Twenty Years for a Crime he Didn’t Commit

Henry Lambert was an outsider. In the spring of 1901 he was working as a general laborer, doing jobs on farms in the Greenville area after a winter spent with the logging crews in the Maine woods. The short, wiry French Canadian was 26 years old and sported a prominent red-blond mustache. He lived alone in a camp on the outskirts of the town of Shirley, coming into town to work, play pool, and hang out at the hotel bar. When the Allens’ Farm burned to the ground on the evening of May 13, killing the family inside, locals suspected foul play, and suspicion soon fell on the French Canadian loner.

In an episode that echoes the plot of Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Lambert was accused of the murder of the entire Allen family, as well as the attempted rape of their fifteen year old daughter. Lambert had been working on the Allens’ farm, but the case for his guilt was slim. Nonetheless, he was tried and sentenced to life in the Maine State Prison. Twenty years later, he walked free with a full pardon. The story of Lambert’s conviction and exoneration says a lot about the justice system of the era, and the dangers faced by “outsiders” in close knit communities.

Henry Lambert, illustration from the Bangor Daily News, Nov 20, 1901

According to his own testimony at trial, Henry (Henri) Lambert was born in Québec in January 1875. His family appears to have lived the precarious life of many marginal farming families of the period. Lambert said that he began working at the tender age of 10, helping his father who cut wood in the winter. When his father died that year, young Henry walked to a neighbor’s farm three miles away to earn $3 a month, plus clothing. The money went to his mother to support the family, including one older sister and eight younger siblings. In the spring of 1886, he worked a month on a maple syrup farm.


But the earning potential of a 10 year old boy was almost certainly inadequate to support the large family. And later that year, the Lamberts came to Waterville, Maine to work in the textile industry. There, Henry, his mother, sister and a younger brother could all be employed in the mills. Women and children were paid less than men, but the cotton mill probably offered an opportunity for multiple members of the family to earn regular wages. The younger Lambert children, too young to work, appear to have remained in Quebec with extended family.

But work in the spinning room didn’t agree with Henry. Two and a half years in Waterville and Augusta mills took a toll on his health. Lung diseases were common among the textile workers of this period, who endured claustrophobic conditions with cotton fibers filling the air. Lambert spent a summer as a farm hand in Belgrade Mills and a short time in the pulp mill in Augusta. For the next decade or so, from 1892 on, Lambert settled into a rhythm much like that of many rural landless Québécois of the time. In wintertime he worked in the woods felling trees, and in the spring and summer he earned money as a farmhand. It must have been a somewhat isolated existence.

At trial, Lambert said he had lost touch with his family. His mother was already dead. His sister had gotten married in Waterville around 1889, and he had a brother living in Waterville or Harpswell – but he hadn’t spoken to either in six years. He had made one trip back to Canada to visit family in or around Sherbrooke around 1895.

Which brings us to May 12 1901, when Lambert was working on the farm of J Wesley Allen, his wife Mary and teenage daughter Carrie. Lambert had become friendly with the Allens, who had allowed to build a log cabin, 12 by 14 feet, on their land. On the night in question, Lambert was staying elsewhere, at the nearby home of Telos Smith. That night, a fire broke out at the Allen Farm, destroying the buildings completely and apparently killing the Allens and their daughter.

Ruins of the Allen Barn, illustration in the Bangor Daily News, Nov 21, 1901

There were few, if any, signs of foul play, yet the Allens’ neighbors immediately concluded that this was a deliberate killing. The human remains found in the ruins were too charred to give much indication of what had happened that night, but a belt buckle belonging to Mr Allen, and Mrs Allen’s false teeth suggested the family had perished. A small pool of blood was also identified on the ground outside. In a sign of how much the incident shook the small community, the Lewiston Daily Sun of May 14 reported that “hundreds” had visited the fire site that day, and that the local stores had sold out of guns and ammunition as panicked residents sought to protect themselves.

Some imaginative locals constructed an entire narrative for the happenings that night. Someone (or someones) had come to the Allen place looking to rape Carrie. The girl struggled, her father came to her rescue, and the would-be rapist murdered the father and the whole family, before setting the fire to hide his crime. There doesn’t seem to have been much evidence for this colorful story, but it soon became the accepted version of events.

