Northern Vermonters who knew Winston Titus thought of him as a good kid from a fine family of farmers. They probably didn’t know he occasionally smuggled booze over the border from Canada, like so many struggling to get by in those lean times.
But when a young border patrolman shot and killed the 18-year-old, Vermonters started to rethink their attitudes about Prohibition.
Vermonters flouted the law as much as anyone did in 1927. Many patronized line houses, unlicensed drinking establishments common along the United States-Canada border.
Some went further and smuggled the stuff over the line. They’d pick up a load of bootleg beer or whiskey in Highwater, Quebec, and deliver it to a garage in Barre. They could earn $125 for just one trip at a time when wages ran about 26 cents an hour. Times were hard even before the Great Depression, and three hours of making the roundtrip to Canada and Barre netted the equivalent of three months’ pay.
The work had its dangers. Bootleggers, for example, often enticed the local drivers with booze, who then lost control of their car on the rutted country roads. Trigger happy law enforcement officers with little training often took aim at fleeing cars. Some were not very good shots.
On the morning of July 20, 1927, Winston Titus helped his father in the hayfield. Then he went to get a haircut and a shave before driving along a back road over the line to Highwater. His heavy touring car had just been bought cheap three days earlier at an auction of a rum-runner’s goods.
In Highwater, Winston Titus picked up 18 cases of Montreal ale and cruised back over the border into north troy. Shortly after 2 p.m. he spotted a small car waiting by the side of the road. Winston knew they were law enforcement officers.
He stepped on the gas and the men gave chase. His car picked up speed as it went down the hill toward Westfield.
Officer Joseph Faucher leaned out of the car on the passenger side and took aim. He later claimed he wanted to shoot out the gas tank. Instead, the bullet hit Winston Titus.
The car veered up an embankment and glanced off two maple trees just as Faucher shot Winston Titus in the head. The car flew into the air and landed upside down.
A police officer from Lowell, Vt., happened to pass the scene and he immediately went to phone state’s attorney Brownlee.
When the state’s attorney arrived about an hour later, Faucher and his partner, Joseph Hines, went to look at the body with the state’s attorney. Hines realized he knew Winston Titus.
The state’s attorney told the two officers not to tell anyone about the shooting. They took the bullet-riddled curtains off the car’s rear window and a cushion through which a bullet had passed.
Then they put out a story that Winston Titus had died after his car hit a tree and overturned, pinning him underneath.
Bootleggers’ Lives Matter
They couldn’t, however, keep the shooting quiet. It made page one headlines in many northern newspapers.
Rumors began to spread that undertakers found bullets in the body. Locals who’d rushed to the scene said they saw bullet holes in the car. And Mrs. Walter D. Bell, who lived 100 yards from the scene, told people she heard two sounds that sounded like shots.
Five days after the shooting, the Caledonian-Record of St. Johnsbury reported, “The death of Winston Titus … is a mystery which federal and state officers are investigating.”
An autopsy revealed the truth.
Police arrested Hines and Faucher, and prosecutors charged them with manslaughter in the death of Winston Titus.
For some rural Vermonters who supported Prohibition, the death of Winston Titus was too much.
Many Vermonters turned against the law, persuaded by editorials in North Country papers. The St. Albans Messenger editorialized against Prohibition.
Uniformed officers of the federal government again sacrifice a human life in their over-zealous desire to enforce the law … none of us are safe and are liable to meet the fate of Winston Titus at the hands of some hot-headed, cheap boy who has no more brains than to think that as soon as he is sworn in and gets into a fancy uniform with a gun in his band, he is now greater than human life itself.
An editorial by the Express and Standard in Newport took the St. Albans paper to task: “The doctrine that the offender should always be guaranteed safe escape if he has a faster car than the officer, is, in the opinion of the Express and Standard, not only dangerous but also stupid.”
A grand jury agreed with the Newport newspaper. On Aug. 2, Faucher and Hines were released after the grand jury failed to find evidence to support a charge.