Almanack Contributor Lawrence P. Gooley

Lawrence P. Gooley

Lawrence Gooley, of Clinton County, is an award-winning author who has hiked, bushwhacked, climbed, bicycled, explored, and canoed in the Adirondack Mountains for 45 years. With a lifetime love of research, writing, and history, he has authored 21 books and more than 200 articles on the region's past, and in 2009 organized the North Country Authors in the Plattsburgh area.

His book Oliver’s War: An Adirondack Rebel Battles the Rockefeller Fortune won the Adirondack Literary Award for Best Book of Nonfiction in 2008. Another title, Terror in the Adirondacks: The True Story of Serial Killer Robert F. Garrow, has been a regional best-seller for four years running.

With his partner, Jill Jones, Gooley founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004. They have published 75 titles and are now offering web design.

Bloated Toe’s unusual business model was featured in Publisher’s Weekly in April 2011. The company also operates an online store to support the work of other regional folks. The North Country Store features more than 100 book titles and 60 CDs and DVDs, along with a variety of other area products.



Monday, November 29, 2010

A Few More North Country Swindles

The Adirondacks have seen all kinds of swindles, past and present. The swindler, often referred to in the 1800s as a “Sharper,” routinely tried to obtain signatures under false pretenses. As noted in last week’s piece, trickery (and sometimes carbon paper) was used. The “personal signature” scam was again adjusted in 1892 to incorporate new and devious ideas.

Slick-talking Sharpers arranged all sorts of deals, and on the spot, they devised contracts that were read and signed. The contract paper was normal, but the Sharper used a double-fountain pen. The victim’s signature was recorded with permanent ink, but the contract was written with the other end of the pen, from a reservoir of “ink that faded away in a day or two.” Once the contract ink faded, the perp was left “with nothing but a signature over which he can write a note and easily turn it into cash.”

There was no Internet back then, but scammers of long ago still knew the value of reaching out to thousands of potential victims in the hopes of finding a few patsies. A scam that is still heavily used today via e-mail was prevalent in the 1890s. To reach large numbers of people, the scammers sent official-looking notices to post offices, asking them to post the letters for the public. The letters assured that several persons in the immediate area were entitled to large sums of money. To obtain it, all they had to do was send $25 “for preliminary expenses.”

The ploy always received many responses, even though $25 in the 1890s is equal to $600 in 2010. The lure of getting something for nothing, or a lot for comparatively little, was irresistible, just as it seems to be today. In 1893, that swindle was described by the Post Office Department as “constantly increasing in numbers of victims.” Most of us have received the same offer by snail mail or e-mail many times, and for one good reason: it still works.

Two other scams that regularly made the rounds in the Adirondacks caught my attention. In 1895 in the Potsdam area, trickery was employed by a liniment salesman. His concoction was said to cure hearing loss, and he gave wonderful demonstrations to prove it.

With great fanfare, a watch was placed close to a sufferer’s ear for several seconds and then removed, after which a quantity of liniment was applied and massaged into the ear and surrounding skin.

For some time, the swindler continued rubbing the oil in while touting the wonders of his product. Finally, the watch was once again introduced to the person’s ear, and the results were amazing. The ticking was much louder and clearer. Obviously, another cure!

That usually generated many sales, and as soon as the purchasing pace slowed, another person was selected for the cure. The key to success was having two watches—one with a faint tick, and one with a strong tick—and keeping them at the ready in the same pocket.

It was a terrible way to cheat people, but less distasteful than a scam that was popularized in 1901 in northern New York. Unscrupulous crooks paid close attention to the obituaries. Shortly after an individual died, close relatives were sent overpriced books, magazine subscriptions, or other items, along with a notice that the deceased had recently subscribed or ordered them. In most cases, the bereaved family made the inflated payments or paid for phony subscriptions without question.

Many of today’s scams were common well over a century ago, and some have hardly changed at all. There is one constant — plenty of rotten apples. It’s sad, disturbing, and amazing how hard some people will work to steal the results of other folks’ hard work.

Photo: 1882 advertisement touting the latest deafness cure.

Lawrence Gooley has authored nine books and many articles on the North Country’s past. He and his partner, Jill McKee, founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004 and have recently begun to expand their services and publishing work. For information on book publishing, visit Bloated Toe Publishing.


Monday, November 22, 2010

An E-mail Scam Rooted in the Past

Many of us have received e-mail scams from fake sources (bogus relatives, supposed political prisoners) promising great financial reward if we agree to help them recover their secreted fortune. I’ve received them from Ghana and Germany, and one came from the country of West Africa. Never heard of it? It was named in the e-mail message, and I know it’s real—in 2008, Paris Hilton said, “I love Africa in general. South Africa and West Africa, they are both great countries.”

The senders describe themselves as anything from an imprisoned citizen to a dethroned king, urgently seeking help. I received a cheap one recently, offering only about $600,000 if I sent my account info so that funds could be safely transferred. Most times, the teaser ranges from $10-$20 million. It’s likely that many people think this is “an Internet thing,” a product of modern mass communications, but the only thing new about it is the manner of delivery. » Continue Reading.


Monday, November 15, 2010

Woodstock of the North: The 1970 Churubusco Live-In

We’ve all heard of Woodstock at one time or another—that famous (or infamous) concert held in August 1969. It was scheduled at different venues, but the final location was actually in Bethel, New York, about 60 miles from Woodstock. For many who lived through three major homeland assassinations, the Vietnam War, and the racial riots of the turbulent 1960s, Woodstock was an event representing peace, love, and freedom. It’s considered a defining moment of that generation, and a great memory for those who attended (estimated at 400,000).

Many subsequent concerts were planned, though most never came to fruition. What few people know is that one of the major follow-up concerts to Woodstock was scheduled for just nine months later, and the location was in the North Country, near a tiny community known as Churubusco. Signed to appear were many top acts of the day, including Chuck Berry, Steppenwolf, Bo Diddley, Grand Funk Railroad, Richie Havens, 3 Dog Night, Judy Collins, Sly and the Family Stone, B. B. King, and Canned Heat.

In spring 1970, a company called Fest-I-Rama announced that the three-day Churubusco Live-In would be held on Memorial Day weekend. Similar events were planned at the same venue for the Fourth of July and Labor Day. The complete story of the controversial event occupies a full chapter in my latest book, History of Churubusco. With subtitle, it’s History of Churubusco and the Town of Clinton, Clinton County, New York (to avoid confusion with well-known Churubuscos in Indiana and Mexico). The book is a new release available this week from Bloated Toe Publishing’s North Country Store.

Churubusco is a tiny, square-shaped settlement only a quarter-mile long on each side. It was named after a historic battle fought in 1847 during the US-Mexican War, and is located in the northwest corner of Clinton County. Amidst farmer’s fields and plenty of forest, the setting is remote, and that’s one of the reasons it was chosen to host a major rock concert. The entire town encompasses nearly 70 square miles, but is home to only around 700 residents.

The history of this tiny village and the agrarian town of Clinton is truly remarkable. One citizen became lieutenant governor of New York, served for years as a top state politician, and at one time was FDR’s closest advisor. Another was one of the founders of the city of Seattle and the state of Washington, and is highly honored there. And there were the famed “monks of Churubusco,” who actually have their own pope on the international stage. Many other very surprising details led me to the realization that the town’s amazing history should be recorded.

Among my favorite stories connected to Churubusco is the proposed rock concert. At the time the Live-In was announced, I was 16 years old and sometimes dreaded the trips (nearly every weekend) from Champlain to Churubusco to visit relatives. (My mom, now in her 90th year, was born there, and that’s where she and my dad, 86, met in the 1930s.)

There’s not much to do in Churubusco, and a day in the remote countryside was not exactly heaven for a teenager. But heaven arrived in early 1970. A huge rock concert, and with one of my favorite groups (Steppenwolf), was incredibly, impossibly, coming to Churubusco. Better than that, the venue was located across the road from my grandfather’s 100-acre farm. This was fantastic!

Well, fantastic for teenagers, maybe, but not so much for Churubusco or Clinton County. The call to arms went out, and that can just about be taken literally. During the battle to stop the event, attorney and local legend J. Byron O’Connell issued this statement: “That Live-In will turn into a lynch-in. People up here aren’t used to long hair. They don’t fool around with legal niceties, and they’re not going to put up with any nonsense from college kids. If they come up Rt. 189, they’re just liable to get shot.”

O’Connell was an outstanding trial attorney, and he was doing his best for his clients. He was bombastic at times, and that aggressive quote appeared in major newspapers in Boston, New York, and elsewhere. As Churubusco’s representative, he sought to derail the concert and preserve the hamlet’s quiet, rural life, while the promoters, Hal Abramson and Raymond Filiberti, fought back.

I wasn’t much interested in the adult perspective at the time. I had protested against the Vietnam War, and my draft time was rapidly approaching. If you were a male teenager in the 1960s, your future was on display nightly in national news reports on television, where body counts were offered like baseball’s daily box scores. Unless the war miraculously ended, it was only a matter of time before you went. If I could be sent off to kill people as soon as I graduated from high school, couldn’t I be allowed the privilege of enjoying myself first? I figured the Churubusco Live-In would at least give me that.

Still, there was that rational adult viewpoint. The feeling voiced most often was that all those hippies will be drug-crazed, and we don’t want them here. And, who would pay for everything? Extra police, medical facilities, food—the logistics seemed impossible even if someone did pay for them. Why did it seem impossible? It was fully expected that upwards of 200,000 fans would attend the Live-In, drawing from Montreal, Boston, New York City, and the other cities of New York State.

