Monday, April 22, 2013

Adirondack History: Dannemora Prison’s Chicken Thieves

Chicken Thief headline 1931 01 Among the several dozen correctional institutions in New York State, Dannemora (officially Clinton Correctional Facility, but most often referred to as Dannemora Prison) is the largest maximum security prison. It is located in northern Clinton County, where the cold winter weather led to a variety of nicknames incorporating the word “Siberia.” It is also known as home to the worst of the worst, housing many of our most dangerous criminals.

For more than 160 years, the North Country’s famous lockup has confined inmates guilty of the most heinous crimes: murder, rape, arson, assault, bank robbery, serial killing … and chicken theft.

Chicken theft? About now, you might find that cool Sesame Street song going through your head: “One of these things is not like the others ….” But any crime is serious, especially if you’re the victim, and the seriousness of stealing chickens was once elevated in stature for a few reasons.

Long ago, raising barn fowl was critical to the existence of millions of families. It provided eggs and meat for daily meals, and income was produced by selling both commodities. To steal someone’s chickens was to steal from a family’s daily sustenance.

While the theft of other items might prove just as hurtful, a stigma was attached to those arrested as chicken thieves, who became known as the low-down, dirtiest of crooks. Victims catching criminals in the act of committing other crimes might call the police, but chicken thieves were dealt with on the spot, using the most popular method: a shotgun blast. If the perp was lucky, he might be greeted with a load of rock salt, but in many cases, a full blast of lead left him either dead or injured.

In the Adirondacks, such shootings were common and were considered justified. Near Watertown, one thief was shot and killed. Because a struggle had ensued, the death was ruled accidental. Near Albany, another incident was ruled justifiable homicide. Dozens of other shootings took place across the region, resulting in many serious injuries. The shooters rarely faced charges.

When the robberies became pervasive in some areas, farmers took to rigging “spring guns,” set to fire upon the tug of a string or some other method. It had to happen―and it did―that a New Jersey farmer rigged a spring gun to protect his chicken coop, but forgot about it when he rose early to do the next morning’s chores. He was killed on the spot, but his death did nothing to discourage North Country farmers from engaging in the practice.

The level of chicken theft varied widely. Some thieves stole only one or two birds, stuffing them inside loose clothing and making a quick getaway. Most of them used large bags, stuffing as many birds as they could in each and tying the top. The booty was sold to markets and butcher shops in nearby towns. Some thieves broke into coops, chopped off the chickens’ heads, escaped with the carcasses, and left a grisly scene for the farmer to find the next morning. In Ballston Spa, one thief rented a hotel room, stole a number of chickens, brought them live to his room for processing, and then checked out. Hotel management was not happy with the gory mess left behind.

Chicken Thief headline 1926 Gang operations existed in places like Plattsburgh, Ogdensburg, Watertown, and the capital region. Several cohorts supplied quantities of chickens to the head man, who took care of marketing. Buyers outside the area were safer to deal with, but local stores were regular customers.

When local buyers made purchases shortly after major thefts, police were on the case, warning that anyone dealing with known chicken thieves would be held accountable. One enterprising Plattsburgh gang operated for several years by stealing chickens, feeding them for several weeks, and selling the fattened birds on the local market. Bigger birds brought more money, and their delayed sale avoided any link to recent thefts.

In the end, the thieves were usually caught, and some paid a high price. Many in the Adirondacks were sentenced to the prisons at Auburn and Dannemora. In a major case in Clifton Park, the two perpetrators were sent to Dannemora for five years each―after ownership of the chickens they sold in Schenectady was verified. How? The metal bands on the chickens’ legs, plus an ingenious move by the prosecution: the birds were brought to the claimants’ home in Clifton Park and released in the yard, whereupon they rushed to their familiar perches. The chickens had literally come home to roost. Case closed.

Stiffer sentences were handed out as well, particularly to repeat offenders. Chicken theft was deemed a felony, and under a habitual-offender law, conviction of a fourth felony carried a mandatory life sentence. In a Syracuse court in 1909, Charles Chaffe faced a charge of stealing $17 worth of chickens. A minor crime? Maybe, but as his fourth felony, it required incarceration for the rest of his natural life.

Laws change frequently, and in 1926, Baumes’ Law took effect in New York, again requiring life in prison for four felony convictions. A year later, the Johnstown–Gloversville area faced a string of chicken thefts that left farmers enraged. Among those caught was George Lawyer, who entered a guilty plea in court. It was his fourth felony (each was for chicken theft), resulting in a life sentence in Dannemora.

A great number of chicken thieves were repeat offenders, but the habitual-criminal laws weren’t always in place, allowing for multiple arrests well beyond the norm. There were a few bad ones, but the most notorious of all chicken thieves in the North Country was Lewis Jock (1865–1918) of Bangor in Franklin County. Despite the paucity of records, Jock had at least 11 arrests covering 40 thefts, resulting in jail time and 8 prison stints (the breakdown appears to be 3 terms in the Albany Penitentiary and 5 in Dannemora). Based on those records, plus the blank years and anecdotal evidence, it’s likely he stole chickens more than a hundred times.

Photos: Ausable Forks headline, 1931; Plattsburgh headline, 1926

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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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