To this day nobody really knows what happened in August of 1877 to Deacon Ezra Smith of Vergennes, Vt. 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, his reputation destroyed.
Ezra was 54 in 1877. He was considered a well-off businessman, worth perhaps $20,000. He dealt in stoves and tin ware with two other men – Baldwin and Stewart – in Vergennes. And he had a sizable farm in Addison, Vt.
Ezra had a long marriage to his wife Cordelia, and they lived in a nice home in downtown Vergennes on Green Street. They had a son Frank, 21; daughter Mary, 25. Ira Mills, the 10-year-old orphan son of Cordelia’s sister, Adelaide Mills, lived with the family in Vergennes.
Son Frank, meanwhile, had recently married and lived at the family farm in Addison.
Ezra served as a deacon in the Addison Baptist Church, and the family belonged to the Baptist Church in Vergennes.
The marriage between Cordelia and Ezra Smith, benefiting from Vermont’s growing economy, seemed cordial and peaceful . No one ever challenged that appearance.
The trouble started simply enough when Cordelia started feeling ill on Aug. 4, 1877. 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. Ezra then had 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, his wife’s body still warm.
Mary Champlin, 31, lived in Vergennes with her four children. Mary’s husband worked in Essex, N.Y., and stayed 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, Mass. But they managed to patch up their marriage.
In January of 1877, Ezra first met Mary at a church social held at his 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. They deemed Mary’s presence in the home 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. So Cordelia’s father hired Solon Burroughs, one of Ezra’s friends to worm his way further into Ezra and Mary’s confidence.
Wilbur Champlin acknowledged he had a quantity of arsenic that he used for preserving birds as trophies. Mary had access to it, he said. 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. 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 offering to pay him $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.
Gen. J.H. Lucia of Vergennes 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 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 them.
“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 amounted to more than $8,000.
The trial began in June 1878, and few doubted Ezra’s guilt. He 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 it had killed her.
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, crowds packed the courtroom anticipating 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,” he said.
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.
Innocent, but Disgraced
Even Solon Burroughs acknowledged that he questioned his old friend Ezra’s sanity.
“I would say of his actions that he was insane,” he said. “[That] could explain some things I saw in no other way.”
The prosecutors pounced on 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. Ballard said prosecutors had entered no proof, only possible motive, into the record. It was a stunning coup that would help build the young defense lawyer’s career. The prosecutors, so sure of the motive, had failed to nail down enough sure evidence.
The jury voted 11-to-1 on the first ballot. Finally that one hold-out juror changed his vote. Ezra was found innocent. Vermonters were shocked at the decision. It left Ezra and Mary facing only a charge of adultery. Mary 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 tirelessly for new evidence in the case.
This story last updated in 2022.
Image of Addison Baptist Church By Mfwills – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11365113.