Rum, Murder and Arson: South Berwick’s Struggles of 1845-1855
An aerial view of the area.
On August 26, 1854, a summer Saturday, two penniless young men crossed the Salmon Falls River bridge into South Berwick from New Hampshire by the cotton mill and its Counting House at Quamphegan Landing. It was around noon, and they were drunk.
They climbed the dusty road among the factory boarding houses and the train depot. They passed three churches – Methodist Episcopal, Baptist and Congregational -- and turned down Academy Street. Near Berwick Academy they climbed the slope known as Powder House Hill or Butler’s Hill, and disappeared into some woods behind the home of Judge William Allen Hayes.
Some time later that afternoon, only one of the two young drunken men came back down. His name was William B. Smith, and he returned to the factory boarding house where he’d been staying with his wife down at the Landing. The couple had just come to town at the end of the week and inquired about working at the mill. But they were transients. They weren’t really married. And at the end of that hot August weekend, on the first train out of town Monday morning, they left South Berwick, heading west.
Almost a month later, as fall arrived up on the hill, 21-year-old Nathaniel Wadleigh, whose uncle owned the farm beyond , came upon a decomposed body, clothed only in a shirt and lying near a marsh back of Hayes’ woods. A search of the area produced a hat and vest, and a carpenter’s punch, wood screws and lead pencil. Three physicians examined the remains.
“The bushes were broken and bent over the body so as partly [to] conceal the situation,” said one of their reports of the scene . “On the left side of the head the skull was broken in-- I should think nearly one third of its size. ... It appeared as if he had been struck with a club, rock or something of that sort.”
During the factory era, New England towns had their share of petty theft, simple assaults and intoxication. This apparent murder, though, would have been an extraordinary emergency for South Berwick. No record fully describes the criminal investigation, but one can picture dozens of South Berwick residents that September day, climbing the slopes -- then covered with farms and pastures -- and converging on the marsh in an outpouring of intense concern. It seems one of the first things someone did was try to rectify some of the horror by washing the poor murder victim’s shirt, thus, by modern standards, compromising the evidence.
But there were experts of sorts. The physician just quoted was Dr. Theodore H. Jewett, living at the corner in the village. Dr. Jewett’s five-year-old daughter would become author Sarah Orne Jewett, who later wrote about the country practice of her Berwick Academy and Bowdoin-educated father . In 1854, the family was building the home next to the Jewett House that now contains the visitor center of Historic New England.
Two other village doctors joined the murder inquiry. One lived in a house that still stands on Main Street . “Dr. Caleb Sanborn,” wrote a contemporary account, “was of the botanic fraternity and had quite a good practice, especially among the ladies and children... ” Dr. Charles Trafton, who lived near the Landing, “... manufactured a most excellent medicine for all the diseases that mortal man ever dreamed. It was called Trafton's Buckthorne Syrup. He had an extensive practice and was admired by the South Berwick people for his sterling qualities.”
Along with these doctors, their neighbor, innkeeper Josiah Paul, whose hotel, formerly the Frost Tavern, still stands downtown at the corner of Main and Paul Streets, doubled as coroner for the occasion.
The state prosecutor for South Berwick was 30-year-old John Noble Goodwin, Esq. (pictured, at left), a North Berwick native who also lived on Main Street in the village, and whose office mid-century seems to have been in the building known as the Odd fellows’ Block . A graduate of Berwick Academy and Dartmouth, Goodwin was about to be elected to the state senate, and later he would represent Maine in Congress as a Republican during the first years of the Civil War. When Goodwin lost his reelection bid, Lincoln appointed him, in 1863, the first territorial governor of Arizona, where he is still remembered today, and his log cabin preserved.
These were some of the leading citizens who led the investigation of the murder on the hill in September 1854. The immediate question was, who was the victim? Nobody knew this dead young man. Except for a few clothes, his only identifying feature was a scar on the right foot.
Though the investigators were pillars of the community and well known to all, in the mid-1800s, South Berwick teemed with strangers. Back in 1820 it had been different ; the town’s population had been less than 1500 people living in about 250 households-- mostly farms, with interconnected networks of extended families, some with roots going back more than a century. But about 1830 all that changed with the construction of the cotton textile factory at the Landing, the Portsmouth Manufacturing Company, powered by the 275-foot-long dam at Quamphegan Falls.
