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A Black preacher disappeared from Norwich in 1890. His alleged killer confessed, but was never charged

A photo of an old book held open by a woman's hands. The upside text is visible of "Annual Report, Town Officers of Norwich, VT"
Elodie Reed
Vermont Public
John Harrison traveled Vermont as a preacher in the 1880s, according to newspaper notices from the time. A racist name in deed records preserved his memory.

Note: This story contains sensitive material, including racial slurs. Please read and listen with care.

Last winter, the Norwich Historical Society held a program called “All About Norwich – your questions answered.”

They asked residents to submit questions ahead of time, and went through local trivia like how the town of Norwich got its name and what old log drives used to look like. It was all very jolly. Then came this moment at the end of the event.

The director of the historical society, Sarah Rooker, said they’d gone through all the questions submitted.

One of the attendees, Claudia Marieb, piped in: Her question hadn't been answered. It was about a name that appeared on her deed — "Darkey Bridge," from the section of Norwich where she lived called Beaver Meadow.

“Obviously I thought of that as a racist term, and I wondered, 'Why?' Like what was the story here with African Americans? Or was there racism here? Or what was the history? And I would bring it up with different people, but there wasn't a whole lot of information."
Claudia Marieb, Norwich

Rooker paused before answering.

“It is a story of racism,” she said. “And it is a story that I want to spend time thinking about how to share to the community in a way that promotes conversation.”

Then, she gave a brief explanation of where the name might have come from.

“There was a minister who lived in Beaver Meadow at the corner there, in the mid-1880s,” Rooker said. “He was harassed and abused by local young men in Beaver Meadow and he was eventually murdered.”

This minister was named John Harrison. He was one of the only Black men living in Norwich at the time, according to town records.

A racial slur in town documents marked his memory.

“It’s also known as 'Darkey Corner,' it also is known as 'N- corner' and 'N- bridge,'” Rooker said. “There’s some pretty racist pieces.”

A stream flowing under a bridge on a sunny day with snow on the banks and trees on one side.
Elodie Reed
Vermont Public
The bridge in west Norwich in front of the property where John Harrison once lived. 

That same night, Marieb emailed me. At the time, I was living next door to her on a dirt road, about a two-minute walk away.

She forwarded me an 1896 newspaper clipping about John Harrison’s alleged murder that Rooker sent her after the event.

It describes where Harrison lived as “a little one story shanty which sat in a fork of the road about a mile from Beaver Meadow on the road to Sharon.” A stream controlled by a trout club ran past the property “within a stone’s throw of the house.”

I started reading the article, then stopped. It was violent, and I wanted to wait until daytime. Because this account of where John Harrison had lived, it was where I was living — where two dirt roads come together, upriver from the same trout club.

I felt confident it was the same place, because the line in Marieb’s deed about "Darkey Bridge," it described where her property line ended and mine began. I rented a house there until last year.

A window, seen from inside a house looking out at yellow, dead grass a dirt road, and an apple tree with no leaves.
Elodie Reed
Vermont Public
A newspaper article from 1896 described where Harrison lived as a “shanty which sat in a fork of the road about a mile from Beaver Meadow on the road to Sharon.” A house built in the 1980s now stands on the property.

Marieb had been wondering about the name on her deed ever since she bought her home in 2018.

“Obviously I thought of that as a racist term, and I wondered why,” she told me last year. “Like what was the story here with African Americans? Or was there racism here? Or what was the history? And I would bring it up with different people, but there wasn't a whole lot of information."

Marieb added: “So when the historical society asked residents for questions, I asked that question.”

A printed deed of a property in Norwich. It reads, "commencing at an iron pin... just opposite Darkey Bridge."
Elodie Reed
Vermont Public
Claudia Marieb’s deed includes a racial slur that first appeared in the records in the 1940s. Other town documents from the 1930s use different racial slurs to refer to the area.
A woman stands in the middle of a dirt road with her arms crossed in front of a white binder held in front of her chest.
Elodie Reed
Vermont Public
Claudia Marieb had been wondering about the name on her deed ever since she bought her home in Norwich in 2018.

