Her Majesty Packs a Pistol: A Vermont Prohibition Story

Queen Lil sat in Richford’s temporary courtroom on June 21st, 1925 before a jury and state’s attorney H.O. Leavens, for keeping a disorderly house. She paid a one hundred dollar fine for running the tremendously illegal “Palace of Sin” and waltzed out of the courtroom. (1)

In passing, she said to a local man “I haven’t seen you for some time, haven’t been up at my place.” The other men “razzled the hell out of him” according to an onlooker, Lil walking away with her shoulders back and head high. (2)

She operated above the law, never feared the authorities, or hid the details of her business – always packing a pistol. Lillian was born to William and Mary Minor in a farmhouse on Steven Mills road in Richford, Vermont in 1866 – a time dominated by both religious and temperance crusaders in the peak of the third great awakening. (3) In the decade before, Richford changed from a primarily farming and lumber town to prosperous after the arrival of the Montreal-Boston railroad line in 1871. (12)

She was surrounded by churches being built, and the start of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union – a driving force in the prohibition of alcohol. In 1881, the Episcopal Diocese of Vermont sent Mr. G. H. Bailey, a bishop, as a missionary to the town. Advocating for a church to be built, he explained that three quarters of the male and one quarter of the female population were “avowed unbelievers” and that “The church is immensely needed at this point.” (11) Despite the religious revival, Richford was known as the Las Vegas of Vermont -being used as a common path to Canada for rumrunners, drinkers, and Johns alike. (4)

Lillian poses with a parrot in her lush attire for a photographer in her hotel. Taken from Visit’n: Conversations with Vermonters. Vol. 7, Vermont Folklife Center.

As a young woman, she Lillian married an unscrupulous man by the name of A.G. Shipley. He was known in Franklin county for horse stealing and grave robbing. Together they ran away – selling herbal remedies in staged medicine shows across the country. (3)

It is unclear what happened with Shipley – whether they divorced, just broke up, or he died. Lillian ended up settling in Boston where she worked as a prostitute in a brothel called Faneuil Follies. (5) The brothel was one of the most expensive and well regarded in the city, with lushly decorated parlors on the first floor. Her hard determination and head for business led her to manage the brothel in just a few short years. (3) In 1910, Lillian was tipped off by a confidant about an impending raid on her brothel by the authorities. (3) Before she could be arrested, she fled the city to her hometown of East Richford.

After narrowly escaping the authorities in Boston, Lillian had another operation on her mind. Seated directly on the Canadian border was an opportunity: the ruins of a hotel leveled by fire. She bought it with plans of rebuilding a refuge of vices for her community. Money nor support were an issue for her, but a federal ban of construction on the border to prevent territorial disputes caused issues. (5) She challenged the ban in court, arguing that it was not a new building, but an old one being remodeled. She could attribute much of the win to her high profile lawyer – who she knew from her days as a madam in Boston. (5)

The building Lillian ‘remodeled’ had three stories and just a stone’s throw from the Canadian Pacific railroad line that stretched from Boston to Montreal. At the front entrance was a “Big, old-fashioned farmhouse kitchen, a great big range, all chrome fronted.”(2) Once you passed the kitchen there was the bar that took up most of the first floor and was on both sides of the border. The second and third floors were reserved for “private entertainment” with girls from Boston and Montreal, the rooms also straddling the border. While the first floor was rough and tumble, the upper floors were described as full of color and decor, giving “an exotic feeling” (7) Officially it was named Queen’s Palace, but it quickly acquired a reputation to be called the “Palace of Sin”.

The Palace of Sin adjacent to the Canadian Pacific Railroad Line. Taken from: Visit’n: Conversations with Vermonters. Vol. 7, Vermont Folklife Center.

Lillian often showed support for prohibition and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, which both kept the price for alcohol and her clientele count high. (7) Her patrons didn’t seem to mind; there was always people coming in and out of the Palace’s doors, whether they were locals or tourists. A conductor of the railroad guessed that they stopped at the hotel more than the train station in Richford (8), and Mr. Green’s taxi service parked right at her front door. (2) The hotel was part of the community, a place both men and women went after work to have a good time.

