Wednesday, June 6, 2018

The End of Ben Harder’s Very Hard Life

In October 1884, St. Lawrence County newspapers reported that a notorious miscreant, who had been arrested many times on various charges, had turned over a new leaf. “Ben Harder, of Black Lake, has reformed and is waging an uncompromising warfare against the fish pirates of the lake.” He had removed one illegal hoop net and a half-mile of illegal gill nets from Black Lake (in Morristown) and turned them over to the local game protector, who burned them.

However, rather than proof of reform, Harder’s removal of the nets was undertaken for a less than savory reason: to thwart his rivals. Charges of burglary and illegal fishing were brought against him, and a court appearance was scheduled for mid-December. When he failed to show, an arrest warrant was issued and successfully executed, but Harder, too drunk to stand before the judge, was locked up overnight. The next morning he argued to delay the case, but when that proved unsuccessful, he pleaded guilty to taking fish illegally and was sentenced to a month in jail.

The burglary charges remained in place, but several continuations were allowed due to a lack of witnesses — the DA reported they had fled to Canada to avoid subpoenas. The case dragged on and on without resolution until it really didn’t matter anymore in the face of new challenges faced by Harder.

In late June 1887, he went to Ogdensburg for a court appearance. In an inebriated state, he failed to safely cross a city street and was struck by a train, the wheels of which passed over both of his feet, mangling them badly. Word circulated of his death, but those reports were premature.

Bleeding terribly, he was rushed to a doctor’s office and underwent amputations, losing roughly half of each foot at the instep. His chances of survival were assessed in stark terms by the Ogdensburg Advance: “It will be very doubtful if he ever recovers, as the shock of such an injury is terrible, and the habits of the patient were such as not to leave him in good condition to resist it” (my italics). And besides years of hard living, his age, 55, was considered a negative factor as well against hope of recovery.

But his home-area newspaper, the Hammond Advertiser, knew Ben Harder better than most, and vouched for his toughness. As to the possibility of his surviving, they wrote, “No doubt about it. No one who knows Ben would for a moment imagine that he would ‘snuff out’ so easily as that.”

And they were right. Instead of dying, Harder showed signs of recovering. Barely a week after the accident, it was rumored that charges might be brought against the bartender who sold Ben the last drink before he was injured. More importantly, plans were made for a lawsuit against the rail company.

Four months later, the two sides faced off in court. In those days, the majority of such cases against large firms were won by the companies on grounds of contributory negligence, which held that an injured person who was found partially or fully responsible for an accident was not entitled to financial damages. In that regard, Harder’s case was textbook. Rail-company attorneys argued that “the plaintiff was drunk and had no business to attempt to cross the track at that point.” The judge agreed, and Harder’s lawsuit was disallowed.

It was a cruel blow, but with no other options before him, Ben returned to working the farm. Years later, a reporter remarked on Harder’s method of carrying on. “Both of his feet were cut off near the ankles. This renders him an almost helpless cripple, and he drags himself about from place to place on his hands and knees, even working about the farm in this way.” While he wasn’t living well, he managed to survive.

In late 1890, a year after applying for aid and more than three years after the loss of his feet, Ben, at age 58, was granted a military pension. He continued spending much time fishing, and despite past issues with drinking, alcohol remained a part of his routine. In 1895 at Ogdensburg, the same place he entered in 1887 with two good feet and left with heel stubs after a booze-related accident, he went on a well-publicized bender that resulted in a charge of public intoxication. According to the Ogdensburg Advance, “Harder was found crawling about the streets at two o’clock in the morning, having lost his crutches and not being able to stand without them. He pled guilty and was allowed to go under suspended sentence.”

Despite rough living, Ben endured through the 1890s, even as several of his family members passed away. Deaths included his half-brother John in 1890, his half-sister Catherine in 1892, his wife Eunice in 1893, and his brother James in 1897. His other brother, Samuel, died in 1902.

In April 1906, Ben, now in his early seventies, was admitted to the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Home at Bath, New York, where old and infirm military men were cared for during their final years. Three months later, a Bath resident visiting friends in Edwardsville informed them that Harder “is in poor health and has no hopes of being any better.”

But nine more months passed, and after a year in the home, Ben was discharged in April 1907. He moved in with a friend, Morgan Buttrick, in Morristown, but shortly after, he rented a room in the Jerry Apple residence on Apple Point in the town of Macomb, located on the southeastern shore of Black Lake.

As if all the major negative incidents in Harder’s life weren’t enough, another very serious one occurred at the Apple residence. He was present during a family dispute that involved jealousy over a woman. An angry male participant left the house, and moments later fired a shotgun twice through the window, killing two men seated within a few feet of Harder.

The shooter re-entered the home a few minutes later, and Ben, despite his age and disability, confronted the man, accused him of the crime, threw him to the floor, and called for members of the Apple family to bring a rope and tie him up. But the man of the house, Jerry Apple, was one of the murder victims, and his family, hiding in terror, refused to come out, allowing the perpetrator to escape. He was later captured, and Ben Harder was a key witness in the trial that followed. One newspaper offered this description of him as he appeared in court: “He is about 75 years old and looks the patriarch. He has a long white beard, and his complexion is white, giving a certain ghastliness to his appearance.”

More than a year after witnessing the double murder, his health declined rapidly, and in early September 1909, Ben was readmitted to the home in Bath. Two and a half months later, at the age of 77, he died of what was referred to as senile dementia.

The major lowlights of his life seemed too much for any one man to bear: three years of bloody war; a teen son accidentally killed by his side; the death of Ben Jr. at age 27; a devastating house fire; crippled in a horrific train accident; and closeup eyewitness to the double murder of two good friends. Yet it seems the harder things got, the harder he fought. If ever a man lived up to his name, it was Ben Harder.

Photos: Ben Harder; headline from 1887 (Ogdensburg Journal)

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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.

10 Responses

  1. Terry says:

    WOW…what a story…good job with it, Larry!!

    • Lawrence Gooley says:

      Thanks Terry. It’s so interesting to find nuggets of information and dig up the backstories. His was certainly unusual!

  2. Bob Meyer says:

    And we think we have it “hard”er…
    Thanks again Lawrence for another very interesting North Country History

  3. Balian the Cat says:

    …well worth the suspense. Good grief, what a tale. Can you imagine being labeled a “notorious miscreant” by the local paper?!

  4. Melissa Creant says:

    It’s a tough road.

  5. Harv Sibley says:

    Amazing story…. are there any other pics of hardy Ben?


    • Lawrence Gooley says:

      There might be, but not in my possession. Possibly in the county records where the murder story took place … he did testify in court.

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