The Defamation of Henry Eugene Curtis. And His Dog.

A Note to My Readers:  I have spent the last few months dotting i’s and crossing t’s in my Martin research…tidying up citations and readying the work for publication in one of the Mayflower Society’s “Silver Books” that will be released next year.  So I put on my scholar cap, put down my writer’s pen and concentrated on being an academic genealogist.   The work is pretty complete now and I am working on a new relationship with another publication and editor for a future project.   Pretty breath-taking to make this leap.  Breath-taking and highly consuming.  I became very serious and preoccupied.   It was certainly energizing and educational, but now…back to the fun.   I love to write, you see.  And I missed it while I was being a grown up.

I have at least four solid story lines in draft mode.  Two are huge and will definitely preoccupy me to do them justice, but for now I thought I would tell the tale of Henry Eugene Curtis, the bachelor grocer from the little Village of Cayuga.  He was a smart business man, a bit of a dandy in his youth.  Like his brother, George…my great great grandfather.  And he was…like George..a risk taker and flamboyant personality.  Unlike his brother, he had a steadfast love for his life in the little village and clung to it and his mother, Susannah. And there was his dog…. Henry owned several properties in Cayuga Village, an ice house and a number of grocery stores and a small farm just east of the village where his mother Susannah spent her remaining days.  His home on Center Street in the 1800’s was just down the street from the home “Tumble Inn” that I would own in the 1970’s.

Henry’s ambition took him south to Ithaca where in 1890 he partnered in a men’s clothing store with his cousin, Guy W. Cayuga Village Henry CurtisSlocum.  His brother, George would join Guy and Henry for a brief period and then among George’s other establishments in Ithaca, he would open a “ready made” clothing store of his own in Ithaca in 1895.   That same year Henry bought a store in Cayuga Village with another cousin, George D. Coapman, renaming it “The Economy Store”.   Less than a year later, Henry dissolved the partnership so George could move to Lockport with his sisters and mother, Elsie Yawger Coapman.  The Curtis brothers never put their eggs in one basket or let family politics keep them from cheerily moving on to the next opportunity.  Or engaging another family member in their enterprise.

Henry intrigued me…this man who sold groceries and lived on Cayuga Lake and was so fondly remembered for his jolly nature in a 1973 nostalgia piece by Miss Ruth Dundon.

A backward glance at the now obsolete, old-time grocery store.  We like to remember our earliest loves, and one of mine was the store in Cayuga and Henry Curtis who owned it.  He was a genial gentleman whose shining spectacles shaded a pair of merry brown eyes.  His customers were greeted as welcome guests, so it was a privilege to be sent to the store. Lighted by large kerosene hanging lamps and heated in winter by a huge pot-bellied stove, the store also had a handsome, plump tiger cat to add a homelike touch. Usually a few men sat on the corner bench and exchanged news and gossip. Compared to elegant modern stores, this would seem pretty drab and dull.  But the owner’s ready smile and promise of a handsome wedding present sent us happily on our way.

My great grand uncle rebelled along with several other businessmen against the local excise tax and proudly “plead guilty” and paid a fine of $75 for his defiance in 1873.  This hearty bachelor who spent so much time with friends and family and struggled through a terrible bout of typhoid – the scourge that sickened many residents in that area long Cayuga Lake in the bitter winter of 1886.  There was the aging but still enthusiastic Henry who went to the 1901 Pan American Exposition in Buffalo to see the wonders of electricity and the promise of modern life.   Henry whose exhilarating and grand holiday turned to bitterness when he experienced the murder of President McKinley only to return home to Cayuga County which was to become the epicenter of the trial, execution and ignominious burial of assassin Leon Czolgosz in Auburn, New York.

Along with cabinet cards of my 2nd great grandfather George and his family, two charming photos of Henry E Curtis Jr 21Henry are in my possession.  A dashing Henry who had such fondness for his dog that his portrait included his furry companion.   As reported in an article in the Cayuga County Independent,  twenty-nine year old Henry’s  jolly and friendly nature was tested in September of 1879 by the nastiness of village politics and the taunting by his neighbor, John Heffer, which included the words….

Will Your Dog Bite?

