Recent news stories about 420 events (groups openly indulging in the use of marijuana) used the terms protest, counterculture, and anti-establishment, calling to mind two things for me: life as a teenager in the 1960s, and the 40-year-old so-called “War on Drugs.” Just as invasive searches of elderly and very young airline passengers is a massive waste of money and resources today, the war on drugs has squandered untold billions of dollars battling the use of marijuana, a drug far less costly to the nation than alcohol. (And no, I’m not anti-booze.) Hard drugs deserve the attention of the law (their use leads to so many other crimes), and as a former employee of a major pharmaceutical firm, I’d suggest that many common, legal drugs should be used sparingly at best. But I digress. » Continue Reading.
It’s sometimes surprising what catches my attention or sparks an interest, and the subject of this piece is a good example. After all, why would anyone want to hear about North Country linemen, those workers who climb power poles or telephone poles as part of their daily job? Well, their daily routine might be as boring as any other job most of the time, but linemen have a measure of danger built into their profession, beginning with working high above the ground.
When something goes wrong, the results can be spectacular. The stories that follow do not address tragedies, which were once frequent. These instead are amazing stories of survival, coming from my category, “No bones were broken.”
» Continue Reading.
I enjoy all kinds of stories, and true “Oops!” moments are among them. Like the time my dad, always a do-it-yourselfer (and a good one), was working on the house, and with hammer in hand, instinctively tried to shoo away a nuisance bee. An empty hand would have worked much better. Or when a friend of mine, a nice guy who didn’t always think things through, made the surprise announcement that he had bought a jeep from a buddy. I knew he couldn’t afford it, but he loved the open-air concept of the Wrangler.
As it turned out, during the tryout phase, he decided to cut some old trees for firewood, and yes, he managed to drop a tree on the jeep. You break it, you bought it.
I’ve collected a few North Country Oops! stories over the years. Here are some involving dynamite, leaving behind few injuries, but plenty of red faces.
In 1911, during construction of the Morristown Road in St. Lawrence County, workmen accidentally disrupted Ogdensburg’s phone service, which was handled by eighteen pairs of wires. As the unexpected consequence of a blast, only one pair of wires remained intact.
Dynamite was a tool of the trade for construction workers and farmers (stump removal was a common usage). After a day’s work in February 1923, Patrick Dalton and Harley Plumley of Hampton (near Whitehall) tossed some newspapers into the stove to build a fire. Moments later, Dalton had a compound leg fracture and Plumley was badly cut, courtesy of shrapnel from the shattered stove. They had forgotten that the newspapers contained dynamite.
In 1929, a Canton motorist was halted by a man who came to the sudden realization that danger was at hand. While excavating to install a gas tank, rock was encountered, and dynamite was the routine method of removal. Apparently it was not so routine to notify the public.
As the car stopped before his raised hand, an explosion sent debris flying skyward. Dirt and stones rained down on the vehicle, punctuated by the resounding crash of a large rock planting itself in the car’s hood. The company agreed to pay for repairs.
In 1929, another North Country road gang was embarrassed, but to a far greater extent than the Morristown crew. Work was being done on the “Pok-O-Moonshine Road” in Essex County, the main connector between Montreal and New York City. The lines of communications, owned by AT&T, followed the same path as the highway. An errant dynamite blast disabled the entire system.
One of the region’s largest explosions occurred in Lyon Mountain in late 1883 (reported in one of my earlier books, Lyon Mountain: The Tragedy of a Mining Town). Even at that early stage, the iron mines used more than 300 pounds of dynamite per day. For safety, it was kept frozen. Each day, a new supply was thawed in the powderhouse and prepared for use.
On that particular morning, catastrophe struck when the bottom of the stove fell out and live embers scattered around the room, igniting some fuses. The attendant, realizing an explosion was imminent, managed to run outside, where he was thrown to the ground by the tremendous concussion that followed.
As described in local newspapers, it “shook the whole mountainside, swaying the houses to and fro, throwing open doors, rattling dishes, and producing all the other effects of a first-class earthquake. At Upper Chateaugay Lake, four miles distant, the effect was equally great, dishes being actually shaken from the shelves in some of the residences.”
Near the (former) powderhouse, there was heavy damage to the huge train trestle, rail cars, several buildings, and mining equipment. Dozens of windows were blown out as well. The ignition of 350 pounds of dynamite scattered heavy debris for a great distance and left nothing but a crater where the powderhouse once stood. Incredibly, none of the men working nearby were injured.
As I said in the book, it was a big year for the mines, and “1883 in Lyon Mountain ended with a bang.”
Photo: 1899 Advertisement for dynamite in the Plattsburgh Sentinel.
Lawrence Gooley has authored ten books and dozens of articles on the North Country’s past. He and his partner, Jill McKee, founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004. Expanding their services in 2008, they have produced 20 titles to date, and are now offering web design. For information on book publishing, visit Bloated Toe Publishing.
In late 1935, young Ticonderoga saxophonist Johnny Hayes sat in during a performance by a traveling orchestra from Boston. His performance so impressed the band leader that a permanent position was offered. Hayes had recently completed a summer stint at The Deer’s Head Inn (Elizabethtown), followed by a tour of central and northern New York cities with his own band.
He accepted the offer and began traveling with the orchestra within two weeks. It was the first step in a journey that would link him with many all-time greats of the Big Band Era.
By 1940, Hayes was appearing regularly on radio and in major dance halls as first saxophone with Van Alexander’s Orchestra. Swing magazine called him a key component of the band’s great sound. Alexander worked with a number of orchestras during his career and is regarded historically as one of the great music arrangers.
In mid-1940, Hayes signed with Buddy Rogers of movie fame (Rogers was also husband of actress Mary Pickford), playing first sax on a nationwide tour. In 1941, he joined another high-profile band of the day, Shep Fields and His New Music.
Johnny next hooked up with bandleader Hal McIntyre, an original member of the Glenn Miller Orchestra. When Hal set out on his own, his close friend Miller provided financial support for McIntyre’s new musical group, for which Johnny Hayes played tenor sax. For two years running (1942–43), Billboard magazine selected McIntyre’s band as “the most promising new orchestra.”
The band performed in movies (watch the first ten seconds for their name, and further to hear them play), on the radio, at dance halls, and at all the top venues across the country. Their weekly gig, broadcast from New York City’s Commodore Hotel, was a big hit, receiving high praise in Billboard, Swing, and the columns of top music critics.
Johnny routinely performed the band’s tenor sax solos. (Many of McIntyre’s recordings, made with Hayes as a band member, have recently been offered on CD.) Hayes played with McIntyre into the late 1940s, but also appeared periodically with many other of the era’s greats.
Besides a few recordings with the Ziggy Elfman Band (star trumpet player for Tommy Dorsey), Billy May, and Tex Beneke (with Eydie Gorme singing), he played with the legendary Les Brown and the Band of Renown. Brown’s band was linked to Bob Hope’s performances for 50 years, including 18 USO tours. Hayes played with them in 1944 and on other occasions, leaving no doubt about his musical capabilities in the eyes of his peers.
