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, May 2, 2011

Commentary: Gas Prices, History, and the Gas Tax

On a gas pump near Plattsburgh a few days ago, the price for Regular Grade was just under $4.20 per gallon. Check this out: “The American Petroleum Institute’s weekly report says that despite a sharp increase in crude oil output … there have been extensive gasoline price advances.” And, regarding local prices, “there has been a long agitation against what northern New York motorists have considered discrimination against the North Country.”

“The committee appointed last Tuesday by the New York Development Association will investigate the reason for the difference in the price of gasoline in northern New York as compared with prices charged in Utica and Syracuse.” Here’s why you SHOULDN’T be encouraged by those quotes: they’re taken from the 1920s.

History can be fun, entertaining, and educational, but it can also provide guidelines to the future. And that’s where society tends to fail so often, a fault alluded to in the old proverb suggesting that those forgetting the past are doomed to repeat it. This price-of-gas situation has happened often in the past, and here we go again. Same problems, same rhetoric, same lack of results.

Average Americans have been sold the big lie over and over, and we keep coming back for more. If you recall: the occasional fuel crises from now back through the 1980s; gas rationing in the 1970s (remember odd-and-even days, long lines at the pumps, and limited purchases?); and other similar periods, then tell me if this sounds familiar: “FTC hearings will be held on the unexplained rising price of gasoline, in compliance with a senate resolution.”

That quote is from 1916, and the price increase wasn’t “unexplained.” It was gouging by the oil companies during World War I. It was okay to screw the public, but not the feds. Within a year of when the US finally joined the fight, Federal Fuel Administrator H. A. Garfield announced he was studying plans “to fix the price of gasoline for domestic customers, as well as for the government and Allies, at a lower figure than the present market price.”

In the years immediately following the war, gas prices doubled, and for good reason: the sales of cars skyrocket in the 1920s, and what better way for oil companies to take advantage than raise the price of fuel for those millions of new vehicles?

Of course, the same arguments you hear today were applied then: it’s not greed, it’s capitalism and the market’s natural response to supply and demand forces. Greater demand supposedly drove prices higher, and the poor oil companies were forced to reap historic profits. Why, oh why, does that sound so familiar?

It continues nearly a century later … just look at Exxon and Chevron’s recent quarterly statements. Fighting back against these behemoths hasn’t been successful. The rising prices of the early 1920s prompted another federal investigation led by Senator LaFollette, who said, “Unless there is government intervention, the price of gasoline will be pushed beyond the reach of the ordinary automobile owner.” Again, of course, the findings were ignored.

There may be a good reason why nothing concrete resulted from all of the investigations. In 1919, Oregon became the first state to institute a gasoline tax intended to provide funding for the repair and maintenance of roadways. It looked like a great system, and the idea spread across the country. Governments soon corrupted the process, simply taxing gasoline as a revenue source.

It’s almost impossible to believe, but New York was one of the last two states to follow suit. (Here’s one thing to be proud of, though—we’ve managed to regroup and pass every state in the tax category). In 1929, Governor Franklin Roosevelt signed a large farm-aid legislative package that included the Hewitt-Pratt bill, a clause that led him to threaten a veto.

Hewitt-Pratt contained this order: “Moneys paid into the state treasury pursuant to this subdivision [the gas tax] shall be appropriated and used for the maintenance and repair of the improved roads of the state, under the direction of the superintendent of public works.”

Well, sort of. The state imposed a two-cent gas tax, returning a percentage of the take to the individual counties based on road mileage, and depositing the remainder in the state treasury.

Raising the price of gas posed a concern, but not to worry. State Tax Commissioner Thomas Lynch said that when the law kicked in on May 1, there was “no assurance that the public would pay two cents more for gas.” Since it was taxed at the source (the distributors), Lynch said the oil companies would probably just absorb the cost. Nostradamus had nothing to worry about.

As for that new money in the treasury? In no time at all, politicians were appropriating gas-tax funds for a variety of non-road-related uses. Once the feeding frenzy began, it was all over. Requests to raise the gas tax soon became routine. After all, it was a state income bonanza.

Even a county as small as Clinton paid $293,000 in 1932, of which only $96,000 came back for highway use. By 1934, the gas tax itself amounted to 24 percent of the price. In 1934, the state took in $85 million from the gas tax, $50 million of which was diverted for non-highway use. (That very same issue arose recently with the loss of the Lake Champlain Bridge.)

It probably comes as no surprise that, in 1929, the Supreme Court rejected efforts by the states to treat gasoline as a public utility. Natural gas and electricity were somehow necessary, but gas was deemed a commodity that we could do with or without. And so Standard Oil (the father of virtually every major oil company) won the right to regulate itself.

It was business as usual—move into an area, depress prices by lowering its own price, put the competition out of business, and then raise prices at their whim. Walmart has been accused of employing the same tactics. (Today’s ExxonMobil was formerly known as Standard Oil.)

What were the answers to the gas-price problems in the 1990s? The 1970s? The 1920s? All the same. Oil companies flourished while consumers, victimized by high prices, explored electric cars, ethanol fuel, and sometimes just did without. The huge ethanol movement of a few years ago was hardly different from 1997 and 1927, mostly serving as a boon for farmers.

So, as prices rise and you begin to see articles and editorials complaining about the oil companies, and about the inexplicably higher cost of gas in the North Country, it may be a story, but it’s not news. There’s nothing new about it.

Photo Top: Steep price for gas.

Photo Bottom: 1929 advertisement for ethanol.

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, April 25, 2011

Liberia Pioneer: Champlain’s Jehudi Ashmun

In 1822, three months after Champlain, New York native Jehudi Ashmun’s colony of freed slaves landed on Africa’s west coast, and two months after losing his wife, the group faced impending hostilities from surrounding tribes. The attack finally came on November 11th. Ashmun, a man of religious faith but deeply depressed at his wife’s death, was suddenly thrust into the position of impromptu military leader.

Approximately ten kings of local tribes sent 800 men to destroy the new settlement, which held only 35 residents, six of whom were younger than 16 years old. Many among them were very ill, leaving only about 20 fit enough to help defend the colony. By any measure, it was a slam dunk. » Continue Reading.


Monday, April 18, 2011

Local History: Liberian Pioneer Jehudi Ashmun

Thursday, April 21, marks the birthday of one of the most famous men you never heard of, and surely the least known of all North Country figures who once graced the world stage. It is also appropriate to recall his story at this time for two other reasons. It has ties to slavery and the Civil War during this, the year marking the 150th anniversary of America’s darkest period. And, in relation to current world news, it involves fighting for change in Africa.

If you’re well familiar with the work of Jehudi Ashmun, you’re in a very small minority. Even in his hometown, little has been done to mark his achievements other than a single roadside historical marker. And yet, if you look, you’ll find him in dozens of encyclopedias and reference books as an important part of African and Liberian history. » Continue Reading.


Monday, April 11, 2011

A Search for the ‘Missingest Man in New York’

After NYS Supreme Court Justice Joseph Crater went missing in New York City in 1930, the search led to Plattsburgh and then to the Meridian Hotel, a few feet across the border from Champlain.

Nothing concrete was found in New York’s northeastern corner, but a few days later, Crater was sighted at Fourth Lake in the Old Forge area. He was also “positively” identified as one of two men seen at a Raquette Lake hunting lodge in late August. Two detectives followed that trail, while others were summoned to confirm a sighting at the Ausable Club near Keene Valley.

