Fall 2007 - #5. The Peake Murder Trial The Thirteenth Vermont Judicial History Seminar.

Author:by Paul S. Gillies, Esq.

Vermont Bar Journal


Fall 2007 - #5.

The Peake Murder Trial The Thirteenth Vermont Judicial History Seminar


The Peake Murder Trial The Thirteenth Vermont Judicial History Seminarby Paul S. Gillies, Esq.What thou biddest, Unargued I obey; as God ordains, God is thy law, thou mine; to know no more Is woman's happiest knowledge and her praise.(fn1)

Rebecca Peake felt wronged. Her husband, Jonathan, after accumulating more debt than he could repay, conveyed their farm to his son Ephraim, against Rebecca's will. If she was consulted, her opinion did not hold much weight. She was Jonathan's second wife. He had nine children when they married, and she had raised the younger ones; they had two more together. She was almost sixty, Jonathan over seventy, and both were concerned about what would happen to them next.(fn2)

The farm consisted of 141 acres in the southerly part of Randolph, the first 61 acres purchased by Jonathan in 1800, the remaining 80 adjacent acres in 1814.(fn3) By January 1835, he was done. His only hope was his son Ephraim, who had done much better than his father. Ephraim had $2,000, enough to keep Jonathan out of debtor's prison.

There were two deeds. The first was a warranty deed from Jonathan to Ephraim, conveying the fee of the land and premises. Although Rebecca was Jonathan's wife, and had a claim to dower rights, she did not sign this deed. It was not required. The second deed, styled a lease but a form of mortgage, re-conveyed the farm and premises to Jonathan, again for $2,000, but with a condition:

The condition of this deed is such that if I sd. Ephraim shall well & truly pay or cause to be paid all the just debts which my father the sd. Jonathan now owes & shall well suitably provide for maintain & support my father & his present wife & find them with all things necessary & proper for them in illness & health during the life of my sd. father & so long as his sd. wife shall remain his wife or widow then this deed to be null & void otherwise in full force & virtue.(fn4)

That promise was no comfort to Rebecca. She did not want to live in his house, and be the subject of his charity, and she grew nervous and distraught over her fear that she would be made homeless if Jonathan died. She visited several lawyers to ask them to intervene, including Randolph attorney William Hebard.(fn5) Her dower could not be protected, they told her. The conveyance was nothing she could prevent or undo.(fn6)

On August 12, 1835, Rebecca served dinner to the family, including Ephraim, but did not partake herself. Everyone became sick, and even the hogs who were fed the remains of the meal were seen vomiting after they had eaten the hash that was served for dinner. A white powder had been sprinkled on it.(fn7)

Everyone seemed to be recovering, when, the following day, Rebecca served custard, and Ephraim became sicker, and sicker still after drinking something that Rebecca prepared three days later. On August 20, Ephraim died, but not before accusing Rebecca of poisoning him.(fn8)

During the period of time between the first meal and Ephraim's last breath, visitors and family members spoke with Rebecca, and she confessed to poisoning Ephraim to eight different people, although rarely telling the same story twice. A grand jury was summoned, an indictment issued, and Rebecca was arrested, arraigned, pled not guilty, and tried, beginning on December 23, 1835.

The Trial Begins

Chelsea became the shire town of Orange County in 1796, much to Newbury's disappointment. The first building used as a courthouse was built by Reuben Hatch that year, but this was temporary. Eight years later, the first courthouse built with county funds was located on the site of the present courthouse (although further back from the road), and paid for by a town tax of six cents per acre. The total cost of construction was about $2,000. There is a letter in the records showing a formal acceptance of what the Supreme Court called this "convenient but elegant" building.(fn9) It was two stories in height, with a four-sided roof.(fn10) Previous to this, no one had been convicted of murder in Orange County.(fn11) The trial engaged the attention of many, all of whom wanted to attend. As the courthouse was too small for the number of spectators who wanted to attend the trial, the trial was moved to the Chelsea Congregational Church, two doors down.(fn12)

On the bench there were four judges, including two from the Supreme Court--Chief Judge Charles K. Williams and Associate Judge Jacob Collamer-- and two county judges--Lyman Fitch and Jacob K. Parish. The prosecutors were State's Attorney Edmund Weston and William Hebard, the same lawyer Rebecca had consulted the previous year about the deeds. At defense table sat Lucius Peck and William Upham, and Rebecca Peake.