For three days of rock music, it wasn’t just Churubusco that would be bursting at the seams. A crowd of 200,000 would more than triple the entire county population virtually overnight. Battle lines were drawn, and the ensuing struggle lasted for weeks over whether or not the concert would be held. While the promoters and local authorities went back and forth, ticket sales continued and more bands were signed.

Thrown into the mix was a remarkable ordinance concocted by J. Byron O’Connell and Clinton town officials. When the ordinance was passed, it gained widespread attention for the unusual clauses it contained and the American liberties it surrendered, all in the name of stopping the concert.

It was a wild time. The subject dominated the news media in the region, and developments were followed by youth across the nation. If this was the second coming of Woodstock, nobody wanted to miss it, even those on the West Coast.

In the end, the adult viewpoint won, and the concert was canceled (along with subsequent Churubusco concerts). It may have been the right thing to do, but who knows? For three days of love, peace, and music (described by others as sex, drugs, and rock and roll), and a huge mess to clean up afterward, Churubusco might have become a must-see site for millions of baby boomers. Those tourist dollars sure would come in handy today.

(Note: Anyone in the Northern Tier is welcome to join us at Dick’s Country Store on Rt. 11, a few miles east of Chateaugay, on Friday, November 19, from 4-8 pm, for the official release of History of Churubusco. I’ll be on hand to sign copies and chat with visitors. My other books, including 3 reprints just received, will also be available. Among the reprints is Terror in the Adirondacks: The True Story of Serial Killer Robert F. Garrow.)

Photo Top: 1970 Poster advertising the Churubusco Live-In.

Photo Middle: Map showing location of Churubusco.

Photo Bottom: Cover of History of Churubusco, with Live-In poster at center of collage.

Lawrence Gooley has authored nine books and many articles on the North Country’s past. He and his partner, Jill McKee, founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004. He took over in 2010 and began expanding the company’s publishing services. For information on book publishing, visit Bloated Toe Publishing.


Monday, November 8, 2010

Lawrence Gooley: Adirondack Toughness

I recently covered some pretty tough hombres from Lyon Mountain. Rugged folks, for sure, but by no means had they cornered the market on regional toughness. Here are a few of my favorite stories of Adirondack and North Country resilience.

In most jobs where dynamite was used (mining, farming, lumbering), it was kept frozen until needed, since freezing was said to render it inert. Thawing the explosives was extremely dangerous—accidents during the process were frequent, and often deadly. A “safest” method was prescribed by engineers (slow warming in a container that was placed in water), but many users had their own ideas on how it should be done.

In November 1901, Bill Casey of Elizabethtown was thawing dynamite to use for blasting boulders and stumps while building logging roads on Hurricane Mountain. Fire was his tool of choice for thawing, and the results were disastrous. From the ensuing explosion, Casey’s hat was blown into a tree; his clothes were shredded; his legs were lacerated; his face was burned and bruised; and he was temporarily blinded by the flash and deafened by the blast.

Then came the hard part. He was alone, and nearly a mile from the logging camp, so Casey started walking. When he encountered other men, they built a litter and began carrying him from the woods. The discomfort for both Casey and his rescuers must have been extreme. There were eighteen inches of snow in the woods, and when he couldn’t be carried, they had no choice but to drag him along on the litter.

When they finally reached the highway, they were still five miles from the village. A doctor tended to his wounds, and Casey was brought to his home in Elizabethtown where his wife and five children helped nurse him back to health.

Kudos also to Chasm Falls lumberman Wesley Wallace, who, in winter 1920, suffered a terrible accident while chopping wood. He started the day with ten toes, but finished with only six. Somehow, he survived extreme blood loss and found the strength to endure two days traveling by sleigh to the hospital in Malone, only to have the surgeons there amputate his mangled foot.

Whitehall’s John Whalen found reason to attempt suicide in 1920, and the aftermath was nothing short of remarkable. Three times he shot himself, including once in the head. Whalen then “calmly walked into the YMCA, told of what he had done, and asked to wash the blood from his face. He was absolutely cool about it as be announced that the ‘lump over his eye’ was the bullet that he had fired through the roof of his mouth.” He was taken to the hospital in Ticonderoga where it was reported he was expected to recover.

Indian Lake’s Frank Talbot was on a crew constructing a logging camp on West Canada Creek in June 1922, when a log rolled on top of him, causing a compound fracture of his right leg. Bad enough, sure, but the rescue was the kicker. According to the newspaper report, “His companions carried him on a stretcher 31 miles to Indian Lake, and from there he was taken to the Moses-Ludington hospital, arriving at four o’clock Sunday morning [the accident happened on Saturday morning]. The fracture was reduced and he is getting along nicely.”

Toughness wasn’t the sole purview of men. In December 1925, two women, one with a ten-month-old baby and the other with a nine-year-old son, left Santa Clara by car with the intent of reaching Lake Placid. They departed shortly before 9:00 pm, but on the lonely Santa Clara Road, the car malfunctioned. Since the odometer showed they had traveled about five miles, they began walking in the direction of Hogle’s Fox Farm, which they knew to be some distance ahead.

It was snowing heavily, and the trip turned into a major ordeal. They finally reached the farm, but there was no room for them, so they kept walking another quarter mile, where a Mrs. Selkirk took them in.

It was later determined that the car had broken down just two miles outside of Santa Clara. The assumption was that the tires spinning constantly in the wet snow (remember, this was 1925) had caused the odometer to rack up five miles of travel. This fooled the women into thinking they were much farther from the village, and thus going in the right direction.

From where the car was recovered, it was calculated that the women (and the nine-year-old boy) had walked on a wilderness road “eleven miles in snow nearly knee-deep, under a moon whose rays were obscured by falling snow, and carrying a ten-months old baby.”

Eleven miles in the snow wouldn’t be attempted today without the proper gear from head to toe, plus water and snacks. By that measure, their impromptu hike was pretty impressive. And they made it back to Lake Placid in time to spend Christmas Eve with family.

Photo Top: Headline from 1922.

Photo Bottom: Headline from 1926.

Lawrence Gooley has authored eight books and many articles on the North Country’s past. He and his partner, Jill McKee, founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004. He took over in 2010 and began expanding the company’s publishing services. For information on book publishing, visit Bloated Toe Publishing.


Monday, November 1, 2010

Adirondack Mining: George Davies’ Lyon Mountain Stories

Last week’s subject, iron miner George Davies (1892–1983) of Standish and Lyon Mountain, was a kindly gentleman with a powerful work ethic and a can-do, pioneer spirit. Interviews with him in 1981 were key to my second book, Lyon Mountain: The Tragedy of a Mining Town (a convenient plug for the 4th printing, which will be available from Bloated Toe Publishing and The North Country Store in mid-November). Humble and matter of fact, he shared recollections from nearly 80 years earlier.

At one time, Lyon Mountain had a large Swedish population [there is still a section of town referred to as Sweden]. George recalled the great strength and toughness of one of their number who worked at the Standish furnace. “It’s quite a job carrying that pig iron, you know. It [the molten iron] ran down like water, and they had to let it cool, and then throw sand on it. They’d walk on there with wooden shoes with big thick soles and break the iron up with a bar. It’s a pretty hard job, I’ll tell you.

“They had a big Swede come here. He weighed about 225 or 230 when he came here. He used to break the iron. They’d go down to the trestle, and throw them over the trestle. They had a V-block down below, and when it hit that, it would break it right in two. They used to wear a hand leather so that the iron wouldn’t cut their hands up.

“That big Swede, he had what they call a ‘double pig.’ It was two of them together [130 pounds], and when he went to throw it, it caught in his hand leather and it pulled him right over. He struck headfirst into the pile of iron that was sticking up. Well, I came along there and I picked him out of the iron. ‘Aw,’ he said, ‘I guess I’m not hurt much,’ and he was rubbing his head.

“He just had a suit of overalls on and a shirt, and the blood was running out of his pants leg. I said ‘You’re hurt all right,’ and he rubbed the back of his head some more and said ‘I’m not hurt much.’ Well, I took him over to the office and they took him to Plattsburgh, and found out that his skull was fractured [a story I later verified in newspaper accounts].

“That fellow drank a couple of quarts of liquor a day, and you’d never have known he was drinking. He was about six feet six inches tall. He didn’t die from that accident. He was so strong. They used to load the iron by hand at what they called the wharf. It was piled up like cordwood, you know. He carried 106 tons of iron in one day, and he got six cents a ton for carrying it.

“His first name was Nels [Nelson Holt]. He only weighed about one hundred pounds when he died, and he was still carrying iron just before he died. He used to work in the cast house, and I’d see him go down to break a cast of maybe thirty or forty tons, red hot with sand on it.

“I’d see him take a half-pint of liquor and drink it right down. He’d go ahead and break the cast, and you’d never know he’d had a drink. He died because his liver went all to pieces from the liquor. He was a powerful man, but the liquor got the best of him.”

Sudden violence struck the mines almost on a daily basis. More than 160 miners died in mining accidents, but hundreds more suffered terrible, often crippling, injuries. Much of it was connected to workers’ ignorance of the dangers at hand. George: “There were several boarders in town. One time there were three Polish fellows boarding at one place, and they all got killed at the same time. [They died in 1930 in a massive dynamite explosion, one of the few accidents that was never solved.]

