Just the facts, Ma’am. Who is Uncle Chickafer?

To My Readers:  In my childhood days in the 1950’s  television was in black and white and there were three stations…all plagued by snow and flipping images unless, of course,  a flag of tinfoil merrily decorated the rabbit ears.  One of my favorite programs was “Dragnet”.  I never missed it and when it returned again years later, I was one happy camper.   I should have known I had a detective’s spirit and frame of mind by the nature of my viewing choices.   I could have just as easily loved “December Bride”.   I need a mystery to solve and that’s that.  

As an historian and genealogist, mysteries are the stuff of my dreams and the whipped cream on top of my homemade apple pie.  Sergeant Joe Friday was a no nonsense detective who relentlessly and stiffly pursued the facts…kept the interviewees in line with “the facts” and had his perp neatly in handcuffs at the end of the half hour.   Unlike the sergeant…I run amok now and then.  I suspect I have been more than a bit influenced by the playful nature of his partners as well -especially Harry Morgan’s Bill Gannon.  And thank goodness…because humor gets us through the worst brick wall frustration.  Along with a little apple pie with whipped cream.

Finding Uncle Chickafer

I recently connected with a long lost second cousin and we began sharing knowledge of our great grandparents, George Downing Curtis and Kate C. Curry Curtis. His grandmother, Jennie was my maternal grandmother’s sister.  I did not know my grandmother as she had died eleven days before I was born.  As a family historian that plagues me more often than not.   We all complain about never asking questions or listening intently to the stories of our elders.  Jeff’s grandmother lived until 1960 so she had time to share memories of her life and family with her grandson and now through Jeff I have the pleasure of knowing them in a more intimate fashion.  Along with the new facts,  a new mystery arose.

In the course of our emailing one another, Jeff asked me if the name “Uncle Chickafer” rang a bell. Uncle Chickafer evidently was a quirky old guy and liked to eat his dessert first. “Best part of the meal.” I do dig in and find the darndest things…part tenacity…part luck…and part finely honed research skills. But luck sometimes is everything. Or nothing. After all, I had to identify an old guy whose nickname was Chickafer and who put apple pie before roast beef. Oh goodie…let’s see if THAT is in a census…or a directory…or a draft registration.  But I am a Joe Friday devotee and an apple pie lovin’ gal, so I went to my old standby….reading vintage newspapers since so many times I had found personal information of all kinds there. I mean how much more ‘boolean’ can you get than “Chickafer”?

The Suspects

Frank J. Curry Jr.

With our great grandparent’s family group data in front of me, I focused on my great grandmother’s brothers, Eugene and Frank, Jr.   Frank seemed likely…he was a loner of sorts…married briefly and had disappeared for a number of years at the turn of the last century after leaving the family farm in Montezuma and enlisting in the army and shipping out the Philippines. Newspaper Auburn NY Daily Bulletin 1899 Frank Jr enlists and goes to Manila

He was nowhere to be found after the 1899 article about his sudden departure to Manila until he showed up in the 1910 Federal census working in Rochester, New York at his sister Kate Curtis’ business…The Strand Theater.  Frank married a younger woman in Rochester in 1913.  He is not showing up in the subsequent census or a city directory…and then he is alone again…working for the City of Rochester in 1930.   In 1940 and seventy years old he is living at 274 Smith Street in a rooming house…just a short distance from where The Strand stood on St. Paul.

He outlived his siblings…an old bachelor who had probably developed peculiar habits that suited him just fine.

Perhaps Frank Jr. learned to eat dessert first when forced to eat Army chow.  Could he be Uncle Chickafer? Could be.

Henry Eugene Curry

So let’s see…how about Eugene…Henry Eugene to be precise. He worked for my great grandparents managing their first billiard parlor in Ithaca in the late 1880’s and then after a bit of uncertain employment became a railroad man. By 1896 he was in Attica and moving to Rochester leaving his job as a master cook for the Rome & Watertown railroad depot and taking up the position of Baggage Master (cartman) for the Rome & Watertown railroad depot in Rochester. From that time on Henry Eugene Curry lived and worked in Rochester until his death in 1923.  Maybe HE made great apple pie and developed a dessert first philosophy.

Unlike his brother Frank, Eugene had a somewhat bigger ‘footprint’ as far as research information goes.   But not the sort that hollers “Hey…Uncle Chicafer, here!”

