The Potters, the Griswolds and the murder of Sally Griswold
By Elizabeth Allen
My first article about Adelia Barber (Griswold) Potter and her adoptive mom Sally Griswold’s murder focused on Adelia’s childhood and early marriage to Charley. (Williston Observer, April 28, 2022.)
Angry enough at Charley’s alleged infidelities to file for divorce, Adelia viewed herself as a chronically wronged person. She and Charley were also violence-prone criminals. I believe that her feelings of victimization contributed to Sally’s death and to Adelia’s role in later crimes.
While Adelia and Charley Potter racked up debts in the 1850s, Ephraim and Sally Griswold prospered. The Chittenden County Historical Society’s “Look Around Essex and Williston” (1972) says that the Griswolds headed to California during the gold rush, with Ephraim returning by 1853. Sally stayed, kept a boarding house and came home later, around 1856, very rich. She then built a fancy Federal-style house.
A contemporary source corroborates the general story in “Look Around,” if not the specific dates: “The murdered woman was possessed of considerable property, partly inherited, partly acquired … in California, where she kept a hotel, during the earlier years of the gold excitement … After her return home, she built the house in which she and her husband … have since resided” (Burlington Free Press, Aug. 28, 1865).
The Potters moved into the Griswolds’ expensive house in early summer 1865, and they were not impressed by the Griswolds at all. Perhaps the Griswolds invited the Potters into their home as a way of helping their adopted daughter. Given Adelia and Charley’s fugitive, financially precarious life in the late 1850s and early 1860s, they may have moved in with the Griswolds because they had little other choice.
In his confession to Sally’s murder, published in 1869 as a pamphlet with trial documents under the title “John Ward, or The Victimized Assassin,” convict John Ward supplied another reason: “On account of (Ephraim’s) wife’s temper and her interference with the outdoor labor of the farm, they could not keep any men to work for them … The old man (Ephraim) made a visit to (Charley) Potter… for the purpose of getting Potter to come and live with him and take charge of the farm at Williston.” (Burlington Free Press, April 14, 1869).
In John’s interpretation, Ephraim persuaded the Potters to move in with him and Sally out of desperation.
Everyone was unhappy with the living arrangement in the Griswold house. Charley complained vociferously about Sally. During the trial, Curtis Baldwin testified that Charley accused Sally of “wanting to drive him off.” George William recalled Charley saying that he would pay up to $500 to “get that old devil (Sally) out of the way” (quotes from the Burlington Daily Times, April 14, 1866).
Sally hated Charley right back. Chauncey Brownell remembered that, shortly before Sally’s death, Charley asked Sally’s opinion of him. Chauncey reported that Sally “found some fault in (Charley’s) being abusive to her,” though she gave no specifics. Understandably, she disliked being demeaned by her son-in-law in her own home.
Ephraim may have been dissatisfied too. John Ward’s confession stated that Ephraim “was tired of (Sally’s) endless clack and that he would be glad if she was dead.” Ephraim furthermore was said to have supported Charley’s failed attempt to commit Sally to an asylum. After that, Charley “asked the old man (Ephraim) if he had any objections” to murder. “The old man said he had not” (all quotes from Burlington Free Press, April 14, 1869).
Ephraim’s testimony alluded to none of this.
I am unsure whether Ephraim felt this way. When “John Ward, or The Victimized Assassin” was published, the confession included a preface and closing remarks by John’s prison chaplin, Franklin Butler, who wrote, “In particular reference to Mr. Griswold’s supposed cognizance of and sympathy with the evil designs against Mrs. Griswold, he (John) said … he only knew what others had told him.”
Claims about Ephraim’s antipathy toward Sally come to us second- or third-hand. They also probably come to us ultimately from Charley, who might have exaggerated or fabricated Ephraim’s hostility.
We have no statements from Adelia about her feelings toward her fellow housemates and the case. (I assume, however, that she held lingering animosity toward Charley for his infidelities, detailed in her divorce petition.) But we can make some educated guesses.
I conjecture that Adelia coveted Sally’s wealth. First of all, Adelia really liked money. Her divorce petition devoted more words to her financial assets than to the custody of her kids. She counted her assets carefully, listing them by source, specifying that she wanted “all such money and personal property and securities which have come to her and which she now (held)” to be “assigned to her for her sole use” (Burlington Free Press, Nov. 11, 1858).
Adelia knew very clearly what she considered to be her due, and she wanted complete control of those assets. Because the Griswolds made Adelia their legal heir, the financially focused Adelia probably viewed Sally’s wealth as rightfully hers.
Adelia must have also envied Sally’s riches and concomitant security. Adelia’s detailed recording of her personal property implies that she really wanted to control her money. In reality, she and Charley made bad deals, ran away from creditors and lacked the stability that Adelia wished for. Conversely, Sally used her mansion to create a stable place for herself where she didn’t worry about debt. Adelia probably wanted Sally’s comparative peace of mind as much as her money.
We should also consider Adelia’s general sense of victimization. As I pointed out in part I, Adelia frequently felt herself to be persecuted. Furthermore, she probably saw Sally’s money as essentially hers. Therefore, if, as the chaplain’s summary of the case says, Sally “was not on good terms with Mr. Potter, and that some hints had been given of a disinheritance of his wife, which excited his displeasure,” Adelia would have taken these hints as a personal injury. Eagerly possessive of her adoptive mother’s wealth, wishful of the security that money could afford, and indignant about the prospect of disinheritance, Adelia was likely upset with Sally on several levels.
Sally was killed on the night of Aug. 27, 1865. John Ward and Charley were arrested for Sally’s murder. John was convicted, Charley acquitted. Both Potters had verifiable alibis establishing that they couldn’t have slain her because they were out of town. Nevertheless John’s confession some two and a half years later accused Charley of orchestrating the deed and hiring another man, who was never caught, to work with John. Charley, at least, was definitely involved.
But what about Adelia? Her silence on her adoptive mother’s death can be read as a sign that she was not involved. I suspect that she was, though. As I wrote in my previous installment, Adelia and Charley worked together. Both of their names were on the promissory notes that they avoided paying. They moved to Quebec to avoid debts together. After Sally’s murder, Adelia and Charley committed robbery together. They were a habitual team.
Because Adelia collaborated with Charley in other illegal, harmful activities, I think that she knew about Charley’s plans to kill Sally. In fact, John’s confession intimates as much. When John enlisted a companion to accompany him to Williston to case the joint, Charley remarked that Adelia “was privy to everything and well acquainted with” the other hired muscle (“John Ward, or The Victimized Assassin” pgs. 108-109).
Because Adelia likely felt abused by Sally and entitled to her money, she also probably supported Charley’s plans. She may not have organized the murder, but she was involved. At the very least, she knew what was going on and didn’t try to stop it.
Learn about Adelia’s life after Sally’s murder, including her and Charley’s burglary of a local store, in Part III, coming soon.
If you missed reading the first installment of this story in the Williston Observer’s edition of April 28, 2022 you can read it online at https://www.willistonobserver.com/past-times-new-light-on-old-crimes-part-1/