As if that wasn’t enough, it was announced that Crater had spent a couple of days at Hulett’s Landing on the eastern shore of Lake George, and then at Brant Lake. Police and detectives pursued every lead, while headlines told the story from New York to Texas to Seattle. » Continue Reading.


Monday, April 4, 2011

Local History: The Search for Judge Crater

Amelia Earhart. Pattie Hearst. Jimmie Hoffa. Famous vanishing acts that obsessed the public and saturated the media. In their time, they were big, but it’s doubtful they topped the notoriety of New York State’s most famous disappearance, that of Supreme Court Justice Joseph Force Crater. And some of his story played out across the Adirondacks and the North Country.

The tale has now faded, but in 75 years it spawned fiction and nonfiction books, countless thousands of newspaper articles, was satirized in Mad Magazine, and formed the plot for movies. It was used for laughs on The Dick Van Dyke Show, Golden Girls, and others. It fostered a guaranteed punch line for standup comics, and produced a common slang expression that appeared in some dictionaries.

The basic details of the story begin with Joseph Crater’s rapid rise in New York City politics. A graduate of Columbia Law School, he taught at Fordham and NYU and aligned himself with the Democratic Party, a move that significantly boosted his private law practice. The New York City wing of the party was widely known as Tammany Hall, where corruption ran rampant and payoffs were routine.

Crater worked within that system, and in 1930, at age 41, he was appointed to the New York State Supreme Court, filling a vacancy. With a career that was flourishing, a dapper public persona, and plenty of power, prestige, and money, “Good-time Joe,” as he was known, had New York City and life itself by the tail.

After the June court session ended, he and wife Stella (she was still in her teens when he married her more than a decade earlier, after handling her divorce) headed for their retreat in Maine for some relaxation. On August 3, Crater received news of a problem in New York. He headed back to the city, leaving Stella with words to the effect, “I have to straighten those fellows out.”

The rest of the story has been repeated thousands of times. The main components are: he went to their apartment on Fifth Avenue; spent time at his courthouse office early on August 6; removed several files there and brought them back to the apartment; had his assistant cash several checks for him; and bought one ticket to see Dancing Partner on Broadway later in the evening.

He dined with attorney William Klein and showgirl Sally Lou Ritz, and shortly after 9 p.m., they parted company. Crater was said to have hailed a cab, supposedly heading for Broadway—and was never heard from again. Nada. Zippo. Nothing.

Because of Joe’s frequent comings and goings, Stella was only mildly concerned with his absence at first. She grew nervous when he didn’t make it back for her birthday, August 9. Within days, she sent her chauffeur to New York to look for Crater, but he only found assurances that Joe would eventually show up.

Finally, Stella hired a private detective, but just like the chauffeur’s efforts, it produced nothing of substance. Friends were confident he would soon be seen. Everything at the apartment seemed normal—travel bags, watch, clothing, and other personal effects were there—but no Joe.

An unofficial search ensued, but alarm really set in when court resumed on August 25 and he still hadn’t surfaced. For various reasons, no official report was made until September 3, a month after Stella had last seen him. An investigation began, and soon many lurid facts were revealed.

As it turned out, there had been plenty of women in Joe’s life, and he was deeply involved in the Tammany machine. It was noted that he had withdrawn $20,000 from the bank at about the time he was appointed to the Supreme Court. Coincidentally, in the ongoing political corruption probe, that was the figure named as the going price for judgeships and other positions.

Dozens of other ugly details were revealed as investigators kept digging. Meanwhile, there was one other important issue to deal with—where the heck was Justice Crater?

A month after his disappearance (but within a week of when the official search began), authorities had traced nearly every second of Joe’s trip to New York. After the dinner date, the trail went cold. The police inspector issued this statement: “We have no reason to believe he is alive, and no reason to believe he is dead. There is absolutely no new development in the case.”

At the time of that statement, a friend said that Crater had mentioned taking a trip to Canada (but gave no reason why). The focus of the continuous search was on far upstate New York. In fact, as far upstate as you can get. In northeastern Clinton County, Plattsburgh reporters were contacted by NYC police and urged to investigate rumors that Crater was in the vicinity.

At Champlain, north of Plattsburgh and less than a mile from the Canadian border, was a famed Prohibition hotspot, the Meridian Hotel. Just a few feet inside of Canada, it was a favored watering hole for thirsty Americans. Crater was reportedly seen at the Meridian, and, since he was a horse-racing enthusiast, it was assumed he had stopped at Saratoga on his way north.

Read Part 2: The search for Judge Crater spans the Adirondacks.

Photo Top: Judge Crater reward poster (the $5,000 is equal to $65,000 in 2011).

Photo Bottom: Judge Crater and wife, Stella, on the last day they were together, August 3, 1930.

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, March 28, 2011

Warrensburg’s Own Dick Whitby, Notable Musician

Obituaries vary widely in their historical value. Sometimes they’re elaborate; at times they are understated; some leave out important facts; and some, well … some are just hard to explain. Like this one from March, 1952: “Richard A. Whitby, a native of Warrensburg, died on Wednesday of last week at his home in Albany. Survivors are his wife, Mrs. Kathryn M. Waring Whitby; two sisters, Mrs. Frank Chapman and Miss Kate Whitby of Yonkers.”

That notice appeared in his hometown newspaper. Accurate, no doubt, and surely succinct, but brevity isn’t always a good thing. In this case, the inattention to detail is stunning, and it’s quite a stretch from what’s true to what’s important. I’d like to take a crack at bridging that gap. Richard Augustus Whitby (not Richard E. or other variations that appear in many records) was born to Louisa and Richard James Whitby on January 22, 1879. The family’s background played an important role in Richard’s legacy. Once established, the Whitby surname remained prominent in the Warrensburg-Glens Falls area for decades.

In 1872, the Whitbys (they had two young sons) emigrated from Yeovil, England where Richard J. had operated a cloth manufacturing business employing 61 laborers. He pursued the same work in America, first at Leeds in Greene County and then at Salem in Washington County, finally settling in Warrensburg, where he was superintendent of the woolen mill.

Financially sound, Mr. Whitby was able to pursue his interests, which were family and music. He managed to combine the two in remarkable fashion, and mix work in as well. Each family member learned to play a musical instrument, and as they entered adulthood, each was employed in the family business. By 1899, son Percy was managing the mill with his father, while Eloise, Eustace (salesman), Kate (stitcher), and Richard (buttonhole maker) toiled for Whitby & Co.

As good as they were at making clothing, it was in the world of music that the family excelled. The Whitby dance band played countless gigs and was in great demand, but the family performed solos and joined other musical groups as well. In 1895, the GAR Band and the Citizens’ Band ended an ongoing competition by merging into the Warrensburg Military Band. Among the dozens of members were several Whitbys—Percy, clarinet and Musical Director; his father, Richard J., cornet; Eustace, saxophone; and young Richard A., baritone horn.

After a performance on baritone by Richard in 1893, one prescient local reviewer said Whitby’s effort “… would have done credit to a professional player.” Besides the baritone horn, Richard also played two related instruments, the euphonium and the trombone. By the mid-1890s, his euphonium solos were known far and wide, and highly praised.

