Saturday, July 31, 1937 dawned sunny and warm in Sullivan County, a nearly perfect summer day. A light breeze stirred the cooling waters of Swan Lake as dozens of vacationers rowed about in the bright morning sunshine. Two of those vacationers, convinced that it was their lucky day, rowed enthusiastically over to a strange shape they saw bobbing on the surface of the lake. What they discovered instead was grisly and gruesome. It was the body of a man, all trussed up and tied to a rock and a slot machine frame. Continue reading
A year ago, I wrote about a regional writer of fiction and nonfiction who had passed away. At the time, he was among the elder statesmen of Adirondack authors. His books include One Cop’s Story: A Life Remembered, which details his service in New York State Police Troops B and D. To share one person’s perspective and to help preserve his memory, here is what I wrote about a man whose presence is missed by many. A year after his passing, I still occasionally receive contacts from people who recall him fondly.
The Adirondacks lost a longstanding member of the regional writers’ community when John Briant of Old Forge, known far and wide for his Adirondack Detective series of books, passed away on May 14, 2013. I’m not a religious person, and I can’t say to what extent John was, but if he was devout, he probably looked forward to reuniting with his beloved wife, Margaret, who passed away the previous June. Continue reading
It was in October of 1887 that itinerant laborer Abel John Allen was arrested for the brutal murder of Ursula Ulrich in Jeffersonville, NY. Nine months later he became the last man ever hanged in Sullivan County.
His murder of the widow Ulrich notwithstanding, the man known as Sailor Jack was a complicated fellow who packed a lot of living into his 34 years. He spent his time in the Sullivan County jail – awaiting first his trial and then his execution – writing about forgiveness, redemption, and having a “right heart.” Those writings reveal a world traveler, an astute observer of the passing parade, a philosopher. Continue reading
Cold warriors of the 1950s achieved one of their most macabre victories by frying Ethel Rosenberg in the electric chair, not for sharing atomic secrets, but simply as leverage to coerce her husband Julius to reveal sources.
Joan Beber’s play, “Ethel Rosenberg Sings: The Unsung Song of Ethel Rosenberg” at the Beckett Theatre until July 13th probes gender politics and personal story. This lively and intelligent exploration doesn’t flinch at setting Ethel’s story to music, since as a smart Jewish girl from the Lower East side bursting to escape the confines of immigrant horizons Ethel (Tracy Michaelidis) saw herself on stage “hitting a high C.” Undercover Productions and Perry Street Theatricals give this rendition of “straight from the spy files” of history an imaginative twist by framing it with prison politics and interracial casting that bounces the themes in an echo chamber of past and present. Continue reading
On the afternoon of July 14, 1842, Sheriff Felix Kelly fastened a noose around the neck of Cornelius Hardenbergh, and a few seconds later Hardenbergh, a member of what had once been the region’s most prominent family, entered the history books as the first man ever hanged in Sullivan County.
Hardenbergh’s execution was the first of five in the county over the years– four have taken place during the month of July– and the events leading up to his hanging make fascinating reading.
Hardenbergh had been convicted of murdering Anthony Hasbrouck, his relative by marriage, and one of the county’s wealthiest and most powerful men. The case remains, more than 170 years later, among the strangest in county history. Continue reading
On the morning of June 10, 1723, just before the break of dawn, a British warship stationed out of New York spotted two sloops sailing less than 50 miles south of Long Island. The captain of the warship, Peter Solgard, was all but certain the sloops were trouble. Three days before, he had been warned by a sea captain about a pirate crew under the command of a notoriously violent captain, Edward Low. But in the HMS Greyhound that morning, Solgard did not attack. Instead, Solgard tacked and set a southerly course, keeping the pirates in view but not approaching, “to encourage them to give him chase.” Continue reading
Elmira Reformatory (Arcadia Publishing, Images of America series, 2014) from local authors Dr. William G. Hinkle and Bruce Whitmarsh contains more than 200 images of this well-known facility in Chemung County, NY.
The Elmira Reformatory, established in 1876, is an important part of both local and national history, especially in the history of prisons and prison reform. Archival images, the majority of which were provided by the Chemung County historical Society, depict scenes of everyday life at the reformatory that remains in use today as the Elmira Correctional Facility. Continue reading
The amazing, and fortuitous, rescue of Solomon Northup was made possible by a New York statute that was signed into law, and became effective, on May 14, 1840.
Following the 1808 ban on importation of slaves into the U.S., enacted by Congress, the kidnapping of free blacks for sale as slaves became a larger problem. The ban reduced the “supply” of slaves, and with “demand” unchanged, prices rose, along with the potential profit for kidnappers. In 1817, in a description of a kidnapping case, the City Hall Recorder noted that, after 1808: “the practice of kidnapping was commenced, and has been carried to an alarming height.” Continue reading
It’s that time of year again, when 420 events are in the news. The war on drugs that began in the late 1960s and early 1970s has been declared a failure by many officials, a sentiment echoed in recent years by the Global Commission on Drug Policy. But America’s war on drugs (if you don’t count Prohibition) began in the 1930s with the focus on marijuana.
The principal salvo in the new war was 1937’s Marihuana Transfer Tax Act, which placed strict controls on the growth and use of hemp. Many states adopted their own restrictive laws. At that time, the North Country was a pot-lover’s paradise―except that there weren’t that many pot lovers in the area to enjoy it.
With new rules in place, lawmen immediately began literally weeding out this nefarious plant that was destroying society (according to dubious … perhaps “doobie-ous” is more appropriate … testimony before Congress). Continue reading
The Chemung Valley Living History Center will host the 150th Anniversary Commemoration of Camp Chemung (the Civil War Prisoner of War Camp in Elmira, NY) on May 3rd and 4th, 2014.
