Thursday, February 2, 2017

Billy Richards, ‘the Armless Wonder’: Playing the Hand You’re Dealt

While researching a pair of books on North Country iron mining, I unexpectedly became privy to tragedies that many families faced. Mining accidents were frequent and involved excessive violence, often resulting in death. Victims were sometimes pancaked — literally — by rock falls, and their remains were recovered with scraping tools. Others were blown to pieces by dynamite explosions, usually as the result of, in mining parlance, “hitting a missed hole.”

The “missed hole” nomenclature refers to unexploded dynamite charges accidentally detonated later by another miner when his drill made contact with the material or caused a spark. The resulting blast was often fatal, but not always. Those who survived were usually blinded, burned badly, or maimed in some fashion.

In 1878, in Crown Point’s iron mines at Hammondville, near Lake Champlain, a young laborer, Billy Richards, was tasked with holding a star drill (basically a hand-held chisel with a star point) against the ore face while his partner — his step-father, Richard George — struck it with a sledge hammer. Through this commonly used teamwork method, a cadence developed whereby the star drill was struck and the holder then turned it slightly before it was struck again.

As the rhythmic ringing of Billy and his step-dad’s drilling echoed through the mine, a moment straight from hell erupted when the drill bit struck a live charge, which detonated. The outcome was typically gruesome: blood, bones, and human tissue scattered about the rock walls. Somehow — and certainly atypically — both victims survived.

Richard George remained in critical condition for more than two weeks, but eventually recovered. Billy’s prospects were bleak and his condition was grave: he was blind, and both of his forearms had been shredded by the explosion, making amputation necessary. While doctors entertained hopes for his survival, he lingered for a time near death. After a week passed, it became clear that the double-amputation had worked, and young William Richards was going to survive.

A reference to making lemon out of lemonades would trivialize his situation, but raises a question that is difficult to answer: What is it that makes some folks give up and others forge ahead, despite what most perceive as incredible odds or even a lost cause?

Whatever the answer is, Billy had it. One huge obstacle to his future was removed six weeks after the accident when, as happened to many miners blinded from explosions, his sight returned. But here was a young and active boy, still just fifteen years old, with no hands — and this was 1878, more than a century shy of the remarkable advancements in prosthetics that help so many today.

For those of us with a standard set of limbs, it’s difficult to imagine getting by without them. Just a few simple questions make the prospects daunting. Without hands, how would I perform common tasks like tying shoes, working zippers, handling doorknobs, bathroom habits, or removing anything from a pocket? Or the simplest daily personal habits of most people (though not everyone would own up to them) like picking at one’s ears, nose, or the corner of the eyes? Thousands of things like that we take for granted until or unless we suddenly lose certain capabilities, like Billy did.

In his time, nearly 140 years ago, armless or legless citizens faced limited opportunities for employment. One well-publicized option was developing dexterity and capabilities despite one’s handicapping condition, and then joining a circus or sideshow, of which there were thousands. For folks like Billy, whether their condition was congenital or accidental, the common nickname applied was “armless wonder.” People flocked to see them and marveled at their accomplishments.

But for Billy, still a young boy, life resumed as normally as possible. One of his former schoolmates, Evans Locke, wrote decades later about Billy’s resumption of life among friends. “I do recall the first day he attended school, and how we all gazed with a sort of wonder and awe at him as he took the slate pencil in the stumps of his arms and started to figure and write.”

One of Evans’ older brothers, Frank, was among those who played in the Hammondville Golden Eagle Coronet Band, which had the most unusual drummer in the region — Billy Richards, the kid with no hands, who it seems could find a way to do just about anything he desired.

After finishing schooling, he continued playing in the band while working different jobs for the iron company. In 1885, the family moved to Amsterdam, New York, at the southern foothills of the Adirondacks. Billy, now 23, found employment as a lamp tender, managing the city’s gas street lights until electricity eventually came into use. Going into business on his own in the former Potter Opera House building, he operated what he called a “peanut stand,” selling cigars, candy, and other items. He later worked as a vegetable peddler and provided delivery as well. Other employment over the years included city fire warden, sewer-department employee, and boiler operator, which required shoveling coal, opening and closing valves, and keeping written records — all of which he managed without possessing hands. He also served for a few years as city alderman for the second ward, ran for town supervisor, and remained active on the political scene for decades.

He carried on as just an average guy, working hard to support his two children — but fully limbed citizens admired his accomplishments and how he faced life head-on. In the 1890s, when bicycling had become very popular, Billy bought a bike, modified the handles, and learned to ride expertly. Even one-legged cyclists existed at the time, but Amsterdam’s rider was unique, as noted in a Utica Globe headline: “An Armless Bicyclist: William H. Richards … is the Only One in the World.”

Otherwise, his handicap (not a handicap in his mind, but in the minds of others) was rarely referenced in the media, with one noted exception: “Armless Man Seeks Divorce.” News items covering family troubles were usually relegated to court reports, but for the same reason that average internet stories today feature exaggerated headlines, the Amsterdam Evening Recorder added “Armless Man” to the lead, knowing it would attract plenty of attention. It was, in fact, quite a story, complete with testimony from private detectives, clandestine meetings at hotels, claims of lovers’ trysts, and charges of infidelity, even though the pair had already been separated for a couple of years.

But for the most part, Billy was just known as a hard worker whose various jobs made him familiar throughout his adopted home of Amsterdam. His longest stretch of employment began in 1893 as the city’s night watchman. In that capacity, he oversaw the business section for 28 years, during which time he reportedly missed only 30 nights of work.

After retiring from the watchman job, he focused on real estate investments in Amsterdam and nearby Cranesville, where Billy owned many properties that he worked hands-on at refurbishing (pardon the intentional pun). During one particularly lucrative three-week period, he sold four homes.

In 1925, a year after falling ill, William H. “Billy” Richards died at age 62 from a cerebral hemorrhage. His past was recounted in the media: born in Cornwall, England, in 1862; immigrated to America at just a few years old; suffered near-fatal injuries in a mining accident while still a teenager; and went on to live a full life despite what most people perceived as a physical disability. In telling his story, newspapers couldn’t resist one final opportunity, leading with variations of “Armless Wonder of Amsterdam Dead.”

But unlike some confronted with a similar setback, Billy’s life was no sideshow. With grit and determination, he was a lead player on the main stage.

(Special thanks to my wife and business partner, Jill Jones, who pointed me to this story about one of her own ancestors. Billy was Jill’s great-great-uncle — the brother of her great-grandmother.)

Photos: William H. “Billy” Richards (1912); newspaper headline (1925)

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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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