During the next several years, he performed at dozens of graduations, church events, and the like, routinely accompanied by his mother, Louisa, on the piano. In the summer of 1895, Mr. and Mrs. Whitby and son Richard were the star attraction at the Leland House in Schroon Lake.

In 1896, the 17-year-old was hired by Scribner & Smith’s Circus to play slide trombone during the summer. In 1899 he signed with a traveling comedy and music act, followed by several years as trombonist for the Broad Street Theater in Richmond, Virginia.

Word of his ability spread, and in 1910, “Dick” Whitby was the trombone soloist for Carl Edouarde’s 60-piece band, a top act in Philadelphia and New York City. (Edouarde, who later composed film scores, conducted the music for Steamboat Willie, the first sound cartoon.)

In October, 1911, Whitby married Bertha B. Lancaster (yes, Bert Lancaster) of Peekskill, and the couple moved to New York City. All the while, Richard’s fame continued to grow.

Though he had made steady progress over the years, his rise now seemed meteoric. Outstanding performances in Edouarde’s band were soon followed by a stunning announcement in 1913: Richard had been offered the second chair in John Philip Sousa’s band, which for decades had featured some of the world’s finest musicians. Second chair meant the number two position, but Whitby was also promised first chair upon the lead trombone player’s imminent retirement.

It was a tremendous honor and highly regarded confirmation of his great talent, but there was a problem: Richard was still under contract to Carl Edouarde, who had no intentions of releasing him from a prominent run at New York’s Palace Theater.

He continued as lead trombonist for Edouarde’s concert band, and it seemed like the opportunity of a lifetime had passed. But such was the talent of Richard Whitby that Sousa was willing to wait. When he became a free agent in 1915, Sousa signed Richard to an 8-month contract, beginning on April 1, 1915.

The timing was fortuitous. After three years of playing one main venue and going on only a short tour each season, Sousa’s band was suddenly once again a hot property. When Richard joined the orchestra, it was for an extraordinary tour reaching all the way to the West Coast.

San Francisco was hosting a major event, the Panama-Pacific International Exhibition (the World’s Fair), celebrating the opening of the Panama Canal and the city’s own recovery from the horrific 1906 earthquake. Sousa’s band played on opening-day and performed for an extended run through May and June, allowing untold thousands to enjoy Whitby’s great solos.

The band might have played longer but for a telegram from New York, requesting their services for an upcoming extravaganza at the world’s largest theater, the Hippodrome.

Leaving San Francisco, the band toured the Northwest to great acclaim. Notable was a July concert before 17,000 attendees at a high school stadium in Tacoma, Washington. From there, the band toured through the Midwest and then played before large crowds in Pennsylvania, including a month at famous Willow Grove Park and two weeks at the Pittsburgh Exhibition, before finally arriving in New York.

Those were heady days for one of the world’s most famous bands, now performing at the 5,200 seat Hippodrome for an 8-month run. Critics raved, as did Theatre Magazine: “The astonished and delighted spectator feels like cheering all the way through the really wonderful program.” It was a smash success, but Whitby remained for only half the run (about 215 performances).

When his contract with Sousa expired at the end of the year, Richard returned to more familiar haunts. In 1916, he opened with a slide trombone solo for a Warrensburg concert by students of the famed Oscar Seagle. Whitby’s rendition of Patriot Polka was a tribute to his friend and former instructor, Arthur Pryor, author of the tune and acknowledged for decades as one of the world’s premiere trombonists.

Richard’s preference was to remain in the North Country, but no matter where he was, his talent and fame kept him in high demand. A renowned soloist who tested the limits of his instrument, Whitby starred for several years on Atlantic City’s Boardwalk. The main venue he played there was the famed Steel Pier, which extends 1000 feet over the ocean and today sits directly across the Boardwalk from Trump’s Taj Mahal Resort and Casino.

He also did stints at New York’s Palace Theater, and in the 1920s was soloist with the Paramount Symphony Orchestra at the Paramount Theater.

When he was upstate, he played with Noller’s Band of Troy and the Schenectady Symphony Orchestra. Whitby lived in Albany for many years, and through the 1930s and 1940s was one of the city’s and the region’s most sought-after musicians. He was widely acknowledged as one of the greatest trombone players in the country.

Obituaries normally mention one’s accomplishments, and when Richard Whitby died in 1952, his hometown obit noted only two events: “… native of Warrensburg … died … at his home in Albany.” It suggests an innocuous existence marked largely by his entrance into and exit from life. Being born and dying are surely significant, but as you can see, there was some other stuff in between.

Photo Top: The John Philip Sousa Band performing at the Panama-Pacific Exhibition (World’s Fair) in 1915.

Photo Middle: A euphonium, one of the instruments mastered by Richard A. Whitby.

Photo Bottom: The famed Steel Pier on Atlantic City’s Boardwalk.

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, March 21, 2011

Horse Racing Legends: Eddie "Peg Leg" Jones

Inspiring stories of success are often rooted in the lives of people widely perceived as being handicapped, yet have somehow managed to overcome daunting obstacles. A fine North Country example is Eddie “Peg Leg” Jones, who narrowly escaped death as a young boy but lost a leg in the process. For most people, the loss of a limb might well be the focus of the remainder of their lives. But Eddie’s story is one where outstanding achievements offered no hint on the surface that great physical impairment had been overcome.

Edward Jones was born in January, 1890, in New Haven, New York, southwest of Pulaski and just a few miles from the shores of Lake Ontario. Life on the family farm included hunting, and just a few weeks before his thirteenth birthday, Eddie suffered a terrible accident. While crossing a stone wall, he was struck by the accidental discharge of his shotgun. The injuries were severe, and amputation above the knee was necessary.

When he entered adulthood, Eddie engaged in the horse trade, buying and selling farm stock along the western foothills of the Adirondacks. Harness racing had long been a mainstay of North Country life, and dozens of communities hosted half-mile tracks. Through his love of working with horses, Eddie was drawn to the sport, so he jumped in with one foot.

The physical activity involved in training horses was challenging, but Eddie had no intentions of stopping there. He wanted to drive. Granted, it could be rough and rigorous, but it seemed a plus that this was a sport where the participant sat while competing.

That was true, of course, but without a second leg to provide balance and body control while racing, Eddie would have to improvise. A thick leather pad between his body and the sulky frame was all he used for support. He learned to balance by trial and error.

By the time he was 22, Eddie had proven he could drive. Using three main horses and racing at venues from Watertown to Batavia, he gained experience and earned several wins. Three years later (1915), behind five main mounts, Jones’ skills as both trainer and driver were unquestioned.

At Gouverneur, Canton, Watertown, Fulton, Rome, and Cortland, he was a multiple winner. More success came at Batavia, Elmira, and De Ruyter, and at Brockport, Ontario, Canada as well. Other forays outside of New York to Mount Holly, New Jersey and Hagerstown, Maryland led to more wins. In 120 heats, races, and free-for-alls, Eddie took first place 64 times, finishing outside of the top three on only 26 occasions.

While training and racing horses could be lucrative, it was also expensive. Eddie was married by then and needed a steady income, some of which was earned from bootlegging during Prohibition. He routinely smuggled booze in the Thousand Islands area until he and several others were arrested shortly before Prohibition was repealed.

