Night-Rider Legacy, Weaponizing Race in the Irasburg Affair of 1968, by Gary Shattuck, published by the University of Vermont Center for Research on Vermont, 461 pages in paperback.
Reviewed by Chris Braithwaite
This is a badly written book that spends far too much time coming to the wrong conclusion. These shortcomings could be nothing more serious than an embarrassment to the augustly titled Center for Research on Vermont, which should have known better than to publish it.
Sadly, though, it is a dangerous book. In the unhappy event that anyone besides me actually reads it, the book can only reinforce the remarkable “there’s no racism here” claims that Trump and his toadies have inspired across this country and across the Northeast Kingdom. More sadly, it’s the sort of book whose conclusions can have influence far beyond the tiny circle of people who actually wade through it, sort of like Das Kapital or Mein Kampf.
It’s an upstream wade. Consider the following from Mr. Shattuck’s preface: “The impossible recall of the sound of a ringing racist bell continues to present an unfair situation to any party falling victim to the unilateral application of rules painting their actions in an untested manner that raises the possibility of politically-correct motivations lurking in the shadows.” That wins Braithwaite’s Pullet Surprise for the most metaphors worked into a single sentence.
And for the literates among us who love alliteration: “It was also a time when parsimonious politicians prioritized policies and programs to foster better relations with those outside the Green Mountains in hopes of alleviating the racial discord that cities experienced, but often to the disadvantage of their leading law enforcement agency.”
If it had to publish Mr. Shattuck, the Center for Research on Vermont could have at least provided him with a good editor. But that would only have resulted in a more readable bad book.
In briefest outline, the Irasburg Affair of 53 years ago, while not at all funny, had elements of a bad joke. Night riders fire shotgun blasts into the home of a recently arrived Black minister and his family. State Police find the perpetrator, but it takes them awhile. In the meantime they launch a vigorous investigation into the victim’s background, and ultimately come up with a case of adultery. I’m not certain of this, but I think the Reverend David Johnson is the last man charged with adultery in Vermont before the state Legislature decriminalized it 1981. And I think his unfortunate paramour, a white woman named Barbara Lawrence, is the last person Vermont ever convicted of the crime, which was a felony. She is given a suspended sentence and a fine of $125 plus court costs of $161.20. The shotgunner gets a suspended sentence and a fine of $500, with orders not to let his daddy, a pillar of the community, pay it for him.
All this in 1968, a year of assassination, riot, racial tension and bad news in general across the country. No surprise, then, that the Irasburg Affair grew a robust pair of legs, to use the media cliché, and spread far beyond the borders of Vermont. No surprise, either, that the wider public adopted the obvious interpretation — that the police response to the incident was deeply racist. This was not the sort of publicity Vermonters had come to take for granted; not at all fit for a full-color feature in Vermont Life. But fodder indeed for an expose in Life magazine. The Governor of the day, Phil Hoff, was particularly upset. A Democrat who had shattered the state’s political status quo by getting elected Governor in 1962, he’d worked hard on the race issue. In concert with another attractive young politician, Mayor John Lindsay of New York, he’d set up the Vermont Youth Project. It brought 600 Black and Hispanic youth to the state in the summer of 1968, where they were joined on state college campuses by a similar number of young white Vermonters.
In September, with the criminal charges resolved, Governor Hoff set up a three-member board of inquiry into the affair, including “the conduct and performance of any and all state officials and agencies.”
Under the whip hand of its chairman, Judge Ernest Gibson Jr., the board issued a 30-page report in December 1968. Its first, key conclusion: “There was racial prejudice involved in the shooting episode.”
Other conclusions included the board’s finding that the perpetrator, Larry Conley of Glover, “was a prime suspect in Detective Wade’s mind” as early as July 20, the day after the shooting. Corporal Laurence Wade was one of many State Police officers on the case. Mr. Conley was not arrested until August 1. On July 19, the board found, another witness told another State Police officer, Lieutenant Clement Potvin, that Mr. Conley was one of the three people involved in the incident.