In the late 1940s, he also played and toured with Skitch Henderson, another orchestra leader who became a show-biz legend (among his credits, Henderson was the original bandleader on The Tonight Show, which starred Steve Allen).
For all his success, perhaps the greatest accomplishment of Johnny Hayes’ musical life occurred before his orchestra career began. He was born in Ticonderoga in 1918, the son of attorney Richard Hayes and his wife, Lillian. At the age of three, his musical fate was nearly foiled by an accident: Johnny fell on a broken bottle, badly cutting his hand and severing a tendon. After an emergency trip to the hospital, the healing went just fine.
A signature moment in Hayes’ life came in March 1929, when Leonard Allerton of Catskill, New York, was hired to oversee the music program at Ticonderoga High School. Two years later, under his tutelage, 13-year-old Johnny Hayes was playing first clarinet for the Purple and White. He later turned his attention to the saxophone, and in 1933, in the New York State Music Contest at Syracuse, Johnny took fifth place among twelve contestants.
In his senior year (1935), hoping to earn another berth in the state finals, Hayes competed in the preliminaries at Massena, finishing first in Division Two for clarinet and first in Division One for saxophone.
At Syracuse, after facing off against 47 other boys and girls, he finished tied for second in the saxophone category. Landing in the top five made him eligible for the national championships in Madison, Wisconsin, but traveling that far was a pipe dream for most small-town folks struggling through the Great Depression.
Hayes had received financial support from the community for the Syracuse trip, and Leonard Allerton had raised Ticonderoga’s music program to a high level of performance, something the town was quite proud of. Everyone banded together once again, and with Ticonderoga businessmen leading the way, enough money was raised to send Johnny on his way.
Pre-performance jitters on the day of competition were normal, and were certainly capable of causing a sub-par performance. As if that weren’t enough, Johnny’s accompanist from the University of Wisconsin had failed to appear due to a flat tire while en route.
Disheartened, he was faced with going solo or withdrawing. Since he was the last scheduled performer of 42 in his division, Johnny delayed the decision as long as possible.
With three minutes to spare, his accompanist arrived. There was no time to prepare, so Johnny took to the stage and played “Emily,” the same tune that had earned him second place in Syracuse and a trip to Wisconsin for the National Music Contest.
Imagine the reaction in Ticonderoga that night when Johnny Hayes was voted the nation’s number one high school saxophonist. Best in the country!
Far lesser accomplishments (even a single tackle in a football game, for cryin’ out loud) will often find today’s youth strutting around, pounding their chests, and celebrating their self-perceived greatness. Where’s my star? Look at what I just did! Ain’t I great?
In comparison, you have to love old-time, small-town America. After besting the top musicians in the entire United States, Johnny Hayes, saxophonist extraordinaire, returned home with a wonderful comment: “I feel swell.”
In the days when humility was a virtue, other folks took care of bragging about you or honoring your accomplishments, and that’s what Ticonderoga did. Johnny’s success was mentioned in the county newspapers, and a school assembly was held, citing his achievement and crediting Johnny, Mr. Allerton, and the school community for the fine results of their cumulative efforts.
Best of all, at least from my perspective, was the celebration held on the evening of his return. Johnny was greeted by the entire school band, decked out in the new uniforms of the Purple and White. Placing Hayes at the lead, they marched him through the streets of Ti in a fine display of hometown pride.
At one point, the procession halted on the corner of Montcalm and Champlain. Requesting a solo, the crowd was treated to Johnny’s rendition of “Home Sweet Home.”
Pound your chest all you want, but it doesn’t get any better than that.
Photos: Advertisement for the State Theater in Ticonderoga, featuring a movie with the Hal McIntyre Orchestra, and mentioning Ti’s own Johnny Hayes.
Lawrence Gooley has authored ten books and dozens of articles on the North Country’s past. He and his partner, Jill McKee, founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004. Expanding their services in 2008, they have produced 19 titles to date, and are now offering web design. For information on book publishing, visit Bloated Toe Publishing.
Dannemora Mountain and a Truckload of Carrots:Hills, Speed, and Pioneer Motorcycle, Indy Racer Ralph Hepburn
On a recent drive in Clinton County, I was reminded of a story told to me by my grandfather, James Lagree. Jim was a Churubusco farmer, but he also worked other jobs, including road construction. We both loved fishing, and in my pre-teen years, he took me to all his secret places, including Bradley Pond near Lyon Mountain. As it turned out, he had worked on construction of the Bradley Pond Road.
The conversation that day drifted to other roads, and that’s when he told me the story of a truck losing its brakes on Dannemora Mountain. It was hilarious the way he told it (he was great with jokes and embellishments), but I recently learned just how true the story was.
If you’ve ever driven east over the mountain, you’re familiar with one of the steepest roads and most dramatic speed changes in the Adirondacks. For the sake of all the strictly law-abiding drivers out there, yes, the change is technically no different from many others: a main highway (in this case, Rt. 374) enters a village, where the speed limit drops immediately to 30 mph.
But the difference is this: after a couple of curves during the brisk, mile-and-a-half descent, a final, steep, straight incline ends abruptly at the village limits. The road suddenly flattens, and perhaps not everyone has decelerated to 30 mph by that point. Add snow or ice, and you’ve got hellish road conditions.
But weather wasn’t a factor in two of the most famous incidents linked to that section of highway. One of them occurred in September 1930, when nationally renowned driver Ralph Hepburn visited the region.
Inducted into the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 1998, Hepburn won motorcycling championships and set records during a superb career, and then turned to automobiles. Many more records fell to his skills, and fifteen times he competed in the Indianapolis 500, never winning, but finishing second twice.
As the automobile industry flourished, racing champions were hired to promote and demonstrate the capabilities of different brands. Hepburn was employed by Studebaker in that capacity, and while touring New York State in 1930, he briefly set up headquarters at the dealership in Plattsburgh.
His highest-profile publicity stunt locally was a speedy climb up Dannemora Mountain, accompanied by two newspapermen. Despite the curves, he reached the summit while maintaining the astonishing speed of 50 mph. That was more than eighty years ago, when cars were in their infancy, and I can guarantee, I’ve been stuck going up that grade behind cars that were going much slower.
And consider this: when Hepburn did it, the road surface was composed of dirt and gravel, hardly conducive to high speeds and good traction.
Hepburn made a second run that day, carrying six passengers (some of them on the running boards, which must have been quite the rush). Carrying nearly 1300 pounds, the Studebaker crested the mountain at 41 mph. It was typical of Hepburn’s flare for the dramatic.
After the Dannemora exhibition, he continued promoting and racing for many years. Hepburn died doing what he loved (he was killed during qualifying practice for the 1948 Indy 500, a race he is famed for having led in three different decades―1925, 1937, and 1946).
The second famous incident on that notorious section of Dannemora highway occurred in October 1939. It began when a produce truck, driven by William Coryea of Malone, suffered brake failure while heading down the mountain. The road had been rebuilt with concrete several years earlier, which meant better tire grip and a smoother ride. To a freewheeling vehicle without brakes, it also meant greater velocity.
