People v. J. Chapleau - 1889

by Altina Waller*

In the late nineteenth century, Plattsburgh, New York had a reputation as a quiet, even "lethargic" town, But one late January afternoon in the year 1889 there occurred a brutal murder which shocked the community into an awareness that violence and hatred were not far from its very heart. This crime could not be explained away as the work of outsiders or chronic violators of the law; both its victim and its perpetrator were respected citizens who had never been involved in the mildest unlawful activity.

* Reprinted with permission of the author from the Fall 1986 Antiquarian, published by the Clinton County Historical Association. The research for this article was carried out over several semesters in  Dr. Waller's classes at SUNY Plattsburgh.

Analysis of the crime reveals much more than a personal quarrel between neighbors which became so bitter that it resulted in murder; it illuminates broad patterns of social interaction between distinct cultural groups within the community.

Two aspects of this interaction--conflict and accommodation--become apparent in examining the causes and consequences of this murder. Both these are essential to understanding the functioning of any community, especially one where class and ethnic divisions were sharp. Such a community, like many others in late nineteenth century America, was Plattsburgh. These patterns are often subtle and hidden from the historian, but a dramatic event can reveal these normally shadowed relationships. It is as if a bolt of lightning illuminates a fascinating if frustratingly brief view of the social and cultural landscape. Such a bolt of lightning is the Chapleau-Tabor murder case.

Dr. Waller is presently [April 2000] Professor and Chair of the Department of History, University of Connecticut.  In 1986, she had been associate professor of history at SUNY Plattsburgh since 1983.  She earned her PhD. at the University of Massachusetts/ Amherst in 1980 and taught at West Virginia University and Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee.

The story is as unexpected as it is shocking. About four o'clock on January 28, 1889, Erwin Tabor started out as usual to pick up his two daughters from school downtown in the village of Plattsburgh. Kissing his invalid wife goodbye, he clothed his bulky form in a heavy coat, hat and gloves for protection against a typical north country winter day.

Settled in his two-seated sleigh and covered with a buffalo robe, Tabor turned eastward on Tom Miller Road. It was about three and a half miles to the village where the girls' school was located. For Erwin Tabor, it was the end of an ordinary day. But this was not to be an ordinary day.

At the same time as Tabor urged his horses toward the village, Joseph Chapleau, who lived directly across the road, was on his way home from Plattsburgh.

Chapleau, along with his neighbors John and Nelson Brown, had spent the day hauling slabs of wood from Cadyville to a lumber yard in Plattsburgh. Each man drove his own sleigh in a caravan westward along Tom Miller Road.

About three miles west of Plattsburgh, Chapleau, whose rig was leading the caravan, and Tabor approached each other from opposite directions. It was to be a fatal encounter. Apparently as the two passed each other, hostile remarks were exchanged which ended in physical violence. Although Chapleau was a small man of only five feet three inches and 125 pounds, while Tabor stood six feet and weighed 200 pounds, Chapleau beat him about the head with a four-foot sled stake, leaving him lying on the road in a pool of blood. John and Nelson Brown, who had been following Chapleau, ran to a nearby farm for help. Chapleau, arrested within minutes of the crime, admitted he had hit Tabor but argued that it was in self-defense, with no intent to kill.

The remarkable fact about Joseph Chapleau's behavior is that it was entirely alien to what is known of his personal history and character. He was a French-Canadian immigrant and thus part of an ethnic group which was regarded by most Yankees with suspicion and prejudice. But Chapleau seemed to be an exception; he was known in Plattsburgh as a poor but hard-working farmer--a devoted husband and father who never drank, gambled or got into fights, hardly the person anyone could guess would kill his neighbor. This reputation is confirmed by the little information available about his personal history.

Born in 1850 to a family that was well known and respected in Quebec, Chapleau had graduated from college in Montreal. At the age of 20, he left Canada. Although he was part of a pattern of Quebec emigration to the north country which had been flourishing since the 1840s, he was not typical of most of the immigrants, who tended to have rural backgrounds. By 1870, when Chapleau entered the United States, the French Canadians constituted almost fifty percent of Plattsburgh's population. They were well established, with their own church which had been in existence since the 1850s. However, most French-Canadian families, even after 20 years in the country, remained poor and illiterate, either renting their farms or working as unskilled laborers in village manufactures or the nearby iron mines. They remained a separate group with a culture based on the French language and heritage.