After that, Eddie assumed a more legitimate lifestyle, managing hotels and other establishments while continuing on the racing circuit from Buffalo to Ogdensburg. In the winter he competed in ice races, which were often as well attended as the summer races. Heuvelton, one of the smaller venues, once drew more than 600 for an event held in February.

Through the 1930s, Jones continued to win regularly on tracks from Ormstown, Quebec to Syracuse, Elmira, and Buffalo, and many stops in between. The nickname “Easy Pickins” followed him, based on two things—his initials (for Edward Parkington Jones), and his uncanny use of pre-race strategies that helped him rise to the occasion at the end of a race.

In 1936, Jones took over as manager of the Edwards Hotel in Edwards, midway between Ogdensburg and Watertown. While working there, Eddie dominated the regional racing circuit and increased his stable of horses to 16.

He also began competing in Maine, but in the late 1930s, like so many others during the Depression, Jones fell on hard times. Though he was winning regularly, Eddie was forced to auction his horses, and in 1939, he filed bankruptcy. Life had taken another tough turn, and it looked like Jones, now 49, would end his career on a low note.

But “Peg Leg” Jones, as he was widely known in the media, was far from average. If losing a leg at age 12 hadn’t stopped him, why would he give up now?

And he didn’t. Eddie frequented the same tracks where he had raced over the years, now driving for other horse owners who were happy to have him. Eventually, Syracuse horseman Charles Terpening hired Jones to train and drive for him. Relieved of day-to-day money worries, Eddie flourished. In the early 1940s, despite his age, he began winning more and more races, particularly behind a famous horse, The Widower.

Soon Eddie was a big name in harness racing across the state, winning at Saratoga and many other venues, and competing on the Maine circuit as well. But the best was yet to come.

At the end of the 1944 season, Peg Leg Jones was the winningest racer in the US Trotting Association (covering the US and the eastern Canadian provinces). No one else was even close to Eddie’s total of 152 victories (86 with pacers and 65 with trotters).

Such a heavy schedule surely took a toll, and in the following year, Eddie (what did you expect?) took on even more work. Driving in 437 races across the Northeast, Jones, now 55, once again led the nation in wins with 118. His blue and red-trimmed silks became famous at northern tracks as he finished in the money in 78 percent of his races.

Jones had another excellent year in 1946, and continued racing and winning for several more years. In 1948, at the age of 58, Eddie set the track record at Booneville, just as he had done at Gouverneur in 1934 and Sandy Creek in 1942.

In the early 1950s, Jones began entering horses at Dufferin Park in Toronto. After an illness for which he was treated in the hospital at Oswego in fall, 1952, he went once again to Toronto in January. It was there that Eddie’s journey came to a sudden, tragic end.

On January 7, his lifeless body was found in the tack room. A razor lay nearby, and Eddie’s throat had been cut. More than $2,500 was found on him, and with no apparent motive for murder (like robbery), his death was officially ruled a suicide.

No one knew for sure the reason, and the truth will be clouded forever. As one report said, “The ‘backstretch telegraph’ laid it to a jealous husband or a money deal gone bad.” On the other hand, the suicide angle was supported by the money found on his person, and the fact that he had recently been ill. It was suspected that he may have had a serious disease or was in a lot of pain.

The tall, slim form of Eddie “Peg Leg” Jones would be missed by many. He won hundreds of races and thrilled thousands of spectators, and for more than four decades, the man with one leg had stood tall in the world of harness racing.

Photo Top: Saratoga Trotting Track.

Photo Bottom: Trotting scene from 1915.

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, March 14, 2011

Notorious Outlaws Meet Boonville’s Jesse Knight

Among the North Country men who made their mark in the Old West was a native of Boonville, in the foothills of the southwestern Adirondacks. He became a success in business, politics, farming, and law, and played an important role in the development of a wild territory into our 44th state. But it was ties to some notorious characters that brought him a measure of fame.

Jesse Knight was born in Boonville on July 5, 1850, the son of Jesse and Henrietta Knight. His grandfather, Isaac, had settled in Oneida County in the early 1800s and raised a family, among them Jesse’s father. But young Jesse never knew his dad, who left that same year for California, and died of yellow fever on the Isthmus of Panama. (The isthmus was a newly created US Mail route to reach California and Oregon, and a popular path for pioneers headed West.)

Jesse attended schools in Lewis, Oneida, and Fulton counties, and at 17 went to live with an uncle in Minnesota for two years. He moved to Omaha, and then settled in the Wyoming Territory. Within a decade, Knight progressed from store clerk and postmaster to court clerk and attorney. At Evanston, near Wyoming’s southwest border, he ran a successful law practice and served as Territorial Auditor.

He also acted as a land sales agent for Union Pacific. Among the properties he sold was 1,906 acres on the Bear River … to one Jesse Knight.

In 1888 he was elected prosecuting attorney of Uinta County, and in 1890, when Wyoming attained statehood, he was voted a member of the state constitutional convention. He was also elected as judge of the Third Judicial District.

By this time, Knight was doing quite well financially and had added to his landholdings. On nearly 1400 acres along the Bear River and more than 800 acres of hills, the judge’s ranch had developed into an impressive enterprise. Within the fenced property, he grew high-quality hay (250 tons) and rye (50 tons), and raised herds of superior-grade cattle and horses.

Irrigation was a key element: two main ditches (one was 3 miles long, 20 feet wide, and 4 feet deep) supplied ample water. The Union Pacific rail line bisected the property, allowing Jesse’s products easy access to markets elsewhere.

Besides his showcase farming operation, Knight’s public career was also flourishing. In 1896, he suffered what appeared to be a setback, failing to win the Republican re-nomination for district judge. Unfazed, he ran as an Independent and won handily. A year later, he was appointed as an associate justice of the Supreme Court of Wyoming to fill an unexpired term. In 1898, Knight was elected to a full 8-year term.

His business ventures were similarly successful. Besides the ranch, he owned part of a copper mine. He was also one of only two Americans working with several of Europe’s wealthiest men in developing oil wells in Wyoming. The consortium was valued at $10 million (equal to over a quarter billion in 2011). Jesse had a seat on the board of directors.

In 1902, his prominence was noted in the naming of the Knight Post Office, which served a community near Evanston for 19 years.

On April 9, 1905, though still a young man of only 55, Supreme Court Justice Jesse Knight died of pneumonia. He had accomplished a great deal for any man, let alone a poor, fatherless boy from the wilds of New York. His survivors included a wife and five children.

Among Knight’s legacy are connections to some of the West’s notorious characters. In his capacities as rancher, lawyer, prosecutor, and judge, he dealt with many violent, dangerous men over the years. According to biographers of “Big Nose” George Parrott, it was Judge Jesse Knight who sentenced Parrott to hang for the attempted robbery of a Union Pacific pay car and the subsequent killing of two lawmen who were pursuing him.

It was pretty much an average crime story until Parrott tried to escape from jail before Knight’s sentence could be carried out. The attempt prompted an angry mob to forcibly remove Big Nose from his cell and string him up from a telegraph pole. (But it wasn’t easy.)

John Osborne, one of the doctors who had possession of Parrott’s body, examined the brain for abnormalities. Further dissection of the body led to lasting fame for Parrott’s remains. The skull cap that had been removed was saved, and over the years it served as an ash tray, a pen holder, and a doorstop. A death mask of his face was also made. That aside, now it gets gruesome.

