Monday, September 11, 2017

The Ghost Train of Mont Pleasant

We can't wait for Halloween over at the Schenectady County Historical Society, so when one of our volunteers found this letter about the "Ghost of the 9:15", we were thrilled and wanted to post it right away. There is not much backstory to it, so we've transcribed the letter below.

December 28, 1992

To: Larry Hart

Larry, here is the real story of the "Ghost" Train.

As a teenager living in Mt. Pleasant in the early 1950s, entertainment for young teenagers was non-existent. The "flockey" as it was called was our playground, the wooded area between Mt. Pleasant and Bellevue. We explored and knew every inch of that land from Altamont Ave. to Lower Broadway Hill.

The "Ghost of the 9:15" was the actual name of the event.

The Ghost was a bed sheet attached to a fishing pole and dangled from a tree branch which was along side the railroad tracks. The white sheet was painted black on one side so as not to be seen when transporting our ghost to and from the tree. The sheet was reversed and the black side covered the fishing pole.

The original story that we had heard was that a hobo was killed in that location years before and that his ghost haunted the 9:15 train. We helped the story to be true. 

You could probably see the ghost train pretty well from this vantage point of the Congress Street bridge. Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library Photo Collection.
We could travel the Mont Pleasant area from yard to yard, alleyway to alleyway in the dark as well as in the daytime. Our schedule was to pick up the "Ghost" bed sheet attached to the fishing pole around 8:30. Wait until it was dark enough, then walk or run from the alleyways between Cutler and Davis Terrace, down to Park St. into the woods and down to 3rd Ave. We then would climb the tree, wait for the train, flip the bed sheet over to the white side, dangle it as the train passed, flip it to the black side, down the tree, through the woods, alleyways, and home. When the news about a ghost got out of control and crowds would gather to try to see him, we would not appear that night and eventually retired him for good. 

That's the story of the "Ghost of the 9:15"

Yours truly,
One time member of the "Cutler St. Gang"

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Ambrose Ham – Survivor of the USS Maine

This post was written by SCHS Library Volunteer Gail Denisoff.

Stylized image of the USS Maine explosion. Only 94 of the ship's 355 crew members survived the explosion. Courtesy of the Nautical History Gallery and Museum
Schenectady resident Ambrose Ham was a 20 year old Apprentice First Class aboard the USS Maine when it exploded in Havana Harbor on the night of February 15, 1898.  An article in the Schenectady Evening Star dated February 17, 1898 questioned his survival.  According to the article, an Ambrose Hall was listed as a survivor and hope was that he was really Ambrose Ham.

Born January 10, 1878, in Indian Fields, New York, Ambrose moved to Schenectady as a boy with his mother and brothers where he lived on Catherine Street and attended school until the 6th grade.  Following the death of his mother in about 1894, he came under the guardianship of Mr. B.L. Conde of Schenectady who enlisted him in the US Navy on July 31, 1894 at the age of 16.  He was placed on a school ship in Newport RI where he apprenticed for approximately 18 months.  On his enlistment card he was described as being 5’4 ¼” tall with grey eyes, light brown hair and a light freckled complexion. At the time of the explosion, Ambrose had been part of the crew of the Maine for about a year and a half.

The USS Maine is best known for the explosion in Havana Harbor on the night of February 15, 1898
Image of Ambrose Ham from
the Feb. 6, 1906 edition
of the Binghamton Press
and Leader. Courtesy of
which killed 261 of its crew of 355. Sent to protect American citizens who were then in Cuba, the Maine exploded without warning and sank quickly. The cause of the explosion is still unclear but the incident was one of the factors leading to the Spanish-American War. The phrase, "Remember the Maine! To hell with Spain!”, became a call for action. In 1898, an investigation of the explosion was carried out by a naval board appointed under the McKinley Administration. The consensus of the board was that Maine was destroyed by an external explosion from a mine. However, the validity of this investigation is still a subject of speculation.

Ambrose did indeed survive the sinking of the Maine.  In response to a letter sent to him from the Schenectady Sunday News, Ambrose gave this account of the incident sent from the US Army Hospital in Key West, Florida dated February 26th, 1898 (original letter in the Grems-Doolittle Library):

Dear Sir,

I received your letter with picture last night.  I thank you very much for taking such an interest in my escape from the Maine. 

On Tuesday, Feb 15th I went on watch at 8:00 o’clock, aft on the poop deck.  I was standing signal watch and my watch would be up that night at 12:00 o’clock.  Everything went well till twenty minutes of ten.

It was a beautiful night, the water in the harbor was as still as a lake.  The ship was swinging to flood tide.  As I was about to turn around to walk aft, I saw a volcano of fire which seem to envelope the whole ship then followed a terrible roar and another which lifted the big ship out of the water.  I was hit by a piece iron which was coming down like hail.  The whole forward part of the ship was torned to pieces, steele was twisted like wire. Men were thrown high in the air and what few escaped were burned so badly we could hardly tell who they were.

As soon as the explosion was over I ran to the Captain boat which was not injured and helped to lower it into the water.  Several men who were not hurt got into the boat with Cadet Holden in charge and picked up the men in the water.  By that time boats from shore and some from the Spanish man of war came up, picked up a lot of injured men and took them ashore to the Hospital.  Well our boat stayed around the wreck which was burning.  The after part of the ship was not injured and on the poop deck was the Captain, leut comd. Wainwright and a couple of junior officers.  Then the captain gave orders to see if everyone was off the ship.  Next order was to abandon ship.  The captain was the last man to leave the ship, he seem as cool as a piece of ice.  He was taken over to the City of Washington where some of the survivors were and such a night – men with broken limbs, burned faces.  The Maine surgeon, the Captain and Lieut. Blow were working hard dressing the mens wounds.

Two of the men were taken to Havana Hospital that night but they died afterwards.  Next day we were taken to the Steamer Olvette which runs between Key West and Havana and left that afternoon and arrived in Key West at night.  Went to the Hospital some to Marine some to Army Hospital.  Last week eight men came from Havana, four are expected today.  The men were treated kindly on the Steamers and in the Hospital.  On the City of Washington some of the passengers stayed up all night to watch the wounded. 