When Coryea reached the base of the mountain road, his speed was estimated at 60 mph. With the weight of 150 bushels of carrots on board, the truck was sure to coast for some distance. Stopping it would not be easy.
Racing through the village could have been disastrous, and Coryea had little time to think. After about three-tenths of a mile, near the gates of Dannemora Prison, he solidly sideswiped a moving car, and then another, sending carrots flying into the streets.
But the truck slowed only a little, and people were in danger. Coryea then hit a bread truck and two more parked cars. Bread products and carrots scattered everywhere while vehicles bounced aside, but still the truck kept rolling.
Finally, it slowed enough for Coryea to whip sharply onto a side street, where he drove the truck into a brick wall at the back of Lafountain’s store. The reason, as he later told police, was to avoid hitting any more vehicles. It’s amazing that through it all, there were no injuries.
I don’t know if my grandfather actually witnessed the aftermath, and although he was quite the storyteller, it doesn’t seem like he embellished it much after all. The crushed cars, with food scattered everywhere, and nobody hurt, were actually elements of the true story. Unlike many other Dannemora accidents on that stretch of highway, it thankfully lacked tragedy, and has been looked back upon with at least some amusement.
Photos: Ralph Hepburn (courtesy wikipedia); the maps shows Rt. 374 entering at the upper right and plunging into the village on the far left. Clinton Prison is at the bottom left.
Lawrence Gooley has authored ten books and dozens of articles on the North Country’s past. He and his partner, Jill McKee, founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004. Expanding their services in 2008, they have produced 19 titles to date, and are now offering web design. For information on book publishing, visit Bloated Toe Publishing.
In days of yore (pre-internet times), I once subscribed to more than a dozen different magazines. Further back, in the 1960s and 1970s, there seemed to be a magazine for just about any subject that anyone was ever interested in. I was reminded of this recently when a saw a cover titled TWINS. The subject matter was everything related to twins: having them, being one, doctoring them, parenting them, and so on.
What really surprised me was the subtitle: The Magazine for Multiples Since 1984. I’d never heard of it, but it has been around for nearly three decades. It also reminded me of some twin-related North Country stories I’ve collected over the years. Here’s a sampling. » Continue Reading.
This is a story about a fat guy. In this politically correct and hyper-sensitive world (a Utah School District recently rejected the students’ choice of mascot―cougar―because it might be offensive to middle-aged women!), some of you might already be reaching for your keyboards to send me a nasty message for being so thoughtless. But if I can’t refer to him as fat, I couldn’t write this piece.
I’m pretty sure he knew he was obese, as did anyone who ever met him. But if there was ever any doubt, one could always refer to his professional name: Phat Boy. (Imagine … a name like that, 150 years before the birth of Rap music.)
His given name was Edward Frederick Babbage, the son of John and Frances Babbage, who emigrated from England in the early 1800s and eventually settled in Rochester, New York. Among their five children was a pair of twins, Edward Frederick and Edwin Francis, born in 1841, about 20 miles west of the city. Early on, Edward exhibited a propensity for gaining weight. He was considered large at age six, and weighed 200 pounds when he was fourteen.
By his early twenties, Edward had worked as a hotel porter, hotel manager, traveling salesman, museum manager, and glassblower (he was lead agent for a group of glassblowers performing at various venues). After the Civil War ended, he returned to Rochester. A number of veteran soldiers formed a minstrel troupe (again, politically incorrect), and Edward worked successfully as their road agent for three years.
When minstrel performer and organizer “Happy Cal” Wagner needed an agent, he dispatched a telegram to Rochester, but unaware of Edward’s first name, Wagner addressed it to “Phat Boy Babbage.” The nickname became Edward’s public identity, and for the next several years, he traveled across the country, representing various minstrel shows (including Wagner’s) and other performers.
Invariably, at the bottom of newspaper ads and posters touting his events appeared, “Phat Boy, Agent.” Everyone in the business knew him, and Edward became somewhat of a celebrity in his own right, courtesy of his large size, charming personality, handsome looks, and great sense of humor. He was always good for a laugh, and people gravitated to him. (If you caught it, that’s the sort of self-deprecating humor he employed.)
For more than a decade, he traveled to every state in the country (there were 37 at the time), and claimed to have visited every city or town of more than 5,000 residents. His travels included stops in northern New York and southern Quebec, and in the early 1870s, he recognized an opportunity for promotional work of a different sort.
The spectacular scenery of the Thousand Islands area was attracting thousands of travelers, and during the summer months, Edward began working as a tour guide on the water. It was there that he became a North Country legend.
Steamship companies sought his services, and Phat Boy himself became one of the area’s great attractions, holding court while seated in the bow of the boat, and always wearing his two signature items: a felt hat with a large brim, and a diamond pin on his chest. As individual islands were passed, he spouted (there’s another one) their history, interspersed with colorful stories and plenty of humor.
Edward became well-versed on the background of sites from the Great Lakes to Montreal, plus Boston, New York City, the Hudson River Valley, and Lake Champlain. He eventually put it in writing, and for more than a decade, a new version of his booklet appeared each year, with the title changed and the text modified.
One of the later editions was The Phat Boy’s 15 Years on the St. Lawrence River: The People I Have Met and the Things I Have Seen. For 25¢ each, Babbage sold thousands of copies to his followers. He addressed his great size in the text, warning others that being large wasn’t always so great, and that he often couldn’t fit into common spaces designed for average-sized people. As always, the passages were laced with humor.
He also told of encounters with famous people, many of whom had sought him out for his own fame as a guide. Among them were President Grant, George Pullman (of the luxurious Pullman rail cars), Mark Twain, Sir John A. MacDonald (Canada’s first prime minister), and members of various royal families. Others too numerous to mention were captains of industry, including many who owned St. Lawrence River islands that were part of his tours.
For all the references to his weight over the years, Edward carried it well. Unlike in modern times, well beyond 300 pounds was substantial for his era. Yet the consensus held that Phat Boy’s great bulk was dwarfed by his bigger-than-life personality. He was invariably described as congenial, obliging, and very funny.
Which all combined to make him a hit on the St. Lawrence River boat tours. He worked hard to learn the region’s history, an effort reflected in another, more flattering, nickname: the Bureau of Information.
By 1890, more tours and stories were added to his repertoire. From his storytelling perch in the bow, he often referred to his weight as 333 pounds. His wife, also very large, had died a few years earlier, and their daughter was heavy as well. Edward’s twin brother, Dr. Edwin Babbage, was said to have lagged behind him, weighing around 300.
At Alexandria Bay’s Marsden House, on the evening of June 30, 1891, Edward didn’t feel well after a full day’s work and told hotel employees he was retiring to his second-floor room to rest. Though he whistled a tune while climbing the stairs, pain suddenly overtook him. He called out for someone to summon a doctor, and then fell at the head of the stairs, dead. He was 51.
