Pros: Eerie, diabolical tales of old Vermont crimes
Rating: 5 out of 5
As I grew up in Vermont and have long had a taste for the macabre, John Stark Bellamy II’s Vintage Vermont Villainies: True Tales of Murder & Mystery from the 19th and 20th Centuries immediately caught my eye. The book contains 12 stories of disappearance, mishap, manslaughter, and murder, all of which are straight out of the annals of Vermont history. If you’re familiar with the area it’s a tad chilling recognizing so many names of towns, newspapers, roads and so on, but even if you aren’t the stories are quite compelling.
Bellamy worked with cases at least several decades old and sometimes more than a century old. For one thing this avoids bringing back bad memories to the survivors of these tragic events. For another, it gives the entire book a gothic, antique feel, much strengthened by Bellamy’s style of writing. It’s clear he did quite a bit of reading from period newspapers and journals, and that he allowed the old styles to infuse his work. This creates a beautiful and oddly enchanting hybrid of real-life and an almost otherworldly feel, rendering his subjects quite captivating.
Bellamy deliberately chose cases based on the odd and inexplicable personalities involved, or the unusual events. Many of these stories do not have clear endings. The disappearances weren’t always solved; the guilt or innocence of the perpetrator wasn’t always proved beyond a shadow of a doubt. We can only guess at the thoughts that went through the heads of victim and attacker alike. These stories do have a few things in common, however. They’re fascinating. They’re a window into another time, one we’re often tempted to think of as far simpler—but which held plenty of its own dangers. They’re a stark look at some of the failings and triumphs of the justice system, as well as the ways in which attitudes of the time (particularly with regard to gender and insanity) shaped justice.
The following quote can probably best give you an idea of the antique style in which Bellamy renders his notorious tales:
Depending on one’s view, the Mary Mabel Rogers saga might be suitable fare for either an antique penny dreadful or a Eugene O’Neill play—a tritely rural gothic insurance murder or a true-life Vermont summer-stock version of Desire Under the Elms. It all depends, most probably, on one’s estimate of Mary herself. Was she a coldly calculating, if careless and promiscuous, virago who plotted her husband’s demise for a mere $500 insurance policy and the lure of a new sexual playmate? Or was she just a mentally and spiritually stunted near-moron with no real sense of right or wrong, a pitiful but inevitable product of her genes and environment?