“An Alcoholic Frolic: The Story Behind Vermont’s First Drunk Driving Law”

Photographer unknown. 1910s. A postcard showing the West River covered bridge between Brattleboro and Dummerston, Vermont. The sign reads “Dangerous, automobiles take notice, short turn → bridge”. Courtesy Vermont Historical Society, Barre, Vermont.

 

Before dawn on July 3rd, 1916, a 25-year-old farmer from Dummerston, Vermont named Harry Boyd rose from his slumber (10). Tall and handsome with chestnut hair and pale blue eyes, he was the definition of a ladies’ man (21). That fateful morning, he collected his lover, Edith Walker, and drove her through Brattleboro to the Massachusetts border 22 miles south so they could “[enjoy] some of the things to be found in licensed towns” — in other words, so they could get drunk. By 2:30 that afternoon, the young couple had been joined by Susan Randall and were driving back home, already intoxicated (10, 20).


The automobile travelled down Putney Road toward Dummerston, reaching 40 miles per hour. Upon reaching the West River covered bridge, it careened into the right side of the structure, and Randall was hurled from the car. She landed 70 feet away, and was reportedly “so covered with blood and dirt” that a good friend of hers who’d been walking on the bridge during the crash didn’t recognize her (10, 19).

Walker and Boyd sped away from the bridge to avoid arrest, inciting one of the first car chases in Vermont history. They reached the Massachusetts border before turning back towards Dummerston, being apprehended six hours later outside of Walker’s home (10). The crash would test the legal system’s ability to cope with new technology — the automobile — and revealed the legal confusion surrounding both automobiles and alcohol.

After being charged with a Breach of the Peace, Boyd was held on a bail of $3000 (equivalent to $66,000 today), later lowered to $1000 and paid by his father (4, 10, 15). He pleaded not guilty and was represented in Brattleboro Municipal Court by attorney Harrie B. Chase, who argued Boyd should only receive a fine and probation sentence (4, 19, 25).

Chase was pitted against state attorney O. B. Hughes, who made the case that Boyd should receive “a sentence that would make it plain to other drivers of automobiles that reckless driving would not be tolerated” (19, 26). Hughes’ argument was more effective; on August 2nd, 1916, Boyd’s driver’s license was revoked and he was ordered to “pay a fine of $300 and costs of prosecution and to serve not less than four nor more than six months in the house of correction” (5, 22).

Boyd and Chase appealed the verdict and brought the case all the way to the Vermont Supreme Court, claiming that “the allegations in said complaint do not constitute a breach of the peace”, using the definition from an 1887 case, State vs. Archibald: a breach of peace was “the invasion of privacy and security which the law affords every citizen” (4, 19). In order for something to be a breach of peace, an action had to break a law, and drunk driving wasn’t technically illegal.

In front of the Supreme Court, Hughes openly dismissed Chase’s claim, instead posing a question that would exemplify the legal opinion towards automobiles for years to come: “What could be more full of tumult, disorder, and confusion than an automobile driven over the public highways… in a manner as described by some of the witnesses in the trial of this case… [as] offensive?” (19).

Chase shot back: “The gist of this complaint… is that the respondent was driving an automobile at a high rate of speed… [but] he did nothing, and is actually charged with nothing” (19). He made the case that driving an automobile at a high speed didn’t constitute a breach of the peace. The Supreme Court, however upheld the Municipal Court’s opinion. Boyd was sent to the House of Correction in Rutland, Vermont from January to July 1917 (8, 21).

Photographer unknown. 1916. A photograph showing the aftermath of a rare collision between an automobile and two horse-drawn carriages in Saxtons River, Vermont. The scene at Boyd’s crash would have been similar. Courtesy Vermont Historical Society, Barre, Vermont.

 

Public opinion about Boyd’s sentence was divided. Many agreed with Hughes, and articles reprinted throughout Vermont carried titles such as “Served Him Right” and “Approves of Sentence” (6, 12). Closer to home, however, Boyd found support. Brattleboro citizen Rollin Childs wrote a passionate defense of Boyd, noting he was backed by “a great many good citizens of the town and county”, and although Boyd had “been indiscreet”, he had never “committed a serious crime” (9).

