Orville Gibson went missing before dawn on the morning of New Years Eve in 1957. Three months later, his body was found in the Connecticut River, his legs and arms bound with rope.
Right before his disappearance, the farmer from Newbury was the talk of the town due to charges he was facing for beating his elderly hired hand. Many believed Gibson had been murdered by an angry group of townspeople; suffocated in the trunk of a car and thrown in the river. Two people were eventually charged with his murder but later acquitted.
The case has hung over the town of Newbury for decades and has occupied the mind of Stephen B. Martin, a young lawyer who represented one of the accused in the murder case in 1960. Martin recently published a book, Orville’s Revenge: The Anatomy of a Suicide, outlining his theory that Gibson committed suicide and staged it as a murder to get back at the townspeople for being unfair to him. He joined Vermont Edition to talk about his new book.
So why would Gibson commit suicide? “He was a very proud man and he was very committed to his farm,” Martin says. “His sole interest was in developing his farm and he was very successful at it.” Gibson got into an argument with his hired help on Christmas Day of 1957 and struck the elderly man quite hard. “His world fell apart after that,” says Martin. On top of the townspeople looking down on him, Gibson was facing a criminal case and had no help to manage his 60-cow herd, Martin says.
Then one day, instead of going to an appointment in St. Johnsbury with his lawyer, “He went down to the bridge, tied himself up and rolled into the river,” Martin says. He argues that Gibson harbored a lot of anger towards the people accusing him of beating up his hired help and wanted revenge.
Within hours of Gibson’s disappearance, his wife called her brother to the farm. “He came over the barn and immediately developed the vigilante theory,” Martin says. The brother-in-law took the police to the river, showing them a trail of silage leading from Gibson’s barn to the river edge, and the theory of a mob killing was born.
Martin was part of the legal team representing one of the two men eventually charged with the murder. His team presented the suicide theory at trial but it was not taken very seriously. “By the time the body was found, the idea of a vigilante theory was well ingrained and everyone was taking that position,” he explains. Martin says that although the doctor who performed the preliminary autopsy said Gibson was dead before he hit the water, two other medical examiners said it looked like suicide. “Both of them took the attitude that the way [his arms and legs] were tied, only Gibson [could] have done that. They weren’t tied in the fashion that a vigilante would do it.” Martin believes the police were so convinced of their positions that they neglected to investigate other leads, like the suicide idea. Nonetheless, both of the men charged in Gibson's murder were acquitted.
Martin is so convinced of this theory, he demonstrates it at book signings, getting his wife to tie her own legs and arms up as Gibson could have decades ago. “It’s very simple,” he says.
Although the retired lawyer says he understands why some people might find him to be an unreliable source of information due to his close relationship to the case, he can’t let it go. “I think people should know what the truth was in this case,” he says. “I hope that people will read my book … and that they would arrive at the same conclusion that I have, that he committed suicide.”