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

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