Almanack Contributor Lawrence P. Gooley

Lawrence P. Gooley

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.



Monday, August 22, 2011

Dangerous Adirondack Jobs: Produce Manager?

The North Country has been home to some dangerous occupations. If you think for a moment, you’ll probably come up with three that really stand out. The obvious choices are farming, logging, and mining. But let me offer a fourth possibility: produce manager.

Sounds ridiculous, right? Thousands have entered those other three occupations knowing full well the potential downside. Produce manager, on the other hand, seems pretty safe. But what would you choose—a job with the risk of injury, or a job that might one day “produce” your worst nightmare? If you’re squeamish, you’d have to be bananas to choose the latter. » Continue Reading.


Monday, August 15, 2011

John Dunlap: Emperor John the First?

In 1870, Watertown’s John L. Dunlap was named as a candidate for Congress, and in 1872 he declared once again for the presidency. When General William Tecumseh Sherman toured the North Country, Dunlap met with him and suggested they become running mates. Included in his proposed platform was a single term of only four years for any president, and the elimination of electors in favor of counting the peoples’ votes.

An Ogdensburg newspaper supported his candidacy with these words: “Dr. Dunlap is a staid and conservative old gentleman. If elected, he would lend honor, virtue, dignity, and character to the party.” The Watertown Re-Union added, “Whatever may be said of the other candidates, Doctor Dunlap is a genuine Jackson Democrat, one of the real old stock.”

Of eight candidates, the Ogdensburg Journal said Dunlap was “the most consistent, if not the ablest, of all named. … If the people should be so fortunate as to elect him as their President, they will find him a true man.”

In Albany, the doctor’s old haunts prior to 1850, a Dunlap Club of 6,000 members was organized, and in Vermont, adjacent to his longtime home in Washington County, N.Y., he enjoyed strong support. For a campaign with meager resources, things were going quite well.

But then, as if to legitimize his candidacy, the unthinkable happened: an assassination attempt. The Troy Weekly Times reported that an effort to shoot Dr. Dunlap had failed, and that he had also been offered money in exchange for withdrawing his candidacy. Other newspapers denied the bribe story.

Meanwhile, the good doctor continued giving speeches in major cities (including his old July 4th oration from two decades earlier, which was ever popular) and continued selling his medicines. He sought the nomination at several different party conventions, but was unsuccessful. Just weeks after the 1872 election, Dunlap was off to Europe.

It was at this point in his life that certain events occurred, events that would somewhat cloud his career and paint him as truly eccentric—and for good reason. Through his decades as a Washington County physician, his years of selling medicines to anyone that he met, and a lifetime of politics, Dunlap had always been a vigorous self-promoter.

He loved the limelight, and it seemed to love him as well. The media was more than happy to offer the latest news on Dunlap’s unusual life. Yes, he was different, but he was clearly an intelligent man who enjoyed living life to the fullest.

Out of Europe came a cable from the doctor, informing his hometown friends that Louis Thiers, president of France, had welcomed and befriended the North Country’s most prominent physician and statesman. So impressed was Thiers with Dunlap’s support of the common man that, according to the doctor’s telegram, a statue was to be erected in his honor.

A detailed description of the sculpture was provided, to be done in the finest Carrara marble and placed in the Capitoline Museum in Paris or “beside that of the Apollo of the Belvidere in the Vatican at Rome.” In keeping with Dunlap’s politics, the sculpture’s inscription was to read, “The will of the people is the supreme law.”

The cost of commissioning Cordier was placed at nearly $70,000 for the five-year job, and the unveiling was scheduled for March 4, 1877—the day John Dunlap planned to be sworn in as America’s 19th president. Now that’s advertising.

Yes, it was all starting to sound a bit bizarre. On the other hand, it may have been a clear-minded effort aimed at self-promotion, truly the doctor’s forte.

Raising the bar a bit, Dunlap had begun claiming that he was engaged to Queen Victoria. In July 1873 was held the grand opening of the Thousand Island House, a spectacular hotel at Alexandria Bay. Since it was the social highlight of the summer season, Dunlap informed the media that he would be in attendance—and planned to meet Queen Victoria there.

The event was huge, with an estimated 10,000 visitors. Dignitaries from across New York State and Quebec were invited to the gala, and some did attend. Newspaper coverage humored readers with a report on Dr. Dunlap’s appearance.

“The doctor came down from the city for the purpose of meeting Queen Victoria, who, from some unexplained cause, did not arrive. Several scions of English nobility were introduced to the Doctor, and were much pleased with his scholarly attainments, his commanding figure, and splendid personal appearance, as well as the extempore remarks made by him on that occasion. The Doctor wears next to his heart a beautiful likeness of the Queen, presented by her at the time of their betrothal.”

Did this behavior suggest a mental problem, as some have claimed, or was this just an old man (he was 74) having a lot of fun and enjoying the attention?

In early 1874, Dunlap was taken ill, but managed to recover and mount another run for governor. The Watertown Times offered its support, noting that “The Doctor was swindled out of his matrimonial engagement with the British Queen and cheated out of the Presidency, and yet it is said he will accept the office of Governor of the Empire State.”

At the July 4 celebration at Sackets Harbor, General Grant was expected to speak (he had served two stints there). Dr. Dunlap was invited to give another of his stirring talks, this time on Stephen Douglas, Lincoln’s famous debate opponent.

In August of that year, the newspapers had more fun with this report: “We are informed that Alexander, Emperor of Russia, has abdicated in favor of Hon. John L. Dunlap of this city, who will henceforth be known as Emperor John the First.”

At the time, it may have been all in good fun. Dunlap was a likable guy and unabashedly open, providing great copy for newspapermen. After all, his medicinal claims, political forays, decades of seeking the presidency, and supposed connections to foreign leaders were very entertaining.

Viewed 150 years later, they suggest an oddball character, and maybe someone not playing with a full deck. But perhaps the truth lay in his love of attention, his devotion to politics, and his great talent for promotion. What seemed eccentric or erratic may well have been a carefully contrived personal marketing plan.

Whatever the case, it worked. Throughout his life, John Dunlap was prominent in the media, a successful physician, and financially well-off from the sale of his medicines. In December 1875, he died at the home of his son and daughter in Parish (Oswego County). His estate was valued at about $30,000, equal to approximately a half million dollars today. He apparently was doing something right all those years.

Four days after his death, the Jefferson County vote totals from the most recent elections were published. True to form right to the end, Dunlap had received a single vote for Poorhouse Physician, tied for last with “Blank” (representing a blank ballot) behind four other doctors.

There’s no doubt that John Dunlap was an unusual man. His contemporaries referred to his “harmless idiosyncrasy” and his fervent love for and involvement in politics. They smiled at his loquaciousness, his many love letters to the queen, and his insistence that the people truly wanted him as president, but that political parties had constantly foiled his efforts.

But even at his death, there were those who suspected he was perhaps “crazy like a fox,” as indicated in one writer’s eulogy. “And yet, despite these singular mental aberrations, the doctor was a moneymaker. He would never pay anything to advance his political or marital schemes. Herein was ground for the belief of many that the doctor only feigned his peculiarities, the better to be able to sell his medicines, for no matter with whom he talked on the subject of politics or the like, he was sure before the end of the conversation to pull out a bottle of his medicine, urge its efficacy, and try to make a sale.”

John L. Dunlap—tireless salesman, dyed-in-the-wool patriot, presidential aspirant, and Watertown legend—truly a man of the people.

Photo: Advertisement for one of Dunlap’s syrups (1863).

Lawrence Gooley has authored nine books and many articles on the North Country’s past. He and his partner, Jill McKee, founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004. He took over in 2010 and began expanding the company’s publishing services. For information on book publishing, visit Bloated Toe Publishing.


Monday, August 8, 2011

John Dunlap: America’s ‘Second Old Hickory’

Eccentrics—they’re part of virtually every community, and, in fact, are usually the people we remember best. The definition of eccentric—behavior that is peculiar, odd, or non-customary—certainly fit Watertown’s John L. Dunlap. Historians noted his “peculiar kinks of mind,” and referred to him as “a person of comic interest,” but they knew little of the man before he reached the age of 50. His peculiarities overshadowed an entertaining life filled with plenty of substance. And he just may have been pulling the wool over everyone’s eyes.

Dunlap’s story began more than 200 years ago, rooted in the American Revolution. In 1774, his father (John) and grandfather emigrated from Scotland to Washington County, N.Y. In 1777–78 they fought in the War of Independence and saw plenty of action. According to a payroll attachment from his regiment, Dunlap served at Ticonderoga.

Years later, he became a Presbyterian pastor in Cambridge, N.Y., and in 1791 married Catherine Courtenius. It took time for the reverend to see the light about the rights of man—records indicate that he freed Nell, his slave, in September 1814, not long after several of his parishioners had liberated their own slaves.

Among the children born to John and Catherine Dunlap was John L., who arrived in the late 1790s. He was reared on stories of his dad and grand-dad battling for America’s freedom. While his father ministered to the spiritual needs of several Washington County communities for many decades, John L. became a doctor in 1826 and likewise tended to their physical needs for more than 20 years, serving in Cambridge, Salem, and Shushan.

Dunlap focused on two passions in life: his line of self-developed remedies for all sorts of illnesses, and a consuming interest in politics on both the state and national level. He pursued both with great vigor and developed a reputation as an orator in the Albany-Troy area.

On July 4, 1848, John delivered a stirring oration at the courthouse in Troy, an event so popular that reportedly “thousands were unable to find admission.” Repeat performances were so in demand that for the next two years he gave the same speech in Troy, Utica, and elsewhere, at the same time marketing and selling his various medicines. Dunlap’s Syrup was claimed to cure Consumption, Dyspepsia, Scrofula, Liver Complaints, and other ills.