Now, processing 1300 bales annually of cotton from the southern plantations carried upriver by gundalow, hundreds of mill hands toiled at 7000 spindles producing two million yards of cotton sheeting per year. Meanwhile across the river in Rollinsford, New Hampshire, the Salmon Falls Manufacturing Company was a facility of even greater capacity. Both these industrial enterprises strode across the local landscape, funded by capital from Portsmouth, Boston and beyond, and churning the social environment.
By 1850 the spread of the railroads facilitated not only the transport of raw materials and finished products to these mills, but also the comings and goings of a large work force of wage earners, many of them young and single. These mid-19th century laborers preceded the Irish and French Canadian immigrants later associated with the factories. The young, mid-century New Englanders were farm-raised, unused to strangers and town life.
Yet in they flooded, drawn by the promise of wages, signing on as mill hands at the dawning of a new age. It is hard today to grasp the enormity of the industrial transformation upon small rural communities of northern New England.
The chronicler Annie Wentworth Baer of Rollinsford, writing in 1914 in one of her local history essays, described a grueling factory routine that reminds us of the Pacific rim sweatshops today. “The operatives began work at five o’clock in the morning, in summer; worked two hours, and then went out [home] to breakfast; returned shortly; and worked until noon. They had a half hour for dinner, and came out at seven o’clock at night. In the winter, they had their breakfast and went to work at half past six; the same half hour at noon, and worked until seven-thirty at night.”
Boarding houses sprang up to feed and shelter these young strangers toiling long hours. Many of these dwellings still stand on Main Street near the Landing today.
“Some old settlers reduced in means consented to take boarders,” wrote Annie Baer 50 years later. “The Primes had several...Mrs. Rebecca Abbott cared for her numerous boys and girls with now and then a stranger at her board,” she wrote. “Mrs. Eliza Dorr, left a widow with a family, spread her table larger, and took strangers in, with her own. Mrs. Col. Meserve, who had many daughters, increased the family purse by providing bed and board for out-of-town girls.”
The wife of mill hand Abner Boston kept another boarding house “in the west end of the McGooch house,” wrote Annie Baer . The McGooch house is thought to have been a dwelling of an earlier settler by the falls near the present-day intersection of Main and Liberty Streets, not far from the Counting House. Baer said the house was associated with the Portsmouth Company dormitory that became known as the Hash House in the last 1800s.
After the body of the young stranger was found in Hayes’ woods on Powder House Hill, John Noble Goodwin’s forces of law and order would have turned to the shifting world of boarders at the Landing. Soon they came to Mrs. Boston, and she remembered that the month before, on the weekend of August 24, 1854 through the morning of the 28th, a stranger named William B. Smith had boarded, along with a woman he said was his wife, after they’d applied for work the mill on Friday.
It was not Smith’s first visit. A native of northern Vermont , he’d come through South Berwick several times over the previous five or six years, sometimes selling medicinal recipes for the feet . In those days of stiff leather shoes and long walks, when people were plagued by a horny thickening of the skin resulting from pressure or friction, they’d find a “corn doctor” to sell them a bottle of his tried and true potion. Corn doctor William Smith was not a social equal of Drs. Jewett, Sanborn and Trafton, of course. But people supposed he made some kind of a living.
On Friday night, August 25, Mrs. Boston remembered that corn doctor William Smith had gone out drinking, returning around midnight.
“Two women who boarded there were up at the time,” tells a newspaper account , “and one of them admitted him. He came into the entry and called for a light, which was given him. He took it alone into the kitchen and remained there a short time, and was then heard to go out into the back yard,” where, the account went on, “he had a man drunk out in Mrs. Boston’s shed...He was a friend of his so intoxicated that he durst not take him into the house.”
Smith and his friend had been imbibing, it seems, over in New Hampshire, at an establishment owned by a Samuel Dixon and “somewhat notorious in the annals of crime in this vicinity, near Salmon Falls”
As word spread around town after the murder, South Berwick citizens would have felt a chill of fear with the mention of drinking establishments. In many ways, the preceding five years had been among the darkest that South Berwick had known since early settlement days. First the winter of 1848-49 had witnessed outbreaks of smallpox and consumption that took many lives, particularly among the mill hands working and living in close quarters. During the winter of 1850-51, hard economic times forced the Portsmouth Company cotton mill to close. Many mill employees at the Landing spent months out of work. Capping it all, each of those hard winters had been accompanied by an outbreak of violence related to a political controversy then sweeping the state – alcohol prohibition.
