During the holiday season of 1945, a most unusual conversation was taking place in the Adirondacks. It was a pivotal year in the twentieth century―history’s worst war had just ended, and an effort to prevent future wars had resulted in the formation of the United Nations, which officially came into being on October 24. The groundwork had been laid earlier in San Francisco, where delegates from fifty governments joined forces and drafted the original UN charter.
The next order of business was to find a home for the new alliance, referred to widely then as the UNO (United Nations Organization). Since San Francisco hosted the charter conference, it was considered a favorite in the running. But as the process played out, northern New York was abuzz with the possibility of being chosen as permanent host. » Continue Reading.
Once the weather gets a bit more consistent outside it will be time to hit the many outdoor Adirondack skating rinks. Until that time my family makes time for ice-skating at the indoor arenas. That is fine, too. Inside we have the opportunity to take off our skates, warm up our toes and listen to the music piped in over the sound system. It’s a great way to work off the holiday desserts!
Most of the indoor rinks cater to the hockey and figure skating crowd. We’ve found that even if the schedule is posted online, it is best to call first just to make sure a make-up game hasn’t altered the free skate time. » Continue Reading.
The anniversary of the Battle of Plattsburgh passed recently (it was fought September 11, 1814), and this week, the anniversary of another famous American battle is noted: the attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941. Within the military, both battles are held in the highest regard as critical moments in American history, and oddly enough, the two have an unusual link of sorts.
I discovered this several years ago while working on one of my earlier publications, The Battle of Plattsburgh Question & Answer Book. It’s not earth-shattering stuff, but instead more of an “I’ll be darned!” moment that happened during research.
The book’s unusual format led me to several similar discoveries. I wanted to cover the entire story of Plattsburgh’s famous battle, but in a way that might be enjoyed by children as well as adults. When my children were young, I often made a game of things to keep their minds active and teach them when they didn’t realize they were being taught. » Continue Reading.
One holiday tradition for our family is to see a production of the Nutcracker ballet. Throughout the Adirondacks and beyond, this is a tradition that many hold dear to their hearts as a family-friendly way to kick off the holiday season. With productions in Old Forge, Plattsburgh, Lake Placid and Glens Falls, this ballet gathers professional and community dancers on stage for a limited performance.
“Seeing a performance of the Nutcracker is part of the theatre tradition that is wholesome and something the whole family can see,” says Old Forge Ballet Company Director Sue Ann Lorenz-Wallace.” If children are performing in the production, it is something that will stay with them the rest of their lives. If they watch it, it will always bring back fond memories of the holidays.” » Continue Reading.
This week we finish the tale started two weeks ago, the story of when the North Country saved the Republic. Like all great stories of war this one has its heroes. The naval exploits of one of them, Master Commandant Thomas Macdonough, are fairly well known, credited among students of war if not the general public.
The story of another, Brigadier General Alexander Macomb, is all but unknown. In this final installment I will introduce you to a third gentleman, a lesser player in the story to be sure, but one who happens to be one of the most iconic characters in Adirondack lore and who represents the gallantry of all the militia, the citizen-soldiers who helped turn the tide. » Continue Reading.
Last week I wrote about the significance of September 11th, being a date that illustrates the surprising, narrow and often untold margins by which history unfolds. I wrote of two fateful events that occurred on that date: the terrorist attacks of eleven years ago and the Battle of Plattsburgh in 1814. I left that tale unfinished.
When last we left the story the fate of the nation lay in the hands of a passel of barely trained regulars, invalids, soldiers unfit due to dysentery and typhoid, teenagers and sporadic militia, many of whom didn’t arrive in time for the battle and many of whom changed their minds as things got dicey. This less-than-glamorous force faced upwards of ten-thousand battle-hardened British troops poised to invade from Canada. It should have been hopeless for the Americans: there was not a chance that the British force could have been defeated had Sir George Prevost, the Military Commander for North America, prosecuted his invasion without letup or hesitation. » Continue Reading.
This week is the anniversary of a horrible attack upon the United States. At the time it occurred I was working in a field related to policing and intelligence. As I watched the agonizing drama unfold along with so many riveted Americans I could not have foreseen how much my world, how much everyone’s world, would change, how much was truly at stake. I have many ties to New York City and at the time almost all of my closest family lived in Manhattan. In November of that year I went to the city and was pulled to the raw, still-smoldering ruins of ground zero. I’ll never forget it. » Continue Reading.
