- Historic Sites
In Windsor Prison
IT BEGAN AS America’s most modern penal institution, and for generations the Vermont State Prison reflected the changing ways by which we thought we should punish our wrongdoers. Then a tormented era and a ghastly crime combined to end its old career—and give it a surprising new one.
May/June 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 3
By the time of the Civil War, American penological theory held that it wasn’t enough merely to keep people at work and then return them to cells for twelve hours. There have always been prisonreform movements, along with periodic demands for emphasizing or doing away with capital punishment—it is a recurring matter and goes in cycles —and now public opinion called for libraries and chapels and classrooms for prisoners. That cost money, and so contract labor began, with private companies paying the state for the use of convicts. In the South that meant leasing out crews to plantation owners, who put them at clearing snakeridden swamps, but in industry-minded New England the inmates were set to manufacturing. A big shoe factory went up at Windsor, the earlier failed attempts at the craft disregarded, and privately employed supervisors held sway over some 130 men producing footwear. Others under contract continued the weaving operation and constructed water pumps and rifle parts.
The prison was entering its eighth decade when there occurred a hanging that was to echo years later in the most celebrated event of its history. Lucy Emeline Meaker, of Burlington, put in charge of bringing up to maturity a nine-year-old girl upon payment of four hundred dollars in advance, decided to dispense with the bringing up. She gave the girl a dime’s worth of strychnine in sweetened water. The child died in convulsions. Mrs. Meaker was tried and convicted.
From the very first the prison had a small complement of female inmates, but it was a matter of some moment to execute one. “It is indeed an awful thing to hang a woman,” said the Burlington Free Press , “but still more awful is the spectacle of a woman devoid of the natural instincts and affections of her sex.” The world, said the paper, would “breathe freer with the execution. Such a monster we hope the present generation will not be called upon to deal with again.” But a member of the next generation, of the same gender as Mrs. Meaker, was to bring the Vermont State Prison at Windsor to national, even international, attention. Exactly three weeks before the child poisoner ascended the prison-yard scaffold, on March 9, 1883, Mary Callahan was born in Bennington as the product of what was termed a forced marriage.
Mary Rogers asked the boarder and one of her employer’s sons to help her kill her husband. Both thought she was joking. But another son agreed.
Accounted very strange in childhood years, she had by the age of fifteen blossomed into a voluptuous and good-looking and much sought-after young woman with lustrous large dark eyes, jet black hair, and white and unblemished skin. She married Marcus Merritt Rogers, a decade older. He addressed her as “May.” That was in 1898. Her first child died in infancy, and in 1901 she gave birth to a stillborn. By then she had what the newspapers would term “a well-known notorious character” that on “numerous occasions” rendered her “oblivious to her marriage vows.”
At nineteen she left her husband and went to work as a maid for a family that had two sons of about her age. Soon she was observed in bed with each of the young men. The family took in a gentleman boarder, and she was seen in bed with him also. All the young men gave her little gifts. Before long she found herself in what the phraseology and newspapers of the day termed “an interesting condition.” She went to a doctor and asked him to remedy the situation and when he refused flew into such a rage and emitted such threats against his life that he concluded she was deranged.
Her situation, in tone, in time, in the feel of it, is reminiscent of the upstate New York case on which Theodore Dreiser based An American Tragedy . She needed to be married, and soon, but not to Marcus Rogers, who would know the approaching child was not his, and whom she also found a “poor simp.” But the poor simp had a life insurance policy with his May named as beneficiary. It was for five hundred dollars. With that she could, or so she hoped, elicit a wedding proposal from the gentleman boarder, for whom she seemed to have genuine feelings, set up housekeeping, and have the baby. She went about Bennington stores to price furnishings. She told the clerks she was soon to marry a notable young man of the town.
But first came the matter of her husband. She separately asked the gentleman boarder and one of her employer’s sons if they would help her kill him. Both took her to be joking. She then turned to the second son, who said he’d do what she requested. She wrote a note to her husband asking him to meet her at Morgan’s Grove, a picnic area on the banks of Bennington’s Little Walloomsac River. It was August 12, 1902. “I’m awfully glad to see you again, May,” Rogers said as she kissed him. The employer’s son stood by.