“Well, you know, those Polish people came here, and they didn’t know what the mines were in the first place. I remember one time, they used to put the powder [dynamite] together with the caps up on top and then send it down. They weren’t supposed to do it, but they did it anyhow. One fellow saw the stick of dynamite there. He held the stick in his hand and lit the fuse. Well, he didn’t have to let go of it, because when it went off, his hand went with it. It blew half of his hip off at the same time, just because he didn’t know any better.”

George described another accident that is still recalled by some in the village. “One fellow used to be a foreman, and he used to repair the train cars. One end of a car was all bent, and he wanted to straighten it up, so he said to a worker ‘Get a block, hold it against that spot, and I’ll bump it with the electric motor.’ The guy wouldn’t do it, so he went and got the block, and he got somebody to hold it. He was going to give it a hard bump with the motor.

“When he bumped it, the block came right inside the cab where he was working and took his leg right off. He did survive, and he got some money out of it, but he also got a wooden leg out of it. Cliff Cayea was the guy’s name. He’s lucky that he wasn’t killed. [Remarkably, Cayea was 62 years old when the accident occurred in late September 1966, less than a year before the mines closed for good.]

George and many others like him offered hours of candid recollections about life in the mines and in Lyon Mountain village, all of it important to regional history. Besides the books (including Out of the Darkness: In Memory of Lyon Mountain’s Iron Men) on the town’s amazing story, more can be learned by visiting the Lyon Mountain Mining & Railroad Museum. Housed in the former railroad depot building, it is operated by volunteers from June to early October. Look for it again in 2011. It’s well worth the trip.

Photo Top: The furnace at Standish (1930s).

Photo Middle: Rows of pig iron similar to those at Standish (Canadian archives photo taken at Midland, Ontario, 1900).

Photo Bottom: Lyon Mountain village in the 1940s, with company row-houses, main operations, and mountains of ore tailings.

Lawrence Gooley has authored eight books and several articles on the North Country’s past. He and his partner, Jill McKee, founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004. He took over in 2010 and began expanding the company’s publishing services. For information on book publishing, visit Bloated Toe Publishing.


Monday, October 25, 2010

The Travails of Lyon Mountain Miner George Davies

The subject of tough ol’ Adirondackers came up recently when I was reworking material for the fourth printing of a book I did in 2004—Lyon Mountain: The Tragedy of a Mining Town. The soul of that book is a series of interviews I conducted around 1980 with a number of folks who were in their 80s and 90s. George Davies (1892–1983) of Standish was among them.

George was a good man. The stories he told me seemed far-fetched at first, but follow-up research in microfilm archives left me amazed at his accuracy recounting events of the early 1900s. His truthfulness was confirmed in articles on items like strikes, riots, injuries, and deaths.

When I last interviewed George in 1981 (he was 88), he proudly showed me a photograph of himself as Machine Shop Supervisor in the iron mines, accepting a prestigious award for safety. I laughed so hard I almost cried as he described the scene. George, you see, had to hold the award just so, hiding the fact that he had far fewer than his originally allotted ten fingers. He figured it wouldn’t look right to reveal his stubs cradling a safety plaque.

In matter-of-fact fashion, he proceeded to tell me what happened. Taken from the book, here are snippets from our conversation as tape recorded in 1981: “I lost one full finger and half of another in a machine, but I still took my early March trapping run to the Springs. I had a camp six miles up the Owl’s Head Road. While I was out there, I slipped in the water and nearly froze the hand. I had to remove the bandages to thaw out my hand, and I was all alone, of course. It was just something I had to do to survive.

“When I lost the end of my second finger in an accident at work, I was back on the job in forty-five minutes. Another time I was hit on the head by a lever on a crane. It knocked me senseless for ten minutes. When I woke up, I went back to work within a few minutes. [George also pointed out that, in those days, there was no sick time, no vacation time, and no holidays. The union was still three decades away, and the furnace’s schedule ran around the clock.]

“When I started working down here, the work day was twelve hours per day, seven days a week, and the pay was $1.80 per day for twelve hours [fifteen cents per hour] around the year 1910. That was poor money back then. When they gave you a raise, it was only one or two cents an hour, and they didn’t give them very often.

“In one month of January I had thirty-nine of the twelve-hour shifts. You had to work thirty-six hours to put an extra shift in, and you still got the fourteen or fifteen cents per hour. It was pretty rough going, but everybody lived through it. Some people did all right back then. Of course, it wasn’t a dollar and a half for cigarettes back then [remember, this was recorded in 1981].

“Two fellows took sick at the same time, two engineers that ran the switches. They sent me out to work, and I worked sixty hours without coming home. Then the boss came out to run it and I went and slept for twelve hours. Then I returned for a thirty-six hour shift. No overtime pay, just the rate of twenty-five cents per hour.” Now THAT’s Lyon Mountain toughness.

The tough man had also been a tough kid. “When I was thirteen years old, I worked cleaning bricks from the kilns at one dollar for one thousand. On July 3rd, 1907, when I was fifteen, I accidentally shot myself in the leg. I stayed in Standish that night, and on the next day I walked to Lyon Mountain, about three miles of rough walking.”

His father was in charge of repairing the trains, and young George climbed aboard as often as he could. “I was running those engines when I was sixteen years old, all alone, and I didn’t even have a fireman. I always wanted to be on the railroad, but I had the pleasure of losing an eye when I was nine years old. I was chopping wood and a stick flew up and hit me in the eye.

“I pulled it out, and I could see all right for a while. Not long after, I lost sight in it. The stick had cut the eyeball and the pupil, and a cataract or something ruined my eye. The doctor wanted to take the eye out, but I’ve still got it. And that’s what kept me off of the railroad. That was seventy-nine years ago, in 1901.”

Next week: A few of George Davies’ remarkable acquaintances.

Photo Top: George Davies.

Photo Middle: A Main Drift in the Lyon Mountain iron mines, 1933.

Photo Bottom: Aerial view of Lyon Mountain’s iron mining operations, with several piles of ore tailings.

Lawrence Gooley has authored eight books and several articles on the North Country’s past. He and his partner, Jill McKee, founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004. He took over in 2010 and began expanding the company’s publishing services. For information on book publishing, visit Bloated Toe Publishing.


Monday, October 18, 2010

When Raptors Attack: Some North Country Stories

Unusual stories often catch my eye while researching topics of interest. A recent example drew me in—the long-ago story of a California baby left lying in the grass while, nearby, the mother performed gardening or other chores. An eagle swooped in and snatched up the baby, leading to a battle royale between the family and the eagle. There were several stories of that type, and it didn’t always end well for the baby.

I involuntarily maintain a healthy skepticism, but have to be careful about letting it completely take over. A little digging turned up a few interesting North Country tales of a similar bent. Some contain embellishments common to the writing style of the day, and others strain credulity, but several of them are likely based on real confrontations.

After all, odd things do happen. While sitting in my high school classroom many decades ago, right in the middle of Champlain village, I saw a hawk (a red-tail was my guess) plummet to the earth at great velocity, disappearing into the brush. My assumption was that the bird died on impact, but perhaps a minute or so later, it once more became airborne, a cat dangling from its talons as it flew in clear view past the large windows. If there hadn’t been other witnesses, I’m not sure anyone would have believed me.

Four of my own Adirondack experiences with large birds stand out in memory. While bushwhacking atop one of the inner ridges of Silver Lake Mountain (near Hawkeye), I was once dive-bombed by ravens for a half hour as I lay in the brush, amazed at how loud and relentless they were, and how close they came to me.

While canoeing in the middle of Franklin Falls Pond, I was similarly harassed by two bald eagles that repeatedly swooped overhead. A little scary, yes, but absolutely thrilling. Another time, an angry nesting goose disapproved of a canoe innocently passing by 100 feet away.

The fourth incident took place on a calm section of the Saranac River. It’s hard to believe that an eagle could be somewhat distracted, but that’s the only explanation I have for what occurred. Where the waterway was about thirty feet wide, the eagle flew several feet above the stream, coming directly towards the canoe. I expected it to turn away, but it seemed to be looking from side to side, unaware that I was directly in its path.

Within no more than twenty feet, it suddenly became aware of my presence and pulled up sharply, the “whooshing” sound from its wings loud in my ears. It was a large bird, but from such close range, it naturally appeared enormous. The entire incident lasted only about 20 or 30 seconds, but it will stay with me forever.

Taking all of that into consideration, I reviewed some interesting regional confrontations between humans and birds (veracity unverified).

In 1888, at Brier Hill (St. Lawrence County), a bald eagle was said to have attacked seven-year-old George Richards (he was actually ten). George used a stick to defend himself until older brother Berton, 20, drove the eagle off. Bert later baited a steel trap with newborn calves that had died. He succeeded in capturing the bird, which was held by the Richards family for display.

In 1893, a Bellmont (Franklin County) farmhand working for Frank Winkley was on horseback, rounding up the cows, when he was attacked by two eagles. He was knocked to the ground, where the birds continued the assault. The farm dog came to his aid, and he eventually managed to club one of the birds and capture it. According to the report, the golden eagle’s wingspan was seven feet. It was kept in Winkley’s barn as a curiosity.