Whether it was an accident or not I will not say.  The court of inquiry will know tomorrow.  My injuries were slight and are all well now.  The men in this Hospital are improving quickly and will be able to get discharge from Hospital in two weeks with the exception of two men who have broken legs.  It was said last night that two men died in Havana Hospital.  I don’t know how true it is.

I am sorry I could not send this account before for I only received your letter last night.  Would you mind sending me one of the papers with my picture in it.  I would like to read the account of the disaster in your paper and oblidge.

Ambrose Ham

The USS Marblehead courtesy of Wikipedia.
Following his release from the hospital, Ambrose served aboard the USS Marblehead in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. He was honorably discharged from the Navy on January 9, 1899, a day before his 21st birthday.  After returning to Schenectady, Ambrose lived on Paige Street and worked as a grocer. His guardian, Mr. Conde had pursued a lawsuit that his mother, Mrs. Hannah Wiltsie Ham had initiated before her death for an inheritance from an uncle of hers.  He was successful and when Ambrose returned, there was $1300 in the Schenectady Savings Bank waiting for him.   Shortly thereafter, on March 12, 1899, Ambrose was baptized in the 2nd Dutch Reformed Church .

By the early 1900’s, Ambrose (whose name in later years was sometimes spelled Hamm) and his wife, Edna, were living in Binghamton, NY where he was employed for many years as a Postal Clerk.  He died on November 23, 1961 at the age of 83.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

The Mayor and the Aurora Borealis

Image of Samuel W. Jones.
This blog entry was written by library volunteer Bob Emery.

The Schenectady County Historical Society owns the diary, 1821-1855, of Samuel W. Jones (1791-1855), mayor of Schenectady in 1837-1839.  Jones came from a prominent Long Island family, noted for its legal accomplishments (his uncle Samuel Jones, for instance, was Chancellor of the State of New York).  After graduation from Union College in 1810 and admission to the bar in 1813, Jones located in Schenectady.  He cemented his position in the community by his 1816 marriage to Maria Bowers Duane (1793-1858), granddaughter of James Duane, a member of the Continental Congress and mayor of New York City, locally best known as founder of Duanesburg and owner of a big chunk of the eastern Mohawk Valley.
Jones had a career of some minor distinction.  Prior to his service as mayor of Schenectady he overcame local “Dutch prejudice” to achieve election in 1833 as a city alderman, as well as appointment to the county Court of Common Pleas; after his mayoral term he was elected County Court judge and county Surrogate.  In addition, he was a longtime vestryman of St. George’s Church and a leader in such local civic projects as the Schenectady African School Society, founded in 1829 to educate Schenectady’s newly emancipated African-American residents.  Jones was, in short, a solid citizen of the superior sort.

Jones’s “diary” might better be described as a journal, containing random notes on things that interested him, including some information on the Jones and Duane families that might be of interest to genealogists.  These random notes ranged from criticisms, as an old alumnus, of the way Union undergraduates pronounced Greek to the derangement and dismissal of the Presbyterian Church’s minister, and everything in between.  One of Jones’s main interests, however, was transportation improvements.  In the 1820’s he was a devoted supporter of De Witt Clinton, particularly of Clinton’s efforts to promote the Erie Canal.  Throughout his diary, Jones was careful to note when the canal closed for the winter and opened in the spring, and any untoward events that affected its operation.  In his later years, he was involved in turnpike and railroad development.  Another of Jones’s major interests was politics.  After Clinton’s death, Jones moved into the conservative wing of the Democratic Party, becoming a strong follower of Martin van Buren and Andrew Jackson.  As early as the Compromise of 1820, he had expressed his suspicions concerning the expansionistic ambitions of the slave states; if he had lived long enough he may well have followed other van Buren Democrats (like B.F. Butler) into the Republican Party.

Weather for the week of December 21, 1840.
If there was any sign of the Aurora Borealis
in Schenectady, then Samuel Jones noticed it
and wrote about it in his journal.
Jones’s primary interest, though, seems to have been meteorology, and in particular the Aurora Borealis, the Northern Lights.  The Aurora Borealis seems to have been much more visible in Jones’s time than it is now.  Like his contemporary Professor B. F. Joslin of Union College (whom Jones knew), Jones regarded the Northern Lights phenomenon more as a weather-based than as an astronomical event.  Hence, he carefully recorded meteorological data surrounding each appearance of the Aurora Borealis.  He devoted page after page of his diary to the Aurora, noting such things as extent and duration as well as careful descriptions to the shifting colors of each appearance.  If one is to judge by the attention Jones paid to the Aurora Borealis in his diary, it was his main interest, even surpassing politics.

"Last evening another more brilliant display of the Aurora Borealis. It concentrated in the zenith from all directions it was first seen in the South East and in the course of the evening presented every shade of colour from bright red to white-  sometimes it would hand from the zenith over the whole south part of the sky-  sometimes to the north and sometimes to every point-  it continued until late in the night as I heard-  it was brilliant at Eleven when I went to bed." - Entry from Samuel Jones Diary dated September 4th, 1839.

Jones’s diary is by no means a significant source for Schenectady history.  It is, however, a useful record of the interests of a prominent local citizen who might, not altogether unfairly, be described as an Aurora Borealis fanatic.

Friday, July 14, 2017

A Genealogy Success Story

This post was written by SCHS member Carol Clemens published in the Heritage Observer

My husband and I recently did DNA testing through Ancestry’s service. When the results were completed, I noticed a “first cousin match” in the results, on my husband’s side. Thinking it was probably one of the “known cousins” and being busy, I did not contact the person immediately. Shortly after, I received a message through Ancestry from the person, and found she was NOT one of the cousins I knew about.

Here is part of her message:

I was actually adopted. I found my birth mother's family several years ago and all I know about my father’s side is that he was a policeman with the Downey Police Department. I'm trying to figure out his name due to the fact that by the time I found my birth mother she was deceased, and my siblings, through her, do not remember his name. They have asked the older family members but no one can remember his name. Maybe this story rings a bell for someone in your family. I hope I'm not opening a can of worms that is, or was, a secret for your family. If you have any information, please let me know. I don't need to meet anyone, I just want to get some family medical history and have names for my children's family trees.