She had no idea her question would lead to a story of a preacher, a young man who moved to Norwich just a few years before he was killed. Neither did any of the neighbors she talked about this with, including me.

After Marieb sent me the article, I wanted to learn more about John Harrison’s life and the people responsible for his death. But when I started looking into it, there was no gravesite or death certificate, nothing in a Google search, or in academic literature about what happened. A book published by the Norwich Historical Society in 2012 included a page about John Harrison, but as far as I could find, that was it.

Having such little record really bothered me. Because however ugly it is, that history played a part in shaping this community today — in who was permitted to live here, and who wasn’t.

And in Vermont, where so much of our history has been kept and remembered, not knowing this story struck me as a glaring omission.

An oil painting depicts a landscape of a road with horse and buggies, early cars, a small church and cemetery and farm houses, along with people and pigs. From the Hood Museum's description: "it is an eloquent expression of the aesthetics and ideals of the regionalist movement of the 1930s. Its lean, decorative composition, stripped of extraneous detail, recalls popular illustration, caricature, and American folk art traditions. In it, painter Paul Sample celebrates qualities associated with a stereotypical Vermont village: the harmonious relationships between humans and nature, as reflected in the tidy fields and farm buildings nestled in the hills, and among members of this apparently idyllic settlement, whose sense of community is strengthened through weekly worship. Yet the picture also evokes an undercurrent of unease, suggested by the rigidity of the figures and their detachment from one another."
Paul Sample
Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth: Gift of the artist
An oil painting of the Beaver Meadow community from 1939 depicts a landscape about a mile from where John Harrison lived. The chapel in the painting was constructed over 20 years after his death.
A black and white photo in a clear plastic bag shows a grassy field with tracks through it lined by trees.
Elodie Reed
Vermont Public
A photo from the Norwich Historical Society archives shows a property in Beaver Meadow.

But what happened to John Harrison had not been entirely forgotten. There were rumors, decades ago, of something horrible that happened here.

I met Jayn Keller at an old chapel about a mile from where John Harrison lived, built a few decades after his death. She first moved to the area in the 1970s.

“Early on when I first came here, I heard a story of a man who was killed there — a Black man who — his house was burned and maybe he was in it,” she told me. “It felt bad, because it’s such a beautiful place. I love it here. And it never really came up. Just more in the back of my mind, I always hoped it wasn't true."

Keller never learned anything more, until the event last year with the Norwich Historical Society.

Meet John Harrison

It’s hard to verify details about John Harrison’s life. But newspaper articles say he was a young man when he moved to the area, around 25 years old.

His father had been enslaved. And both his parents died when he was young. He was raised in upstate New York by a “Christian family,” according to one article.

“If it's called a Christian family, this is almost certainly a euphemism for a white family,” John Saillant, a professor who studies Black religion in early America, told me by phone last year.

Saillant works at Western Michigan University, and has written extensively about a Black minister who moved to Rutland in the late 1700s named Lemuel Haynes. He had never heard of John Harrison, but he agreed to read through some old newspaper articles I sent him, to provide some context.

“He was basically adopted into a white family and then reared by them,” he said. “Then probably in mid-adolescence, he started doing local work for his upkeep.”

An old handwritten list of names in fine black cursive.
Lexi Krupp
Vermont Public
Norwich town records show that John Harrison paid a poll tax in 1888. He also appears in tax records in 1889.

John Harrison moved to Vermont in the 1880s. At the time, Reconstruction in the former Confederate states had ended. Jim Crow laws and racial segregation were the norm. Thousands of Black people were targeted by racial violence, leading to mass migration north and west.

In Vermont, there were just over 1,000 Black people in the whole state, according to the 1880 census. Most Black men worked as farmhands, laborers, or barbers. Some had their own farms. But there weren't many other options for work if you were Black — most banks wouldn't loan you money for a business, you couldn't get a job as a carpenter or teacher, and factories and railroads wouldn't hire you.