If you write books or read them, prepare to be amazed (I certainly was), and if you shop online for books, the information below is important to you. Somewhat of a fraud has been perpetrated on the public in the world of books. While it doesn’t meet the legal definition of fraud, it violates what we might call “the spirit of the law” in providing information (in book form) for resale.
Yes, if you write a book, you can write anything you want, but the fact that you’ve written a book doesn’t mean anyone is reading it. Feedback in the form of sales, comments, and media coverage will eventually let you know if anyone is reading your work. » Continue Reading.
Many famous ships can be linked in one way or another to Plattsburgh on Lake Champlain in northern Clinton County. There was the Philadelphia under Benedict Arnold’s command in the Battle of Valcour, and the Saratoga under Thomas Macdonough, hero of the Battle of Plattsburgh. There were steamers, like the Vermont, the Chateaugay, and the Ticonderoga. And as noted here in the past, Plattsburgh also owns an unusual link to the largest seagoing vessel of its time, the Titanic.
But there is yet another tied not only to Plattsburgh, but to the entire Champlain Valley, and from Whitehall to Albany as well. And like the Titanic, its name became synonymous with disaster. » Continue Reading.
The New York State Board for Historic Preservation has recommended the addition of five Adirondack and North Country properties to the State and National Registers of Historic Places, including the nationally significant War of 1812 Cantonment in Plattsburgh, and Putnam Camp in St. Huberts.
Listing these properties on the State and National Registers can assist their owners in revitalizing the structures, making them eligible for various public preservation programs and services, such as matching state grants and state and federal historic rehabilitation tax credits.
Lake Champlain was a corridor for warfare beginning with Samuel de Champlain’s exploration, but perhaps no moment in the Champlain Valley was as important as the Battle of Plattsburgh, something recognized by both Roosevelt and Churchill. Although other, more famous, engagements of the War of 1812 were ruses meant to divert U.S. troops away from the prize – Plattsburgh. The Chesapeake Campaign for example, which included the British capture of Washington, DC, the bombardment of Fort McHenry captured in the National Anthem, was intended, as Donald Graves notes, “as a large raid to draw off American troops from the northern theatre of the war.”
The northern theatre, which saw the most desperate fighting and bloodiest engagements of the war, was the pathway to cut the colonies in half. Not surprisingly, the battles at Plattsburgh, are considered by historians to have been crucial to securing peace between Great Britain and America in 1814. Author Keith Herkalo retells stories of the battles at Plattsburgh in a concise and readable narrative, The Battles of Plattsburgh: September 11, 1814 (2012, History Press). » Continue Reading.
What follows is a guest essay by Wanda Burch has spent 42 years in historic preservation. She recently retired as site manager of Johnson Hall State Historic Site and now serves as Vice-President of Friends of Johnson Hall. She is a regular contributor to the online news magazine New York History.
On August 7, 1862, Henry Graves, physically exhausted from walking, fighting, and from four days detail digging trenches under a Petersburg, Virginia, sun and not “a breath of air stirring,” sat down and wrote to his wife, describing the importance of the imagination to survival. » Continue Reading.
A columnist from the Old Forge area, Mart Allen, recently wrote for the Adirondack Express about the late Harold A. Jerry, Jr., and he inspired me to do the same. Judging from his experiences with Harold along a trap line during the winter in Herkimer County, Mart Allen concluded that Harold Jerry displayed a depth and integrity of character that should be the measure we take of all our fellow human beings, but often isn’t. That observation about Harold rang very true for me. » Continue Reading.
Pendragon Theatre’s production of Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, To Kill A Mockingbird is on the road throughout the Adirondack Park and beyond. The two-act play was adapted by Christopher Sergel and first performed in 1987 in England. Since that time the play has been performed in schools and theatres around the world to great acclaim.
Set in 1930 Alabama at the height of the Great Depression, To Kill a Mockingbird focuses on the intense class and racial tensions of the time as seen through the eyes of young Scout Finch. Narrated by the adult Scout, the coming of age story tackles such complex issues as interracial relationships, segregation and sterotypes. As Scout’s father Atticus, a lawyer, defends a black man accused of raping a poor white girl, the characters in the town expose their own bigotry. Throughout the story are themes of courage, innocence and the moral failures of society. Pendragon Founder and Managing Director Bob Pettee, who also plays Atticus Finch, says, “The version we at Pendragon Theatre chose to do is the only authorized version of the book. Harper Lee talked to Christoper Segel directly. The version that we’ve chosen does not have the older character of Scout, like in the movie. We felt the (Segel) version told the story more directly.” Pettee says, “ To Kill A Mockingbird is a universal story, so simple, so direct. The Boo Radley character becomes so fictionalized, larger than life and then finally known to just be human.”
