Albany History: John Pye and the Highwayman


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John Pye Possible Gravesite in Albany Rural CemeteryOn a cold and snowy 21st of December in 1808, about two in the afternoon, there alighted at the door of the old tavern in Green Street, Albany, then kept by Whitmore, a dark complexioned but elegant stranger, evidently of southern origin. He stepped to the hall of that ancient house of entertainment, and while shaking from a richly furred mantle, the snow which had profusely fallen that day; he desired the ostler to dismantle his remarkably elegant horse of its riding caparisons and to convey the horse to the warmest stall the stables afforded; when himself hastened to the ample bar-room of that well ordered establishment.

Once inside, the stranger asked the keeper of the inn, whether it was agreeable to entertain him a few days. On further acquaintance, the genteel stranger proved a gentleman of the first order, prepossessing in his manners, agreeable and diffuse in conversation, as he was extremely well informed in the lore of literature, as well of any and all parts of the globe, the governments of the different nations, the workings of universal politics and the balance of power between the different nations of Christendom.

There was, however, some strange singularities, as he was observed to be extremely taciturn and abstracted; and at such times seemed to watch the conversation of such as visited the inn, and now and then to ask a brief question, to solve that which he did not exactly understand and then again he would resume his silence.

A few days had transpired of his stay at the inn, when a little before nightfall he was observed cleaning a richly ornamented pair of heavy pistols which, when accomplished and being placed in their holsters, he called for and paid his bill of charges, caparisoned his horse, took leave of the house, and departed on his journey to the north, as he stated that region to be his destination.

There are but few persons who do not remember the ancient and celebrated inn owned and kept by Pye the Englishman, on the road between the cities of Albany and Troy. This man had become rich in his avocation, consequently had always more or less of gold, silver and bank notes in his possession. Of this circumstance, the robber had become informed, in his rides here and there about the country; and more especially by frequently visiting Pye’s Inn and by lodging there. At such times he had stated his name as “Johnson” and that he was looking about the country to find him a residence, and to purchase it. He had also visited the inns of other tavern keepers in the neighborhood of Albany, observing in the same way the amount of business done by them and the exact situation of the rooms.

Just before Gibbons Ville, or as it is now called West Troy (Watervliet), the robber now made haste to undertake an enterprise on the house and money of the honest and industrious old Englishman, John Pye. It had now become as late as midnight when he arrived at Pye’s Inn which he passed by without halting his pace. Having rode a few short rods, he passed the entrance road that now leads to Albany Rural Cemetery. Here he discovered a hay stack, a short distance from the road. Passing round to the side hidden from the road, he fastened his horse there to enjoy the comforts of feeding while his master should go on the more perilous enterprise of robbery and death.

Moving stealthily in the shadows, the robber crossed the cemetery road and slid up to the house. The doors of the Pye house being locked and bolted, the robber repaired to a window, which opened into a back room. This he lifted and made his entry silent and noiseless. After lighting his own lanthorn, he extinguished the fire which the careful housekeeper had buried in the embers of the fireplace for the next morning’s countenance by pouring a part of a pail of water, which he found in the room, upon it. He next went to the bar-room and finding fire on the hearth of that room, he also performed the same ceremony there, which was done to render it impossible for anyone in the house to procure a light when the fray should begin.

He now silently ascended the stairway that led to the sleeping room of Pye and his wife, who was roused from her sleep by the low voice of someone calling her companion as if to awake him. Pye awoke and in a half-alarmed and half-peevish manner, demanded to know who he was and what he wanted at such a time as that. To this the robber replied, “It is your money or your life that I must have and that immediately.” Pye replied: “It is damned little money that you’ll get out of me, my lad, as money is but indifferently plenty with me at all sir.” To this the highwayman rejoined, “Sir, there’s no jesting in this matter, I am in earnest, and am not to be tampered with; Sir, your money, or here is that which can make its own terms,” when he showed Pye, within an inch of his breast, a pistol loaded for the death.

Pye was now silent, but arose in a moment, and went with the robber down the stairs to the bar of the tavern. But upon arriving there, found the door locked and that they would be compelled to return for the key. As soon as Pye saw his wife, he requested of her saying, “we are beset by a robber, and the money must be given up, or we may lose our lives.” But to this his wife replied, “I will not give the keys to thee nor no man else.”

