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


Going Home

A Note To My Readers:  I suppose my upcoming research trip to the Finger Lakes  area of  New York State…specifically Cayuga Lake has been on my mind…more than I realized.  It was where I was born and raised and where my roots run deep.

It has been a raggedy week and I have been definitely “off”.  Sleeping badly.  Eating junk.  Picking up the same thing and putting it down again without conscious purpose.  Fussing about money and semi-retirement.  Feeling blue and in a funk.  Missing one of  our family dogs that left us this week to walk the earth without his good nature and sweet company.   I was most definitely in need to find a place of comfort and childlike pleasure.  At some point everyone’s body takes over and you sleep.  Like the dead.  Last night I had barely laid down my head before sleep washed over me.

Senses Wide Open

The week’s angst was left behind and I became aware of walking down the streets of the Village of Cayuga with a couple of old friends that I hadn’t seen in forty years.  The dream walk carried me along to a disjointed visit of some of the grand old ladies that sit above Cayuga Lake.  The Hutchinson Homestead…the McIntosh home…Mrs. Lalliette’s…and the first home I ever owned…Tumble Inn on Center Street.

Tumble Inn on Center Street in the Village of Cayuga

It was one of those dreams where all senses were fully engaged.  I smelled the lake!  And the sweet scent of the lilacs that snuggle against the old estate of Charles and Mary Frances Victoria Lalliette.   I heard the buzz of the cicadas and the sassing call of blue jays that roost in the towering pine trees.  I felt the ever present breezes that sweep off the lake to catch a loose lock of hair, to rustle the leaves, to disturb the flight of mosquitoes.

I tasted the drooling, sticky, creamy sweetness of my favorite summer treat…a Creamsicle®.

Country Roads and Ali Baba

On Sundays we would jump in our family car and Dad would drive us through the Aurelius countryside…down Bluefield Road over Dougall Road…past the big silos of the Pinckney Farm where my 12 year old father had tended cows… south and westward toward the Cayuga Lake from Auburn.  Past weathered and leaning corn cribs, lone abandoned farmhouses and gap toothed barns surrounded by fields of corn and wheat.  Past the occasional fat woodchuck munching on the juicy grasses that grow along country roads.

At the end of the ride to Cayuga Lake just between the villages of Union Springs and Cayuga sat…no squatted…an inelegant roadside store that hadn’t seen paint in decades.  The building was a hoarder’s riot of porcelain advertising signs, hub caps and license plates.   Planted on the gravel and tucked in the shadow of the stingy overhang sat a gleaming white freezer.    As always, Dad had removed his Sunday suit jacket and rolled up his starched and snow white shirt sleeves.  One hop out of the cavernous car’s interior and a crunching step or two across the gravel to my father’s side and my sister and I would be standing in front of the humming, alien looking chest.

 It was the theater of it all.  It was my father that was Ali Baba…opening the great white treasure cave.  Our greedy little hands were fiddling at our sides waiting for the moment when the lid would be opened and the chill would escape and fog my father’s spectacles.    Ritually he would remove them…one ear at a time.  Hold them up, reach for his linen handkerchief, wipe away the moisture…lift them for a final inspection and secure them back…one ear at a time. With one fingertip push to the nose piece…he would settle them back neatly in place.  “Just so,” as he would say.  By then the anticipation had us dancing in our Mary Janes.

Finally the orangey, creamy delight was unwrapped and the paper tucked under the treat in a futile attempt to dam up the meltdown that was inevitable.   “Eat.  Quickly.  Don’t drip.  Watch your dress…the car seat…your hair!”  In the central New York Finger Lakes summer air of the 1950’s…where air conditioning was only in the movie theater….no child (or adult I suspect) could eat a Creamsicle©, Fudgesicle©, Popsicle© or ice cream cone fast enough to avoid becoming one with their treat.

One very vivid memory I have is the slow motion horror image of my Creamsicle© tumbling off the stick and into my father’s Sunday suit pocket.  I liked to stand in the back seat of the car behind my father…one arm around his neck.  “Hold me tight, Debbie, so I don’t fall out of the window!” my father teased.  Mom would “tsk tsk” us both…and fuss to make sure my father didn’t speed over a hump in the road and cause us all to pop in the air.  “Precious cargo, Al!”  Mom didn’t drive and speed was anything over 15 MPH.