Mourning ensued up and down the shores of the St. Lawrence, and the flags of several boats and islands were lowered to half staff in his honor. Edward’s guidebooks, maps, and some great memories eased the loss, but nothing could replace the man who had spent 18 years on a job he truly loved. Eight months later, his twin brother Edwin, who had been ill, died similarly, collapsing in the streets of Rochester.
Photo: Edward Frederick “Phat Boy” Babbage; advertisement with “Phat Boy, Agent.”
Lawrence Gooley has authored ten books and dozens of articles on the North Country’s past. He and his partner, Jill McKee, founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004. Expanding their services in 2008, they have produced 19 titles to date, and are now offering web design. For information on book publishing, visit Bloated Toe Publishing.
While reviewing some Civil War materials, I encountered mention of the New York City Draft Riots, which reminded me of my own experience with the draft back in the late 1960s. Whether there was a war or not, I had no interest in joining the military, but it was out of my hands. Vietnam was getting worse instead of better, and more troops were being sent. When I became eligible to go, America switched to the draft lottery.
While I was still in high school, my number (based on birthdays) came up in the 200s, so I didn’t have to go unless I enlisted. That wasn’t the case for men aged 18–45 during the Civil War. They had options, and not being drafted was one of them.
Few people realize that a draft of sorts was used even in the 1700s, a century before the Civil War, and that it was very similar in nature. The call for troops emanated from a central authority, whether it was the Continental Congress, or later, the President (or the Secretary of War).
Across the land, the order was funneled down to the county and town levels, where volunteers were sought. If a town’s quota wasn’t filled by men joining of their own volition, bounties (bonuses) were introduced: the government, the local municipality, or private citizens offered money to entice recruits.
People learned quickly not to volunteer, but instead waited for bounties to become available (like today’s signing bonus). Why join for free when incentives would surely be offered? Thus, bonuses eventually became standard for enlistees.
In 1863, when President Lincoln called for 300,000 troops, every Congressional District in the North had to meet their quota. If you were healthy and were among those called, you had several options provided by federal law: pay a substitute to take your place; pay a commutation fee of $300, enabling you to avoid service; or join the fight.
During that particular call for troops, New York State citizens were offered financial enticements (bounties) that were hard to resist for the average struggling family. In all, bonuses from the county, state, and feds brought the ante to more than $700 per man (over $12,000 in 2012).
Substitutes received the same financial benefits as volunteers, and were also officially listed as “volunteers,” even though they were solicited, recruited, and paid to join the army.
Although the cause was noble, the great pride felt by many Northern states for providing volunteers to preserve the nation was not based entirely in honorable intentions. One reason that so many enlisted was because of the bonuses. It was better to take the financial incentives rather than risk being drafted, which carried with it no bonus pay at all.
Truth be told, the reaction to the draft in the 1860s was typical. A small minority of men (but still numbering in the thousands) opted for draft dodging: many went West, or paid an extended visit to Canada. For that reason, the President made it a crime for any draft-eligible man to leave his state (or the country), a remarkably deep incursion into personal liberty in a nation that so valued freedom for all (unless you were Black, of course). The travel restriction was lifted only after a region’s soldier quota was met.
The majority reacted typically as well, enlisting to take advantage of the financial incentives rather than risk being drafted. As Lincoln himself said, the intent of the draft was not to force men to join, but to increase the number of enlistees (“volunteers”). It mattered not if soldiers were substitutes paid to enlist by either the original draftee or the government.
Though individuals could avoid military service by hiring substitutes or paying a fee, entire counties (dozens of them) took action to avoid the draft for its citizens. Among them in New York was Rensselaer County, which put up $75,000 as bounty (bonus) money, and St. Lawrence County, which took it much further, appropriating more than a half million dollars.
Bonds were sold to finance the plan, backed by St. Lawrence County property valued at more than $15 million. An agent was hired, tasked with the job of recruiting through widespread advertising, and then paying the amounts promised to the “volunteers.”
The process also served another purpose: saving counties the embarrassment of failing to muster enough volunteers to battle for America’s existence. If an outright draft became necessary (forcing men to fight), it might cause others to question Northern citizens’ patriotism.
There were also many private draft agents who were unscrupulous, reaping small fortunes by charging high fees for recruitment of replacement soldiers. Those who weren’t poor willingly parted with substantial cash to avoid joining the battle.
Besides commutation fees and substitutes, there was one other avenue open to those seeking to avoid military service: medical exemption. The government issued an official list of 41 health concerns (complete with detailed levels of disease and disability) that would excuse men from the draft.
Prospective but unwilling warriors perused the list for any symptom, real or imagined, that might save them from service. Doctors reported a surge in self-mutilation (unexplained loss of fingers, toes, and teeth).
The list of exemptive health problems covered the obvious, including insanity, epilepsy, cancer, heart disease, missing limbs, severe skin problems, and more. Others were less common and perhaps surprising: stammering (if excessive, and if proven by evidence under oath); loss of a sufficient number of teeth to prevent mastication of food; a grossly protruding abdomen; and excessive obesity.
Another was cringe-worthy enough that I, for one, would have enlisted with enthusiasm: incontinence. Mild enough, sure, but talk about incentives: the only requirement for proof was “introduction of a metallic catheter.” That would have sent me sprinting to the recruiter’s office.
Another affliction qualifying for exemption was “retracted testicles,” but with the rejoinder, “voluntary retraction does not exempt.” Puzzling enough on its own, it also begs the question: “So this happened enough to merit an entry in the Surgeon General’s manual?”
Photos: Civil War recruiting posters included bounty incentives.
The Potsdam area of St. Lawrence County is home to many citizens of great accomplishment. The achievement list is extensive: a US Secretary of State; a Nobel Peace Prize winner; a judge on the World Court; an attorney known as the “Trust Buster” for defeating multiple gigantic corporations, including Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company; and a man who was the force behind the historic Kellogg-Briand Peace Pact of 1928.
There’s more, including a senator from Minnesota and a US Ambassador to Great Britain. By any standard, that’s an impressive list. What makes it truly mindboggling is one other fact: those are all the accomplishments of a single North Country native.
Frank Billings Kellogg had such a varied, successful career that even an outline of his life is very impressive. He was born in Potsdam in December 1856, the son of Asa Farnsworth Kellogg and Abigail Billings Kellogg. The family moved to Long Lake, New York, in 1857, and then relocated west to a small farm in Minnesota in 1865.
Five years later, Asa’s health problems forced fourteen-year-old Frank to quit school in order to run the farm. In 1872, the family moved to Olmsted County, where they assumed operations of a larger farm. These seemingly trivial events would play an important role in Kellogg’s career.
In 1875, when he was nineteen, Frank left the farm and moved to nearby Rochester, Minnesota, where he ran errands and did chores in exchange for the opportunity to read and study law in a local office. He worked on nearby farms to support himself.
Two years later, the young, self-taught lawyer was admitted to the bar, and within a year was appointed Rochester city attorney. In 1881, he became Olmsted County attorney, a position he held until 1887. During his tenure, Frank won an important case representing two townships against a railroad company, which helped establish his eventual career path.