Just as his father had left Washington County decades earlier to help establish churches in several central New York towns, Dunlap took his speech on the road to Schenectady, Utica, and other locales. Crowds gathered to hear his famous lecture and purchase his line of medicines.

He had sought public office in the past, but his increasingly high profile and passion for politics presented new opportunities. At the 1850 State Democratic Convention in Syracuse, Dunlap’s name was among those submitted as the party candidate for governor. Horatio Seymour eventually won the nomination.

Shortly after, Dunlap resettled in Watertown and announced his Independent candidacy as a Jefferson County representative. He was as outspoken as always—some viewed him as eccentric, while others saw in him a free thinker. Fearless in taking a stand, he called for the annexation of Cuba and Canada, and was a proponent of women’s rights.

Viewed from more recent times, some of those stances might sound a little off-the-wall, but there was actually nothing eccentric about the annexation issues. The Cuban idea was a prominent topic in 1850, and the annexation of Canada was based in America’s Articles of Confederation, which contained a specific clause allowing Canada to join the United States. And as far as women’s rights are concerned, he proved to be a man far ahead of his time.

In late 1851, Dunlap went on a speaking tour, including stops in Syracuse and Rochester, and announced his candidacy for President. The Syracuse Star said, “We suspect he is just as fit a man for president as Zachary Taylor was.”

From that point on, Dunlap was a perennial candidate for office, always running but never winning. In 1855–56, he announced for the US Senate; not gaining the nomination, he announced for the Presidency (he was promoted as the “Second Old Hickory of America”); and not winning that nomination, he announced for the governorship of New York. And he did all of that within a 12-month span.

All the while, Dunlap continued selling his medicines and seeing patients in his office at Watertown’s Hungerford Block. An 1856 advertisement noted: “His justly celebrated Cough and Lung Syrup, to cure asthma and bleeding of the lungs, surpasses all the preparations now in use in the United States.”

Another of his concoctions was advertised in verse:

“Let me advise you ’ere it be too late

And the grim foe, Consumption, seals your fate,

To get that remedy most sure and calm,

A bottle of Dr. Dunlap’s Healing Balm.”

His vegetable compounds were claimed as cures for dozens of ailments ranging from general weakness to eruptions of the skin to heart palpitations. There was no restraint in his advertisements, one of which placed him in particularly high company.

It read: “Christopher Columbus was raised up to discover a new world. Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt, captivated by her charms two Roman Generals, Julius Caesar, and Marc Antony. Napoleon Bonaparte was raised up to conquer nearly all of Europe and put down the Inquisition in Spain. George Washington was raised up to be the deliverer of his country. Dr. John L. Dunlap of Watertown, N.Y. was raised up to make great and important discoveries in medicine, and to alleviate the sufferings and prolong the lives of thousands of human beings.”

In 1863, urged by New York’s 35th Regiment to run for President, Dunlap consented and was again promoted as the Second Old Hickory of America. He wanted Ulysses Grant as his running mate (Grant was busy at the time, leading the North in the Civil War), and he received impressive promises of political support at the Chicago convention.

A poll of passengers on a train running from Rochester to Syracuse yielded surprising results: For Abraham Lincoln, 50 votes; George B. McLellan, 61; John C. Fremont, 6; and Dr. John L. Dunlap, Watertown, 71.

History reveals that Lincoln did, in fact, triumph, but Dunlap didn’t lose for lack of trying. He secured the nomination of the Peoples’ Party at their convention in Columbus, Ohio, and none other than Ulysses S. Grant was selected as his vice-presidential running mate. Dunlap received congratulations from New York Governor Horatio Seymour for winning the nomination.

The widely distributed handbill (poster) for Dunlap/Grant used the slogan, “Trust in God, and keep your powder dry,” and promised, “Clear the track, the two Great War Horses of the North and West are coming! The one will suppress the rebellion with the sword, and the other will heal the nation with his medicines and his advice.”

Among Dunlap’s early campaign stops in the 1864 election were Troy, Albany, and Washington, D.C. He was handicapped by having to stump alone since Grant was still pursuing Lee on the battlefield. But as always, Dunlap gave it his best effort. Known as a fierce patriot and a man of the people, he was very popular at many stops.

Two years later, he sought the nomination for governor and also received 12 votes for representative in the 20th Congressional District—not a lot, but higher than four of his opponents.

In 1868, Dunlap again pursued the presidency, this time seeking General Philip Sheridan as his running mate. Had the effort been supported, he would have squared off against two familiar faces—his former running mate, Grant, was the Republican nominee, while his former opponent for governor, Horatio Seymour, won the Democratic nomination.

Shortly after President Grant’s inauguration, he received a special congratulatory gift: a case of medicines from Dr. John L. Dunlap. In a related story (from the Watertown Daily Times in the 1920s), the Scott family of Watertown claimed that Dunlap once sent a bottle of cough syrup via Judge Ross Scott to Secretary of State William Seward (in Auburn, NY).

Seward delivered the bottle to Lincoln, who reportedly said, “Tell Dr. Dunlap I’ve tried it on my buckwheat pancakes and it’s the best substitute for maple syrup I know of.”

Next week: Part 2 of the John Dunlap story.

Photo: Official handbill of the People’s Convention promoting the candidacy of Dunlap and Grant (1864).

Lawrence Gooley has authored nine books and many articles on the North Country’s past. He and his partner, Jill McKee, founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004. He took over in 2010 and began expanding the company’s publishing services. For information on book publishing, visit Bloated Toe Publishing.


Monday, August 1, 2011

The Life Struggles of Dean Clute (Part Three)

His initial success at bookselling was encouraging, but Dean Clute was looking for more, and it came from an unexpected source. His published article had caught the eye of one important reader who was so taken with his story, she became his benefactress. Though often portrayed as anonymous, her name was, in fact, Mrs. Ethel Clyde, whose husband was the principal owner of the Clyde Steamship Line.

Ethel gave Dean $2000 which he used to attain his dream of leaving the hospital and opening a bookstore. The money covered his expenses for one year, and he gave it his best shot, but with the economy in severe depression, prospects were not good. Store sales and his own articles failed to generate enough income to stay afloat.

No further charity was forthcoming, and in late 1931, Dean rented an apartment in Greenwich Village. He moved the store there as well, but had to reduce services and inventory, mostly handling mail orders.

As he struggled to survive, there were others who tried to help. Among them was famed media man Walter Winchell, whose “On Broadway” column in late October mentioned Gary Cooper, Kate Smith, Governor Franklin Roosevelt … and Dean Clute.

Winchell wrote: “Do you know anyone who would like to help Dean Van Clute keep running his book shop at 145 Waverly Place? He once was a pro baseball player and illness knocked him down—now a cripple. He was set up in this shop by a rich woman whose whim for philanthropy died easy—and needs another lift. Maybe you know somebody.” (Note: The family used the surname Clute, but Dean revived the “Van” for his authored pieces.)

Dean’s brother, Walton, was still by his side, assisting him in daily life and handling the store business. Without loyal, helpful friends and a loving brother, Clute’s existence would have been much less enjoyable.

For some time, Dean had been working with Walton on writing an “autobiographical novel.” The book was accepted for publication by Frederick Stokes Company and scheduled for release in late 1932.

In the meantime, there was more bad news. Dean was unable to pay his bills, and in April his phone service was cut off. In May he was $30 short on the rent, prompting the City Marshal to issue an ejection warning. A return to City Hospital was looming, but Dean didn’t seem worried, telling a reporter, “Aw, hell—it’s all in a lifetime.”

Forced to reduce expenses, he moved to a basement studio in Greenwich Village. The book business was mainly a lending service at that point, but another dream of Clute’s was fulfilled when his new digs became a popular stop-off for important figures on the literary scene.

The man Mencken had called “one of the most courageous men ever heard in this world” was further pleased when the book on which he and Walton had collaborated was released in the fall. Pour Wine for Us was well received.

One reviewer wrote: “… so moving a story of the solace to be found within the recesses of one’s own mind from one defeated by all that men hold precious. … It is an intense and throbbing human document, paralleling many of the literary masters, but always retaining a poignant individuality. … His ability to bridge the gap of his disability is no less remarkable than Helen Keller’s achievements.”

His triumphs and struggles were recounted in the media, offering praise for the new book along with admiration for Dean’s incredible courage. How could one so traumatized find positives in a life seemingly filled with negativity? Whatever the answer might be, the public found itself envying the mind of one so enlightened. Said Clute, “My blind eyes are seeing more beauty today than was ever revealed to them when they were perfect.”

For most people, a body so ravaged by disease was nothing less than a prison. The Great Depression alone was reason enough for people to give up, and many did. But not Dean Clute, who had found within himself something special.

Despite the necessity of moving for a fourth time, he remained positive about life and ever hopeful that a cure for his physical impairments might be found. Plans were in place for more articles, more books, a new bookstore, and a life among the educated and inquisitive.

Each summer he and Walton had journeyed north, visiting family on the St. Lawrence River and spending time amid his childhood haunts at Terrace West, about a mile east of Morristown. It was a wonderful time of renewal for the brothers, who shared a terrific bond from the struggles of the past decade.

But there would be no such trip in 1933. On Monday morning, March 6, Dean was found dead in his wheelchair, betrayed one final time by a body that had been in failure for fully 20 years. The coroner’s report cited heart disease as the ultimate cause of death.

The story of Clute’s life was replayed in the columns of writers who had known and admired him during the past decade. Though tragedy and inspiration were necessary themes, every writer concluded that one word above all others defined him: courage.

But that’s not how Dean saw it. The man with a beautiful mind truly felt he had lived a wonderful life. It was a viewpoint that most people simply couldn’t grasp. But in the end, he proved that life was indeed all about one word: Perspective.

Photo: H. L. Mencken admired Clute’s courage and ability to write.