But said he beseechingly, “thee must do it, or worse may happen to us both.” “I will not,” was her instant reply and at the same moment, she sprang toward the corner of the room, where there was a loaded gun. The highwayman in an instant leveled and fired his pistol at the bosom of her husband severely wounding his ribs and left arm. Mrs. Pye by that time had brought the gun to her wounded husband, to whom she said as she cocked the piece, “Pye fire or he will kill thee, for he is now feeling in his bosom for another pistol.” She seized his wounded arm and raising it up she placed the gun therein, holding her own hands beneath the gun to support it, when Pye, with his right hand pulled the trigger and fired.

The shot took effect, as they saw the robber fall; and in falling he crushed his lanthorn, extinguishing the light, which involved them in total darkness. Trying to procure a light, Mrs. Pye commenced groping her way to the door but stumbled over the body of the robber, who still lay where he had fallen. She hastened to the hearth of the fireplace to light her lamp, but found that the fire that she expected to find buried there had been extinguished. It came suddenly to her recollection that there had been a fire in her parlor for the accommodation of company. Thither she now groped her way and coming to the fire-place dashed her foot deep into the ashes and when there appeared coals of fire, she now lit her lamp and hastened back to ascertain the extent of mischief done in the fracas.

On arriving at the scene of the action, she found that her husband had fainted and was fallen on the bed but the outlaw had disappeared. She proceeded to the sleeping apartment of two travelers who had put up there that night and requested their aid in her distress. They commenced a search. They perceived on the spot where the robber had fallen considerable blood and that the blood was on the wall and also on the stairway as he seemed to have descended by sliding down in a sitting posture. By these signs they traced him to the yard.

They now offered to run to the city, which was Albany, to warn the people and thereby instigate a pursuit of the robber. They soon arrived opposite the inn lately kept by Payn, in the Colonie, in the north part of Albany, where they began the cry, “a robber, a robber.” To this the Watch of the city soon lent an ear; when the sound of their bludgeons or night clubs, were heard to grate fiercely on the pavements which was soon in all directions over the city.

William Winne, an intrepid and active man, was at that time the Captain of the Watch, who addressed his troop, “who among you all is willing to take part in the pursuit and apprehension of the robber; if there are any such, let them follow me,” But at that moment of patriotism and confusion, there came a sound of the fleet springs of a horseman from the north; which occasioned universal halt of the moving mass. “Silence gentlemen,” cried Captain Winne, “the sound of such fierce riding comes not from the careful ostlership of any citizen or farmer at this time of night; it is the robber!”

The sound came on louder and fiercer when in a moment or two, there was seen a horse and its rider on full speed, as if chased by all the terrors the guilty can dread. He was without a hat, which he had somehow lost and seemed to have his head bound up with a handkerchief. This seen, in a moment there arose a shout, “the robber, the robber.” There was a rush to stop the speed of the horse, which seemed to fly rather than to run in the ordinary way, as if he were inspired with the horror of his master’s situation. But in this attempt the multitude was unsuccessful; as no man was found willing to block the force of a distracted horse and rider. The robber, bent low down to the neck of his horse escaped and passed through the throng.

He continued on and arrived at Columbia Street and turned the corner of North Market (Broadway) and went direct to the dock and made a spring on a full run. His horse struck firm and upright on the ice, which supported both the horse and the rider although the perpendicular descent was all of eight feet and the lateral distance was twenty feet.

He now bounded forward til at length he found himself borne swiftly over the firm ground of an island opposite the city of Albany. A few leaps of his matchless steed cleared this islet. When the horse struck again on firm ground, he scaled the bank, which was very steep, and dashed forward. He sprung over the road, which he might have followed down the river to New York, and rode through the woods east of Greenbush. Here he halted to give breath to his panting, but not exhausted steed and to listen to know whether he was pursued; when to his dismay, the sound of the raging multitude came on dismal wind.

Hundreds of citizens were in a moment in pursuit over the ice, the noise of those running and voices he now heard bounding on the ominous winds, which fell on his ear as the cry of a pack of blood-hounds who had scented a wounded deer. He again set forward and soon came out on the road leading by Aikius Mills back of Greenbush. The woods which he now entered, appeared to him in the uncertain gleam of the opening morning, of considerable extent and therefore seemingly afforded him a new hope of escape.

