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Past Times: New light on old crimes (Part III)

The later life and death of Adelia Barber (Griswold) Potter (1829-1872)

By Elizabeth A. Allen

Special to the Observer

In my first article on Adelia Barber (Griswold) Potter, wife of Charley Potter, who was acquitted of killing Adelia’s adoptive mother Sally Griswold, I explored her childhood, conflict-ridden marriage, and life before Sally’s death. I argued that, throughout her life, Adelia considered herself victimized by cruel forces. 

In part II, I discussed the enmity between the Potters and the Griswolds when the Potters moved into the Griswolds’ house in 1865. Adelia likely felt aggrieved because Sally threatened to disinherit her. Though John Ward’s confession fingered Charley as the organizer of Sally’s murder, I argued that Adelia’s sense of being wronged by Sally, as well as her other crimes with Charley, suggest that Adelia was party to Sally’s killing. Even if Adelia was not as active a participant as Charley, she almost certainly knew about his murder plans and at least did nothing to stop them.

After Sally’s murder and Charley’s acquittal, the Potters continued to live in Sally’s house along with Ephraim, despite the fact that Willistonians generally despised them. Adelia and Charley may have thought that, with Sally out of their way, they could enjoy a calm, steady life.

They soon found out otherwise, however. 

A crime of boredom?

In April, 1867, the residents of the mansion, now called “the house of Chas. H. Potter,” suffered a robbery. The unknown burglars took “$1000.00 in U.S. gold-bearing bonds, $150.00 in currency, and a lady’s gold watch and chain” (Burlington Times, April 27). The house was not Adelia’s desired safe refuge, but an irresistible target for yet more violence and crime.

Adelia and Charley also committed some of that crime. For example, in late 1865, after Sally’s murder, but before the case went to trial, Charley was indicted for passing counterfeit money.

Several years later, Adelia and Charles collaborated on an even bigger job: a robbery. In June, 1868, $1,300 worth of cottons, clothes and shoes were stolen from Smith Wright’s North Williston general store. The goods were found in the Potter house, and Adelia was arrested. Charley, who was conveniently out of town in Canada, was arrested later. 

Why did the Potters rob a well-known store in the town where they were anathema? For one thing, they were probably bored. Life in Williston was much more tranquil than their rowdy days in Canada. They were used to escaping brawls and outsmarting debt collectors. A hometown robbery might have seemed exciting, particularly to Charley.

For another thing, Adelia at least apparently thought they could get away with it. Detective Noble Flanagan (also involved in the 1865 Griswold murder trial) searched the house thoroughly. According to the Burlington Times: “not a sign could he find of the plunder. Mrs. Potter kindly assisted him … stoutly protesting that they had no caves about the mansion” where the stolen goods could be hidden.

Adelia’s denials of involvement seem like classic misdirection, while her helping the detective indicates that she might have believed that she could get away with her lies. After all, she was never charged in connection with Sally’s murder. Perhaps she hoped that she could avoid charges again.

She couldn’t. At a September trial, Charley was charged with counterfeiting, burglary and having burglar’s tools; Adelia was charged with burglary, having burglar’s tools and receiving stolen goods. They both pleaded innocent to everything. But fellow robber Stephen Foster testified against them, and both Potters were found guilty.

In my opinion, this robbery verifies that Adelia and Charley consistently committed their crimes as a team. Before Sally’s murder, they cheated people and evaded collections together. After Sally’s murder, they burgled together. Because they regularly collaborated on other jobs (and because, as previously argued, they both resented Sally), I think that Adelia and Charley both played a role in Sally’s death.

The Potters were sentenced to state prison, Charley for ten years, Adelia for seven. They only served part of their terms. Adelia died in prison on December 15, 1872. The Chittenden County Historical Society’s Look Around Essex and Williston (1972) says that she died after a blow to the head in a prison brawl — a violent end for a violent life. Despite her stormy relationships with the Griswolds, she was buried in their family plot in Eldredge Cemetery, South Burlington.

Charley was slightly more fortunate. He requested and received a governor’s pardon on June 5, 1877, left prison, moved west and outlived Adelia by a decade, dying in Chicago on January 29, 1882. He was buried near Adelia and the Griswolds in Eldredge Cemetery as well.

Overlooked criminal

Most treatments of the Griswold murder cover Charley’s distaste for Sally, the gruesome crime itself and John Ward’s confession. These perspectives obscure the other woman besides Sally at the center of these events: Adelia. She was the one that the Griswolds adopted; she was the one with a lifelong sense of grievance; she was the one who partnered with Charley in crime. She probably facilitated the killing of her adoptive mother, just as she facilitated other illegal activities both before and after Sally’s death.

So why isn’t Adelia as infamous as Charley? Part of the reason, I believe, is that she left us no words of her own related to the Griswold murder. Trial records contain hundreds of Charley’s, Ephraim’s and Sally’s words recalled by others. “John Ward, or The Victimized Assassin” gives the convicted killer’s point of view. In contrast, even though we have Adelia’s divorce petition for a peek into her mind on one subject, we have no record of what Adelia said and thought about the Griswold case. It’s easy to assume that, if someone’s perspective was not recorded, it was not important or relevant.

The other explanation, in my mind, concerns historiography — how history is recorded, written and interpreted. People who were reporting on the Griswold murder when it happened assumed that Charley, Ephraim, Sally and John were the primary actors in the case. Therefore, the contemporary press coverage, the trial and related documents zeroed in on these four people, excluding Adelia. Recent historians have largely accepted the old prioritization of Charley, Ephraim, Sally and John and replicated it in modern accounts. Adelia was neglected when people in the 1860s were covering the murder, and her marginalization continues today.

Sally Griswold’s murder wouldn’t have occurred without Adelia. Adelia’s actual role in the killing remains ambiguous, but I argue that it is highly probable that she was involved. She is a pivotal, albeit enigmatic, figure in Williston’s most notorious crime.

I’ll have an addendum to this series coming, in which I examine the Potters’ effect on their daughter Kate, who was about 11 when she testified in her dad’s murder trial.ast

Past Times is a biweekly trip down memory lane with members of the Williston Historical Society.

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