He married Clara Cook in 1886, and in the following year became a member of Davis, Kellogg, and Severance, a new firm that for decades remained one of the top corporate law firms in the Midwest. Among their clients were some of the most powerful businessmen and politicians in the country.
For several years, Frank was a Minnesota delegate to the Republican National Convention, while also serving the party in several other capacities. In 1905, his reputation led to assignment as prosecutor of the Western Paper Trust for violating the Sherman Antitrust Act. His efforts forced the company to dissolve in 1906, and Kellogg became known as a “trust-buster.”
During the next several years, Teddy Roosevelt appointed him to similar ventures against several railroad trusts and Standard Oil, the massive corporation owned by J. D. Rockefeller, the world’s richest man. In each case, Kellogg won, enhancing his public persona. His victory over Standard Oil solidified the perception that Frank was the nation’s top trust-buster.
In 1912, he was elected president of the American Bar Association. Kellogg left Republican ranks to support Roosevelt’s presidential campaign under the Progressive Party, but in 1916, he returned to the GOP and became the first Minnesota senator ever elected by popular vote.
After serving for six years, Kellogg lost his re-election bid. In 1923, shortly after leaving office, he began his first diplomatic mission, having been assigned by President Harding to the Fifth Pan-American Conference, held in Chile. Harding died later that year, and when Kellogg returned, President Coolidge appointed him as US ambassador to Great Britain, a position he assumed for two years.
In 1925, Coolidge named him Secretary of State, and through 1929 he represented American interests around the world. Kellogg was a strong proponent of arbitration rather than military involvement to settle international disputes. He signed a record number of treaties during his tenure (more than eighty). The most famous of all was the Pact of Paris, often referred to as the Kellogg-Briand Pact.
In the years following the horrors of World War I, French Foreign Minister Aristide Brand called for a treaty with the US, specifically denouncing war. Kellogg was less than enthusiastic initially, wary of making the US appear weak.
But the concept aligned with his own beliefs, and Kellogg seized the opportunity, offering a remarkable counter-proposal: a treaty “renouncing war as an instrument of national policy.”
He pushed the idea for all he was worth, and in August 1928, an agreement was signed. Eventually, more than 60 nations committed to the alliance.
Though war continued in the years to come, Kellogg’s efforts were lauded by many as an honorable, honest attempt at eliminating war as a tool for settling differences. Until the signing of the Kellogg-Briand Pact, war had been accepted worldwide as a legal policy. There was no clause providing for punishment of violators, causing some to label the new pact as a futile effort. Others deemed it an idea well worth pursuing.
After leaving office in 1929, Frank toured Europe and America, receiving many honorary degrees and other laurels for his work towards ending international conflict. In addition to the French Legion of Honor medal, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1929.
A year later, Kellogg was elected to the World Court, but resigned in 1935 due to health reasons. He passed away in St. Paul, Minnesota, on December 21, 1937, one day shy of his 81st birthday. Death spared him the great disappointment of seeing world war afflict the planet less than two years in the future.
Though some dismissed his efforts for world peace as misguided and unrealistic, many others admired Kellogg’s adherence to a noble, worthy cause. To not pursue the opportunity would have meant giving up hope.
And as a man who rose from the humble beginnings of a poor farm boy, a self-educated attorney who reached the top of his profession, and a man who performed for years on the world stage, Frank Kellogg knew a thing or two about hope.
Photos: Frank Billings Kellogg (circa 1900); in the East Room of the White House in 1929, standing are Calvin Coolidge, President Herbert Hoover, and Frank B. Kellogg, with representatives of the governments that ratified the Kellogg-Briand Pact; Frank Billings Kellogg (1912).
The centuries-old tradition of ice fishing in the North Country has taken a real hit this winter, what with remarkably mild weather dominating the news. In an already terrible economy, the incomes of businesses and individuals alike have been deeply affected by the unusual conditions. There’s little that can be done, but perhaps a few interesting shanty stories from the past will provide a little distraction.
Wind has always been a factor in the lives of ice-fishermen, occasionally turning shanties into moving vehicles. A Plattsburgh fisherman, Frank Herwerth (caretaker at Clinton Community College) discovered just that in 1928 when a stiff March wind sent him sliding a couple of miles to near the middle of Lake Champlain.
The following year, in the narrows at Putnam, south of Ticonderoga, strong winds pushed a shanty across the lake, smashing it against the opposite shore. There were many similar cases over the years where even tethered structures broke free and slid for considerable distance on the open lake.
During the freakishly warm winters of the early 1930s, fishermen got an early start on the task of removing shanties dotting the few frozen sections of Lake Champlain. As conditions deteriorated at Bluff Point near Plattsburgh, one man in a group of five friends drove across the ice and successfully towed his shanty to shore.
Encouraged, his pals followed suit. One of them asked to borrow a car, and the owner lacked the wisdom to say no. Less than 100 feet from shore, the car began to settle in the soft surface. The passengers made a quick exit, and a short time later, another Dodge was on the lake’s bottom. (Not funny for the environment, of course, but a real head-shaker that someone would loan a car in that situation.)
One of the strangest sights ever to grace the surface of Lake Champlain (or any other lake, for that matter) occurred in late March 1911, during a terrific gale. Toppled shanties blew across the lake at speeds estimated between 20 and 30 mph, but that was only a prelude to the star attraction.
On Willsboro Point, a two-story home on the eastern shore was being moved about a half mile to a new location on the point. The easiest way was to deposit it on the ice and slide it, rather than cut a number of trees and attempt the move on land.
The sight of a two-story house sitting on the lake would have been enough, but the gale winds that arrived that day turned the situation into one of high drama. The house began to move to the southwest, slowly at first, but gained momentum, and was soon hurtling down the lake at an estimated speed of 40 mph.
Anomalies in the ice surface caused the house to spin and lurch at times as it sped along. At one point, it was headed towards a community of ice-fishing shanties. Finally, the house struck a prominent crack in the ice, which sent it twirling and slowed its progress. It eventually came to a halt in the vicinity of Split Rock Point, ten miles from its origin. When the wind died down, a team of horses hauled the house back to Willsboro Point.
Finally, here’s one of the many pranks ice fishermen engaged in, as reported in the Ticonderoga Sentinel seven decades ago: “Del Dumas thought his Champlain fishing shanty was afire when he awakened from a nap in the tiny shack the other day—but it developed that a jokester had plugged Mister Dumas’ stovepipe from the exterior, and you could have smoked a ham inside the hut.”
Photo: Headline from January 1928.
“Is our climate changing? This is a question heard often these days. Some are inclined to believe it is, but others are inclined to believe it is just one of those unusual open winters. The weather has been so mild that pussy willows are showing buds, woodchucks are out, and caterpillars were found crawling on the ground.” Those aren’t my words. They’re from the Norwood News, January 20, 1932.
On my way to the mailbox four times in the past week, I stepped between different types of insects on the sidewalk, a reminder of how unusual our weather has been. While reading about years past, it struck me how this mild winter parallels those of 1932 and 1933.