The body was flayed, and the skin was sent to a tannery, where it was made into a medical bag, a coin purse, and a pair of shoes, all of which were used by Osborne. The shoes were two-toned—the dark half came from the shoes Parrot wore during the hanging, and the lighter part was made from his own skin.

Doctor Osborne wore the shoes for years—even to the inaugural ball when he was elected governor of Wyoming! The rest of Parrott’s remains were placed in a whiskey barrel filled with a salt solution, and eventually buried. The barrel was uncovered in 1950, and it was found that the skull cap neatly fit the remains, proving it was Parrott’s body. Other tests later confirmed the results. The death mask and “skin shoes” are now on display in a museum in Rawlins, Wyoming.

In 1903, Supreme Court Justice Knight was involved in the famous case of Tom Horn, a former lawman and detective turned outlaw and hired gun. In a controversial trial, Horn was convicted and sentenced to hang for the killing of a 14-year-old boy. Justice Knight was among those who reviewed the appeal, which was denied. Horn was hanged in November, 1903.

The most famous character linked to Knight was Roy Parker, who was actually Robert LeRoy Parker, better known as Butch Cassidy. They met when Cassidy was arrested for horse theft, a case tried in “Knight court.” After delays, the trial was finally held in 1894. Cassidy was very popular, and many of his friends were in town with the intent of intervening on his behalf.

A verdict was reached, but Knight ordered it sealed, to be opened on the following Monday, by which time it was hoped many of the visitors would have left town. But Cassidy’s friends were loyal, and high anxiety reigned in the packed courtroom when the verdict was read. To counter the danger, the sheriff, several town officials, many private citizens, and the attorneys all came to court armed. Famously, Judge Jesse Knight carried a pistol, hidden beneath his robes.

The jury pronounced Cassidy guilty, recommending him to the mercy of the court. Knight sentenced him to two years in the Wyoming State Penitentiary at Laramie. A few months before his scheduled release, Cassidy’s sentence was commuted. The term imposed by Judge Knight was the only prison time Butch Cassidy ever served during his lengthy, notorious career.

Photo Top: Jesse Knight.

Photo Middle Right: Big Nose George Parrott.

Photo Middle Left: Shoes of George Parrott … literally.

Photo Bottom: Robert LeRoy Parker, aka Butch Cassidy.

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, March 7, 2011

Adirondack Labor: New York’s Anti-Loafing Law

It’s interesting (sometimes) to listen to the multitude of political pundits, politicians, and talking heads as they inform us what our “founding fathers” intended, and the rules, ethics, and morals this country was founded on. In reality, they are often telling us what they WANT the founding fathers to have believed. History tells us they are often far off the mark, but the lack of accuracy doesn’t deter them from saying it publicly anyway.

The often muddled view of history offered by some commentators is troubling, and is usually, of course, self-serving. But the modern media has proven one thing: if you say something often enough, whether it’s accurate or not, people (and maybe even the speaker) will begin to believe it.

When it’s intentional, that’s just plain wrong. History is important. It can offer valuable perspective on possible solutions to some of our problems, and can play an important role in how we view the present and future. It can also tell us more about who we are, something that was brought to mind recently as I listened to a radio discussion about the current jobless rate.

The focus was on the nation’s high unemployment, which reminded me of how I annoyed my teachers long ago when that very same topic was discussed. Back then, we all learned how lucky we were not to live in other countries, an argument that was backed with plenty of scary facts.

For one thing, other countries allowed no choice when attacking certain problems. We were told that some countries didn’t even ALLOW unemployment. Idle men were conscripted into the military and/or put to work for the good of the nation. All male teenagers were required to begin military training. Those countries were said to be anti-freedom, but we had choices. That kind of thing couldn’t happen here.

And that was my cue to interrupt. I’ve always read a lot, and as a teenager, I was ready to challenge my teachers (and pretty much any authority). So, I thought I had a really good set of questions about those terrible practices, something I had learned on my own.

My teacher, a fervent military man who still seemed to be fighting World War II, was not amused when I said I knew of just such a place. I said that they made unemployment illegal and forced men to take jobs chosen for them by local authorities (unless the man chose one of his own). Each man was required to work a minimum of 36 hours per week.

Even worse, I added, the government passed another law ordering all teenagers 16 or older to attend military drills or perform military duties. Doing so earned them a certificate, and here’s the kicker: without that certificate, young men were not allowed “to attend public or private school or obtain employment.”

Right away the other students began guessing. Russia? Germany under Hitler? Cuba? (Cuba did outlaw unemployment at that time.) Who would order its citizens in such fashion? My classmates knew it had to be someplace evil. After all, we were in the midst of the Cold War.

At that point, I knew I was in trouble. The instructor was staring at me with cold, beady eyes, waiting for me … no, daring me … to say it. So I said it. It wasn’t intended as a criticism. I was just happy to know the truth, excited that I had learned something unusual on my own, and couldn’t wait to share the surprise (that is, until his stare began).

“New York State and the Anti-Loafing Law,” and that’s about all I was allowed to say. The teacher immediately launched into an explanation. It was true, he said, but it was nothing like the situations in other countries. We did those things, but it was different.

And he was right, maybe. But what bothered me was how he seemed to take it personally, how insulted he was. It seemed to suggest that this was HIS country. It was, but it was my country, too, so I fought back. As I soon learned, you might have the truth, but might makes right.

The Anti-Loafing Law was passed in New York State in 1918, less than a year after the US entered WW I. Maryland and New Jersey led the way, and we were next. I found it fascinating that in a democracy, the law could require all men between the ages of 18 and 50 to be “habitually and regularly engaged in some lawful, useful, and recognized business, profession, occupation, trade, or employment until the termination of the war.”

If a man didn’t have a job, a local authority was assigned to choose one for him. And no one could turn down a job because of the level of pay. Every man must work. It was the law.

“Useful” work had its implications as well. Already, by orders of the US General Provost, Enoch Crowder, men between the ages of 21 and 30 were “not permitted to be elevator conductors, club porters, waiters, pool room attendants, life guards at summer resorts, valets, butlers, footmen, chefs, janitors, or ushers in amusement places. Men of that age were needed for war.

New York’s government, indicating there would be few exceptions to the new law, fed the media a wonderful sound bite taken directly from the text: “Loitering in the streets, saloons, depots, poolrooms, hotels, stores, and other places is considered prima facie evidence of violation of the act, punishable by a fine of $100 or imprisonment for three months, or both.”

Still not clear enough? Charles Whitman, governor of New York, chimed in: “The purpose … is to force every able-bodied male person within the State to do his share toward remedying the conditions due to the present shortage of labor.” By signing the law after New Jersey passed theirs, Whitman had a handy reason: if we didn’t pass our own law, men from New Jersey would flood across the border into New York State to avoid being forced to either work or fight.

How would it sit with you today if you read this in your favorite online journal? “The State Industrial Commission will cooperate with the sheriffs, the state police, and other peace officers throughout the state to find the unemployed and to assign them to jobs, which they must fill. It will be no defense to anyone seeking to avoid work to show that he has sufficient income or means to live without work. The state has the right to the productive labor of all its citizens.”

Governor Whitman admitted “there may be some question as to the constitutionality” of the law, but enforcement began on June 1, 1918. Sheriffs across the state were required to act, and they did. Some, like Clinton County Sheriff John Fiske, made sure there were no scofflaws, scouring local establishments as the law instructed, looking for loiterers.