When Attorney General James Oakes came to the Johnsons’ rambling, 13-room home on July 20, the board found, “State Police never informed him or any of his staff that Larry Conley was a prime suspect.” The day after that, the board continued, the state force’s director of enforcement, Captain Harold Dean, “was completely convinced of Larry Conley’s guilt.”
“Also,” it continued: “We are not impressed of the necessity in this case for any strenuous background check on the Reverend Mr. Johnson, when already within 48 hours of the shooting there was a prime suspect right under their nose.”
“We conclude,” the board concluded, “that the police did not move as rapidly as they might on the shooting episode, but moved with zeal and speed in perfecting the proof of the adultery charges.”
Nowhere in his conclusions does Judge Gibson say that the investigation of the case was tainted by racial prejudice. The former governor’s penultimate paragraph is worth quoting in full:
“This Board cannot close this report and the unpleasant tasks that it faced without stating that it has every confidence in the integrity, the dedication and the unselfishness of the run-and-file State Troopers. The Chairman of this Board was very instrumental in creating the State Police. It was largely for this reason that he accepted the unpleasant task of chairmanship of this Board.”
Nevertheless, the Board of Inquiry’s report is the chief target of author Shattuck’s wrath throughout Night Riders Legacy. Again and again, he argues that its findings were inaccurate, its conclusions unfair to the State Police, and its procedures flawed in ways that “turned what was supposed to be a fair inquiry into a lopsided trial by ambush surprising unprepared officers.”
He quotes the Rutland Herald, whose coverage of the report’s release ran under the headline “Northeast Kingdom Lawmen Clubbed by Irasburg Report.”
The story read in part: “The Board of Inquiry left hanging heavily in the air the implication that police deflected their (shooting probe) because of some influence and the board’s finding was that such an influence sprang from racial prejudice.”
The author continues: “In sum, the public learned from Gibson’s report that the police and prosecutor were racists and there was no way they could prove otherwise. Hoff also agreed and immediately said there was no question that the VSP leadership inflicted ‘a black eye to the state’ committing ‘inexcusable’ conduct in the process, promising to take action in the near future.”
In fact, very little action was taken. Phil Hoff was serving the final days of his last term as governor. James Oakes, the Attorney General whose role in the affair the author views with deep suspicion, had lost the September Republican Primary for governor to Dean Davis, who won election in November. The era of the Young Turks who transformed Vermont politics in the 1960s was coming to a close. Governor Davis opted to let the matter lie. State Police Commissioner Erwin Alexander, another Glover native who played a key role in the affair, hung onto his job, as did the officers below him.
The key questions
Night-Rider Legacy raises several questions that this reviewer thought had long since been answered.
Was the attack on the Reverend Johnson and his family racially motivated?
Was the State Police investigation racially tainted?
Were the adultery charges racially motivated or the result of good, routine work by police and prosecutors?
Before trying to come up with the answers, the reviewer feels obliged to give credit where it is due. Almost all of the evidence that this reviewer will cite comes from Mr. Shattuck’s book. He may be an inept wordsmith and a dubious social scientist, but this former state trooper seems a careful and thorough historian. The only “outside evidence” I might refer to comes from the Board of Inquiry’s report. And it seems a strange omission that Mr. Shattuck didn’t find room for the report in his very long book, considering its importance to his narrative. The report is, however, readily available online at digitalvermont.org/files/original/42/1932/FindingsRecommendationsIrasburgAffair.pdf
The first question may seem absurd on its face, but consider this from no less an authority than Commissioner Alexander: “I felt, and I feel now that I was right, that this was simply a case of some young fellows getting beered up and it happened to be Mr. Johnson that got picked on. If (he) hadn’t been there, it would have been someone else.”
After Mr. Conley was arrested but before the charge against him was resolved, Clement Potvin, commander of the State Police troop based in St. Johnsbury, put out a statement for the press: “Commissioner E.A. Alexander feels that the case has no racial overtones and was not caused by racial prejudice. Today’s events according to the Commissioner did much to remove the stigma which he believes had unfairly been attached to the State of Vermont as a whole and to the Northeast Kingdom in particular.”
