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BOOK REVIEW: "Orville’s Revenge: The Anatomy of a Suicide" by Richard E. Davis

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reviewed by Nat Frothingham

Retired Vermont Judge Stephen B. Martin has written an always fascinating, precisely detailed book entitled Orville’s Revenge about a Newbury dairy farmer, Orville Gibson, whose sudden disappearance from his farm on December 31, 1957, suggested murder.  Or—was it  suicide?

In the weeks and months that followed Gibson’s end-of-the-year disappearance (his body was recovered  from the Connecticut River on March 26, 1958,) at least in Newbury and across Vermont as well the suggestion of murder hung in the air as the most persuasive answer to what happened.  But though generally discounted—suicide was another possibility.

The unresolved Orville Gibson case transfixed Vermont.  It also attracted regional and national media attention including two stories in Life Magazine and a heated anti-Yankee editorial diatribe from a newspaper editor in Jackson, Mississippi.

Here, in brief, are the bare details of the Gibson story that set in motion the perplexing question of murder or suicide.

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On Christmas Day, 1957, Newbury farmer Orville Gibson got into a fight with his hired man, Eri Martin, after Martin overturned a wheelbarrow carrying two big cans of milk.  When Martin told Gibson he had spilled most of the milk from two cans, an altercation followed.  Gibson blamed Martin for the altercation.  Martin blamed Gibson.  What clearly happened was that Gibson physically attacked Martin who sustained injuries from that attack.

News of the fight between Gibson and Martin and news of Martin’s injuries spread very quickly throughout Newbury and surrounds with mounting community sympathy for Martin and against Gibson. On December 30, Gibson’s wife, Evalyn, took a threatening phone call from a man who warned Gibson not to appear in Newbury Village.

On December 31, Gibson left his house at about 4 a.m. for morning barn chores and milking.  He did not return. There were signs of a struggle in the barn. Not only did Orville Gibson not return, he never returned and an investigation ensued.

About three months after Gibson’s disappearance a big break occurred in the case when on March 26, 1958, Gibson’s still-frozen, rope-bound body was found floating in the Connecticut River near Bradford (Vt.). After a few hours, Gibson’s body was pulled from the river and taken for autopsy to the A.E. Hale Funeral Home in Bradford.

What is gripping about Judge Martin’s book arises from the prevailing community and state sentiment in the Orville Gibson case.  Clearly, in the months following Gibson’s disappearance, and in the months after Gibson’s body was pulled from the Connecticut River, the majority community, even law enforcement sentiment, was that Gibson had been murdered.  After all, he had set upon and injured his farm hand, Eri Martin.  Also, Gibson was not well-liked in town.  And when his still-frozen body was pulled from the Connecticut River it was tied and bound with rope.

These details pointed toward murder.  But what Judge Martin in his book does so well is to take us to the evidence, take us to the courtroom testimony and acquaint us with the relevant legal thinking, analysis and precedent.

Gibson disappeared on the last day of December 1957—more than 50 years ago.  Any reader might well ask, “Why this case, this book, and why now?”

Well, for most writers, the Orville Gibson case might be an antiquarian pursuit—no more than that.  But in the person of Stephen B. Martin we have a man who is writing from a privileged advantage.

In September 1959, fresh out of law school, Martin began a clerkship to become a lawyer in the Barre law office of Richard E. Davis.  In terms of the Orville Gibson case, Martin’s timing could not have been better because on November 5, 1958, as part of the evolving Orville Gibson case, Frank W. Carpenter and Robert O. Welch were arrested and charged with kidnapping and manslaughter of Gibson.  And the attorney hired to defend Frank W. Carpenter was Richard E. Davis.

As Judge Martin writes in his Prologue to Orville’s Revenge “Both cases (against Carpenter and Welch) were still pending when I began my clerkship.”  What’s more, as part of his clerkship, young Stephen B. Martin, taking his cue from his boss Richard E. Davis, performed such tasks in the Gibson case as conducting research, interviewing witnesses and taking notes at the  trial of Robert O. Welch.  In other words, more than 50 years ago as a young law clerk Stephen Martin had a ringside seat as he studied, processed and deliberated on the complexities of the Orville Gibson case.

According to an online source, during 2013, there were some 391,000 self-published books produced in the United States.  “Orville’s Revenge” is a self-published book—published by the author at L. Brown & Sons in Barre.  A generation or two ago, a self-published book was  sometimes condescendingly referred to, as a “vanity book.”

Well, this engrossing book by Stephen B. Martin is much more than a mere vanity book. It could have been published by a national publishing house if publishing houses were still publishing first books by largely unknown writers. Orville’s Revenge reaches a high standard because of what appears to be fastidious scholarship, careful documentation, and elegantly clear written expression.

Judge Martin’s new book, “Orville’s Revenge: The Anatomy of a Suicide” will be presented to the public on a book signing in the Milne Community Room of the Aldrich Public Library in Barre on Thursday evening, November 6 at 6:30 p.m.  According to a note from the Aldrich Library, “The book is dedicated to the late Richard E. Davis of Barre, the distinguished trial lawyer who handled the Gibson case.  Davis’ son, Richard E. Davis, Jr., will provide the introduction.  Judge Martin will read from the book and explain the details of the case.  He will show how David was able to convince the jury that a man who had been found in the river with his hands and feet bound had been able to commit suicide.”