Calling for abstinence from drink were the local churches, and it was a loud call. Like many Maine towns, South Berwick had felt for decades the power of the early 19th century evangelicalism that paralleled the rise of industrialization. The town had been the site of the first Baptist Church in Maine, in 1768 on today’s Hooper Sands Road , and for years afterward farm folk from the region round came to be immersed in local ponds by now-legendary preachers. Throughout the early 1800s, meetinghouses of various Protestant denominations had sprung up all over South Berwick village.
Church lectures and services became vital not only to families but also the lonely young mill workers far from home. The South Berwick Methodists, who in 1838 had built a meetinghouse at Main and Park Streets a few doors from the cotton mill, were such a friendly congregation . In July 1848 they hosted a gathering of area Sabbath schools that merited a write-up in the newspaper Sabbath School Messenger published in Boston, with a report of a “Pic Nic at South Berwick,” apparently along the nearby Salmon Falls River.
But churches did more than host picnics. A source of clarity during a time of social upheaval, religious leaders urged uprooted and disheartened parishioners to concentrate their attention on moral virtues.
“By 1820, changes in religious attitudes in New England led to a widespread era of reform,” reads an account on the period by Maine Historical Society . “Protestants came to believe that it was possible for anyone to achieve perfection in their lives and reach heaven. They set to work reforming themselves and their communities. Abolition of slavery, the fight for women's suffrage, and efforts to care for those less fortunate are all rooted in this era. Women like Maine's own Dorothea Dix took an active role leading these movements.”
Slavery, of course, made possible South Berwick’s cotton textile industry. Yet some ministers denounced it. At the Free Will Baptist Church, built in 1837 on Main at Butler Street, Rev. John Chaney is said to have presented the state’s first antislavery resolution.
Chaney also organized one of Maine’s first temperance societies, and in South Berwick the fight against alcohol drew even more ardent feelings than the cause of abolition. With all these young, single mill workers away from home, their parents and neighbors were more than dismayed at demon rum. They were alarmed. Throughout the United States, substance abuse was rampant, and it had been a longstanding social problem. In the 1820s, the abundance of corn whiskey due to improvements in agriculture led to an average consumption rate of half a pint per day per man, or five gallons a year. The rate today is less than one gallon.
A published account from 1829 shows these “Astonishing Facts” from Dover, New Hampshire: “Of 975 voters, whose names were on the check list, 108 were drunkards, and 204 others were moderate drinkers ... Nearly one hundred men in that town have been slain in the prime of life by strong drink within 20 years...Seventy two widows out of 116 were reduced to widowhood by intemperance...Of 295 orphans, 199...were made such by the same means.”
Frightened South Berwick residents attending church would have heard ministers address the scourge. Drink causes crime—violent crime. To the woes of the period – disease, economic hardship, social disintegration – was added the threat of physical danger at the hands of drunks.
“The infuriated drunkard is at once prepared to commit the most atrocious enormities,” preached Reuben Buck M.D., in Alfred in a typical 1831 sermon. “Reason is dethroned, all the tender affections of the soul are quenched, shame has lost its blush.” Dr. Buck cited “the Twenty Thousand convicts from our penitentiaries, the cells and dungeons of our prisons. These, shackled and hand-cuffed, and in their parti-colored dress, tell you that through strong drink they erred, that through strong drink, they were instigated to the commissions of the various crimes for which they now suffer.”
Ministers had one answer: prohibition. In mill towns like South Berwick, all the churches preached against hard spirits. The cure they prescribed was total abstinence, and most church members, desperate and afraid, pledged to it.
“We believe that the practice of drinking ardent spirit, together with the excessive use of any kind of intoxicating drinks, is destructive to morals and a powerful barrier to the benign influences of the spirit of God,” states the “Declaration of Faith,” published in 1856, of the South Berwick First Baptist Church, “and especially as the church is set as a light to the world, that it is inconsistent with the moral character, and highly prejudicial to the usefulness of a Christian to be seen at public places drinking spirit or wines; and, that the habit of drinking spirit, either publicly or privately, excepting what is necessary for strict medicinal purposes, is a hindrance to a personal piety and a progress in the divine life; and that, therefore, it is our duty as members of the church of Christ... to abstain entirely from the use and traffic of spiritous liquors with the above exceptions.”
