Dark and Bloody Cayuga

A Note To My Readers:  Researching my Freece/Freese family (my paternal lineage) along Cayuga Lake, I found a Mr. John Freese that lived in the village of Cayuga.  As I have often discovered when I return to the peaceful little village in the 1800’s,  my paternal and maternal lines have multiple familial and social connections.   My cousin Charlie Baker and I are both family historians and share the same ancestral grandmother, Lydia H. Titus Downing Coapman who lived in Cayuga.  Over the years Charlie and I have marveled at how many of our family members have shared life altering events in that tiny community.

Henry Clay Hutchinson (1830-1878)

As I was trying to establish more information on John Freese, I discovered that he was at the death bed of the mortally wounded  Henry Clay Hutchinson, my cousin Charlie’s grand uncle.  An intelligent and ambitious young man,  Henry  was an engineer and submitted designs for the Cayuga Lake bridge, but his design was rejected.  It was around that time, Henry fell in love with a young beauty from Ohio and anxious not to lose her, promptly proposed marriage.  Henry was content in his marital bliss.   It wouldn’t last.  Henry’s lovely bride gave birth to a full term infant five months after their nuptials and embittered, he had the marriage annulled.   Thereafter, Henry was a surly, contentious man and never remarried.

Henry’s prickly nature led him to suing people so with his sharp intellect and litigious nature, he achieved his attorney’s shingle in his thirties. When his mother, Elizabeth Boardman Hall Hutchinson died in 1877, she had quite a bit of land and just below the grand Hutchinson house,  a Cayuga lakeside lot  which she had leased to Mr. James B. Robinson, a boat builder.

James B. Robinson (1823 – 1911)

Hutchinson House Lake St view

Hutchinson House.  Lake Street, Village of Cayuga

Henry wanted Robinson off the property, but Robinson had built a boat-making shed and ‘apartment for living’ and was running his business and was not about to go. Henry took him to the Supreme Court, but it appears that Elizabeth’s lease was in good faith.  Henry’s half brother, Cyrus Davis, managed their mother’s estate and agreed that Mr. Robinson could continue to live on the property.

Thwarted once again and  true to his disagreeable disposition,  Henry was livid.

He harassed Robinson…breaking out his windows…shooting at the building and chopping at it with an axe. He even tried to sabotage a little potato patch Robinson had planted.  Hutchinson would often rail at the situation and in one instance at the local store owned by John R. Van Sickle and Ransom Olds (two more kin of mine), Henry threatened

“If he did not leave he should put a hole through him, and if one hole was not enough, he should make another.”

The tension was very high,  constant and escalating so Robinson spoke with several members of the village and went to the law for advice. He had Hutchinson arrested on July 9th, but Hutchinson was from a respected family.  So free he went and the law told Robinson to just do his best to ignore him. Robinson tried, but Hutchinson became more and more threatening and even told Robinson’s adult son that he would burn him out. Robinson borrowed a shotgun and kept it by the living room door he was so afraid. Men from the village would walk Robinson to his door to try to help keep the peace. It wasn’t to be.

On July 19, 1878 Henry shot at the house and a confrontation ensued. Finally afraid for Newspaper Auburn NY Evening Auburnian 1878 - 0690 Killing of Henry C Hutchinson Dark and Bloody Cayugahis life, Robinson took up the borrowed shotgun and seeing Hutchinson with the gun, he shot in Hutchinson’s direction. Robinson was not familiar with guns and thought he aimed at Henry’s legs, but Henry was injured fatally…in his abdomen and wrist and leg.

David Coapman (1844-1911)

When the shots were heard, men came running and Henry, lying in a pool of blood,  told them Robinson had shot him. Doc A. J. Cummings, whose wife was a cousin of Henry’s, was summoned and Henry said he knew he was dying so John Freese was summoned to record his testimony and his last will in front of witnesses including Henry’s half brother, Cyrus H. Davis. James Robinson was arrested by Constable David Coapman (my cousin’s great great grandfather and my maternal 2x great grandmother’s brother).  Circles.

David Coapman knew Robinson to be a peaceable fellow and testified to his docile disposition at the trial.

When John Freese, a Justice of the Peace was summoned to the dying man’s bedside, Henry used his last breaths to declare himself harmless and to indict Robinson as a cold blooded murderer and that “this was all the work of Cyrus Davis”.  Then Henry’s focus was on directing his sister, Mary Rebecca Ferree (my cousin’s great great grandmother) to evict James Robinson from his late mother’s property…immediately.   Even to the end, Henry was intractable.

A coroner’s inquest was held on July 22 and after a long list of testimonies, the jury’s verdict was manslaughter in the first degree and the case was set for the grand jury.  The pronouncement of manslaughter was roundly criticized as outside of the province of a coroner’s inquest and only fitting for a trial jury.  On October 12, the grand jury convened and indicted Robinson with 21 indictments, one of which was murder.  He pled not guilty.

Thus James Robinson went to trial in Auburn, New York on October 19th attended by a  jury of his peers – twelve good men from Cayuga County.   From the beginning the testimonies given by several individuals who knew both men were clear about Henry’s  threatening and relentless  behavior.  A long time acquaintance of Henry’s,  James Cox, testified at the trail.

Hutchinson was passionate, unforgiving and vindictive.

Despite District Attorney Sereno Elisha Payne’s summation attempting to downplay the provocations against Robinson and his often declared fear of Hutchinson, the testimonies were irrefutable and Defense Attorney Milo Goodrich’s case was airtight.   Six months after Henry’s death, Robinson’s fate was in the jury’s hands.  After deliberating for a little over two hours, they returned with their verdict.   James B. Robinson was acquitted.   The audience which had been held rapt by the proceedings, rose and applauded the verdict.  Robinson’s wife, son and daughter-in-law, moved to tears, embraced James amid the hand shaking and congratulations.

During all of the trial,  a close friend had removed Robinson’s boat shop and personal belongings and took it to his place on Owasco Lake. James Robinson never set foot on the Cayuga Lake property again.

Henry Clay Hutchinson is buried in Lakeview Cemetery in the Hutchinson family plot- a few hundred feet from the Hutchinson house and the site of his death.

The news coverage was statewide and the village was described as ‘quiet’ and ‘idyllic’ and the shooting an ‘interruption of the peace’ and one headline declared “Dark and Bloody Cayuga”.  The drama of Henry’s life and death gave me a ton of reading material for the afternoon and provided insight into a good amount of characters from Cayuga.  Unfortunately, it left me with no clue as to my relationship to John Freese other than a familial name.

And another topic of conversation for my cousin Charlie and me.

Deborah J. Martin-Plugh

Author, Historian and Genealogical Researcher

© Copyright 2018. All Rights Reserved

 

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OLD TIMES AUBURN

John B. Swain of Throop (1799-1891) was the husband of my maternal 4x great aunt Almira J. Tyler (1804-1873). Almira is the sister of my 3x great grandfather, Lonson W. Tyler (1794-1872).  In 1890 John Swain’s recollections were published by the Auburn, NY Daily Bulletin on January 18th.  His reference to his father-in-law in his recollection is to my 4x great grandfather, William Tyler (1773-1860).

L to R: John B Swain, his son-in-law Martin Van Aken and his daughter Martha Swain Van Aken.

L to R: John B Swain, his son-in-law Martin Van Aken and his daughter Martha Swain Van Aken.

OLD TIMES AUBURN.

J. B. SWAIN OF THROOPSVILLE HAS INTERESTING REMINISCENCES.

How He Came to Auburn and the Many Things He Remembers About the Early Days.

To the Editor:
Seeing in the BULLETIN your request to old inhabitants of the city to write of the early recollections of Auburn, and observing the meagre details thus far, I was prompted to submit a few facts which I hope you will consider of sufficient interest to publish. I am not a resident of the city, but have lived within three miles of the prison gate for sixty-nine years.