In small towns, the suspicion for crimes often falls on outsiders, especially when the crime is as serious as murder and attempted rape. No-one believes their neighbors to be capable of such atrocities, so blame falls on the outsider. The residents of Shirley first suspected the group of men who had recently held up the mail stagecoach. Presumably the thinking went that if these ruffians had committed one crime, why not another? The fact that one of the three was described as “dark, like an Indian” may have added to the assumption that this group was behind the suspected murder. The Lewiston Daily Sun reported on May 16 that at least two groups were apprehended – one group at Fort Fairfield, which included an Indian, and a group at Brunswick which included a black man.

But when this lead did not go anywhere, law enforcement looked closer to home for the culprit, and attention turned to Henry Lambert. There doesn’t appear to have been strong evidence tying Lambert to the fire. The primary indicator of guilt seems to have been the lack of a strong alibi. Nonetheless, the State of Maine brought charges of murder against him, with a case built almost entirely on circumstantial evidence. The key pieces of evidence in the trial, which began in November 1901, included a set of boot marks from the farm to Lambert’s cabin, the fact that Lambert had cut off a piece of his shirt, and the whereabouts of a missing umbrella.

The Lambert trial was a sensation. The grisly details of the fire and supposed “crime” had been covered breathlessly in the Maine press, as had the hunt for the guilty party. Several selected jury men admitted to having read newspaper coverage of the events before the trial, but were selected anyway. When the trial began on November 20, every twist and turn was covered in the newspapers. The latest dispatches from the trial were on the front page of the Bangor Daily News every day of the two weeks it was in session, accompanied by diagrams of the “crime” site and illustrations of the key players. Reporters also filed background stories on the activities of the jurors and conditions in the jailhouse. The trial proved to be one of the longest and most expensive in state history. It lasted 14 full days, and the trial records eventually filled 1200 pages.

The length of the trial was partly because the state had to spend a long time constructing a case from the circumstantial evidence at its disposal. As the trial continued over Thanksgiving, those in attendance found themselves eating turkey in the town’s hotels. The jury, off-duty for a day, were served a special holiday meal as well. Despite the length of the trial, and the relatively isolated, the small courthouse in Dover was packed with spectators. It was reported to be only the third murder trial in Piscataquis county in 30 years. The sheriff and his deputies had to Limit attendance to a seated audience only.

Trial room at the Piscatquis County Courthouse. Illustration from the Bangor Daily News, Nov 25, 1901

Though Lambert was officially tried for murder, the attempted rape motive was still present. In his opening statement, the County Attorney charged that Lambert’s motive was “the outraging of this pure young girl, Carrie Allen.” The attorney general would claim Lambert had wanted to do so for the past two years, which would have put Carrie at the implausibly young age of 13.

There were other attempts by the prosecution to paint a picture of Lambert as a bad character. This included the fact that Lambert has purchased a bottle of whiskey on the night of the fire. In a moment that wouldn’t be out of place in a daytime TV drama today, Attorney General George Seiders began his cross-examination of Lambert by asking him when he changed his name from “Henri Champine.” Lambert, confused, said he had never used that name. Seiders may have gotten this idea because historically, Champagne was indeed used as a “dit name” with Lambert in Quebec. Even if his family had used Champagne in past generations, Lambert (who after all had lost his father as a boy) may not have even been aware of it. Seiders’ source for Lambert’s “pseudonym” was Father Joseph Forrest of Jackman. As a priest, Father Forest might have been drawing more on his historical knowledge than his association with Lambert. In any case, this French-Canadian naming tradition probably sowed suspicion in the minds of the all-Anglo jury.

Another item of sensational evidence was the testimony given by Detective Timothy Hartnett of the Portland Police Department. Hartnett has been assigned to the Allen case shortly after the fire, and the policeman had gone to the scene to investigate the cause and identify suspects. However, Hartnett also went to the county jail and impersonated a prisoner to try and extract a confession from Lambert. He even had Lambert, who admitted to being barely literate, sign a note asking Hartnett to fabricate an alibi in exchange for $200. The judge presiding over the trial noted that “it would be hard to find any code of ethics in law that would uphold the methods followed by Hartnett in the Dover jail.”