The author outlines two episodes that speak to Mr. Conley’s motive. On July 13, five days before he shotgunned the Johnson home, Mr. Conley and a couple of friends went to the state beach on Crystal Lake in Barton. Also at the beach were a group of teens from Governor Hoff’s summer youth project, who were staying in the dorms at Lyndon State College.
“It also appears,” the author writes, “that their young counselors, inexperienced, untrained and rushed into their roles by Hoff’s frenzied push to make the program happen, advocated for them to intermingle in a permissive matter that some found objectionable, particularly when conducted in public.”
Mr. Conley clearly objected: “Over a 20-minute period a reportedly drunken Conley unleashed a torrent of profanity at the boys in the group, calling them ‘sons of bitches of n_ _ _ _ _s’ and ‘fucking n_ _ _ _ _s,’ and that he wanted to ‘show them not to come up to this part of the country.’” (The review follows the author’s style in rendering offensive language.)
“While none of this information was ever conveyed to police at the time,” the author notes, “the board of inquiry pointedly disparaged the VSP for not uncovering it during its investigation of the shooting.” That condemnation, he adds, “bears little reason.”
Three days later, on July 16, Mr. Conley rode to Derby with another Glover resident, Game Warden Donald Collins. As they rode along, Collins would report later, Conley asked what “he thought the troopers would do if they caught anyone harassing that bunch in Irasburg.” Conley added that “he wouldn’t mind harassing them if he could find someone to go along with him.”
Mr. Collins took that story to Lieutenant Potvin on July 20, adding that he’d seen a 12-gauge shotgun on the back seat of the car owned by Mr. Conley’s mother.
The material provided by the author makes the answer to the first question obvious. The Irasburg Affair began with a racist attack.
On to question two, were the police biased in their investigation? The author insists they were not. But here again, he provides some painful evidence to the contrary. A report from one of the Attorney General’s investigators: “One state police officer informed me that I had charged young Conley with the wrong crime. When I asked what he meant by this, the officer told me that Conley should have been charged with ‘shooting coon out of season.’”
Ruth Skinner, a neighbor to the Johnsons and a State Police dispatcher, scolded the troopers who rushed down to investigate a later report of shots fired in Irasburg. “I said, ‘That coon’s at it again. You guys sure are stupid.”
Though her husband didn’t work with the State Police, it’s hard not to add his observation that “Anybody like him come around here acting uppity like that again is apt to get the same thing.”
Mr. Shattuck devotes much of his book to debunking a central finding of the Board of Enquiry: that the police wasted too much time investigating the victim’s background in California, Florida and several other states when they had a “prime suspect” so close at hand.
There are two prongs to the author’s attack. One focuses on a single word. Conley was a “potential” suspect, he concedes, but not a “prime” suspect. Thus police were only doing their job when they looked into other explanations for the incident.
The second prong is more substantive. Two days after the shooting, on Sunday, July 21, Detective Wade and his Chief Criminal Investigator Billy Clinton, had a late-night meeting about the case. “There was also the outstanding issue of whether someone from his past, particularly resentful of his association with Barbara Lawrence, meant to harm him. ‘We had to investigate all avenues,’ Wade testified, ‘because we had nothing concrete on any particular (individual).’ Seeking answers, Wade also requested that Chilton ‘run background investigations’ on both Johnson and Lawrence.”
“Conducting inquiries into witnesses’ and suspects’ past conduct is a routine practice of police,” Mr. Shattuck argues. Judge Gibson’s board didn’t see it that way. It seemed particularly incensed that the man at the top of the State Police hierarchy, Commissioner Alexander, “entered into an understanding with Mr. McClure, editor of the Burlington Free Press, that Mr. McClure obtain additional information with respect to the past of the Reverend Mr. Johnson.”
The board returned to this point in its conclusions: “We conclude also that it is poor practice for the Department of Public Safety to rely on newspapers to secure background information so-called and not to use the offices of the Attorney General of the State, or the Federal Bureau of Investigation to secure that information.”