Lawrence Gooley has authored nine books and many articles on the North Country’s past. He and his partner, Jill McKee, founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004. He took over in 2010 and began expanding the company’s publishing services. For information on book publishing, visit Bloated Toe Publishing.


Monday, July 25, 2011

The Life Struggles of Dean Clute (Part Two)

Having planned for his condition of blindness and near total paralysis, Dean Clute forged forward without missing a beat. Other patients who were mobile and had attained some measure of literacy were enlisted to read aloud to him. There were plenty of folks to choose from, since the hospital was filled with a wide range of society’s unfortunates—the poor, the sick, and the physically disabled.

City Hospital patients were sometimes referred to by the decidedly un-PC term, “wrecks,” and some who were placed there entertained little hope of ever leaving. There was no avoiding it—Welfare Island was a notoriously dreary place to be.

Yet this paralyzed, completely blind young man had a transformative effect on the hospital. Poor readers were recruited and became good readers; nearby listeners joined the book discussions on a range of subjects; and as stories circulated through the hospital corridors, others were intrigued by this unique discussion group. The daily gathering around Dean’s bed grew, spilling out onto the hospital yard in times of good weather.

The contents of book after book had been poured into his being, and Clute’s brain, like a vessel waiting to be filled, was overflowing with knowledge. He had made himself into a scholar, and by natural progression arrived at the obvious conclusion—he must also become a writer. And so he began to dictate to his friends who recorded his words and submitted them for publication.

Among those to view his work was legendary writer and editor H. L. (Henry) Mencken, who had recently launched a new literary vehicle, The American Mercury (a magazine that ran from 1924–1981). Among other things, Mencken was an expert in the use of language, a subject he had written on extensively. He pronounced Dean’s satirical, witty writing as “good stuff.”

[In an odd bit of circumstance, Mencken was also known as a voracious reader, and 20 years later, he would suffer a stroke, leaving him similarly disabled—unimpeded mentally, but unable to read or write, and barely able to speak.]

In August 1929, Mencken published Dean’s story, “Salvation on the Brink,” in The American Mercury, and that opened the door. Others soon came calling, and the poor, blind, paralyzed young man from the North Country gained a measure of celebrity. In the next year, Dean followed with a half-dozen more articles, along with plans for a book of his own.

The remarkable story of Clute’s decade-long personal struggles reached the media and gained momentum, earning him the status of a minor cause célèbre. Prominent journalist Earl Sparling visited Dean in June 1930 and filed a story that included the following excerpts:

The man who made Welfare Island go literary lies in his wheelchair in the yard of City Hospital. Around him, soaking up the sunshine, are a dozen wrecks in gray hospital pajamas. One of them, Art by name, is reading—or trying to. The book he is reading, or trying to, is Isaac Goldberg’s The Fine Art of Living. Art never got through the eighth grade in school. He runs a heavy finger along the lines as he reads, and every second line or so comes upon a word he can’t even manage to mispronounce.

“Spell it, Art,” suggests the blind man in the wheelchair. “It’s another jaw-breaker,” growls Art, stretching his pajama-clad legs. “I’d just as soon try to say it as to spell it.” But he spells it out, haltingly, and the blind man tells him and the audience the pronunciation and the meaning. And the education of Dean Clute, the literatus of Welfare Island—and incidentally of his comrades in pajamas—continues.

Dean Clute is stone blind, and so crippled he can scarcely wiggle a finger. He has been flat on his back from arthritis for fifteen years. He has been in City Hospital for six of those fifteen. Using others in City Hospital as eyes, he has gotten through most of the philosophers, most of the lasting literature of the world, and has managed meanwhile to keep track of current book lists, with interesting results.

Today, as you wander through the wards of City Hospital, you can hear wrecks who arrived there from the Bowery discussing such things as the indebtedness of Schopenhauer to Hoffman, the modernism of Dickens’ critique of America, and the sad case of Dr. John Dewey.

It has gotten so that the nurses, interns, and the doctors are beginning to develop cultural inferiority complexes. What is a poor doctor to answer when, while thumping some patient’s backbone, he is asked, “Do you go in for Humanism, Doc?”

As Dean described it, “We start in at 8 o’clock and we stay out here in the sunshine, reading and talking until night. I’ve learned how to be happy. … I hope to have a book shop in Manhattan one day. Then I can devote myself seriously to writing. I want to write my autobiography. They say a man shouldn’t do that until he is forty. But I can’t wait. I may never get that far.”

It was truly remarkable—such inspiration arising from one of the most depressing parts of the city, and from a man who had every right and reason to throw in the towel, to give up on life altogether. But Dean Clute had given up only on his body and instead focused on his mind, developing a completely new identity. Never known as a great student, he had achieved the rarest of transformations—from a happy-go-lucky, standout athlete to a deep-thinking intellectual.

And the man had dreams. Writing articles and working on a book would have been enough, but operating his own bookstore? Impossible, sure … just like everything else he had accomplished so far.

The dream, in fact, was already on its way to reality. Working as a team, Clute and his cohorts in pajamas wrote and mailed several hundred letters to his friends and acquaintances, describing “a unique book service which presumes to deliver any book published in America to any address in the United States within six days.”

Available titles included many that the new reading group had favored, including the works of Aldous Huxley, H. L. Mencken, and Bertrand Russell. In the first two weeks they received 24 orders, which were handled by his four friends, three of whom were fellow patients.

Photo: City Hospital on Welfare Island, NY (ca. 1925).

Lawrence Gooley has authored nine books and many articles on the North Country’s past. He and his partner, Jill McKee, founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004. He took over in 2010 and began expanding the company’s publishing services. For information on book publishing, visit Bloated Toe Publishing.


Monday, July 18, 2011

The Life Struggles of Dean Clute

Perspective. It is a singular word that can determine a life’s path, quality, and value to others. Those born to all manner of social and financial advantage, but with little change or improvement during their own lifetimes, can be perceived as relative failures, while those who strive to overcome physical, mental, or financial handicaps are viewed as accomplished, no matter what their ultimate achievement might be.

By that measure, one of the most successful citizens to ever have graced the North Country is largely unknown. He was an ordinary man blessed with athletic talent, and raised in a family of outstanding musicians. In the end, it was courage that defined him.

Dean Clute was born in Morristown, New York, on the shores of the St. Lawrence River in October 1893. The fourth of Amos and Henrietta Clute’s seven children, he was an average boy who enjoyed the usual pursuits along the river, as well as in Nicholville, a small settlement in the town of Hopkinton where the family lived for many years.

They also lived in Potsdam, but for most of Dean’s teen years the family resided in Ogdensburg. There he attained a measure of local fame for his skill on the baseball field. After high school, he found work on a Great Lakes lighthouse tender, a ship charged with servicing and maintaining the region’s lighthouses.

Among the many ports he visited was Rochester, and in June 1912, a marriage license was issued there to Dean Clute, 18, and Eva McLennan, 25, a girl with family in Ogdensburg. The two soon married, but just seven months later, in January 1913, Eva passed away at home. (It’s likely she died during childbirth. Dean told interviewers years later that he married at 18 but had lost his wife and child on the same day.)

It was an enormous tragedy to endure, but Dean soldiered on. Eventually he found work in a profession he knew quite well: baseball. Over six feet tall and sturdily built, he immersed himself in the sport and became a pitcher of wide repute in Buffalo, Rochester, and Watertown.

Manager John Ganzel (of Michigan’s famed Ganzel baseball family) liked what he saw and signed Dean to play for the Rochester Hustlers of the International League in 1914. This was no small shakes—the International League was Triple-A ball, just one step below the major leagues. Things were once again looking pretty good for the boy from Morristown.

Prior to the season, though, and less than a year after losing his wife and child, Dean began experiencing unusual aches and pains. The diagnosis was arthritis, a disease not generally associated with young, strong, twenty-year-old athletes.

And this was no ordinary case. The effects were so sudden and so debilitating that Dean was unable to honor his baseball contract. He visited several doctors and treatment centers, but no one could do anything to arrest the arthritic attack that seemed bent on consuming his body.

Within a year he was confined to a wheelchair, and as the disease progressed, Dean became bedridden. He moved to Watertown where he could be with family (his father and brother had established a successful contracting business there and built several commercial structures).

After three years of focusing on his own suffering and watching his limbs become gnarled and useless, Clute had an epiphany. His body was dying, but his mind was as clear as ever—so why not use it? His eyes could still move, which meant he could read, even if he needed someone to turn the pages for him. And so he began to read voraciously, ranging from philosophy to the great classics of literature.

As Dean’s condition deteriorated, it became apparent that home care was insufficient to meet his ever-growing needs. In 1922 he moved to New York City in hopes of finding a cure. Within two years, younger brother Walton (twin of Wilton) joined him there.

Despite every effort on his behalf, Dean’s health continued to decline, and by 1924 he was forced to enter City Hospital on Welfare Island (it was renamed Roosevelt Island in 1973). At various times Welfare Island hosted hospitals, insane asylums, and prisons. City Hospital housed hundreds of poor and chronically ill patients who were unable to care for themselves. Dean Clute, almost completely paralyzed from head to toe, had nowhere else to turn.

More than anything else, it appeared he had gone there to die. The loss of his wife and child, the disappointment of a sports career cruelly snatched away from him, and now a virtual prisoner within his own body—it was almost too much for any man to bear.

And then it got worse. In the hospital, Dean had maintained his heavy reading program, which seemed to be all he had left to live for. But arthritis, as cold-blooded and brutal as many other diseases, wasn’t content with paralysis. Clute soon developed problems with his vision, and as the condition worsened, he was given the stunning diagnosis: total blindness was inevitable.

Doctors told him it would happen in a year, perhaps two. How much could one man take? For Dean, even suicide was impossible—he couldn’t move! And yet ending it all was never a consideration.