His particular aim was to reach a part of the woods which appeared much more dense and dark. But having entered but a leap or two, he found it was a swamp and so lightly frozen over that his horse now floundered and fell, casting his rider some distance over his head. The robber was left bruised and astonished and in a daze, his only friend, his horse, lay floundering in the mire.

His pursuers thought it best to dismount before entering the dense woods. The foremost of which was Captain Winne, who on finding the track in the snow did not wait to hold a consultation but sprang off after the robber at a full run. He was heard to exclaim in good old Dutch and English mixed together: “Mine Cot vat leaps de horse has mate, vull twenty veets. Dunder and Blitzen! He’s been de duyfel vor running.” By this means Captain Winne got the start of all other pursuers. Winne was an uncommon active man and had performed many an active feat both in pursuit of, and in flight from, the Indians in the time of the Revolution. He had not yet reached the thicker part of the woods when he descried the robber lying on the snow among the bog grass of the swamp and his horse sunk to the breast in the mud.

When Winne came within a few feet of his victim, the robber drew a dagger in token of battle if molested. But not daunted at the sight of steel, Winne struck a blow with his staff of office, which knocked the dagger from the hand of the owner, when it flew he knew not where, though it was found in the spring after the snow had disappeared. A grapple now ensued and the robber being much more powerful than Winne seized the staff and soon wrenched it from him. He gave his enemy a half blow, which dashed nearly all of the Captain’s front teeth into his mouth, which he afterwards took out at his leisure.

The Captain now seized the kerchief, which had been bound about the wound of the highwayman’s head, but had slipped down upon his neck. Twisting the kerchief tightly around the highwayman’s throat, the Captain soon choked him down, a helpless conquered victim of justice.

The horse was rescued from the mire and together with his master led to the city as trophies. He was led across the ice, where on entering the city at the lower ferry, a great concourse had come together, through the midst of which the prisoner proceeded without bestowing the least attention. From a thousand windows, he was viewed by thousands of pitying women, whose hearts never fail to throb at the sights of horror, such as his, covered in blood, his hands bound behind him and his head covered with gore.

He made his way to the metropolitan jail where he was handed over to the Sheriff and then committed to the care of the Turnkey, and by him placed in the murderer’s room, a state criminal.

Very heavy irons were now brought and put upon him; more so than was usual, on account of what he said at the sight of the irons, which was, “Iron me as you will they can hold me but a short time.” By this it was supposed he meant to escape, but this was not his meaning, he felt that he could live but a short time and therefore made the remark. An examination pronounced the wound a dangerous one and past all cure.

Several days after the apprehension and incarceration of the highwayman, Mrs. Pye called to see him in his prison with the view of reproaching him for the baseness of his conduct. She found him lying on his face on the bare floor with irons bound around his hands, feet and waist, rattling horribly whenever he moved. Due to the wound on the back of his head and his irons, this was the only position available to him. His condition so wrought upon her sympathies that she found it impossible to utter a word of reproach.

The robber raised himself toward her and since she was a woman, a circumstance quite uncommon in a prison, and that of a murderer’s room, he waited. She now having gazed upon him for some time said, “Johnson don’t you know me?” He replied, “Assuredly madam, I do not.” “What!” said Mrs. Pye, “don’t you know the woman whose apartment you entered a few evenings since, and demanded money, and have shot my husband, who I fear will die yet of the wound?”

“O my God!” he replied. “He is not dead? I thought I had killed him on the spot, a thing I had not intended except in my own defense. I greatly deplore that night’s adventure as it has cost me my life.” After gazing awhile upon him, Mrs. Pye’s voice trembled and she asked if she could provide anything for his comfort. The robber responded’ “I have need of nothing, knowing that in a few days I must die. My thoughts are not occupied by what I shall eat or what I shall drink.”

At this point of the conversation, he informed her that “Johnson” was not his real name, as he had taken it merely to answer his evil purposes. He continued, “it can answer no good purposes to anyone to know who I am or from whence I came, as the family I am of, which is of the most respectable order, will not be disgraced by knowing that I died in prison.”