Peck and Upham were leading members of the Vermont bar, and Hebard and Weston must have felt challenged by the reputation and skill of their opponents. Peck was thirtythree at the time of trial, a native of Waterbury, who had learned the law from Judge Samuel Prentiss, at his office in Montpelier, before opening his own office in Barre. Upham was a Montpelier lawyer, who had also read the law with Judge Prentiss. At 43, he was the senior advocate, which is shown in his closing argument. Upham was also ailing during the trial.(fn13)

Hebard was a Randolph lawyer, thirty-five years old, in his eighth year of practice.(fn14) Weston was first elected state's attorney in the September general election of 1835.

Charles K. Williams was fifty-three, a graduate of Williams College and a veteran of the War of 1812, who had served nine years on the Court by the time of the trial, and was in the second year of his leadership of the Court. Jacob Collamer, a resident of Royalton, was forty-four years of age, and in his third year on the Court.(fn15)

The jury was chosen the first day of the trial. Each was asked one important question: "Have you any conscientious scruples to render a verdict of guilty, where the punishment is death, provided the evidence is sufficient to satisfy your mind of the guilt of the accused?" Defense counsel objected to the question; the Court overruled it, and each juror in turn answered in the affirmative.(fn16) The trial began immediately.

The Prosecution's Case

When E.P. Walton decided to publish a pamphlet of the Peake trial, transcripts of the evidentiary portion were unavailable, and he used Lucius Peck's notes instead.(fn17) A parade of witnesses, all willing to give testimony against the defendant, took the stand. Neither Jonathan nor Rebecca testified at the trial.

Dr. Jacob Pember was the first witness. He described his visits to Ephraim's room, how he appeared and what he had said, and gave his professional opinion that death was caused by arsenic poisoning. Dr. Pember attended the post-mortem examination the day following Ephraim's death, and described what he saw. On cross examination, he stated that death by poison usually took no more than twenty-four hours, and agreed that the contents of Ephraim's stomach were never analyzed.(fn18) Apparently the vial containing the sample was broken in a buggy accident as Dr. Pember was taking it to be tested.(fn19)

Dr. W. Chamberlain was called to the Peake farm on Monday, August 18, two days before Ephraim died. He said he did not "recollect that he ever saw all the same symptoms in any patient before." He was at the autopsy, and said the symptoms might have been produced by arsenic. Ephraim told Chamberlain he did not expect to recover. On cross, the doctor admitted he had never attended a post-mortem where the patient had died from poison.(fn20)

Fanny Peake, Jonathan's daughter and Rebecca's step-daughter, who was still suffering from her bout with the hash, having lost the use of her limbs, told the whole story, beginning with the hash, the illness, and the death of her brother Ephraim. She saw the white powder on the hash. Of all the prosecution witnesses, Fanny was the most supportive of Rebecca. She described Rebecca's headaches, and how kind she was in taking care of Ephraim and Fanny, when they were both ill. She admitted that Rebecca sometimes stayed out all night without letting anyone know where she was.(fn21)

Sarah Peake, another step-daughter, reported that Rebecca told her "she put poison in the hash, but did not know why she did it; said they had lived in good union--had nothing against Ephraim or Fanny; it must have been the work of the devil, and she was not in her right mind." Sarah said Ephraim accused Rebecca of poisoning him, and that Rebecca said Ephraim cannot die before he "confessed to her for accusing her of poisoning him." She quoted Rebecca's statement that she "felt tall and as high as the trees" before putting poison in the food.(fn22)

From Daniel Perrin, the jury learned that, "Some years ago Mr. Peake posted his wife, the prisoner, as she traded too much."(fn23) The stores of Randolph had been warned not to sell goods to Rebecca if they expected Jonathan to pay the bill.

Mrs. Lucretia Fowler also heard Rebecca's confession. She quoted Rebecca saying, "it was unjust for Mr. Peake to deed her property to Ephraim and force her to live with him, Ephraim, instead of her own children; that after the deed was executed and Ephraim had come to live at home, she had not enjoyed herself at home; had no conversations with Mr. P. except a jaw after the deed; had not lodged...

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