Pettee comments on the larger issues that are addressed in the play with “man’s ability to be inhuman.” Pendragon Theare recently had received a letter from a teacher thanking the cast for the school performance. The teacher had overheard two students from his English class comparing the injustices of To Kill A Mockingbird with the injustices of the class reading assignment The Lottery. The teacher felt that the unprompted discussion of two pieces of literature from his students was powerful.
“I think this play has opened up conversations where children have an access to this material based on the age of the actors in this piece. The three kids we have are just dynamite, are solid performers ranging from 6th to 8th grade. They are very accomplished and adapt to the other spaces and it is a real treat to have them involved.”
“It is challenging to take a play on the road but we have a lot of experience,” says Pettee. “From an actor’s point of view it is good to see how we will connect this piece with a new audience. The Pendragon (home) theatre is a more intimate theatre where a larger performance space presents differently and we (the actors) still have to connect and be genuine and real for the audience.”
Pendragon actor Donna Moschek brings the part of Miss Maudie to life and says, “This version of the play uses Maudie as the narrator, not an older Scout, which is interesting. I think it’s a good choice because Maudie represents the female role model that Scout most admires in the novel and certainly takes a moral stand. I loved Maudie in the novel and I love her in the play because she is an inescapably part of this small town, but she believes it is possible for change to happen.”
Moschek says, “I think this play and the novel are still relevant and will always be relevant as long as racism, oppression and prejudice still exist. It’s the idea that prejudice can be so quietly present and so accepted that no one even notices what it can do. No one questions. I think the play and the book teach us that looking closely at our beliefs and our actions could be what saves us from making a decision based on prejudice, or a stereotype we have in our minds. If we can be aware of it, we can move to change it in ourselves and in others.”
In Lowell, Massachusetts in 1922, while working in a private home, Mrs. Mary Johnson was badly injured in a fall. At the age of 82, with few resources at her disposal, neither Mary nor her husband, Peter, could care for themselves. During the next two years, the couple was housed in three different poorhouses, living at Fitchburg and Tewksbury before moving to the Worcester City Farm. At Fitchburg, Mrs. Johnson had begun telling stories about her secret war past, and at Worcester, folks began to take her seriously.
According to Mary, she had served honorably in two branches of military service, most notably a stint during the Civil War. Combat was reserved for men only, but Mary openly shared the details, insisting her story was true. Before I continue, understand that there is at present no clear, crisp ending to this story, at least not to my satisfaction, but it’s a remarkable story nonetheless. Mary’s tale has been noted in very few sources, including some books that butchered the facts while only citing snippets. But as I discovered, it’s a mystery well worth a look.
When an 85-year-old poorhouse inmate begins telling stories, it would be easy to shrug it off as the ramblings of early dementia, especially when a woman declares that she was a Union soldier in the Civil War.
But Mary Johnson’s stories had a ring of truth. Her caretakers realized that if she had in fact served, a pension might remove the Johnson’s from their position as wards of the state. When the Worcester Chapter of the American Red Cross was notified, they sent Eleanor Vashon, executive secretary, to interview Mary. That meeting temporarily conferred celebrity status on Mrs. Johnson when the media picked up the story.
As Mary told it, she was born Mary Murphy in Plattsburgh, New York in 1840. Having lost both parents by the time she was eight, Murphy was adopted by the Benjamin Hill family. During the next decade, they lived in more than a dozen places in New York, Vermont, and Massachusetts, where they finally settled.
She recalled living in Westminster in what Mary referred to as the General Mills Nelson house (actually the home of native General Nelson Miles). They also lived near the old stone mill in Fitchburg (to confirm, there was one), where she and stepbrother Thomas Hill worked, learning how to create chair seats.
The war soon changed everything, but having lost her original family, Mary clung to what had given her comfort and a sense of belonging: “Soon after the outbreak of the Civil War, Tom enlisted in the army. He went to Camp Groton, Ayer, which is now known as Camp Devens.
“My home life was unbearable and lonely with Tom gone, for I loved him devotedly, as though he were my own brother. I followed him to Camp Groton. I started my journey at midnight, and got as far as Whalom Marshes, now Whalom Park [an amusement park], where I was picked up by a group of men who were traveling in a barge to Camp Groton.
“The men rolled me in coats and blankets and got me into camp. I asked to see Col. Davis or Lieut. Pratt, but this was refused. I was then taken at my request to my brother, Tom. After a while, Tom and his companions agreed to enlist me as a man and keep the secret.