Those who were jailed in Clinton County had to pay a fine and serve their time, just like the law said, but they weren’t allowed to sit idle. Fiske put them to work full-time in the community, ensuring they would comply with both the letter and the intent of the law.

On the surface, those laws look absolutely un-American and undemocratic. The argument was, extreme times (WW I) call for extreme measures. Other states and countries (including Canada) passed similar laws. Maybe New Yorkers were lucky. In Virginia, compliance was extended from ages 16 to 60. And some people retire today at 55!

Learning all of that was interesting, but sharing it in school was less than wise, at least in that particular classroom. After that, my so-called “history teacher” saw me as nothing but anti-American, and he made life miserable for me. He caused me to dread that class every day.

I argued that protesting and speaking out were critical to America—it’s how the country was formed. But it didn’t matter to him, and after that, I didn’t care. I lost all respect for him. For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out why he wouldn’t just deal with the facts, and the truth. In my mind, that’s what every history teacher’s work should be based on.

I always hated those lame “George Washington cut down the cherry tree” stories. Making stuff up just means you have something to hide. Apparently they didn’t want us to know he owned slaves. As a teenager, I wanted the truth, and I could deal with it. It was far more interesting than some of the stuff they fed us.

Photo Top: NYS’s Compulsory Labor law.

Photo Middle: Clinton County Sheriff John Fiske.

Photo Bottom: NYS law ordering lawmen to search each community for able-bodied males.

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, February 28, 2011

Local History: A True Story of Sunken Treasure

Recent acts of piracy on the high seas brought to mind stories of what some call “the Golden Age of Pirates” (like Blackbeard, or Henry Morgan). That conjured images of sunken treasure, which in turn reminded me of what might well be the shallowest sunken treasure ever recovered. And wouldn’t you know it? It happened right here in the North Country.

It occurred at the southern tip of Lake Champlain, near Whitehall, already the site of many historic lake-related treasures. Arnold’s Valcour fleet was built there, and it’s also the final resting place of the ships that survived the Battle of Plattsburgh. Most of them eventually sank in East Bay, which is a vast marshy area surrounding the mouth of the Poultney River.

If you’ve never toured the lower part of Lake Champlain, you’re missing a great experience. Besides playing a critical role during centuries of regional history, the scenery is spectacular. South of Ticonderoga, the lake narrows into a 20-mile, river-like channel previously referred to as Wood Creek. It features cliffs, narrows, lush vegetation, and copious wildlife.

Just outside of Whitehall is South Bay, bound in places by high, steep, cliffs that once hosted a historic battle. It also hosts a healthy population of rattlesnakes. The long, high ridge to the west, from here to Ticonderoga, separates South Bay from Lake George. Of all the canoe trips I’ve taken, South Bay is one of the all-time best.

A little further east down the lake is a sharp bend known simply as the Elbow, a shortened form of Fiddler’s Elbow. It was here that a famed member of Roger’s Rangers, General Israel Putnam, led an attack against Marin’s forces in 1758. To the east, just past the Elbow, is the entrance to East Bay, less than a mile from downtown Whitehall, where Lock 12 provides access to the New York State Barge Canal. Like I said, this place is extremely rich in history.

The story of sunken treasure is tied to the possession of Fort Ticonderoga, about twenty miles north. In early July, 1777, General Arthur St. Clair was the US commander at Ticonderoga, but the American troops were far outmanned and outgunned by the forces of Sir Johnny Burgoyne, whose great show of strength prompted St. Clair’s decision to evacuate the fort.

Some of St. Clair’s men crossed Lake Champlain and retreated across Vermont territory. Others went south on the lake to Whitehall. Burgoyne pursued the latter group, taking control of Whitehall (known then as Skenesborough). As the patriots fled, they destroyed many boats and just about anything they couldn’t carry, lest it fall into enemy hands.

Burgoyne’s forces were involved in other battles before finally meeting defeat at Saratoga, but it’s his time at Whitehall that is a vital link to the treasure story. His men at Fort Ticonderoga and elsewhere frequently suffered the same problems as the Americans—exhaustion, hunger, and lack of pay. Many unpaid soldiers voiced their discontent, and mutiny could soon follow.

To alleviate the problem, British authorities in Quebec dispatched a sloop. Manned by a crew of ten, it carried sufficient gold to pay Burgoyne’s thousands of soldiers. After the long trip down Lake Champlain, the sloop reached Fort Ticonderoga, only to find that Burgoyne had traveled farther south. Captain Johnson (first name unknown), in charge of the gold-laden craft, decided to deliver his goods to Burgoyne at Whitehall.

Nearing the village, Johnson was informed that Burgoyne’s men had been victorious at Hubbardton, about 15 miles northeast of Whitehall. East Bay led directly towards Hubbardton, and about 8 miles upstream was a bridge the soldiers would cross as they made their way towards Albany. Johnson entered the bay, planning to intercept the troops at the bridge and give them the gold.

The sloop traveled as far as possible, anchoring just below Carver Falls, not far from the bridge. While waiting for Burgoyne’s men, the sloop came under attack by patriot forces, (possibly men retreating from the loss at Hubbardton). Captain Johnson scuttled his ship, but the men were killed trying to escape, and the Americans quickly left the area that would soon be crawling with British soldiers. The sloop lay on the river bottom.

Years later, it was learned that England’s military had offered a reward for the capture of Captain Johnson, for it was assumed he had made off with the booty, it having never been delivered.

Fast-forward 124 years to fall, 1901. Civil Engineer George B. West, who oversaw construction of the power dam at Carver Falls, learned that raging spring torrents had left part of a watercraft exposed in the riverbed below the falls. Aided by a crew of 30 men, he diverted the river temporarily to further explore the wreck and clear it from the channel. Using tools, and then a charge of dynamite, they managed to free the hull. Inside, they found various glass items, several muskets, and an interesting iron chest in the captain’s quarters.

Imagine the excitement of the moment, opening the lid to reveal 10,000 gold sovereigns, coins that today might fetch between $5 and $10 million!

As the spoils of a long-ago war, the coins were deposited in the Allen National Bank in nearby Fair Haven, Vermont. But ownership of the money was questioned by the New York Times, Boston newspapers, and many others across New England. Some said it should be returned to Great Britain as a gesture of good faith. Others said to keep it. After all, if the soldiers had recovered the gold when the boat sank, it surely wouldn’t have been returned to the Brits.

But it wasn’t that simple. The boat sank in 1777. Previous to that, the battle between New York and New Hampshire over land grants had led to the creation of the Republic of Vermont, located between the two litigants. Neither New York nor New Hampshire recognized Vermont independence, which led to an interesting scenario: in 1777, the site at Carver Falls could have been part of New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, or British territory.

Further complicating matters, when statehood was finally settled (and before the gold was discovered), the NYS-Vermont border in that area was placed right down the center of the Poultney River. In the end, it is believed the money remained in Vermont coffers.

There is an interesting side story that was not included in published accounts about the recovered gold. It helps explain how the boat went undetected for more than a century. Above Carver Falls, seven years after the sloop sank, the river’s path was diverted, whether by natural means, man-made means, or a combination of the two. A supposed dispute over water rights may have played a role, or the river may have naturally chosen a new course through a widespread sandy area.

