NEWBURY, Vt. — Orville Gibson made more than a few enemies in the days before his death.
So by the time his frozen body, bound hand and foot, was raised from the Connecticut River in March of 1958, investigators had a pretty good idea about how the 47-year-old farmer had met his end. Vigilantes had come for him in the early hours of New Year’s Eve, trussed him up, and tossed him off a bridge.
But as one trial and then another failed to find the men who had done the deed, the notion spread that the townsfolk in tiny Newbury had conspired to kill an unpopular resident and cover it up. Some say that stain, woven into local lore, still mars this picturesque village on the New Hampshire border.
But now a retired Vermont Superior Court judge, who worked the case as a young lawyer nearly 60 years ago, says he has unearthed the truth about who killed Orville Gibson. And if he is right, the forsaken farmer found a way to haunt the fields in Newbury forever.
The sequence that led to Gibson’s sad end is known by heart around Newbury.
It was Christmas Day, 1957, and Gibson was in a lather. A farmhand named Eri Martin had spilled two big cans of milk as he wheeled them in from the barn, and Gibson punished the smaller man with a fierce beating. Gibson was charged with breach of the peace, and served with a summons.
Word spread around Newbury, where Gibson was already viewed as “a hard man,” the Globe reported in 1959, described by residents as “an aloof character who had only a half-dozen friends.” In the days after Martin was beaten, a sheriff’s deputy suggested Gibson deserved “a little tar and feathering.” A threatening phone call was made to Gibson’s home.
On New Year’s Eve, Gibson rose shortly before 4 a.m., as he usually did, and headed for the big barn across the road.
Hours later, his wife, Evalyn, went to look for him. But the farmhand working that morning said he hadn’t seen him. Evalyn rushed back to the house to call the police.
The search for Orville Gibson had begun.
For some, it has never really ended.
“It would just be nice to know the real facts,” said Doris McClintock, Gibson’s niece, who was in high school in Newbury when her uncle died. “What happened, and why? Some of the questions never were answered.”
By the time police got to the barn it was after 8 a.m.
A lard can that Gibson had used to carry milk was crushed and bent on the ground. There were drag marks in the dirt and silage on the barn floor, leading all the way to the road. Soon, a pile of the same fodder in Gibson’s silo and barn was found at the bridge over the Connecticut River, a half-mile away.
Someone, police soon came to believe, had roughed up Gibson, dragged him from his barn, and tossed him in the river. In the days and weeks that followed, police leashed up their search dogs and fired up their lie detector devices. They interviewed one potential witness after another, but no clear suspect emerged.
On March 26, State Police found Gibson’s body about 7 miles downriver. His hands were tied behind his knees, his ankles were bound with the same piece of rope.
An autopsy, performed by the state pathologist, found that Gibson, with no water in his lungs, was dead before he hit the water. Those findings, which would later be abandoned altogether, served then to confirm investigators’ initial suspicions.
By that July, armed with an accumulation of hazy witness recollections and shaky circumstantial evidence, police had their suspects: Robert “Ozzie” Welch and Frank Carpenter, a janitor and a day laborer, who had allegedly been spotted outside the barn in the early hours when Gibson went missing.
By November, Welch and Carpenter were under arrest.
Welch was quickly acquitted in a directed verdict. And though Carpenter’s trial was more complex — he was charged with manslaughter and kidnapping, and an expert testified that tiny paint particles from the trunk of Carpenter’s car were found on Gibson’s body — he too was found not guilty.
No new suspects were ever named.
In the nearly 60 years since Gibson’s body was raised from the water, the case has been as much a part of Newbury as the river itself, snaking through past and present.
Life Magazine produced two big stories. A Mississippi newspaper published a gloating column that pointed to the case as evidence that haughty Northerners — “clean and clever little bigots” — conducted lynchings every bit as ugly as occurred down South. In town, the publicity and the enduring questions raised by the death chafed.
“This is still a very painful and raw experience for a lot of people in the village,” said Will Dahlberg, a radio producer who spent much of his childhood in Newbury not far from the Gibson farm. Dahlberg, 30, made a radio documentary about the folklore surrounding the case, and is at work on a longer documentary and a book. He said his aim is to let Newbury tell its story in its own words.
Dahlberg, who lives and works in Alabama, has spent countless hours talking to people in Newbury. He said he believes Orville’s bad rap was unearned, added to the mythology to make the story of his death more palatable. In Dahlberg’s view — one shared by many in Newbury, particularly among longtime residents — Gibson’s death was a prank gone tragically wrong.
Men came for Gibson that night, he said, but meant only to scare him. They tossed him in Carpenter’s trunk, and when they opened it, Gibson was dead.
“Because it was an accident, and because there was such guilt, that’s why it was covered up,” Dahlberg said.
Stephen Martin, the lawyer assigned to the case decades ago, has concluded that the truth has been buried in Newbury all along. And unearthing it has renewed interest in a case the town never quite lived down.
Martin had been a lawyer for all of a month when Carpenter’s trial began in April 1960. Working under his mentor, Richard Davis, he helped with research on the high-profile case.
He and Davis unearthed mountains of facts in the case, but “lawyers aren’t interested in the truth so much as they’re interested in winning.” And through a career that took him to the state’s Superior Court, where he served as a judge until his retirement in 1998, the Gibson case never stopped rattling around in his head.
So after he retired, Martin began researching all over again. In the resulting book, published last year, Martin names a suspect who had been briefly considered in the investigation’s earliest days: Orville Gibson himself.
In “Orville’s Revenge: The Anatomy of a Suicide,” Martin envisions Gibson, troubled by the breach-of-peace charge against him and irked by Newbury’s distaste for him, staging his own murder for the sake of spite.
In Martin’s telling, backed up with acres of evidence from court transcripts and news reports, Gibson woke that morning and set out for the bridge with a short length of rope. He spread a bit of silage on the bridge before climbing onto a platform just below the main deck. He tied himself up in a manner that out-of-state medical examiners later said was consistent with several suicides they had seen and, on the cold, dark morning of the last day of 1957, he rolled himself into the river.
‘It’s good fiction,” said McClintock, who acknowledged some irritation at the resurrection of her uncle Orville’s old wounds after all these years.
Though she didn’t know him well in life, she recalled Orville as being an affectionate man — “totally unlike the description in the book,” which she said posited a theory that doesn’t hold water.
“He had no real reason to commit suicide,” said McClintock. “The breach-of-peace charge was not something that he lost sleep over. It was just something that he was going to deal with.”
In Newbury, Martin’s theory is greeted with skepticism. Outside Newbury, though, Martin’s theory has been embraced by some who came to the case cold.
“I think his theory is right on target,” said Peter Stephenson, a cyber criminologist and digital forensic scientist at Norwich University who heard Martin at a reading in Montpelier and dug deeper into the case.
“The evidence clearly supports the judge’s contention,” Stephenson said, citing the lack of physical evidence in the barn save for a single crushed pail, and the knots binding him that would have been simple for Gibson himself to tie.
The frustrated farmer killed himself, Stephenson said, “to show that he was more powerful than the people who’d gotten the better of him.”
There may be nobody left in Newbury who knows for sure how Gibson met his end. Few of the principals in the case are alive to tell about it.
Nearly a lifetime after Gibson hit the water, Newbury’s best-known son is the talk of the town all over again.
The river races under a new bridge now, and a well-liked family from out of town took over the Village Store. But Orville Gibson will live forever.