As a young man, John Harrison decided to become a preacher, and he likely picked up other work to get by. According to one newspaper article, he didn’t know how to read or write, but he probably grew up listening to people read from the Bible.

“He would have been an itinerant minister, traveling around and maybe preaching to people who hadn’t heard a sermon for a long time.”
John Saillant, Western Michigan University

“My guess is he probably has a repertoire of a couple of dozen Bible stories,” Saillant said. “And he can pull on those and preach as needed.”

He thinks John Harrison’s decision to move to a place like west Norwich made a certain amount of sense.

For decades, many people had been leaving Vermont, heading west. Many established parishes had disbanded, and being a minister in a rural, northern New England town wasn’t exactly a coveted job.

“This creates opportunities for people like John Harrison,” Saillant said. “Essentially he would have been an itinerant minister, traveling around and maybe preaching to people who hadn’t heard a sermon for a long time. People are hungry for sermons, and so someone who can fill that void is going to be welcomed here and there.”


In early 1886, John Harrison’s name started showing up in newspaper notices all over the region, advertising where he was preaching: at the village Hall in Taftsville, a schoolhouse in Walden, a Baptist church in Hardwick, an outdoor meeting in West Groton.

Sarah Rooker, from the Norwich Historical Society, found a bunch of these articles to show me.

“He was getting good-sized audiences,” she said.

A woman leans against the pillar of a two-story old building, built in 1807. It's painted white with black shutters.
Elodie Reed
Vermont Public
Sarah Rooker says the Norwich Historical Society is planning to work with community members this year to figure out the best way to share John Harrison’s story.

And John Harrison wasn’t alone preaching in Vermont.

"There are other Black itinerant preachers, certainly," said Amy Howe, an assistant professor at Champlain College who studies American religious history. She's researched the life of a man named Charles Bowles, who traveled the state by horseback in the early 1800s, preaching in different towns. He bought land in Huntington, and gained a large following there.

But many of these stories haven't been written down. The records are hard to find, unless you know what you're looking for.

In John Harrison’s case, besides newspaper clippings, his name also appears in the grand lists of the town of Norwich. They’re these marbled bound books written in beautiful cursive, listing every household in town — how much land they owned and if they paid a poll tax.

John Harrison did not own property. The land where he lived belonged to an old farmer, according to deed records. But he did pay taxes in 1888 and 1889. Then, he disappears.

What we know about William Eastman

About two miles from where John Harrison lived was a small farm in Sharon where brothers named William and Albert Eastman grew up. They were close in age, both in their early 20s at the time.

They seemed to have a lot of relatives living nearby. At least three other families with the same last name lived in the area, according to maps from the mid-1800s.

And the brothers liked to go fishing. One of their regular spots took them right past John Harrison’s house. They’d talk, and sometimes harass him.

An old newspaper article with the heading "West Norwich." It says "Some one broke in to Rev. John Harrison's house and damaged it quite badly." One quite is misspelled as "qutie"
The Landmark
A newspaper article from June of 1889 says that John Harrison was burglarized about a year before he disappeared.

In 1895, about five years after John Harrison disappeared, William Eastman got into trouble.

He was caught breaking into someone’s home and stealing cider, according to newspaper records.

The postmaster of west Norwich testified against him in a criminal case. And a couple months later, William decided to get revenge. He had a fight at the post office, and the postmaster shot him, he claimed in self defense. This is when John Harrison’s name again appears in the newspaper.

An article in the St. Albans Messenger in 1896 says William Eastman was badly injured, and “supposing himself on his deathbed,” he made a confession that he and three others murdered Harrison, “then buried the body in the cellar of his house.”

The alleged murder

The next part of the story is described as a rumor. It’s printed several years after John Harrison disappeared, and the article says William Eastman’s doctor denied hearing any confession.