The clue was the fact that her father was a Downey, CA police officer. My husband’s Uncle Walt was a police officer in California and later an Alaskan State trooper. I had documentation of his residence in Downey for the correct time span. Piecing together my research, her limited knowledge, and DNA, we have no doubt that she is indeed the daughter of Uncle Walt. 

I have added her info to the family tree and shared it with her. From knowing nothing other than the occupation of her father and his residence, she now has family history going back to 1801 in Norway. She has the colorful story of her Grandfather “jumping ship” in New York harbor in 1923 and his purchase of “immigration papers” for $50 that he believed made him a US citizen. She now knows about her half-brothers and sisters and has photos of many of her Norwegian ancestors.
My husband’s mother recently passed away and we held a Celebration of Life Service in her hometown in upstate New York. Our “new” cousin and one of her daughters made the trip from the West Coast to join us in celebrating the life of the aunt she never knew.  She was so excited to meet the family she never knew about.  She was welcomed with open arms….and went home with not only new memories, but photos and even a quilt made by her late aunt.

I am delighted that I could play a part in this wonderful success story. It would not have been possible without both careful, documented research and the benefits of science through DNA testing.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Schenectady's Colorful Canallers

This post is written by SCHS library volunteer Diane Leone

The Erie Canal running through Schenectady. This sketch is from
the December 1873 issue of Harper's New Monthly Magazine.
The Erie Canal was one of the country’s most ambitious engineering undertakings. Completed in 1825 after eight years of construction, this marvel connected Lake Erie with the Hudson River, thus opening up the untapped resources of the Midwest to the East coast, which sent both immigrants and manufactured goods west. Although scoffers called the original canal Clinton’s Ditch, it very quickly proved its value, and by 1865, more than 7,000 boats traveled its waters. The waterway was enlarged to accommodate heavier traffic, once in 1862 and a second time in 1895. Eventually the mechanized Barge Canal, completed in 1918, replaced the original canal with its towpath. Still, the “Roaring Giddap,” as the canallers called the horse- and mule-powered canal, left an indelible imprint on the history of the nation.

Along with other cities and towns on the canal, Schenectady was part of a rich store of stories—some tall tales—and songs about those who made their living on the Erie. These canallers, primarily men, were a rowdy lot. As noted canal historian Lionel D. Wyld states in Boaters and Broomsticks: Tales and Historical Lore of the Erie Canal:“They drank deeply, they ate heartily, they fought eagerly, and they sang lustily” (79). After all, they worked long hours at physically demanding jobs in a competitive, even aggressive atmosphere, with hours of monotony punctuated by stops at canal towns which offered ample liquor and other forms of entertainment.

The Craig Hotel in Niskayuna was a popular stop on the hotel. This photo shows owner Jack McPherson behind the bar. Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library and Archives photo collection.
Drinking and fighting seem to have been the two chief activities of these boatmen. The literature is rife with examples of canallers’ fondness for spirits, although this reputation derives partly from authors, such as Walter D. Edmonds, known for popularizing the canal in fiction. In Low Bridge! Folklore and the Erie Canal, Wyld includes an iconic song, “E-RI-E Canal, with the apt refrain:

O the E-ri-e was a-rising, And the gin was getting low, And I scarcely think we'll get a drink ‘Till we get to Buffalo, ‘Till we get to Buffalo.  (101)

As Lawrence Naylor notes in The Effects of the Erie Canal on Schenectady, “A boater could get off at Union Street, race down Wall Street to Lou Barhydt’s for a jug of rum, and, if he didn’t stop to sample the merchandise, could dash down Wall Street and hop back aboard at State to continue their journey west” (15). Wyld relates the amusing tale of a boater who brags to the bartender at McClare’s Hotel in Rexford that he can, “…down a gallon of hard cider without taking more than three breaths” (Boaters 45). When the barkeep agrees to the wager, the boater disappears for a few minutes. Upon his return, he chugs down the gallon of cider provided by the bartender.

“Didn’t think it could be done,” he [the bartender] told the canaller, shaking his head in doubt over what he had just seen with his own eyes. The Erie boater wiped his mouth with his sleeve. “T’ tell the truth, neither did I,” he answered with a satisfied grin, “’til I run down to yer neighbor tavern t’ find out!” (Boaters 45)

Alcohol was not only a means of relaxation, but also served as compensation or inducement for preferential treatment. Packet boats, which carried passengers, traveled day and night, and captains were under pressure to reach their destinations quickly. The fourth verse in the song, “Raging Canal,” makes this clear:

The Captain told the driver to hurry with all speed---And his orders were obeyed, for he soon cracked up his lead; With the fastest kind of towing we allowed by twelve o’clock, We should be in old Schenectady right bang against the dock. (Wyld, Low Bridge! 91)

Henry Heilbronner owned a successful
 wholesale liquor store on State Street. 
There's a good chance the bribes for the 
locktenders came from Heilbronners.
Courtesy of the Schenectady History Museum.
Travelers were known to bribe canallers with whiskey to accelerate the boat’s speed through the canal, although vessels traveling faster than four miles per hour risked being fined, since the resulting wakes could damage the canal walls. Boatmen offered liquid tips to the locktenders—who wielded quite a bit of power—to speed up their time in the locks with a surge of water. A captain on the wrong side of the locktender, however, might find his boat unexpectedly bumping up against the sides of the lock.

Given the rate of alcohol consumption, canallers had a reputation for aggressive behavior. To some extent, this was an occupational qualification. Given the busy canal traffic, waiting time for entry into the locks was often long. Delays were bad for business, particularly for packet lines, which had preference over freight boats going through the locks. Competition existed even among packet crews. It was important for a captain to count among his crew intimidating men who could physically enforce their claims. To that end, captains were often handy with their fists, and hired men known as successful brawlers.
An example of an early lock on the canal. Courtesy of the
Albany Institute of History and Art.