Normally we would have found a shady spot to eat our ice cream, but the heat had crept into even the deepest shade.  My parents decided to drive along some of the more out of the way old roads that meandered through the wooded glades…and to catch a breeze through the windows of our moving car.

My left arm was wrapped around my father’s neck and my right hand was full of dripping Creamsicle©.  One lick…and my father’s devilish scoot over a hump in the road…and the rest is history.

Eventually…after we had licked our fingers clean, our mother would fish her embroidered hankie…it usually had lavender flowers…out of her ‘church purse’ and put it to her lips, gently spit and tidied up our sticky faces.  Today’s mothers whip out the antibacterial wipes and take care of business.   Sissies.

So my dream took me home for a stroll along the little Village of Cayuga and my Friday morning cup of coffee carried me through a memory of the summer Sundays of my childhood.    I am refreshed and re-energized to haunt Cornell’s Archival Library and Campus and the Tompkins County History Center and to walk up the trail to the base of Taughannock Falls.  I am anticipating the long days of archiving a pioneer cemetery or two followed by a glass of wine from one of the Cayuga wineries at sunset on the deck of rental my cottage on Cayuga Lake.  And shopping at the Ithaca Farmer’s Market to stock up the little cottage’s kitchen.  Ah…and a feasting brunch at Simeon’s in Ithaca…with one of their signature Bloody Mary’s.  Talking with the folks who sound like me.  Researching, Writing and Reminiscing.  Home.

I feel better…and I didn’t need William Shatner’s Priceline©…or some little garden gnome from Travelocity©.    But I do think I need to run out today and buy a Creamsicle©.

Deborah Martin-Plugh

Author, Historian and Genealogical Researcher

(c) Copyright 2012.  All Rights Reserved


Obadiah’s Grandsons

A Note to My Readers: Genealogists call it a brick wall…that ancestor who seems to have disappeared into the ages.   We all have a number of them tucked away for a fresh start at detective work -waiting for new sources to come available or playing on a new found research skill. There is no rhyme nor reason about why I choose which brick wall gets my attention.  Sometimes it is could be a simple as re-reading an old document that I had worked with a year or more ago.  A detail that has always been there failed to register as a clue and with a fresh and wiser mind, the detail becomes the clue that solves they mystery.  And the brick wall falls.

Obadiah J. Downing, the Quaker Gentleman of Dutchess and Cayuga Counties

On a 2011 research trip to Cayuga County New York I found the probate records for the estate of my great great great grandfather, Obadiah J. Downing, at the Cayuga County Records Department.  I had the framework details for his life from various historical resources including the Quaker records at Swarthmore Friends Historical Library in Pennsylvania.  The probate records of the estate of Obadiah J. Downing filled in those framework details with a richness beyond my wildest expectations.

Obadiah was born in northern Dutchess County, New York, the son of Quaker parents, Coe Searing Downing and Susannah Wright.  The Downings had migrated from Long Island and settled in Dutchess County where they were members of the Bulls Head – Oswego Meeting.   On November 14, 1827 Obadiah was joined in marriage to Lydia H. Titus, daughter of Gilbert Titus and Ann Hoag at the Bulls Head Meeting House.  Their marriage was recorded in the Bulls Head – Oswego Meeting Minutes.

Bulls Head Meeting House Photo circa 1960

Obadiah purchased land in Aurelius, Cayuga County in the mid 1820’s. On September 17, 1828, 18 year old  Lydia Downing was granted a certificate to transfer her membership from Bulls Head to the Scipio Meeting located along the eastern shores of Cayuga Lake.  In 1829 Obadiah and  a very pregnant Lydia packed up their worldly goods traveled the newly built Erie Canal system to the village of Cayuga where they set up household at the foot of the lake.  They were accompanied by his brother-in-law, David Sands Titus, David’s wife, Julia Ann Coapman,  and two year old son, Hiram and their “slave”.    Though the man who accompanied David was called a slave in a local historian’s account, subsequent information revealed that he was a free man named, Nicholas Bogart. Mr. Bogart eventually became the coachman for Auburnian and Secretary of State William H. Seward and lived to be 91 years old. His obituary recounted his relationship with David Sands Titus and his migration with the family in the 1820’s.   David was an abolitionist and a lifelong friend of William H. Seward.

