Local Murder Mystery Comes to Dorset Theatre Festival

by Gail M. Burns

In 1812 Russell Colvin, a farm worker who all agreed was “feeble-minded,” disappeared from the Boorn family farm in East Manchester, Vermont, where he, his wife, and their many children lived with her family. Seven years later two of his brothers-in-law, Stephen and Jesse Boorn, were accused of murdering Colvin, and sentenced to hang. At almost the eleventh hour, a man claiming to be Russell Colvin was identified in New Jersey and brought to Manchester, where everyone agreed that this was indeed the missing man. Charges were dropped.

This is a very brief synopsis of the true story actor Oliver Wadsworth will bring to the stage in The Tarnation of Russell Colvin at the Dorset Theatre Festival for four performances June 8-10, before touring it to Jamaica VT on June 22, Wardsboro VT on June 24, and South Londonderry VT on June 30.

“This is the perfect event to open the Dorset’s 40th Anniversary Season. We created, commissioned, and workshopped Tarnation… right here in the Green Mountains of Southern Vermont. The story is a little-known gem of local history,” Wadsworth explained. “In the present political climate, where people outside the norm feel more ostracized than ever, Russell Colvin’s story–and his miraculous return–is perhaps more pertinent than ever.”

“And I met some descendants of the Boorn family recently,” Wadsworth remarked. “Quite by accident while I was having my tires checked.”

Bringing this story back home, to a place where there are most likely descendants of many the characters Wadsworth will bring to the stage, is both important and intimidating. There were, and still are, several clashing opinions of the Boorn-Colvin murder case. Which side does Wadsworth come down on in his one-man play?

“Each narrator comes forward and says ‘I know absolutely what happened,’” Wadsworth explained. “Everyone weighs in very strongly so I decided to do a kind of Rashomon and take them at their word.”

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“Usually, it’s the winners who get to write the history,” Wadsworth continued. “But in this story the losers get to get up on the platform and tell their story.” There are many published accounts of the case, beginning with contemporary writings and court records from 1819. It was a pamphlet by Leonard Sergeant, discovered in Northshire Books, that introduced the story to Wadsworth, who has had a home in Shaftsbury for fifteen years.

Sargeant didn’t publish his work until 1873, by which time he was the former Lieutenant Governor of the State of Vermont, but in 1819 he was the junior defense attorney for the Boorn brothers, assisting Richard Skinner, who became the state’s ninth Governor. While Sargeant was born in Dorset, where Stephen Boorn lived and farmed off and on during the years between Colvin’s disappearance and the trial, he had not known Colvin.

What made the community decide, seven years after he disappeared, that Russell Colvin had been murdered? Back in 1812 Colvin’s son, Lewis, had been working with his father and uncles when a fight broke out. The boy fled the scene but when he asked his Uncle Stephen later where his father was he was told he had “gone to hell.” Stephen told another person that Colvin was “where the potatoes don’t freeze,” which meant underground. But neither of those remarks raised suspicions then because Colvin had wandered off before. It wasn’t until 1819, when Jesse and Stephen’s uncle, Amos Boorn, a respected member the community, started having dreams in which Colvin’s ghost appeared and told him that he had been murdered and where he was buried, that the idea that Stephen, Jesse, or both brothers were the responsible parties began to take shape.

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An 1856 map of Manchester, VT.  Manchester Village is between the H and the E, while the Bourn Brook and East Manchester Road arch over the letters S-T-E-R. What we now call Manchester Center is marked by its original name, Factory Point.

What kind of a place was Manchester, Vermont in the early 19th century? Vermont became the 14th state in 1791, but Manchester was first settled in 1764, when ownership of the land, known as the New Hampshire Grants, was still under dispute by both New Hampshire and New York. The railroads didn’t arrive until the 1850’s so travel was on foot, horseback, horse-drawn conveyance, or by water. Newspapers were few – Bennington and Rutland had the closest – and mails were slow.

Like many New England townships, Manchester was divided into several smaller sub-communities – to this day Manchester and Manchester Center have separate zip codes and post offices – and the Boorn family lived in the more rural settlement of East Manchester, on what is now called the Bourn Brook.