Cities such as Buffalo and Watervliet had reputations as places where fighting was rampant. In fact, in the 1860’s, a two-mile area on the Buffalo waterfront was viewed as the “wickedest street in the world.” Apparently, Schenectady was also a hub for scrappers. Referring to the canal around 1850, a 1922 Gazette article, “Schenectady Was One Bright Spot on Erie Canal,” noted that the opening of the canal season in the spring brought the first fight of the season, “…where every quarrel or grudge contracted on the trip between Buffalo and Albany among canal men was fought out” (14). This maiden contest took place in a large open area on Dock Street—now Erie Boulevard—midway between State and Weaver Streets. The contestants were required to be sluggers of great distinction, whose animosity toward each other was stoked by the canallers. The battle ended only when one fighter indicated that he had had enough, which often occurred only after he was in rather dire shape. Following this spectacle, the crowd would proceed to a drinking establishment on Robinson Street where the victor bought drinks for the spectators and the loser, and the imbibing continued, “…until everyone in the party was unable to stand” (14).

So concerned was the city’s governing body about the influence of canallers on the students of both Union College and the attached grammar school that they extended the force of existing laws, which prohibited luring youth into “the vice of gaming” and providing them with “wine or spiritous liquors.” Jeanette Neisuler notes in her article, "When Schenectady and the Erie Canal Were Young," that the city fathers also had the canallers in mind when they enacted other laws, including the following: “If, when there shall be an assemblage of persons at or near any railroad or canal within the bounds of the police district in this city, any one of them shall audibly utter profane or obscene words…” (154), the perpetrator will incur a fine of $25.
Photo of a barge in the canal with Dock Street on the left. Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library and Archives photo collection.

Along with those who made their living working the boats, the canal generated a variety of auxiliary jobs. The runner, often a youth, was tasked with convincing passengers to choose the packet line for which he worked. It seems that Schenectady’s runners were so competitive that this piece of the canal was called “The Battleground.” Wyld includes a report from a passenger from Saratoga, who observed the antics of competing runners on Dock Street. As their sales pitches turned to insulting their rivals, there arose quite a brouhaha:

With fists flying, the hawker for the Dutch Flyer ploughed into the Will ‘O’ Wisp man and the fight was on.  The Saratogian reported that everyone in sight joined in—it was anybody’s fight.  Three participants were pushed into the canal but kept on fighting all the same. Some canallers were jailed, but the battlers earnestly continued the brawl in the lockup (Boaters 43).

The Great Wardrobe on the canal in 1894. This photo was taken west of Schenectady. Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library and Archives photo collection.
This image gives you a good idea
of how low the lowbridges of the
canal were. Courtesy of
For packet boat canallers the safety of their passengers was important. Numerous bridges spanned the canal, often crossing farmland bisected by the Erie. The many travelers who took some fresh air on the roof of the packet boat cabin were in danger of suffering serious, even mortal, injury if they did not heed the canaller’s warning of "Bridge!" or "Low Bridge!" Neisuler mentions an 1835 Amsterdam newspaper report of a rather gruesome accident. A young woman traveling between that city and Schenectady was reading in an inclined position to avoid head exposure, when the vessel passed beneath an especially low bridge: “…before she had an opportunity of discovering her danger, her head was caught and crushed in a horrid manner, between the timbers of the bridge and the trunk on which she was leaning….” (157).

Accidents were common among canallers as well. Schenectady chronicler Larry Hart notes that mishaps were a daily occurrence in Old Dorp; along with injuries from low bridges, they included drownings, heat prostration, mangled limbs, and strangulation by ropes. Wyld offers several examples of these unfortunate events, including an incident in which the rope line of a grain boat near Two-Mile House in Rotterdam wrapped around a boater’s leg, dragging the vessel and nearly severing the man’s appendage. As the author relates, the victim was brought to the nearby hotel, “… and given a good supply of spirits until the doctor came to complete the amputation” (Boaters 110). Another accident on the enlarged and deepened canal was the result of a leaky boat—not an uncommon occurrence—which carried a cargo of rock salt. As the craft began to sink between Schenectady and Niskayuna, the captain used an axe to cut open the stable roof to save the mules.

Some locktenders on shore spied the woman and shouted to the captain.“Never mind those mules,” they hollered, “get that old lady off the boat before it goes down!” The boater kept hacking away. “These mules cost money,” he shouted back. “I can get an old lady anyplace!” (110)

As some of the stories related above indicate, canal life generated a rich body of traditional tales. Among many others were yarns about an incredible strong Bunyanesque character named McCarthy, the giant squash of Palmyra, the Rome area’s giant frog, and mosquitoes from the swamps west of Utica. Another Schenectady tale involves the winds that often blew women’s skirts up as they crossed the numerous bridges spanning the canal. From this embarrassing situation arose a story from the end of the nineteenth century, about a lovely woman attired in quality clothing and a “…wide-brimmed blue velvet hat, topped by a black ostrich feather.” When a stiff wind blew her hat into the canal, she ran away in a confused state. “The boaters and dock workers who watched her broke into loud guffaws, for along with that beautiful hat, proud ostrich feather and all, the pesky canal wind had lifted her auburn hair clear off her head, revealing a now wigless, grey-haired older woman” (Wyld, Boaters 44).

Those who made their living on the canal were a colorful group of characters, who worked and played hard, and made the Erie Canal era the fascinating period that it was and an integral part of the life of Schenectady and an expanding American nation.

Works Cited: 

Neisuler, Jeanette. "When Schenectady and the Erie Canal Were Young." New York History, vol. 35,   no. 2, Apr. 1954, pp. 139-58.

"Schenectady Was One Bright Spot on Erie Canal." Schenectady Gazette, 4 May 1922, p. 14.

Wyld, Lionel D. Boaters and Broomsticks: Tales and Historical Lore of the Erie Canal. Utica, North   Country Books, 1986.

Wyld, Lionel D. Low Bridge! Folklore and the Erie Canal. Syracuse, Syracuse University Press, 1962.