The authorities tried many times to shut down Queen’s Palace. They attempted to stop the influx of liquor by intercepting her shipment; she simply built a pipe underground that ran into the building and bottled the liquor from inside. When either the US or Canadian forces planned to raid the hotel, Lillian knew long beforehand due to moles. She would simply move the alcohol to the legal Canadian side; the girls and papers went to whichever side was opposite of the raiding authorities. (8)

Earl Cheney, a Franklin county resident recalled that “They never thought, at that time, to raid them both at the same time.” (9)

But in late spring of 1925, they did. There was a raid on The Palace of Sin from both the US and Canadian sides. In addition to liquor, three ‘couples’ were found upstairs and brought into custody along with Lillian. All were arraigned on June 8th in the Saint Alban’s city court before Judge M.H. Alexander. (1) After almost a decade of operation in plain view of the public, Queen Lil was charged with keeping a disorderly house, meaning the people inside her hotel were considered a public nuisance – a civil crime with only a fine.

Although four out of the six people arrested were charged with a statutory offense, one other violating the MANN or white slave traffic act, the Queen paid her $150 fine in the Richford court and walked away to continue her business. (1) Her hotel was highly lucrative, and the fine was nothing in comparison to what she would make in a night.

In 1927, she was still the reigning Queen of the community. The Richford Gazette published a letter they received from a very loyal patron telling reporters if they were respectful and treated her like a queen, they could talk with Lil:

“‘to the ettor of Richford Der sir By request of the queen of the manshan of sin to notify that she has not to a Carpet Spread befor manshan and you can come and consult her if you can comply with the rules and get down on your kees and kiss it befor entren the Pales.’ Ver truly yours, ‘Manley’” (10)

When Queen Lil retired from her hotel and prohibition of alcohol was lifted, she remained a treasure in the Richford community. Retiring to her second husband’s farm, she was then called the Queen of the Hills. The mark she left on her hometown was more than just being a lawless hustler – she was a part of her community. While the Palace of Sin is no more, the Queen of the Missisquoi River Valley lives on in not only legend, but in the impact she made on her hometown. One man remembered the air of royalty she still possessed: “She had the bustle, the hat like a queen, and she was a queen.” (2)

 

Questions for Discussion:

What were the secrets to Queen Lil’s success?

What does her story reveal about prohibition– the causes and consequences of the legal effort to prohibit alcohol?

What does Queen Lil’s story reveal about Vermonters’ values in the 1920’s?   How was the state changing?

 

 

 

Works Cited

  1. “Hold Woman For Keeping Disorderly House.” Richford Gazette, 8 June 1925.
  2. “William ‘Digger’ Rowley.” Visit’n: Conversations with Vermonters, vol.7.
  1. Campbell, Jane. “Lilian Minor Shipley.” Shipley, Lillian – Vermont Historical Society, vermonthistory.org/research/vermont-women-s-history/database/shipley-lillian.
  2. Krakowski, Adam. “History Space: How Vermont Handled Prohibition.” Burlington Free Press, Burlington, 10 May 2017,
  3. Krakowski, Adam. Vermont Prohibition: Teetotalers, Bootleggers & Corruption. Published by American Palate, a Division of The History Press, 2016.
  4. Visit’n: Conversations with Vermonters. Vol. 7, Vermont Folklife Center.
  5. Wheeler, Scott, and Christopher Bray. Rumrunners & Revenuers: Prohibition in Vermont. New England Press, 2002.
  6. “Some Famous Citizens .” Richford Town Profile, Apr. 2007, p. 11.
  7. “Earl Cheney.” Visit’n: Conversations with Vermonters, vol. 7.
  8. Willis, Al. “PERSIAN PERFORMANCE REQUIRED.” Richford Gazette, 9 Feb. 1927.
  9. Diocese of Vermont, Episcopal Church. Journal of the 93rd Annual Convention of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Vermont. Vol. 93-95, Argus and Patriot Book and Job Printing House, 1883.
  10. “United States Department of the Interior National Park Service.” National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, 29 Jan. 2001.