Thursday, May 31, 2018

The Very Hard Life of Ben Harder

Ben Harder’s life story intrigued me after I encountered his name while researching a violent crime of more than a hundred years ago.

He was described as an elderly, disabled war veteran, a “helpless cripple, and he drags himself about from place to place on his hands and knees.” I wondered, could that have been true? Could he have made his way through life in that manner for more than forty years? The need to know was irresistible, so the digging began.

What resulted was in a way compelling, but hardly expected.

Revealed eventually were the trials and tribulations of a man who seemed to suffer more than his share of setbacks and tragedies. In the eyes of some, he may be to blame for his troubles with the law, perhaps rightfully so. But it can be difficult to judge such things without knowledge of his upbringing or war experiences, some of which may have nudged him towards seeking solace in a bottle.

Records are relatively sparse, but we do know that Ben’s father, Peter, was born in 1770, and his second wife, Lucinda (Ben’s mother), whom he married in the 1820s, was 35 years his junior. Thus his oldest and youngest children were born 36 years apart to two wives of widely differing ages. Peter died in March 1842, and the will he made a month earlier listed as heirs his wife, three minor sons (James, 13, Benjamin, 10, Samuel, 7), and four adult children (ages 43, 41, 37, and 24, the last one born in 1818).

While Peter’s three youngest sons were born elsewhere in New York State, much of their childhood was spent in the North Country. Two years prior to his death, Peter Harder had purchased property in St. Lawrence County (on Black Lake in Morristown township) and settled the family there. Benjamin lived in the vicinity of Black Lake for most of the rest of his life. He married Eunice (or Unice) Bellinger in the early 1850s. Their oldest son, Archibald, was born around 1854, and Benjamin Jr. was born in 1858. But midway between the births, the property inherited from his father—190 acres on Black Lake—was seized by the county sheriff and sold at public auction.

Into the early 1860s, Ben and Eunice operated a farm in Hammond, just west of Black Lake, but the Civil War soon altered their lives drastically. Benjamin enlisted in the army in August 1862, joining Company B of the 142nd Infantry, which was formed by the men of Fowler, Gouverneur, Hammond, Macomb, Morristown, and Rossie.

A difficult three years followed, during which 287 members of the regiment died of battle wounds, diseases, and other causes. They defended Washington that fall, and fought in well-known engagements that included the Battle of Drewry’s Bluff, the battles of the Bermuda Hundred Campaign near Richmond, the Battle of Fort Harrison, the Battle of Darbytown Road, the Second Battle of Fort Fisher, and many more. After nearly three years of fighting, they were mustered out in June 1865.

Ben rejoined Eunice, and they operated a farm in Hammond while he also worked on lumber jobs in the Black Lake area. It appeared he had met his end while logging in March 1870, when a few local newspapers ran a story headlined, Fatal Accident at Rossie. The short article provided details: “Two men, in Rossie, were chopping in the woods, and as is often the case, they set a dry stub on fire for the purpose of keeping themselves warm. They were sitting by it, eating their dinners, when the burning tree fell and struck one of them, by the name of Benjamin Harder. He was confined under the tree in such a manner that his companion was unable to extricate him, and was therefore obliged to go some distance. On returning he found the man badly burned and dead.”

Had I accepted that information at face value, there would be no further story of Ben Harder to tell. But I learned that, for him, the real tragedy lay in the accident victim’s true identity: killed by the falling tree on March 3 was his teenage son Archibald.

At that point (March 1870), Ben was 38 years old, a farmer and war veteran, husband of Eunice, and father of Benjamin Jr., with nothing to indicate he was other than an average, law-abiding citizen. But in retrospect, it appears his life soon began to unravel. Whether it was related to his son’s death or anything else is not for me to say.

In June 1870, he was arrested and indicted for assault and battery after severely beating a lumber-camp coworker in the town of Macomb. Harder, said to be drunk at the time, pulled 60-year-old David Storie from his bunk and shoved him into the fireplace. Storie then struck Harder repeatedly in the head with a piece of wood, and Ben responded thus: “He battered, pounded, kicked, bruised, and smashed Mr. Storie’s countenance,” leaving him bloodied and badly injured. More than a year passed before Harder was fined $50 and sentenced to 60 days in jail for the attack.

Three years later, he was again convicted of assault and battery and given the option of a $10 fine or 30 days in jail. His “victim,” John Kane, who years later would serve prison time for other offenses, was given the same punishment as Harder for the same infractions.

In late 1877, after robbing a steamboat, Harder was convicted of larceny and sent to jail for six months. While he was locked up for the first half of 1878, his half-brother Peter died. The following year, while he was engaged in another court suit, his mother, Lucinda, died at the age of 74, and a year after that (1880), his home burned to the ground. A newspaper report said the house was “built of wood, and it burnt like tinder. But a few articles of clothing and furniture were saved…. The loss complete.”

In 1884, Ben and several friends were arrested for illegal fishing on the St. Lawrence River. Over the course of several months, the case against Harder was delayed a couple of times so the DA could adequately prepare. But despite the grand jury returning two indictments against him, the charges were eventually dropped because of “insufficient evidence to warrant bringing him to trial.”

It was a “sort of” bright spot, but short-lived, and painfully so. Just three months later, his 27-year-old son, Benjamin Jr., who had still been living with his parents at Edwardsville, died, leaving the couple childless.

Next week, the conclusion: more troubles and tragedies.

Photo of Ben Harder.

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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.

6 Responses

  1. Beth Rowland says:

    Another great story, Larry—can’t wait for the next installment!

  2. Balian the Cat says:

    Everybody has a story. As per usual, Larry – I am on the edge of my seat…

  3. Harv Sibley says:

    Great storytellng, keep it coming….

    • Lawrence Gooley says:

      Thanks, Harv, for the support. Glad you’re enjoying it … I do as well!

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