Predatory raids on farm fowl were once common. A dramatic case was reported in Chaumont (northwest of Watertown) in 1903 on the farm of Charles Graham. A hen hawk (any hawk that preys on poultry) grabbed a large Plymouth Rock hen, but about 20 feet above the ground, the hen broke free and landed at Graham’s feet. The hawk followed, knocking the farmer down, gashing his face and neck and pecking at his eyes. Graham stood to defend himself, but the bird continued the attack. Finally, the farmer grabbed a shovel, and the hawk departed.

Also in 1903, John Sullivan of Jay (Essex County) was set upon by an eagle, finally driving it off after suffering lacerations to his face. In 1904 came a report from the Bowditch cottage on Upper Chateaugay Lake (Clinton County), where caretaker Frank Nicholson battled two eagles that attempted to make off with some chickens. One of the birds managed to sink its talons into Nicholson’s leg, but he eventually succeeded in “dispatching them.”

In 1905, near McKenzie Pond just east of Saranac Lake, Frank Perks and George Walton were walking in the woods when Perks struck a tree trunk with an axe he was carrying. Suddenly, “an immense eagle flew down from the tree and attacked Perks savagely.” With the help of Walton, Perks suffered no more than a torn hat before the eagle was driven off.

In 1909, a Pitcairn (St. Lawrence County, near Harrisville) farmer, Josiah Almtree, offered a dramatic tale of battling a powerful eagle that had lately been harassing his sheep. The victim this time was Almtree’s daughter, who was carried off but then dropped “unhurt on the roof of a little building near the barn.” Almtree managed a shot at the bird, which escaped. Of course, “unhurt” wasn’t possible, but I’ll beg the Fox News defense here … “We report, you decide.”

Most such stories are quite old, but a more recent one (though still over 50 years past) occurred in Ausable Forks in 1957. Young Jimmie Camire, while playing with friends, was attacked by a hawk. The bird grabbed his shoulder, but he broke free. Under renewed attack, Jimmie’s shouts brought his brother, Butch, and Jeff Hewston, to the rescue. They had been cutting small trees nearby, and used an axe to kill the hawk, which they said had a wingspan of 43 inches.

Not all regional fowl attacks came from above. In 1908, Gouverneur’s Louis Boulet, Sr., owned a particularly raucous Rhode Island Red, a breed that can be incredibly aggressive. (They’ve been known to kill snakes, cats, foxes, and small dogs.) The big rooster’s frequent attacks made it clear the farmer was not welcome in his own hen house. Egged on by frequent muggings and occasional blood loss, Boulet decided this chicken’s goose was cooked.

Healthy skepticism can be valuable, but before deciding how feasible some of those old stories might be, check out some “eagle attack” videos on YouTube. Be forewarned: several are graphic. Some are simply amazing, demonstrating the willingness of large birds to mix it up with creatures of all sizes, even striking a black bear in a tree.

Photo Top: An attack by a “domesticated” eagle.

Photo Middle: The Bald Eagle’s formidable beak.

Photo Bottom: Eagle talons.

Lawrence Gooley has authored eight books and several articles on the North Country’s past. He and his partner, Jill McKee, founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004 and have recently begun to expand their services and publishing work. For information on book publishing, visit Bloated Toe Publishing.


Monday, October 11, 2010

The Whiteface Mountain Cog Railway?

In 1935, after years of planning, debate, and construction, the Whiteface Mountain Veterans Memorial Highway was completed. It was named in honor of America’s veterans of the so-called “Great War” (World War I), and was expected to be a major tourist attraction.

Automobiles were becoming commonplace in the North Country at that time, and travelers to the region now had a thrilling view available to them at the press of a gas pedal. Seventy-five years later, it remains a spectacular drive and a great family excursion. But the macadam highway to the summit almost never came to be. New Hampshire’s Mount Washington nearly had a New York counterpart.
» Continue Reading.


Monday, October 4, 2010

Bryan O’Byrne: Plattsburgh Character Actor

In late July, 1941, a young Plattsburgh boy received permission from his parents to visit the movie house just a few blocks away. Hours later, he had not returned home, and Mom and Dad hit the streets in search of their missing son. Soon they were at the Plattsburgh Police Station, anxiously seeking help. Two patrolmen were immediately put on the case, which, unlike so many stories today, had a happy ending.

The two policemen obtained keys to the theater building and began searching the interior. There, curled up in his seat near the front row, little Bryan Jay O’Byrne was fast asleep. He later explained that he enjoyed the movie so much, he decided to stay for the second showing, and must have drifted off into dreamland. When the theater closed for the night, no one had seen the young boy lying low in his seat.

Perhaps no one knew it then, but that amusing incident was a harbinger of things to come. Bryan O’Byrne was born to Elmer and Bessie (Ducatte) O’Byrne of Plattsburgh on February 6, 1931. Life in the O’Byrne home may have been difficult at times. Six years earlier, Bryan’s older sister was born at the very moment Elmer was being arraigned in Plattsburgh City Court on burglary and larceny charges.

Still, the family managed to stay together, and after attending St. Peter’s Elementary and Plattsburgh High, Bryan went on to graduate from the State University Teacher’s College at Plattsburgh. After stints in the army and as an elementary school teacher, he pursued acting, studying at the Stella Adler Studio.

He appeared on Broadway with Vivian Leigh in “Duel of Angels” (the run was cut short after five weeks due to the first actors’ strike in forty years). Other jobs followed, but he soon surfaced in a new, increasingly popular medium: television.

In the early 1960s, Bryan began appearing in television series, becoming one of the best-known character actors in show business. Most people recognized his face from numerous bit parts he played in television and in movies, but few knew his name. That is true of many character actors, but ironically, in O’Byrne’s case, it was that very anonymity which brought him fame.

It all took place in the 1966-67 television season with the launch of a show called Occasional Wife. The plot line followed the story of an unmarried junior executive employed by a baby food company. The junior executive’s boss felt that, since they were selling baby food, it would be wise to favor married men for promotions within the company.

So, the junior executive concocted a plan with a female who agreed to serve as his “occasional wife.” He put her on salary and got her an apartment two floors above his own. Hilarity ensued as a variety of situations in each episode had them running up and down the fire escape to act as husband and wife. This all happened to the obvious surprise and bemusement of a man residing on the floor between the two main players. That man was played by Bryan O’Byrne.

O’Byrne’s character had no name and no speaking lines, but he became the hit of the show. Usually he was engaged in some type of activity that ended up in shambles as he watched the shenanigans. The audience loved it. The show’s writers had such fun with the schtick that O’Byrne became somewhat of a sensation. His expert acting skills made the small part into something much bigger.

Eventually, in early 1967, a nationwide contest was held to give the “Man in the Middle” an actual name. Much attention was heaped on O’Byrne, but the high didn’t last for long. Occasional Wife went the way of many other promising comedies that were built on a certain premise, but were not allowed to develop. It survived only one season.

O’Byrne’s career continued to flourish. Among his repeating roles was that of CONTROL Agent Hodgkins in the hit comedy series Get Smart, starring Don Adams and Barbara Feldon. Over the years, O’Byrne remained one of Plattsburgh’s best-kept secrets, appearing in 45 television series, 22 movies, and several Disney productions.

Among those television series were some high-profile shows and many of the all-time greats: Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Batman, Ben Casey, Get Smart, Gunsmoke, I Dream of Jeannie, Maude, Happy Days, Maverick, Murder She Wrote, My Three Sons, Perry Mason, Rawhide, Sanford and Son, The Big Valley, The Bill Cosby Show, The Bob Newhart Show, The Lucy Show, The Munsters, The Partridge Family, The Untouchables, and Welcome Back Kotter.

Advertisers discovered the appeal of Bryan’s friendly face, and he was cast in more than two hundred television commercials. His experience in multiple fields, and his love and understanding of the intricacies of performing led to further opportunities. He became an excellent acting coach. Among those he worked with, guided, or mentored were Bonnie Bedelia, Pam Dawber, Nick Nolte, Lou Diamond Phillips, Jimmy Smits, and Forest Whittaker.

Writer Janet Walsh, a friend of O’Byrne’s since the early 1980s, noted that, early on, he recognized the talent of young Nick Nolte. According to Walsh, “Nick slept on Bryan’s couch for a year. Bryan cast him in his production of The Last Pad, and that launched Nick’s career.”

Besides working as an acting coach for the prestigious Stella Adler Academy, O’Byrne also served on the Emmy Nominating Committee in Los Angeles. He spent nearly forty years in the entertainment business, working with many legendary stars, including Lucille Ball, Clint Eastwood, Alfred Hitchcock, and John Wayne. His television resume covers many of the best-known, most-watched series ever. And through it all, he remained a nice, unpretentious man.

Quite the journey for a ten-year-old movie fan from Plattsburgh.

Photo Top: Bryan Jay O’Byrne.

Photo Middle: Bryan O’Byrne and Vivian Leigh.

Photo Bottom: Michael Callan, Bryan O’Byrne, and Patricia Hart from Occasional Wife.

Lawrence Gooley has authored eight books and several articles on the North Country’s past. He and his partner, Jill McKee, founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004 and have recently begun to expand their services and publishing work. For information on book publishing, visit Bloated Toe Publishing.


Monday, September 27, 2010

Thomas W. Symons: Father of Barge Canals (Part II)

The first 20 years of Keeseville’s Thomas Symons’ career were incredibly successful. The highlights from Part 1 of this story include: graduating number one in his West Point class; joining the historic Wheeler Expedition to several western territories; becoming the nation’s acknowledged expert on the Columbia River in the Northwest; negotiating with hostile Indians; and engineering the noted Columbia River jetty.