I was born in New Jersey June 15th, 1799, and consequently nearly 90 years. When eighteen years of age I left home with my brother for the State of Ohio, then considered the far west. We traveled in a one-horse wagon, there being no railroads, and landed in Smithfield county, Ohio at the end of thirty days. I visited Pennsylvania, Virginia and Maryland until 1820, when I started for this county the called the lake region. I made the journey afoot, the distance about 500 miles, in just twelve days. I came by way of Pittsburg, Finch creek and up the Allegany river to Olean, then across to Pike Ferry, Moscow and Geneseo, and thence through Lima, Bloomfield to Canandaigua, and east to Auburn. There was about a foot of snow on the ground when I arrived but the weather was quite pleasant. The place was known as Hardenburg Corners in those days.

The walls of the first few acres enclosed for the prison were built by Lawrence White and Ralph Decamp of New York. At the conclusion of the work White built a house at the corner of Van Anden and North Streets, and lived there, rearing a large family. Decamp settled on a farm near Fosterville and remained there until his death. West Van Anden and Seymour streets were a wild swamp. The land from the site of the State asylum to Hackney was covered by heavy timber. It was in the woods at a point about where the asylum gate is now that the eccentric Lorenzo Dow used to preach. From that point south, to Clark Street, was a wilderness almost impenetrable.

Jack Harris was the first man received at the prison. He was sentenced to life imprisonment for burning the Rome, Oneida county jail. At the expiration of twenty years he was pardoned. He learned the coopers trade during his confinement, and upon his release he worked for John Hepburn, counting staves at the corner of Wall and Cross streets, until he was nearly blind. He was finally removed to the county house, where he died about ten years ago, aged 100 years. My father-in-law’s brother, Gideon Tyler, a small boy, was the first person buried in the North Street cemetery. The prison chaplain was Mr. Bowser, a Methodist preacher who conducted a chair factory on Market street.

On the corner of Mechanic and Genesee street in 1821 there was a general merchandise store owned and conducted by two brothers named Patty.  Mrs. Arnett, of whom Mr. Bostwick speaks, was a relative of the Patty’s.  Mrs. Arnett’s husband had the Cooper contract in the prison and I worked for him nearly five years.  Richard Steele’s drug store stands to-day in the same place it did then.   Walter Weed had a hardware store just below.  When boats began running on the Erie Canal, Mr. Weed built a basin for the craft to load and unload cargoes.  The point was then called Weed’s Basin, but it has since been changed to Weedsport.  In a two story building where the Auburn Savings bank now stands, U. F. Doubleday, published a weekly newspaper, the Cayuga Patriot.  A Mr. Lounsbury was employed in the office, also a Mr. Allen who finally became a partner.  Finally Mr. Doubleday got out of the business and the paper was published by Allen & Lounsbury.  There was also a two story building where Seward’s bank now stands.  The ground floor was occupied by Abijah Fitch, who conducted a dry goods store.  The second story was occupied by the Auburn Free Press office, a newspaper published by a Mr. Oliphant.  In a room in the upper story of a building which stood about where Hunt’ drug store is now located, Judge Miller had a law office and William H. Seward studied law with him, and Enos T. and Geo. B. Throop were then residents of Auburn.  The former was afterwards Governor of the State.

The only hat store was owned by Nathaniel Garrow, afterwards Garrow & Linds, and finally the firm name became Carpenter & Linds.  The latter was soon after appointed principal keeper at the prison, and then the firm name became Carpenter & Bodley for a short time when A. T. Carpenter bought out the business.   When Charles Carpenter became of age the firm name was changed to Carpenter & Son.  The store is now run by A. T. Carpenter’s grandson, Charles.

In 1820, Milton Sherwood, a son of old Colonel Sherwood who was then keeping the Stage house at the foot of Skaneateles lake, came to Auburn and built a stage house called the American hotel.  He conducted the house until the railroad was finished and there being no further use for stages he retired from the business, settled on a farm, near where the fair ground is now, and engaged in breeding fancy cattle.  There were two whiskey distilleries and one beer brewery in Auburn in 1820.

There were four churches – one Episcopal, a little wooden building on West Genesee street which was burned in 1826; the First Presbyterian, a wooden building, corner of North and Franklin streets; the Baptist meeting house on Exchange street; and a Methodist place of worship on Chapel street.  The place where Richardson’s furniture house now is was formerly a Universalist church.

In 1824 a company of light infantry was organized in Brutus, Sennett and Mentz.  It was named the “Brutus Blues.”  One night a man rode up to my house and notified me to be at Auburn early in the morning, well equipped, to escort the Marquis De La Fayette into the village.  The company mustered early and marched out some distance and met the distinguished visitor.  He was in an open two seated carriage with three or four of the prominent men of the village.  I do not remember the names.  We escorted him to the hotel, fired a salute and then broke ranks.

The first building of the Theological Seminary was began in 1825.  I could write a volume of early recollections but I will forbear for this time.

J. B. SWAIN THROOPSVILLE.

Deborah J. Martin-Plugh

Author, Historian and Genealogical Researcher

© Copyright November 2017. All Rights Reserved.

 

That’s Philip Stein.

A Note to My Readers:  Recently a fellow historian and Auburnian, Lydia Rosell and I were communicating about a photo that she had found on eBay several years ago.  Lydia collects some intriguing items relating to Auburn, New York and Auburn Prison and posted on FaceBook that she hadn’t been able to find anything about the murder case involving the man in the photograph…”Philip Stine.”  As any historical researcher knows that is like waving a red cape at a fierce bull and shouting “Toro”.   Thus I was off to see what I could find.  The first thing I did was consider a name variation.  As soon as I made it “Philip Stein”, the story of a troublesome criminal life culminating in the murder of William Jones unfolded.   I also found the tale of intrepid Police Officer Benjamin B. Roseboom and the capture and conviction of Philip Stein.

Winter weather was in full force in central New York and Auburnians had their homes secured against the blustering and chilling December winds and the inevitable snowfall. Sleighs had been readied with newly waxed runners and reins had been inspected and treated with saddle soap. The folks in central New York needed no lesson in being prepared to tackle Mother Nature. They just didn’t count on the likes of career criminal Philip Stein.

Stein hailed from Rochester, New York and though he committed many of his crimes in that general area, he held no prejudice for where or whom he victimized. He was an opportunist. His father, Peter, had been a shoemaker and his Uncle Philip was a grocer in Rochester in 1860 and young Philip and his siblings were surrounded by family in a section of Rochester filled with immigrant tradesmen with a strong work ethic. Philip’s father had died and his mother, Johanna, remarried to another “Prussian” immigrant. Stein’s older siblings were off on their own in 1870 and 14 year old Philip and his 12 year old sister Maggie were part of the newly blended household. His stepfather, Franz, was a grocer and Philip was an apprentice carpenter. All in all, it seemed that the young boy had a clear path to make a good life for himself.
Something went very wrong. At 19 years of age, Philip was an inmate at the Monroe County Penitentiary, married and declaring his trade as butcher in the 1875 New York State Census. His life of crime had clearly begun in earnest. Five years later in the 1880 Federal Census, Philip was a convict at Auburn Prison. Still married and still claiming his occupation as butcher, it seemed more likely that crime had become his true vocation. In New York State prison records, his crime at that time is recorded as receiving stolen goods.

In April of 1881 Philip was released from Auburn Prison and made his way back to his wife and child in Rochester. Within hours, he was in serious trouble again. The young Mrs. Stein had supported herself and their child during his incarceration and according to the authorities, had ‘an unblemished reputation”. Her errant husband begged for forgiveness and asked to let him stay with her. His promise of acquiring gainful employment went unmet and his young wife’s supporters advised her to be rid of him. She stood her ground and told him to leave immediately. Angry and resentful, Philip left. Feeling content that she once again had the peace of her own humble life, the young woman put her child to bed and settled down in her parlor which also served as her bedroom. At 10 PM her reverie was broken with the harsh report of a pistol. Two shots were fired,

“the balls passing through the window, burying themselves in the bedding”.