Friday, June 23, 2017

The Impact of the Glorious Revolution on Schenectady

A lot of the focus on the Schenectady Massacre tends to focus on the direct events that occurred in Schenectady during the night of February 8, 1690 but the events that led up to the massacre and that occurred afterward are also interesting and worth mentioning. During the late 1680s and early 1690s, the Colony of New York was at the height of political division. These divisions, along with fears of attacks by the French and Indians, and the spread of Catholicism set the stage for a short lived political uprising that left a strong mark on the small town of Schenectady.

British Parliament offering the crown
to William and Mary in February 1689.
Courtesy of the Encyclopaedia Britannica.
The Glorious Revolution of 1688 in England is considered a turning point in English history, it also caused a chain of events that resulted in a disruption of British power in America. The Revolution eventually caused King James II of England to be overthrown by English Parliamentarians and Dutch Stadtholder William of Orange. King James' policies of religious tolerance collapsed and the rights of British Catholics were severely limited. Another effect of the Glorious Revolution was the Bill of Rights which was an act of Parliament that enacted certain civil rights and put limits on the power of monarchs.

Governor Edmund Andros.
His glorious locks matched
the Glorious Revolution.
Courtesy of Wikipedia.
The ripples of the Glorious Revolution reached America rather quickly, most notably in the April, 18, 1689 Boston Revolt which was an uprising against the rule of Governor of the Dominion of New England (and former Colonial Governor of New York) Sir Edmund Andros. Andros was extremely unpopular in New England due to his lack of respect for local representation, his promotion of the Church of England in Puritan areas, and the Navigation Acts which limited trade for New Englanders. The resentment of New Englanders culminated in a revolt in Boston where Andros was deposed and imprisoned. While Andros was in captivity, he sent a call for help to his Lieutenant Governor, Francis Nicholson who was based in New York. Unfortunately for poor Andros, Nicholson had some problems of his own...
Lieutenant Governor
Francis Nicholson.Courtesy
of Wikipedia

Nicholson knew about the Boston Revolt, but tried to keep it quiet in New York for fear of something similar happening to him. But news traveled fast, even in 1689, and officials in Long Island soon found out about the Boston Revolt. Nicholson, like Andros, wasn't the most popular in New York and was seen as just another English Governor who had no respect for local authorities. Nicholson's reputation may have been well deserved as he stated that New Yorkers were "a conquered people, and therefore ... could not could not so much [as] claim rights and privileges as Englishmen." This combined with his notorious temper afforded him few friends in the colony.

Statue of Jacob Leisler in
New Rochelle, New York.
Courtesy of Wikipedia.
A direct link to the Schenectady Massacre came when Nicholson discovered that France declared war on the English. Nicholson believed that this would mean more trouble in New York from the French and Indians in Canada. He scrambled to bring troops back to New York and invited the militia to join his regular soldiers at Fort James on Manhattan. Unfortunately for Nicholson he ran into influential merchant Jacob Leisler who was wholeheartedly against the lieutenant governor.

Leisler believed that Nicholson was attempting to impose Catholic rule on New York and was also against having to pay increased duties to improve New York's defenses. The militia demanded the keys to the powder magazine at Fort James, which Nicholson handed over to avoid any bloodshed. The militia gained more control and chose Leisler as their leader. Nicholson left New York on June 6th, and Leisler took control of New York.

Leisler's government was controversial in Albany with many of the local leaders refusing the legitimacy of  Leisler's rule and Albany became the center of the anti-Leisler forces in New York. Notice of a French and Indian attack spread to Albany by September 1689 which caused leaders in Albany to petition Leisler for help. Leisler sent his adviser and son-in-law Jacob Milborne to take military control over Albany but the Albany Convention refused the terms and Milborne went back to New York City.

Lands of the original patentees of the Schenectady Patent from Jonathan Pearson's. Courtesy of

Although Albany pretty much ignored Milborne, his visit had sown the seed of discontent in the minds of several prominent Schenectadians including Ryer Schermerhorn who was a landowner and one of the original Dutch settlers of the town. Milborne promised that Schenectadians would be shown favor over those in Albany in Leisler's Government. Schenectady's official position was against Leisler, but many saw Leisler as a way to get our from under the strong hand of Albany. The conflict between the two groups was noticeable in the months before the Schenectady Massacre. According to Thomas Burke's article Leisler's Rebellion at Schenectady, New York, 1689–1710,

"The Leislerians apparently refused to serve watch under the command of officers from the other group...the watch threatened to throw Captain Sander Glen on the fire if he came on guard."

Court case of Ryer Schermerhorn (a descendent of the original Ryer) vs. Arent Andriese Bradt & other defendants. This case is 1 of 126 in our legal matters collection that mention a Ryer Schermerhorn. Courtesy of the Historic Manuscript Collection at the Grems-Doolittle Library & Archives.
On February 8th, 1690, this quarrel proved to be the downfall of Schenectady as a band of French

and Indians attacked and destroyed the unguarded town. As you might expect in current times, neither Leisler, nor the authorities at Albany took responsibility for the attack. Albany city clerk Robert Livingston wrote an account that blamed the Leislerians while Jacob Leisler blamed the Albany's government. The attack at Schenectady struck fear in New Yorkers and Leisler was able to use this fear to gain more power in New York City which he kept until 1691 when he was executed. Although Leisler's control of New York was short lived, his legacy was felt deeply in Schenectady. 

A Peitition for the Division of Common Lands
to Governor William Tryon from 1774.
One of Leisler's biggest supporters in Schenectady was an original patentee of the Schenectady Patent, Ryer Schermerhorn and those who supported Leisler generally supported Schermerhorn. Many of the original landowners in Schenectady died during the Schenectady Massacre leaving Ryer Schermerhorn as the sole manager of the patent's common lands which included roughly 80,000 acres of land that he could collect rent on. Understandably, many in Schenectady were unhappy with one man having control of that much land and they petitioned for a new patent in 1703. This petition was granted, but Schermerhorn ignored it and continued to refer to the original 1684 patent which gave Schermerhorn and his heirs control of the land forever. Ryer Schermerhorn's heirs, as well as the heirs of other original settlers, took the original patent as gospel and fought for control of the common lands of Schenectady until 1798 when Schenectady was incorporated as a city. 