BoornHoustA founding family of the town, the Boorns were not poor, but they had fallen a bit from their earlier socioeconomic standing. Stephen and Jesse were younger sons at a time when inheritance went to the eldest, and Colvin’s inability to support his wife, their sister Sally, and many children made him a drain on the family fortune.

At a time when there was no separation of church and state in neighboring Massachusetts and Connecticut – you could not incorporate a town without a “Christian” church (what we now know as the Congregational Church) and a pastor in residence – Vermont was notoriously irreligious. Manchester Village was home to a Baptist congregation, while a Congregational parish struggled into existence in Manchester Center over the early decades of the 19th century, following several waves of religious revival. The educated and professional elite gradually moved to the Congregational side – the source of much tension in the community – and they were loath to be seen as members of a community that tried murderers on the recommendation of ghosts. The popular Congregational minister, Lemuel Haynes, son of a black father and a white mother, was a great supporter of the Boorn brothers, and in 1820 he too wrote a pamphlet about the trial.

 

Also of importance to Wadsworth was the question of what the theatre was like in early 19th century America.

“I became fascinated by the solo performers of the 1820-1830’s,” Wadsworth explained. “British born Charles Matthews (1776-1835) did a number of ‘Yankee characters’ and dialects on a very successful US tour in 1822-1823, just after the Boorn/Colvin trial. American raconteur George “Yankee” Hill (1809-1849) was another inspiration. I decided that I would be the ‘counterfeit*’ Russell Colvin telling the story, playing all the characters and telling their sides, in the style of those contemporary performers.”

To that end, Wadsworth carries all his props and costumes in a period carrying case and hopes to perform in front of an authentic painted theatre drape at each venue. “I will ask each theatre what they have locally for a town scene and perform in front of that,” he explained.

The Dorset Playhouse, originally fashioned from two Revolutionary period barns and opened in 1929, has no such curtain, so Wadsworth will travel across the state to Saxtons River, where Main Street Arts holds the most extensive collection of curtains** by Charles W. Henry (1850-1917) from Guilford, VT, all painted between about 1903 and 1910.

 

“The rolled-up curtain is very long and it can’t be folded, so I’ve rented a school bus to transport it to Dorset,” Wadsworth laughed. “Henry, who came from a theatrical family, painted incredible backdrops, altering the colors so they would appear accurate in the gaslight they used in theatres then. Notice the blue leaves in the drop I’ll be using in Dorset.”

“I love doing this solo show, but I often find myself playing multiple characters these days,” said Wadsworth, who is headed this fall for Penguin Rep in Stoney Point NY  to appear in a show called Fall River about the Lizzie Borden case where he will again assay multiple roles. “Getting inside a wide variety of characters is a great equalizer. It has helped me develop all sorts of compassion for many different people.”

The Tarnation of Russell Colvin will be performed June 8 & 10 at 7:30 pm and June 9 at 10 am & 7:30 pm at the Dorset Playhouse, 104 Cheney Road in Dorset, VT.  Seven o’clock performances are also scheduled for Jamaica VT on June 22, Wardsboro VT on June 24, and South Londonderry VT on June 30. Click HERE to buy tickets. Written & performed by Oliver Wadsworth; directed by Kirk Jackson; costumes by Richard MacPike; set by Michael Rancourt. Special thanks Main Street Arts; Saxton River, VT; and the Town Hall of Wardsboro, VT, for the loan of the theatre curtain.

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*The idea that the man who appeared in Manchester in 1819 was a “counterfeit” or imposter Russell Colvin is one of many. Gerald W. McFarland, in the most recently published book on the subject, The Counterfeit Man: The True Story of the Boorn-Colvin Murder Case (1990), espouses this view in what is otherwise a well-researched and even-handed account.

**Vermont has made an extraordinary effort to locate, restore, and conserve historic painted theatre curtains. Curtains Without Borders, a conservation project dedicated to documenting and preserving historic painted scenery, began in 1996 as a project of the Vermont Museum & Gallery Alliance. The 190 painted curtains, found in town halls, grange halls, theaters and opera houses, were mostly created between 1890 and 1940. They are handsomely documented in the book Suspended Worlds by Christine Hadsel. In 2008/2009, Curtains Without Borders and the New Hampshire Preservation Alliance  collaborated on a survey to locate and document New Hampshire’s collection of historic scenery. Over 140 pieces have now been documented.

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