Vt. Historical Society
Clarence Adams was a legislator and prominent member of Chester. He also was found to be a kleptomaniac.
The first account of the assault on Clarence Adams, a leading citizen of Chester, was alarming.
Two men, Adams asserted, stopped him at 9:30 p.m. on July 28, 1902. They were armed with revolvers and threatened to shoot him.
The newspaper reported, “He informed the men that he had no money; whereupon one of them shot him, the charge entering his groin, making a dangerous wound. The horses were frightened and ran home with Mr. Adams in the bottom of the wagon. Doctors summoned said Mr. Adams had little chance of recovery.”
Clarence Adams was a highly respected member of Chester, a bucolic community southwest of Springfield on the edge of the Connecticut River valley. It was said that he was a descendant of the famous family that had provided the country with two presidents. He was, at times, a selectman, a board member of the local library, and for the 1894 session of the General Assembly, a legislator in Montpelier.
He ran a prosperous farm where he had resided with his parents in an era when small hill farms were viable in Vermont. A discerning and erudite reader, he had published an essay in the literary section of The New York Times extolling the merits of historical romances. A straw poll of the citizens of Chester would have selected Adams as one of their principal citizens.
He was also their most notorious thief.
Adams was an inveterate burglar. Today he would be characterized as a kleptomaniac, a term in limited use 100 years ago. For more than 15 years he had robbed his neighbors and friends 51 times. Even when he was representing his town in the Legislature, he stole from merchants in the capital city. Some say, even in death, he connived to steal a new identity and a life of freedom in Montreal.
The initial reports of his shooting at the hands of highwaymen were a total fabrication. Adams had, in fact, been wounded by a booby-trapped shotgun aimed at a window of Charles Waterman’s gristmill. Waterman’s mill had been robbed repeatedly. First, the safe had been jimmied open and a week’s receipts taken. Waterman replaced the safe with a more secure one and, on an irregular schedule, found bags of grain had been taken in the dark of night. A careful examination revealed that someone had entered through a second-story window, and Waterman contrived to place a shotgun inside the mill pointed at the lower part of the window. A device was attached to the gun so that it would be discharged if someone opened the window.
On the advice of the constable, the gun was aimed deliberately low so that the thief would be wounded in the lower extremity, rather than suffer the lethal consequences of a higher shot.
When it was revealed that Clarence Adams’ wound contained the same size buckshot as that loaded in Waterman’s shotgun, an arrest immediately followed.
The wound in his groin made it risky to transport Adams to the jail in Woodstock, so a pair of guards kept watch over the prisoner in his own home, while authorities undertook a search of the premises for loot that had been taken from local merchants and others. The newspaper reported “an almost endless variety of articles including clothing, harnesses, shingles, boots and shoes, silverware, revolvers, barrels of flour, books, gold pens, and other goods sufficient to stock a country store. When charged with the burglaries Adams would say nothing.”
Authorities also found a box of neckties from a haberdasher in Montpelier suggesting that when the Chester legislator was in Montpelier he did not neglect his nefarious avocation.
When the cache of stolen goods was displayed at the town hall, it was obvious that certain residents of Chester suffered a disproportionate amount of theft.
J.E. Pollard, in particular, was a regular target of the thief:
“In 1886 J.E. Pollard’s house was entered and Mrs. Pollard’s gold watch, together with Mr. Pollard’s pocketbook containing $200 in money, was stolen.
In 1891 Pollard & Carpenter’s store was robbed of $100 worth of goods.
In 1892 Pollard’s store was again robbed of a large amount of clothing and John H. Adams house was entered and a gold watch and chain and $375 in money taken. This chain has been identified.
In 1897 over $300 worth of goods from Adams and Davis’s store and in 1898 $200 worth of clothing was taken from the store of Pollard & Abbott.
The latest burglary occurred in June last when Pollard and Carpenter’s store was again entered and relieved of $250 worth of clothing.”
Surprisingly, Pollard was a friend of the robber and, when Adams sought elective office, worked industriously on his campaign.
During the rash of burglaries there seemed to be no way of thwarting the series of crimes. When watchmen were hired, the robberies ceased. When surveillance was curtailed, the thefts resumed. At one time, there was a pooling of resources to offer a reward. It remained unclaimed. It is noteworthy that Selectman Clarence Adams contributed $100 toward the reward money.
The local druggist, F.W. Pierce, stocked some revolvers to arm the citizens of Chester against the bandit, but the thief made off with the weapons before many of the residents could buy them.
“Some stores in town had been broken into so many times that the proprietors felt something akin to lonesomeness if the burglars failed to appear for any considerable time.
The Waterman Mill, where Adams raised the window to which was attached the string that pulled the trigger of the gun, was robbed more than a dozen times.
Residents marveled at Adams’ self control.
“So severe was his wound that he had to lie down in the grass by the road side to recover from a semi-swoon. He told the physician first called in that he had been held up by highwaymen, but when the spring gun affair was noised about town, the authorities put two and two together, searched the Adams farm buildings and placed the owner under arrest,” the newspaper reported.
Over the years, blame for the thefts had been fixed on local men who had suffered hard luck or impoverished circumstances. “Several poor fellows, entirely innocent of wrong-doing, have been looked at askance — by people who had lost, and one man years ago, who was held in jail because somebody thought he was implicated in a burglary, died of a broken heart before the time set for his trial.”