Still the story goes on, in graphic detail. At the time, a lot of people would have heard about it — different versions were printed in the Granite State Free Press in Lebanon, the Brattleboro Reformer, and the Burlington Independent.

It says in the fall of 1890, about two weeks before Harrison disappeared, “the two Eastman boys made Harrison a call, and left him for dead.”

The description of what they did to Harrison is hard to read. It says: “The boys had pounded the negro on the head with an iron kettle until the bale broken and left a big ridge across his forehead. The boys then went up the village and told what they had done, and it is said that they afterward boasted that they would ‘finish him yet.’”

The article says neighbors went to John Harrison’s house, and found him badly hurt. But in a couple days, Harrison went to get help. He “made a complaint" to the town grand juror who "referred the preacher to the state’s attorney at Bethel." In the end, "nothing was done about it.”

A woman with short grey hair in a blue shirt points to a multi-colored framed map, which is labeled "Norwich" and divided into blue, pink, yellow and orange chunks. The woman is pointing to a pink chunk in the left (west) part of the map.
Elodie Reed
Vermont Public
A map that hangs in the Norwich Historical Society shows the names of some of the people who lived in Norwich in 1869, including several families with the surname Eastman.

After that, John Harrison was afraid to stay in his home alone. He moved in with a neighbor, about half a mile away. He took most of his furniture with him, according to the article, and “as the story goes, he told them that he would bring the rest up the next morning, but was never seen again."

The article from the St. Albans Messenger says his house was torn down. Other accounts say it was burned.

A follow-up article says the selectmen of Norwich started an investigation to search for the body. They poked around the remains of the house, and were said to have found a Bible and a small bag. But the ground was frozen at the time — this was late January — and they couldn’t dig past the cellar.

“I looked for a record of his death, and there's nothing in the town records. And I looked in the select board’s expense reports just to see if there was any mention — nothing.”
Sarah Rooker, Norwich Historical Society

Sarah Rooker, from the Norwich Historical Society, tried to find out if anything else came of the investigation.

“I looked for a record of his death, and there's nothing in the town records,” she told me. “And I looked in the select board’s expense reports just to see if there was any mention — nothing. So it's not showing up in the town records at all.”

There’s no mention of John Harrison again in any newspaper articles, or anywhere in the archives of the Norwich Historical Society, according to Rooker.

Standing among those archives, my colleague Elodie Reed asked her about this: “So there's nothing in this entire room that records this incident?”

“No, not that we found,” Rooker said. “And it's pretty well-cataloged.”

A photograph outside the doorway of a room with a plastic table and folding chairs in the center, lined with shelves of books, lit by a florescent bulb hanging from the ceiling.
Elodie Reed
Vermont Public
The archives of the Norwich Historical Society contain no reference to John Harrison or the violence he suffered, outside of a newspaper article dropped off in 1994, according to Sarah Rooker.

Having such little record of what happened to John Harrison is not surprising.

"It gets forgotten, in terms of people who are living in the community actually knowing about it," said Deborah Karyn King. Up until last year, she was a sociology professor at Dartmouth College. She’s retired now, but she’s still working on the Dartmouth and Slavery Project — documenting the college’s involvement with the transatlantic slave trade.

She says learning about crimes like what happened to John Harrison gives a more nuanced account of life in small town Vermont, including for the Black people living there.

"The presence of African Americans in Vermont means that we not only note their presence, but also really want to recognize some of the troubling things that absolutely happened," she said.

And some of those troubling things still show up today, in cases of racism in Vermont schools, policing, and the Statehouse.

"We kind of think, ‘Oh, they come out of the blue' — and they don't come out of the blue, in the sense that Vermont is still a part of those dynamics in history of the United States overall," King said. "So that we shouldn't be surprised when some of the negative stuff and the bad stuff happens."