The call for temperance spread far beyond the pulpit; by the 1840s, a statewide political movement was sweeping Maine. Neal Dow of Portland founded the Maine Temperance Union and became mayor on an anti-alcohol platform urging Maine to pass the first prohibition law in the United States. The 1851 “Maine Law” restricted the use of spirits to “medicinal, mechanical and manufacturing purposes.” A state agency furnished liquors to local authorities, who in turn were to enforce the Maine Law locally. By 1855, many other states had followed Maine into “temperance.”
The South Berwick of the late 1840s was in the thick of this movement. The big Methodist picnic here in 1848 undoubtedly drew the attention of Methodists in Boston because the Maine Law neared passage in the Maine legislature. Meanwhile, though, the local economy was shrinking, mill workers were getting laid off and smallpox swept the community. As temperance advocates cried for rum selling shops to be abolished, local rum sellers bristled.
Down at the Landing, a few doors from the factory and not far from Mrs. Boston’s boarding house, Benjamin Stillings in 1848 supported his family by selling spirits in the basement of his little house on Pleasant Street, a block from the Methodist church . And, he surely thought, why shouldn’t he? The Stillings family themselves were Methodists. South Berwick merchants, including leading citizens, had sold rum at the Landing for over a hundred years. Dr. Trafton, a Pleasant Street neighbor, did his brisk trade in alcohol-laced Trafton’s Buckthorn Syrup. If prohibition passed, Dr. Trafton could keep producing his syrup, but Benjamin Stillings would face prosecution for selling rum in his basement shop. Already he was surely under pressure from the prohibitionists all around his neighborhood who wanted to drive him out. He apparently decided to fight back.
On a Sabbath morning in mid-March, 1849, at the close of the smallpox winter of 1848-49, Rev. John Lord -- whose grandfather, West Indies merchant Gen. John Lord, ironically had been one of the earliest rum importers at the Landing in the 1700s -- preached prohibition at the Methodist meetinghouse at Main and Park Streets. Afterward, a few doors away, Stillings served two of his customers, Isaac C. Pray and John Wilkinson, in his basement shop. Both men were marginally employed or unemployed alcoholics . Stillings, the two later alleged, filled them with drink and engaged them to burn down Lord’s church.
“I went down to Mr Stillings shop about dark,” recalled Pray, who also admitted he had been drinking heavily that day at the Rollinsford, New Hampshire, establishment of Samuel Dixon that would be connected to the murder case of a few years later. “I saw Mr. Wilkinson there He and I were talking together near the well Mr Stillings came along and said he had a job he wanted us to do I asked him what it was He said he wanted the Methodist Meeting house put out of the way We told him we dint want any to do with it He is (sic) said we should be paid for it we should halve 25 dollars at least He asked us to go into the shop and have something to drink – We went in and drank He said it must be done and should be done and we were the fellows that could do it.
“After some talk we consented to do it Stillings went out and got some dry pine and whittled up a lot of it and tied up a bundle of it in Wilkinson’s handkerchief After talking about getting into the [meeting] house we concluded to get in at the front door He went out and got a bit & fetched into the shop and sharpened it- and told us to take it and go to the M house & bore the panel off at the top and bottom & take a jackknife & cut out the sides We took it & went up I stood in the road & Mr. Wilkinson bored out the panel & W went in & unbolted the door. We went in to put the shavings near the alter set them on fire & went back to Stillings house.
“The shavings made a brisk light at first but soon deadened down and did not show ... He said he wanted us to go back and do it as it ought to be done. ... He gave each of us a club (I had an ax handle) & (said) if anyone came near us to split their brains out. We went back & Wilk went into the house he said he guessed it was a fire for he smelt the smoke We went back to Stillings shop There was an alarm of fire & etc bells were rung & Wilk & Still went back up to the fire I stayed there (?) till they come back & said the meeting house was all burn up ...”
That was March 15, 1849, and it was just the beginning of a series of strikes Stillings allegedly orchestrated over three years against the South Berwick legal and religious establishment. On March 18, the Free Will Baptist meetinghouse exploded when a ten-pound keg of powder detonated on the steps. Someone later set fire to a railroad bridge, and then at least two barns burned, including one across Park Street from the Methodist church. Nonetheless, the Maine Law advanced statewide, as a bill requiring licensing alcohol at cattle shows passed the legislature in 1849 . And the South Berwick churches rebuilt.
