nthposition online magazine

Queen Lill

by Joe Palmer

[ places - june 02 ]

There are no road signs to direct you to the village of Abercorn from the villages on either side of it on the Vermont border where the rivers flow north, as though the people in those villages, Mansonville to the east, and Frelighsburg to the west, do not want to talk about it. They do not choose to acknowledge the existence of the village that lies in the Sutton Valley between them.

When you tell any older person in New England that you live in Abercorn, and this question does come up inevitably when you travel a bit, driving down to The Conways, to Boston or to Maine. They always smile and say "O yes, Abercorn."

They recognize the name and recall a vague memory of tales of naughty debauchery passed around among friends, with nudges in the ribs and winks. They smile and ask if the village is still a popular vacation spot.

Abercorn lies in a valley at the western edge of the Green Mountains where the Canadian Pacific Railway line connects Boston and Montreal at the American border. It is a real frontier town, situated there on the forty-fifth parallel where the trains, coming all the way up the Connecticut Valley, cross the mountains into Canada. It is a junction on the water route that the natives and early exploiters took to get from the Saint Lawrence Valley, up the Yamaska and Missisquoi, over the mountain valleys, and down the Connecticut and Merrimack to the sea and New England.

There on the border between the two countries, people went to drink, fornicate, and gamble during those years of the Twentieth Century when it was not so easy to do so in the Boston States. Around the year 1900 several "line houses," hotels with whiskey bars, straddled or were situated at the US-Canadian border at Abercorn, Quebec, and just three miles away at East Richford, Vermont, up in the mountains where the rail line first enters Canada briefly, following the river on its way to Lake Champlain. Abercorn lies just outside the railhead in Richford, Vermont, where another line from the Hudson Valley and Burlington joins the line from Boston to Montreal.

For many decades there was a large taxi stand in Richford on Main Street next to the railway station where, for twenty-five cents, determined travelers could find a way to go the last couple of miles to Queen Lill's Palace at East Richford, or to the Prince of Wales House or to The Bucket of Blood, the International House, or the Abercorn House on either side of the road near the Canadian Pacific tracks across the border in Canada.

Those line houses were infamous for the drinking and copulating that went on there, booze and broads, as they said in those days. Other popular sports were poker and blackjack and brawling. Because of excessive drinking and noise, the good burgers of Richford occasionally formed vigilante committees, to little effect, money preaching quietly and more persuasively than moralists. In March of 1899, a Richford man, Burton Macy, zealous and indignant, was caught trying to light the fuse of a bundle of dynamite under the back porch of the Abercorn House. They killed him, people hoped, before they laid his body on the Canadian Pacific tracks where it was mangled by a passing train.

One Saturday night, revelers stole a demijohn of whiskey from the Bucket of Blood. The proprietor set his bulldog on the drunks as they were fleeing. They killed it, hanged its body from a telegraph pole, and fled. In May, 1900, fire destroyed a hotel on the Abercorn side of the international boundary. A week later the sole hotel on the American side was burnt to the ground. The owners, anonymous figures from New York and Boston, rebuilt both hotels, replacing them with larger premises.

Eventually, in 1903, Vermont passed a local option law, and so Richford chose to become, that is, went, dry. For two years. Then money talked again. A curfew was imposed in 1908, to no avail. In 1914 the Women's Christian Temperance Union in Richford succeeded in convincing a majority of the voting citizens to ban booze again. Then the Volstead Act of 1919 enforcing the Eighteenth Amendment, the one prohibiting the manufacture, sale, transportation, importation, and exportation of intoxicating liquors, caused business to boom, the best thing that ever happened to Franklin County, people said, and it went on until December 5th, 1933, when the 21st Amendment repealed the 18th. After that time, Abercorn passed into commercial oblivion, and Queen Lill retired, guys no longer needing to go so far to get drunk and laid.

Queen Lill, the most famous Boston madame of her time and a law unto herself, was born in 1866 to a family of settlers in northern Vermont, in Franklin County, which had recently been opened to settlement by a land company in Connecticut. She ran away from home, marrying a man named AG Shipley, a horse thief and grave robber who traveled with an Indian medicine show. At the height of the belle époque, the turn of the century, Lill acquired her wealth and reputation as chief executive officer of Boston's finest and most expensive sporting house, the Faneuil Follies. During the decade preceding the Great War, however, bluestockings and temperance agitators made business as usual impossible for Lill.

The Blue Laws were enforced, and in 1910 Lill left Boston with her life savings safely invested in government bonds. She went home to her father and mother, William and Mary Miner, at their homestead up the Tyler Branch in Franklin County, Vermont, where she learned that the old hotel at the whistle stop at East Richford had burnt, and the remains were for sale. She paid cash for the lot and foundations and had a three-storey hotel building erected on the remains, straddling the international border. At that point, the railroad, as it follows the meandering Missisquoi River from Jay Peak to Lake Champlain, touches the Canadian border. A new federal law then prohibited building directly on the international boundary, and so the county prosecutor sued Lill to prevent the re-building, but Lill, ever resourceful, hired a Boston lawyer, PB Gill, who argued that Lill was repairing and not building anew. And so "Queen's Palace," it had no other name, rose and throve.

