Frank was a deadbeat dad. Charles was homeless. Rufus was a horse thief. E.S. was black. The other Charles was French. And A.R. was Chinese.
What could these men have in common? The answer is lying along the Rutland Creek Path.
In February of this year, Tom Giffin, Rutland City’s cemetery commissioner approached Stafford Technical Center construction technology instructor Jeff Fowler asking him if his students would be interested in making a sign to commemorate a neglected burial site situated on the bank of East Creek. Earlier, Giffin had been asked about the site by Paul Gallo, chair of Rutland’s Creative Economy, the group responsible for the Creek Path.
The Rutland Creek Path is a project of the Recreation Committee of Creative Economy. The proposed five-segment, two-mile pedestrian/bike path, spanning Rutland City from Giorgetti Park to the College of St. Joseph, would run along the East and Otter creeks. The first segment, which was completed late last year, runs from Earl Street (a short dead-end road off of Crescent Street), behind Northwest Primary School and ends at State Street.
It also passes directly below the (well-barricaded) correctional center.
Thus, our story.
If you are driving on Pierpoint Avenue along the correctional center, you will notice one section of an old brick wall that includes the frame of a large door. This is all that remains of the original House of Correction, built in 1878. Closing its doors in 1919, it could house up to 72 prisoners, including seven women. In the period from 1878 to 1900, it was recorded that 6,118 offenders were admitted to the facility.
However, “offenders” is the operative word here. This was no maximum-security prison. According to a document from the Rutland Historical Society, admissions at this facility were divided into four categories: tramping, intoxication, selling liquor and all other offenses. Under this latter category came such transgressions as selling matches without a stamp, killing cows, cursing, intent to become a pauper or riding a bicycle on the sidewalk.
Originally planned to function as a “workhouse,” prior to construction it was reclassified as a House of Correction where “discipline was the order of the day with special care given to cleanliness, clean and wholesome food and moral instruction.” After a typhoid outbreak in 1891, sanitary conditions were improved.
A hospital building was constructed and a full-time physician and chaplain were hired.
If a prisoner died while incarcerated, the body would be released to the family. However, some bodies were never claimed and the responsibility of providing a decent burial fell to the corrections department. Between 1899 and 1908, the corner of what is now Northwest School’s playground became the final resting place of at least 11 prisoners. Thanks to Margaret R. Jenks, who retrieved and compiled archives from the Rutland Herald, we know the partial stories of eight of them.
“A colored inmate of the workhouse,” 41 from Texas, died suddenly on Sept. 8, 1899, from “intestinal hemorrhage.” Admitted for tramping (homelessness) and assault of a fellow prisoner in Burlington, he was buried in the “lot recently set apart for a prison burial ground.”
Charles Defose (a.k.a. Charles LaGrange)
Born in France and arrested for tramping, he died after a week inside on Oct. 8, 1900, from “congestion of the brain.” He was 59 and unmarried.
A 36-year-old man from China died on June 17, 1901, from consumption and cancer.
A tramp, who was serving a one-year sentence for assault in St. Albans, died on April 18, 1902, from pneumonia at age 38.
Arrested in Bennington for “non-support of his family,” died from a brain tumor at age 43 on May 30, 1903. He was a laborer and was born in Italy.
Rufus Charles Young
“One of the most notorious horse thieves ever known in this state,” died in prison at age 66 from injuries after his partner in crime crushed him when they both fell from a stolen horse-rig in Arlington on July 14, 1903.
Unmarried and living in Townshend, Hazelton was arrested in Brattleboro for intoxication. He was 51 when he died on Jan. 12, 1904, from heart failure.
A Canadian, arrested for “breach of peace” at the Sheldon Poor Farm, was 64 (or 80 according to the death record) when he died on Jan. 18, 1907 from “senility and hepatic cirrhosis.”
An “eccentric” who “would not allow anyone to question him about his past,” and who had “tramped for many years throughout Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine and New York,” was arrested in Pawlet and died from “senile debility” on Nov. 19, 1908, at age 80 or 85 after several months at the prison.
The gravestones for these men are marked only by numbers, except one: Rufus Charles Young. His is marked with his initials. His story is fascinating, and immediately raises questions for me. Why was this “hardened criminal” imprisoned in the low-key Rutland House of Corrections? I can only guess it was because his injuries needed to be seen to quickly. Rutland’s prison would have been the closest facility with a hospital on-site.
But most intriguing for me is the Chinese mystery man, A.R. Dong. The Historical Society has evidence that there was a “Chinese presence” in Rutland from the 1880s on (including the Yee family, who originally owned what is now the New Kong Fusion restaurant on Center Street.) Is it possible that A.R. Dong was somehow associated with them; or Sam Lung’s laundry situated on Center Street; or the owners of the second Chinese laundry that was in town by 1910? If so, did they not want to be associated with a “criminal” and thus the state burial? Or was he just passing through?
“It is fascinating that so many nationalities were buried at this cemetery,” says Giffin, who in addition to his city position is president of the Vermont Old Cemetery Association. One has to wonder, what brought them to Vermont? According to the Rutland Historical Society, during this particular time period when many Vermonters were headed out West, immigrants arrived to take up vacant jobs. It is probable some came here to work in the marble, slate and railroad industries and fell into trouble along the way.
Giffin believes that just because they were poor or died in jail doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be remembered and shown some reverence in death. “All communities need to know their history, warts and all — everyone deserves to be remembered.”
So, when the overgrown cemetery piqued the interest of the bike path supporters, Giffin felt there should be a memorial of some sort. According to Giffin, his father, Cliff, did most of the leg-work of coordinating with Fowler — a self-proclaimed history buff — on the Stafford school project. Fowler felt that this was a perfect task for his students to learn some local history and share their skills with the community for a good cause.
Apparently, the kids were amazed there was so much to learn about “old people.” Upon learning one man was imprisoned for “non-support,” i.e. a dead-beat dad, one student quipped “they should do that more often.”
In process of this project, Fowler said his students learned much more than history. They designed the best layout and when the initial plans didn’t work, they problem-solved their way through. From design to the challenging painting of the letters — finally designating two students with the surest hands to do the final touch ups — Fowler says they “learned through many mistakes.”
At the site, they cleared brush and even fixed the gate. Relieved when it was finally done, Fowler says, the students felt proud of their work — as they should, it is beautifully done.
“And I’m proud of my students,” Fowler says. “They were an excellent group at giving back — they shined.”
Why was commemorating this 100-year-old criminal burial site important? “I think how a cemetery is remembered and maintained says much about society and the local community,” says Giffin.
Gallo agrees: “Cemeteries are history, and for many families a starting point for researching family genealogy … They all deserve perpetual care.”
“People die,” Fowler says. “It’s a fact of life. We have to acknowledge our history. It’s part of us.”
For more information on the men who are buried at the House of Corrections site, including the exploits of Rufus Charles Young, visit findagrave.com and search for “House of Correction Cemetery.” For information on the Rutland Creek Path, visit rutlandcreekpath.com.
Originally published June 5, 2013, Rutland Reader | (c) Joanna Tebbs Young