Murder & Memory in a New England Village: The Story of Orville Gibson

February 19th, 2014 | by Will Dahlberg

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Editor’s Note: The Transom Donor Fund likes to support and encourage aspiring radio makers. Will Dahlberg was a history student wanting to dig into the past and tell its story. He wrote to us about an unsolved murder in his home town, and the fact that no one wanted to talk about it. We were intrigued by the premise (and the fact that Will had been a morgue attendant!) This is Will’s first foray into long form radio–a dark story in a small town. Jay A

About Murder & Memory in a New England Village: The Story of Orville Gibson

Ever since moving to Vermont as a child, I have been fascinated by the mysterious case of the death of Orville Gibson and curious about the “whodunit” aspects of the story, not to mention the strange pervasive silence on the subject in the village of Newbury.

At one point, I lived less than a quarter of a mile down the road from Orville’s barn. Passing it daily, all the details would run through my head. One day, I asked the librarian about his death. She pulled a large manila folder out of the back of a filing cabinet and handed it over, saying only, “You didn’t get it from me.” As a history buff, I’d always hoped that some day I would find an opportunity to explore the story. It was only through the passage of time, a geographic relocation, and the opportunity afforded me by the Transom Donor fund that I finally delved into this story.

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Breaking the Silence

My biggest (and most obvious) concern was how to get people to talk about a subject that is famous for not being discussed. I was concerned that I wouldn’t find anyone willing to be interviewed (though the opposite turned out to be the case). But given the time constraints for a radio piece of this nature, many of the locally fascinating details (especially to Vermonters) that even I had never heard, had to be cut. Another challenge was keeping the story interesting and constantly moving forward without getting bogged down in too many intricate details.

Also of concern was finding some way to bring a fresh approach to the story. After more than half a century, no new details about the circumstances of Gibson’s death have emerged and no one has come forward to confess to knowing anything. My ambition was never to solve the case, but to understand the circumstances, and experiences of those who lived in the village at the time. The main question I asked was, “What effect did this have on the village of Newbury?” Given the sensitivity of the subject, I felt this was a good neutral question, one that might even convince reluctant people to speak openly. In some cases it worked; in other cases it didn’t.

While I have worked in print journalism and began working in radio the previous year, nothing had prepared me for the type of work that goes into a radio piece of this length. Originally trained as a historian and researcher, I am inclined to gather as much information and detail as I can—while radio constantly demands, as my original radio mentor Tanya Ott taught me, “the fewest most powerful words.” This was my greatest challenge.

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I gathered nearly 15 hours of interviews with nearly anyone that was willing to talk with me. With that amount of material, deciding what to use and what not to use is a bit like panning for gold. You sift through as much as you can, looking for those precious nuggets. The more you do it, the easier it becomes to recognize them.

One thing that worked in my favor was my research training. When cutting and organizing clips, I made several copies and organized them by subjects, themes, etc. This, along with my detailed notes, was enormously helpful when I needed to go back and find particular clips, and is proving useful for the slightly altered versions I am now at work on.

With Sincerest Gratitude

I am extremely grateful to all the wonderful people at Transom who made this possible. I am especially indebted to Viki Merrick and Samantha Broun for their patience and editorial assistance. Without the funding from the Transom Donor Fund, this piece might never have happened. Thank you to all those who have and continue to donate to help inspire young producers. Thank you to Scott Hanley and the studios of WBHM in Birmingham, Alabama, for the use of studio space, as well as to Sarah Delia, who assisted with her music expertise and mixing techniques.

Last but not least, I am most indebted and thankful to my friends and family members, whose patience, reassurance, and financial support also helped make this possible throughout all the various stages. I owe a special thank you to my fiancée, Katherine Green, who has done nothing but support me one hundred percent of the way.

This piece would not have been possible without the cooperation and support of the many wonderful people in Newbury and around Vermont who felt comfortable enough to open up and shared their own stories. There are simply too many to list here.

Some of the pictures and newspaper clippings are from my personal collection, collected over nearly fifteen years; others are taken from an extensive scrapbook about the story and trials, which is housed at the Vermont History Center in Barre, Vermont.