Defense counsel Henry Hudson pointed out that there wasn’t even irrefutable proof that the bodies found at the farm were those of the Allens were dead, let alone that had been murdered, let alone that Lambert was the culprit.

Nonetheless, the jury returned a unanimous guilty verdict after two hours of deliberation and two separate ballots, and the French Canadian received a life sentence at the State Prison in Thomaston. The case was appealed, but Lambert lost the appeal, and would spend twenty years behind bars, starting in 1903.

The Maine State Prison had a fearsome reputation. By the early 20th century it represented an outmoded theory of criminal justice. Cells were small and overcrowded. Inmates had to contend with freezing cold in the winter, and furnace like conditions in the summertime. When Lambert first arrived, inmates did not even eat together, being confined to their cells even at mealtimes. The Somerset Reporter described the system of solitary eating as “a relic of barbarism, when the chief idea was punishment and only punishment.”

Inside the Maine State Prison, ca 1915. Image: Maine Historical Society/Maine Memory Network

In 1919, Lieut Austin MacCormick, who headed the prison at the Portsmouth Naval Base and had visited the state prison, was quoted in the Brunswick Record of January 31. He described the prison as an “archaic, man-destroying machine.” with prisoners confined to cells 6 by 10 feet and only a bucket to relieve themselves in – “a constant denigrating factor tending to brutalize the prisoner and reduce him to an animal’s scale of living.”

A new wing was constructed to partially address these problems, with wash basins and flush toilets installed for the first time. Yet the State Board of Corrections noted that the new cells were still damp in the summer time, and fitted with iron slat beds that were too small for many prisoners. What’s the more, the new wing only housed about a third of the inmates, with others left in the old conditions.

During his time at the state prison, Lambert worked at the sleigh shop, one of the two main workshops the prison operated to teach inmates a trade, and to produce items for sale. According to Lambert, he also learned to read and write for the first time in the prison.

By 1923, attitudes to incarceration and the criminal justice system in Maine had changed. One of Augusta’s most prominent citizens, Charles Hitchborn, took up Lambert’s case as a grave miscarriage of justice. Hitchborn was not a lawyer, but likely had influence with the Governor and his council, who heard clemency cases. Hitchborn had previously served as mayor of Augusta and was president of the local bank. A few years earlier he had overseen renovations to the state house, including the very council chamber in which the case was heard.

Noting the lack of hard evidence at the trial, and the role the media played in influencing its outcome, Hitchborn appealed to Governor Percival Baxter for a commutation of Lambert’s sentence to 40 years. Having already served 20, he would be eligible for early release on good behavior. (The plea for clemency was printed as a pamphlet and a copy is available at the Maine State Library).

Governor Baxter went further, issuing a full and complete pardon to Lambert in July 1923, which Hitchborn delivered personally to the prisoner. There’s no record of any compensation for the wrongful conviction and imprisonment, just a new suit and a $5 bill. Nonetheless, the New York Times described the newly free man’s face as “wreathed in smiles.”

Following his release, the Times reported that Lambert planned to move to New York State, to work on the estate of an unnamed benefactor who had “befriended him and aided in his release.” What happened to him afterwards isn’t known. I’ve been unable to track him in the census or other records.

Henry Lambert’s case is a particularly striking example of the ways our criminal justice system has failed to deliver true justice, especially for individuals outside the dominant culture. Lambert may have been one of the lucky ones, since he was eventually pardoned and released. We don’t know how many others suffered miscarriages of justice that went undetected.

James Myall

About James Myall

While I currently work for an Augusta-based non-profit, I spent four years as the Coordinator of the Franco-American Collection at the University of Southern Maine. In 2015, I co-authored "The Franco-Americans of Lewiston-Auburn," a general history of that population from 1850 to the present. I was also a consultant for the State Legislative Task Force on Franco-Americans in 2012. I live in Topsham with my wife and two young daughters.