An awful Christmas gift for the Bates family

A clipping from the Vermont telegraph from Oct. 17, 1838, on the slaying of Harriet Jane Bates.

‘Shaftsbury Murderer’ hangs for slaying of new mother Harriet Jane Bates

By Lex Lecce, Vermont Country

In the year 1838, a man named Archibald Bates lived in Shaftsbury. Archibald was 33 years old and a religious man. He would read the Bible after his work was done for the day on the farm and, although he was having financial troubles, he found a home with other members of the Bates family.

In the following years, Archibald became consumed with rage as his younger brother, Philemon Bates, had control of the Bates family homestead, living there with his wife, Harriet Jane, and three children. Archibald spoke of his frustrations to his father, Arvin Bates, and his dissatisfaction regarding the division of family property.

On the day of Oct. 2, Archibald spoke to his father again, and the situation got out of hand. He threatened his younger brother’s family. An empty threat, Arvin hoped, because Archibald had made similar threats in the past, but no harm had ever been done.

This time was different. Arvin felt uneasy after the conversation and went to warn Philemon. As the two spoke, they decided to help Archibald. An agreement was made that they would give Archibald property or money to extinguish his rage.

It was around 7 p.m., and Archibald was standing under an apple tree. Police determined he took a fruit from a branch and bit it before he tossed it on the ground and picked up his rifle.

A clipping from the Vermont Gazette from Feb. 12, 1839, on the slaying of Harriet Jane Bates. Vermont Gazette via newspapers.com

At the same time, Harriet sat down to nurse her 2-month-old child at a window lit by candlelight. That’s when a gunshot rang through the homestead.

Arvin and Philemon ran toward the sound and into Philemon’s family home. There they found Harriet, with a bullet wound above her right eye, beginning to slump over with her crying baby in her arms.

Philemon took the child from her before she fell to the floor. He attempted to lift his wife back into her chair as she lay on the floor bleeding, but he was unsuccessful. After several attempts at lifting her, Philemon’s friend assisted him in carrying the dying Harriet to their bed and let her rest until she died an hour and a half later.

Archibald already had fled the homestead and was running through the woods. He didn’t get far before neighbors captured him. He had gunpowder and bullets in his pocket, but admitted nothing.

The entirety of the Bates family turned on Archibald. His father testified against him that he had threatened Harriet’s life earlier in the day. Younger members of the Bates family testified that they saw him remove the rifle from the wall.

The evidence was conclusive, and the jury returned a guilty verdict after 15 minutes of deliberation.

A clipping from the Vermont Gazette from Feb. 12, 1839, on the slaying of Harriet Jane Bates. Vermont Gazette via newspapers.com

Archibald was sentenced to death by hanging on Dec. 26 — an awful Christmas gift for the Bates family. “The Shaftsbury Murderer,” as he was called, was to be hanged on Feb. 8, 1839, at 3 p.m.

The night before his execution, he admitted his guilt and said the murder was in the works for several years, but he lacked the courage to pull the trigger until that night. He hoped God would pardon his sin before his death, regardless of his vengeful and malignant disposition.

The day of execution was said to be unusually pleasant for the time of year — good news for the large group of spectators that gathered. Archibald Bates was the fifth person to be executed in the state of Vermont.

“God grant that Bennington may never be the scene of another execution,” the Caledonian of St. Johnsbury opined at the time. It turned out to be a prayer unanswered.

Lex Lecce — spends most of her time working, but any of her free time is spent with her family — mostly her new husband and cats. Her search history worries her therapist.

Vermont Country magazine

Vermont Country has a hyperlocal focus on the Green Mountain lifestyle, its personalities, events, attractions and culture. The magazine appears six times a year, designed to complement the state and four-season living. VtCo magazine is a Southern Vermont publication of Vermont News & Media.

Previous Story

Editor’s note: No presents of mind

Next Story

Lions and tigers and bears and much more at Mary Meyer

Latest from Features