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

George Downing Curtis, Sporting and Theatrical Man of Ithaca

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

George Downing Curtis, The Sporting and Theatrical Man

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

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


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

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

The Difference between $450 and 55 cents

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

Amsterdam Main Street West Postcard

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

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

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

The Sporting and Theatrical Man from Ithaca

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

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


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

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

Amsterdam Daily Democrat Banner

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

Author’s Field Note:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deborah Martin-Plugh

Author, Historian and Genealogical Researcher

(c) Copyright 2010.  All Rights Reserved


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

[ii] Cash in hand