Add to that improving Washington, D.C.’s water, sewage, and pavement systems; developing river and harbor facilities in Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington; improving the Mississippi River works; developments in Portland, Seattle, Spokane, and Tacoma; and surveying the US-Mexico border. The list sounds like a career review, but Thomas Symons was just getting started.

In 1895, he returned to the East, charged with planning and designing the river and harbor works at Buffalo. He was named engineer of the 10th Lighthouse District, which included Lakes Erie and Ontario, encompassing all the waterways and lighthouses from Detroit, Michigan to Ogdensburg, New York.

Among his remarkable projects was “a very exposed, elaborate lighthouse and fog signal” in Lake Erie, near Toledo. Grandest of all, however, was one of Thomas Symons’ signature accomplishments: planning and constructing the world’s longest breakwater (over four miles long). Built along the shores of Buffalo, it was a project that earned him considerable attention. Further improvements he brought to the city enhanced his reputation there.

Another major project talked about for years came to the forefront in the late 1890s—the possibility of a ship canal spanning New York State. The 54th Congress in 1897 commissioned a report, but the results disappointed the powerful committee chairman when Symons’ detailed analysis named a barge canal, not a ship canal, as the best option.

In 1898, New York’s new governor, Teddy Roosevelt, assigned Thomas to personally investigate and report on the state’s waterways, with emphasis on the feasibility of a barge canal to ensure it was the correct option. A concern on the federal level was national security, which was better served by Symons’ plan to run the canal across the state rather than through the St. Lawrence, to Montreal, down Lake Champlain, and down the Hudson to New York City.

Thomas’ route across New York kept the structure entirely with America’s borders. (This and many other projects were requested by the War Department, which explains the security factor.) His additional work for Roosevelt reached the same conclusion, and after extended arguments in Congress, $100 million was appropriated for canal improvements. The decision was affirmation of Thomas’ judgment and the great respect in Congress for his engineering capabilities.

In 1902, the senate noted “the conspicuous services of Major Thomas W. Symons regarding the canal problems in New York,” and that he had “aided materially in its solution.” A senate resolution cited “his able, broad-minded, and public-spirited labors on behalf of the state.”

During the canal discussions, his life had taken an unusual turn. Teddy Roosevelt had won the presidency in 1902, and in early 1903, the decision was made to replace his top military aide. Keeseville’s Thomas Symons was going to the White House.

It was sad news for Buffalo, Thomas’ home for the past eight years. At a sendoff banquet, the praise for him was effusive. Among the acknowledgments was that his work in Buffalo’s harbor had brought millions of dollars of investments and widespread employment to the city. From a business and social perspective, one speaker professed the community’s “unbounded love, affection, and admiration.” The comments were followed by an extended ovation.

For a man of Symons’ stature, some of the new duties in Washington seemed a bit out of place. Officially, he was the officer in charge of Public Buildings and Grounds of the District of Columbia, a position for which he was obviously well suited. (And, the job was accompanied by a pay raise to the level of Colonel of Engineers.)

However, Thomas was also the president’s number one military aide, making him the Master of Ceremonies for all White House functions. Every appearance by Teddy Roosevelt was planned, coordinated, and executed by Symons, his close personal friend. Depending on whom the guests were, Thomas selected the décor, music, food, and entertainment.

He became the public face of all White House events. In reception lines, it was his duty to be at the president’s side. No matter what their stature, he greeted each guest as the line progressed, and in turn introduced each guest to Roosevelt. Everyone had to go through Roosevelt’s right-hand man before meeting the president (though he actually stood to the president’s left).

He also played a vital diplomatic role by mingling with the guests, ensuring all were seated and handled according to their importance, and allowing the President and First Lady to feel as secure as if they had planned each event themselves.

He was also the paymaster general of the White House, seeing to it that all funds appropriated for expenses were spent properly. The media regularly noted that, in Teddy Roosevelt’s home, Symons was the most conspicuous person except for the president himself.

With so many responsibilities, the job of top aide to the president seemed impossibly busy, which is why Roosevelt expanded the staff from one to nine aides, all of them placed under the charge of Symons, who could then delegate much of his authority.

The only sense of controversy to arise during Thomas’ career was related to the development of New York’s barge canal, and it had nothing to do with him personally. He was the designer of the proposed system, and many felt it was critical that he stay involved in the project. But the new duties in Washington kept him very busy. Because congress approved additional engineering employees to work under Symons, some felt it was wrong to allow Thomas to spend some of his time working on the canal project, away from his regular job.

Symons even agreed to forego the higher pay he received from the White House position in order to help with the canal. There was considerable resistance, but Roosevelt himself stepped forward, telling Congress that, as governor, he had hired Thomas Symons to closely examine New York’s waterways. Thus, there was no man better suited for overseeing the $100 million expenditure.

The legislators relented, and by authority of a special act of congress, Symons was allowed to work on the creation of New York’s barge canal system. After Roosevelt’s first term, Thomas left the White House and focused his efforts on the canal work.

In 1908, when the Chief Engineer of the Army Corps was retiring, Symons, by then a full colonel, was among the top candidates for the job. His strongest advocate was President Roosevelt, but, after 37 years of service, Thomas submitted his name to the retirement list.

He remained active in the work on New York’s canals, which he monitored closely, and despite suggestions of excessive costs, the project came in well below the original estimates. He also served on the Pennsylvania Canal Commission and continued working and advising on other engineering projects.

His role in the building of America is undeniable, from New York to Washington State, the border with Mexico, the Mississippi River, Washington, D.C., and so many other places. The world’s longest breakwater (at Buffalo) and New York’s barge canal system stand out as his major career accomplishments. And, Roosevelt’s first administration took him to the highest echelons of world power for four years. He shared the president’s gratitude and friendship.

Thomas Symons, trusted aide, the man Teddy Roosevelt called the “Father of Barge Canals,” died in 1920 at the age of 71. In 1943, a Liberty ship built in Portland, Oregon was named the SS Thomas W. Symons in his honor.

Photo Top: Colonel Thomas Williams Symons, engineer.

Photo Middle: 1904 map of Symons’ planned route for New York’s Barge Canal.

Photo Bottom: A portion of the breakwater in Buffalo harbor.

Lawrence Gooley has authored eight books and several articles on the North Country’s past. He and his partner, Jill McKee, founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004 and have recently begun to expand their services and publishing work. For information on book publishing, visit Bloated Toe Publishing.


Monday, September 20, 2010

Keeseville’s Thomas W. Symons, Part I

In 1847, Thomas Symons operated a book bindery in the village of Keeseville, offering ledgers, journals, receipt books, and similar products. Rebinding of materials was much in demand in those days, a service that helped expand his clientele. While Thomas, Sr., was successful in building a business, his son, Thomas, Jr., would play an important role in building a nation.

Thomas William Symons, Jr., was a Keeseville native, born there in 1849. When he was a few years old, the family moved to Flint, Michigan, where several members remained for the rest of their lives. His younger twin brothers, John and Samuel, operated Symons Brothers & Company, the second largest wholesale firm in the state. They became two of Michigan’s most prominent men in social, political, and business circles.

Thomas chose a different route, completing school and applying to the US Military Academy at West Point. After acceptance, he proved to be no ordinary student, graduating at the top of the Class of 1874. He was promoted to Second Lieutenant, Corps of Engineers, and served at Willett’s Point, about 50 miles south of West Point. After two years, he was ready for some field work, and his timing couldn’t have been better.

Symons was assigned to join the Wheeler Expedition under fellow West Point alum George Wheeler. The travels of explorers Lewis & Clark and Zeb Pike are better known, but the Wheeler Expedition is one of four that formed the nucleus of the US Geological Survey’s founding.

The engineers, Symons among them, not only explored, but recorded details of their findings. The land encompassing Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, and Utah was surveyed using triangulation, and more than 70 maps were created. Their studies on behalf of America’s government produced volumes on archaeology, astronomy, botany, geography, paleontology, and zoology. The possibilities of roads, railroads, agriculture, and settlement were addressed.

The experience Thomas gained during this work was invaluable. In 1878, he was promoted to First Lieutenant. In 1879, Symons was appointed Engineer Officer of the Department of the Columbia, and was promoted to captain in 1880. Similar to the work he had done under Wheeler, Thomas was now in charge of studying the area referred to as the “Inland Empire of the Pacific Northwest,” focusing on the upper Columbia River and its tributaries.

Much of the land was wilderness, and the job was not without danger. The American government was notorious for breaking treaties with Indians, and groups of surveyors in the region were driven off by angry natives who said they had never sold the rights to their land.

Symons was a surveyor, but he was also an officer of the military. Leading a company of the 21st Infantry from Portland, Oregon, in Washington, he faced off against 150 armed warriors. The situation was potentially disastrous, but Thomas listened to the concerns of the Indians, learning their histories and beliefs. Bloodshed was avoided as Symons skillfully negotiated a truce, allowing him to survey from the Snake River north to the Canadian border, unimpeded.

Much of the upper Columbia study was conducted in a small boat carrying Symons, two soldiers, and several Indians. His report provided details of the region’s geology and history, a review so thorough, it was published as a congressional document. Combined with his earlier surveys of Oregon, it made Symons the government’s number one man in the Northwest.

Whether or not his superiors agreed with him, Symons addressed the Indians’ issues in prominent magazine articles, sympathizing with their plight. Few knew the situation better than Thomas, and he freely expressed his opinions.