The establishment was said to maintain a dignified and business-like atmosphere in both of the bars on the ground floor on either side of the reception desk, one in Vermont, and one in Quebec. Lill hired her whores mostly from Montreal, Boston, Providence, and New Haven, few local girls having the requisite attributes and inclinations to turn a profit for her. It became the most famous overnight stage stop on the Canadian-Pacific Line, lying perfectly between the major cities. Consequently, Lill soon had a large number of regular clients, a patronage made up of local sports, woodsmen, lumberjacks, and most lucratively, businessmen, officials, and spenders from the big cities, who paid well for a weekend in the country. Fugitives also found refuge at the hotel, avoiding arrest simply by walking down the hall.

The second and third floors were given over to the rooms of the worker bees, experienced in their trade, who were dexterous in relieving innocent and usually drunk customers of their cash and valuables. Lill herself carried leather bags of money and a pistol amongst her many petticoats. It was rumored that she had killed a man "out west." She ruled firmly and fairly from her post between the whiskey bars, settling disputes, keeping order with the help of a glum, large Abnaki Indian, Joe Shoes, who answered only to Lill. When the occasion demanded, she directed her customers from their poker games and sport to one side of the building or the other, from Canada or, usually, from the United States, to safety from the law. She always knew about raids on Queen's Palace in advance, her ears long and her best interests shared by certain other parties. She provided the most worthy management for her esteemed customers, from clergy to politicians, patrons in collusion.

She supported the Women's Christian Temperance Union with an annual gift always reported in the county newspaper, The St Albans Messenger, as a "bequest from Lillian Miner, gentlewoman." Dry laws were good for business. The train usually stopped, not at the Missisquoi Station three hundred yards away at the milk depot, but at Lill's front door.

When the Volstead Act increased demand for her services and opened new sources of profit, Lill was among the first to take advantage of her hotel's proximity to Canada, a more proximate place impossible to find. In Canada liquor was legal and cheap. Sugar from the Caribbean was brought by ship to Montreal where it was turned into rum. A $10 case of rum sold for $80 in New York or Boston. The Border Patrol was inadequate in manpower to stop the illegal importation of booze, so there was flood of Canadian-made liquor into the States.

For years Al Capone notoriously ran Cuban rum from the Mississippi beaches up to Chicago by way of Memphis and St. Louis. And there was some liquor coming across to the Midwest at Detroit from Toronto, but both of those cities were only villages then. The main source of bootleg liquor for the eastern American cities was Montreal, Quebec, from which it was transported by motor car, railroad trains being under the control of the federal revenuers, down the Hudson and Connecticut River Valleys to the New York and Boston markets.

The preferred means of transportation was the high-powered motorcar, which, unlike the small, underpowered truck of the day, could outrun pursuers. So pursuers had to rely on the telephone to try to cut the bad guys off at the pass, as it were, radio just coming into use then, and police cars were paltry compared to the powerful and capacious cars available to the entrepreneurs of trade and unfettered commerce. Favored machines were the big Pierce-Arrows, Buicks, Cadillacs, and Chryslers, in those days before the giant conglomerates had vulgarized motorcars, making them all practically identical and puny.

Stripped down and beefed up, the big cars were loaded with cases of bottles of liquor, and driven at night through the villages and towns connected by the "highways" of the day, two-lane roads many of which were paved and so had fewer potholes, mud puddles, and quagmires. There were no interstate highways, no freeways, no truck routes, no limited access roads. It took forever to go anywhere, except by train, or by night, surreptitiously, avoiding the police and outrunning the federals. A Vermont syndicate operated a big automobile garage in Richford for the sole purpose of modifying and servicing the rum-runners' cars for their night runs to the south, after their return in daylight.

Under these circumstances, Queen Lill's Palace flourished. She bought liquor legally at one door, and sold it illegally at another until the law came. Then she had a pipe laid under the river that separates Quebec and Vermont, so that rum could be pumped to and bottled at a house on the other side. A neighbor, an old lady named Margery Small, watched cars being loaded with liquor regularly at Lill's bottling plant. She informed the Border Patrol, which intercepted a carload and arrested the drivers, two of Lill's girls who were taking the car to New York City for a week's holiday. Expensively, Lill had to bribe the arresting officers to get the girls and the carload free. Margery informed on Lill only once, for the next day she found a small pine box on her front porch with a note that read "This too small, next fit you."

There were only two border officers at any one time assigned to the Richford Station, and they could usually be bought off. But on June 12, 1925, a full- scale, coordinated raid at three o'clock in the morning by both American and Canadian police found five unmarried couples in bed at Queen Lill's Palace. Two of the couples were " nude or scantily clad," and one girl was said to be only seventeen years old, a violation of the Mann Act prohibiting white slavery. Lill was charged also with keeping a bawdy house, and on Mr. Gill's advice she pleaded guilty to the latter charge, the young girl in question being none other than Lill's niece Betty Nelson from Enosburg Falls who was twenty-one if she was a day. Lill paid a fine of one hundred and fifty dollars and court costs of twenty dollars and fifty cents, and lot of money in those days. She then became known as the proprietor of the "Palace of Sin."

Lill stayed in business. She was known for her large automobile, a Willys-Knight sedan, which she drove herself to St. Albans to do her shopping, wearing voluminous petticoats, a flowing dress, and a wide-brimmed hat, carrying plenty of money and her trusty pistol.

Lill went out of business because of competition from Abercorn, the Great Depression, and the repeal of Prohibition. She bought three adjacent farms in Franklin County, married a local farmer, Stanley Fleury, who had two children, Harry and Virginia. She drove a twelve-cylinder Lincoln sedan to the end of her days in 1941, a gentlewoman.