Chapleau, however, had a background which gave him a different set of expectations. His command of English and a college education allowed him to integrate more easily with the Yankee population. He joined the United States Army and served for five years at the Plattsburgh Barracks. During this period it is likely that he made acquaintances in Plattsburgh, among them a prosperous farmer, William R. Jones, who had a domestic servant, a young Irishwoman named Eliza Cassidy. In 1876, shortly after Chapleau was discharged from the Army, he and Eliza were married.

It was soon clear that Chapleau did not intend to join the ranks of propertyless unskilled laborers in Plattsburgh; he took out a mortgage on an acre of land and a small house in the village. Although the mortgage was to run for five years, Chapleau managed to pay it off in one year and obtain clear title to the property. It is unknown just what he was doing to make his living but it apparently was not very successful; by 1880 he had moved his family outside the village to Tom Miller Road, where he became a tenant on a farm belonging to William Jones, a move downward in social and economic status which must have distressed him. This was the farm that was directly across the road from Erwin Tabor.

The nine years between Chapleau's move and the murder of Tabor was a time of struggle to make ends meet and to improve his family's situation. Besides farming the Jones land, he cut and hauled timber for Hartwell's lumber yard, where he earned a reputation for honesty and dependability. By 1887 he had saved enough money to make a down payment on forty acres just to the west of the Jones farm. Clearly, Chapleau was hoping to end his days as a tenant.

In the year and a half before the murder, Chapleau was struggling to work the Jones farm as well as his own, haul timber, and pay off the mortgage on his own land. When two of his cows died unexpectedly in the summer of 1888, his distress was understandable. But when he accused his neighbor, Erwin Tabor, of poisoning the cows, some people thought he was being completely unreasonable. One neighbor reported that he had helped Chapleau perform a crude autopsy on a cow and discovered rusty nails in her stomach; still Chapleau did not desist in his belief that Tabor had deliberately poisoned her. Acquaintances of Tabor insisted that it would have been outrageously out of character, and a Plattsburgh newspaper rhetorically asked why would a rich man want to poison a poor man's cow?

Chapleau asserted that the two had argued over the way Tabor treated his servants. One instance he mentioned was that Tabor had hired a young woman as a domestic servant and had kept her on in the absence of his wife. Chapleau said that he informed the girl's father, who then removed her from Tabor's household. Although Chapleau himself did not mention it, there were also hints in the newspapers that Tabor had made sexual demands on servant women and perhaps even on Chapleau's own wife, a former servant. If true, this helps explain Chapleau's seemingly inexplicable and intense hatred of Tabor. At any rate tensions continued to mount.

It is impossible to determine the truth of the incidents relating to hired help and poisoned cows, but the existence of rumors begins to reveal the social context for animosity between the two men. Although they lived in close physical proximity, their social worlds were far apart.

Joseph Chapleau was a poor, struggling French-Canadian farmer while Erwin Tabor was a wealthy Yankee. Although Chapleau was more educated than most French-Canadians, he found his social identity in that group rather than Plattsburgh's Yankee community. His closest friends appear to have been the Brown family--French Canadian despite the English name--who resided farther west on Tom Miller Road. It was a typically large family whose members, despite three generations in Plattsburgh, were not assimilated. They were hard-working farmers who did not send their children to school, and spoke only French. It was at the Brown farmhouse that Chapleau felt enough at ease to discuss his hatred of Erwin Tabor.

Peter Brown, the patriarch of the family, testified that Chapleau had talked of killing Tabor. When Mrs. Brown remonstrated that such an act was hardly worth the death penalty which would surely follow, Chapleau insisted that "everyone" would be so glad to be rid of Tabor he would not be punished. Whether Chapleau's French neighbors agreed is not known, but it seems obvious that Tabor was not closely involved with his French neighbors. Just as they were outsiders in the Plattsburgh community, Tabor was an outsider in the Tom Miller Road neighborhood--one regarded at best with awe and at worst with suspicion and fear.

But how had Erwin Tabor come to live in a neighborhood which was alien to him in both class and ethnic terms? Tabor was a Yankee from Danby, Vermont, a town south of Rutland. His father, Gideon Tabor, originally from Massachusetts, was a prosperous farmer. In the mid-nineteenth century he, like other Vermont farmers, was struggling with the hostile, rocky soil that made up so much of Vermont and having a particularly difficult time providing for a large family.