The Grems-Doolittle Library and Archives hold many papers mentioning Ryer Schermerhorn, including some very early ones in Dutch. 

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Odors of the Erie in Schenectady

A photo on our New York Heritage Digital Collections page prompted an interesting question, "What did the Erie Canal Smell Like?" The photo, seen below, shows part of the canal towards the end of its lifespan, probably in the late 1910s. The amount of trash and debris in the photo makes me think that it didn't smell all too great.

Photo of men on Dock Street by the Erie Canal. This photo gives a great idea of just how shallow the canal was, it was originally 4 feet deep and 7 feet after it was enlarged. Check out a zoom-able image on our NY Heritage page. Photo courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library Photo Collection. 
Former Schenectady City Historian William B. Efner wrote an account of his time as a cash boy in Barney's Department Store in the 1880s. Efner states that Canal would slow to a trickle in the fall as the water was let out. In the springtime, cleaners would go down into the canal and clear out any garbage, waste, and dead animals that had accumulated over the winter. Efner goes on to say that this was all thrown onto the towpath for days "until water was let into the canal and a scow could be run through on which the filth was deposited and hauled away, but the stench remained for days afterward."

Another photo of the drained canal. near the Union Street bridge Crossing. Check it out in our NY Heritage Collection.

No dock rats in sight in this picturesque postcard of Dock Street
and the Erie Canal. Check it out in our NY Heritage Collection.
Courtesy of the Wayne Tucker Postcard Collection.
Author Jeannette Niesuler wrote a six-part article on the Erie Canal from the Daily Gazette titled "When Schenectady and the Erie Canal Were Young Together." Niesuler describes the "out of sight, out of mind" philosophy that many canalers abided by when disposing of their waste. There were also sewers that let out into the canal. Neisuler goes into a bit more detail about the type of waste found by the so-called "dock rats" which was the name for the men who cleaned out the canal. Neisuler writes a very vivid description of the type of debris the dock rats would find, "Waste of all description, and some that would defy description, gathered there -- no excepting carcasses of long dead, putrefying animals, even on occasion, a horse. Lying there on the towpath, fermenting in the hot sun..." Mike Rowe would have had a field day joining the dock rats for a Dirty Jobs: Erie Canal Edition.  

Schenectadian Benedict R. Hatmaker had quite a few ideas on how to improve the city he writes that "The canal should cease to be a cesspool and a stench and turned into a crosstown street,"
Testimony of Francis Tauriello in the case of Michael Crage v.
the City of Buffalo in 1933. Courtesy of Google Books.
 which it eventually turned out to be a true prediction. Other cities were dealing with the same problem. An article in the May 6, 1913 issue of the Utica Herald Dispatch states "Neither bar spices, perfume, or chloride of lime will sweeten canal's breath." In Buffalo, a possible solution to the offending odor of the Erie was found in diverting the sewers underneath the canal and into the Buffalo River. Which solves the problem of a polluted Erie Canal, but creates the problem of a polluted river. There was even a lawsuit brought against the City of Buffalo in 1933 by a Michael Crage. Crage claimed that a lack of sewers while Buffalo was filling in the Erie Canal drove tenants away from his building.

Filling in the canal meant that many of the first floors of buildings on Dock Street were covered up. Check this image out on our NY Heritage page. Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library Photo Collection.
Schenectady, like other cities in New York, found a solution to the stench by filling the canal in and creating a street. The canal in Schenectady was filled and paved in 1925, creating Erie Boulevard. The street that ran along the canal, Dock Street, is now the sidewalk of Erie Boulevard. Many of the remaining buildings along Erie Boulevard are reminders of the canal in the city although some have been demolished or destroyed over time (some very recently).

The Grems-Doolittle Library and Archives has many photos of what life was like on the Erie Canal and we have been working to digitize many of them on our New York Heritage Collection page. Images of the canal can be found in our Erie Canal Photograph Collection, Schenectady, NY Street Scenes Collection, and the Wayne Tucker Postcard Collection. For even more photos and information, stop by our library at Schenectady County Historical Society headquarters at 32 Washington Ave.

Friday, April 21, 2017

A Murder Most Foul: The Killing of Etta Demascek

This post was written by library volunteer Gail Denisoff

Did Alexander Demascek pay to have his wife killed?  That question had Schenectady abuzz during the summer of 1892.

Around noon on June 14, 1892, "the comely" Mrs. Etta Demascek was murdered in her home on Rotterdam Street in Schenectady.  A 12 year old girl, Gussie Frisch, heard a blow, a scream and what she described as a crunching sound “like a butcher cutting meat”.  She saw a man run out of the house, past a group of men on the Scrafford Hotel stoop and escape. 

View of the Scrafford Hotel in 1905. Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library Photo Collection.
The first suspect was a former boarder in the Demascek house, John Feltheimer.  He was accused of
the murder but quickly cleared when he was able to prove he was at his job at the locomotive works.  He decided to take on the search for the killer and had himself sworn in as a special officer and headed to New York City.  He apparently was successful because a month later, on July 16th, his information led to the arrest of Cornelius (Cornel) Loth, a 25 year old Hungarian immigrant, for the crime.  Loth was living and working in New York although he had previously spent time in Schenectady.  From the information Feltheimer gave the police, Alexander Demascek was also arrested for complicity in the murder of his wife.  