The song “Who Killed Orville Gibson?” was written and recorded by “Banjo Dan” Lindler & The Mid-night Plow Boys from their record Mystery and Memories: Banjo Dan’s Songs of Vermont, Volume 3. More information about the band and their recordings can be found at
http://www.banjodan.com/

The additional music features Patrick Ross on the fiddle and Richard Commo on the keyboard. It was recorded live at the Fiddlers Contest during the 62nd Annual Cracker Barrel Bazaar in Newbury in July of 2013.

photo of Will Dahlberg

Will Dahlberg

About Will Dahlberg

Will Dahlberg lives in Birmingham, Alabama, and works at Public Radio WBHM 90.3 FM, the local NPR affiliate, as their Membership Manager. While he has produced local news features and human-interest stories, this is his first documentary length piece. He is a graduate of Hiram College and the Master of Arts in Liberal Studies program at Dartmouth College. In addition to radio freelancing, he is developing a history podcast and mulling over other project ideas. If you have any suggestions about the Gibson story, you can reach him at dahlbergwn[at]gmail.com or on Twitter @LostToHistory.


12 Comments on “Murder & Memory in a New England Village: The Story of Orville Gibson”

  • Tanya Ott says:

    So excited to see (actually, hear) this story come to fruition. Long-form documentary is such a challenging format and you did some excellent work here, Will! In honor of fewest, most powerful words: You rock!

    And thanks, Transom, for providing support (both financial, emotional, and otherwise) for projects like this. You guys rock, too!

  • Great work Will! What a fascinating story. You tell it like a pro.

  • Wonderful job, Will! The whole time I listened, I was thinking how great of an Oral History project that would have been for the Frommers ;) You definitely have a radio voice. Keep it up!

    • Will Dahlberg says:

      Thanks for listening! The funny thing is, this was my first proposal for an oral history project for the class. I was told that because it had “occurred so long ago” there likely wasn’t anyone left to interview. If I had actually pursued it at that time, I would have gotten a few more folks who have since passed. Timing is everything I guess!

  • Marla says:

    Fascinating story well told. I can see why you were and are riveted by this mystery. Thanks for sharing your insights.

  • Ronald E. Bonneau says:

    I just listened to this and was fascinated by it. It brought me right back to my adolescence in Bradford, VT…I was 13 years old when it happened. Made our little corner of Vermont infamously famous (if you can say that)…somewhat exciting in a place where this type of excitement was totally absent. (The feelings and vision of a 13 year old.) At any rate, I don’t believe it will ever be solved. The feelings I have about this are preserved in a kind of “freshness” since it has never been solved. Go figure!

    • Will Dahlberg says:

      Thank you for your comment, Ronald! I had actually tried to find a few folks from the Bradford area to give me their “outsider” perspective on what happened, but hadn’t had any luck. I’d be really interested in talking with you further about what you remember, especially as a cross-town teenager at the time. Please send me an e-mail with your contact info if you can: dahlbergwn@gmail.com Thanks!

  • lordmarcovan says:

    Interesting story, well told. This is my first visit to the Transom.org website, and yours was the first story I chose to listen to. Thanks.

    • Will Dahlberg says:

      Thank you for listening and your kind words. There is a lot of great work on Transom.org by a lot of amazing producers. I hope you will get a chance to listen to some other works. Cheers!

  • Jim Wright says:

    Great story. I was living in Monroe NH at the time, but my Dad was originally from Jefferson Hill and had ties to Newbury still. It was often rumored that he know more about what happened then what he ever said. At least at home. My wife at I got married in the church in Newbury 45 years ago, but now live in Portland Or and Yuma AZ.

    • Mr. Wright,
      Thank you for listening. I am really glad you liked the story. Your dad’s story sounds like that of many of the folks from Newbury and around the local area. Oh how the code of silence still stands! How old were you at the time? It is always interesting to hear how people of different age groups heard and discussed the story. Thanks for listening and I hope you’ll pass it on to some other people. My best, Will

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