Besides exploring and mapping the Northwest, he chose locations for new army outposts, built roads, and carried out military duties. He also became a prominent citizen of Spokane, purchasing land from the Northern Pacific Railroad and erecting the Symons Building, a brick structure containing commercial outlets and housing units. (A third rendition of the Symons Block remains today an important historical building in downtown Spokane.)

Thomas’ proven abilities led to a number of important assignments. In 1882, he was placed on the Mississippi River Commission, taking charge of improvements on the waterway. In 1883, the Secretary of State asked Symons to lead the US side of the joint boundary commission redefining the border with Mexico. Surveying, checking and replacing border markers, and other work was conducted while averaging 30 miles per day on rough ground in intense heat. For his efforts, Thomas received formal thanks from the State Department.

He was then sent to Washington, D.C., where he worked for six years on city projects, principally the water supply, sewage system, and pavements. He also developed complete plans for a memorial bridge (honoring Lincoln and Grant) connecting Washington to Arlington, Virginia. (A modified version was built many years later.)

Symons’ next assignment took him back to familiar territory, the Northwest. Based in Portland, he was given charge of developing river and harbor facilities in Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington. He did primary engineering work on canals, including one in Seattle that remains a principal feature of the city, and planned the tideland areas for Ballard, Seattle, and Tacoma harbors. Seattle’s present railroad lines and manufacturing district were included in planning for the famed harbor facilities.

On the Pacific coast, Thomas’ work on the world-renowned jetty works at the mouth of the Columbia River was featured in Scientific American magazine. He also provided the War Department with surveys and estimates for harbor construction at Everett, Washington.

Next week: Even bigger and better things, including historic work in New York State.

Photo Top: Thomas Williams Symons, engineer.

Photo Bottom: Modern version of the Symons Block in Spokane, Washington.

Lawrence Gooley has authored eight books and several articles on the North Country’s past. He and his partner, Jill McKee, founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004 and have recently begun to expand their services and publishing work. For information on book publishing, visit Bloated Toe Publishing.


Monday, September 13, 2010

Saranac Lake: The Allen Mooney Murder, Part 2

Despite the physical evidence against Saranac’s Allen Mooney in the murders of Ellen Thomas and Viola Middleton, he could still hope for a lesser conviction, even manslaughter, due to extenuating circumstances. Epilepsy, a weakness for drink, extreme jealousy—the man was obviously beset by many problems. Not a saint by any stretch, but was he a wanton killer?

Unspoken, though, was another factor—Mooney’s extended family. His relatives from the Malone area, and south to Saranac Lake—the Merrills, Jocks, Stacys, and other Mooneys—shared quite the infamous reputation. In the decade surrounding Mooney’s trial, without citing particulars, they committed: assaults, burglaries, robberies, wife beatings, at least 3 murders (and a fourth suspected with arson), prostitution, incest, child abuse, family abandonment, and more.

This was no secret. Leading up to the trial, many of the family’s escapades had been highly publicized in recent years. It would be very difficult for jurors to ignore that reality. And, if Mooney should be considered insane because his aunt was insane (as the defense claimed), then maybe he was an incorrigible criminal like so many members of his extended family.

The courtroom was packed throughout the trial, and extensive testimony hinted that the jury might struggle to reach a verdict. During deliberations, the first vote was 7 for 1st-degree murder and 5 for 2nd-degree murder. With that much uncertainty, a consensus seemed unlikely. It looked like Mooney might be spending the rest of his life behind bars, but at least he’d be alive.

But early the next morning, almost before the court session began, it was suddenly over. The verdict was in: guilty of murder in the first degree. Mooney was told to stand, and the judge pronounced sentence: “That you be confined in Dannemora State Prison until the week beginning July 6, 1903, when, in compliance with the law, you shall suffer death by having a current of electricity pass through your body until you are pronounced dead.” Mooney, calm as ever, spoke only to thank the judge.

He was a condemned man with just six weeks left to live, but Mooney wasn’t the only one under pressure. Dannemora’s executioner felt the heat as well. He was scheduled to dispose of six prisoners during the week of July 6, including that infamous threesome, the Van Wormer brothers, who had brutally murdered their uncle and terrorized his family.

Joining them were William “Goat Hinch” O’Conner (committed murder during a robbery), and Kate Taylor, who was believed long abused by her husband (until she killed him, cut off his head, stuck it in an oven, tried to cut his leg off, burned the corpse, and fed the bones and ashes to the chickens). Allen Mooney was in fine company.

Appeals delayed his execution (and Taylor’s, too), subjecting Mooney to unexpected angst. Taylor, female, was held in a special cell, but Allen was with the others on Death Row. Described during his trial as “stolidly indifferent,” Mooney now sat nearby as, one by one, the Van Wormers were walked down the hallway to waiting death. Each said goodbye to Mooney. Reports of the boys’ final moments appeared beneath large, bold headlines in newspapers across the country. The last to go was the middle brother, and in memorable fashion:

“Burton’s departure from the death house made the most pathetic scene of all. Besides the aged priest, there was but one person in the world to whom he might say goodbye. That was Allen Mooney, the last occupant of the death cells, who sat in the corner of the front of his cell, sobbing like a child. As Burton stepped from his cell, he looked back toward Mooney’s cell, which was out of his view because of a great iron screen built for that purpose, and called: ‘Goodbye Mooney. I hope you don’t have to go like this.’ And then he marched to the death chair.”

The procession of priest, warden, and guards guided Van Wormer to the death room, where, for the first and last time, he met Robert Elliott, Dannemora’s chief executioner.

Mooney’s reprieve lasted five months, when the court of appeals affirmed his sentence. The execution was two months away, but within a month, reports surfaced that he wasn’t eating, and mostly languished in his cell, deteriorating physically. But after watching the Van Wormers, who converted to Catholicism and clung to crucifixes as they went to their deaths, Mooney took action. He summoned the Catholic priest and converted from the Baptist faith he had been born into (but apparently ignored), hurrying to achieve baptism and first communion by March.

Two months later, just as his cellmates had done, Mooney took Communion and clung tightly to a crucifix. On May 3, 1904, he walked his final steps to join Robert Elliott and the waiting chair. One electrode was attached to his head, and less than four minutes later, Mooney was gone.

To the relief of some, a subsequent autopsy revealed that his liver and kidneys were in good condition, dispelling the notion that physical infirmities in Mooney’s organs might have caused momentary insanity. He was the only inmate executed at the prison in 1904, and the only Franklin County resident to die in Dannemora’s electric chair.

Photo Top: Saranac Lake early street view.

Photo Middle: Court of Appeals document upholding Mooney’s conviction.

Photo Bottom: Sing Sing’s electric chair, same as the one in which Mooney died.

Lawrence Gooley has authored eight books and several articles on the North Country’s past. He and his partner, Jill McKee, founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004 and have recently begun to expand their services and publishing work. For information on book publishing, visit Bloated Toe Publishing.


Monday, September 6, 2010

Saranac Lake: The Allen Mooney Murder

On May 12, 1903, Franklin County attorney Robert M. Moore was at wit’s end. After two years of haggling, all possibilities had been exhausted, and he knew his client was in serious trouble. There was nothing left but a claim of insanity. If that failed, a man was sure to die.

The client was Allen Mooney, and his crime in Saranac Lake became one of the most talked-about murders in North Country lore. It’s not a particularly complex tale, but its salacious and violent aspects guaranteed plenty of media coverage. Legally, it was pretty much a cut-and-dried case. Mooney admitted the shootings, and there was plenty of evidence against him.

However, peripheral factors never mentioned in testimony may have “eased” the jury’s decision. And, there were opinions voiced in court that would never be allowed to reach a modern jury’s ears. It all combined to determine a man’s fate. Not to say that Mooney would have otherwise been found innocent; he was guilty, but his sentence may have differed sharply.

In the early 1900s, Saranac Lake was in some ways like the Wild West. Smuggling, shootings, public drunkenness, prostitution, and murder were subjects bemoaned in the press as far too frequent. Any day was a good day for hell-raising, but Election Day was a particular favorite in many towns. Of course, the folks involved in Mooney’s crime led pretty rough lives. They may well have been clueless that it was Election Day.

The year was 1902, and the principals were: Allen Mooney, 25, a plumber’s assistant; Fred McClelland, 30, a friend of Mooney’s; Charles Merrill, 22, a local laborer and Mooney’s nephew; Viola Middleton, about 30, housemate of McClelland; and Ellen Thomas, about 24, known in Saranac Lake as Ethel “Maude” Faysette, love interest of both Mooney and Merrill.

On Election Day, the group was said to have been drinking and carousing at McClelland’s house. When Mooney eventually became loud and abusive, Fred threw him out. Testimony about the day’s events varied, but there was no disagreement on what happened that evening. Mooney, fueled with alcohol and driven by jealousy over Ellen Thomas, managed to get into the house through a door that had only a chair propped against it (the lock didn’t work properly).

By all accounts, he entered a bedroom and found McClelland there with Middleton. Mooney aimed his gun at McClelland, telling him “If you have anything to say, then say it quick.” After a momentary pause, Mooney fired two shots. One hit McClelland and deflected into Viola Middleton, and the other struck Middleton directly.

Charles Merrill and Ellen Thomas were in another room together. When the shooting began, Merrill hid beneath the bed. Mooney entered, shot the girl twice, and left the room. Charles Merrill was uninjured, and most reports claim he managed to jump Mooney, subdue him, secure the gun, and hold him until the local officer arrived. Both men were jailed (Merrill as a witness), and Mooney was said to have soon fallen into a deep sleep. Upon waking the next morning, he claimed to have no recollection of the previous night’s events.