The anonymous author of “Served Him Right”, an impassioned letter written for the St. Albans Messenger, strongly disagreed. The writer felt that “if the present law against drunken automobile drivers… is not broad enough… without trumping up a charge under some other clause in order to get at the offender, [lawmakers] should… enact a new automobile law drastic enough to make such persons understand that there will be something coming to them” (6).

Indeed, this was exactly what lawmakers did next time they met. In 1915, the majority of laws listed in Acts and Resolves Passed by the General Assembly of the State of Vermont dealt with registration of automobiles. There were no laws regarding vehicles and alcohol (3). By 1917, though, automobile laws included sections on “operation under the influence of liquor” and “injuries by” (2).

Boyd’s case forced the government to draw a line when it came to vehicles and alcohol. Lawmakers had to consider how much more dangerous it was to drive drunk than ride a horse drunk, and based on this, decide how much harsher the punishment should be. The legislature concluded that a person who operated an automobile under the influence of alcohol should “be fined not more than five hundred dollars or imprisoned not more than two years, or both”. They failed, however, to specify at what level of intoxication it was illegal to drive, effectively saying having a single drink would make driving illegal (2).

Vermont was not the first state to enact a law about operating an automobile while intoxicated (14). In 1906, New Jersey legislators ratified the first law in the nation prohibiting drunk driving, agreeing “no intoxicated person shall drive a motor vehicle” (1). New York lawmakers followed suit in 1910: “Whoever operates a motor vehicle while in an intoxicated condition”, they decided, “shall be guilty of a misdemeanor” (17).

Vermont law was the only one that mattered when Harry Boyd got into a second drunk driving crash in May 1921. He faced a serious penalty: his second crash made him a repeat offender, and the US was one year and five months into Prohibition (7).

After being released from the House of Correction, Boyd was drafted. From May 1918 to June 1919, he served in France during the last part of World War I (18). When he returned home, Boyd received a new driver’s license on May 12, 1921, and was able to find a job delivering milk for a Dummerston milk processing plant. Despite nationwide Prohibition, on Memorial Day Boyd “obtained some [alcoholic] cider”. That afternoon, Boyd “ran off the highway… while driving a motor truck with [a] load of milk cans” and was arrested (7).

He pleaded guilty to “driving an automobile while intoxicated”, and was sentenced to spend “not less than one nor more than one year and six months in the house of corrections”. The judge who presided over the case, however,  recognized that rehabilitation was the better option for Boyd. He suspended Boyd’s prison sentence, instead placing him “in the hands of the probation officer for two years” (7, 11). Boyd was never arrested again.

Boyd married Margaret Batchelder in April 1925, and had three children, Julia, Annie, and Henry. He would go on to operate prosperous farm in West Brattleboro until his death in May 1972 at 82 (18, 24). Boyd left a legacy in his first car crash and the spirited trials that followed it. These would be the reasons for Vermont’s first drunk driving law.

 

