Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Adirondack History: A Strange Case of Mistaken Identity

While it’s not gallows humor by definition, finding laughter in stories related to death can be a difficult proposition. In this case, rest assured: there’s actually not much death involved, and if your funny bone is intact, what follows should tickle it at least a bit.

In mid-August 1904, a number of regional newspapers reported a drowning near Underwood at the west end of Raquette Pond in Tupper Lake. Witnesses who saw a man jump into the water near the bridge there narrowed the possibilities to two: that he jumped in to retrieve his hat when it was blown off by the wind, or he committed suicide. The one thing everyone agreed on was that the man had deliberately entered the water where the current was strong and the depth may have been twenty feet or more. His body was recovered after a brief search and delivered to the undertaker, where locals came to help identify the victim.

Among them was Fred Vilnave, a Tupper Lake contractor, who recognized the deceased as John Fisher, a stonemason who had done some work for him. One characteristic that stood out, he said, was that a stone had fallen on Fisher’s hand, injuring his thumb—and that information matched the victim’s injured thumb. Others agreed that the man was Fisher, who, among other things, had been in town to work on a church foundation. A native of England, he lived in Potsdam with wife Mary and their daughter, fourteen-year-old Bertha. He was periodically sending money to them after working on different jobs, but Mary hadn’t received anything for about six weeks. Lacking the funds to transport his body home and finance a funeral, she allowed him the anonymous burial in potter’s field in the town where he drowned.

Three weeks later, in a Tupper Lake saloon, patrons stared in disbelief as John Fisher bellied up to the bar and ordered a beer. Newspapers of old are known for embellishments and exaggerations, but in this instance, what words could have done the moment justice? Stunned onlookers told Fisher he was supposed to be dead—they had mourned and buried him three weeks ago! Those first few minutes must have been amazing to witness. He finally explained that after taking jobs in Tupper Lake, he had worked in Utica, and was now on his way home. Even more incredible than the bar visit was the awaiting reunion at Potsdam with a still-grieving wife and daughter. (In the aftermath, the identity of the person buried in potter’s field remained unknown.)

Cases of victim mis-identification were not common a century ago, but they did happen from time to time despite the efforts of coroners and undertakers. Even more worrisome to the public was ensuring that supposed victims of fatalities were, in fact, deceased. In 1898 and again the following year, New York State Assemblyman Lyman Redington introduced a bill to eliminate taphephobia—the fear of being buried alive.

Was this a thing? You bet! It was actually one of the most common fears of the nineteenth century, when several anti-premature-burial associations were very active.

It certainly was real in the mind of Redington, who detailed the procedures he wanted codified. “No body shall be received unless a statement on the part of an attending physician or coroner, whether he has found the following signs of death or not, is with it. First: Permanent cessation of respiration and circulation. Second: Purple discoloration of the dependent parts of the body. Third: Appearance of blistering around a part of the skin touched with a red-hot iron. Fourth: The characteristic stiffness known as rigor mortis. Fifth: Signs of decomposition.

“In all cases, excepting death by injury, or where decomposition is plainly shown, the body must be placed in a separate room in a vault, with the transom of the apartment kept constantly open, and that relatives and friends not to exceed fifteen in any one day are to view the body. Burial is not to take place within seventy-two hours, and all the usual evidences of death must be present before the interment is made. The mortuaries, as the vaults are called, are to have a physician constantly in attendance.”

Admittedly, it all sounds ridiculous, at least from a modern perspective. Many people thought so back then as well—but perhaps not Frank La Rock of Fulton in Oswego County. In October 1915, after feeling ill for several days, Frank’s wife collapsed. Friends rushed to help, but she was unresponsive, and when every effort failed, LaRock called the undertaker, who notified the coroner.

On the following day, as preparations were made to embalm her, the coroner arrived to determine the cause of death. Among the routines followed by Doctor Erwin Cusack was the passing of smelling salts beneath the nose. Much to the shock of both men, the “deceased” reacted and was soon sitting upright, far more alive than dead. Perhaps Assemblyman Redington was on the right track after all!

In closing, here’s an actual death story that’s not funny in itself, but does contain a bit of comedic irony. Fred Flint, an excellent violinist and a Port Henry native, gave music lessons in Ticonderoga, and also lived for a time in Glens Falls. Together with his wife, a talented pianist, they moved to Schenectady and operated a music studio there.

In 1921, Fred decided to run for public office. He dropped dead one evening after delivering a stump speech—for the position of coroner. Not funny, but oh, the irony.

Photo: 1904 headline from Plattsburgh Sentinel and Clinton County Farmer

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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.

2 Responses

  1. adkDreamer says:

    Love the stories Lawrence! Keep ’em coming….. Thanks!

  2. Beth Rowland says:

    Another wonderful piece—keep ’em coming Mr. Gooley!

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