In both instances, ice fishing was drastically curtailed by the open waters of Lake Champlain and the St. Lawrence River. Fishermen were successful back then by using motorboats from Whitehall to Rouses Point, in the dead of winter, to access the best fishing spots.
Temperatures were often in the 50s, pleasant for sure, but not so much for business. Logging, a mainstay of the region’s economy, was months behind schedule. Even when brief cold snaps allowed construction of the required ice roads, balmy weather quickly turned them to slush and mud. Cut timber, ready to haul, lay in the woods until cold weather returned, which wasn’t often.
It was feared the 1932 Olympics in Lake Placid would be cancelled due to a lack of snow: January’s temperatures averaged nearly 13 degrees above normal. At one point, the entire bobrun was washed out by heavy rain. Snow was hauled in by train to ensure the games would be held. A storm just days before the opening ceremonies helped, but warm temperatures caused problems throughout the Games.
In 1932 and 1933, events normally associated with summer occurred throughout the winter, grabbing everyone’s attention. In January: outdoor picnics; bicycling; ducks and geese flying north; the picking of wildflowers; and, in Whitehall, using the village street-sprinkler to suppress road dust.
In February: fishing from rafts at Port Henry; boating on Lake George and Lake Champlain; woodchucks, chipmunks, and other mammals out and about; blackbirds, robins, and other songbirds sighted regularly; and snakes (some of them hit by cars) seen on area roadways.
Both months saw golfers on area courses, interrupted only by occasional cold―and thunderstorms! Baseball players couldn’t resist the opportunity to play, although the effort was often better characterized as mudball. Still, in most any year, even playing catch in winter wasn’t even a consideration.
Experience tells us we’ll still get slammed this season, but just as folks did back then, we can marvel for now at how far into the new year the weather has remained so warm. It’s been a pleasure, and for me, a back-saver as well.
Photo: Headline from January, 1933.
During the ongoing battle for the Republican nomination, a candidate’s religion has sometimes surfaced as an issue. The intent was to scare voters and create a negative feeling about the candidate whenever the religion is mentioned. In this case, the candidate is Mitt Romney and the religion is Mormonism. It’s interesting that fear and loathing of Mormons coming to power is not a new thing. In the 19th century, when they dominated life in the Utah Territory for several decades prior to statehood, a fierce battle was waged between two religious factions.
Many factors came into play before things were resolved. In one of the climactic moments that helped eliminate a powerful theocracy, a North Country man ended the Mormon’s 43-year rule of their greatest bastion, Salt Lake City.
George Montgomery Scott was born in July 1835 in Chazy, New York. From northern Clinton County, he moved West during California’s gold rush. In San Francisco, he established a successful hardware business, supplying the tools of the trade to hundreds of miners.
In 1871, in pursuit of new opportunities, Scott moved to the Utah Territory, where many mines were in early development. Besides investing in the Crystal Gold and Silver Mining Company, he also established the very successful George M. Scott Hardware in Salt Lake City.
As a member of the Lily Park Stock Growers Association in Colorado, he frequently dabbled in horses and range stock. In one transaction alone, Scott purchased 60 railcars of cattle (over 1000 head). The man obviously had plenty of money. Known as one of Salt Lake City’s leading businessmen, he traveled in first-class accommodations to several states and territories on both business and pleasure trips.
The downside among all this financial success was Utah Territory’s political atmosphere. Non-Mormons had virtually no voice in government because Mormons (a very high percentage of the population) were strictly bound by church rules, which applied to their entire lives, not just their religious activities. They generally voted as a bloc, which gave them absolute control of government. And unlike federal law, they allowed suffrage, in effect doubling their voting power.
When the US expanded westward, winning the Mexican-American War added vast new territory to the nation. Mormon leaders in Salt Lake City grasped the opportunity to firmly establish a power base. Statehood was applied for under the name Deseret. Had they been successful, the newest American state (Deseret) would have encompassed modern-day Utah, most of Arizona and Nevada, plus parts of California, Colorado, Idaho, New Mexico, Oregon, and Wyoming. Officers were elected to represent Deseret, led by Governor Brigham Young.
At the federal level, the State of Deseret’s application was denied because of two main issues: the proposed size was too large, and the controversial policy of polygamy was incompatible with American law. Since Mormon rules governed people’s religious and civil life, Washington legislators were doubtful about their future adherence to the laws of the land. Technically, the denial came because the area fell short of one requirement for statehood, a minimum population of 60,000.
The application was modified in 1850 to embrace what became known as the Utah Territory, and with congressional and presidential approval, Brigham Young was appointed as governor.
During the next four decades, at least six applications for Utah statehood were denied. There were many impediments, but the territory had become a virtual theocratic state controlled by the Mormons. Added to that was the ultimate deal-breaker: polygamy. To the adherents of other religions, plural marriage made Mormons nothing more than heathens.
For decades, the struggle for control of the Utah Territory was much more a religious battle than a political one. Progress was slow, but the non-Mormons made inroads, supported by federal laws outlawing bigamy and the president’s official removal of Brigham Young as governor in 1857.
Young resisted the order and prepared for war when federal troops were dispatched (the standoff became known as the Utah War, although no battles were actually fought). It is testament to Mormon power that, despite the setbacks, they maintained control of the territory for three more decades.
One reason for that dominance was revealed by a simple head count. In 1870, Salt Lake City’s population was about 90 percent Mormon, a number that would gradually decline during the great western migration.
Religious differences are often the root causes of war, and in Utah, that’s what dominated politics. Unlike most of the nation, Utah had no Democratic or Republican parties. Instead, it was the Liberals (the anti-Mormons) versus the People’s Party (the Mormons).
The anti-Mormons made gains over the years, particularly in Tooele County, which became known as the Republic of Tooele when residents voted the Liberals into power for a five-year period. During that time, it created an odd situation. Tooele leaders, under the Liberal flag, instituted women’s suffrage.
While it may have worked well in Tooele County, the Territory’s Liberal Party was forced to oppose the measure. Independent women might vote their own minds, but the Mormons already practiced suffrage, which added to their power because the Mormons generally voted as a bloc.
Anti-Mormons gained small victories here and there, gaining a more solid footing. Dramatic changes in the character of the population aided their cause. By the late 1880s, it was estimated that Salt Lake Mormons had been reduced from 90 percent to about 50 percent of the city’s head count.
The bitter battle came to a head in the 1880s with the aggressive enforcement of new laws against polygamy. Within that atmosphere, the fight against religious rule was won in several more communities. While it may have had a political face, the conflict was between two sets of church beliefs.
The ultimate seat of Mormon power, Salt Lake City, had remained untouchable for four decades. What many saw as the death knell of Mormon political control came in 1890. The results were touted across the country as the most important election of the year. For the first time, Salt Lake City had elected a non-Mormon mayor.
The victor was George Montgomery Scott, born and raised in Clinton County, New York. It was a prodigious victory, creating hundreds of media headlines.
With Scott assuming control in what had long been the Mormon center of power, change came swiftly to both sides. Latter Day Saints President Wilford Woodruff soon issued the Woodruff Manifesto, forever revising church doctrine with the line, “I now publicly declare that my advice to the Latter-day Saints is to refrain from contracting any marriage forbidden by the law of the land.”