Shortly thereafter, the Downings were joined by Lydia’s parents, Gilbert and Ann and her older brother, Daniel D. Titus and sisters, Sarah and Phebe Howes Titus. Sarah would marry Francis Twining who operated one of the hotels and stores in the bustling community.  Phebe married Alexander Crissey in 1839 and after his death, widower Norman Durkee.  Phebe would outlive all of her siblings, dying at the age of 85 in Buffalo, New York.

Brotherhood, Politics and Entrepreneurship

Obadiah and David Sands Titus were fast friends and supported one another’s enterprises.  Indeed, the two young men were like brothers.  The village of Cayuga was alive and bustling with travelers and traders along the Erie Canal system during the early 1800’s.  Merchants, tradesmen, entrepreneurs and inventors flourished.  Politics, too, were a vibrant element in the community and David Sands Titus (now called the Major) owned one of the most prestigious and strategic hostelries along the lake.  David and Obadiah held political meetings at the Titus House and in October of 1831 organized a committee to support the election of Andrew Jackson.  When I read the list of committee members, the name of Alanson Tyler fairly jumped off the page.  Like Obadiah, he, too, is my great great great grandfather.  Obadiah’s grandson, George Downing Curtis, would marry Alanson Tyler’s granddaughter, Deborah Jane Tyler.

While her husband and brother were in the thick of business and politics, Lydia was occupied with her growing family, raising them in the Quaker tradition.  She tended the sheep, carded and spun the wool to use in her household and to sell in the marketplace.  The Downings were prosperous and held in high esteem by their fellow citizens.

The Great Montezuma Marsh

If life was full of opportunities in the late 1830’s, it was also full of challenges.  In springtime, roads were packed dirt that ran to deep mud that would suck the boots off of a grown man’s feet and hold fast the hooves of horses and wagon wheels.  Winters brought fierce winds that blew across the frozen lake and drove the snow into high drifts confounding horses and man alike and isolating all but the heartiest souls.  Summer was relentlessly humid and hot at that end of the lake.  The Great Montezuma Swamp, one of the largest wetland systems in the Northeast, sits at the foot of Cayuga Lake. Historians, travelers and adventurers alike wrote in their journals that the area was one of the most dangerous parts of the canal because of the mosquito-infested marsh.  Native American folklore tell of mosquitoes the size of eagles.   Close to 1000 Erie Canal workers died of malaria.  Typhoid was an ongoing scourge as well.

A native American legend is recounted in Florence Pharis McIntosh’s 1927 publication, “History of Cayuga”.

Another Indian Legend concerns a huge mosquito which infested the Cayuga- Montezuma Marshes, and prevented the hunting of game. So one day Ha-wen-ne-yu, the famous warrior, came upon the beast, pursued it, and chased it all around the Great Lakes and surrounding country, until he at last slew it in the neighborhood of Seneca River. “The blood flowing from his lifeless body gave birth to innumerable swarms of small mosquitoes which still linger about the place of his death.”

While the location of the village was a strategic point of travel and commerce,  it was a haven for mosquitoes and I believe that to be the cause for the premature death of 37 year old Obadiah J. Downing on October 24, 1839.

Probate Records Spanning Thirty Five Years

Obadiah was a man in his prime when he died and no doubt thought a will was for old men.  Whatever took him must have been quick and unexpected as he and David were men of business, responsibility and influence and Obadiah would not have left his wife and children without the benefit of a well constructed document.  Obadiah’s father, Coe, left a practical, handwritten will in 1830, filed in Poughkeepsie, New York.  Surely, his son, who was a husband and father would have seen the value in that.  But he was young and he had many years ahead to worry about that.  Or so he thought.

It fell upon the shoulders of his brother-in-law, David Sands Titus, the responsibility of administering Obadiah’s estate and the guardianship duties for the three daughters and infant son of his newly widowed sister.  After reading the practical and short wills of various ancestors over the years, the job of studying the 85 pages of probate papers that spanned the years of 1839 to 1874, the year of Lydia’s death, was to say the least, overwhelming.  It was full of the most incredible information.  The inventory list of household goods, the sheep, the wool, the bedding…solid silver spoons and plates…told me that the Downings were prosperous.  Lydia was “given” a specific lot of goods as Obadiah’s wife.  In early America, there were laws that prohibited married women from owning property.  If a husband did not leave a will, probate court would more often than not, put the value of the estate in trust for the children as happened with the estate of Obadiah Downing.  Lydia kept her bible and her household goods and her garments including a coat and a number of sheep, her inventory of wool and a loom.