Cornelius Loth, The Confessed Murderer. 
Cornel Loth at first protested his innocence but then made a full confession to District Attorney Naylor and Assistant Police Chief DeForest.  He said that since February of 1892, Demascek was imploring him to kill his wife.  He gave Loth money on several occasions and promised a larger amount after Etta was killed.  Loth said he refused to do it, but on June 13th took the midnight train out of New York to Schenectady.  He arrived at 7:55 am on the morning of the 14th and immediately went to the Demascek house.  Mrs. Demascek knew him from his previous time in Schenectady and invited him in.  Her husband wasn’t at home but they chatted all morning in the middle room while a plasterer was at work in the adjoining kitchen.  At noon the plasterer left the house.  Mrs. Demascek asked Loth if he would like some lunch and gave him some bread and butter.  She said she was tired and went into the front room to lie down on the lounge and told him he could wait for her husband.  He could see her from where he was seated.  After about five minutes, he picked up his club from the bed where he had placed it and went into the front room. The club, which he had brought with him, had a polished brass knob at the top the size of a doorknob and a handle about two feet long.  When he entered the room he ran at Etta and struck her on the head with the club two or three times.  She screamed and fell to the floor.  He then went into the kitchen, got a butcher knife, returned to the front room, cut her throat and then stabbed her once or twice in the breast, leaving the knife by her side.

Loth said he heard a rap at the kitchen door, grabbed his hat and club and ran from the house.  He ran through the streets, across the Glenville Bridge where he threw his club into the Mohawk and returned to the train station where he caught the 1:33 pm train back to New York.  DA Naylor reported that Loth told the story “as calmly as though he were reading a newspaper report of another man’s crime”.

In late July, a grand jury was convened to determine whether there was enough evidence to go forward with a trial for both Loth and Demascek.  Loth’s confession alone was was enough evidence for an indictment but there wasn’t as much evidence against Demascek. Demascek retained the Honorable A. A. Yates to defend him. 

Andrew A. Yates was one of Schenectady's leading attorneys in the 1800s. More information can be found about him at
Jacob Lockwood, who was one of the first to find Etta’s body, described Demascek’s demeanor when he returned to the house.  He said Demascek was called home from his job at the Edison Works where he was working as a machinist.  When he arrived he viewed the bloody body of his wife for about a minute and a half then turned around with a smile on his face.  Yates questioned whether he could be certain it was a smile or an expression of pain.  The witness said he could not swear to the point but the expression appeared to be a smile to him.

Other witnesses testified to abuse the 27 year old Alexander Demascek inflicted upon his wife.  Under questioning, Demascek admitted to beating his wife but only “two or three times”. He went on to describe numerous occasions of abuse. He said he whipped her two times but could swear it wasn’t six times as one of the witnesses described.  He also beat her once on Veeder Avenue with his hand to her face.  He threw her on a bed the previous summer and hit her on the face two or three times.  He beat her once in Europe and beat her once with a piece of iron which was “about a half pound”.  He beat her again on Centre Street and on Rotterdam Avenue.  He also beat her on Veeder Lane.  Demascek, who was German, was questioned through an interpreter and it was reported that he was “voluble and clever” in his answers.  A smile “rested on his lips almost constantly and he lit up with eagerness answering questions”.  He also testified that he wasn’t legally married and he and Etta just lived together.

Cornelius Loth testified that he came to Schenectady on October 6, 1891.  He knew Demascek and his wife and was in their house frequently.  He said that Demascek gave him money on several occasions and told him how his wife caused him trouble and stole his money.  He begged and cried on many occasions for Loth to kill his wife.  Loth said he left Schenectady on Easter, April 16th 1892, and didn’t hear from Demascek again except receiving a letter from him. The letter pleaded for Loth to kill his wife and promised to forgive his debts and give him a large sum of money.  Loth said that he burned the letter after he read it.  Under questioning, Loth could not say that the handwriting on the letter was definitely Demascek’s.  Demascek later said he could not have written the letter because he was illiterate and could only write his name.

Judge Yates successfully argued the case for Alexander Demascek saying all evidence, especially Loth’s confession, was third party and nothing could be proved.  Although the prosecutor felt there was enough evidence against Demascek to move forward, the grand jury refused to indict him and he was released from custody.  Loth was indicted and held for trial.

In mid-November Cornelius Loth was arraigned on the murder charge before Judge Kellogg.  He pled not guilty but did not have counsel.  He said he had no money and no friends in a position to help him.  Judge Kellogg advised the members of the Schenectady Bar Association to appoint someone to defend him.

By November 17th, attorney A. J. Thompson consented to act as counsel for Loth.  Thompson said that in view of his confession, there was no doubt to his guilt but there was some doubt as to his sanity.  He said that Loth was “unquestionably insane” and would like to have an examination of his sanity done as soon as possible.  He said that Loth substantiated his confession one day and denied it the next.  He reported that “if Loth did the murder at all, it was for plunder but the plan was spoiled by the arrival of the little Frisch girl who interrupted him at his deadly work”.   One of the stories Loth told Thompson was that John Feldheimer, the special officer, offered him $100 to confess to the murder.  Feldheimer promised he would obtain counsel for him to secure his acquittal and then would send him back to Hungary. 

Thompson felt the only plea left was insanity although there was no further mention of such a plea. It is unknown as to whether Loth had a mental examination.  Thompson and District Attorney Naylor arranged the trial to be held during a special session of circuit court on December 19th.  Subsequently, the trial was moved to the current session of the Schenectady Court of Oyer and Terminer (a state court that had criminal jurisdiction over felonious offenses) and began November 20th leaving little time for preparation.  With the honorable Justice Landon presiding, twelve men were selected for the jury, most from Glenville and Duanesburg. 

During the trial, five witnesses, including little Gussie Friesch identified Cornelius Loth as the man they saw running from the Demascek home.  It was reported “a lively time was expected when Alexander Demascek took the stand” but he only continued to deny any complicity in the murder and testified he was unaware of Loth’s plan. 

The only testimony on Loth’s behalf was his own.  He again accused Demascek of giving him money
to kill his wife.  He insisted he didn’t do it.  He testified that a man by the name of Leichman, who lived in New York City, committed the murder but had since fled to Hungary.  The jury didn’t buy his story and on November 29th, returned a verdict of murder in the first degree.   On December 3rd, 1892 Cornelius Loth was sentenced to death.

Electric Chair from Sing Sing Prison, similar to
the one used at Dannemora. Dannemora's electric
chair was decommissioned in 1970. Photo courtesy
of the New York History Blog,
Loth was moved to the Clinton Prison in Dannemora, NY where it was reported he was a model prisoner.  The day before his execution was passed quietly.  He retired early and slept fairly well.  He dressed in a new cutaway coat and trousers provided for him to die in.  Two French priests from the village arrived to confer with the prisoner and spent a half hour with him.  Loth ate little of his breakfast of eggs, meat, bread and coffee and showed signs of nervousness.  