His reaction to certain loss of vision was to ramp up his reading program and consume every bit of knowledge possible in the time he had left. The one-time athlete had surrendered to physical helplessness, but he existed within a brain still vibrant with energy. Dean’s growing intellect was now insatiable, and he read like a man possessed.

By 1926, after two years at City Hospital, total blindness enveloped him. His life now consisted of darkness and immobility—virtually every person’s nightmare scenario.

But there was that word again: Perspective. Dean focused on what he COULD do rather than what he couldn’t. He could still talk and he could still learn.

Next week: Part 2 of 3.

Photo: Dean Van Clute with two attendants. The inset in the upper right is a closeup of Dean’s face (1932).

Lawrence Gooley has authored nine books and many articles on the North Country’s past. He and his partner, Jill McKee, founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004. He took over in 2010 and began expanding the company’s publishing services. For information on book publishing, visit Bloated Toe Publishing.


Monday, July 11, 2011

The Long and Fruitful Life of Ticonderoga’s Enos Dudley

Card of Thanks entries were routine fare in newspapers of years past. They were commonly used by families acknowledging those who provided aid and comfort during times of bereavement. The “Cards” shared a standard format—citing doctors, nurses, and friends, followed by the names of the immediate family who were doing the thanking—but some stood out as unusual. The death of Crown Point’s Enos Dudley in 1950 is a case in point.

Shortly after he passed, a Card of Thanks noted “the death of our beloved father, Enos J. Dudley” and featured the names of seven family members. Below it was a second Card of Thanks referring to Enos as “our beloved husband and father.” It ended with the names of six other family members. » Continue Reading.


Monday, July 4, 2011

Local Nurse Becomes A World War One Hero

In one evacuated village, Florence Bullard’s (see Part 1 of the story) crew was forced to work from a hospital cellar, which she described as a cave. Under very harsh conditions, they treated the severely wounded soldiers who couldn’t be moved elsewhere. In a letter home, she noted, “I have not seen daylight for eight days now and the stench in this cave is pretty bad; no air, artificial light, and the cots so close together you can just get between them.

“The noise of the bursting shells is terrific at times. Side by side I have Americans, English, Scotch, Irish, and French, and apart in the corners are ‘Boche’ [a disparaging term applied to German soldiers]. They all have to watch each other die, side by side. I have had to write many sad letters to American mothers.”

A bit later she wrote, “I have been three weeks now in this cave. It’s a dark, damp, foul-smelling place, but there is help to give and one must not complain. But it is terribly depressing and, for the first time, I find myself in a bit of a nervous state. The roaring of the cannon and the constant whizzing through the air of these terrible ‘obus’ [shells launched by a howitzer-type cannon], with never a thing to change the tension, is wearing.”

Florence went on to describe a sad evening where a man had to have both legs and an arm amputated, and a woman suffered severe burns from a bombing attack. “… every inch of her body was like an apple that had been baked too hard, and the skin all separated from the apple. That was all I could compare it to. You can imagine that she suffered until midnight, and then she died. I do not know what is to become of everyone if this war does not end pretty soon.”

Three times Florence’s group was evacuated just ahead of approaching German troops. When a friend came to check on her just as they were fleeing 13 straight hours of bombardment, a shell landed nearby at the moment they were shaking hands. The windows were shattered by the explosion, throwing shards of glass at their feet. It was that close.

In her own words, she described the ferocity of the attack: “The first shell broke on us at one a.m. on Monday, the twenty-seventh. It was a veritable hell broken loose! I know of no language of mine that could describe it.

“All that day and the following, it never let up a minute. Our hospital was struck nine times, corridors caving in and pillars falling. We were told at noon to make all the preparations to leave at any minute, taking as little baggage as possible.”

Such was the Bullard family’s concern that her brother sent Florence the money for passage home. When it arrived, she reminded him of her duty, and that she could not abandon the men in need. Her superiors told her the same—Florence’s training, skill, and experience were critical to their success, and she was needed to remain at the front.

Bullard’s commanding officer stated it succinctly: “… the next four months will be very tragic ones for us all. We cannot spare you, for we cannot refill your place, and when you explain just that to your family, they will be the first to see it as we see it.”

In another letter, Florence described the eerie, moonlit march of American troops: “It seemed as if miles of them went by. The grim, silent soldiers, the poor hard-worked horses, all going steadily toward that terrible noise of the cannon.”

The next day, a great number of those very same men were treated by her medical unit. It began with nearly a thousand in the morning, and as the battle raged, Florence noted, “That went on all day and night, new ones arriving as fast as others were out. It was a busy place, our ambulance drivers driving up one right after the other, and all the time the steady stream of artillery going past, and more troops.”

When the surgeries finally abated, Bullard quickly assumed other duties: “… I simply ran from one patient to the other. My chief gave me permission to give hypodermics at my discretion, and oh, how we all did work to make them live! … It was gruesome—the dying, the moans, the constant “J’ai soif” [I’m thirsty]. I cannot talk much about it now—too fresh in my memory.”

The next day was more of the same, and with the German’s looming, evacuation was called for. Given the option, Florence and several doctors opted to stay behind despite warnings that they might be captured. A tearful good-bye ensued, with their pending death a stark reality.

The soldiers’ desperate escape was described by Bullard in moving prose: “It was the saddest sight I have ever seen. The stretcher bearers carrying all that were unable to walk … and the new arrivals who had come in, getting to the train the best way they could. For instance, a man with his head or face wounded would carry on his back a man whose feet were wounded, and one whose arm was wounded might be leading one whose eyes were bandaged.”

As the last men boarded, a new order for mandatory evacuation was issued. Enemy troops were preparing to overrun the area. But for that circumstance, it may have been Florence Bullard’s last day on earth.

The details of such harrowing events were unknown to all except her war companions and those back home who received letters from Florence. But the French government had long been aware of her great contributions, which they acknowledged in September 1918 by conferring upon Florence the Croix de Guerre medal (the Cross of War).

The official citation read: “She has shown imperturbable sangfroid [composure] under the most violent bombardments during March and May. Despite her danger, she searched for and comforted and assisted the wounded. Her attitude was especially brilliant on July 31, when bombs burst near.”

Just two months later, the war ended, and Florence returned home. In February 1919, she was treated to a grand reception at Glens Falls, where she received a donation of $600. A good long rest was in her plans, but by May she was on the battlefront again, this time in the United States. The Red Cross of America sent Florence on tour to Redpath Chautauqua facilities and other venues to promote good health and sanitation practices.

The mission was to improve community health across the country, incorporating much that had been newly learned during the war. Besides treating so many wounded soldiers, the medical corps had tended to refugees suffering from malnutrition, starvation, and a host of diseases, many of them communicable.

Among the issues addressed by Florence were home cooking, household hygiene, caring for the sick at home, and the work of the public health nurse. She was widely lauded for her speaking appearances as well as for the wonderful services she had provided during the war.

By 1920, Florence was again working as a private nurse. She later turned to hospital employment, eventually becoming assistant superintendent at Poughkeepsie’s Bowne Memorial Hospital in Dutchess County, New York.

Florence Bullard—North Country native, nurse extraordinaire, dedicated humanitarian, and a true American hero—died in 1967 at the age of 87.

Photo Top: WW I improvised field hospital in France.

Photo Middle: WW I Howitzer.

Photo Bottom: WWI French Red Cross ambulance.

Lawrence Gooley has authored nine books and many articles on the North Country’s past. He and his partner, Jill McKee, founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004. He took over in 2010 and began expanding the company’s publishing services. For information on book publishing, visit Bloated Toe Publishing.


Monday, June 27, 2011

Florence Bullard: Local Nurse, World War One Hero

In Adirondack history, like in most other parts of America, war heroes abound. Traditionally, they are men who have lost limbs, men who risked their lives to save others, and men who fought valiantly against incredible odds. Some died, while others survived, but for the most part, they shared one common thread: they were all men. But in my own humble estimation, one of the North Country’s greatest of all war heroes was a woman.

Florence Church Bullard, the female in question, was “from” two places. Known for most of her life as a Glens Falls girl, she was born in January 1880 in New Sweden, a small settlement in the Town of Ausable.

By the time she was 20, Florence had become a schoolteacher in Glens Falls, where she boarded with several other teachers. Seeking something more from life, she enrolled in St. Mary’s Hospital, a training facility of the Mayo Brothers in Rochester, Minnesota. After graduating, she worked as a private nurse for several years.

In December 1916, four months before the United States entered World War I, Florence left for the battlefields of Europe. As a Red Cross nurse, she served with the American Ambulance Corps at the hospital in Neuilly, France, caring for injured French soldiers. They often numbered in the thousands after major battles.

On April 6, 1917, the United States officially entered the war, but the first American troops didn’t arrive in Europe until the end of June. Florence had considered the possibility of returning home by fall of that year because of potential attacks on the home front by Germany or Mexico (yes, the threat was real).

But with the US joining the fray in Europe, Florence decided she could best serve the cause by tending to American foot soldiers, just as she had cared for French troops since her arrival.

Until the Americans landed, she continued serving in the French hospital and began writing a series of letters to family and friends in Glens Falls and Ausable. Those missives provide a first-hand look at the war that took place a century ago.

The US had strongly resisted involvement in the conflict, but when Congress voted to declare war, Florence described the immediate reaction in Europe. Her comments offer insight on America’s role as an emerging world power and how we were viewed by others back then.

“I have never known anything so inspiring as Paris has been since the news came that America had joined the Allies. Almost every building in Paris is flying the American flag. Never shall I forget last Saturday evening. I was invited to go to the opera … that great opera house had not an empty seat. It was filled with Russians, Belgians, British, and French, with a few Americans scattered here and there. Three-quarters of the huge audience was in uniform.

