A FREEMASON AND A BURGLAR IN LADIES’ BOOTS

Signature in hat
Perhaps the “VT” under Edward A. Hart’s signature in the brim of the hat was at some point misread as “UT” – landing the hat in Panguitch, Utah.

Even by modern standards, Vermont is a world away from Utah. The two states are separated by more than 2,500 miles and a collective of cultural differences that could fill Bryce Canyon.

In 1896, those cultural chasms must have seemed even broader. Utah had just become the forty-fifth state—while Vermont had been a state since 1791. In 1896, Vermont boasted established communities led by a cultural elite of protestant and Catholic industrialists. In stark comparison, Utah was the new promised land of the upstart Church of Latter Day Saints.

But there were intriguing connections between the two states. Both Vermont and Utah were important railroad hubs—and Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, and Brigham Young, the religion’s first great leader, were both born in Vermont.

Nonetheless, we didn’t expect to find a 120-year-old Freemason’s Knights Templar hat from Vermont in a dusty antique store in Panguitch, Utah.

An interesting find in a town more atuned to vintage cowboy gear, we wondered if the hat’s history might help us unravel the shadowy secrets of Freemasonry. Or unmask the legendary dark arts and crafty incantations that transform Shriners so they can fit into those tiny cars …

Emblazoned with gold bullion embroidery and a red velvet cross, our newly acquired Knights Templar Commander’s hat seemed anxious to give up its secrets. A mark inside the hat showed it was manufactured by MC Lilley and Company of Columbus, Ohio in the 1890s. And on an inner leather band, a small cursive inscription identified the hat’s owner as “Edward A. Hart/ St. Johnsbury VT/ Palestine Commandery No.5”.

In the final decade of the nineteenth century, there were hundreds of Edward Harts in New England—and a good number of them in Vermont. After perusing mountains of newspapers, census reports, and city directories, we discovered that there was in fact, only one Edward A. Hart living in St. Johnsbury, Vermont at the dawn of the twentieth century—and he was a prominent Freemason!

Lougee & Smythe ad 1909
A newspaper ad for Lougee & Smythe department store where Luella Hart worked. Mr. Smythe, one of Edward’s fellow Freemasons, was  a pallbearer at his funeral.

The Edward A. Hart who owned our hat was born in Canada in 1860. On January 20, 1891 he married Miss Luella Barrows in Morrisville, Vermont. The couple soon moved to nearby St. Johnsbury, settling into a home on Railroad Street, a fitting address for a man who worked on the St. Johnsbury & Lake Champlain Railroad.

For the first decade of their marriage, the Harts lived quietly, their names rarely appearing in town records or newspapers, but in November of 1903 the St. Johnsbury Caledonian reported that Luella had traveled to Boston for three weeks. Finally—a lead!

But alas—it was just a vacation. In the early 1900s, before telephones and the interwebz, the society column helped folks keep track of their friends and neighbors—much like a turn-of-the–century Facebook status. Interesting, but vacation updates weren’t getting us any closer to unraveling Masonic secrets.

That same year, however, the Harts popped up in the papers for something a bit more intriguing. In May 1903, their house was burglarized. Could the burglar have been searching for Freemason texts, ritual handbooks, or top-secret documents?

Perhaps, but all he got was Edward’s coat, a photograph of a young lady, two silver vases, and a gold bon bon dish. For more than a week, the burglar vanished into thin air, along with Luella and Edward’s possessions.

Until the evening of May 12.

On May 12, 1903, in nearby St. Albans, a burglar broke into the home of T. A. Summerskill, superintendent of the Central Vermont Railway. The break-in woke Summerskill, and after bumbling down the stairs to investigate, he unsuccessfully confronted the burglar. According to the Bennington Banner, seeing that the burglar was getting away, Summerskill, “called lustily for assistance and his cries were heard by Colonel A. Hall, one of the leading attorneys in Vermont.”

This is where it gets a little crazy. Col. Hall, hearing Summerskill’s “lusty cries”, implored his son Harry to check on their neighbor. Harry grabbed his trusty revolver and rushed to Summerskill’s aid—but in the darkness, Summerskill mistook young Harry for the burglar and attacked him with a club. Fearing for his life, Harry fired his revolver and shot Summerskill.

And of course by this time, the burglar was nowhere to be found.

Early the next morning, according to eyewitnesses, a suspicious fellow boarded a streetcar in St. Albans, rode to the nearby bay, disembarked, immediately re-boarded, then rode back to St. Albans, getting off near Holy Angels Church. Eyewitnesses claimed the man appeared respectable, except for one oddity. He was wearing a pair of ladies’ boots! After he got off the streetcar in front of the church, he hobbled over to Deshene’s Shoe Store, bought a cheap pair of men’s shoes (size 7 if you’re interested), and explained to Mr. Deshene that he had lost his shoes in the lake earlier that morning.

Suspicious? Well that’s what Deshene thought. Deshene reported the incident to Sheriff Kelley and efforts to capture the Summerskill burglar were doubled. When he was finally arrested, the accused burglar claimed he was Albert Rodier of Montreal, an innocent traveler en route to Burlington—and that he had no idea why he was being arrested—or accused of wearing ladies’ boots!