What’s most important is the result of the change in path. Up to 1783, East Bay was navigable by ships weighing up to 40 tons. The course diversion caused massive amounts of sand and sediment to wash over the falls, reducing the channel’s depth dramatically.

In subsequent years, though rumors of sunken treasure persisted, it hardly seemed plausible that a boat of any size could have made the journey to Carver Falls. Who could have known the river was once much deeper? It wasn’t until 124 years later that nature released a torrent strong enough to reveal the truth. And to clear the long-sullied name of Captain Johnson.

Photos: Top, map of key locations; below, sample of a British gold sovereign from the late 1700s.

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, February 21, 2011

Abe Lincoln’s Adirondack Avengers

Presidents’ Day brings to mind an interesting historical connection between some North Country men and the Abraham Lincoln story. On the downside, the men in question are linked to the aftermath of Lincoln’s death, a dark subject. On the upside, they played a positive role in the hunt for the president’s assassin. With admiration, they have been referred to as Lincoln’s Avengers.

Several men from Clinton, Essex, St. Lawrence, and Warren counties belonged to the Sixteenth New York Cavalry. Shortly after Lincoln’s death, the troop was among the military escort at the president’s funeral. An honor, surely, but not the event that would bring them a measure of fame.

In the days following the assassination, several search missions were conducted in Washington and elsewhere in the hopes of finding John Wilkes Booth and his accomplices. After several false alarms, important new information was uncovered, requiring a swift response.

On April 24, five days after Lincoln’s funeral, headquarters in Washington ordered Lieutenant Edward Doherty to gather twenty-five men of the Sixteenth New York Cavalry and report to Colonel L. C. (Lafayette) Baker, Special Agent for the War Department. Among those to step forward and answer the call were ten men from the Adirondack region.

Doherty met with his captain and later reported: “He informed me that he had reliable information that the assassin Booth and his accomplice were somewhere between the Potomac and Rappahannock Rivers. He gave me several photographs of Booth and introduced me to Mr. Conger and Mr. Baker, and said they would accompany me.

“He directed me to scour the section of the country indicated thoroughly, to make my own disposition of the men in my command, to forage upon the country, giving receipts for what was taken from loyal parties.” In other words, move now. There was no time to prepare, so food and other needs would have to be secured from sympathetic US citizens, who would later be reimbursed.

For two days the troop pursued leads almost without pause, finally ending up at the now infamous Garrett farm in Caroline County, Virginia. Inside the barn was perhaps the most wanted man in American history, Booth, and one of his conspirators, David Herold.

The men of the Sixteenth surrounded the barn while negotiations and threats were passed back and forth between Booth and Lieutenant Doherty. Booth refused to leave the barn despite warnings he would be burned out. He even offered to shoot it out with Doherty’s men if they would pull back a certain distance from the barn.

Realizing he faced almost certain death, David Herold decided to surrender. After leaving the barn, he was tied to a tree and questioned. He verified for Doherty that it was indeed Booth inside the barn. The original plan, he said, was to kidnap Lincoln, but Booth instead killed him, and then threatened to do the same to Herold if he didn’t help Booth escape.

Doherty again turned his attention to the barn and its lone desperate occupant, who refused to come out. Finally, Everton Conger, one of Lafayette Baker’s detectives who accompanied the troop, set fire to the barn around 3 am. The idea was to force their quarry out, but things didn’t go as planned.

Due to the rapidly spreading blaze, Booth could be seen moving about inside the barn, and one of the men, Boston Corbett, decided to act. Claiming he could see that Booth was about to shoot at Doherty, Corbett fired. His shot hit Booth in the neck, coincidentally only an inch or two from where Booth’s own bullet had struck Lincoln.

Their captive was dragged from the barn, still alive, but he died about three hours later. Shortly after, his body and the prisoner, Herold, were taken to Washington. The most famous manhunt in American history was over.

Within several months, the men of the Sixteenth were discharged, carrying with them the pride (and the attending glory) for delivering what many felt was justice. Most of them returned to humble lives, sharing their story with family and friends over the years.

Six of the ten North Country men who participated lived at one time or another in the Saranac area. They had connections to many regional communities, having been born, lived in, or died in: Bangor, Beekmantown, Brushton, Cadyville, Chester (Chestertown), Elizabethtown, Minerva, Norfolk, Olmstedville, Plattsburgh, and Schuyler Falls.

As often happens, the spelling of names varies widely in census records, military records, and newspapers. This admired group of North Country heroes included: David Baker, William Byrne, Godfrey Phillip Hoyt, Martin Kelly, Oliver Lonkey (or Lompay), Franklin McDaniels (or Frank McDonald), John Millington, Emory Parady, Lewis Savage, and Abram Snay (Abraham, Senay, Genay).

In 1865, Congress voted reward money to those involved in the capture of many individuals. Among those so honored were the men of the Sixteenth New York Cavalry, the envy of all others for killing the man who himself had murdered a legend.

Photo Top: Conspirators at the ends of their ropes. Hanging, from left to right: Mary Surratt, David Herold, Lewis Powell, and George Atzerodt at Washington, DC, on July 7, 1865.

Photo Middle: Actor and assassin John Wilkes Booth.

Photo Bottom: Congressional reward list for Lincoln’s Avengers.

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, February 14, 2011

Lawrence Gooley: Love So Strong, It’s Criminal

(Warning: If your partner reads this, expectations for today may rise.) Ah, Valentine’s Day. Love is in the air. Chocolates, flowers, and special cards are a must. Maybe a family meal, or perhaps a romantic dinner for two. Jewelry? Diamonds? The sky’s the limit when it comes to making your sweetheart happy and showing true dedication. But it’s all pretty amateurish compared to real commitment. Which brings us to Fred Roderick and Agnes Austin.

Here’s the story as described in 1883 in a couple of newspapers. Without hard facts, I can’t account for all the details, but you gotta love the sense of purpose, focus, and ingenuity this couple used to achieve togetherness.

At Sageville (now Lake Pleasant, a few miles southeast of Speculator), Fred Roderick, about 25 years old, had been jailed for stealing a pair of horses, which had since been returned. In those days, a convicted horse thief could expect to do time in prison. Next to murder, it was one of the most serious crimes—horses were a key component to survival in the North Country.

In rural Hamilton County, it was no simple task to organize a trial, so for several months the county jail served as Roderick’s home. It was lonely at times, but he wasn’t entirely without company. Every Sunday, the local Methodist pastor brought a dozen or so members of his congregation to the jail, where they sang songs and held a prayer meeting.

For a couple of years, young Agnes Austin was among the church goers who participated. Shortly after Roderick’s incarceration, parish members noticed that, instead of lending her voice to the choir at all times, she seemed to have taken a personal interest in Fred’s salvation.

Soon Agnes gained special permission from the sheriff for weekday visits which, she assured him, would lead Roderick down the straight and narrow. But it seemed to work in the reverse. Agnes began showing up less often on Sundays and more frequently during the week. Imagine the whispers among her church brethren. Their pretty little friend was consorting with a criminal!

Or maybe her missionary efforts were sincere after all. Fred Roderick finally came forward and accepted religious salvation, owing it all, he said, to young Agnes. People being what they are, tongues wagged more frantically than ever about the supposed scandalous goings-on. Mr. Austin forbade (what was he thinking?) Agnes from making any further jail visits. Taking it one step further, he spoke to the sheriff, hoping to kill a tryst in the making.