The answer to the second question is perhaps only another question. If the State Police had come up with damaging or embarrassing information about Mr. Johnson’s behavior in other states, at other times, would that have made it okay for Mr. Conley to fire five shotgun blasts into his home? The answer comes in the board’s final paragraph: “In view of the widespread public speculation as to the character of the Rev. Mr. Johnson, the Board feels constrained to emphasize: the issue here is not the kind of man the Rev. Mr. Johnson is; the issue here rather involved the safety of a man’s home in the State of Vermont.”
Finally to the third question: Were the adultery charges driven by racism?
Given the state of the law in 1968, there’s little doubt that the crime was committed. Two state troopers were assigned to guard the Johnson home on the night of July 21 and 22. The Reverend Johnson kept a coffee pot going in his kitchen, and told the troopers they were welcome to come in and help themselves. When Trooper Jean Lessard did so at around 5 a.m., he saw the reverend and Ms. Lawrence on a couch, having sex. The trooper reported what he’d seen to his superiors.
Should the police and the county prosecutor have brought the couple to court? There is no doubt in the author’s mind. Adultery in Vermont was a felony carrying a maximum penalty of five years in jail and a $1,000 fine, he notes. “During the 15-year period between 1953 and 1968 . . . the VSP investigated 102 cases of adultery (also called the Blanket Act) resulting in charges filed against offenders. Eighty-three instances of the felony crime resulted in convictions statewide, seven of them taking place in the Orleans Municipal Court with jurisdiction over Irasburg.”
The 15-year time span chosen by the author seems long, and a bit disingenuous. It would be good to know how many convictions there had been in, say, the prior five years. As he contemplated bringing the charges, Orleans County State’s Attorney Leonard Pearson got his best advice from Ms. Lawrence’s attorney in California. Out there, he told Pearson, the younger generation viewed that act as “more of a hobby.” The lawyer went on:
“Cautioning Pearson about the prosecution of his client, the attorney also advised him that since the matter ‘has received a large amount of publicity in the San Francisco and Monterey County press’ and was not a criminal offense in California, that others could view any actions taken against her and Johnson as ‘a Vermont political matter and of racial prejudice.’” That was advice that Mr. Pearson, sadly, decided not to take.
The Board of Inquiry found that a minister who was deeply involved in the aftermath of the shooting, the Reverend Gordon Newell of the Church of Christ, had tried to get an adultery prosecution underway, and failed. He told the Board “that for two or three years he had complained to the State’s Attorney Mr. Pearson of the adulterous act of the husband of one of the members of his congregation who was living in open cohabitation with a woman other than his wife and had borne two children through this other woman, but that State’s Attorney Pearson in his wisdom had refused to issue any warrant for this offense stating in effect that adultery was hard to prove.”
I found no reference to the reverend’s complaint in Mr. Shattuck’s book.
On August 9, Mr. Shattuck writes, State’s Attorney Pearson got a call from Lloyd T. Hayes, editor of the Newport Daily Express. The newspaper ran a travel agency as a sideline, and a man at the Newport airport had called Mr. Hayes to say that Mr. Johnson was trying to purchase air tickets to California. Mr. Shattuck writes that Mr. Hayes was “already suspicious that he and Lawrence committed adultery,” and “pressed Pearson to pursue the adultery case.” The odd thing about the story, the author notes, is that Mr. Pearson testified that at that point “he knew nothing about the case” that was brewing at the State Police barracks.
The Board of Inquiry paid a good deal of attention to the incident, and took a much dimmer view.
That same day, the board found, Mr. Hayes called Lieutenant Potvin at the St. Johnsbury barracks to warn him that Johnson might try to “flee the state.”
“He further asked Lieutenant Potvin, ‘Aren’t you going to arrest them for adultery? Why don’t you get about it?’”
Lieutenant Potvin, the board says, sent an officer that day to seek a warrant from Mr. Pearson for the arrest of the Reverend Johnson and Ms. Lawrence on charges of adultery, and the State’s Attorney complied.