The event will include a re-enactment on the actual camp ground in Elmira. Continue reading
Among the several dozen correctional institutions in New York State, Dannemora (officially Clinton Correctional Facility) is the largest maximum-security prison. It is located in northern Clinton County, where the cold winter weather led to a variety of nicknames incorporating the word “Siberia.” It is also known as home to the worst of the worst, housing many of our most dangerous criminals.
For more than 160 years, the North Country’s famous lockup has confined inmates guilty of the most heinous crimes: murder, rape, arson, assault, bank robbery, serial killing … and chicken theft.
Chicken theft? About now, you might find that cool Sesame Street song going through your head: “One of these things is not like the others ….” But any crime is serious, especially if you’re the victim, and the seriousness of stealing chickens was once elevated in stature for a few reasons. Continue reading
Lawrence R. Samuel’s New York City 1964: A Cultural History (McFarland, 2014), connects the events of a single year in the city to the cultural threads of American life in the 1960s and beyond.
Five seminal events occurred in New York City in the pivotal year 1964: the “British Invasion” arrival of the Beatles in February; the murder of Kitty Genovese in Queens in March; the World’s Fair in Queens between April and October; the “race riots” in Brooklyn and Harlem in July; and the World Series in the Bronx between the New York Yankees and the St. Louis Cardinals. Continue reading
Research projects sometimes take unexpected, but fascinating, twists and turns. I had reason a few years ago to look into the case of a woman called Madame Sherri. She is mostly known for an unusual castle-like house built for her in a rural area of New Hampshire–its ruins are now popular with hikers and lovers of the odd and mysterious.
My investigation dragged me far from New Hampshire–to the world of cabaret reviews in New York City, the vaudeville circuit, and “soldier shows” (popular during World War I, with Irving Berlin’s “Yip Yip Yaphank” being the most well-known). And, for good measure, toss in a scandal involving sex and blackmail. Continue reading
The film “12 Years a Slave” is raising global awareness of Solomon Northup’s story of being kidnapped and sold into slavery before the Civil War. Northup’s victimization was not unique, however, and there were numerous cases–in New York State alone–of free blacks being kidnapped for the purpose of being sold as slaves.
Some of these crimes were committed prior to Northup’s kidnapping in 1841, and others after his rescue and the publication of his narrative in 1853. Apparently public awareness of the existence of kidnapping did not diminish its occurrence. Continue reading
In the 1800s, free blacks were sometimes lured from the safety of their hometowns, abducted, and sold into slavery. This happened to Solomon Northup, whose story is told in the film “12 Years a Slave.”
But several other black New Yorkers, from various parts of the state, were also kidnapped. Once they were taken to a slave state, their chances of returning home were small. But some victims, like Northup, were rescued from slavery, and their kidnappers were held accountable for their deeds. This presentation will tell their stories. Continue reading
Using previously unstudied Coast Guard records from 1920 to 1933 for New York City and environs, Ellen NicKenzie Lawson’s Smugglers, Bootleggers, and Scofflaws: Prohibition and New York City (SUNY Press, 2013) examines the development of Rum Row and smuggling via the coasts of Long Island, the Long Island Sound, the Jersey shore, and along the Hudson and East Rivers.
With the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment, “drying up” New York City promised to be the greatest triumph of the proponents of Prohibition. Instead, the city remained the nation’s greatest liquor market. Continue reading
In 1870, the New York Herald proclaimed that Ulster County was New York’s “Ulcer County” due to its lawlessness and crime. The columnist supported his claim by citing that in only six months, “it has been the scene of no less than four cold blooded and brutal murders, six suicides and four elopements.”
Hannah Markle—the bane of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union—ran a Kingston saloon where murder and violence were served alongside the whiskey. John Babbitt confessed on his deathbed to murdering Emma Brooks, and Wille Brown—reputed member of the Eastman Gang—accidentally shot his best friend. The infamous Big Bad Bill, the “Gardiner Desperado,” lashed out more than once and killed in a drunken rage. Continue reading
Election fraud! It makes headlines, and it has many faces. When I was a young boy growing up in Clinton County near the Canadian border, I overheard stories from adults talking about election fraud in nearby towns. With a wink, it was mentioned that so-and-so, an annual candidate, would once again be standing by the door at the polls all day long to greet the electorate―that’s just how dedicated he was to representing the interests of locals. He was, it was said, “greeting” them with $5 bills.
I never forgot the image that placed in my head―votes for sale at five bucks a pop. Years later, when I neared voting age, I assumed those stories were exaggerations, but as it turned out, they were right on the money (an excellent choice of terms, as we’ll see). Continue reading
The approach of Halloween together with recent news that the last scheduled criminal case stemming from the arrests of hundreds of Occupy Wall Street protestors had been dismissed, has swung the spotlight of history back on New York’s anti-mask law.
It was one of the first tools used by New York City police to break up the Occupy Wall Street protest when it began in September, two years ago. Within days of donning Guy Fawkes masks, demonstrators were charged by police for violating the anti-mask law, section 240.35(4) of the New York Penal Law. Its origins go back to a statute passed in 1845 to suppress armed uprisings by tenant farmers in the Hudson Valley who were using disguises to attack law enforcement officers. Continue reading
Quietly, a line of singers circled a lone tree on the edge of the Harlem River, in the shadow of the 145th Street Bridge, late Sunday afternoon on September 29. The group swelled in numbers as the shadows lengthened. Hums, moans, soft cries and low tones began to form a chorus of spirit noises as the performance “Saved” got underway. Continue reading