After some days, his death took place rather suddenly, as his irons had been taken off only a short time before his dissolution, which the officers of the prison would have done sooner had they been aware of how rapidly he was failing.

After his death there resulted a strife between the physicians of Albany and Troy about his body which would fall to the dissecting table. He had died in Albany but had been captured on the Troy side of the river. The surgeons of the latter must have prevailed since a universal dissection reduced his frame to a skeleton to adorn the hidden corner of an anatomist’s office in the city of Troy.

Epilogue

Four weeks after the death of the highwayman, three men came to the Pye tavern and asked Mrs. Pye for a detailed account of the robbery and the fate of the robber. The eldest of the three showed great grief at the story. Mrs. Pye was convinced that they were the father and brothers of the robber.

At the very moment that the robber stood by the side of the bed of Pye and his wife, speaking in low and suppressed tones, there lay at his feet Pye’s money-box holding five hundred dollars in specie and five hundred more in bank bills.

While a gentleman must never doubt the word of a lady, many believe that the act of Mrs. Pye holding and aiming the gun as her seriously injured husband pulled the trigger, wounding the highwayman, to have required extraordinary happenstance. Many who knew Mrs. Pye’s nature supposed that it was she and not her wounded husband who did the thief in. While the robber was otherwise occupied wounding Pye, she shot him, which more thoroughly explains the wound being exhibited on the back of the robber’s head.

John Pye survived his wound a good many years and acquired property. After his death, the Widow Pye married her bartender, William Nutt, 49 years her junior. She outlived Nutt by 10 years, dying on the 27 th of October, 1843, at the age of 97.

Interpretation of Winne’s exclamation at the escaping robber: (He was heard to exclaim in good old Dutch and English mixed together: “Mine Cot vat leaps de horse has mate, vull twenty veets. Dunder and Blitzen! He’s been de duyfel vor running.”) “My God, what leaps the horse has made, full 20 feet. Thunder and lightning! He runs like the devil.” [Bet you didn’t know that two of Santa’s reindeer, “Donder” and “Blitzen” were “Thunder” and “Lightning”!]

The house in which this robbery took place was still standing [in 1836] on the Watervliet Turnpike (Broadway in Menands) about 150 feet south of the entrance to the Albany Rural Cemetery and was long known as Gil Crane’s Hotel. When the Watervliet Turnpike was reconstructed in 1828, it was built as flat, wide and straight as possible from the Albany city line to Gibbonsville (the Watervliet city line) and was used as a racetrack for trotters. Many nationally recognized horses raced here in the late 1800s. Gil Crane’s Hotel was a popular establishment for horse owners. [The site of the inn is currently a drug store.]

William B. Winne, who secured the robber, was the Albany City Penny Postman for many years. He almost daily related the narrative of his exploits to anyone who would listen. Every Albany resident who ever received mail knew the story by heart.

The Pyes were close friends and neighbors of the Schuyler family and were buried with the Schuylers at the Schuyler family burial ground at Schuyler Flatts. A later Schuyler descendant moved the whole family burial ground, including the Pyes and William Nutt, to the Schuyler family plot at Albany Rural Cemetery. William Winne was originally buried at the Dutch Church Burial Ground in Albany but was subsequently moved to Albany Rural Cemetery.

The highwayman, as best we know, still hangs in the hidden corner of some anatomist’s office in Troy.

Photo: The grave site in Albany Rural Cemetery where John Pye is believed to be buried.

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About Peter Hess

Peter Hess is the president of Albany Steel and served on the Board of Trustees of Albany Rural Cemetery for 18 years. During his time on the Albany Rural board, he wrote over 150 articles on important and interesting people buried in the cemetery. Starting about 2008, he accumulated the 150 articles and additional research into four books known as the People of Albany series. Hess has also conducted tours of the cemetery and spoken to public groups over 100 times.

2 thoughts on “Albany History: John Pye and the Highwayman

  1. Robert J.Hedgeman

    John Pye and the Highwayman. What great story. Having lived in Albany for many years I was familiar with the places mentioned. I thought at first the tavern was Hugh Denniston’s, but not so. As the saying goes, “I was on the edge of my seat reading this.”
    I Love history and especially history of Albany.
    Thank you Mr.Hess.

    Reply

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