Alarmed, she dashed to the door in time to see Stein running away. Securing the young one, she ran to the nearby police headquarters and an arrest warrant for Stein was issued.

Newspaper Auburn NY News & Bulletin 1882 Philip StineIn February of 1882, Philip Stein was back in Monroe county jail awaiting transfer to Auburn Prison for the crime of Grand Larceny in the second degree. He was arrested in Rochester, tried and convicted and was due to be returned to Auburn Prison to serve out an eight year sentence. Once again his crime was outrageous and showed a disturbing state of mind. He had entered a barn in Parma, Monroe, New York where he killed twenty sheep, skinned them and sold the pelts for $26.50. Seems that his trade of butcher was indeed accurate. Within no time after being incarcerated, Stein had proved himself again handy with tools by jimmying a lock with a pen knife and escaping into the Monroe County countryside. On February 15th Stein jimmied open a lock to a dungeon cell and acting as the ringleader, along with his fellow convicts drilled a hole through a three foot thick wall. The dungeon cell led to a chicken coop in the jail yard where the convicts found a hand ladder and scaled the wall.

The alarm went out to the Rochester officials who knew Stein on sight after dealing with him for over a decade. Disguising himself by shaving his mustache and wearing civilian clothes, he prowled Rochester to find shelter and perhaps seeking another crime opportunity. As he walked down Front Street, a vigilant sheriff spied him and arrested him on the spot. The sheriff questioned Stein to determine the details of his escape and his evasion, but Stein refused to cooperate. Still mum, Stein was taken to Auburn Prison and placed in a cell with a lock that offered no chance of tinkering. His reputation in central New York was becoming infamous as he was dubbed “The Sheep Killer”.

Stein did not serve the full eight years of his sentence and that sealed the fate of William Jones of Erie, Pennsylvania. State Prison records for Auburn Prison report that Stein’s sentence was commuted for good behavior and he was released on August 15, 1887. This time Stein did not return to the Rochester area and he would surely be under the watchful eye of Auburn police. He went instead to Erie, Pennsylvania.

Philip Stein

Philip Stein, courtesy of Lydia Rosell

William Jones was the proprietor of the St. Cloud hotel in Erie. In November of 1877 he had taken Stein in out of pity and gave him shelter from the bitter cold and provided him a warm meal and board. Stein was allowed to stay for a few days. A desperate man, Stein rewarded Jones’ generosity in a most heinous gesture. On December 1st, as Jones sat alone in the hotel with Stein, Jones drew him a beer and went about his evening routine. Stein crushed the top of Jones’ head with a blunt object described as an ice pick or a mallet or a bung starter. Jones lingered for the month of December and finally died of his injuries on December 31st.

“While Jones lay quivering in his life blood, Stein took a wallet containing $60 from Jones’ pocket and turning out the lights fled to Auburn.”

Once again the Rochester and Auburn police departments were on notice to watch out for Stein. A $250 reward was offered and the citizens were unnerved after learning of the nature of the crime. Stein had graduated from a thief to a murderer. Stein was accustomed to evasion and kept a low profile and yet he returned to Auburn where his face was well-known. He learned that the police were actively pursuing him in Auburn and began to make his way into the countryside. He would not make it out of the city. “an old prison official”, spotted Stein on Dill Street and alerted the Auburn police. The entire force was mobilized, but they could not seem to catch up with Stein. Days later, he was spotted on North Street and Officer Roseboom answered the call. He secured a horse and buggy and pursued Stein as he attempted to flee on Grant Avenue. Brandishing a gun, Roseboom commanded Stein to stop. Knowing he couldn’t outrun a buggy on foot, Stein turned and drew his knife. Staring down the barrel of Roseboom’s gun, Stein threw down the knife and a bottle of sulphuric ether and surrendered. He had been on the run for eleven days.

Philip Stein Arrest Record December 11, 1887

Philip Stein Arrest Record December 11, 1887.  Courtesy of Lydia Rosell

Auburn police officer Benjamin B. Roseboom and police reporter Charlie Rattigan and Erie, Pennsylvania Detective J. P. Sullivan and Captain Grant had their hands full transporting Stein. Despite Stein’s calm demeanor, he was shackled hand and foot as they were acutely aware of his wiliness and his earlier escape. They also had to worry about the enraged citizens of Erie. When the Lake Shore train reached Westfield, Chautauqua, New York on December 17, 1887 a telegram from Erie District Attorney Baker was given to Captain Sullivan. Throngs awaited the arrival of the train and along with a steady snow, shouts and curses filled the air. A plan was formulated to take Stein to another part of the train and disembark away from the mob. They no sooner had stepped down onto the remote platform than a shout went up.

“Hang him to that post!”

Stein was tossed into the waiting carriage arranged by D. A. Baker and the men were off to the Erie jail at a tear. The mob had been in full pursuit and as many as 25 people reached the carriage, but it had a good start and soon the enraged citizens were left behind and the lawmen and the suspect were on their way unencumbered.

Though the circumstantial evidence of his culpability was powerful, Stein maintained his innocence throughout his arrest and trial. Appearing in Erie court in May of 1888, Stein was dressed neatly in black and his previously shaven mustache had been grown back. He was cool and confident and represented by two of the best defense lawyers that money could buy. Stein’s brother-in-law, Phillip Christman, a well-to-do butcher and grocer from Rochester, footed the bill. Christman had married Stein’s sister, Maggie. When pressed by an Erie reporter about Stein’s case, Christman stated that he believed Stein to be too cowardly to commit such a crime and that his forte was stealing. He also stated that Stein had never attempted to hurt anyone. Mr. Christman clearly hadn’t considered the incident when Stein attempted to shoot Mrs. Stein.

Erie District Attorney A. Elverton Sisson

Erie District Attorney A. Elverton Sisson

At the trial no defense was offered, but rather the attorneys battered the court with procedural sparring. Objections flew at every point. They tried to get the jury dismissed on the grounds that it was drawn for the second Monday of the term instead of the first which would have considerably delayed the case. The judge denied the motion and the jury, consisting of eleven farmers and one ‘city’ man, was seated. The prosecution team of District Attorney A. Elverton Sisson and his predecessor, Cassius Leland Baker and Captain J. P. Sullivan worked the arrest and trial so as no fault would bring about a verdict of not guilty. A precise prosecution strategy was in place.

The prosecution swore in between forty and fifty witnesses and their testimonies solidly refuted Stein’s statement at his arrest. Jones’ leather wallet Stein had stolen was produced as evidence. It had been found along the tracks where Stein was spotted fleeing. The circumstantial evidence mounted and confident that they had made their case, the prosecution rested. At the close of the trial, the defense pulled their trump card. Laying claim on a common law case tried fifty years earlier, they demanded to open AND close the argument phase of the trial. The prosecution’s hands were tied and the defense proceeded with their strategy. Observers thought the defense might be able to sway the jury for an acquittal. Baker, however, had a compelling close and was a deft and eloquent speaker. With the advantage of giving the final argument of the case, defense attorney and ex-Congressman Samuel Myron Brainerd held the floor handily.  Brainerd had also served a three year term as District Attorney for Erie county before his stint in Congress.   It was a battle of wits and experience between the three men who served the same office.

Thanking the jury, the judge sent them off to deliberate the case.

After five hours of deliberation, the verdict was pronounced. Guilty of second degree murder punishable by imprisonment for life. Trial attendees and reporters noted that Stein’s escape from a verdict of first degree murder was a direct result of that defense strategy. A defiant Stein demanded a new trial.

Officer Roseboom and Rattigan of Auburn and Chief Detective Hayden of Rochester left that night after staying in Erie for the duration of the trial having been the guests of  the county of Erie.