At a time when crime photography and mug shots were not the norm, Sheriff Kelley made the uber-modern decision to photograph Albert Rodier, despite his “strenuous objections.” The Barre Daily Times later reported that the photograph allowed authorities in Canada to identify “Rodier” as Herman Voyer, a convicted felon on leave from a prison in Montreal.

But was this new-fangled technology enough to prove that Rodier was actually Voyer—and did it prove he was a burglar?

Enter Edward A. Hart! According to the Barre Daily Times, Edward, “a brakeman employed on the St. J & L.C. railroad appeared at the jail, examined the [accused’s] coat and recognized it at once as his.” Edward’s testimony, combined with the photo ID, was enough to prove that Rodier was really Voyer—and that he was most likely the perpetrator of both burglaries. Voyer went back to prison, Summerskill recovered, and Edward Hart returned to St. Johnsbury—presumably with his reclaimed coat, but still, no mention of a Masonic hat.

Old-railroad-pass
Throughout his railroad career with the         St. Johnsbury and Lake Champlain Railroad, Edward served as a brakeman, a conductor, and an engineer. He would have seen many passes like this example from the early twentieth century.

In the years following 1903, we hear very little of Edward or Luella. Edward continued working for the railroad and Luella worked at the Lougee & Smythe Dry Goods Store. We imagine that on special occasions, Edward wore his Knights Templar hat at the St. Jonhsbury Masonic Temple, where he was an active Freemason. In fact, Freemasonry was a family affair for the Harts. Not only was Luella Hart a member of the ladies’ organization associated with the Freemasons, the Mystic Star chapter of the Order of the Eastern Star, she also served as “worthy matron” from 1907 to 1908.

Yet still, Edward and Luella seemed to lead quiet, inconspicuous lives, their names only appearing in the newspapers when they went on vacation, visited friends, or when their house was broken into.

Or when they died.

In 1915, Luella fell ill. Her sister, Mrs. Frank Reynolds of Cambridge, came to stay with the Harts to care for her—again, a story that would never merit press coverage by today’s standards. Sadly, despite Mrs. Reynolds’ diligent care—Luella passed away in January 1916.

In the year following Luella’s death, Edward’s health degraded, he went deaf, and he could no longer perform strenuous railroad work. Instead, he took a position at the Fairbanks factory.

In the winter of 1917, Edward was walking home from the factory when he collapsed in the snow. His body was later found in the field “through which he had been in the habit of taking a shortcut.” Newspapers reported that Edward had been “about 55 years old.” According to the Journal of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, Edward’s fellow Freemasons and Knights Templar from Passumpsic Lodge, No.27 arranged his funeral and served as escorts and pallbearers. He was survived by his parents, who lived in Boston, and his sister, Miss Riley Batchelder of Burlington.

Luella and Edward never had children.

Despite the fact that Edward’s only brush with intrigue—the burglar escapades—unfolded more like a Scooby Doo mystery than the sinister machinations of a secret society—we think it’s fair to assume that Edward’s status as a prominent Mason would have, at the very least, afforded him many friends. When St. Johnsbury’s “new” Masonic Temple was built in 1912, five years before Edward’s death, it was the largest Masonic building in all of Vermont, serving more than 700 members.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
This memorial, featuring the symbolism of both the Freemason and the Order of the Eastern Star, is located in the St. Johnsbury  cemetery that is also home to Luella and Edward’s graves.

Today, there are fewer than twenty Freemasons in St. Johnsbury. The railroadstill passes through, but the town is a far cry from a hub. The Fairbanks’ legacy persists in the guise of the families’ philanthropic support of St. Johnsbury Academy, the town’s historic athenaeum, and the Fairbanks Museum.

And you can still find Edward and Luella in St. Johnsbury. Though it’s unlikely that many people search them out, Edward and Luella’s graves are clearly marked in Mt. Pleasant Cemetery. Someday we hope to visit them—but we won’t be returning Edward’s hat. Instead, we prefer to give the hat a good home and share Edward, Luella, Summerskill, and Herman Voyer’s stories each time a visitor asks about “that weird hat with a cross on it.”

UPDATE: This story was originally published in April 2016. In August 2018, the author found herself unexpectedly driving through Vermont when she saw a sign for St. Johnsbury. So she  made a stop to visit Edward and Luella Hart.

Not only did she and her friends find Mt. Pleasant Cemetery, they also located Edward and Luella’s graves with no map or numbering to help them. They left a small rock on the Harts’ gravestone then walked through town to the Masonic Lodge on Eastern Avenue that Edward helped to build. When it opened in 1912, it was the largest Masonic Temple in all of New England. Today the building is still home to Passumpsic Lodge No. 27, but it is also home to Catamount Arts, a vibrant arts and cultural center that serves the community.

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Author: Occulta Thesauri

We acquire weird, interesting, and seemingly mundane objects that tell the stories of life, death, and everything in between.

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