 John Heffer, of Cayuga, a middle-aged man of one of the witnesses to the late church trial at that place, received a severe drubbing at the hand of Henry Curtis, Friday.   The fracas occurred near the home of the latter and resulted from a chain of circumstances of which the seemingly harmless question “will your dog bite?” was one of the licks.  It is alleged that Curtis, whose name was extensively used in connection with the unproved scandal of this trial, was deeply incensed against those who sought to defame his character, and that Heffer was one of the more prominent witnesses pressed forward to bring about this result.  Like all similar questions, this one had two sides and the action is both eulogized and severely condemned by members of the community who are thoroughly conversant with the details of the scandal and the resulting fracas.  The story told by Curtis is to the effect that Heffer while passing the Curtis property asked him if his dog, which was near, would bite.  To this he replied in insistence that he hoped not, such a creature as he was!   That thereupon Heffer called Curtis insulting names and struck him, or at least struck at him.  This so maddened the latter that he dealt Heffer a blow.  In the melee which ensued Heffer was badly pommeled.  The other version is that when Heffer asked the question in regard to the dog Curtis responded by calling the latter an opprobrious name and immediately followed it up with an attack on Heffer’s person.  It is reported that a warrant has been issued for the arrest of Curtis.  The matter is a leading topic of conversation in Cayuga.  No matter what the provocation, such occurrences cannot fail to produce a demoralizing effect on the community which tolerate them and they are sincerely to be regretted.  In addition to this, the peace and order loving portion of the community have a right to be protected and they should insist upon active measures being taken to insure against re occurence (sic) of such demonstrations – no matter who may be the offender.”

John Heffer had been described as a middle-aged man in the newspaper article and was in actuality fifty years of age when he and Henry engaged in their dispute.  He sued Henry for $1000 in damages for assault and battery and on Wednesday, December 10, 1879, the men were in Cayuga County court where a verdict was rendered by a jury presided over by the Honorable S. Edwin Day.   Henry who was represented by Judge Hewitt was ordered to pay Mr. Heffer the sum of $250.  A clear message was given to Henry that pommeling a middle-aged provocateur is not a gentlemanly solution and a young man best learn to temper himself.  And to Mr. Heffer…perhaps it would be best to not ask a man if his dog will bite.    Heffer would sell his village home in 1888 for $700 and continue to live in the village among Henry and Henry’s friends and family without further incidence.

But what is a ‘church trial’ that invokes the word scandal and such a ferocious emotional contention between neighbors in a small village?   My great grandparents, George D. Curtis and Kate C. Curry were married in the little Methodist church in the village in March of 1879.  Kate’s mother, Deborah Tyler Curry was a devout Methodist and was a church member.   What ‘church trial’ was going on at the time?  I have found no specific mention of such an event, but from reading more modern day accounts of church trials, it is serious business.   Ministers are discredited and defrocked.  Parishioners dismissed and shamed.  Sin…a mighty sword.   Back then it was an internal church matter and not necessarily the stuff of newspaper coverage, but definitely the stuff of gossip.  So researching for newspaper articles yielded no further enlightenment about ‘the church trial’ or the scandal in which Henry’s name was ‘extensively used and unproved’ .   Unless of course the bad blood escalates and  the parishioners engage in a public brawl.   A fracas.

Much was said about ‘gossip’ and the harm of it in local newspapers.   A lengthy piece entitled “They Say” and attributed to an individual only identified as A. E. D. was published in a Auburn NY Daily Bulletin edition in June of 1873.   It concerned the evil of gossip and warning of the destructive nature of indulging in character assassination in the ‘milder form of evil’ by prefacing the tale-telling with the phrase “they say” and concluding the thoughtful item with

Observe the speaker does not wish to give the unclean thing as from himself; he carries as it were, a pair of moral tongs, with which he handles the matter, and when he has put down the tongs he says, I am not dirty.

Henry went on to represent himself well, caring for his mother and his nieces and nephews and clearly Newspaper Auburn NY Semi-Weekly Journal Tue 24 Jan 1911 Henry Curtis dies after fallleft the impetuousness of youth behind.  His life was well documented and with many notable events and relationships to admire.  When he died on January 20, 1911 in his village home, he left behind many who mourned his death.  Henry left behind a sizable estate and generously provided for his surviving siblings and their children.  And his funeral was Presbyterian.

And me?  I have a photo of him with his dog.   I am Henry’s great grand niece…and that makes his dog…the one that would never great grand dog, I suppose.  Sweet.

Deborah Martin-Plugh

Author, Historian and Genealogical Researcher

(c) Copyright 2014.  All Rights Reserved


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