Author Archives: David Fiske

David Fiske

About David Fiske

David Fiske's book, Solomon Northup's Kindred: The Kidnapping of Free Citizens before the Civil War, was published by Praeger in 2016. He is a co-author of the books Solomon Northup: The Complete Story of the Author of Twelve Years a Slave (Praeger Publishing, 2013) and Madame Sherri: The Special Edition (Emu Books, 2014). Fiske also maintains the webpage solomonnorthup.com.

Charles Zimmy’s 1937 Swim from Albany to Manhattan


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Charles ZimmyOn August 23, 1937 a physician checked out Charles Zimmy at the Albany Yacht Club, which was located at the bottom of State Street hill. The doc’s approval having been given, some young men from Albany applied a thick layer of grease to Zimmy’s body, he lit a cigar, and hopped off a pier into the water of the Hudson River. As he bobbled a bit in the water, he lost his cigar. That wasn’t a problem, though, as there was a supply of 200 aboard the Penguin, a 50-foot boat which would shadow him as he made his way south towards New York City. The cigars, Zimmy told a reporter, were as much a necessity as the watertight goggles he wore during his swim.

According to an article in the Times-Union on August 24, Zimmy anticipated losing about 80 pounds during the challenge, which he thought would require him to swim the equivalent of 200 miles – more than the actual distance from Albany to Manhattan – because tides would sometimes push him back upstream, through water he’d already swum. He’d be swimming day and night, catching sleep an hour at a time while floating on his back. Continue reading

History Mystery: What Happened To Solomon Northup?


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young Harriet Tubman, who served as a spy and scout during the Civil War Solomon Northup, who was lured away from Saratoga Springs and into slavery before the Civil War, wrote a book, Twelve Years a Slave, following his fortuitous rescue in 1853.

Some of his post-slavery life can be tracked via property records, court documents, and newspaper stories. Thus, it is known that he purchased a home for his family in Glens Falls, that he undertook a lecture tour throughout the Northeast, and was involved in the apprehension and trial of the two men who had kidnapped him. Continue reading

A Unique Memorial To A Fallen World War One Soldier


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Morgan S. Baldwin 1915 Cornell YearbookHe was undoubtedly the first victim of the first World War whose name I learned. As a freshman at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, I would lower my stress levels by walking. I traipsed around the expansive campus, but I’d also venture onto city streets. I discovered that near the stately Llenroc mansion (built to be the home of Cornell founder, Ezra Cornell – though he never lived there), there was an impressive stone staircase, with a large terrace that was a perfect spot for looking down on “the bustling town” (as the Cornell anthem calls the city). A plaque identified the structure as a memorial for Morgan Smiley Baldwin, a 1915 graduate of Cornell, whose body lay “where he fell at Boni-France, September 29th, 1918.”

For years, this was what I knew about Baldwin. I assumed – as probably others have – that “Smiley” was a nickname, but it turns out it was his given middle name (his mother’s maiden name was Smiley). I did learn that the stairway had been erected by his aggrieved father. We are in the midst of the centennial of the “Great War,” and I decided to take a fresh look at Baldwin’s story. Continue reading

Solomon Northup Class Planned For SUNY Adirondack


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Solomon Northup in a Sketch from Twelve Years a SlaveThis October, a class offered through SUNY Adirondack’s Continuing Education division will provide details on the life of Solomon Northup. Northup was a free black man who was kidnapped from Saratoga Springs, New York in 1841, and sold into slavery.

Following his release in 1853, Northup penned a narrative, Twelve Years a Slave, which was the basis for the Academy Award winning film, 12 Years a Slave. The title of the class is “The Real Solomon Northup from 12 Years a Slave,” and the instructor is local author David Fiske. Continue reading

Lions Have An Albany Hudson-Fulton Celebration Past


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lions at the sprucesThe town of Williamstown, Massachusetts is currently restoring some artifacts from a pretty much forgotten celebration of two important events in New York State history.

In the fall of 1909, various activities took place from New York City up to Albany to commemorate Hendrick Hudson’s 1609 trip up the river that would come to bear his name, and also the 1809 steamboat trip on the river by Robert Fulton’s Clermont. Continue reading

Overlook Mountain Could Have Been Television Broadcasting Center


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headline from the Kingston Daily Freeman January 17 1953During the summer hiking season, one of the most popular destinations in the Catskills is Overlook Mountain. Sunny days will have the parking area, located across from a monastery on Mead Mountain Road in Woodstock, at overflow capacity. The hike to the summit, along a dirt road, is not especially grueling, though hikers can expect to do some heavy breathing as they near the top. Continue reading

Baby McKee: Early American Child Celebrity


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The McKee children, printed in Harpers Round Table in 1895Caroline Scott Harrison, the wife of U.S. President Benjamin Harrison, died in the fall of 1892, after a trip to the Adirondacks failed to cure her tuberculosis. Her death left the White House without a first lady. Harrison’s daughter, Mary Scott McKee, filled that role for the last few months of Harrison’s term (he lost his bid for re-election that November). In those days, presidential terms ended in March, so Mrs. McKee carried on as first lady for about five months.

She and her husband, James Robert McKee, and their two children Benjamin Harrison McKee and Mary Lodge McKee had been living at the White House during her father’s term. The presidential grandchildren – especially Benjamin, who got labeled as “Baby McKee” – were media sensations. (Though it was often stated that he had been born in the White House, both he and his sister were actually born in Indiana.) Continue reading

Sumner Lark’s Putnam County African-American Projects


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sumner h larkAlthough his father was said to have been born as a slave, and was later a junk dealer in the Augusta, Georgia area,  Sumner H. Lark came to be a trend-breaking black leader in New York State who worked to establish an African-American community in Putnam County.

Sumner Lark was born in in 1874 to a father later described as “a pioneer race business man in his home town and accumulated a considerable fortune at one time.” He grew up in the Augusta area, and attended the Haines Institute before attending Howard University, graduating in 1897. He then returned to Georgia, taught Chemistry and Physics at Haines and ran a local newspaper for about a year, having edited a student-run newspaper in college.  After marrying he relocated to Brooklyn, New York just after the start of the 20th century. There, he ran his own printing business, and started The Eye, a newspaper which reported information of interest to African Americans. Continue reading

African American Stage Performer Ella Madison


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African American Actress and Singer, Ella Madison Ella Madison was born in 1854 in Saratoga Springs, New York. Her parents were John and Caroline Robinson. Her sister, Caroline Victoria (usually called Victoria) was married to Solomon Northup‘s son, Alonzo. (Alonzo and his family later moved to Weedsport in Cayuga County). It was reported that Ella, while a teenager, had relocated to New York City, and marched in a parade in 1869 that commemorated the passage of the 14th Amendment, which guaranteed citizenship rights to former slaves. Her mother died that year, while visiting her daughter, Caroline, in Washington County, New York. Continue reading

The Dannemora Prison Break of 1928


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dannemora prison before 1930sOn July 29, 1928, Herbert R. Mackie, an inmate at what was then known as Clinton Prison (today called the Clinton Correctional Facility) in Dannemora was being escorted to a practice session for the prison’s band. He told an officer that he had forgotten something, and asked for permission to return to his cell. He was not seen again by prison staff for six weeks.

He was not at liberty during most of that time, however. He was still within the facility, busily digging a tunnel that would be a key part in what seems to have been a carefully planned plot for Mackie to escape the prison with fellow inmate Otto Sanford. Continue reading