It appears that Stein’s demand for a new trial went unmet and Stein was imprisoned in Pennsylvania to serve out his life sentence. No trace of him appears in later official records or newspaper accounts. Stein’s infamy came and went as he served his time in Erie, Pennsylvania prison.  Christman returned to Rochester to run his market and raise his family.

Twenty-two years later, a Rochester lawman, Chief Hayden, remembered Philip Stein.

In 1888 Hayden received a telegram from Erie, Pa., which read: “Wanted for assault and attempt to kill, an American, 28 or 30, five feet, ten inches, 165 pounds. Evidently American. Had one weak and watery eye.”
“That’s Philip Stein, “Hayden said to Chief Cleary and Captain McCormick. “The fellow who was convicted awhile ago of stealing sheep from a Parma farmer, and has been out of Auburn only a short time.”

Philip Stein never left the thoughts of Roseboom and Rattigan either.  When 70 year old Roseboom was interviewed in 1915 in his cozy home at 3 Sumner Street in Auburn, New York, the journalist wrote

Pointing out the window toward Lansing Street, he mused: “Right back of that house I took a murderer, a fellow named Stein, way back in 1887.  And he’s sworn revenge on me and Charlie Rattigan, a police reporter at that time, whose testimony down in Pennsylvania sent the man up for a dozen years.  But Charlie and I are here yet.”

Author’s Note:  The mystery remains…Philip Stein was given a life sentence and Roseboom mentions a dozen years.  Since I fail to find Stein after his incarceration…did he die before 1900 in a Pennsylvania prison while in his mid thirties?  Seems unlikely that in light of his crime, Stein would have been released.  But then Officer Roseboom’s light-hearted comment seems to tell us that Philip Stein is safely tucked away.  Dead or alive.  And no threat to Roseboom, Rattigan or the citizenry of Auburn, New York.

Deborah Martin-Plugh
Author, Writer and Genealogical Researcher
© Copyright 2015. All Rights Reserved.

Great Grandmother Nature Abhors a Vacuum

A Note to My Readers:  I may not be the “Lone Ranger” here, but I am fortunate to be the custodian of a great many family treasures including my maternal great grandparents’ family bible circa 1867, a myriad of cabinet cards, Victorian trading cards, a key to the city of Auburn, NY presented to my mother, my parents’ marriage ceremony booklet,  a panoramic photo of a 1929 Tyler Kindred of America family reunion and an 1896 fraternal order ribbon badge to name a few.  Most all photos are from my mother’s side of the family which includes a few reproductions of the originals that are in the possession of cousins.  My mother was hugely sentimental and the ‘keeper of memories’ and she passed the torch on to me. 

My father died when I was ten and there was some Martin family time with his kith and kin, but it did not have the bonded blood-to-blood tribal love that imbued every Purdy gathering.  Accompanied with singing and gossiping, cigarettes, cocktails, bosoms sporting expensive perfumes and glorious shades of lipsticks that marked cigarette butts and children’s cheeks,  nothing was done in small doses in my mother’s family.  Especially reminiscing.  Along with the affectionate and dramatic Purdy panache,  I was provided with enough memorabilia, photos and lore to know my mother’s side and to begin to build a worthy maternal family tree.  Not so with my father.  I barely had time to know my father and having no knowledge of my paternal history was something that challenged me from the very beginning.  It also gave me one of my first and ongoing brick wall mysteries.

Lillian W. Jennings Martin (1858 – 1905)

My great grandmother, Lillian Jennings Martin, disappeared off the planet shortly after her daughter Lillian was born in Brooklyn, NY in 1898. I have researched every entity, nook and cranny in and out of the genealogist’s toolbox within the boroughs of NYC and including a Long Island Sanitarium.  In fact, I even searched in nearby New Jersey as she had given birth to a still born child at a hospital there in 1888.  Though I could cull much about her husband Henry from Brooklyn newspapers, there was nothing about Lillian.  According to Evergreens cemetery in Brooklyn, NY where her husband (and my great grandfather, Henry A. Martin) is buried, she had no burial record there.  On March 30, 2015, I found that to be wrong.*

Failing to find her information in the Brooklyn area, I went back to her hometown of Auburn, New York.  Burial records for North Street Cemetery in Auburn, NY are full of gaps of information. The maintenance of the grounds and records have a terrible history, but I do have records of most of the burials in the Jennings family plot as recorded in an old sexton’s log book.  In addition, I have the obituaries of her father, Daniel and sister, Harriet Jennings White that state their burials took place in North Street Cemetery ‘in the Jennings plot’.   Lillian is not listed among them in the book and no stones remain to mark any Jennings Henry marries Lillian Jennings 1884 news and Democratburials due to scores of years of vandalism and lack of care.  Painstakingly searching through Auburn, New York newspaper articles for any Jennings or Martin mention, I had no trouble finding information on her Jennings family members including death notices and obituaries. Why not Lillian?  Her husband’s Martin family lived in Auburn and they never failed to show up in the local newspapers.   Only Lillian’s 1884 marriage to my great grandfather surfaced in an Auburn, NY newspaper article.

Lacking any more avenues to find Lillian, I decided to open up the research to her siblings.  Perhaps there was a clue awaiting me among the Jennings kin.  I began with  Lillian’s sister Emily Russell Jennings Trowbridge and brother William H. Jennings.

Trowbridge & Jennings Art Store in Auburn, New York.

Trowbridge & Jennings Art Store in Auburn, New York.

Lillian’s oldest sister, Emily Russell Jennings Trowbridge, lived in Auburn for decades with her husband and three children.  John Jasper Trowbridge in partnership with his brother-in-law William H. Jennings owned and operated an art and supplies store in Auburn, New York.  Both men were prominent citizens and socially and politically active.  Information on the two siblings was an embarrassment of riches.   When  John moved on to open another store in Binghamton, NY,  Will Jennings continued to run the Auburn, New York store with his sons.  His new venture was social and business news in both Auburn and Binghamton newspapers.   After the turn of the century, the Trowbridges relocated to Orange, New Jersey for a short time as John found a new opportunity to pursue.  Eventually the family came back to Binghamton where John had been offered a lucrative position.  He and Emily spent their remaining years in Binghamton as did their spinster daughters, Grace and Emma.  Son Charles Jasper Trowbridge had fallen in love with socialite Paula Mencken Flugal and the pair were married in West Orange, New Jersey in 1909.  Their wedding was reported in the New York Times.  A salesman like his father, Charles found opportunity in several places…Philadelphia, New York City, Buffalo, New York, Newton, Massachusetts eventually living in Long Beach, California with his wife and near his married daughters, Ruth Jennings Trowbridge (wife of Graham Hurd Stewart) and Louise White Trowbridge (wife of Philip L. Bruce).   I followed Lillian’s nieces and nephew in the hopes that sister Emily’s family would shed some light on her fate.

As I considered it, Emily and her family were living in East Orange about the time Lillian and Henry were living in Brooklyn.  And about the time she disappears from any records of any kind.  Emily would have known about Lillian’s life and death.  Possibly they spent time together as the distance was not great.  Perhaps West Orange might hold some kind of clue.  A long shot to be sure, but as any genealogical researcher can attest, long shots are very often the very weapon that solves a mystery.   New Jersey held no revelation so it was back to Auburn.

The Trowbridges of Binghamton…Emily, and her husband, John Jasper Trowbridge and their spinster daughters, Grace and Emma were all brought back to Auburn, New York to be buried in their family plot in Fort Hill Cemetery.  North Street Cemetery had long been disregarded as suitable and Fort Hill held the ‘new’ pioneer burials with all of the grand monuments.   Would Lillian have been brought ‘home’ to rest with her Jennings family members in North Street Cemetery?  Could she have died in Auburn and not in the Brooklyn area?  Was she buried in Brooklyn or her hometown of Auburn?  Nothing. No death records. No burial records. No obituaries or death notices.  Anywhere.  Just unanswered questions lurking everywhere.    Lillian’s fate remains a mystery despite my best efforts.  I keep at it…blurry eyed, out of ideas, yet still believing that I will find her.    Perhaps that energy and faith lives in the ether.