With the grudging acceptance of federal marriage law by the official church, the crux of the problem was suddenly gone. The Mormons, always politically astute, disbanded the Peoples’ Party within a year and directed its followers to the nation’s two major national parties, Democrats and Republicans.
The Liberals were slower to move, but did the same two years later. Since that time, the Mormons have always held great sway in Utah politics, but well short of the control they once tried to parlay into a Vatican-like theocracy. No matter how great your god is, that’s a tough sell in a democracy.
The newly elected mayor of Salt Lake City was virulently anti-Mormon and a devout Episcopal, reflecting one facet of the religious war that shook the West. A number of issues ruled Utah’s early development, but a prominent theme was “my god is better than your god,” the basic foundation of so much strife in the world’s history. In Utah, the god issue came to a head over the concept of plural marriage.
George Montgomery Scott commanded center stage for only two years. The mayoral run was his only foray into politics in a career devoted principally to the world of business and community development. He was a commissioner of the 1883 World’s Fair, treasurer of the Utah Eastern Railroad, a founding member of the Utah Stock Exchange, and supported Episcopal hospitals and churches. His election victory, once the biggest news in the nation, is now a footnote in history
Due to illness and age, Scott sold his business interests in 1904 and retired to California. He died of pneumonia in San Mateo in 1915.
Photos: George Montgomery Scott; advertisement for hardware business.
I guarantee you’re going to enjoy this. Continuing in the vein of last week’s piece related to the Civil War (a Plattsburgh woman who served as a man), here’s another unique North Country link to that conflict. Though a true story, it’s perhaps best characterized as one of those Ripley’s Believe It or Not! items, and begs the question: What the heck are the odds of that happening?
I can’t answer that, but I do recall that in my former employment, it was notable when three men all having the same first name worked in the same department. So what can you say about a group of three war veterans called “The One-Legged Jims”?
Among the many Union outfits filled by soldiers from upstate was Company A, 77th Regiment, New York State Volunteers. Enlistment sites, always plentiful, included Chatham, about twenty-five miles south of Albany, and Westport, on the shore of Lake Champlain.
The interest here focuses on three enlistees: James G. Allen, 39; James E. Barnes, 35; and James A. Lawrence, 19. Barnes and Lawrence mustered in at Westport on October 1, 1861, while Allen mustered in at Chatham on February 4, 1864.
All three served in Company A, 77th Regiment. Even though there’s more than a two-year span between their muster dates, they all ended up serving at the same time in 1864. Three Jims, same regiment, same company―no big deal.
In June of that year, the men of the 77th were joined in battle at Petersburg, Virginia. During a lull, the troops relaxed behind the breastworks (barriers to protect from ground attack). Many of them laid down to rest, talking and joking amongst themselves to ease the tensions of war. Within their midst, by mere coincidence lying side by side, were the three aforementioned Jims.
Hell erupted in an instant, courtesy of a Rebel shell that landed virtually in their laps. In describing the scene firsthand, Dr. George Stevens said, “Its explosion threw them in every direction. One went high in the air and fell twenty feet from the spot where he was lying when the shell exploded. Strange to tell, not a man was killed, yet three had each a leg crushed to jelly, and two others were seriously wounded.”
But for the quick work and dedication of medical personnel, the three Jims with mangled legs might have died on the spot. The surgeon gave each a glass of brandy, administered chloroform, and went to work.
Within thirty minutes, three limbs were amputated, the remaining stumps were treated and bandaged, and the men were in ambulances. Their destination was City Point, eleven miles away, where they arrived within three hours of being wounded. The speedy effort saved their lives. Later, all three were transferred to Stanton General Hospital in Washington.
One shell, three legs lost … three left legs … and three one-legged survivors, all named Jim. What are the chances? The coincidence wasn’t lost on anyone, and it earned the men plenty of extra attention during their recovery. In the years to come, they became known informally as The One-Legged Jims. Their story developed into a sort of military urban legend: men would tell it as an incredible army tale from their own outfit, perhaps not aware that it was, in fact, a true story taken from New York’s 77th.
After the war, Jim Lawrence eventually moved west, but Barnes remained in his hometown of Westport. At veterans’ GAR (Grand Army of the Republic) reunions across the state, he became known as the best of storytellers. The highlight, of course, was the retelling of how The One-Legged Jims, a very exclusive club, came into being. Many of the listeners had been present when the shell exploded.
“Well, boys, it was down in a rifle pit before Petersburg on the 21st of June, 1864 – lots of you remember the day – myself, Jim Lawrence, and Jim Allen, all of Company A … had finished our coffee and were lying down, smoking our pipes. My head was supported by my arm, which rested on my knapsack, and my right leg was curled up under me, my left one being stretched out. The other two Jims were lying near me in about the same position. That Rebel shell came, it did, and three Jims lost their left legs.”
He was always careful to describe the treatment and efficiency of the surgeon and others who worked so hard to keep them alive every step of the way.
Barnes made his mark outside the military as well. A pension (equal to $800 a month today) for the loss of his leg helped financially, but he also worked. Those who follow the history of Lake Champlain might recognize James Barnes as the first keeper of Barber’s Point Lighthouse when it opened in 1873.
For the remainder of his life, Barnes attended GAR gatherings. The best one of all, from his perspective, came in 1884, when the annual reunion of the 77th Regiment was held at Westport. Jim’s stories were a highlight of the affair. Over the years, from Saratoga to Plattsburgh, he entertained folks in like manner and made many friends at veterans’ events.
The 1890 reunion was remembered by many as both sweet and bittersweet. Jim Lawrence, the only other surviving member of The One-Legged Jims, came all the way from Nebraska, reconnecting with his friend and sharing stories from the past. It was fortunate that he did.
After the Gloversville reunion, Barnes headed for Westport, but stopped to visit a friend at Fort Ann in Washington County. While there, he was struck down by a stroke and never made it home alive.
As fate would have it, the reunion for 1891 was held in Westport. The unfortunate absence of Barnes was noted in a published summary of the event:
“The ‘boys in blue’ … adjourned to the lower rooms, where refreshments were served and old army stories (which no doubt grow tougher as they grow older) were told. James Barnes, the champion storyteller, was missed from the ranks, he having been summoned by the last roll since their last reunion.”
Photo: The crimson silk flank marker of New York’s 77th Regiment.
In Lowell, Massachusetts in 1922, while working in a private home, Mrs. Mary Johnson was badly injured in a fall. At the age of 82, with few resources at her disposal, neither Mary nor her husband, Peter, could care for themselves. During the next two years, the couple was housed in three different poorhouses, living at Fitchburg and Tewksbury before moving to the Worcester City Farm. At Fitchburg, Mrs. Johnson had begun telling stories about her secret war past, and at Worcester, folks began to take her seriously.
According to Mary, she had served honorably in two branches of military service, most notably a stint during the Civil War. Combat was reserved for men only, but Mary openly shared the details, insisting her story was true.