Erwin was the youngest son and therefore had the fewest prospects of inheriting the family farm, so after the Civil War, at the age of 23, he left home. By 1870 he was managing a cheese factory in Peru, New York. His pattern of migration from Vermont to Plattsburgh was about as common as the one from Quebec except that many of the migrants from Vermont became Plattsburgh's leading citizens--Dr. David Kellogg, William Jones, and W.W. Hartwell are examples--while the French-Canadian migrants tended to remain poor farmers, artisans and laborers.

However, his Yankee background did not make things easy for Tabor. Possessing little advantage other than his wits and willingness to work hard, he was lucky enough to work for one of Clinton County's most prosperous citizens, Stephen K. Smith of Peru. In 1877 Tabor married Smith's daughter Elizabeth. After the wedding the two moved back to Danby for a couple of years, where one of their daughters was born. Perhaps Tabor was hoping to settle in his home town and obtain help from his father. Whatever his hopes, they did not work out.

In April of 1880 the couple moved back to Plattsburgh. Clinton County Land Records show that Tabor's wife bought the farm on Tom Miller Road. It was the same year that Chapleaus moved into their house across the road, and newspapers later contrasted the two residences. Tabor's was large, solidly built, neatly painted and in good repair; Chapleau's was small, unkempt, with sagging beams and holes in the roof. The difference is symbolic of the uneven results achieved by the two men in their struggles to recover the social status and economic stability they had lost. Despite hard work and determination, Chapleau was still a poor tenant farmer while Tabor owned his own farm and lived comfortably.

Not only was Tabor's house the best on the road but he and his wife did not mix socially with the French- Canadian and Irish farmers who populated the area. They continued to maintain their social life in Peru with Elizabeth's family and friends. On the whole, life had been kind to Erwin Tabor, unlike many Vermont migrants of this era. With a combination of determination and luck, he had found his niche very successfully in Clinton County.

But Tabor had paid a price for salvaging his status. First, he had been forced to leave the family farm in Danby, where he was part of an old and respected family. Secondly, although from Tabor's perspective it was fortunate that Elizabeth's family could provide some help in obtaining farm land, it was necessary to purchase the land in a low-cost area on the outskirts of Plattsburgh, an area populated by Irish and French-Canadian immigrants whom Tabor, like most New Englanders, considered of inferior social standing.

Finally, it may have embarrassed Tabor that the entire community was aware that he owed his status to his wife's family. When the tax collector assessed the Tabor land he referred to it casually as the "Smith Girl's Farm." Just possibly Tabor may have been bitter about both his dependence on the Smiths and his exile to such a neighborhood, and that bitterness may have extended to exploiting servant women and poisoning cows.

What is more certain, however, is that Tabor exhibited an attitude of superiority toward his neighbors. On the day of his murder, before Tabor met Chapleau, he passed the sled driven by Nelson Brown, one of those neighbors. Brown testified that Tabor bowed to him and then "laughed," mocking his own gesture of respect. While this alone does not confirm a condescending attitude, there is ample evidence to document such behavior on the part of most Yankees toward Plattsburgh's French population. If his contempt was only slightly sharper than most, this was owing to his own struggle to preserve his social status.

Still, one would not expect murder to be the outcome, nor did Tabor "deserve" such a fate. Ironically, what may have sealed Tabor's fate was almost an accident of social geography; he and his wife bought that particular piece of land along Tom Miller Road directly opposite Joseph Chapleau, a French Canadian with unusual sensitivity to insulting treatment. That Chapleau was different from another French family, the Browns, is easily demonstrated. Nelson Brown referred to Tabor as a splendid man" and had nothing negative to say about his behavior. Although not disagreeing with Chapleau that Tabor deserved death, the Browns were not nearly as disturbed by his behavior as was Chapleau. The Browns, in short, were accustomed to their role as second-class citizens and accepted the superior status of wealthier Yankees in their neighborhood and community. Chapleau, however, was not willing to accept such treatment-his education and background had apparently given him expectations of being treated with greater respect. It was not necessarily that Tabor was more prejudiced than most Plattsburgh Yankees, but that he was the Yankee who lived across the road from Joseph Chapleau.

From all accounts Chapleau did not have a violent temperament, but something had been building up in him, simmering for many months, perhaps years. If on that fatal snowy January day Tabor had indeed greeted Chapleau with a "vile remark," that may have been all that was needed to trigger the violent rage which had been suppressed so long. Tabor was the victim, not so much of a single murderous temperament, but of the social and cultural conflict simmering beneath Plattsburgh's outwardly calm surface.