Emily Comes Home

Dad, his Uncle George and Uncle George's Aunt Harriett Jennings White. Two of my brothers play at their feet.  Four generations!

Dad, his Uncle George and Uncle George’s Aunt Harriett Jennings White. Two of my brothers play at their feet. Four generations!

One of two Jennings photos I have is one of Lillian’s sister, Harriet Jennings White. She lived in Auburn all of her life and died in 1940. My father visited her quite often and I am fortunate to own the original photo of Harriet taken around 1936 with my father, his Uncle George Martin (my grandfather Albert’s brother) and two of my older brothers. The other photo I have is gift from an individual who found it among her great aunt’s belongings. It is of Grace Trowbridge.  Her cabinet card was tucked among her schoolmate’s memorabilia for over a century only to be found by her schoolmate’s granddaughter.  She discovered my blog and reading about Emily and her daughter, Grace, sent Grace’s photo to me to once again be part of family.  Grace’s cabinet card is framed and hung in my gallery among her extended family members.  She is home.

Emily Russell Jennings Trowbridge

Emily Russell Jennings Trowbridge

Recently I was offered another family treasure…a gift…by another historian who found the cabinet card of Emily Russell Jennings…Mrs. John J. Trowbridge in an antique shop near her home.  Vicky is an historian herself and makes a point of rescuing the random orphan image and sets about to find family of the subject.  A thoughtful (and kindred) spirit, she dug in to the Trowbridge research and came upon my blog and sent me an inquiry.  On the back of the cabinet card is gold stamped “Mrs. J. J. Trowbridge.  Binghamton, NY”.  Was I family?   It was the most stunning moment because I had been looking into my Jennings material at that very moment with the hope that a new source had become available and perhaps I might find Lillian.

This was one of those shiver moments.  Scoff if you will, but to have the image of Lillian’s sister Emily cross the grand void and find me at that very moment took my breath away.   I think I am pretty stubborn…tenacious sounds better…and I hate an unsolved mystery and abandoning an ancestor.   What do they say?  “Nature abhors a vacuum.”  So do I.   An incident such as this reinforces my instinct to press on.

Emily’s image is now hung in the gallery in my sitting room where I research and where she has joined her daughter, Grace and her sister, Harriett in the Jennings collection.  Perhaps some day, Lillian will find her way home.  Meanwhile, I adore the image…the very light blue eyes that I sport.  I see family so clearly in her face.

For the few days it took for Emily’s image to arrive in the mail,  I haunted my mailbox.

This is when my neighbors question my sanity as I dance to the mailbox in anticipation.  Call me a silly and sentimental, but make sure you add genealogist.

Then my bit of Terpsichore to check the post will explain everything.

*March 30, 2015 UPDATE:  I found a death record today for Lillian and Henry’s 14 year old son, Howard.  He died in 1907 and was buried in Evergreens Cemetery.  I called them today and they confirmed he was in the family plot.  As was an “L” Martin.  That was Lillian!  She was buried there on July 2, 1905.  No details on where or how she died and it deepens the mystery since Henry declared himself a widower in the 1900 Federal Census and the 1905 New York State Census.  It does make me think that the Lillian W. Martin in Kings Park Psychiatric Hospital is my great grandmother.  It was abandoned and the records moved and I have begun the daunting process of trying to find out just where they ended up.  The good news is I know where she is buried and that is a sense of closure.

Deborah Martin-Plugh

Author, Historian and Genealogical Researcher

http://www.facebook.com/thegenealogistsinkwell

(c) Copyright 2015.  All Rights Reserved.

I Can’t Knit, Elizabeth Cady Stanton

A Note to My Readers:  It’s Women’s History Month and I am reading material on the Suffrage Movement as it relates to my hometown of Auburn, New York.  Auburnians Emily Howland, Julia C. Ferris, Sara Wadsworth, Lucy Brown Mosher and Eliza Wright Osborne were influential suffragettes and leaders in the movement. A plaque in their honor was installed in the reception room of the National League of Women Voters in Washington, D.C. on April 15th, 1931. Their biographies characterize these women as determined and dedicated as prominent leaders in political, social and educational activities in Cayuga County and New York State.

Dr. Emily Howland from The Emily Howland Papers, Cornell University

Dr. Emily Howland from The Emily Howland Papers, Cornell University

Miss EMILY HOWLAND was born on a farm near Sherwood, Cayuga, New York on November 20, 1827 to Slocum and Hannah Talcott Howland. She was reared as a Quaker,  educated in Sherwood and later at a Society of Friends school in Philadelphia. Miss Howland’s life was dedicated to education, women’s rights and the abolition of slavery. In 1880 she published a monograph entitled “Early History of Friends in Cayuga County” which recounted the Quaker families and characters and the history of Scipio Meeting.  For me it is a delightful read because in 1829 my Quaker family migrated to the west side of Cayuga Lake and became members of the Scipio Meeting.

Emily was a teacher before the Civil War and after the Emancipation Proclamation she nursed and taught in a camp for freed slaves. Fearlessly she continued her work there despite a severe outbreak of smallpox. After the war, as Miss Howland continued her mission for education and health for all, she established schools for the freed slaves in Virginia.

Returning to her roots along Cayuga Lake, Emily turned her energies toward women’s suffrage and became a delegate to state and national conventions and at one time addressed the United States Senate. It was not uncommon to see her giving speeches in the streets of Auburn and Syracuse.

In 1882 Emily also founded a school in Sherwood, New York and in 1927 it was renamed Emily Howland School in her honor. In 1926 she was the first woman in the state to be honored by the New York State Board of Regents with an honorary doctor of letters.

A woman of great intellect and leadership skills, she managed two Cayuga County farms and was a director for the Aurora National Bank. During her lifetime,  she was a member of the board of no less than 30 schools.

Miss Emily Howland died on June 29, 1929 in Sherwood at the age of 101 years and is buried in Howland Cemetery in Ledyard, New York. The inscription on her monument reads:

She wished to have these words upon her stone.

“I strove to realize myself and to serve. Purposes nobly fulfilled.”

Newspaper Auburn NY Citizen 1928 Julia C. Ferris imageMiss JULIA C. FERRIS was also an educator and independent woman. Born at 16 Court Street on July 3, 1844 to Charles Thacher Ferris and Jane Underwood, she studied in Auburn public schools and was a graduate of Albany Normal College at the age of 16. Julia first taught at the Basswood Street School in Aurelius and then on to the No. 1 School in Auburn (Fulton Street School). After the Civil War she taught at a private school which was held over Sutton’s Drug Store on Genesee Street and then went on to be principal at the Genesee Street School. Briefly she was a teacher at a girl’s school in Detroit, but returned to Auburn in 1878 where she taught at Auburn High School. From 1881 to 1887 she was principal of North Street School. In 1888 she went on to head the mathematics department of the Central Grammar School until her retirement in June of 1913. It was estimated that she had taught in excess of 7, 500 pupils

“hammering the puzzling problems of ‘rithmetic into the heads of youth today”.

From 1914 to 1928 she was commissioner of education, a political position that she did not seek. In fact, she was nominated by educators and former students and placed on the ballot. She won over other candidates with a resounding margin and went on to be named as president of the board.

When Julia C. Ferris died in 1928 at the age of 83, Mayor Charles Osborne ordered the flags on all public school buildings to be flown at half-staff until after her funeral. She is buried in the Ferris family plot in Fort Hill Cemetery in Auburn, New York.   Julia’s sister, Mrs. John G. Hosmer survived her as well as many nieces and nephews.