“Just before the curtain went up for the second act, the wonderful orchestra burst out into the ‘Star Spangled Banner.’ In a flash, those thousands were on their feet as if they were one person. One could have heard a pin drop except for the music. The music was played perfectly and with such feeling. Afterwards, the applause was so tremendous that our national anthem was repeated.

“The tears sprang to my eyes and my heart seemed to be right in my throat. It seemed as if I must call right out to everyone, ‘I’m an American and that was my national anthem!’ I have never witnessed such a demonstration of patriotism in my life. The officers of every allied nation clad in their brilliant uniforms stood in deference to our country.”

The work she had done thus far received strong support from the folks back home. In a letter to her sister in Ausable, Florence wrote, “Try to know how much gratitude and appreciation I feel to you and all the people of Glens Falls who have given so generously of their time and money. It was such fun to help the committee open the boxes and to realize that the contents had all been arranged and made by people that I know personally.

“The committee remarked upon the splendid boxes with hinged covers and the manner in which they were packed. When the covers were lifted, the things looked as if they might have been packed in the next room and the last article just fitted into the box. I was just a little proud to have them see how things are done in Glens Falls. Again, my gratitude, which is so hard to express.”

Florence’s credentials as a Mayo nurse, her outstanding work ethic, and connections to some important doctors helped ease her transition into the American war machine. The French, understandably, were loathe to see her go, so highly valued was her service.

In a letter to Maude, her older sister, Florence expressed excitement at establishing the first triage unit for American troops at the front. They were expected to treat 5,000 to 10,000 soldiers every 24 hours. Upon evaluation, some would be patched up and moved on; some would be operated on immediately; and others would be cared for until they were well enough to be moved to safer surroundings.

Florence’s sensitive, caring nature was evident when she told of the very first young American to die in her care. “He was such a boy, and he told me much about himself. He said that when the war broke out, he wanted to enlist. But he was young, and his mother begged him not to, so he ran away. And here he was, wounded and suffering, and he knew he must die.

“All the time, that boy was crying for his mother … he was grieving over her. And so I did what I could to take her place. And during the hours of his delirium, he sometimes thought I was his mother, and for the moment, he was content.

“Every morning, that lad had to be taken to the operating room to have the fluid drawn from off his lungs because of the hemorrhage. When finally that last day the doctor came, he knew the boy’s time was short and he could not live, so he said he would not operate. But the boy begged so hard, he said it relieved him so, that we took him in.

“And then those great, confident eyes looked into mine and he said, ‘You won’t leave me mother, will you?’ And I said, ‘No, my son.’ But before that simple operation could be completed, that young life had passed out. And I am not ashamed to tell you that as I cut a curl of hair to send to his mother, my tears fell on that young boy’s face-—not for him, but for his mother.”

Working tirelessly dressing wounds and assisting the surgeons, Bullard displayed great capability and leadership. She was offered the position of hospital superintendent if she chose to leave the front. It was a tremendous opportunity, but one that Florence Bullard turned down. Rather than supervise and oversee, she preferred to provide care directly to those in need.

Next week: Part 2—Nurse Bullard under hellish attack.

Photos:Above, Florence Church Bullard, nurse, hero; Middle, WW I Red Cross poster; Below, WW I soldier wounded in France.

Lawrence Gooley has authored nine books and many articles on the North Country’s past. He and his partner, Jill McKee, founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004. He took over in 2010 and began expanding the company’s publishing services. For information on book publishing, visit Bloated Toe Publishing.


Monday, June 20, 2011

The Unlikely History of Pigeons in the Adirondacks

Unlike eagles, hawks, and others, pigeons are an Adirondack bird surrounded by neither lore nor legend. Yet for more than a century, they were players in a remarkable system of interaction between strangers, birds, and their owners. Others were tied to noted historical events, and a few were undisputed participants in major criminal activity.

The bird referred to here is the homing pigeon. According to the Atlas of Breeding Birds in New York State, the Rock Dove is “commonly known as the domestic or homing pigeon,” and is a non-native, having been introduced from Europe in the early 1600s.

They are often mistakenly called carrier pigeons, and the confusion is understandable. There are carrier pigeons, and there are pigeons that carry things, but they’re not the same bird. Homing pigeon are the ones used to carry messages and for pigeon racing.

Racing them has proven very popular. Regionally, there is the Schenectady Homing Pigeon Club (more than 60 years old), which in the 1930s competed with the Albany Flying Club and the Amsterdam Pigeon Club.

The existence of those clubs, the carrying of messages, and other related activities are all based on a long-studied phenomenon that is still debated: how the heck do homing pigeons do what they do? Basically, if taken to a faraway location and released, they usually return to their home, and in a fairly straight line.

Flocks have been released and tracked by airplanes, and transmitters have been attached to the birds, confirming their direct routes. They use a variety of navigation methods, the most important and least understood of which involves the earth’s magnetic orientation.

In recent decades, Cornell University’s famed ornithology unit summarized their findings after extreme testing: “Homing pigeons can return from distant, unfamiliar release points.” And what did these scientists do to challenge the birds’ abilities? Plenty.

According to the study, “Older pigeons were transported to the release site inside sealed metal containers, supplied with bottled air, anesthetized, and placed on rotating turntables, all of which should make it hard for them to keep track of their outward journey.” The birds still homed effectively.

This unusual ability has been enjoyed and exploited for centuries. In 1898, in order to keep up with European military powers, the US Navy established the Homing Pigeon Service. One use was ship-to-shore communication in any conditions—when pigeons sent aboard the ship were released with a message attached, they flew directly back to their home loft.

Their use during World Wars I and II is legendary, and many were decorated with medals. In 1918, pigeon racing was temporarily banned in the United States to ensure that all birds were available for the use of the military.

In peacetime, homing pigeons were treated with near-universal respect and were weekly visitors to the North Country. Whenever one with a metal band or a message tube attached to it was found, standard protocol was followed by all citizens. The birds were immediately given water and food. If they appeared injured, the information from the leg band was given to local police, who tried to contact the owner.

Caring for the birds, whether ill or healthy, was automatic, and it continued until the journey was resumed. For more than 130 years, Adirondack weekly newspaper columns mentioned the landing of homing pigeons (but usually called them carrier pigeons). If a bird somehow appeared to be off course, the leg band information might appear in a short article or in an advertisement.

That informal system was widely used and religiously followed. To further protect the birds (and the system itself) and to confirm their importance, New York State’s Forest, Fish, and Game Commission made it law: “No person shall take or interfere with any… homing pigeon if it have the name of its owner stamped upon its wing or tail, or wear a ring or seamless leg band with its registered number stamped thereon, or have any other distinguishing mark.”

“Homers” were often used for races from 100 to 500 miles. They didn’t always alight where the owner intended, usually due to stormy weather. Many of the birds that landed in the North Country came from Montreal, where their use for racing and message carrying was common.

In 1912, one Canadian visitor settled inside the walls of Clinton Prison at Dannemora. The warden dutifully cared for the bird and attempted to contact its owner.

In 1898, little Miss Gertrude Hough of Lowville received a letter by US Mail from the Los Angeles post office. It had arrived in LA attached to a pigeon that had been released by Gertrude’s father from Catalina Island, more than 20 miles offshore.

And in 1936, a homing pigeon landed on the window sill of a Malone home, where it was treated to the proper care. Well beyond the norm, the bird’s journey had begun in Montana.

Invariably, efficient systems like bank accounts, credit cards, the internet, and homing pigeons are usurped for other purposes. In recent years, pigeons have been used by ingenious crooks to smuggle drugs from Colombia and diamonds from African mines.

In both cases, the North Country was light-years ahead of them. In 1881, an elaborate case of diamond smuggling from Canada into St. Lawrence County was uncovered. A Rensselaer Falls farmer brought to customs authorities a dead “carrier pigeon” with part of a turkey feather, filled with diamonds, attached to the bird’s leg.

During the investigation, two more diamond-carrying birds were shot. It was discovered that baskets of birds were being mailed to locations in Canada, and other flocks were located south of the border, awaiting duty. Shipments of pigeons had originated at DeKalb Junction, Heuvelton, Rensselaer Falls, and Richville, and the value of diamonds successfully smuggled was estimated at $800,000 (equal to about $17 million today).

During Prohibition, both booze and drug smuggling were rampant. In 1930, US officials were tipped off that a number of homing pigeons were routinely being shipped north into Quebec. Upon release, they crossed back into northern New York.

Authorities at Ogdensburg were put on the case when it was found that each pigeon bore a payload of about one ounce of cocaine. At times it was literally a fly-by-night operation—some of the birds had been trained to fly under cover of darkness.

Homing pigeons also played a role in regional historical events. In 1920, a military balloon launched from Rockaway Point in New York City sailed across the Adirondacks. Last sighted above Wells in Hamilton County, it then vanished. Extended high-profile searches turned up nothing, and three men aboard the balloon were lost.

Such missions routinely carried homing pigeons for air-to-ground communication. It was believed that an injured pigeon (broken leg) found on a Parishville (St. Lawrence County) farm had been launched from the balloon, and that its message had been lost during the accident that broke the bird’s leg. It was suspected that the balloon had finally gone down over Lake Ontario.

One of the most famous kidnapping cases in American history occurred in 1932 when the Lindbergh baby disappeared. When the body was found, nearly every newspaper in the land covered the story the next day with multiple articles.

Among the first stories was one emanating from Lowville, New York, where a homing pigeon had landed at the home of Arthur Jones. The bird’s leg had a non-traditional attachment—a piece of twine holding a paper tag bearing the inscription, “William Allen, New Jersey.” It was William Allen of New Jersey who found the Lindbergh child’s corpse.

Lead investigator Colonel H. Norman Schwarzkopf (Stormin’ Norman’s father) followed up on the information and then issued a statement: “Reports from Lowville show that no registry tag was found on the carrier pigeon. This practically precludes the possibility of further tracing the pigeon unless the owner of the same voluntarily reports its absence.”

