'Yellows' well represented in sensational murder case

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BRATTLEBORO — Wednesday, June 21, 1905 was a bustling day in Brattleboro. Rumors were flying that a convicted killer would arrive by train for a federal hearing to determine whether the murderer should be executed on Friday, or allowed to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

There had not been an execution in Vermont for 13 years. Convicted criminals had been sentenced to death during those years, but the Vermont Legislature voted to commute their sentences.

This case seemed to be different. For one thing, the convicted murderer was a young woman, Mary Rogers. She was originally from Hoosick Falls, New York and had married a 25-year-old man when she was 15. Four years later Mary left her husband and moved to Bennington.

At 19, Mary separated from her husband and publicly dated many men. One of her boyfriends was Morris Knapp and she seemed to fall in love with him. Her husband had a life insurance policy worth hundreds of dollars so Mary made plans to kill her husband. She then hoped she could be with Morris Knapp.

Mary convinced a young man of 18 to help her murder her husband. While meeting the husband in a local park, Mary and her accomplice tricked the man into having his arms tied behind his back while Mary held chloroformed cloth over his face and the accomplice restrained him. Her husband passed out, they untied him and rolled his body into a nearby stream. Mary wrote a suicide note for her husband and tacked it to a nearby tree.

Mary hoped to collect the insurance money but the accomplice quickly confessed. At the December 1903 trial, Mary Rogers was found guilty of murder. She was sentenced to death by hanging. Her accomplice was sentenced to life in prison. Mary was sent to the Windsor State Prison where she awaited her fate.

At the time, the Vermont Legislature had the right to commute death sentences. There had not been an execution in 13 years, but four men had been sentenced to death and had their sentences commuted to life in prison.

However, this time, the Vermont Legislature voted on a bill to commute Mary Roger's sentence and it did not pass. Her lawyers appealed and that led to the hearing in Brattleboro in front of a federal judge. It had been a year and a half since her death sentence had been ordered by a Bennington judge. During that time newspapers from around the country became involved in the case.

In the early 1900s the press was struggling with an early version of "fake news." It was called "yellow journalism." Newspaper publishers Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst were competing in major urban markets to sell as many newspapers as possible. Much of their reporting was focused on generating profits by presenting cheap thrills and vicarious experiences. It was news with an agenda. Publishers tried to sway public opinion by exaggerating and/or suppressing information.

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William Randolph Hearst owned 30 papers in major markets and his newspapers sensationalized the Mary Rogers case. The Boston American was one of Hearst's publications and seems to have exaggerated the case to sell more papers. During this time a newspaper critic of the Hearst and Pulitzer papers wrote, "the public is becoming heartily sick of fake news ... some of the newspapers in this town have printed so many lying dispatches that people are beginning to mistrust any statement they make."

Local lawyer Clark Fitts was the Vermont Attorney General and in charge of the prosecution at the federal hearing in Brattleboro on June 21, 1905. According to the Windham County Reformer, Mary Rogers arrived in town on the 2:20 train, accompanied by Windsor prison guards, her lawyers, and a large delegation of Boston newspaper correspondents.

Once Mary Rogers left the train she was driven by horse and a closed carriage to Clark Fitts' law office at 11 Crosby Block. She remained there until arrangements were made to hold the hearing in the probate office at 4 Elliot Street. Mary Rogers and her lawyers walked to the probate courtroom on Elliot Street and attended the hearing. Federal Judge Wheeler heard the case.

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The defendant's lawyers argued that she was being held in violation of the 14th amendment to the Constitution. Mary's lawyers believed her due process rights had been violated and they argued that she should be able to appeal to the United States Supreme Court. Clark Fitts argued that Mary Rogers' rights had not been violated. He stated that serving time in solitary confinement until the execution was not a violation of Mary Rogers' rights to life, liberty or property without due process.

When the hearing ended Mary Rogers and her entourage walked up Main Street and entered the Brooks House. Mary was the center of attention as word spread that the convicted murderer was in town. Several hundred onlookers and reporters surrounded the group as they headed north to the fancy hotel. Mary Rogers remained in the Brooks House until the next train for Windsor arrived. When it was time to head to the train Mary Rogers once again rode in a covered horse carriage back to the train depot.

The next day, Judge Wheeler ruled in favor of the state. He said he did not believe that requiring Mary Rogers to serve time before the execution in solitary confinement was a violation of her rights. The execution was scheduled to take place the next day.

However, Rogers' lawyers then asked Judge Wheeler to send the case to the United States Supreme Court and Judge Wheeler agreed. This meant Mary Rogers would not be executed on Friday and her case would be heard in Washington, D.C.

On the day the judge issued his ruling two newspapermen from Hearst's Boston American were arrested on Elliot Street for contempt. Judge Wheeler felt their harassing questioning and photo taking were an invasion of privacy. The day before, Brattleboro had been inundated with reporters and photographers. The subsequent reporting in the Boston papers had been incorrect and sensationalized. Judge Wheeler held the newspapermen in custody until they agreed to destroy any photos they had taken of the hearing participants. "Yellow journalism" was not welcome in Brattleboro.

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Mary Rogers' appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court was not successful. Her execution date was set for December 8, 1905. The hanging was carried out early in the afternoon at the Windsor State Prison. Mary Rogers was the last woman legally executed in Vermont. In 1905 there were 155 state-sanctioned executions across the United States. Over half of the 45 states had at least one execution that year. Mary Rogers was the only woman to be executed.

On the day of the hanging at the Windsor prison the Barre Daily Times reported, "There are thirty press representatives here, coming for the great part from the metropolitan journals. The Yellows are well represented in number and they have come prepared to manufacture lurid tales of the end of the unfortunate woman."

On many levels this was a challenging story for us to research. The rise of "yellow journalism" caused us to struggle finding unbiased accounts of the events. In the 1976 book, "History of American Journalism," Joseph Patrick McKerns wrote "it seemed as though the press was using the freedom from regulation it enjoyed under the First Amendment to make money instead of using it to fulfill its vital role as an independent source of information in a democracy." We'd like to thank BAMS students, Evelyn and David, for helping research this story.

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