“We want someone to look us in the eye and just say, ‘Man that’s stuff heavy, we get it.' But if those things are never brought to them, then how are they going to know? And how are we all going to heal together?”
Jerome Lafeyette Narramore, who researches Black history in Vermont

For some people, remembering stories like what happened to John Harrison also does something else.

"It serves as a way to heal," said Jerome Lafeyette Narramore. He’s a biracial filmmaker from New York City who has been researching Black history in Vermont for the past 20 years, inspired by his own family’s history in the Castleton area. He also runs a Facebook group dedicated to sharing stories of Black history in the state.

In a recent phone call, I asked him why remembering these types of stories is important.

“We want someone to look us in the eye and just say, ‘Man that’s stuff heavy, we get it,’” he said. “But if those things are never brought to them, then how are they going to know? And how are we all going to heal together?”

What happened to the Eastmans

Back in 1897, over a year after William Eastman was shot, the burglary charge against him was dropped. Instead, he pleaded guilty to petty larceny. He paid $20 in fines — worth about $700 today — according to newspaper accounts.

He got into trouble with the law again, a decade later. He was charged with assault with intent to kill, but his case was eventually dismissed, for lack of evidence.

He died of lung disease when he was 49, according to a death certificate.

William’s older brother, Albert Eastman, was also implicated in the murder. He had his own farm in Sharon, where he raised a son and stepdaughter, according to census records. He died in 1947, at the age of 80. Both brothers were buried at a cemetery in Sharon.

The property where John Harrison lived sat vacant for almost a century, besides the occasional haying. That was until the 1980s, when a small house was built there. That’s where I lived, up until last year.

A photo of an apple tree casting a shadow over yellow grass. In the background is a dirt road surrounded by woods.
Elodie Reed
Vermont Public
Claudia Marieb says she still wants to do something more to honor John Harrison’s life. Right now, she’s just not sure what that should look like.

I recently met back up Claudia Marieb, my former neighbor. We walked down to the bridge, and I asked her how learning all this was sitting with her.

“I wasn’t shocked as much as, it felt so poignant to get the real information, because it did feel like it was occluded,” she said. “There’s a weird feeling to know, there are all these rumors, and this is the deal of what happened there.”

For her, what we think happened to John Harrison feels inseparable from his racial identity. It’s impossible to say why William Eastman and others targeted him, but when he asked for protection from a threat against his life, he didn’t get any.

Marieb says she’s glad she knows the truth about what happened. It reminded her of a trip she took to the Dachau concentration camp in southern Germany.

“It’s like those horrible things, it's really important to witness and honor,” she said. “Maybe there were no witnesses then, except for William Eastman. But we can witness and honor John Harrison. The violence that happened, the racism that didn't provide him protection, we can be the witness for that.” ■

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Lexi Krupp reported this story. Editing by Brittany Patterson with help from Myra Flynn and Elodie Reed. Music by Blue Dot Sessions.

A special thank you to Elise Guyette for sharing her expertise on Black history in Vermont, Alan Berolzheimer, the Norwich Town Clerk’s Office, the Vermont State Archives, John Moody, and guidance from Kenya Lazuli, Mia Shultz, and Miriam Wood.

Also thanks to Sabine Poux, Josh Crane, Corey Dockser, Mike Dougherty, Zoe McDonald , Kaylee Mumford and Peter Engisch.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message, or contact reporter Lexi Krupp:


Lexi Krupp is a corps member with Report for America, a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and regions.

Updated: February 20, 2024 at 9:59 AM EST
This story was updated to include that a book published by the Norwich Historical Society in 2012 included a page about John Harrison. Subsequently, the line "And all that was left to mark his memory was a racial slur in town documents" was deleted.

Attribution was added to the passage about the Norwich Historical Society archives containing no additional reference to John Harrison after the publicity surrounding his murder.
Updated: January 22, 2024 at 10:35 PM EST
The story was updated to include that Jerome Lafeyette Narramore is a biracial filmmaker from New York City.
Lexi covers science and health stories for Vermont Public.
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