No mystery: Detective society hits 200 years

BRIDPORT — Not many organizations can claim to be the oldest of their kind in the United States. Then again, the 200-year-old Addison Bridport Detective Society is not like most organizations.
Begun on Dec. 16, 1816, when roughly two dozen men assembled in the barn of Alan Smith in Addison for its inaugural meeting, the Detective Society has met continuously every year since, making it the oldest association of private investigators in the country that still actively meets, according to Ed Mitcham, the society’s outgoing secretary.
While the reasons for the first meeting are unclear, the leading speculation is that Smith was robbed shortly before this meeting while attempting to drive a herd of cattle down to Boston. As law enforcement was scarce in rural New England during the early years of the republic, many small communities established vigilante groups — like this one — to dissuade would-be thieves.
Last Saturday, nearly 100 people and a horse gathered at the Bridport Grange Hall for the society’s 200th annual meeting. To ring in the bicentennial, the society put together an action-packed program of events.
The day kicked off with an hour of art and history. Society members perused the Bridport Historical Society’s exhibit “What Happened 200 Years Ago in Addison and Bridport” and an art show featuring “The Horses Not Stolen” drawn by the Addison and Bridport school children. Meanwhile, local fiddlers Viveka Fox and Peter Macfarlane filled the hall with their live renditions of traditional New England fiddle music.
After a luncheon prepared by the Bridport Grange, members reconvened for the meeting itself. President James Walker opened the meeting by introducing the head table, which consisted of himself, Vice President Elaine Naylor, Treasurer Jo Clawson, Ed Mitcham (who was concluding his 12-year tenure as secretary), retired Middlebury College History Professor Travis Jacobs and former Gov. Jim Douglas.
Due to this year’s particularly festive schedule, the society voted to forgo reading the minutes from last year’s meeting.
Following a budget report by Treasurer Clawson, the society held an election for next year’s leadership. Elaine Naylor, Irene Zaccor and Lynne Boie will take over as president, vice president and secretary, respectively. Clawson will stay on for another year as treasurer.
As the resident historian, Professor Jacobs provided the society members with an overview of the organization’s history. While the society primarily dealt with horse thieves and cattle rustlers, it also responded to other types of property theft, including pilfering of cash, postage stamps and store goods, Jacobs said, referring to the group’s records. The records, in fact, are intact and were on display at the event.
In addition to officers, the organization had two special committees: the Committee of Safety, which managed reports of stolen property and logistical details, and the Committee of Pursuits, which, when given the green light by the Committee of Safety, would run down thieves for 50 cents per day plus any expenses incurred.
However, the days of chasing down thieves ended nearly a century ago.
The society’s final foray into thief detection occurred in 1926 following a robbery at the Tracey Brothers’ corner store in Addison. While their actual detective work on the case was slim to none, the society did issue a reward for any information pertaining to the thief.
The $50 reward was enough to prompt local farmhand Frank Johnson to suspect Charles Forest of Bridport as the culprit after seeing him in a pair of trousers at least 10 sizes too large — an item among those reported as stolen. He alerted the authorities, who, after performing their own investigation, arrested Forest and recovered the remaining goods. Johnson received the reward and Forest was sentenced to three to five years in prison.
Although the pursuers from the Addison Bridport Detective Society never again would set out after a thief, roughly eight to 10 men per year were appointed to the committee until 1947 when the Vermont State Police was created, Professor Jacobs said.
Since then, the Addison Bridport Detective Society has become much more of a social group, said Boie, who did much of the organizing for Saturday’s event.
The group is still accepting new members on the condition that they meet the society’s strict standards.
To become a member, one must be a resident of Addison or Bridport, be of upstanding moral character and pay the one-dollar lifetime membership fee. Barring residency in either town, the only other way to become a member is to be invited as a guest speaker, said Mitcham, who has been a card-carrying member since 1970.
Mitcham, whom many members identified as the driving organizational force behind the group over the last decade, had some additional thoughts about how to keep the group relevant moving forward.
“Two things I can say to carry on are open the meeting promptly at 11:30 a.m. sharp and have interesting speakers from various subjects,” he said.
This year’s speaker was Jim Douglas, governor of Vermont from 2003-2011. The Middlebury Republican and current executive in residence at Middlebury College talked about some of the more recent historical events in the area and outlined some of the major challenges facing Vermont’s communities today. In particular, Douglas focused on the state’s high tax burden and high cost of living in the face of the declining numbers of young and working-age people living here.
“Now that the communities of Addison and Bridport are safe and there’s no more thievery, the society could turn its attention to economic growth and building a vital commercial base … but then, you might need more police, I guess,” Douglas said.
Whether the society will take up the governor’s challenge remains to be seen, but members are hopeful that, no matter what, the group will live long into the future.
“The people here have been attending these meetings for 200 years,” society President Naylor said. “So, why not 200 more?”
Editor’s note: David Fuchs is a Middlebury College junior and an intern for the Addison Independent.

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