In June, 1936, before more than two dozen reporters and celebrities, former World Heavyweight Champion Jack Dempsey and his wife released a homing pigeon from the tower of the Empire State Building at 11:20 am. Less than five hours later it arrived at Scaroon Manor on Schroon Lake, bearing the first honeymoon reservation of the season.

It wasn’t for Dempsey’s honeymoon—it was just a publicity stunt to keep his name active in the media, and certainly raised the manor’s profile as well.

Photo Top: Homing pigeon with message in tube.

Photo Middle: WW I military troops in trench, sending messages by pigeon.

Photo Bottom: Winged members of the military.

Lawrence Gooley has authored nine books and many articles on the North Country’s past. He and his partner, Jill McKee, founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004. He took over in 2010 and began expanding the company’s publishing services. For information on book publishing, visit Bloated Toe Publishing.


Monday, June 13, 2011

The North Country Tornado of 1856

A tornado in the northeastern states, as happened recently in Massachusetts, is a comparatively rare event, but it’s by no means anything new. Many similar storms in the past have wreaked devastation in New York and New England, but few have had the incredible impact of the tornado that struck northern Franklin County on June 30, 1856.

The storm system caused chaos across the North Country, and in lower Quebec and northern Vermont as well, but the villages of Burke and Chateaugay bore the brunt of the damage when a tornado touched down, causing destruction of historic proportions.

In the 1850s, northern Franklin County was mostly a vast, wooded wilderness. The arrival of the railroad had led to accelerated growth and the development of several population centers, including Burke and Chateaugay, just five miles apart in the county’s northeast corner.

Farming and lumbering were the chief occupations, and until sections of forest were cleared, most of the farms were located near the villages and along the Old Military Turnpike (modern-day Route 11). About the only way a storm’s effect could be truly devastating was for it to strike the population centers—and that’s exactly what happened.

Not that it would have made much difference, but this storm also had an extra element of surprise—it struck shortly before mid-morning. The great majority of tornadoes strike in the late afternoon after the sun has had plenty of time to heat things up.

Farmer Lucas Wyman of Constable watched as two dark, threatening cloud systems moved towards each other, one from the southwest and one from the northwest. He described their meeting as a thunderous collision, after which the storm began devouring everything in its path. Taking a northeastern track, it flattened trees and fences as it sped ominously towards Burke.

Arriving at the village, it tore the roofs off several buildings, sending their contents high in the air to parts unknown. As the storm raged, only pieces of some homes were left standing, and all barns, less sturdily built by nature, were leveled.

At the hamlet of Thayer’s Corners, the store of Daniel Mitchell was completely destroyed. Thirty-six-year-old Jeremiah Thomas, father of two young children, had recently sold his farm and gone to work for Mitchell. Thomas became the storm’s only fatality.

The storm’s route from Burke to Chateaugay suffered near-universal destruction, with reports indicating that “… one hundred and eighty-five buildings, either unroofed, blown down, or moved from the foundations can be counted as you ride along the road.”

At Chateaugay, the twister still had more than enough energy to lay nearly the entire community to waste. One reporter stated it plainly: “The village of Chateaugay is a complete desolation. Not a building escaped injury, and a great number—we do not know how many—are completely destroyed. The scene is one which baffles description. Stores, churches, dwellings, barns, sheds, outbuildings, all present a sad spectacle —they are awfully shattered and broken to pieces.”

Perhaps as important were other losses—gardens and fruit trees destroyed; farm crops flattened; cows, pigs, horses, sheep, and chickens killed. With all fencing destroyed, any animals that did survive were left wandering the countryside.

Though only one person died, many suffered serious injuries. Dozens were struck by flying roof shingles and shards of glass. One survivor was said to have lost his scalp to airborne debris.

The power of the storm yielded the usual stories of extreme occurrences. Entire sections of forest were flattened. A stone schoolhouse, one of the more solid buildings, was demolished. A lumber yard was completely devoid of lumber, all of which had been lifted high in the air and strewn across nearby fields.

A railroad handcar, weighing about a ton, was destroyed when it was carried aloft and dropped into the nearby woods. The tornado’s power was such that rubble from Mitchell’s Store at Thayer’s Corners was later found ten miles east in the town of Clinton.

In the days following the catastrophe, a traveler from Springfield, Massachusetts (coincidentally the site of recent tornadic destruction in 2011) rode the train across northern New York. After encountering the Chateaugay area, his report on the damage was published in the Springfield Daily Journal, including the following excerpts.

“The railroad track for some thirty or forty miles lies directly in the path of the tornado, and I never saw such a scene of destruction before. … it is in fact quite impossible to picture the scene on paper as it really appears. The villages of Chateaugay and Burke have sustained such serious damage that long years will come and go before its traces can be effaced.

“… Acres of forest trees are upturned, broken, twisted, and shattered; fences are torn to pieces, and the fencing timber scattered miles away from whence it was taken; piles of lumber, with which that section abounds, are nowhere to be found; barns are entirely blown to pieces; dwelling houses blown down, unroofed, and shattered. The eye rests on nothing else but such sights as these for miles and miles.”

The storm system caused considerable damage elsewhere, but the extent of destruction along the eight-mile path through the towns of Burke and Chateaugay was of near-biblical proportions. In the final tally, 364 buildings were damaged or destroyed.

Few North Country disasters can compare in scope and intensity with the tornado of 1856. For decades into the future it was used as a reference point for comparing other tragic events.

Photo Top: Tornado headlines, 1856.

Photo Middle: St. Lawrence County opportunistic ad after a tornado, 1914.

Photo Bottom: Hammond Insurance ad for routine needs, 1935.

Lawrence Gooley has authored nine books and many articles on the North Country’s past. He and his partner, Jill McKee, founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004. He took over in 2010 and began expanding the company’s publishing services. For information on book publishing, visit Bloated Toe Publishing.


Monday, June 6, 2011

World War One Hero A ‘Plattsburg Man’

War heroes come from all walks of life, and are deemed noteworthy for all sorts of reasons. In April 1918, during World War I, the North Country was justifiably proud of five lesser headlines in the New York Times beneath a bold proclamation: “Plattsburg Youth A Transport Hero.”

The story was particularly unusual for one main reason—though the youth was a lieutenant in the infantry, he and his foot-soldiers had performed heroic deeds with no land in any direction for perhaps 1000 miles.

Plattsburg (no “h” used in those days) was a principal military training facility, and many death announcements during the war ended with a single, telling entry: “He was a Plattsburg man.” In this case the Plattsburg man in question, Charles Dabney Baker, was still very much alive and receiving praise from both sides of the Atlantic for astute leadership and remarkable calm during a crisis situation.

The odd circumstances surrounding Baker’s citation complemented his unusual path from childhood to the military. Historically, the vast majority of fighting men do not come from affluent backgrounds. Men of money and power have often been able to protect their children from serving. Poorer folks, on the other hand, often joined for the guaranteed income and the financial incentives dangled before them. A few thousand dollars was nothing to a person of wealth, but constituted a small fortune for someone in need.

Charles Baker was certainly part of an affluent family. He was born in Far Rockaway, Long Island in 1891, the son of a Wall Street banker. When he was but eight years old, the family household of four children was supported by a live-in staff that included two nurses, a waitress, a cook, and a chambermaid. A kitchen maid and a laundress were later added. Life was sweet.

Charles graduated from Princeton in 1913 and went to work for the Bankers’ Trust Company in New York City. It was an ongoing life of privilege, but after two years in the banking industry, he opted to join the military. Following a stint on the Mexican border, he was promoted to the rank of sergeant, and then trained at Plattsburg as America finally entered the war in Europe.

For Baker, who was prepared for battle, disappointment ensued when his regiment was ordered to France without him. He was instead tasked with commanding a detachment of men assigned to care for 1600 mules and horses that were being shipped to Europe in support of the troops.

As the journey began, a series of problems developed, culminating in a crisis situation in the middle of the ocean. A powerful storm threatened the mission, with winds estimated at 80–90 miles an hour. The ship was badly tossed, and a coal port lid failed (it was believed to have been the work of German spies who had loosened the bolts when the craft was docked).

As the ship began to flood, chaos and disaster loomed. Baker, the highest ranking officer aboard, took charge of his landlubber crew and whipped them into action. The partially flooded ship rocked violently, and its precious cargo suffered terribly. A sailor on board later reported that many of the horses and mules “were literally torn to pieces by the tossing and rolling. Their screams of agony were something awful to listen to.” A number of others drowned.

Under Baker’s orders, bailing crews were assigned, dead and living animals were tended to, and the remaining men battled to keep the ship afloat. Days later, they limped into port and assessed the damages. It was determined that 400 animals had been lost, but the remarkable response by Baker and his infantrymen resulted in the survival of 1200 others. A complete disaster had been averted, and after delivering their cargo, the 165th Infantry was soon on the front line in France.

The story of the ocean trip might have remained untold except for brief mention that appeared in some newspapers. Among those reading the report was a sailor who had shared the voyage. He contacted the newspapers, and soon the story was headline news, praising Baker and his soldiers for great bravery and heroism under extreme conditions.

While the story gathered momentum, Charles and his men were otherwise occupied, already engaging in trench warfare. Just a few weeks after joining the fight, the 165th was pinned down under withering bombardment by the Germans. As Baker encouraged his troops, a shell exploded nearby, puncturing his eardrum.

For three days the barrage continued. Against the advice of his men, Baker endured the pain, refusing to withdraw to seek treatment. He felt his troops were best served if he remained on duty with them.

In early May it was announced that the French government had conferred upon Baker the Croix de Guerre medal, accompanied by the following citation: “First Lieutenant Charles D. Baker showed presence of mind and bravery during a heavy bombardment of nine-inch shells. Went calmly to his post in the trenches despite a destructive fire, assuring the safety of his men and locating the enemy’s mortars which were firing on the positions.”

