- 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
They sat down on the ground. He’d heard she was seeing a lot of men, Rogers said, and she replied that she wished people would mind to their own business and stop telling stories. She told him to lie down and put his head in her lap, and he did so. Her girl friend, she remarked, had recently been to see Houdini perform at the Rutland Opera House, and he’d done some wonderful rope tricks. She would show him one. She tied his hands behind his back and, as he lay with his head in her lap, took from her bosom a vial filled with two ounces of chloroform, poured it onto a handkerchief, and pressed it to his face.
One sees Rogers in imagination, trying to struggle up as the employer’s son springs forward, the hired horse and rig that brought him and May of a summer evening to Morgan’s Grove tethered nearby, everybody in the long-dressand-shirtwaist and buttoned-up-shoes-and-high-collar-tie fashion of the day. Rogers sustains a compound multiple depressed fracture of the skull, a severe contusion over one eye, a badly torn ear, and swollen wrists from the rope. When it is over, he is dragged to the river and put in, and she pins a note to a man’s hat and ties the hat to a small elm tree nearby: Blame no one as I have at last put an end to my miseberl life as my wife now I have threatened it, everyone nows I have not eny thing or no body to live for, and so blame no one as my last request. Marcus Rogers. May, I ope you will be happy .
The year 1902 was a long while ago, and we in our modern medical-miracles fashion are inclined to smile at the era’s knowledge and practices. But the most incompetent coroner of the day could not fail to find that this was no suicide. Even before an inquest was held, the young widow applied to the insurance company for payment of the five hundred dollars, but it was never given over. For when questioned by the authorities, the young man who assisted in the murder told all. He dictated and signed an eighteen-hundredword description of what had occurred at Morgan’s Grove.
Mary Callahan Rogers was tried and convicted of murder. She did not take the stand. To much of the world she seemed a cheap and promiscuous little small-town gold digger. But in the curious manner in which certain cases grip the imagination and interest and gain a wider audience than others, her situation became known far beyond Vermont’s borders. The child she was carrying was stillborn, but it was not forgotten. A woman doctor in Fall River, Massachusetts, wrote President Theodore Roosevelt that the effect on Mary Rogers of being pregnant had been insufficiently emphasized. “If the mothers of the United States who have murderous impulses during these periods of peculiar stress,” wrote the doctor, would simply stand up and declare themselves and admit it, saying “T and T and ‘I,’ Mary Rogers would not hang.”
Roosevelt reeused to get involved, and what was called “puerperal insanity” did not seem to Vermont’s governor Charles Bell a reason to extend clemency to the murderess, though he received more than forty thousand appeals to spare her, from all parts of the country and abroad. “I wish I could save her,” Governor Bell said after visiting her in her cell. Despite the wretched spelling and punctuation of the silly note meant to masquerade as her husband’s last communication, Mary Rogers, to the governor and others, seemed an eminently presentable and well-spoken personage. Something about this obscure and sadly foolish creature of in-trouble impulse, so her pregnancy was described, her childhood marked by her mother’s out-ofwedlock mating with her father, her youthful marriage, her eroticism certainly stemming from something other than willful flouting of Victorian morality, and, finally, perhaps, her striving for married respectability and motherhood—it gripped people. The high sheriff and his four Windsor County deputies appealed to Governor Bell not to force them to hang Mary Rogers, but the governor had his duty as he saw it and said that if she didn’t hang, he would be unworthy to rest himself in Vermont ever again. As for the sheriff and his deputies: “If there are any who desire to retire from office they are at liberty to do so.”
The United States has historically gone between enthusiastic endorsement of the death penalty and abhorrence of it, and the country was at the moment in the latter frame of mind. No one had been hanged in Vermont in fourteen years, and no woman since Mrs. Meaker. Nevertheless, on the afternoon of December 8, 1905, the murderess was brought down from her cell on the top story of the original building of the Vermont State Prison, from the sides of which stretched the newer extensions. She said she was pregnant again—by someone at the prison. At the railroad station telegraphers stood ready to send out the reporters’ descriptions of what was to ensue. Every room in the local hotel, as well as some two dozen rooms in private homes, had been reserved weeks earlier.
The scaffold was waiting. Almost eight hundred people in Bennington had signed a petition for mercy, each saying he or she had originally been in favor of a death sentence. Thousands of letters for Mary Rogers had been delivered to the prison along with food, candy, delicacies from all over. The sheriff had decided not to use the rope that had previously served in eight hangings, and had prepared a new one.