And it sure was a sweet sidebar in an otherwise ‘normal’ meat and potatoes life.  Sorry for all of the food puns…I skipped lunch to write today.
In 1907 Eugene was a prosecution witness at the Schultz murder trial in Rochester as recounted in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle of March 13, 1907.

“Eugene Curry, baggage master of the Rome, Watertown & Ogdensburg, who lives at the Rollian house, testified that he knew three men were lodging in the house, but never saw them. Mr. Curry is the man whom Officer Vaughn named as the one who informed him of the presence of the defendants in the Big B place house the morning of the arrest. The witness said he heard nothing of the men the night before the homicide or any other time. A light left burning in the hall at night and turned out by the last person to enter was out at 5 o’clock the morning of the homicide when the witness came down stairs.”

Rochester Democrat and Chronicle Wed 6 March 1907 Trial EvidenceThe 1907 “Shultz murder” trial involved the crimes of bank robbery and the murder of the night watchman, a Mr. Pullman of Sodus in Wayne county. The three perpetrators…Big Ed Kelly, Jim McCormick and Fred Shultz…also known as the Lake Shore Gang… fled the scene by stealing a horse and “cutter” (a sleigh) and were arrested after being cornered in their room at the Rollian boarding home…guns and knives were found hidden in the couch of the Big B Place boarding house including the weapon owned by the murder victim. McCormick and Shultz squeezed out a window, but were quickly caught.   Blankets from the cutter were found in the room…covered with hair from the stolen horse. The horse’s owner shared that it had to be hair from his horse…it always shed when it was nervous.  Take THAT defense team!

The trio were shivering, wet and cold and scantily clothed when they were apprehended.  They all had frozen toes from fleeing the crime scene. Big Ed Kelly was known nationally as a dangerous criminal and eventually the Pinkertons became involved in the investigation because it was a “railroad crime”. The trial was a fascinating tangle of witnesses and forensic evidence and for awhile Rochester was abuzz with the flamboyant nature of the case.

Eugene and his wife, Josephine lived at No. 2 Big B Place-the boarding home of Mr and Mrs. Fred (Florence) Rollian-a modest boarding place for teamsters and railroad workers. Testimony in the trial characterized Mrs. Rollian as a ‘crazy woman’ who had developed some sort of odd and delusional attachment to one of the defendants thinking he was her long lost brother.

The Currys had lived there for at least two years…it was a short walk to the depot and convenient and the Rollians, transplanted French Canadians,  seemed to be a nice little family.  It all was an ideal situation…until Big Ed and his boys turned the place into a major crime scene…and Mrs. Rollian had her ‘spell’.   By 1910 Eugene and Josephine were at their own modest home on 28 Scrantom Street where they lived until Eugene’s death in 1923.  I suspect the year long murder drama prompted the Currys to leave the now notorious boarding house at No. 2 Big B Place for the security of their own walls and free of fellow boarders who rob tiny country banks and murder railroad night watchmen.

Unlike their highly visible, business savvy, successful and influential sister, Frank and Eugene did not seem to break out of any work-a-day life…if you don’t count the sudden bolt to the Phillippines in 1899 or finding himself in the midst of a contentious murder trial simply by living in the wrong place at the wrong time.  The aging Curry brothers found a groove…near their sister in Rochester and that was that.   But not one hint as to an unusual nickname or a propensity to dessert first.

So WHO was I looking for?

Oh…Uncle Chickafer!  Guess what…I spent the morning reading the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle and a myriad of other newspapers following the crime and trial of Big Ed Kelly, Jim McCormick and Fred Shultz.

Today we are obsessed with forensics as a result of the O.J. Simpson trial, but the folks in 1907 were, too. Testimony involved a dizzying amount of circumstantial evidence…along with horsehair on the perp’s clothing and blankets…matching bullets…witness testimony and accusations that the railroad detectives…the Pinkertons…pressured ‘crazy’ Mrs. Rollian…Eugene’s landlady…to lie on the stand. I was riveted!

I didn’t find slam dunk proof of the identity of Uncle Chickafer….but I did read some humdinger background on Henry Eugene Curry’s witness account.

And I am pretty sure Uncle Chickafer is NOT Big Ed Kelly…..

Deborah Martin-Plugh

Author, Historian and Genealogical Researcher

(c) Copyright 2013.  All Rights Reserved

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