Baker was forced to spend time recovering in the hospital. Despite his adventures, the frequent praise, and the French medal, Baker was described as humble, unassuming, and much admired and respected by his men. Soon he was back on the battlefield, right in the thick of things.

In July 1918, less than six months after Baker’s arrival in Europe, the 165th was involved in heavy fighting on the Ourcq River about 75 miles northeast of Paris. The Germans had the better position, and Allied forces suffered very heavy casualties as machine gunners cut down hundreds of men. Some of the Allied commanders took to an old method of moving forward by sending only two or three men at a time, backed by intense cover fire. It was difficult and deadly work.

On July 29th, while involved in fierce fighting, Charles Baker was badly injured by machine-gun fire and was once again removed to a base hospital in France. Nearly six weeks later, on September 12, he succumbed to his wounds.

From the crisis on the high seas to his eventual death on the battlefield, barely eight months had passed. It was a tragedy that was repeated millions of times during the war. And in this case, it was duly noted: Baker was a Plattsburg man.

Photo: Charles Dabney Baker, 1913.

Lawrence Gooley has authored nine books and many articles on the North Country’s past. He and his partner, Jill McKee, founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004. He took over in 2010 and began expanding the company’s publishing services. For information on book publishing, visit Bloated Toe Publishing.


Monday, May 30, 2011

Civil War in the North Country: Macomb’s Regiment

With the arrival of Memorial Day in this, the year marking the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War, there is a North Country native who served with particular distinction in the 96th Infantry. The 96th, often referred to as the Plattsburgh Regiment (and sometimes Macomb’s Regiment), was recruited from villages across the region, spanning from Malone to Plattsburgh in the north, and south to Ticonderoga, Fort Edward, and Warrensburg.

Among those to join at Fort Edward was 23-year-old Lester Archer, a native of nearby Fort Ann. Lester enlisted as a corporal in December, 1861, and for three years served with hundreds of North Country boys and men who saw plenty of combat, primarily in Virginia.

In June, 1864, Archer was promoted to sergeant amidst General U. S. Grant’s heated campaign to take Richmond, a critical Confederate site. Guarding Richmond several miles to the south on the James River was Fort Harrison, a strategic rebel stronghold.

To divide Lee’s troops, a surprise attack was launched on Fort Harrison on September 29. The men of the 96th were among those who charged up the hill against withering fire, successfully driving off the fort’s defenders and assuming control. As the fort was being overtaken, a Union flag was planted by Sergeant Lester Archer, emphatically declaring victory.

Until Harrison fell, it was considered the strongest Confederate fort between Richmond and Petersburg, 25 miles south. Lee’s forces regrouped to launch several bloody efforts at recapturing the vital site, but the North stood their ground, protecting the prize.

Union General Burnham was killed in the battle, and in his honor, the site was temporarily renamed Fort Burnham. More than 800 soldiers were buried nearby at what is now known as Fort Harrison National Cemetery.

The 96th remained in the vicinity of Fort Harrison for three weeks, and in late October, an assault was launched against Fort Richmond at Five Oaks. The result was a bloody, hard-fought battle, with both sides claiming victory, but both suffering heavy casualties. Many North Country soldiers were killed or captured. Just three weeks after heroically planting the Union flag atop Fort Harrison, Sergeant Lester Archer was among those who perished at Five Oaks.

On April 6, 1865, Archer’s exceptional efforts were officially acknowledged. The highest US military decoration for valor was conferred upon him with these words: “The President of the United States of America, in the name of Congress, takes pride in presenting the Medal of Honor (posthumously) to Sergeant Lester Archer, United States Army, for extraordinary heroism on 29 September 1864, while serving with Company E, 96th New York Infantry, in action at Fort Harrison, Virginia, for gallantry in placing the colors of his regiment on the fort.”

President Lincoln himself would die just nine days later.

Photos: Above, scene at Fort Harrison, Virginia, 1864; below, Lester Archer.

Lawrence Gooley has authored nine books and many articles on the North Country’s past. He and his partner, Jill McKee, founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004. He took over in 2010 and began expanding the company’s publishing services. For information on book publishing, visit Bloated Toe Publishing.


Monday, May 23, 2011

Missing NYC Sport: Adk Guides Take The Stand

Suspicious circumstances had developed surrounding the disappearance of respected New York City businessman John C. Austin in July 1891. Two insurance companies who held life policies on Austin were deeply interested in his possible whereabouts. Neither had bought the story that Austin had drowned near Coney Island, leaving three small children fatherless. They believed a boat had picked him up and that Austin was now living and hiding out in the Adirondacks.

Colonel Edward C. James, a nationally renowned, colorful attorney represented the insurance companies. His opening statement was a classic. After building to a crescendo, James presented his climactic claim: “Gentlemen of the jury, I will show you John C. Austin as he is today, alive and well.” With that, he unwrapped a heretofore mysterious package, revealing a nearly seven-foot-tall cut-out likeness of Austin, taken from a hunting photograph.

The courtroom was stunned, and for the entire trial, the jury and a packed house of spectators were constantly confronted with a powerfully connected message. Facing them from a corner was the huge likeness of the missing man in hunting regalia, while in the courtroom sat a grand selection of Adirondack woodsmen dressed similarly to Austin, awaiting their turn to testify.

The plaintiffs appeared to have a tough case to prove, but their attorneys approached the trial from an angle that would elicit much sympathy. Pointing to Austin’s three young children strategically placed in front of the jury box, they presented their opening line: “The only question you are called upon to decide is whether the father of these three little children was drowned on July 4, 1891.” The intent was obvious, but no less effective.

Colonel James enjoyed some remarkable moments, shocking the court with the revelation that Austin, widely believed to be very well off financially, was in fact virtually bankrupt. He owed over $2500 (about $62,000 today) on various bills. Since his disappearance, Austin’s home had been sold for substantially less than its mortgage value. Days before vanishing, he withdrew $150 from the business (equal to $3,700 today). And on July 3, he had cashed a $400 check (equal to $10,000), even though his account to cover it held only a $2 balance.

The $400 check (he vanished on July 4—it was written on July 3 but postdated for July 7) had been cashed by his brother-in-law (Carruthers), who was stiffed for the full amount. Colonel James pointed out that Austin, a supposed pillar of society, apparently wasn’t so averse to fraud after all, having knowingly committed it against his own relative. It was powerful stuff.

The keystone of James’ case in support of those suspicious elements was what the media described as the “mountain flavor” of the courtroom. The effect was enhanced by the fact that many of New York’s “well-to-do,” including a number of top attorneys, frequented the Adirondacks as a favored getaway. Their interest in the Austin case was further piqued by the opportunity to see and listen to “their” guides speaking in court. Thus, the serious legal battle did contain a sideshow element.

When the time came for the Adirondack guides to testify, the defense suffered a serious setback. James Ramsay of Lowville said he had known Austin for many years and had delivered him to Crystal Lake in Lewis County just a month after Austin’s disappearance from Manhattan Beach.

However, Ramsay recounted conversations they shared regarding Austin’s recently deceased wife and the status of his children. During intense cross-examination, the details he had provided were shredded due to inconsistencies. The plaintiffs’ attorney suggested that Ramsay’s statements bordered on perjury, delivering a strong blow to the defense case.

Other guides, however, acquitted themselves quite well before a thoroughly pleased audience, some of whom recognized the mountain men by sight. Certain testimony, like that of Charles Bartlett, helped undo the damage from a day earlier. Much was made in the media of the visitors from the mountains and their service in court (their rough appearance was also noted). Colonel James, himself a North Country native (from Ogdensburg), was appreciative of their efforts.

Bartlett was followed by a parade of fellow guides who insisted they knew Austin and had spent time with him. He was said to have stayed for a while at Eagle’s Nest on Blue Mountain Lake. Some described his behavior at the Algonquin Hotel on Lower Saranac Lake, where he displayed outstanding skill on the billiard table. Austin was, in fact, known in New York City as an excellent pool player—one witness had played against him a day or so before he vanished.

Among those who took the stand were Eugene Allen, Edwin Hayes, Robert King, Walter Martin, and Ransom Manning, all described as guides in the Saranac Lake area. Others included Hiram Benham, James Butler, Thomas Haley, Charles Hall, and James Quirk, offering convincing proof that Austin had perpetrated a fraud and was moving about in the mountains, avoiding detection.

The men described encounters with Austin at several well-known establishments: the Ampersand Hotel, Hatch’s, the Prospect House, Miller’s Hotel, and Bart Moody’s. Many of the sightings were by multiple witnesses. One of the biggest problems for the company case was the outright honesty of the guides, who frequently used “I don’t remember” when asked about details from the events of the past few years. They were being truthful, but hearing that statement repeatedly from witnesses helped suggest the likelihood of faulty memories.

When testimony ended, Colonel James offered a fine summation supporting the statements from many people who had seen Austin since his supposed drowning. Trull, the lead attorney for the Austin family, enamored himself with the crowd, making light of the guides’ claims chiefly by attacking Ramsay, who had made conflicting statements. By targeting the guide with the weakest testimony, Trull hoped to dismiss them as a group. He smiled at the weak memories of some, and dismissed as untruthful those who recalled the past with remarkable clarity.

He also ridiculed the idea that a man in hiding could wear “ … leggins’, slouch hat, corduroy trousers, duck coat … what a likely yarn! Dressed in this conspicuous manner … and he wanted to hide!” Trull’s voice fairly dripped with smiling sarcasm.

The analogy was actually warped (though he would certainly stand out in New York City, no man who dressed like that in the mountains would be conspicuous), but the erroneous concept was lost on the jurors—city men who routinely dressed in suits.