Yet if the murder reveals the hostility between the two ethnic groups, the investigation and trial point to some very different dynamics, which suggest interaction and accommodation. When Chapleau was first questioned about the murder, he admitted his guilt and further said that his two companions, John and Nelson Brown, had been witnesses. However, when the two boys (they were 16 and 23) were brought in the next day for questioning, both denied having seen or heard anything. Neither of them could speak English and they were very frightened, insisting that they had never been in trouble before.

They and their family had decided that the best course for their own safety and for the protection of their friend Chapleau was to plead ignorance. This was not satisfactory to the village leaders, however. Plattsburgh officials promptly jailed the boys until they admitted witnessing Tabor's murder. But how were the boys to be persuaded to abandon the story agreed upon by their family? The problem was solved by calling in Plattsburgh's most respected French-Canadian citizen, Dr. Joseph H. LaRocque.

Dr. LaRocque was in an ideal position to mediate between the French-Canadian and Yankee communities in Plattsburgh. It might be said that he had a foot in each world. Like Chapleau, he had been born in Montreal and was at least distantly related to an influential family. After obtaining a medical degree, LaRocque left Montreal to practice in Nova Scotia and Massachusetts. By 1878 he had settled in Plattsburgh and opened both a drug store and a medical practice. During the 1880s he came to be accepted by Plattsburgh's elite, even becoming a Village Trustee. He was one of only six to ten percent of French Canadian immigrants to achieve such status in the mid-nineteenth century.

However, he did not abandon his French identity; he was one of the most visible members of St. Peter's Church and a founder of St. John the Baptist Society, an organization devoted to relieving poverty among local Catholics. Although LaRocque in his medical practice treated French Canadians, his social and political life revolved around the leading Yankee members of the community.

When the two terrified brothers refused to implicate themselves or Chapleau, it was natural for Plattsburgh's leaders to turn to Dr. LaRocque, who had on occasion treated some of the family and could speak their language. The Brown family also apparently agreed to Dr. LaRocque's intervention when Peter, the older brother, accompanied the Doctor on his visit to John and Nelson in jail; indeed, the family was probably relieved to have someone mediate whom they respected and trusted.

But Dr. LaRocque's task was still a difficult one. He had to convince the boys to testify that they had seen their close family friend commit a crime which would certainly result in his death. Moreover, they were obviously convinced that if they admitted anything they themselves would be subject to prosecution--the Sheriff had already hinted that if they refused to "tell the truth" they could be kept in jail indefinitely. As Nelson Brown admitted later in the trial, he had refused to talk because he "had never been in the law before--didn't know what the law was." Despite apparent ignorance, the Brown boys had a very realistic perception of their own powerlessness in the community. Indeed, the depth of fear they experienced became tragically clear six months later when the younger witness, John, hanged himself. His family reported that he had been nervous and depressed since his incarceration and interrogation, but most of all, he was fearful of the upcoming trial, when he would be required to testify.

Did it occur to Dr. LaRocque that jailing witnesses and browbeating them, however gently, was a travesty of the legal system7 Did he consider getting the boys a lawyer or arguing that their rights were being violated7 Whether he had these thoughts or not, he decided to persuade the Browns to cooperate by telling everything they had witnessed. This is entirely understandable in the light of Dr. LaRocque's position in the social hierarchy. His French identity was very important to him--he proudly displayed his background and his loyalty to the French Catholic Church. At the same time, he thrived on his acceptance into the leading social and political classes in Plattsburgh. To counsel resistance would be to intensify conflict, a course which would undermine his own hard-won position.

But if the Doctor thought he had been put on the spot, he gave no indication of it. Indeed, it is likely that he saw no conflict between his loyalty to his class and to his ethnic group. For him, peace in the community was paramount, and it would be easy to conclude that it was in the Browns' own interest to cooperate. For the French Canadians in general it was imperative that tensions between themselves and the Yankees be minimized as much as possible. Friendly if wary coexistence was preferable to overt hostility. Since the French were already regarded by Yankees as more undisciplined and violent than themselves, a crime like Chapleau's needed punishment immediately, with the approval of leading French citizens like Dr. LaRocque. He visited the boys in their jail cell and persuaded them to cooperate. The next day at the second inquest, Nelson calmly related to the jury how Joseph Chapleau had bludgeoned Erwin Tabor to death.

