George Downing Curtis, Sporting and Theatrical Man of Ithaca

A Note to My Readers:
Among the many stories of her family members, my mother rarely spoke of my great grandfather-her mother’s father, George Downing Curtis. In fact, the reigning tale was of his wife, Kate Curry Curtis, and her role as a woman pioneer of moving pictures.  So I found it odd that among the few old photographs tucked in the family bible, there existed one of  an urbane and jaunty George and none of Kate.  Stumbling upon the very lively coverage of The Turnbull Riley trial revealed the dynamic of the individuals and their relationships…and a family secret.

George Downing Curtis, The Sporting and Theatrical Man

The tale begins on November 1, 1901 when my 47 year- old great grandfather, George Downing Curtis,  travelled from Ithaca, NY, and according to his testimony, with the expressed intention of leasing a hall in Amsterdam, NY and converting it to a vaudeville house…

“instead upon arriving upon town started upon a sort of a continuing round of pleasure, and it appears to have afforded him abundantly, for in a way of top line variety stunts, he came next to a program that he will have occasion to recollect for several weeks at least.”[i]


The trial was scheduled to begin on February 4, 1902 and once again the temperatures were well below zero.  A violent snowstorm was making its way from Buffalo and the Great Lakes.   The defense asked for a postponement because George was unable to get to Amsterdam from his Ithaca home until the afternoon train.  On February 5th, despite the weather, the trial began in earnest and the scalawags Turnbull and Riley and the tale of drunkenness, larceny and bribery and the Sporting and Theatrical Man from Ithaca filled the courtroom.

The trial testimony given by George puts him at Kirschner’s…an Amsterdam billiard hall that served spirits and beer.  According to George’s cross examination discourse, he could “drink more beer after two or three whiskeys” and when asked if he was intoxicated, he said, “No, but I had a pretty good start.”  Enter Harry Turnbull and Walter Riley and a wasp’s nest of Amsterdam local businessmen and politicians just to add intrigue to the larceny.

The Difference between $450 and 55 cents

November 1st was a bitter day in Amsterdam.  Harry Turnbull and Walter Riley were making their rounds in the city…shaking down local business owners and citizenry alike.   The two men happened upon George at Kirschner’s where the pair frequently played billiards, gambled and indulged in some serious drinking.    After a few hours of drinking and “sporting”, the trio headed into the below zero weather and found a liveryman to drive a team and carriage to nearby Akin…a small settlement in the Amsterdam area.

Amsterdam Main Street West Postcard

According to the driver, Mr. Riley seemed to be the “master of ceremonies” and was ordering drinks at several saloons along the way.  The driver also stated that Turnbull and Riley seemed in control of themselves, but George appeared “drowsy” and the driver could not understand his mumblings.  As they drove down the icy and wind-blown boulevard, George was swaying back and forth on the wagon barely keeping his seat.  Many times the driver had to reach over and grab George to keep him from tumbling onto the road.  Riley was seen by several bartenders later on buying drinks with $20 gold coins when it was said that he was never “with that kind of money”.

A local from the Central Hotel testified that he had seen George in the barroom and rear room late in the day where George had slept for some time.  As George slept off his alcoholic binge, Turnbull was visiting saloons and buying drinks for everyone and exhibiting wads of paper money. When George awoke at one point, he brushed his hair and shook hands with a man at the bar, sat down and instantly fell back to sleep.  When he finally aroused at 6 o’clock, he was sobered by hours of deep slumber.  Alarmed and upset, he shouted that he had been robbed of over $400.00 and producing his gentleman’s purse, showed that he was left with just 55 cents to his name.

At one point in George’s testimony which was corroborated by a witness, he stated that he had made arrangements to meet with Turnbull and Riley to get back enough money to return to Ithaca.  The duo toyed with Curtis during the evening as he sat playing cribbage at a paint store in Amsterdam awaiting their arrival.  When they failed to show and George realized his predicament, the police were called.  The two confidence men were promptly arrested and the legal process was underway.  And the world and his family would soon know George’s disgrace.

The Sporting and Theatrical Man from Ithaca

The defense team squared off on George…declaring that the jury might care “whether Curtis got now what he hasn’t by gambling or conducting a baudy (sp) picture show.”  The prosecution fired back with the fact that witnesses stated that it was his money and that the only thing he was guilty of was overindulging in the varieties of entertainment that a town like Amsterdam provided that single day “when his exchequer[ii] was relieved of sums representing the difference between $450 and 55 cents.”