The year 1850-51 was South Berwick’s second bad winter of that period, with more factory closures and layoffs . But the Maine temperance movement had gained in strength, Neal Dow was now mayor of Portland, and by summer 1851 the Maine Law, the first law in the United States outlawing the sale of liquor except for “medicinal, mechanical and manufacturing purposes,” was on the verge of passing the legislature. Benjamin Stillings apparently went wild. Pro-temperance neighbors complained that he was menacing them, firing his gun off in the street on a hot night.
On August 5, 1851, arsonists struck the Hayes House, the Academy Street mansion not far from the marsh where the murder took place three years later. William Allen Hayes, probate judge and Berwick Academy’s president , had died in April , and the ownership of his vacant house passed to his son, railroad executive Francis Brown Hayes, perhaps a potent symbol of power . Two nights later the old Powder House on the hill was burned. Three weeks after that, someone burned down a storehouse at the cotton mill, and the following night, August 28, 1851, Berwick Academy itself, then the only high school and containing the local library , was completely destroyed by fire.
Late in August, South Berwick established a 140-man fire watch. Each night, twenty men were on duty walking town roads, checking barns, looking for a hint of smoke or a silhouette in the shadows. Among the volunteers on watch was Benjamin Stillings.
But prosecutor John Noble Goodwin was tightening his snare, putting pressure on Salmon Falls rum seller Samuel Dixon, who was suspected of torching a barn. The location of Dixon’s establishment is not presently known; in 1848 he may have been a Berwick resident , and his precise role in the arson attacks is now unclear, but his tavern’s location, if moved to New Hampshire, would have exempted him from the Maine temperance laws and thus put his business in a position to dominate that of Stillings. Apparently Dixon fingered arsonists Pray and Wilkinson, and another chum named Andrew Joy, in the South Berwick arson. The latter three pleaded guilty and turned state’s evidence against Stillings, as the ringleader.
With those four arrested, the arson attacks came to a halt in September 1851, as the Maine Law passed the legislature and the state of Maine went dry. But Stillings was well off enough – and perhaps well enough connected to others fighting prohibition -- to make the $1500 bail and hire a team of lawyers out of Saco . He spent the winter of 1851-52 frustrating prosecutor Goodwin and the courts.
Unlike the more affluent rum seller, defendants Wilkinson, Pray and Joy could not even get lawyers. But Stillings himself spent little time in jail. He allegedly first attempted to have his co-defendants murdered to prevent their testifying against him. One of the “keepers” who arrested all four arsonists and took them to jail, testified, “I came to Alfred with Stillings The morning before I left we were all at the jail Stillings told me if he could get rid of Wilkinson he should not be afraid to come to trial... that he had a 1000 [dollars] & would give it to ... any one who would get Wilkinson out of the way that Wilkinson was a cursed scoundrel & ought to be shot that it could be easily done through the jail window ...”
The 1803 house in which the York County jail was contained still stands today in the village of Alfred . The jail comprised two stories in the rear, each floor space measuring about 24 by 54 feet. When it became the county jail in 1820, the entire prison section was encased with timbers that in turn were drilled through and laced with hand-wrought iron bars. Here the arsonists were held throughout the trial of their supposed ringleader in 1851 and 1852, while Stillings, free on bail, took advantage of lax jail conditions to allegedly bribe them to instead frame the Rollinsford rum seller, Samuel Dixon.
“While I was in jail,“ Pray said later “there were letters passed between Wilkinson & Joy & Stillings. Stillings wanted Wilkinson & I to alter our story which we told at South Berwick ... The letters were passed through a hole between Stillings’s cell & mine & I passed them to Joy & Wilkinson ... Stillings wanted them to tell a different story & he would give them any sum of money that he would employ any counsel they wanted & that he would spend the last cent of property he had before they should be sent to Thomaston... Stillings said that they could not be put into prison for a great while & he would spend every cent of property he had to get them clear”
The wives of the co-defendants testified that they witnessed bribes. One said she had smuggled into jail tools Stillings had given her for the arsonists to escape.
