If you like a little humor mixed in when reviewing events of the past, you’ll love this Saranac Lake story from a century ago. It had all the earmarks of a spectacular trial: bitterness between neighbors; a vicious, bloody assault; a fearless victim who nearly beat his attacker to death; two very wealthy opponents; and a pair of noted New York City attorneys handling the prosecution and defense. It was potentially a North Country showdown of mammoth proportions.
Court proceedings were held in the boathouse of Dr. Samuel B. Ward, a founder of the Upper Saranac Association. Ward was famous in his own right as past president of the NYS Medical Society; dean of Albany Medical College, and a 40-year faculty member; and regular Adirondack fishing and hunting companion of President Grover Cleveland.
Judge Newell Lee of Santa Clara was saddled with handling court opponents who were famous, wealthy, and certainly accustomed to getting their way. The defendant, Emil Ernest Gabler, was heir to and CEO of the Gabler Piano Company, one of the top players in the industry for the previous fifty years. The plaintiff was Mrs. Edgar Van Etten, whose husband was a vice-president of the New York Central, president of the Cuban Eastern Railway, and had partnered with John Jacob Astor and W. Seward Webb in other enterprises.
There was no shortage of cash among the participants, and each side hired some of the best legal representation available. Defending Gabler was New York City’s George K. Jack, who had spent many hours arguing cases before the NYS Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals. Prosecuting on behalf of Van Etten was Lamar Hardy, Corporate Counsel from New York City and a partner in the firm of Bothby, Baldwin, and Hardy.
The makeshift courtroom was filled with an unusual mix of spectators—chauffeurs, maids, groundskeepers, guides, tourists—and tongues wagged as the tale was told. Oddly enough, the only one absent from the proceedings was the attacker. By US law, that just didn’t seem right. After all, a defendant has the right to face his accuser.
But this was no ordinary case. Incredibly, the bloody attack had come from the side of the accuser, Van Etten, and it was the defendant, Gabler, who had been attacked. And, despite all those interesting details, the focus of all the attention was on the sole non-attendee, the insidious attacker, identified as … a dog.
In 1911, Gabler and the Van Ettens were not-so-friendly neighbors among the luxurious camps along Hoel Pond near Upper Saranac Lake. For all their wealth, it apparently didn’t occur to them to build a fence. On October 4, Van Etten’s prize French bulldog entered the grounds of Gabler’s camp and attacked his dog.
The chauffeurs from both camps managed to separate the combatants, and Van Etten’s chauffeur retrieved the bulldog to return it to its owner. Gabler, without pause, grabbed the dog, which firmly latched onto his thumb and refused to let go. He reacted by beating the dog over the head.
When Mrs. Van Etten was told of the incident, she went to Gabler’s camp and reportedly said, “I hope you get hydrophobia.” She then filed a complaint with the SPCA, and Gabler was arrested for cruelty to animals.
A few days later the celebrated trial was held—a serious case among the wealthy, but conducted to the great bemusement of many spectators. The combatants doggedly argued over points of law as if it were a life-and-death homicide case. And the bitterness that had developed between the two families surfaced frequently during testimony, despite many admonitions from Judge Lee to do nothing more than stick to the issue at hand.
Among the evidence entered was the cudgel (a stick or club) used to hit the dog (it was charged that the dog was “cudgeled”); the dog’s collar; and the extent of Gabler’s hand injuries. An important witness for the defense was the fetching Mrs. Gabler, who testified for nearly an hour.
The prosecution was best served by Van Etten, who was on the verge of tears as she described her prize dog when she saw it, “ … unconscious, with his tongue black and protruding, his body apparently stiffened in death.” The dog did, in fact, survive, but did not appear in court because, as the dog’s attorney stated, “It was feared he might attack his old enemy, Mr. Gabler, in court.”
But alluring as she was, Van Etten’s conduct otherwise did little to help her case, and she was soon in the judge’s doghouse. Her lawyer, Hardy, tried to keep her on a short leash, but to no avail. Displaying little regard for court etiquette, she constantly hounded the judge and witnesses, prompting constant warnings by Judge Lee and both attorneys to remain silent.
Finally, frustrated with the entire process and sensing she was about to lose, Van Etten put her tail between her legs and left the courtroom. She was still absent an hour later when Gabler was acquitted of “cruelly and maliciously beating a prize French brindle bulldog” (brindle refers to the lightly striped fur).
With great interest among the higher breeds of society, the full story was reported on the social pages of the New York Times. Despite all the wealth and fanfare, the case boiled down to common-sense justice voiced by Judge Lee, who said Gabler did, in fact, beat the dog, but only after he was bitten. The entire incident lasted 23 days, which translates to several months in dog years.
Photos: Mrs. Edgar Van Etten; Emil Ernest Gabler; a French brindle bulldog.
Lawrence Gooley has authored 11 books and dozens of articles on the North Country’s past. He and his partner, Jill McKee, founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004. Expanding their services in 2008, they have produced 24 titles to date, and are now offering web design. For information on book publishing, visit Bloated Toe Publishing.