Monday, June 11, 2012

John Donovan: Buried Twice in a Month

In a tragic story compounded further by a shocking turn of events, a North Country woman once buried her husband twice in less than thirty days. Admittedly, that seems impossible without some sort of extramarital shenanigans going on, but that wasn’t the case.  In fact, there were actually three burials in the story within that short span of time, capping a series of highly unlikely occurrences. To complicate matters even further, the woman actually had only one husband.

Before reading further, if you like solving puzzles, read that paragraph again and try playing detective. How could all that be true? At this point, everyone should be sufficiently confused and anxious for an explanation. And here it is.

In late January 1908, John Donovan of Oswego was at work on the Varick Canal, tasked with keeping ice away from the flume of the Standard Spinning Company’s mill. The business had recently undergone a name change (formerly the Standard Yarn Company) and was one of Oswego’s main employers.

Shortly before noon on January 27, Donovan was seen at his post. During the afternoon, one of his sons arrived at the mill, sent there by Lizzie Donovan to inquire as to why her husband had not come home for lunch as usual. Workers looked for him and soon became alarmed at his absence.

It was finally deduced that Donovan had somehow fallen into the water and drowned. An investigation found two people who had seen something washing over the spillway, and upon hearing that a man was missing, they realized it could have been a body.

As the days passed and Donovan didn’t come home, cruel reality set in for his family. Searchers had found nothing, and locals remained observant for any sign of objects in the water, whether above or below the spillway.

Despite the previous reports of large objects washing over the dam, the family believed Donovan’s body was within the confines of the canal. They petitioned the coroner, who agreed to request that the water be lowered to allow an adequate search for the victim. That was done just four days after his disappearance, but to no avail. Icy conditions prevented a complete search, and the results were inconclusive.

By early April, temperatures had warmed sufficiently for a renewed effort that could yield some answers and provide at least a semblance of closure for family, friends, and co-workers. On Sunday, April 5, the waters of the Varick Canal were lowered once again and the bottom was dragged. Still, nothing was found, confirming the belief that the body had washed over the spillway.

On Monday, word arrived of a body found floating off the shores of Stony Point on Henderson Bay. Could it be that of John Donovan? It hardly seemed likely, requiring a journey of a mile downstream to the mouth of the Oswego River, followed by 25 miles north across the waters of Lake Ontario. But a strong wind had been blowing across the open water for several days, and Mrs. Donovan, supported by her father, drove to Belleville to look at the remains.

They were greeted by a truly horrible sight. The corpse was described as bald, nude (except for a single sock), and badly decomposed. The face was badly battered from smashing repeatedly against the rocks, courtesy of the aforementioned windy conditions on the lake. But both Liz and her father confirmed it was her beloved John, noting with the aid of the coroner that a distinguishing feature was shared by the corpse and her husband―a severe arm injury suffered years ago in a train accident.

At the family’s expense, the body was shipped to Oswego, and on April 7, 1908, nine weeks after he died at age 44, John Donovan’s funeral and burial were held.

Twenty-seven days later, about a mile east of the mouth of the Oswego River, a decomposing body was found in Baldwin’s Bay on Lake Ontario. No one had been reported missing, and after thoroughly examining the corpse, Coroner Christopher Vowinkel arrived at a startling conclusion: this was the body of John Donovan, who had been buried by his family less than a month earlier.

Vowinkel brought Mrs. Donovan to the undertaker, and to their horror, they soon realized that the wrong man had been buried in her husband’s grave. This second body was fully clad, and she recognized John’s clothing that he had worn to the cold job on the Varick Canal: two pairs of mittens, three pairs of socks, a heavy overcoat, and boots.

On May 5, John Donovan’s remains were buried in the family plot. The body mistakenly buried in his place was exhumed and interred elsewhere. The identity remained unknown.

One husband, two husband burials in less than a month, and three burials overall. Mystery solved.

But if you have a little room left for intrigue, let me leave you with a Twilight Zone moment. Remember the basic facts about our John Donovan: he died in 1908; he drowned in the Oswego River in January; he was found in Baldwin’s Bay in April; his body was decomposed; and the identifying physical characteristic was his injured arm.

Comparing that information to the article below from 20 years earlier might well conjure images of Rod Serling (who, incidentally, once gave a speech at SUNY–Oswego, and was born just 35 miles southeast of the city).

April 17, 1888: The body of John Donovan, who committed suicide January 9 by jumping into the Oswego River from the Utica Street Bridge, was found yesterday morning in the water at Baldwin’s Bay near Oswego. The body was badly decomposed, but it was identified by a scar or wound on the left arm.

Submitted for your approval … another dimension, perhaps? Serling would have loved it.

Gravestone photograph courtesy of Elana Hall of Oswego.

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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 22 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, was a regional best-seller for four years running.

With his partner, Jill Jones, Gooley founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004, which has published 83 titles to date. They also offer editing/proofreading services, web design, and a range of PowerPoint presentations based on Gooley's books.

Bloated Toe’s unusual business model was featured in Publishers 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.

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