Before I continue, understand that there is at present no clear, crisp ending to this story, at least not to my satisfaction, but it’s a remarkable story nonetheless. Mary’s tale has been noted in very few sources, including some books that butchered the facts while only citing snippets. But as I discovered, it’s a mystery well worth a look.
When an 85-year-old poorhouse inmate begins telling stories, it would be easy to shrug it off as the ramblings of early dementia, especially when a woman declares that she was a Union soldier in the Civil War.
But Mary Johnson’s stories had a ring of truth. Her caretakers realized that if she had in fact served, a pension might remove the Johnson’s from their position as wards of the state. When the Worcester Chapter of the American Red Cross was notified, they sent Eleanor Vashon, executive secretary, to interview Mary. That meeting temporarily conferred celebrity status on Mrs. Johnson when the media picked up the story.
As Mary told it, she was born Mary Murphy in Plattsburgh, New York in 1840. Having lost both parents by the time she was eight, Murphy was adopted by the Benjamin Hill family. During the next decade, they lived in more than a dozen places in New York, Vermont, and Massachusetts, where they finally settled.
She recalled living in Westminster in what Mary referred to as the General Mills Nelson house (actually the home of native General Nelson Miles). They also lived near the old stone mill in Fitchburg (to confirm, there was one), where she and stepbrother Thomas Hill worked, learning how to create chair seats.
The war soon changed everything, but having lost her original family, Mary clung to what had given her comfort and a sense of belonging: “Soon after the outbreak of the Civil War, Tom enlisted in the army. He went to Camp Groton, Ayer, which is now known as Camp Devens.
“My home life was unbearable and lonely with Tom gone, for I loved him devotedly, as though he were my own brother. I followed him to Camp Groton. I started my journey at midnight, and got as far as Whalom Marshes, now Whalom Park [an amusement park], where I was picked up by a group of men who were traveling in a barge to Camp Groton.
“The men rolled me in coats and blankets and got me into camp. I asked to see Col. Davis or Lieut. Pratt, but this was refused. I was then taken at my request to my brother, Tom. After a while, Tom and his companions agreed to enlist me as a man and keep the secret.
“… I was taken to New York, my hair was clipped, and I was given a uniform and enlisted as Saul Hill, 18 years old, of Co. B 53rd Massachusetts Regiment. I went to Missouri and served during the remainder of the war, about a year and a half. I was given $110 when I enlisted and $110 when I was discharged. I remember Capt. Corey well.” [Captain Jonas Corey.]
She also gave details on the Battle of Antietam and others she participated in, and showed powder marks and a scar on her fingers, courtesy of a bullet wound.
Through existing records, some of that information should have been verifiable. Mary also claimed to have enlisted in the navy at Key West (shortly after her army discharge) and served for nearly six more years.
At one point, she described landing at Montreal, and an encounter with a woman who said she was Queen Victoria. (Victoria never visited Canada, but her son, Prince Arthur, was there at the time.) Shortly thereafter, she left the navy and spent time at a convent in Quebec.
To research this story, I took the position of trying to disprove Mary’s claims. I knew she didn’t meet the queen, but I had to concede that the person she mentioned could have claimed to be the queen. From my perspective, though, that part of her story remained in the untrue category.
The same “prove or disprove” mission was undertaken by Eleanor Vashon after interviewing Mary in 1924. Several parties were involved: a pension attorney; the Massachusetts adjutant general; the Daughters of Veterans; the Convent of St. Rock, Quebec; the Canadian Red Cross; the Tewksbury Hospital; and acquaintances of Mary with whom she had shared the unusual story of her life.
The Red Cross managed to confirm that Thomas Hill indeed served in the Massachusetts 53rd, but found no record of a Saul Hill in the same outfit. They did find a Joseph Saul, and considering Mary’s age and her earlier jumbling of General Nelson Miles as Mills Nelson, the similarity was noted as a possible link.
In February 1925, an unusual signing ceremony was held at the Worcester City Farm. After being sworn in, Mary’s signature was applied to a letter describing her military service. It was sent to Washington, and a reply wasn’t long in coming. Federal researchers confirmed that several records of Joseph H. Saul supported Mary’s story.
An official pension application was the next step, after which the government would research her story fully and make a determination.
Existing records indicate that several applications were made (which is not unusual), but it appears that her request was ultimately denied. None of the applications contains a certificate number, which would normally appear if a pension was granted.
Those results confused me. Finding what you need in various archives is not always easy. I did manage to locate the names of Thomas Hill and Joseph H. Saul in the 53rd. Among the multiple enlistment dates are November 25, 1862 for Thomas and 9 December 1862 for Saul (Mary), which matches the story of Mary following Thomas when he joined the army. Both parties shared the same discharge information as well: “Mustered out on 2 Sep 1863 at Camp Stevens, Groton, MA.”
Census records were spotty, but the 1900 listing of Peter Johnson, Mary Johnson (his wife), and Benjamin Hill (noted as Peter’s father-in-law) in the same household confirmed her link to the Hill family and further supported her story. I was becoming a believer.
Among the pension applications was one with the heading, “Mary Hill Johnson, alias Joseph H. Saul,” and another with, “Joseph H. Saul, alias Mary Hill Johnson.” Neither contained a certificate number, which indicates no pension was granted.
Digging further produced another document, a full record of Joseph H. Saul’s service―including his death in 1912 at a veterans’ facility. The basis for Mary’s claim was that no records of Saul existed after his military service because he was, in fact, Mary Hill Johnson. So now, Joseph H. Saul’s detailed death record quashed every bit of that claim.
Or so I thought. Persistence left me stunned at the next discovery, days later: a second Joseph H. Saul had enlisted at the same place (Gardner, Massachusetts), and with the same birth entry (“abt 1844”). But this second Joseph H. Saul enlisted in November 1864, two years after the first Saul. Further jumbling the picture: it appears that the records for both Sauls are mixed on the official listing under “Military History” from the veterans’ home where he died.
All things considered, it looks like Mary was being truthful. It seems a bit much to believe that an 85-year-old woman, with no access to public records, could have concocted a story with such accuracy in the details and so much supporting evidence.
It is documented that others have pulled it off in the past, and it looks like Mary Hill Johnson of Plattsburgh is part of an exclusive club. But I’ll keep digging for more evidence.
Photos―Above, Mary Hill Johnson; Below, Civil War Pension card with entry “Joseph H. Saul, alias Mary Hill Johnson.”
In the weeks and months following the amazing story of survival in the Adirondacks in January 1935, when the four-man crew of a downed Curtis Condor plane were rescued from the clutches of death, further details surfaced in the media. The two uninjured passengers had considered striking off to the south in search of help. Said one of their rescuers, Leonard Partello: “They would never have come out alive. They would have had to go fifteen miles through heavy snow without food. It couldn’t be done.”
The ultimate blame for the incident was placed on the company. No qualified dispatcher was on hand in Syracuse to authorize the flight in terrible weather, which was allowed after a call to the Newark office. That near-fatal decision was countered by the great flying skills of Ernest Dryer. » Continue Reading.