If the murder had laid bare simmering conflicts between ethnic groups, and the handling of the investigation demonstrated the patronizing social control exerted over lower-class French Canadians in Plattsburgh, the formal trial, on the other hand, revealed accommodation and temporizing. Most people, both French and Yankees, seemed to assume that Chapleau was indeed guilty and would be found guilty. His appointed lawyer, James Averill of Rouses Point, did not mount a very vigorous defense. He did not, for example, fully exploit Nelson Brown's changing stories or his fright and confusion in the courtroom. Instead he concentrated on Chapleau's impeccable background by calling several leading citizens to testify to his good character. The result was almost a reversal of the scenario one might have expected--French Canadians defending Chapleau while Yankees inveighed against him. Just the reverse was true. French Canadians who testified damaged his case while his character witnesses were all Yankees, who affirmed his honesty, dependability and sobriety

What is more remarkable is that both sides remained strangely silent concerning Tabor's behavior. No one explored why such a model citizen as Chapleau could have been so obsessed with hatred for Tabor. In the trial, the issues of cow poisoning and the exploiting of servant women were dismissed or ignored. Nelson Brown, in his testimony, called Tabor "a fine, splendid man." No one was willing to make any statements that Tabor might have, even remotely, provoked resentment and animosity. Chapleau declined to testify in his own behalf, abandoning his earlier statements about the reasons for his quarrel with Tabor.

Strangely enough, the Yankees in Plattsburgh, the group which held the power, were surprisingly "soft" on Chapleau, even though he had brutally murdered one of their own. Not that anyone expected acquittal, for Chapleau's guilt was assumed--but, of what? Premeditated first degree murder, or the lesser second degree for which the sentence would not necessarily be death? The French-Canadian community feared, even assumed, the worst, and John and Nelson Brown were terrified about the consequences of even witnessing such an act. Why, then, did the Yankees temporize? Why not push for the first degree verdict? This restraint only makes sense if one assumes they understood that Tabor probably did act provocatively and further, that it would take considerable provocation for Joseph Chapleau to resort to violence. The crime couldn't be forgiven, but it could be understood. Both Tabor and Chapleau had violated parameters of social behavior and the community tacitly resolved the issue in a way that would not further aggravate the conflicts briefly unveiled by the murder.

The difficulty in bringing about the result implicitly agreed upon by both the defense and the prosecution became apparent as soon as the Judge began his charge to the jury. Previous good character, he instructed its members, should not enter into the verdict. The crime alone and the evidence of Chapleau's earlier statements about getting rid of Tabor should be the jury's sole guide. With this kind of instruction, the jury promptly came in with a verdict of first degree murder and the Judge sentenced Chapleau to be the first person to be executed in New York State's new electric chair.

Both sides were stunned! Apparently the error had occurred because both the Judge and jury were not from Plattsburgh. The Judge had been brought in from outside, and all of the jurors were Yankee farmers from rural Clinton County towns. Pretrial questioning revealed that many of them didn't know people in Plattsburgh or read the village newspapers. They were intent on deciding the case from a purely objective point of view and to them, Chapleau's statements prior to the murder, that he wanted to kill Tabor, seemed enough to prove premeditation.

Once the verdict was in, it was not long before the Judge and jurors got an education in what they should have done. In the next few months, Chapleau's formal appeal was denied but citizens of Plattsburgh were determined to set the matter right. The actual process is lost in obscurity, but all the members of the jury eventually petitioned the Governor of New York, stating that their first-degree-murder verdict was not appropriate and that they had since discovered information which changed their minds. Supporting this document was another signed by all the county officials, informing the Governor that while Chapleau had undoubtedly committed the crime, "the extent of his responsibility" was not so certain. In other words, the death sentence was much too harsh. By June of 1890 the Governor had been persuaded. He granted clemency, concluding that the jury had been wrong in bringing in a first-degree verdict. Chapleau would not die in the electric chair but rather would be imprisoned for life.

Chapleau lived at Dannemora until he was more than sixty years old. Local newspapers noted that he was extraordinarily well treated, being allowed two adjacent cells which were carpeted and well furnished. He dressed, not in a prison uniform, but in his civilian clothes, played in the prison band, and was known as the "professor." Perhaps it is significant that the French-Canadian community did not object to his being in prison, and the Yankee community did not object to his preferential treatment. It was the kind of accommodation necessary for the future of Plattsburgh's ethnic relationships.

To Summary of North Country Public Executions page.