Chelsea Murderess to Be Retried — 172 Years Later
State of the Arts
Photo ilustration courtesy Equinox Theatre Company
Most trial lawyers — and anyone who’s pulled jury duty — will testify that courtroom proceedings rarely ring with the eloquence one hears on, say, TV’s “Law and Order.” But according to Montpelier attorney Paul Gillies, who directs the Vermont Judicial History Society, learned lawyers of a century or so ago often peppered their arguments to rousing dramatic effect with literary and theological references. Gillies will make this case in the Chelsea courthouse starting at 2 p.m. on June 22 with the staged retrial of Mrs. Rebecca Peake, a Chelsea woman convicted of murdering her stepson with poisoned hash in 1835. Following a transcript of the actual trial, attorney Gerald Tarrant will act as the defense counsel; attorney Daniel Richardson will read the prosecution’s lines; and Orange County Superior Court Judge M. Patricia Zimmerman will deliver Peake’s sentence. (She was sentenced to death but managed to take her own life before the execution could occur.)
Peake’s trial was a cause célèbre. For Gillies, who has staged dozens of similar re-enactments for the Judicial History Society, the case remains a “bellwether” for several reasons. For one, Peake’s defense pleaded insanity — a first in state legal history, Gillies suspects. The trial was also “a perfect illustration of the poor science of the time,” he says, noting that a jury today would probably not convict Peake on the evidence entered. Others ate the hash and fell ill, but didn’t die from it. What he finds most striking is the trial’s fire-and-brimstone oratory, particularly the judge’s sentence. “It sounds like it’s mostly a sermon,” he says, “or maybe the words to a confessor or a penitent about how to meet your maker. It has an Old Testament quality to it.” That rhetoric reveals “how Christianized the courts were at the time, how religion and law enjoyed the same pew,” he adds. “Overall, this is a literate, fascinating story laid out there on the back of one of the saddest stories you’ll read about.”
That sad story had been a mere footnote until 1995, when playwright Maura Campbell learned of the trial while thumbing through a history of Chelsea. She tracked down a transcript of the trial published by Lucius Peck, a member of Peake’s defense team, and wrote The Trial of Mrs. Rebecca Peake,which was staged in 1997 and 2000.
Peake’s ghost haunted the playwright. “I wanted people to know about her,” Campbell says. “I felt that I was the guardian of her story.” In 2006, Campbell showed the trial transcript to Gillies, and he agreed to discuss the case with audiences of Campbell’s second Peake-inspired play, Self Evidence, in February 2007. Self Evidence cast member Mary Scripps, who turned in a chilling performance as the ghost of the condemned, will sit on the stand at the Chelsea event.
For Campbell, the re-enactment brings something like closure to an all-but-forgotten tragedy. “I think there’s a lot of power in sharing her story,” she says. “It was meant to be that she, if not exonerated, at least have some recognition and honor with respect to the ordeal that she suffered at the hands of the legal system and her own community.”