McClelland’s wounds were serious, but he survived. Ellen Thomas died shortly after the shooting, and Viola Middleton lasted only a few days. In spring 1903, Mooney was indicted on two counts of 1st-degree murder and one count of assault. Awaiting trial, he was held in the bottom floor of the county jail in Malone, in what was referred to as “the cage.”

As usual, the case was tried in the newspapers until the actual trial date arrived. There were stories of Ellen Thomas (as Maude Faysette) having been arrested two days before the shooting, only to be released the next day. And, local bars were taken to task over serving liquor to Allen Mooney, knowing his condition and his reputation.

In May 1903, court testimony confirmed the shooting was done by Mooney in a drunken, jealous rage. Intent was proven by his purchase of a gun and cartridges that afternoon. Upon arrest, he reportedly said words to the effect, “I’ll go quietly. I’ve made a fool of myself.” Attorney Moore, left with no other defense, strove to prove Mooney’s insanity at the time of the shooting.

As evidence, he cited Mooney’s aunt (his father’s sister), who “lost all control of herself” during hysterical fits that kept her confined to a Canadian asylum for many years. And, Mooney himself was said to have suffered epileptic seizures since childhood, often turning violent during the attacks. Doctors said that, due to his physical condition, a small amount of alcohol could cause him to “become violently insane and unconscious of his acts.”

Best of all, though, were the professional opinions about Mooney’s appearance. As one reporter wrote, the doctors said, “From the peculiarities of his head, eyes, and looks, they would classify him as a degenerate who was more susceptible to insanity than a normal man.” Add the booze, and you had a powder keg, but one that was not responsible for its own explosion.

The prosecution was inclined to agree, partially. Four doctors, including one from the Ogdensburg Insane Asylum, upped the ante with this assessment: Mooney “ … represented a low type of manhood and possessed certain peculiarities of degeneracy.” But they also felt he was rational, and based on the same factors cited by the defense—physical condition, appearance, and actions—they believed Mooney was conscious of his acts.

Next week: The verdict; some interesting new friends; Mooney’s introduction to Robert Elliott.

Photo Top: The Franklin County Government Buildings, early 1900s.

Photo Bottom: Saranac Lake in the early 1900s.

Lawrence Gooley has authored eight books and several articles on the North Country’s past. He and his partner, Jill McKee, founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004 and have recently begun to expand their services and publishing work. For information on book publishing, visit Bloated Toe Publishing.


Monday, August 30, 2010

Wilmington’s Henry Markham, California Governor

The section of Wilmington referred to as Haselton was once known as Markhamville. The name came from settlers who arrived prior to 1800, and it was more than a century before the change was made to Haselton. Among the early-nineteenth-century residents was Nathan Markham, who earned a living in iron manufacturing before turning to farming. He and wife Susan raised six sons and four daughters. The Markham work ethic served them well.

Three daughters and two sons were teachers in area schools. Several sons became prominent businessmen in different cities, and four of them were successful attorneys. George became the president of Northwest Mutual Life, an insurance company that is now 153 years old and holds more than $1 trillion in individual policies. And Henry became the governor of California.

Henry Harrison Markham was born in Wilmington on November 16, 1840. At the age of 19, he was still working on the family farm, but extended his education by attending Vermont’s Wheeler Academy, from which he graduated in 1862. Shortly after, he moved to Manitowoc, Wisconsin, on the western shore of Lake Michigan.

An overriding concern at the time was the war, and just as his young father (only 18) had fought in the Battle of Plattsburgh, 23-year-old Henry enlisted, joining the North’s Civil War forces in December 1863. Tracking the movements of Company G, 32nd Wisconsin Infantry reveals their role in Sherman’s infamous March to the Sea. Henry survived that campaign, but for him, the war ended soon after.

In January 1865 in South Carolina, the troops of the 32nd had slogged their way for days through the muddy morass of Whippy Swamp, sometimes waste deep in cold water. At a place known as River’s Bridge, the Confederates released a hellfire in defense of their position, but a relentless push forward by Union troops forced the rebels to fall back.

Dozens died in the battle, and Henry was badly wounded. After a period of recovery at Beaufort, S.C., he was mustered out in May 1865 as a 2nd Lieutenant. Returning to Wisconsin, Henry took up the study of law with a well-known firm, and within a few short years, he was admitted to legal practice at various levels, including the US Supreme Court.

When his brother Charles arrived, they formed a very successful law partnership in Milwaukee. Henry was joined in marriage with Mary Dana at Waukesha, Wisconsin, in May 1876, and from outward appearances, life was good.

But illness and the nagging effects of his war injuries took an increasing toll, compelling Henry to seek a more healthful climate. Catching his eye was a magazine advertisement: “To Health Seekers—A Beautiful Home in a Beautiful Land—A Fruit Farm in Southern California.” With 22 acres, 750 fruit trees, and a vineyard, Henry was sold. In the late 1870s, Pasadena, California, became the new Markham homestead.

In addition to operating his fruit orchard, Henry kept busy pursing civic and business interests in California. Besides investing in various mines, he helped found the Pasadena Public Library and served on the school board, assuming a position of prominence in the community.

In 1884, the Republican Party in southern California was searching for a strategy to defeat the Democrats, who had long wielded power. A few interested candidates seemed lackluster at best, and Henry was approached as a dark horse possibility. He consented, and then did what he had always done in any endeavor: worked hard. Success followed, and for the next two years, the interests of southern California were looked after in Washington by Congressman Markham.

At re-election time in 1886, he seemed a sure bet to win again. But, just as he had reluctantly surrendered his law practice in Wisconsin, Henry said “Thanks, but no thanks” in declining the opportunity. The east-coast climate had again diminished his health, and he opted for civilian life in Pasadena rather than another term in Washington.

Aware of his leadership capabilities and his interest in the plight of war veterans, Congress elected him as a manager of the National Homes for Disabled Soldiers. The position was unpaid, and Henry frequently used his own money to finance related expenditures. In that regard, the home in Santa Monica greatly benefited from his largesse.

In 1887, Henry commissioned a magnificent three-story home to be built on his property (the cost in 2010 translates to well over $1 million). The huge mansion would easily accommodate his growing family (three young daughters), but Henry wanted more for them. He began building a playhouse, specially constructed to also accommodate Dad, who was 6 feet 2 inches tall. It was a beloved structure that the children shared for years with many friends.

Markham expanded his business connections beyond the area’s mines. He was president of the Los Angeles Furniture Company, and a director on the boards of two banks and the Southern California Oil Supply Company. Others like him led a surge of financial prosperity and population growth in southern California. In the upcoming political campaign, the south was hoping to wrest control from the northern power base at San Francisco.

Once again, the party turned to Markham, nominating him as the candidate for governor to avoid a party split. In a bitter, hard-fought battle, he defeated San Francisco Mayor E. B. Pond by 8,000 votes to become California’s 18th governor. The victory was attributed partly to Henry’s manner of personally greeting thousands of voters who became well acquainted with the “Markham Glad-hand.” It was his signature move—a firm, hearty handshake evoking sincerity.

While holding office from Jan. 1891–Jan. 1895, Markham did much to advance business in the state. When the Panic of 1893 struck (considered second-worst only to the Great Depression of the 1930s), he backed the idea for the California Midwinter International Exposition (a World’s Fair). With San Francisco as the host city, a massive parade was held. Represented were many businesses, civic organizations, and military groups. A work-holiday was imposed by the governor, to great effect. On the first day alone, more than 72,000 people attended.

During his tenure, Markham also handled the effects of a national railroad strike; led the second-largest fundraising effort among states represented at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893; secured military facilities that brought millions of dollars to California; forced a railroad company to pay $1.3 million it owed the state; helped bring trolley service to Pasadena; backed the building of the Santa Fe Railroad; and worked towards establishing a harbor facility in southern California.

Early in his tenure, an interesting meeting occurred when Governor Markham welcomed President Benjamin Harrison on a tour of California. The president was the grandson of another president, William Henry Harrison, and during the trip, California’s new governor revealed a personal connection to the First Family.

The elder Harrison’s election platform in 1840 had included tariffs that were meant to protect American businesses. Nathan Markham, an iron manufacturer at Wilmington, was so delighted when William Henry Harrison won the election in 1840, he named his newborn son Henry Harrison Markham. (Unfortunately, the president died after a month in office, the shortest term of any US chief executive.)

After a successful four-year stint as governor, Henry Markham decided not to run for a second term, returning to private life and the world of business, where he did well for more than two decades. He died of a stroke in 1923 at the age of 83, but was certainly not forgotten.

His impressive home was torn down in 1939, but through the years the Markham Mansion had played host to many grand social occasions, both during his tenure and after his death. The family name also remained a fixture on streets, buildings, and other locations in Pasadena.

In 1963, forty years after the governor’s death, Markham Place was honored by the Pasadena Beautiful Foundation as its first Banner Block. The neighborhood was near Henry’s former mansion and orchard, where many old, beautiful homes had been restored. In 2010, popular tourist destinations include the Governor Markham Victorian District.