“… I was taken to New York, my hair was clipped, and I was given a uniform and enlisted as Saul Hill, 18 years old, of Co. B 53rd Massachusetts Regiment. I went to Missouri and served during the remainder of the war, about a year and a half. I was given $110 when I enlisted and $110 when I was discharged. I remember Capt. Corey well.” [Captain Jonas Corey.]
She also gave details on the Battle of Antietam and others she participated in, and showed powder marks and a scar on her fingers, courtesy of a bullet wound.
Through existing records, some of that information should have been verifiable. Mary also claimed to have enlisted in the navy at Key West (shortly after her army discharge) and served for nearly six more years.
At one point, she described landing at Montreal, and an encounter with a woman who said she was Queen Victoria. (Victoria never visited Canada, but her son, Prince Arthur, was there at the time.) Shortly thereafter, she left the navy and spent time at a convent in Quebec.
To research this story, I took the position of trying to disprove Mary’s claims. I knew she didn’t meet the queen, but I had to concede that the person she mentioned could have claimed to be the queen. From my perspective, though, that part of her story remained in the untrue category.
The same “prove or disprove” mission was undertaken by Eleanor Vashon after interviewing Mary in 1924. Several parties were involved: a pension attorney; the Massachusetts adjutant general; the Daughters of Veterans; the Convent of St. Rock, Quebec; the Canadian Red Cross; the Tewksbury Hospital; and acquaintances of Mary with whom she had shared the unusual story of her life.
The Red Cross managed to confirm that Thomas Hill indeed served in the Massachusetts 53rd, but found no record of a Saul Hill in the same outfit. They did find a Joseph Saul, and considering Mary’s age and her earlier jumbling of General Nelson Miles as Mills Nelson, the similarity was noted as a possible link.
In February 1925, an unusual signing ceremony was held at the Worcester City Farm. After being sworn in, Mary’s signature was applied to a letter describing her military service. It was sent to Washington, and a reply wasn’t long in coming. Federal researchers confirmed that several records of Joseph H. Saul supported Mary’s story.
An official pension application was the next step, after which the government would research her story fully and make a determination.
Existing records indicate that several applications were made (which is not unusual), but it appears that her request was ultimately denied. None of the applications contains a certificate number, which would normally appear if a pension was granted.
Those results confused me. Finding what you need in various archives is not always easy. I did manage to locate the names of Thomas Hill and Joseph H. Saul in the 53rd. Among the multiple enlistment dates are November 25, 1862 for Thomas and 9 December 1862 for Saul (Mary), which matches the story of Mary following Thomas when he joined the army. Both parties shared the same discharge information as well: “Mustered out on 2 Sep 1863 at Camp Stevens, Groton, MA.”
Census records were spotty, but the 1900 listing of Peter Johnson, Mary Johnson (his wife), and Benjamin Hill (noted as Peter’s father-in-law) in the same household confirmed her link to the Hill family and further supported her story. I was becoming a believer.
Among the pension applications was one with the heading, “Mary Hill Johnson, alias Joseph H. Saul,” and another with, “Joseph H. Saul, alias Mary Hill Johnson.” Neither contained a certificate number, which indicates no pension was granted.
Digging further produced another document, a full record of Joseph H. Saul’s service―including his death in 1912 at a veterans’ facility. The basis for Mary’s claim was that no records of Saul existed after his military service because he was, in fact, Mary Hill Johnson. So now, Joseph H. Saul’s detailed death record quashed every bit of that claim.
Or so I thought. Persistence left me stunned at the next discovery, days later: a second Joseph H. Saul had enlisted at the same place (Gardner, Massachusetts), and with the same birth entry (“abt 1844”). But this second Joseph H. Saul enlisted in November 1864, two years after the first Saul. Further jumbling the picture: it appears that the records for both Sauls are mixed on the official listing under “Military History” from the veterans’ home where he died.
All things considered, it looks like Mary was being truthful. It seems a bit much to believe that an 85-year-old woman, with no access to public records, could have concocted a story with such accuracy in the details and so much supporting evidence.
It is documented that others have pulled it off in the past, and it looks like Mary Hill Johnson of Plattsburgh is part of an exclusive club. But I’ll keep digging for more evidence.
Photos―Above, Mary Hill Johnson; Below, Civil War Pension card with entry “Joseph H. Saul, alias Mary Hill Johnson.”
Lawrence Gooley has authored ten books and dozens of articles on the North Country’s past. He and his partner, Jill McKee, founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004. Expanding their services in 2008, they have produced 19 titles to date, and are now offering web design. For information on book publishing, visit Bloated Toe Publishing.
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