It wasn’t long after that Agnes disappeared. With her supposed lover lingering hopelessly in jail, why would she run away? Well, as it turns out, she didn’t. Agnes and Fred had made plans. She was told to hide out at his father’s camp, where he would join her after his escape. (Country jails were often loosely kept, and escapes were common.)

After waiting more than a week, Agnes took matters into her own hands, which led to a sight that shocked the residents of Sageville. A constable rode into town, and behind him trailed Aggie Austin. The charge? That she was a horse thief. In broad daylight, she had taken not just any horse, but one of the very same horses Fred had stolen.

Because she was female, and because she made no effort to run when pursued, bail was set at $600—which Agnes immediately refused. To the puzzled bondsman and the sheriff, she explained: if Fred couldn’t be with her, then she would be with Fred. To that end, she left the camp, stole a horse, made sure she was caught, and now refused to be bailed out of jail.

It gets better. The next morning, Fred informed the sheriff that he wished to marry Miss Austin, and Agnes confirmed the same. Papa Austin most certainly would have objected, but Agnes was 19, of legal age to make her own choice. And that choice was Fred.

The judge was summoned, and the sheriff and his deputies stood witness to the joining. The district attorney weighed in as well, contributing what he could to the couple’s happiness.

Though they must be tried separately, he promised to “bring both cases before the same term of court, and thus allow the pair to make their bridal journey together to their future mountain home at Clinton Prison.”

Now THAT’s commitment.

Photo: Clinton Prison at Dannemora, notorious North Country honeymoon site.

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, February 7, 2011

The Wreck of the George W. Lee

In November 1886, Captain John Frawley of the canal boat George W. Lee reached the eastern terminus of the Mohawk River at Cohoes. Before him was the Hudson River leading south to Albany and New York City, but Frawley’s intended route was north. At this critical waterway intersection, the Champlain Canal led north from Waterford to Whitehall at Lake Champlain’s southern tip.

Access to the Champlain Canal was on the north bank at the Mohawk’s mouth, opposite Peeble’s Island. Just as there is today, at the mouth of the river was a dam, constructed by engineers to enable canal boats to cross the river. About 500 feet upstream was a bridge. Canal boats were pulled by tow ropes linked to teams of mules or horses. To cross from the south bank to the north, towing teams used the bridge, which is what Frawley did.

Sounds simple, and usually, it was. But the Mohawk was badly swollen from several days of rain. Traveling at night, Frawley was perhaps unaware that the normally strong current had intensified. Water was fairly leaping over the nine-foot-high dam.

Accompanying the captain were his mother, around 60 years old; his ten-year-old son; and the boat’s steersman, Dennis Clancy. To help ensure that things went okay, Frawley left the boat to assist the team driver during the crossing of the 700-foot-long bridge. They moved slowly—the rope extended sideways from the bridge downstream towards the boat, which was much more difficult than pulling a load forward along the canal.

Below them, the George W. Lee lay heavy in the current, straining against the rope. All went well until the bridge’s midpoint was reached, when, with a sound like a gunshot, the rope snapped. Horrified, they watched as the boat swung around, slammed sideways into the dam, and plunged over the edge. Nothing was left but darkness.

Shock and grief enveloped them at such a sudden, terrible loss. Within minutes, though, a light appeared on the boat’s deck. It had held together! At least one person had survived, but no one knew how many, or if any were injured. The roar of the river drowned out any attempt at yelling back and forth. With the boat aground, there was nothing to do but sit and wait until morning.

With daylight came great news. All were okay! But, as had happened the previous evening, great elation was followed by great uncertainty. How could they be saved? The river remained high and dangerous. The boat, resting on the rocks below the dam, could not be reached. And the November chill, heightened by cold water pouring over the dam all around them, threatened the stranded passengers with hypothermia.

A rescue plan was devised, and by late afternoon, the effort began. The state scow (a large, flat-bottomed boat), manned by a volunteer crew of seven brave men, set out on a dangerous mission. Connected to the bridge by a winch system using two ropes, the scow was slowly guided to the dam, just above the stranded boat.

The men began talking with the passengers to discuss their evacuation. Then, without warning, disaster struck. Something within the winch mechanism failed, and again, with a loud cracking sound, the rope snapped. Over the dam went the scow, fortunately missing the canal boat. Had they hit, the results would have been catastrophic.

Briefly submerged, the scow burst to the surface. A safe passage lay ahead, but the drifting scow was instead driven towards nearby Buttermilk Falls by the swift current. Two men leaped overboard and swam for shore in the icy water. The rest decided to ride it out.

In one reporter’s words, “The scow sped like an arrow toward Buttermilk Falls. It seemed to hang an instant at the brink, and then shot over the falls. It landed right side up and soon drifted ashore.” Incredibly, everyone survived intact. Chilled, wet, and shaken, but intact.

Meanwhile, still stuck at the base of the dam was a canal boat with cold, hungry, and frightened passengers. A new plan was needed, but darkness was descending. The stranded victims would have to spend another night on the rocks.

On the following day, Plan B was tried. According to reports, “A stout rope was stretched from the Waterford bridge over the dam to a small row boat at Peeble’s Island [a distance of about 1800 feet.] Two men stood on the bridge and pulled the skiff upstream until it came alongside the canal boat Lee. The party embarked and the boat was allowed to drift back to the island.”

What an amazing, fortuitous outcome. Two boats (one at night) over a dam; three people trapped for more than 36 hours in a raging river; two men swimming for their lives in icy water; and five men and a boat over a waterfall. All that potential for tragedy, and yet all survived unscathed.

Photo Top: The dam at Cohoes, looking west from Peeble’s Island.

Photo Bottom: A canal boat scene at Cohoes.

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, January 31, 2011

Lafayette Spaulding:
Old Time North Country Music on Broadway

Ol’ time, foot-stompin’ fiddle music is a North Country staple, rooted in times past when people made their own fun. Its heyday was principally from the mid-1800s to the 1940s, finally giving way in the post-war years to the automobile and widespread availability of electricity. Sources of entertainment changed, but before that, the tradition of barn dances and the like was strong across the Adirondacks.

For the past seventy years or so, that tradition has been preserved by a number of outstanding musicians. Back in the 1950s and 60s, when some of the old tunes were rolled out, it brought back memories of Crown Point’s Lafayette Spaulding. » Continue Reading.


Monday, January 24, 2011

North County Rock Eaters? Not Exactly

Just over a year ago, the North Country (specifically, Plattsburgh) was mentioned on Saturday Night Live to the great dismay of some, though it was hilarious to others (including me). In a skit, New York Governor David Paterson (Fred Armisen) tells how he’ll spend the remainder of his term: Here’s an excerpt: “Well, I’m going to do a farewell tour of upstate New York—hellholes like Plattsburgh and Peekskill. … I’m going to give those rock-eaters something to cheer about. Those freaks love me up there.”

The rock-eater comment was highlighted by the media, leading to all kinds of feedback, some of it very funny. Plattsburgh’s Mayor Donald Kasprzak weighed in with a video reply, as did Keeseville’s Speedy Arnold with a musical tribute. It was all in fun (laughing at yourself always is), but some folks up north and in Poughkeepsie were upset, feeling we were unfairly portrayed. And I have the proof to back them up. » Continue Reading.


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