The defense was ready to explain the financial state of Turnbull and Riley…though the two had not been recently employed according to Amsterdam’s Chief of Police.   Indeed Riley had told him that he would have been glad to work on the railway extension, “even if he had to work with “Guineas” meaning Italians.”  But Turnbull and Riley had a nasty surprise for the city of Amsterdam.  The two concocted a story of bribery and “influence” to explain their “flush condition” stating that they took money from several prominent businessmen and politicians that day.  The smug defendants sat in the courtroom smiling and smirking as one by one the respected elected officials of Amsterdam testified in court.  And one by one the two rascals and their allegations of extortion were discredited by irrefutable testimonies and inconsistencies in their allegations.


The trial lasted three days.  On Friday at 9:10 PM the jury filed into the court room after deliberating for four and half hours which included an intermission for supper.  The sneer on Riley’s face faded while Turnbull maintained a stone face.  Mrs. Riley who sat behind her husband exchanged her usual pallor for a rose-red hue.  “Guilty”, the foreman had responded to the court deputy when asked to state the judgment of the jury.

On Saturday afternoon the two men were sentenced to three years in Dannemora Prison and led away in handcuffs.

Amsterdam Daily Democrat Banner

The Amsterdam Daily Democrat article concluded by stating that this crime and its trial had generated the most widespread interest in years.  In fact, the courthouse and the newspaper telephone boards were flooded with incoming calls from all over the country to learn of the jury’s verdict on Friday and again on Saturday to inquire about the sentence imposed.

Author’s Field Note:

I had been searching for information on another George Curtis…a second cousin of my great grandfather when I came across the initial Amsterdam Daily Democrat article about a Mr. Curtis of Ithaca.  When I read on and he was called George E. Curtis, I almost skipped it and moved on, but the words “theatrical” and “sporting” and “vaudeville” stopped me in my tracks.  My great grandparents owned billiard parlors and theatres in Ithaca and Rochester and booked vaudevillians and after all, it was just an “E” and it rhymes with “D”…and nothing is more fallible than a newspaper typesetter.

I GOOGLED the names of the “perps”.  Guilty Pleasure…I watch the A & E crime shows…and the Turnbull-Riley case came up in spades. Sorry about the gambling pun…couldn’t be helped after reading hours of blurry newsprint with archaic language such as the quote in the first paragraph of this essay.

As the day-long trial event rolled out through testimony, I kept hearing the lyrics from Music Man… “We’ve got trouble…right here in River City.  And that starts with “T” and that rhymes with “P” and that stands for pool.” George was a theater man, a billiard parlor owner and obviously had a taste for alcohol and bad company.  The sporting and theatrical man was out of control in Amsterdam, New York, a city perched above the Mohawk River.   And on November 1st 1901 he found trouble.

In my notes on George, I found that he had declared bankruptcy at one point and Kate had him on an allowance to curb his wastrel tendencies.  The Amsterdam incident explains more fully why his wife, Kate, solely owned the Happy Hour Theater of Rochester in 1907.  She had good reason to keep George under her control, but that didn’t  last and eventually the warden became the prisoner.  In 1915 George convinced her to turn over the interest in the Happy Hour to him as he was a man and could better obtain credit from the bank and besides it was manlier for him…and with the ink barely dry… promptly left her.

George had an astute and supportive family and endless opportunities for success.  When his bachelor brother, Henry, died in 1911, George had inherited a large share of his brother’s estate which was in today’s value over $111,000.  George died in 1932 at his Florida home and it was stated that his personal assets were valued at just $1000.00.  In a final gesture, the remaining asset…his interest in the theater (now called The Strand)… was willed back to his children, Henry, Katherine, Jennie and Ruth.  My grandmother, Florence, was not listed in the will in the Rochester newspaper’s article.

And now I think I know why George has no monument to mark his burial site.  Once again, he found himself left with the difference between $450 and 55 cents.

Deborah Martin-Plugh

Author, Historian and Genealogical Researcher

(c) Copyright 2010.  All Rights Reserved


[i] The Amsterdam Daily Democrat, February 5, 1902, Wednesday Evening edition, page one.

[ii] Cash in hand

2 thoughts on “George Downing Curtis, Sporting and Theatrical Man of Ithaca

  1. Pingback: Family Secrets. What the Directories Told. « Notable Characters

  2. Pingback: Trodding the Boards | Notable Characters

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