in the field who was now buried under a headstone that read, "Catherine Packard?" Sheriff E.H. Schoenfeld stayed with the case, and in April of 1932 he announced that he had discovered the identity of the dead girl, but it did little to tamp down the sinister overtones of the case.

Charlotte Moore Buswell had been the prettiest girl in Chester. She had a short, unhappy marriage that ended in divorce. She began running a tearoom in nearby Bartonsville, Vt. In 1925 she disappeared. A friend, Ida Sweet, said she dropped Charlotte off at the train station in Bellows Falls. She was never heard from again by her family or anyone else in her hometown.

But what sheriff Schoenfeld uncovered was that Charlotte had gone on to be active in a rum-running and narcotics ring near Bomoseen Lake. Vermont was a prime location for bootlegging during prohibition. The border with Canada was loosely patrolled and remote. The flow of illegal liquor was steady. The state's resorts, lake houses and line houses were convenient for visitors from New York and New England looking to quench their thirst for alcohol away from home.

The resorts at Lake Bomoseen roared in the 1920s. More than 500 hotel rooms crowded the shore. Search lights crisscrossed the night sky drawing thousands of visitors to its dance pavilions. And despite prohibition, the booze and drugs were available for the right price in secluded spots.

Charlotte Moore Buswell had gotten caught up in the rum-running life around Lake Bomoseen, the sheriff said. She had been fined $300 for bootlegging in Rutland, after she "disappeared" from Chester. And then she turned up dead. Given the company she was keeping, the death wasn't a shock. But what about that suicide note? George Packard had not been wrong when he said the note was written by his wife.

Catherine Packard said she had, in fact, written the note. But she could not explain how or why it wound up on Charlotte Moore Buswell's body. Catherine said she wrote the note while training at a hospital in Troy, N.Y. in 1926 at a time when she was despondent. It had nothing to do with her disappearance, she said. She theorized that it had perhaps been stolen from her belongings at the hospital. And with no further proof, that's as far as the mystery ever went.

Thanks to the Ticonderoga Sentinel and the Plattsburgh Daily Republican.

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