Was the old neighborhood really that impressive? Next door to Markham was Adolphus Busch (Budweiser, etc.). Nearby was the Gamble family (Procter & Gamble) and Bill Wrigley (Wrigley’s gum). Others locating in that vicinity over the years include the Maxwells (coffee), the Cox family (communications), and the Spaldings (sporting goods). The area was once known as “Millionaire’s Row” in the days when a million dollars suggested exclusivity.

And what of that wonderful playhouse so lovingly built by Henry Markham for his daughters? In 1970, the California State Historical Society became aware that after 85 years, it still existed. The family had passed it down so that subsequent generations of children could enjoy it.

Wishing to do the same, the owner contacted Governor Markham’s fourth daughter, Hildreth, 81 (born in 1889), seeking her consent for donating it to the Pacific Oaks Children’s School. Soon after, the house (which had been refurbished regularly in the past), was placed in a corner of the children’s play yard at the school, a memento of California’s governor from New York.

Photo Top: Henry Harrison Markham.

Photo Middle: Civil War photo of 2nd Lieutenant Henry H. Markham.

Photo Bottom: California Midwinter International Exposition, 1894.

Lawrence Gooley has authored eight books and several articles on the North Country’s past. He and his partner, Jill McKee, founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004 and have recently begun to expand their services and publishing work. For information on book publishing, visit Bloated Toe Publishing.


Monday, August 23, 2010

The Murder of Adirondack Guide Eula Davis

In late 1928, the life of an Adirondack guide came to an unfortunate, premature end. Like many of his brethren who died from accidental shootings over the years, the victim succumbed to a serious gunshot wound. But the demise of Eula Davis was no accident. Clearly, this was a case of murder, and the beginning of a twisted saga that kept all eyes glued on the Lake Pleasant region for some time.

The story began on November 30 when local handyman and guide Ernest Duane, 34, reported to police in Speculator that he had found Davis, 60 (also a handyman and guide), dead. The body was located in the Ernest Brooks cabin on Whitaker Lake, several miles northwest of Speculator village. Duane offered to accompany them to the site, but the lawmen opted to investigate on their own, a decision that would prove vital as the case developed.

A sad scene awaited them. Davis’ corpse was frozen solid; apparently, he had died of exposure and/or loss of blood. A gaping bullet-wound in the lower back was the overriding cause, and Davis had not died easily. Unable to rise after being shot, he had dragged himself across the floor. His body was partially covered with a quilt, and a pillow had been drawn close to Eula’s head, signifying an attempt to keep warm and somewhat comfortable. He had used rags to form a rough tourniquet, and had broken a pencil tip while trying to write a note.

Further investigation revealed an empty wallet in Davis’ pocket, punctured by the fatal bullet.

Davis had many friends in Speculator, and they began searching for the killer while police worked to develop certain clues. Within a few days, they focused on one suspect: Ernest Duane.

An autopsy had uncovered bits of paper money embedded in the body, revealing that Davis’ wallet had not been empty prior to the shooting. Finding the damaged money would surely lead to the killer. But why would Duane kill a popular local man known to be his friend?

Davis, said to have guided for boxing champion Gene Tunney several months earlier, had done quite well financially. It was public knowledge that he had earned several hundred dollars, and had recently purchased winter provisions in town. Questioning of local merchants yielded critical information: in the past few days, someone else had been shopping. Among the legal tender used for payment was a $10 bill with two neat holes in it. The customer was Ernest Duane.

He was brought in for questioning, and after being confronted with evidence, Duane finally confessed to the crime. He offered a lengthy tale, including the decision to rob the old man, who was deaf. When Duane entered the cabin and saw Davis facing away from the door, he shot him in the back. He then took the old man’s wallet and headed for home. On the way, Duane said, he removed only one bill and then flung the wallet into the woods.

Since the empty wallet had already been found in Davis’ pocket, police knew Duane was lying. (He really didn’t seem to have much of a plan. Why admit the shooting but lie about the robbery?) At any rate, a search crew with rakes went to Whitaker Lake in hopes of finding the missing cash buried beneath new-fallen snow. They found nothing.

The next day, police returned to take evidence photographs of the crime scene—but it was gone! That’s right—the entire crime scene was no more. In one of those great Adirondack mysteries, the remote cabin had burned overnight. Arson by Duane’s sympathizers seemed the only plausible explanation.

A day later, Ernest told police where the money was hidden, admitting he had emptied the wallet and placed it back in the victim’s pocket. In Duane’s woodshed they located a roll of bills, pierced by what appeared to be bullet-holes. Employing a bit of trickery, they told him they hadn’t found the money, so Ernest provided written directions. The successful ruse created physical evidence that might later prove valuable.

Police also discovered that Duane owed $200 in fines for game law violations. With a motive and a confession, they now had what appeared to be an open-and-shut case.

But appearances can be deceiving. Still, Duane would go on trial, though under unusual circumstances. Neither the Hamilton County district attorney nor the county judge were lawyers. That unprecedented situation was addressed by Governor Al Smith, who appointed a special prosecutor and assigned a judge. In the meantime, Duane enjoyed cowboy novels in his cell and visits from his new bride, a 14-year-old that he married only a month before the Davis murder.

The prosecution played a powerful hand in the trial, led by impressive witnesses. Doctors dismissed Duane’s epilepsy as a non-factor, and Leonard Egelston, a police officer, introduced some surprising evidence. Early in the investigation, he had taken photographs inside and outside of the cabin. The apparent arson was, as it turned out, a futile attempt to destroy evidence.

The prosecution also offered Duane’s signed confession, along with the note directing officers to the hidden stash of bills. The note was presented as proof that Duane was sane and clear-headed enough after the murder to hide the stolen money and remember where it was hidden.

The defense focused on proving Duane’s supposed mental abnormalities, which they claimed had been exacerbated by the lonely life of a woodsman who often spent long months alone. It seemed like a weak argument at best, but then came the kicker: Duane’s epilepsy, seized upon by his attorneys in a strategy described as the “dream defense.”

Medical experts and Ernest’s brother, Joe, testified about his condition, bolstering claims that he had committed the crime, but had done so “in a fit of insanity.” Supporting the argument was his dismissal from military service during World War I due to a mental disorder (again, epilepsy).

Contrary to what had been earlier announced, Ernest finally took the stand in his own defense. Despite his detailed confession and the note leading officers to the stolen money, Ernest now claimed a seizure had enveloped him as he entered the clearing near the cabin that day, and it subsequently erased all memories of the next several hours. If he had killed Davis and stolen the money, he had no recollection of having done so. (Forty-five years later, serial killer Robert F. Garrow would make the same claim in the same courtroom for the same crime of murder.)

But there was more to Ernest’s story. Later that night, he suddenly awakened, believing he had shot and robbed Davis. Frantically, Duane jumped out of bed and searched his pockets for money. Finding nothing, he concluded it had been nothing more than a terrible nightmare, and went back to sleep.

In the morning, Ernest went out to cut some firewood. Reaching into his jacket pocket for a match, he instead found a wad of bills. With an earnestness befitting his given name, he told the court, “Then I knew that what I had dreamed was true.” During final summation, his attorney cited “the murder dream which turned out to be reality.”

The jury struggled, and early on, one member promised his vote for acquittal would never change. (So much for an open-and-shut case.) Eventually, they found Duane guilty. Supreme Court Justice Christopher Heffernan was reluctant to pronounce sentence, but he had no choice.

Through a breaking voice, and with tears flowing, he said, “I have but one duty to perform. I have wished it would never come to me, but Mr. Duane, you stand convicted of murder in the first degree, for which the punishment is death.” Seated nearby, the judge’s wife wept openly.

At 3 am, Ernest Duane was removed from his cell and sent off to Sing Sing to await execution. The odd hour was chosen to avoid an expected rescue attempt by Duane’s family and friends.

The defense appealed the verdict, causing an immediate stay of execution. When the appeal was denied, a new trial was sought, but that too was disallowed. Ernest was scheduled to die the week of January 15, 1930. Only one hope remained—commutation by the governor.

Just 24 hours before his execution time, word arrived that Governor Franklin Roosevelt had commuted Duane’s sentence to life in prison. Among other things, the governor felt that a person denied military service due to a mental disorder should not be put to death for that same disorder. When the message was relayed by his keepers, Ernest’s comment was a flippant, “Then I guess I’ll lose my chicken dinner,” the last meal he had requested. He was removed from death watch and assigned to work in the prison shoe factory.

Was it really an out-of-character, spur-of-the-moment decision for Ernest Duane to shoot and rob Davis? Perhaps not, if the “apple-doesn’t-fall-far-from-the-tree” theory holds water. Duane’s father, with a wife and seven children at home, had once pursued and married the 15-year-old daughter of the man with whom he was boarding. That offense netted him five years in Dannemora Prison for bigamy. He later was convicted of game violations.

Ernest had been arrested for drunkenness, game violations, and had married a 14-year-old girl. His character witness and brother, Joseph Duane, had been arrested for car theft and fighting, and he and Ernest had been arrested together for operating a “Disorderly House” (their hotel was used for prostitution).

The Duanes earned plenty of notoriety in their time. With this writing, perhaps Eula (Ulysses) Davis will escape relative anonymity, having suffered a terrible, undeserved fate.

Photo Top: Map of the Speculator-Lake Pleasant-Whitaker Lake area.

Photo Right: L to R: Speculator today remains an outdoor playground.

Lawrence Gooley has authored eight books and several articles on the North Country’s past. He and his partner, Jill McKee, founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004 and have recently begun to expand their services and publishing work. For information on book publishing, visit Bloated Toe Publishing


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