Silver Spoon belonging to O J Downing

My fellow researcher and third cousin, Marj Deline,  who is also a direct descendant of Obadiah and Lydia, has the monogrammed silver spoons that served the Downing household.  It means so much that the spoons listed as Lydia’s are still in the family and are treasured.

The Downing Children

Though she referred to herself as Susan M. Downing Curtis, my great great grandmother was Susannah in the probate records of her father’s estate.  It seems likely that Obadiah and Lydia’s first born was named for Obadiah’s mother, Susannah Wright Downing.   Like many children, she sought her own identity and so it was Susan throughout her life…even to the inscription on the pink granite monument that sits above Cayuga Lake.  However, she was 10 year old Susannah in the probate papers of 1839.  Susannah to her mother.  And so she remains Susannah to me.

Susannah married Henry Eugene Curtis sometime around 1847.  The Curtises settled down next to her mother Lydia in the village of Cayuga.  Henry and his brother, Levi, owned stores and “saloons” and inns in Cayuga and Watkins Glenn.  Four children were born to the Curtises; Hellen “Nellie”, Henry Eugene, George Downing and Jennie L. Curtis.  Like her mother, Susannah was widowed in her thirties.

Mary Jane Downing Rogers was born in 1832 in the Village of Cayuga and though I found her name indexed online in “guardianship records” in Cayuga County, I had not yet gone to the Cayuga County Records department and found the 85 pages of her father’s estate papers.  She had not been in her mother’s home in the 1850 Federal census.   Mary Jane Downing was a brick wall until the spring of 2011.  More on Mary Jane later….

Daughter Phebe A. Downing Buckhout was born circa 1846.  She had married Edward Allen Buckhout and bore him two sons, Edward E. Buckhout and Herbert Obadiah Buckhout.  In the New York State Census of 1855 Phebe and Edward are living in Aurelius with their young sons.  In the 1860 Federal Census, I found Phebe and her sons living without Edward.  In the 1865 New York Census, Edward is found living with his father, William and his sons, Edward and Herbert.  I found no record of Phebe after 1860.  Edward remarried, but his sons were separately sent west to live with Buckhout family members. Both grandsons are mentioned in Lydia’s probate papers.  I have followed Herbert “Obie” Buckhout’s line to Minnesota and California.  Edward was in Nunica, Michigan when his grandmother, Lydia died in 1874.  I have not found him after that.   And what happened to the daughter of Obadiah J. Downing?  If she followed her mother’s Quaker faith, she might have been buried with Obadiah in the Old Friends Cemetery in Union Springs.  I suspect her mother, Lydia was as well.  Many of the tombstones that remain have worn inscriptions that are nearly impossible to read.  For a good number of the Quaker burials there were either markers of wood and long gone…or in the tradition of modesty…none at all.

George Henry Downing was born in October of 1939 within days of his father’s untimely death.  The fact that he was named George Henry strikes me as tribute to his father’s family as both names are first names of Obadiah’s brothers and a good number of forefathers as well.  As George was the only Downing son, he took on the role of man of the family…under the watchful care of his uncle David.  The Downing children were well provided for as the land holdings of Obadiah were of substantial value and their Uncle David was a man of means himself.   At the end of his mother’s life, George Henry oversaw the goods and wealth of his father’s estate.  The probate records of his mother’s estate and the guardianship records all clearly indicate that he was fulfilling his duty as Obadiah’s only son.  George was briefly married in his twenties though her name is not mentioned.  He married his second wife, Anna Mills circa 1870 and the couple had two daughters – Mary and Georgia Anna.  George ran his farm in Venice and died in 1929.  He and Anna and daughter Georgia Anna Hodge and her husband, Perry are buried in the East Venice Cemetery.  Georgia and Perry had one son, Leon Curtis Hodge who ran the family farm until he collapsed and died at the age of 47, leaving behind a two year old, daughter Elaine Ann.  Elaine Ann’s mother had died just months before and there is no record of Elaine after her father’s sudden death.

