Tuesday, November 11, 2014

For Alonzo Clark, Every Horse was a Gift Horse

A1LOCHorseBuggyWhen regional history books by well-known authors like Frederick J. Seaver (Historical Sketches of Franklin County) and Maitland De Sormo (The Heydays of the Adirondacks) mention criminals, there’s probably a good backstory, but one quite difficult to trace.

A prime example: Alonzo Clark, legendary horse thief of northern New York, New England, and the West. It’s unfortunate that Seaver’s paragraph on Clark is almost completely erroneous. A chapter of a book published in 2009 by the History Press didn’t do much better, covering his story in lackluster and cursory fashion with just a few snippets easily found online by casual searchers. The first 35 years of his crimes were completely ignored.

Alonzo Clark was born in the Franklin County town of Dickinson in 1841 (possibly late 1840), a son of Benjamin and Emily Clark. Very little is known of his early life except for two tidbits he shared years later with the press, both involving his purported first crime. Whether it was stealing 10 cents from his sister or lifting a goose egg from the father of a friend, the principal point is that at a young age, he started taking things from others, and did so for most of his life.

In 1895, he confessed that as a young boy, he stole 10 cents from his little sister. The problem with that story? His nearest sister in age was 11 years older. In 1898, he claimed as his first crime the theft of a goose egg from his friend’s father. The main point is that at a young age, he started taking things from others, and did so for most of his life.

Through his teenage years, Alonzo was stealing on a regular basis, but displayed a strong preference for a particular big-dollar item: horse rigs. Jail time did nothing to dissuade him, so in early 1858, the court took a drastic step, sending 16-year-old Clark to Auburn Prison for 2½ years.

Around July 1860, Lon, as he was known to his friends, was released from hard time at the tender age of just 18. Going straight never entered his mind, but a change of scenery was soon in order—and not by choice. Within a few months of gaining his freedom, Clark stole a livery rig from Malone and became the subject of a hot pursuit. With deputies on his heels, Alonzo took to the woods south of the village.

His pursuers gave up within a few days, their quarry having eluded them. Lon had continued to Vermont, where he stole horses regularly from August through December while evading Green Mountain lawmen. The search was hampered by Clark’s known use of disguises and aliases. Only about 5 feet 6 and still baby-faced, he wore false beards and mustaches to foil his pursuers, and went by several aliases.

While Vermont authorities continued the search, Alonzo moved on to nearby states. He later claimed to have stolen horses, sleighs, and buggies across New England, which may well have been true, for he was named as a suspect in horse thefts covered by Boston-area newspapers.

Just after New Year’s Day 1862, he was arrested in the central New Hampshire town of Haverhill and jailed in the southern part of the state at Amherst. There he attracted quite a crowd, regaling them with stories of his derring-do. Clark’s enjoyment of media attention was evident by the manner in which he “indignantly denied having stolen 11 horses: it was only 10,” he teased.

Vermont’s court system was not amused, sending him to prison in spring 1862. After release, Lon returned to New Hampshire, stealing rigs there until his arrest at Concord, where he was sentenced to another five years in prison.

Most of his term had passed when Clark managed to escape. He claimed to have fled to Illinois, where he stole horses before returning to upstate New York in 1866 and resuming his criminal activities there.

Lon was a con man as well as a horse thief, frequently combining the two persuasions. Rather than grab someone’s property and make a break for it, he used elaborate setups to position himself for the right moment. Then he made his move, turning those who trusted him into unsuspecting dupes. At Westville, he scammed the village hotel owner by gaining his confidence and hiring on as an employee. Settling into the job, he waited for an opportunity, which came when Clark was sent to Fort Covington for the repair of his boss’s watch. Lon absconded with the watch, the money to pay for repairs, an overcoat, the horse and rig, and other equipment.

For more than a year after the Westville caper, he remained a fugitive. On October 13, 1867, Alonzo hired a rig in Malone for a trip to Parishville, but failed to return at the expected time. When authorities were notified, the chase was taken up by Officer Joseph Matthews, a true proponent of persistence. He trailed Clark for nearly three full weeks through Ausable, North Hudson, Ticonderoga, Whitehall, and Fort Edward, finally capturing him north of Glens Falls.

Upon returning to Malone, Lon was greeted like the celebrity crook he was, having “stolen more horses than there are in Potsdam,” according to a friend. He enjoyed the attention, but several weeks later, Clark was returned to Clinton Prison in Dannemora for a term of two years and one month.

A2LonClarkHdlineIn early 1870, he was freed, but immediately rearrested by the Fulton County sheriff for crimes committed in that locale. While in custody, he boasted of being the top horse thief in the country, having nabbed 69 to date. Lon also described many previous crimes he had committed, but claimed innocence to the latest charges. The sense of levity he brought to the situation made no impression on the judge, who sentenced him to prison once again.

In July 1873, after more than three years of mining iron ore as a Dannemora inmate, he was set free. Within several weeks, he stole a horse and buggy near the Canadian border, north of Malone. The rig was reportedly seen heading west of the village and in no apparent hurry. When a pursuing posse of six men overtook him, Clark abandoned the buggy and ran off. The chase continued on foot until he pulled a gun. The men backed off, and he escaped.

Alonzo again made his way to Vermont, and in November stole a horse south of Williston. Five months later, in April 1874, he surfaced briefly in Ogdensburg, but with New York and Vermont lawmen hot on his trail, he quickly disappeared. Within two weeks, the horse stolen near Williston was recovered in West Pawlet, Vermont, about 20 miles west of Glens Falls, and Clark, posing as Harry Tubbs, was taken into custody.

Using more than a dozen aliases during his long career, he had by that time stolen 72 horses and 64 wagons—information Lon himself supplied to the media because he savored the attention. But there was no hurry to get the story out: he wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon. In October, the case was still pending in Chittenden County Court.

Information published 20 years later in Burlington described the remarkable transformation Clark supposedly underwent at that time, courtesy of religious services provided for inmates. He admitted to past crimes, including the one for which he was currently incarcerated. The result was an open-and-shut case, landing him in Windsor State Prison for five years. The report also claimed he continued cleaning up his life, giving up profanity (Lon was a prolific curser) and the use of tobacco products. For exemplary behavior, he was allowed the standard deduction of time from his sentence. Once out of Windsor Prison, he rejoined his Burlington friends and found gainful employment for the first time in his life.

There are nuggets of truth within that report, but the media record is at times in stark disagreement. On April 28, 1875, five days after learning he was to serve a half decade in Windsor Prison, Lon attempted a jailbreak—hardly the behavior of a reformed crook. Though the effort failed, it wouldn’t be his last. Four weeks later, he climbed the high wall of Windsor Prison to escape, but slipped and fell heavily to the ground, breaking his neck. There is no mention of subsequent time off for good behavior.

Next week, the conclusion: A man on the run, again and again.

Photo: An unattended buggy … money in the bank for Alonzo Clark (Library of Congress); headline referring to 1875

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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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