Sara Wadsworth 1916

Sara Wadsworth 1916

Miss SARA WADSWORTH was the daughter of Auburn scythe manufacturer David Wadsworth and his wife Phebe E. Partelow. She was born in Auburn to wealth and leadership as was her brother David, Jr. who served at one time as Mayor of Auburn. Sara served at separate times as the president and the treasurer of the Cayuga County Woman Suffrage Association and was praised for her dedication giving the better part of her own time and money to the cause. Her home at 210 West Genesee Street (situated at the corner of Genesee and Fort Streets) was the family home that she inherited from her father. One of the loveliest homes in Auburn, it was a constant venue for teas and boarding for suffrage organizers, speakers and dignitaries. In 1937 the old Wadsworth Mansion, as it was known, was dismantled and all of the antiquities and valuables auctioned off to the highest bidder.

Sara was a delegate to conventions and conferences and traveled often in the company of Mrs. Osborne to promote women’s suffrage. Sara’s politics were more of the intellectual and genteel persuasion and she frequently wrote other groups and asked that they refrain from picketing as it detracted from the message. She traveled often and used the ‘boardroom’ approach to ply her message and in confrontation with male politicians was intelligent and stern yet gracious. She impressed them with her intellectual skills and often won them over to at least have a discussion. That said, when pressed and the heat was on, Sara was a presence at the 1916 street rally to demonstrate at the New York State Republican Convention held  in Saratoga, New York. She lectured to other suffragette groups on

“how to raise and spend money”.

In a letter to the Citizen Advertiser, she reports that as treasurer of a fund for The Women’s Union in 1922, she had managed the donation of Mrs. Osborne in the amount of $25,000. Sara was often found in fundraising events for the Women’s Union and though she was pouring tea, she was often in the role of financial management.

Sara died in 1927 at the age of 76 and is buried in the Wadsworth family plot in Fort Hill Cemetery in Auburn, New York.

Eliza Wright Osborne

Eliza Wright Osborne

Mrs. ELIZA WRIGHT OSBORNE was the wife of David Munson Osborne and the daughter of David Wright and Martha Coffin and the niece of Lucretia Mott. Born on September 3, 1830, Eliza was a powerful force in the Suffrage Movement doing

‘everything for the cause of suffrage that her position as one of Cayuga County’s leading women would, who believed in the cause.”

Like her friend and fellow activist, Sara Wadsworth, she was born to a family of influence. When she married David M. Osborne, a wealthy farm machinery manufacturer, she plunged into the Women’s Suffrage Movement and with her fellow Auburnian suffragettes assumed positions of leadership. She traveled to conferences and conventions and in her own home hosted regular meetings which often included Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. She was described as a “lover of books and a woman of wide reading” as well outspoken and courageous with a devotion to principles yet with a love for flowers and humanity. Her collection of books was reported to be massive.  At the age of 80 and showing no signs of losing her passion for women’s suffrage, she led a delegation to Albany and appeared before legislative committees to promote the cause.

Eliza’s  information is archived in the Library of Congress in the NAWSA Suffrage Scrapbooks, 1897-1911 and in Collections of letters at the Smith College. One such letter written in 1892 from Elizabeth Cady Stanton shows the endearing relationship the two women had and the delight in one another’s wit.

Dear Eliza,
In a recent letter… speaking of the occasion when we last met you say, “why was Mrs. Stanton so solemn?” to which I reply, Ever since an old German Emperor issued an edict, ordering all the women under that flag to knit,…I have felt humiliated whenever I have seen any daughters of our grand republic knitting,…or occupied with any of the ten thousand digital absurdities….
Looking forward to the scintillations of wit,…the mysteries of theosophy, palmistry, mental science, the revelations of the unknown world where angels & devils do congregate, looking forward to the discussions of all these grand themes, in meeting the eldest daughter of David and Martha Wright, the niece of Lucretia Mott, the sister in law of William Lloyd Garrison,…one can readily imagine the disappointment I experienced when such a woman pulled a cotton wash rag from her pocket & forthwith began to knit…: it was impossible for conversation to rise above the wash rag level….
Who can wonder that I was “solemn” that day? I made my agonized protest on the spot, but it fell unheeded &, with a satisfied sneer, Eliza knit on….I not only was “solemn” that day, but I am profoundly solemn whenever I think of that queenly woman & that cotton wash rag. And yet one can buy a whole dozen of these useful appliances…for twenty five cents!! Oh Eliza, I beseech you, knit no more.

Affectionately yours,

Elizabeth Cady Stanton

In 1910 with her health failing, Eliza had to decline her attendance to a rally.  In good humor and still in the game, she writes –

My dear Anne: –

It certainly would be dandy to join your party and go on to Albany.  When I was there last spring I said I never would miss another one, but all the same I have to miss it.  I am not quite graduated from my nurse and not at all able to leave home for which I am exceedingly sorry.  It will be might interesting this year, and what do you think of a man lobbyist?  Funny what a snarl they have got into regard to the different schemes of the different people who have lately come into the work.  Thank you for the clippings.

Hoping and know that you will have a perfectly delightfully time, believe me,

Affectionately & Most regretfully yours,

Eliza W. Osborne

Eliza Wright Osborne died in Auburn on July 18, 1911 at the age of 82 and was cremated and buried in the family plot in Fort Hill cemetery between the graves of her husband and daughter. Eliza and David have generations of  descendants.  She was the only one of these amazing women that did not live to see the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U. S. Constitution.

Mrs. LUCY M. BROWN MOSHER was born on September 27, 1844 in Clay, Onondaga, New York, to Mr. and Mrs. Seeber and Margaret Brown. The Browns moved to Fleming and then to Union Springs where she met her husband, Charles S. Mosher. The Browns and Moshers arrived in Auburn in 1882 and Lucy immediately became involved in her new community in religious, social and political pursuits. Lucy was best noted for her work during the suffrage campaigns of 1915 and 1917 arousing the interest of the community. She was chairman of the speakers’ bureau and directed speaking tours and mass meetings and her home, too, was the site of teas and social hours for dignitaries who spoke at the Suffrage headquarters.

I have an affinity for Lucy as she, too, was a genealogist and loved her heritage. The Mosher home at 125 East Genesee Street was not only a gathering place for women’s suffrage events such as The Society for Political Education, but it was also a museum to her family heritage. One of her favorite treasures was a

quilt fashioned by her mother with a signed block bearing an autograph of General Lafayette which had been signed by him when he visited Cayuga County in 1825.

Unfortunately the relic was lost in 1916 in a fire at their home. Lucy was a wonderful storyteller. At a Brown family gathering, she told the story of her maternal grandmother’s saga along the Mohawk River as an infant. Her grandmother was ‘stolen by the Indians’ from the family log cabin while she was asleep in the cradle while her distraught mother was threatened by the Mowhawk invader. It was claimed that it was the ‘renegade’ Joseph Brandt who had instigated the murder and scalping of white settlers from New York to Pennsylvania and who was a British ally under Burgoyne. For eight years the child lived with the Indians while her father, friends and neighbors searched for her. When they found her, the Indians wanted money for her return. A large sum of money was offered by the father and the little girl was returned to her family. She was not accustomed to their way of living and was homesick for her Indian family. Eventually she adapted and, as they say, the rest was history.

LUCY M. BROWN MOSHER died in her Genesee Street home on January 27, 1922 and is buried in Fort Hill Cemetery alongside her husband, Charles and their son and only child, Judge Edgar Seeber Mosher. Lucy and Charles have generations of descendants.

Vira Boarman Whitehouse circa 1915

Vira Boarman Whitehouse circa 1915

Author’s Note: The resolve and great character of these women speaks volumes about the journey they had to take among some harsh attitudes regarding equality that existed by both men and women. There was an Anti-Suffrage Movement and other women echoed the sentiments of the men in their opposition to women ‘getting the vote’. Auburn members of the State Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage proclaimed “hundreds of thousands of votes of illiterate women would show a criminal disregard for American institutions”.