The board’s report continues: “It is interesting to note that no member of the Department of Public Safety would admit that he had told Reporter Hayes that any such warrant was in the offing; neither would Mr. Hayes disclose who gave him the information, but it is very evident that the Department of Public Safety were consulting closely with Mr. Hayes and keeping him fully posted on the alleged adultery incident.”
If state police were leaking incendiary information to a reporter that would prejudice the public against the victim of the Irasburg Affair, their investigation was not fair, nor was it impartial. It was racist.
It’s too bad the author didn’t choose to include any of Mr. Hayes’ writings on the Irasburg affair. They were full of venom, and may ultimately have backfired. Mr. Shattuck notes that he “wrote a blazing editorial after (the Reverend Johnson’s) arrest for adultery on Aug. 9, entitled ‘Johnson Jottings,’ surrounding the circumstances of a Black family appearing in Irasburg that many interpreted as racist; it was one of many media efforts that police believed only made their work more difficult.”
The author continues: “According to Rev. Newell, Hayes’s opinion piece marked an important turning point in the public’s perception of the shooting event. ‘Now,’ he wrote, ‘the Irasburg Incident was changed to the Irasburg Affair. It no longer belonged to Irasburg, the State Police, the Northeast Kingdom. It was now national news, sordid, sensational, and full to the brim with racial prejudice.’”
A young associate of the Reverend Newell passed on the substance of a conversation with Lieutenant Potvin, Mr. Shattuck reports. “You know,” Potvin is quoted, “it is the epitome for a colored man to have intercourse with a white woman. You know there are some white women who think that it is great to have sex with a colored person.”
“When asked what he meant, the officer responded ‘Have you ever seen a colored man in a shower?’”
Mr. Shattuck writes that the arrests were not welcome news in the Governor’s office. “Described in the press as ‘greatly disturbed,’ (compared to journalist Stephen Terry’s description of his being ‘ballistic and turning his ire on the VSP’ convinced it was racist) about the charges against Johnson, Hoff spoke about the ‘Irasburg incident,’ avoiding any reference to an ‘affair.’ ‘I had a talk with my wife the day he was charged with adultery. It’s curious, but I can’t remember a prosecution for adultery since we arrived here.’”
Ms. Lawrence made a full confession of adultery to the state police. The Board of Enquiry objected that the transcript didn’t include a reading of her Miranda rights to remain silent. The police replied that they’d read the woman her rights before the tape recorder was turned on.
Ms. Lawrence pled no contest to adultery before Judge Lewis Springer in Newport on August 12. Without calling for the usual pre-sentence investigation, the judge accepted the plea and imposed the small fine. Ms. Lawrence left Vermont for California.
That proved to be a problem in the case against the Reverend Johnson. Ms. Lawrence, clearly a key witness, declined to return to testify. Two Vermont officials were dispatched to California to force her return. But, finding that Ms. Lawrence would suffer undue hardship if she had to leave her two small children behind, the California court refused to intercede, Mr. Shattuck writes. The police and their prosecutor gave up, and Judge Springer dismissed the case “with prejudice.”
“That’s not racial prejudice, either,” the judge added. Dismissal with prejudice is something of a judge’s rebuke to a prosecutor. It means, “Don’t think you can patch up the holes in your case and bring it back into my courtroom. This case is over.”
Steve Terry, a widely respected journalist who headed the Vermont Press Bureau at the time of the affair, contributed a forward to the book. Since I’ve already said enough nasty things about Mr. Shattuck’s book, I’ll leave the last, more tempered, word to Mr. Terry:
“For me, a surprise of this important book is that Shattuck is convinced that despite the conventional wisdom, then and now, that the actions of the state police in the 1968 Irasburg case were not based on racism, but an overworked, understaffed, and not fully trained state police force.
“While I still don’t agree with that conclusion, Shattuck’s historical research of the records of this case gives the reader evidence to challenge my and others’ conviction more than 50 years later that racism drove the actions of the state police.”
Reviewer’s confession: The final approximate third of Mr. Shattuck’s book is devoted to another crisis endured by the Vermont State Police, informally known as the router bit affair. Since our interest was in the Irasburg incident, I did not read this portion of the book, and have nothing to say about it. – C.B.