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PAST TIMES: New light on old crimes (part 1)

The tumultuous life of Adelia Barber (Griswold) Potter (1829-1872)

By Elizabeth A. Allen

If you’re familiar with Williston history, you probably know of the Griswold murder. 

In 1865, Adelia Potter’s husband, Charley, was accused of slaying Sally Griswold, Adelia’s adoptive mother. In 1866, Charley was acquitted, but one John Ward from New York was found guilty. When imprisoned, John confessed to the killing and was hung. 

The Griswold murder’s sensational details have earned it a place in town lore, but the focus on Charley and John has excluded Adelia, who, arguably had a role in the crime as well. Follow me in this three-part series as I explore the tumultuous life of someone whose intense misery (in my opinion) manifested in the crimes she committed against others. 

Adelia Sophia was the first child of Elihu and Catherine “Kate” (Walker) Barber. She was most likely born on April 11, 1829. That’s what her headstone in Eldredge Cemetery in South Burlington says. However, her obituary says that she was 43 at death (Vermont Journal, December 21, 1872, p. 2), which would put her birth year at 1827. I have found no vital records to support 1827 or 1829, but vital records and a headstone confirm that her mother Kate died, probably from complications of childbirth, on May 29, 1829.

Now a widower with a newborn, Elihu, in a move not uncommon at the time, gave Adelia to Kate’s sister, Sarah “Sally” (Walker) Griswold, and her husband Ephraim. During the trial of his wife’s death, Ephraim testified, “Adelia was about eight weeks old when we took her to bring her up.” He did not mention the year, but, if Adelia was born on April 11, 1829, and then Kate died when Adelia was approximately seven weeks old, Ephraim’s statement indirectly supports 1829 as the year of Adelia’s birth.

According to his testimony, Ephraim and Sally tried at least four times to have children of their own; they all died before the age of 18 months. As an only child of a couple who had suffered the deaths of their biological kids, Adelia received much attention and affection. Indeed, in his testimony, Ephraim said, “Mrs. Griswold always thought the world of Delia” (quotes in this paragraph and the preceding one are from Burlington Daily Times, April 11, 1866, p. 3). As we shall see, Adelia probably did not return the sentiment.

I cannot find much information about Adelia’s childhood, but a significant event did occur in her mid-teens. Ephraim and Sally made Adelia their legal heir. Proceedings began in 1845 and it came into effect in November, 1846. Ephraim and Sally obviously considered Adelia their daughter, though it is uncertain how she felt about them.

When she was 19, Adelia married Charles “Charley” Hannibal Potter, 21, in Williston. Born in Franklin, Vermont, to Jeremiah Potter and Leah Clark, Charley soon started a farm with Adelia. The 1850 U.S. census records them in a Williston household with two other unrelated people.

Charley, considered by Willistonians to be an unreliable, dishonest person, was in and out of Adelia’s life. For example, Adelia and Charley’s son, Charles Jr., was born on April 19, 1851, in Williston, but the 1851 Canadian census records Charles Sr. living with Potter relations just over the border in Missisquoi County (probably Dunham), Quebec (then called “Canada East”). Presumably he was back in Williston by 1855, in time for Adelia to give birth to daughter Katherine on January 14, 1856. Given his later behavior, I think he was in Canada to avoid creditors and have sex with other women. 

Adelia apparently joined Charley in shady business practices. For example, toward the end of 1856 and through 1857, the Potters engaged in real estate dealings with George and Caroline Wakefield, but they allegedly did not fulfill their promissory notes (Burlington Daily Times, March 8, 1862, p. 8).

To escape such debts, Adelia, Charley, and kids fled Williston for Dunham, Quebec. Vermonter William Darling found where Adelia and Charley were living. In mid-December, 1857, he gathered some men, and, claiming that he was “Chief of Police in Canada, with unlimited jurisdiction in the United States,” clapped Charley in leg irons at gunpoint. But Adelia saw through William’s lies, called a local sympathetic magistrate, and had William arrested instead.

Even though Adelia saved Charley from a would-be debt collector, the two did not have a happy marriage. In fact, Adelia petitioned for divorce in November 1858 —a rare occurrence in that period; divorce was considered shameful and rarely granted. In her petition, Adelia claimed that she “had always behaved herself as a faithful, chaste, and affectionate wife” to Charley, but he had committed adultery with several women in Dunham (Burlington Free Press, November 5, 1858, p. 3). Nothing seems to have come of this petition — Adelia and Charley remained married till her death — but it vividly portrays Adelia’s misery.

Adelia apparently perceived herself as a smart, valiant person wronged by others. For one example, the report of William Darling harassing the Potters brims with indignation. Adelia is characterized as a “good lady” and the debt collector “a lawless ruffian” (Burlington Sentinel, January 8, 1858, p. 2). The anonymous correspondent is writing from Dunham — presumably someone familiar with the Potters and definitely sympathetic to them. Like others in Dunham, Adelia and Charley probably believed too that they were unjustly persecuted.

Adelia’s self-image as a wronged, justly angry person also appears in her divorce petition. To hear her tell it, she was a model, virtuous spouse. All problems in her marriage could be directly attributed to Charley’s sneakiness and lies. 

I’m not suggesting that Charley wasn’t a horrible spouse. I’m saying that Adelia had the tendency to cast herself as the innocent, aggrieved party. And sometimes she was. Sometimes horrible things just happened to the Potters. While they were in Quebec, their son Charles Jr. died on May 26, 1859. He was only 8 years old. He was buried in Frelighsburg, Quebec.

Though still in Quebec as of March, 1862, Adelia and Charley were back in Williston by Dec. 15, 1863. On that date, Charley enlisted as a private in the Union army in Vermont’s Company E, First Cavalry. I am unsure whether he saw action; he may have been too busy swindling people and skipping town.

Adelia and Charley had another son, Willis, in 1864. The next summer, Adelia and family moved in with her adoptive parents the Griswolds. Tensions between the two couples hit a breaking point, and Sally Griswold was killed. Testimony from the murder trial provides hints about Adelia’s life and her acrimonious relationships with the Griswolds. Could Adelia have been involved in the murder? Find out here in part 2 of the story in two weeks.

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