In an open letter in 1917 to Senator Elon R. Brown, a New York State suffragette leader, Vira Boarman Whitehouse,  challenged the senate leader’s perfidy.

‘Dear Sir – Although your party endorsed the principle of woman suffrage at its national convention and recommended submission of woman suffrage to the voters of New York state at the next election in November, at its state convention, and although you yourself voted in favor of this resubmission amendment, nevertheless, in your speech to the senate on Monday, March 12, you say:
“I am opposed to woman suffrage because it conflicts with my ideals of manhood and womanhood. The present European conflict illustrates my point. Who fights? The men of France or the women of France? Who for Belgium? Women can neither defend themselves nor the state.”

When I began to read about these women, I thought it would be a brief research in order to gain a simple biography for each one and a sense of the history. As I began to unearth more about them, I realized the subject of suffrage history was highly complex and spanned over scores of years of daunting struggle.  In fact, the lives of these most interesting women were so full of character, charm, intelligence and fearless commitment that I became overwhelmed with the scope. Each of these women met the barriers of bigotry and unvarnished prejudice from men in power and indeed from some of their own sex. To be considered as too illiterate as to be criminal in matters of American institutions in light of their great intelligence and capabilities seems unfathomable to me.

As a mother, grandmother, historian and an accomplished businesswoman and leader in my own right, I owe them a gratitude for forging a path for me and the future of our nation.

It is a sisterhood and probably why I cannot knit, Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

 

Deborah Martin-Plugh

Author, Historian and Genealogical Researcher

(c) Copyright 2015.  All Rights Reserved.

 

The Last Grand Curtain Call

Helen Modjeska

Helen Modjeska

In the fall of 1927 an old theater curtain…a ‘drop’ as they were called, was found in a remote niche on the upper level of the old Burtis Grand Theater on North Street. It was made of canvas…yellowed and crumbling. As fragile as parchment with the hand painted images vague and muted. When examined, dozens of autographs were discovered. Applied with crayon and make-up paint, the signatures revealed were of old performers with names like John Drew, James Hackett, Nat Goodwin, Charles O’Neill, Otis Skinner, DeWolf Hopper, Lincoln Carter and the great “Modjeska”. Polish-born actress Helen Modjeska was an amazing stage presence…sometimes vamp…sometimes the spirit of a rascally boy…or the epitome of royalty.

At the time of the discovery the theater had already been unused for a short period of time. It was at one time a combination theater and skating rink and built in place of the Academy of Music. After major construction, it was opened on November 13, 1889 as the Burtis Opera House. There were indoor circuses.  Touring stock companies performed.  Surrounded by the soaring architecture, politicians and civic leaders delivered elaborate speeches. Vaudeville first came to Auburn to appear within those walls. Wrestling matches and boxing bouts were held at the Burtis as well. The theater was described as a “‘second story’ house…its stage and auditorium being above the first floor with stores beneath”.

During the administration of Mayor Thomas Mott Osborne, the city became concerned about fire and forced the owners to install fire escapes and to remodel the front of the building.  One of the favorite dining places was the Osborne Hotel and  the patrons of the theater could be found enjoying small performances held at the hotel as another venue for Auburnians to enjoy entertainment and club gatherings. The Jefferson, erected by Mayor Osborne, also figured into the entertainment of Auburnians with an active billing roster. A new name to me was Motion World. Just as the Burtis and the Jefferson began to show the occasional moving picture, Motion World also hosted live entertainment. Dog acts seemed to be a particular favorite for Auburnians.

Genoia NY Tribune 1919-1922 Burtis Grand Display AdBy 1913, The Burtis Opera House underwent another name change. It became the Burtis Grand. To illustrate the lively nature of entertainment available in 1912 and 1913, newspapers around the area published the bookings commenting “Three shows at the Jefferson, three shows a day at each the Burtis Auditorium and the Burtis Grand and the usual entertainments should furnish plenty of amusement for Auburnians next week.” At the Burtis Auditorium…’eighteen new reels of pictures and eight acts of vaudeville a week’. The Burtis Grand not to be left behind promised ‘popular priced vaudeville’ with excellent several bills. “All of the smaller houses will offer the usual big entertainments for a little money next week and doubtless draw their usual big patronage.” More sites…the smaller houses start becoming familiar…Turn Hall with a boxing exhibition following by a dance party. The Cornell…The Genesee and The Universal where motion pictures were featured with starts as late as 10:45 PM.

Who says Auburn rolled up the sidewalks and everyone went to bed at sunset??!! If you had a nickel, you had somewhere to go.

039-NYC-1918-09-18-NY Clipper Burtis at Auctionp30Amid the grease paint and roar of the crowd environment came civic events and the occasion of the preacher with a theatrical style who was not intimidated by the spirit of the painted vamps and rascals. In 1918 while the United States was at war and the epidemic of Spanish Influenza was killing millions…including Auburnians, the theaters still flourished. Touring troupes from New York City clamored to be booked in Auburn’s theaters. And the audiences came and filled the seats. Laughing, crying, applauding, they chased away the harsh times that existed outside of the majestically adorned halls. It was also in 1918 that the Burtis Grand went up for auction to settle the estate of Edwin C. Burtis, the son of Cary S. Burtis who originally built the Burtis Opera House.

In 1920 it was a great occasion for the Burtis Grand, now billed as “Auburn’s Foremost Photoplay House”, as it featured Lionel Barrymore’s silent motion picture, “The Copperhead”.  As advertised, the audience came from near and far to sit in the great darkness and weep and cheer as the Civil War drama unfolded on the silver screen.

New seats and decorations had replaced the old fixtures by 1927, but the general grand architecture still existed at the Burtis Grand as it had when

crinoline and bustle adorned the stage and heroes in knee pants and silk stockings strutted their hour upon the stage.

Films continued to flicker inside the building which came to be referred to as the ‘old’ Burtis Grand as its grandeur faded and Auburn’s audiences sought a newer vogue. In 1928 and 1929 local groups such as the Odd Fellows could be found gathering at the Burtis Grand.  Meetings, speeches and exhibitions were still filling the auditorium. The great open interior still provided accommodation for large gatherings and though its beauty was of yesteryear, it was still…grand and appreciated. On Halloween night in 1928 the Republicans held a rally featuring Assistant Secretary of War F. Trubee Davison with music by the Salem Town Commandery Band.

As one old theater buff reported

The shell of a once proud palace of amusement today lies idle, facing the prosaic possibility of someday being converted into an office building. But the glory of its past remains as a shadowy heritage of a bygone day, recalled for its brief moment by the hidden musty scroll of names of stars now gone.
Few living remember the heyday of the theater’s prestige, few remain who played upon its boards in the golden days of the trouper. The glamor has gone from a temple of make-believe whose old-time stars themselves have answered the last curtain call.

Newspaper Auburn NY Citizen 1926 Boxing at the Capitol formerly Burtis grandEventually the Burtis Grand became The Capitol Theater. By the mid 1950’s there was no sign of the old double mansarded building and the ghosts of Modjeska, Eddie Foy, the Burtis Orchestra and the thousands upon thousands of central New Yorkers who strolled what could easily be called Auburn’s theater district were left to drift the much emptier streets in search of one more encore.

Suffice it to say, Auburn’s downtown (I still call it that) was a vibrant center of activity and theater played a significant role in its culture and economy. Mayor Thomas Mott Osborne was known to complain that there weren’t enough restaurants to accommodate conventions and theater go-ers and that would be the downfall of the theater and convention business. I have read a great deal these past few days about the scores of years that marked that period of its history and I have barely scratched the surface. There are a number of people who have made this part of Auburn’s past their grand passion for decades and I envy their amazing deep knowledge. I think I would love to do a walking tour with these wonderful historians and drift among the ghosts of Auburn’s theatrical heyday.