With Adams’ conviction for the crimes, he became known as the “Gentleman Bandit,” and the tale of his thievery became national news through the efforts of William Randolph Hearst and his infamous scandal-mongers.
Hearst owned newspapers in every major city and was notorious for his ill-famed “yellow journalism” that relied less on factual reporting than innuendo and rumor. Somehow, a reporter for the Hearst chain managed to interview Adams and his neighbors, and the story of a demonic bandit subsumed the tragic tale of a kleptomaniac with an irresistible impulse.
The Hearst-operated Denver Post quoted Adams’ housekeeper that his addiction to books may have contributed to his downfall.
“He used to sit up all hours reading and I often wondered it didn’t drive him crazy sooner than it did. Reading is the cause of it all, it has turned the poor man’s head.”
Hearst reporters examined Adams’ bookshelves looking for clues. “History and adventure figure largely in this strange burglar’s collection. He has the entire works of Poe, Sir Walter Scott, Dumas ‘History of Celebrated Crimes,’ Shakespeare, Kipling, Dickens, several volumes of Napoleon, and Thackeray — all the standard authors and poets — shelves and boxes, and bureau drawers packed full of books.”
In fact, it was asserted that Adams’ library contained more than 2,000 volumes — a substantial number, even today.
When asked what influenced him to the life of a burglar, he eyed the reporter for moment, then with a half-smile he spoke. “Have you ever read Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde?” Adams asked. “That book fascinated me. The first time I read it I was fascinated.”
He said he had read the book several times. And said, too, that he enjoyed reading detective stories of Gaboreau and Conan Doyle.
When asked why he did not try to curb his inclination to larceny, he said, “I never robbed because I needed the money but simply because robbing and afterward listening to the comments of people amused me.
“I was never amused by the recreations that pleased most men. I always sought pleasure in some unusual way and robbery, for the fun of it, was unusual,” he said.
The Hearst reporter succeeded in obtaining a dictated account from Adams of his life and crimes and published it under the headline “Jekyll and Hyde in Real Life.” It appeared in The Baltimore Sun (Aug. 17, 1902).
Adams, a gifted essayist, had published an appreciation of James Fenimore Cooper in The New York Times literary supplement some months earlier. Now he turned his attention to autobiography which, in the hand of the Hearst papers, was sensationalized.
“Any man who has analyzed himself at all, I believe, and will honestly confess it, will admit that he feels most of the impulses of a criminal stirring within him at times.
“I have been a respected and even honored member of my community and I have enjoyed this distinction and have prized dearly the compliment of being a conspicuous citizen. Yet, too, I have even more keenly enjoyed the indulgence of my criminal instincts.
“It is not, I believe, that I am different simply because I have indulged both of my dual personalities — I have encouraged my honorable ambitions and my dishonorable ones. Thousands of respectable men who read these frank words of mine will, in their hearts, admit their truth ...”
Adams concluded his essay, “I have been a victim to the morbid craving to plot and carry out robberies. I have had the money to pay for whatever I wanted or needed. But I took more zest in getting things in other ways — by using my wits.”
The reporter was quick to point out that Adams’ thirst for adventure had dire consequences for others who had been accused and imprisoned for the crimes he committed. Thomas Converse died in the Woodstock jail while serving an unjust sentence. “The other who bore the blame of his crime was Gideon Lee, who lived for years under a cloud and died last fall while protesting his innocence.”
With a preponderance of evidence against him, Adams pleaded guilty to all charges and was sentenced to “no less than nine nor more than ten years” in Windsor Prison. The trial took place in August 1902, but Clarence Adams would cheat justice again, for he died in prison after serving only two years of his sentence.
Even in death the story of the “Gentleman Burglar” made headlines.
For years a rumor persisted that he had feigned his death, escaped prison, and was living a comfortable life in Canada. The canard was generally believed despite formal denials from the prison physician, Dr. John Brewster, the supposed eyewitness, John Greenwood, and the undertaker, L.F. Cabot, who insisted that he poured three quarts of embalming fluid into Adams’ body.
The myth was revived with an account published by Edward H. Smith in 1929. His book “You Can Escape” was published by MacMillan in 1929. The fanciful chapter on Adams asserts that he learned the art of suspended animation from reading about Indian mystics. By means of this ancient practice he was able to feign his own death in February 1904 and with the aid of his accomplice, William Dunn, escaped the cemetery vault in Cavendish and made his way to Canada and freedom. His body was replaced with a cadaver from Dartmouth Medical School. Smith offers no proof for his extravagant claims, which may have been inspired by his friend Edward Bierstadt who was a writer for “The Shadow,” a radio serial and also wrote the preface for “You Can Escape.”
In any event, official records indicate that Clarence Adams died from influenza. He was 46 at his demise.
The legend of Clarence Adams has been kept alive with feature articles in Yankee and other publications. Walter Hard wrote of the case for Vermont Life in the early 1960s and even prepared a humorous talk in which he would recount the misadventures of Chester’s notorious leading citizen.
Numerous anthologies have also mentioned the bizarre aspects of the Adams crimes, but few have acknowledged the sad truth of his obsessive behavior, which led to the tragic downfall of an honored citizen from a picturesque Vermont village.
Paul Heller is a writer and historian who lives in Barre.
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