The three low-level arsonists nonetheless provided incriminating testimony against him in court. There must have been no shortage of South Berwick temperance advocates happy about that, wanting to see Stillings behind bars, guilty or not. However, he still beat the rap in the Alfred courtroom. His attorneys lined up a string of witnesses who impugned the veracity of the alcoholic arsonists. His family convinced judge and jury that on the nights the fires burned in South Berwick, he had been in bed. Historian Annie Wentworth Baer wrote years later that of the three underlings in the case, “one fled, under bail; one turned State evidence; and another came near dying in Alfred jail, from consumption…By the skill of lawyers,” she said, “the instigator of these crimes escaped punishment.” Perhaps, in retrospect, some jurors seated in Alfred had tired of prohibition, or were sympathetic to those who favored drink.
Maine stayed dry though for over 70 years, and in South Berwick, Stillings’ rum selling days were over. By summer 1854, Dixon’s drinking establishment in New Hampshire now apparently reigned as the factory district’s chief watering hole. South Berwick residents had reason to hope that calm had returned on their side of the river—until, suddenly, the dead body of a young stranger was found on Powder House Hill.
We presently have no record of exactly how the criminal evidence in the murder case came together . But apparently the ever-persistent prosecutor, John Noble Goodwin, conducted interrogations not only at the boarding houses but also at some New Hampshire liquor establishments and learned more about the corn doctor, William B. Smith.
It seems that on the weekend of August 25, 1854, Smith had shown up with another young transient, a 26-year-old carpenter named Charles F. Brewster, at a tavern in Somersworth, New Hampshire, then called Great Falls. Brewster had been on a drinking binge of several days, and at one point offered his money freely and showed off a $5 gold piece, attracting some attention around the bar. Smith had Brewster join him at Dixon’s in Salmon Falls, and then spend the night in Mrs. Boston’s shed near the mill in South Berwick.
The next morning, Saturday, they went back to Dixon’s tavern, returning to South Berwick around noon. Witnesses remembered the two passed by the factory and through the Main Street mill housing, going up the hill. Brewster hadn’t been seen alive since, but at the time, nobody noticed. Who kept track of young drifters in a mill town?
On Monday, Smith and his female companion left South Berwick on the first train. And so they might have disappeared entirely. But when they got to central New Hampshire, Smith swindled another victim out of $20 and his valuables, and exchanged the murder victim’s pants and boots, while inadvertently leaving an indication of his destination, his home in northern Vermont. After Brewster’s body was found a month later, Smith was arrested; even back in 1854, law enforcement authorities apparently communicated well enough so that, this time, prosecutor John Noble Goodwin got his man. The motive for murder was robbery. At Mrs. Boston’s boarding house in South Berwick, it was remembered that Smith had been seen that weekend with a $5 gold piece, a pair of boots and a pair of pants.
On November 7, 1854, about six weeks after the body’s discovery, William B. Smith was brought to preliminary trial in South Berwick for the murder of Charles F. Brewster. Goodwin and another attorney conducted the prosecution. H. H. Hobbs , another South Berwick attorney, defended Smith. The examination, preliminary to a jury trial, was held before a young lawyer new to town, 34-year-old Justice Abner Oakes.
A newspaper account reads as follows :
“The Court for the preliminary trail of William B. Smith for the murder of Charles F. Brewster met according to appointment, at Central Hall, at 10 o’clock A.M.”
“ The court room was filled to overflowing with eager listeners. Many were doubtless drawn thither to get a sight of the man who could be thought guilty of so outrageous a crime against his fellow man and the public as that laid to the charge of Smith.
“The accused was brought to this place from the Jail at Alfred by Mr. Josiah Paul... and when not in court he is kept at Mr. Paul’s Tavern. He is a young man, perhaps thirty years of age, about medium size; but does not look like a man who would commit so cold blooded murder. It is evident from his looks that he feels much anxiety as the trial proceeds.”
John Noble Goodwin opened the prosecution: “May it please your honor: The respondent, William B. Smith, has been arraigned before you on a complaint charging him with the murder of Charles F. Brewster. To this he has pleaded Not Guilty; and it is now incumbent upon the government to introduce such testimony as shall convince you that there is justifiable cause to believe him guilty of this offense... The case rests upon circumstantial evidence...”
For four days, Goodwin brought forward his witnesses : Nathaniel Wadleigh, who found the corpse; the three doctors, Jewett, Trafton and Sanborn, describing the deteriorated body and the foot’s telltale scar. The courtroom heard from Mrs. Boston at the boarding house, and the saloon keepers who served the defendant and the victim, and recalled Brewster’s careless handling of a $5 gold piece. The hapless young carpenter was said to have been carrying $70 cash.