Author’s Note: I have theater in my blood so to speak. My great grandfather, George Downing Curtis and his cousin, E. O. Rogers were born in the little Village of Cayuga and became ‘theatrical’ men. George owned one of the first motion picture houses in Ithaca and Rochester, New York and booked vaudeville acts all over New York State and the Midwest. Edgar O. Rogers was larger than life and took his Uncle Tom’s Cabin Touring Group to perform far and wide.  Ned Wayburn…my 3rd cousin 2x removed produced and choreographed with the famous Ziegfeld Follies. I followed another actor…Nat Blossom…who ran off with one of my great grandmother’s family members.  I myself flirted with the limelight a bit in my youth.

And I love old architecture. It speaks to me and when it disappeared before I could experience it,  I cannot help but feel that empty space.

Deborah Martin-Plugh
Author, Historian and Genealogical Researcher
© Copyright 2015. All Rights Reserved.

Standing Room Only at the Burtis Opera House

A Note to My Readers:  In the process of researching individuals who provided the nexus of my immediate ancestors in Auburn, New York, I spent some time reading the daily newspapers of their time to get a sense of the events of the day during 1895. It’s always interesting to read about the politics of the day or the great events and very tempting to plug them into that larger perspective. But I decided to slow it down and hang out there…check out the weather, go to a strawberry festival, shop in the old stores that lined Genesee Street and maybe duck into the old Burtis Opera House confident that an unaccompanied female historian would be safe.

Julius_Cahn_s_Official_Theatrical_Guide p 581

Julius Cahn’s Official Theatrical Guide, Volume 14, p 581. 1909

Opened in 1889, the Burtis Opera House was built by Leon H. Lempert & Sons of Rochester, New York and was located at 16 -22 North Street.  The Burtis Opera House was rebuilt from the Corning Hall also known as the Academy of Music. The auditorium was described as a

‘magnificent theater one hundred feet wide, with depth from footlights forty-two feet containing twelve dressing rooms lighted by electricity and all modern and up-to-date facilities”.

Its twin mansard roofs dominated the skyline on North Street.

Robert Bruce Mantell, actor.

Robert Bruce Mantell, actor.

The Burtis became a grand addition to Auburn’s architecture and culture under the management of Auburnian E. S. Newton. The historical society reported the “completion of the Burtis Opera House affords an elegant resort for public entertainments, which ‘fill a long felt want’.” It was dedicated on the 18th of November with the appropriate devotions and addresses by Mayor Wheeler and Congressman Payne. Its first performance was the play of “Montars’ with Robert B. Mantell as its premier performer. It was not his first performance in Auburn and securing him for the opening performer was considered by the trade as they say now…a real ‘get’. A short biography of Mantell describes the Burtis Opera House as “one of the finest and coziest little playhouses in a city of its size in the country”.  Mantell went on to star in silent films and had a long and successful career.

The drama was not confined to the stage.

In 1895 one of Auburn’s finest had just been assigned to the Burtis due to complaints about ne’er-do-wells and updated electric lighting was being installed to further brighten the interior.  An Auburn newspaper had publicly chastised the Burtis’ manager, Mr. E. S. Newman, holding him responsible for the dereliction of the police in not “suppressing the hoodlums who hang around the entrance to the Opera house and calling for police to be regularly assigned to the Burtis”. In December two young thieves Eddie Kaul and Burt McLaughlin, ages six and ten, had stolen personal belongings from the young students attending Mrs. Luce’s dancing academy on Genesee Street. Among the victims was Margaret Downer, the little daughter of William S. Downer, a teller at the Auburn Savings Bank. Mr. Downer was having none of it and put in a complaint at police headquarters. Police were immediately on the trail of the boys who had been observed loitering about the academy and, once identified, the pilferers were traced to the Burtis. The pair were found happily ensconced in the audience and thoroughly enjoying the show having paid for their tickets with the change found in little Margaret’s purse.

Burtis Opera House 1906

Burtis Opera House Auburn Old Souvenir Book (1906)

National trade publications proved the popularity of the opera house among entertainers with the listings and details of their constant bookings.  The New York Dramatic Mirror reported Thomas E. Shea’s Company finished a week’s engagement with seven performances with SRO (Standing Room Only) at nearly every performance. The paid admissions accounted for 7, 684 attendees which broke the record of the house. On the flip side, the New York Philharmonic Club had a single performance.  There with just fourteen souls to exclaim it as an “excellent entertainment”. Auburn had its local talent bookings as well. The above-mentioned Mrs. Luce held her Dance Academy recitals at the Burtis.  In November, the Ladies’ Aid society of the First Universalist Church held four performances of “Ben-Hur” done in pantomime. Interspersed between the vignettes were

drills, marches and quaint Oriental and recherché dances, and the continuous orchestra music, varying with the theme and always subdued, lends an unconscious rhythm to the steps and gestures of the actors. All this, embellished with nearly $20, 000 worth of superb special scenery and rich and striking costumes, and illuminated with magnificent calcium and electrical effects, combines to make it one of the most gorgeous and attractive productions every presented on the American stage.

The Auburn Dramatic Club presented “The Woven Web’ late that fall as a benefit for the ushers of the opera house. On Thanksgiving night, the Burtis was packed and the SRO sign was hung outside its entrance when national sensation Minerva Dorr performed in the comic opera “Niobe”. Ms. Dorr’s reviews called her “charming”, with an “admirable singing ability” and “kept the audience in a continual state of uproar.” A Christmas Day musical event featured the Cornell Musical Club accompanied by several social events…receptions, luncheons…during the day and after the performance a dance was held in honor of the collegians and Cornell graduates from the area and all of Auburn was abuzz with the social festivities.  The auditorium was filled to capacity.

As I read through the schedule of that year…save for two weeks in April when the Burtis ‘went dark’ due to some minor renovation…it was never without a performance…large or small. All of that coupled with political gatherings and the occasional ball and gala with attendees from near and far. Beyond the artistic performances and political rallies and fraternal organization events and conventions, there were illustrated lectures. Another group found the Burtis a successful venue. Peddlers came from near and far selling all manner of merchandise and on occasion – ‘remedies’ – advertising their availability in the local papers. Palmer Cox BrownielandOne particular article in the spring of 1895 about an incoming troupe sparked an image of just what the hurly burly of the train station in Auburn must have been. I realized that Auburn in 1895 was not a sleepy little city, but rather a vibrant, excited and excitable community.

The most remarkable spectacular production yet presented on any stage is Palmer Cox’s Brownies. It is of such a costly and elaborate nature that it can be only shown in the largest theatres throughout the country. It will be seen in all its vast metropolitan entirety at the Burtis Opera house Monday evening, April 22nd. The huge spectacle will be brought to Auburn by special train in fact from its great run of 150 nights at the Fourteenth Street theatre, in New York, where the newspapers and magazines devoted whole pages to the description of its scenes of dazzling splendor. Such grand effects as a thrilling shipwreck, a terribly realistic earthquake and volcano, and the instant destruction of a magnificent palaces are presented in a way that has been hitherto unattempted. The very height of the stage art has been reached in these grand climaxes. The final transformation, “A Night in Brownieland”, showing in marvelous hues the unfolding into glorious life of the moonflower and night-blooming cereus is of such magnificence that worlds fail to describe it. It is well worth coming miles to see. Over 100 of the highest salaried artists are necessary for the gorgeous production. The world famous Brownies are surround by beautiful women. There are large ballets, choruses and wonderful acrobats engage abroad. Among the features are the aerial ballet, danced in mid-air to the most superb calcium effects, and the Oriental ballet, both of which have created furors.

Sounds a bit like Cirque du Soleil and Vegas, doesn’t it?

The glorious Burtis Opera House was demolished in August 1939.

Deborah Martin – Plugh Author, Historian and Genealogical Researcher

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