Works Cited

  1. An Act Defining Motor Vehicles and Providing for the Registration of Same, 1906 N.J. Laws ch. 113, §§ 19, 35, p. 177, 186 (April 12, 1906)
  2. Acts and Resolves Passed by the General Assembly of the State of Vermont at the Twenty-Fourth Biennial Session 1917. 1917.
  3. Acts and Resolves Passed by the General Assembly of the State of Vermont at the Twenty-Third Biennial Session 1915. 1915.
  4. The Barre daily times. (Barre, Vt.), 01 Aug. 1916. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn91066782/1916-08-01/ed-1/seq-1/>
  5. The Bennington evening banner. (Bennington, Vt.), 03 Aug. 1916. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn95066012/1916-08-03/ed-1/seq-1/>
  6. The Bennington evening banner. (Bennington, Vt.), 12 Aug. 1916. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn95066012/1916-08-12/ed-1/seq-6/>
  7. The Brattleboro daily reformer. (Brattleboro, Vt.), 01 June 1921. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn86071593/1921-06-01/ed-1/seq-1/>
  8. The Brattleboro daily reformer. (Brattleboro, Vt.), 02 Jan. 1917. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn86071593/1917-01-02/ed-1/seq-1/>
  9. The Brattleboro daily reformer. (Brattleboro, Vt.), 03 Aug. 1916. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn86071593/1916-08-03/ed-1/seq-1/>
  10. The Brattleboro daily reformer. (Brattleboro, Vt.), 05 July 1916. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn86071593/1916-07-05/ed-1/seq-1/>
  11. The Brattleboro daily reformer. (Brattleboro, Vt.), 06 June 1921. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn86071593/1921-06-06/ed-1/seq-1/>
  12. The Brattleboro daily reformer. (Brattleboro, Vt.), 08 Aug. 1916. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn86071593/1916-08-08/ed-1/seq-2/>
  13. “Drunk Driving Fatalities.” Responsibility.org, Foundation For Advancing Alcohol Responsibility, 2015. <www.responsibility.org/get-the-facts/research/statistics/drunk-driving-fatalities/>
  14. “Early History of Drunk Driving Laws.” The News Wheel, Reynolds & Reynolds, 17 June 2015. <www.thenewswheel.com/early-history-of-drunk-driving-laws/>
  15. “Inflation Rate Between 1916-2016.” 1916 Dollars in 2016, FinanceRef/Alioth LLC. <www.in2013dollars.com/1916-dollars-in-2016?amount=3000>
  16. “Motor Vehicle Safety.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 16 June 2017. <www.cdc.gov/motorvehiclesafety/impaired_driving/impaired-drv_factsheet.html>
  17. N.Y. Stats 1910, ch. 374, p. 673, 683 § 290 (May 31, 1910)
  18. “Pvt Harry M. Boyd (1890-1972).” Find A Grave, Find A Grave, 6 July 2014, <www.findagrave.com/memorial/38792554/harry-m.-boyd>.
  19. State of Vermont, Supreme Court. State of Vermont vs. Harry Boyd. October General Term, 1916, Windham County. No. 1131.
  20. “United States Census, 1920,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:MZTB-THJ : accessed 6 December 2017), Susan M Randall in household of William M Randall, Brattleboro, Windham, Vermont, United States; citing ED 107, sheet 10B, line 62, family 273, NARA microfilm publication T625 (Washington D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1992), roll 1876; FHL microfilm 1,821,876.
  21. United States, Congress, Vermont State Archives and Records Administration. “Vermont House of Correction Record Book.” Vermont House of Correction Record Book, 1917.
  22. Vermont phœnix. (Brattleboro, Vt.), 04 Aug. 1916. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn98060050/1916-08-04/ed-1/seq-7/>
  23. Vermont phœnix. (Brattleboro, Vt.), 14 July 1916. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn98060050/1916-07-14/ed-1/seq-5/>
  24. “Vermont Vital Records, 1760-2008,” database with images, FamilySearch(https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:KF54-NDL : 6 December 2014), Harry M Boyd and Marguerite Levina Batchelder, Marriage, 09 Apr 1925, Brattleboro, Windham, Vermont, United States; from “Vermont, Birth Records, 1909-2008,” “Vermont, Death Records, 1909-2008,” “Vermont, Marriage Records, 1909-2008,” and “Vermont, Vital Records, 1720-1908.” Ancestry (http://www.ancestry.com : 2010); citing Vital Records Office, Vermont Department of Health, Burlington and New England Historic Genealogical Society, Boston.
  25. Bigelow, Walter J. Vermont Its Government 1919-1920. The Historical Publishing Company, 1919.
  26. “United States Census, 1920,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:MZT1-H99 : accessed 3 January 2018), O B Hughes, Brattleboro, Windham, Vermont, United States; citing ED 108, sheet 11B, line 85, family 257, NARA microfilm publication T625 (Washington D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1992), roll 1876; FHL microfilm 1,821,876.