He was led to the death chamber by guards with the priests following.  He was taken into a room with
an electric chair at one end surrounded by three guards and three physicians.  At the other end of the room were the twenty witnesses allowed by law.  It was reported he knelt down in front of the chair and murmured a few broken words of prayer.  A priest raised and kissed him before he was lowered into the chair.  As the guards strapped him in he said “Take it easy” which were thought to be his last words.  1725 volts of electricity was administered.  His body stiffened against the straps then relaxed.  Loth was declared dead at 11:57 am on January 16, 1893.  He was 26.  It was only the second electrocution at Clinton Prison. 

At some point after the trial, Loth was reported to have acknowledged his accusation of Alexander Demascek was untrue. Martin Frobiski, who was a witness at Loth's trial later reported to police he had known Loth for many years in and that he had killed a twelve year old girl "in the old country".   Police were of the opinion that the Demascek murder was not the first committed by Loth.

On October 31, 1892, Alexander Demascek was appointed administrator of his wife’s estate.  He later moved to New York City where he married Margaret Lensch on January 31, 1895.  They had a son, Alexander, in December of 1895 followed by four other children.  By the 1900 census they were living in Newark New Jersey where Alexander was working as a watchmaker.  Nothing is known of the elder Alexander after that time.  Margaret appears on later censuses remarried and living in California with her children. 

Friday, March 31, 2017

Riding in Style: The Campbells and their Chariot

The Campbell Mansion on State Street. This mansion was designed by famed architect Samuel Fuller. The mansion still exists and can be seen at 101 State Street. It currently houses the Campbell House Psychological Associates. Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library Photo Collection.  
Schenectady resident Daniel Campbell immigrated from Ireland to Schenectady sometime around 1754. According to historian Austin A. Yates, Campbell was "possessed of small means but on his arrival, he commenced as an Indian trader, with a pack upon his back, and by his native shrewdness, great industry and remarkable economy." He built his fortune by trading with local Native Americans, Schenectadians, and by purchasing soldier's rights to land after the American Revolution. Campbell married Engeltie "Angelica" Bratt after he immigrated to Schenectady. Campbell made quite a name for himself as a trader in Schenectady and by 1762 was able to construct his mansion on State Street. Campbell was also a close associate of William Johnson who was known for commanding Iroquois and colonial forces during the French and Indian Wars in the mid-1700s. Campbell would often entertain Johnson at his State Street mansion when he visited Schenectady.

Possible portraits of Angelica and Daniel Campbell. Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library Photo Collection.  
How Daniel Campbell gained his wealth is evident from his letter books which we have at the Grems-Doolittle library. He traded animal skins and furs, liquor, shrub (the fruit and vinegar based drink, not the foliage), various other goods, and most importantly, land. He had contacts with prominent merchants in Detroit, Montreal and London, among other places. There are several letters in his letter book that deal with people trespassing on his land, one biting letter from December 16, 1773 to William Brisby shows that Daniel Campbell was not a man you would want to cross. An image of the letter with a transcription can be seen below:

"Sir, I have sufficient proof that you have this winter cut 150 saw loggs of my land about a mile from your house for which villainy you may be assured I will prosecute you as the law directs if you do not immediately come and make me payment for the full value of every logg you have cut or caus'd to be cut for your deceiving me in this manner you shant have one acre of land from me altho I was determin'd to have given you a lease. If I don't see you or have proper satisfaction from you soon  you may expect the consequences for go where you will I shall have you taken. I am, D.C." 
Other letters refer to Campbell suing people who owed him money (sometimes threatening to arrest them), invoices for various goods, and letters about general business matters. There are very few letters of a personal nature, but from letters like the one shown above, you can get a sense of Daniel Campbell's personality. These letters show how shrewd Campbell could be in his business dealings and give an indication as to how he amassed his fortune. The letter shown on the left gives an example of the types of items Campbell was selling in 1774. They include, men's shoes, Jamican Spirits, pipes, salt, rifles, black wampum (the best sort), sugar, tea, pork and tobacco.

Campbell's wealth allowed him to buy a carriage for his wife Angelica in the 1792. Owning a personal carriage was a pretty big deal in the 18th Century. Carriages were heavily taxed as a luxury items and you had the added expense of hiring a coachman and maintaining a couple horses. Campbell's carriage was quite the luxury item. The carriage had two seats and a red Russian leather interior. It's build was similar to the European carriages that were fashionable at the time. Angelica's monogram was on both sides of the carriage, as well as the Campbell coat of arms and coronet. The carriage stayed in the Campbell family well after Daniel and Angelica died. The Campbell's had one child, David, who died in 1801. Without a direct heir, Angelica left much of the land to her nephew Daniel David Schermerhorn with the catch that he change his last name to Campbell which he did.
The Campbell Chariot in 1925. Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library Photo Collection.  
The Campbell Chariot at the Henry Ford Museum. Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library Photo Collection.  

Before the carriage was sold it had a brief theater career, showing up on the stage of the Van Curler Opera House in 1918. It played the role of "carriage" in Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.
The carriage was kept by Daniel David Schermerhorn Campbell at the Campbell property in Rotterdam (the current site of Viaport Rotterdam) along with a 26 bedroom mansion that D.D. Campbell built. It was said that the Marquis de Lafayette rode in the carriage when he visited Schenectady in the 1820s. It passed from through the Campbell family until 1929 when it was offered to the historical society. The historical society declined due to a lack of space, the carriage simply wouldn't fit in the rooms of 13 Union Street where the SCHS used to reside. The carriage made its way to the Henry Ford's museum in Dearborn, Michigan where it was recently renovated by B.R. Howard & Associates.

The Henry Ford Museum has some very detailed photos of the carriage on their digital collections website. B.R. Howard & Associates also keep an online portfolio of projects they worked on. You can see before and after photos, and find out more about the Campbell Chariot at their website,