In the end, the jury was out only 23 minutes, returning to declare Austin dead. There were several moments of complete silence following the announcement, as if everyone were stunned.

Then, punctuating the victory, Trull revealed the major role that sympathy had played in the case. Turning to the jurors, he said, “Gentlemen of the jury, on behalf of my clients, the three little orphan boys left alone and helpless by John C. Austin, I thank you.”

Excused by the judge, the jury filed out, stopping only to offer Trull an unusual comment that was in keeping with the prevailing air of sympathy: “We want to contribute our fees as jurymen to the unemployed poor, and want you to arrange the matter with the clerk for us.”

The companies later dropped a plan to appeal, instead deciding to cut their losses and pay the settlement. Thus ended the court case over the insurance claims. But as far as the companies were concerned, that’s all that was settled. They remained convinced that Austin had successfully duped everyone and was alive, well, and soon to be much better off financially.

When the Austin family received the death benefit checks, they were at the same time relieved and angry—relieved to collect the amount in full, but angry with the section of the check that said, “Pay to the executors of the estate of John C. Austin, deceased.” The insurance company had drawn a line through the word “deceased,” emphasizing their belief that he was still alive.

Though Austin had been pronounced dead, his story wasn’t. Reports came in of more sightings, and two agencies asked for a bounty in exchange for bringing him to New York.

Barely a month after the trial ended, headlines reported that Austin was under surveillance by a detective in Toronto. Subsequent articles addressed the issues of his status. Having been pronounced dead, was he now safe? Could a country extradite someone who had been pronounced dead? Could the other country accept extradition of a deceased person?

The questions were put to Colonel James, who commented on the jury’s decision: “They did not seem to appreciate the evidence that was presented, and with one fell swoop, they killed Austin and rendered his children orphans. It was sheer murder, but they thought they were right. You may have thought I was jesting when I said that the jury killed Austin. It is not that.

“Actually, Austin is not dead, as this revelation proves. There is no reason to doubt the truth of the report. He is judicially dead in this country. As long as he stays in Canada, he is alive, all right. As soon as he crosses the border into this country, he drops dead—theoretically.”

That’s the last anyone heard of John C. Austin.

Photo Top: Manhattan Beach Bath House on right.

Photo Bottom: Headline from the Austin case.

Lawrence Gooley has authored nine books and many articles on the North Country’s past. He and his partner, Jill McKee, founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004. He took over in 2010 and began expanding the company’s publishing services. For information on book publishing, visit Bloated Toe Publishing.


Monday, May 16, 2011

Adirondack Guides: The Missing NYC ‘Sport’

Adirondack guides from over a century ago are themselves part of the lore and history of the region. Their handling of city “sports,” coupled with their great abilities in the woods, provided the background for many a legendary tale. Guides were often strongly independent and shared a great affinity for the solitude of the deep woods. So what were nearly two dozen of these woodsmen doing in a New York City courtroom in the winter of 1893–1894?

They were present for the culmination of a terrific news story that had earned sustained coverage for more than two years. Dozens of American and Canadian newspapers followed the tale, which at times dominated the New York City media. A key component was its Adirondack connection.

The story centered on well-known businessman John C. “Jack” Austin, 38, of Brooklyn. Fit, trim, and very athletic, he participated regularly in team and individual sports. In industry, he was known to have enjoyed success, providing a comfortable, if not wealthy, existence for his family. Austin’s wife died in February, 1891, leaving him with three young children to raise, which he was doing with the aid of their very attentive housekeeper.

The afternoon of July 4, 1891, was like any other holiday in Austin’s life, with plans to attend the horse races or go swimming at Manhattan Beach. He kissed the children good-bye and went on his way, promising to take them that evening to the Independence Day fireworks.

Nearly nine hours later, the clerk at Manhattan Beach was performing the nightly check of the safe’s contents when he encountered an envelope bearing the name and street address of John Austin. For bathers visiting the beach, it was normal procedure to hire a bath room for changing clothes, and to deposit any valuables (wallet, cash, rings, watches) in envelopes provided by the facility. The owner received a numbered ticket which was later used to recover those goods.

After finding the envelope with Austin’s name on it, the clerk searched Room #391, where he found a coat, vest, shirt, hat, trousers, and underwear. In the pockets of the clothing were a case of business cards, a penknife, some keys, and some pencils.

Since it was nighttime and Austin’s personal belongings were still present, there was only one logical explanation: the owner likely had drowned. The clerk called for help, and in the presence of the bathing pavilion superintendent, the Manhattan Beach chief of police, and a fireman, the security envelope was opened.

Inside were items of varying value: a pocketbook containing a few dollars and some change; a ring with the letter S on it; and a lady’s gold watch and chain, studded with pearls.

The family was contacted and apprised of the situation. Joseph Austin (John’s brother), and Thomas Carruthers (John’s brother-in-law) positively identified the belongings as John’s, and a search was initiated. For two days, police and volunteers patrolled the water and the beaches, covering not only Manhattan Beach, but the nearby shores of Jamaica Bay, Plum Island, Rockaway, and Sheepshead Bay.

Veteran lawmen and experienced searchers knew what to do and where to look. Drownings were not uncommon off the shores of Coney Island, where tides and the prevailing winds routinely sent victim’s bodies to the shore sooner or later. Austin was presumed drowned, and alerts were issued to authorities on Staten Island as well as the New Jersey shore on the outside chance the body might surface there.

Over the course of ten days, nothing was found, which in itself stirred suspicions. Some suggested that a northwest wind had driven the body out to sea, but police and beach veterans knew better. Austin’s room, #391, had been rented at about 4:00 pm, and for several hours following, a strong flood tide had pushed inland. To a man, they recognized it as an unusual circumstance that Austin’s body had not washed ashore—if he had, in fact, drowned.

The family filed a claim with two insurance companies, where Austin’s coverage totaled $25,000 (equal to about $620,000 today). However, since no body had been recovered, one of the companies had already begun an investigation, despite the stellar public image of Austin as a respected, honest, hard-working family man. They wouldn’t be paying on the claim just yet.

A number of peculiarities, both large and small, were noted in the situation surrounding John Austin’s disappearance. He was known to be wearing a very valuable diamond ring, but only an inexpensive ring was found in the envelope.

The same was true of the lady’s watch that was found. Austin always wore his own watch, described as “a magnificent chronometer.” Friends and relatives said the valued watch was being repaired at a jeweler, but the insurance company discovered that the watch had been picked up on July 3, the day before he vanished. The jeweler’s shop was very near Austin’s office, but for some unknown reason, he sent a messenger boy with a check to pick up the watch.

It was also learned that John Austin patronized Manhattan Beach regularly and was well known to many of the workers—yet no one recalled seeing him on July 4. Further, on that day it was chilly and windy, reducing attendance to about 600 on a beach that often held many thousands of bathers. Despite the sparseness of the crowd, no employees could be found who had seen Austin.

Co-workers and partners confirmed that the missing man always carried plenty of cash, almost never less than $100. And yet the envelope of his belongings held just a few dollars.

He was also known to many as a very prolific and strong swimmer, often covering extreme distances. Drowning seemed an unlikely end for such a fit and able swimmer.

Another possibility was floated: perhaps Austin had been hiding out while an imposter went to the beach on his behalf, used the changing room, and deposited the valuables (which had since been deemed not so valuable after all). That would explain why (in an unusually sparse crowd) no attendants had seen Austin. Maybe he hadn’t been there at all.

Many more suspicious developments spurred further investigation, expanding far from the confines of New York City. Austin’s three orphaned children were now living with his sister, who was a resident of Montreal, Quebec.

It was learned that their missing father was one of a great many city dwellers who frequented the Adirondacks for hunting and fishing expeditions. Since the Adirondacks were little more than an hour south of Montreal, investigators kept digging.

It was then ascertained that John C. Austin was no stranger to the North Country. To be more specific, a number of those stalwarts of the north woods, the Adirondack guides, claimed to have not only seen Austin since his supposed drowning, but had guided him in several areas, including the Saranac Lake region.

New developments caused further consternation. Of the two insurance policies which together were equal to well over $600,000 (in 2011), one had been secured by Austin on July 1, just three days before he vanished. And, after procuring the new policy, he had asked a secretary in the insurance office if it took effect at that very moment. It did seem an unusual query. With confirmation, he requested that the policy be sent to him ASAP. It was mailed that afternoon.

A few witnesses eventually came forth, claiming they had seen a man disappear while swimming well offshore on July 4. Skeptical detectives suggested another scenario. Since Austin was widely known as a powerful swimmer, they believed he swam a few miles out, where he was picked up by a boat and secreted for a time at the home of his good friend, Henry LaMarche, south of Sandy Hook, New Jersey, not much more than ten miles from Manhattan Beach.

LaMarche denied it, but his gardener and other employees stated emphatically that they had seen Austin with LaMarche in the days following the supposed drowning.

Following up on Jack Austin’s great love of the north woods, detectives found many Adirondack guides who had known him over the years and claimed to have recently seen him and/or worked for him. One of them provided a photograph, said to have been taken recently. It showed Austin in full hunting gear.

Confident now that this was a scam, the insurance companies denied the family’s claims, which were made on behalf of the children. Both sides had taken a firm stand, and the matter of whether or not John C. Austin was alive or dead would be decided by the courts.

Thus, in December, 1893, about twenty Adirondack woodsmen found themselves en route to New York City for an extended stay, courtesy of the insurance companies. They were to testify about their interactions with Austin and the range of his movements.

Next week: From the big woods to the big city.

Photo Top: Manhattan Beach, circa 1900.

Photo Bottom: Headline from the Austin case.

Lawrence Gooley has authored nine books and many articles on the North Country’s past. He and his partner, Jill McKee, founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004. He took over in 2010 and began expanding the company’s publishing services. For information on book publishing, visit Bloated Toe Publishing.


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