A carpenter friend testified that the Brewster had worked in the mill town of Lawrence, Massachusetts, until early August, when he decided to take a trip home for a few days to his family’s farm in Barrington, New Hampshire. The thorough Goodwin produced testimony from a Lawrence tailor, saying he’d made the vest found in the woods, the Lawrence shoemaker who made the boots the Smith stole, all building the case that the victim indeed was Charles F. Brewster.
There was the sad testimony of the Brewster family members from Barrington . “I had a son by the name of Charles Furber Brewster,” said Sally Brewster. “He was 26 years old the 8th of last July. ... He had worked on the farm till about two years before he left home, when he worked at the carpenter business. He came home... the first of August... black satin vest, Straw hat and a kind of greenish broadcloth coat-- a sack coat -- wore boots home.
... He left home Wednesday, the 23rd day of Aug. I looked for him home Wednesday night, and from that time till Sunday -- thinking strange of his absence, as he wore no coat away -- Sunday I got the almanac, looked at the days and set down the day he left -- I know not why. He helped our folks finish haying when he first came home, then went to work making water conductors for the house, and had not put them up when he left. When he came home he had on a coarse cotton shirt, a dark bluish colored pair of pants, with a check or figure I cannot describe, a black satin vest, and a straw hat, on his feet a pair of calf skin or thin boots, a pair of very light blue seamed stockings.”
Goodwin showed the mother pieces of clothing, and had her testify, the newspaper reported. “This-... looks as his -- he had made of it a common vest, but it is now disfaced. ... Think I have seen the shirt ..., think I made it too. I can swear to this work. It is all my work -- I made it all myself, for Charles F. Brewster. This is the shirt he wore away, I made it a year ago last March... He had a mark on his foot caused by a cut. I saw it in December after Thanksgiving...
“I saw the remains when they were disinterred; saw nothing but the right foot that I could recognize him by. The toes turned down as they used to when he was alive. …The remains were then much decomposed....”
The South Berwick case before Judge Oakes was a preliminary trial, and from there it was sent on to Alfred and the Supreme Judicial Court. Smith was convicted of murder, and on January 25, 1855 , he was sentenced to hang. Later that year prosecutor Goodwin was elected to the state senate, and then to Congress in 1861.
But corn doctor William B. Smith lived on death row in Thomaston over 20 years, and then on October 4, 1875, his sentence was commuted to life in prison. Death sentences were rarely carried out in those days in Maine, and in 1876 the state abolished the death penalty. Smith must have died in the state penitentiary in Thomaston.
South Berwick’s tolerance of alcohol -- and Maine’s, and America’s -- came and went over the succeeding decades. Portland experienced “rum riots” in June 1855, and Maine stayed dry until the repeal of the Volstead Act in 1933. Elsewhere in America, temperance laws were reversed during the Civil War, to re-emerge only in the short-lived national Prohibition experiment of the 1920s. But thanks to the controversy, to Neal Dow, and to all the railing from the pulpits, alcohol abuse was already in decline in 1850. It is now believed that per capita consumption of alcohol in America had actually reached its peak in 1830.
And in South Berwick, the violence of the early 1850s abated. Reckless acts by impulsive young men like William B. Smith faded from memory. Author Sarah Orne Jewett, born six months after the burning of the Methodist meetinghouse, may have given the name of an alleged rum seller, Dixon, to one of her novels’ villains . Otherwise, she never wrote of those tumultuous times, mentioning in her local history only that Berwick Academy "was burnt in 1851.”
South Berwick voters, however, remained dead set against drinking in their town for almost another century and a half. After the national repeal of Prohibition, three “beer joints” opened along Salmon Street, and one called the Mango Inn on Norton Street between the Free Will and Universalist Churches, only to be voted out by citizens in the late 1930s.
Instead, for decades, even while a boxing arena called The Palace on Salmon Street held popular Friday night fights and offered roller skating, bowling, pool and whirlwind poker, its patrons couldn’t drink in South Berwick. But four or five clubs did a thriving business in Rollinsford across the bridge-- successors to Samuel Dixon. Only after a vote in 1996 were local establishments finally licensed to serve liquor.
Old Berwick Historical Society - Wendy Pirsig – October 11, 2004 (updated 2020)