Which brings me back to Mary Jane Downing…..

In her mother’s probated estate papers, the reference to her was “Mary Jane (Rogers) from Rochester NY”.  That’s it. Easy, huh? Nope. I found one Mary J. Rogers in the 1880 federal census in Rochester…wife of George G, a veterinary surgeon. Well,  that should make it easy…that’s an impressive occupation in those days. Oh sure…lots of George material…directories, et al. The search into 1870, 1860 and 1850 in ancestry.com was an entire frustration…they were a no show despite all my Soundex search methodology. The search brought up every Rogers from everywhere BUT Rochester. On to www.fultonhistory.com…let’s read some Rochester newspapers. First result!…George’s obituary stated he came to Rochester from CAYUGA COUNTY in 1862. His burial was “at Cayuga”. OOO…a clue!

Rochester Democrat and Chronicle Tue 4 Mar 1890 George G Rogers Obit

On to www.usgenweb.org to the Cayuga County site and to the burial records for the little lakeside cemetery in the village where Mary Jane’s sister (my gg grandmother, Susannah) is buried. Hello, George!…and there is Mary. Next to www.familysearch.org to check out the New York State censuses. The 1875 New York State census has a search option and there I found them in Rochester with both George and Mary J.’s birth county stated as CAYUGA. On to 1865 which requires you to know exactly what location in which to search…well Rochester, ok. YIKE…all those WARDS! In for a penny, page by page by page…ward by ward and hundreds of images later…there they were with their children! But he was Geo. G. Rogers which must have given the ancestry search option some kind of headache. At the end of all this that took me minutes to write…it took me hours of eyestrain and self sorting and reading to get this far. I forgot to eat…just one more search and I will get something……wait…one more… this time I really mean it….OMG when did it get dark outside?

With the discovery of the life of Mary Jane Downing Rogers, I began to learn about my great grandfather’s cousin, Edgar O. Rogers.  Edgar was in show business…like his cousin and my great grandfather, George Downing Curtis.  Failure didn’t seem to faze Edgar…he lost his “canvas show” in the mid 1880’s, but picked himself up, dusted himself off and opened another traveling show, booked himself as a lecturer and actor. He was a showman, an actor, a son and a husband…and a father. Edgar and his wife, Lillian toured New York State and Pennsylvania performing “Uncle’s Tom’s Cabin” and other classics of the time.  Edgar purchased a large farm in Friendship, New York and populated it with exotic animals.  He and Lillian summered there, performing the popular productions of the day.

I found adoption records in Rochester, New York for a little child, Sarah Richardson, age one, whom they renamed Edna Lillian. Edna would know the world of show business and have a prestigious education at Williamson School in Wayne County, New York. Her showy and flamboyant father will be in the headlines in 1898…not for his performance as an actor…but in the protection of his little daughter. “Cry Murder” caught my attention as Edgar had soundly beat a man who had attempted to “interfere” with little Edna and the frantic scene alarmed the neighborhood. The trial was swift. Edgar was exonerated as an “INDIGNANT FATHER.” When his dear wife, Lillie, died in 1903 after collapsing on stage during a performance at their summer theater in Friendship, NY, Edgar went on to raise Edna with the help of Lillie’s mother, Emma Hess. I found Edgar performing and lecturing in his elder years and promoting himself in the New York Mirror as ready and able to play old men with an ‘ample wardrobe’. Finally, Edgar faded away from the limelight and I found no more of him. I did find Edna had married post office clerk Charles M. Conroy and living in Manhattan with their daughter, Jean.

My great grandfather, George, also was a showman…owned restaurants and billiard parlors, ran vaudeville theaters and an early moving picture theater in Rochester, NY. He made and lost fortunes and found himself in the midst of an infamous, highly publicized trial in 1901.

Did the flamboyant grandsons of Obadiah and Lydia Downing from the little village of Cayuga know each other?  I wonder.

A word from the Author:  When I was first married, my husband and I with our infant son, Michael, moved to a historic home in the village of Cayuga that bore the name of “Tumble Inn” in 1971.  I had no idea at the time that I had moved into the little village that had been settled by my ancestors and that another of Obadiah’s grandsons would take his first steps 145 years later in the little village on the lake. 

I do remember the mosquitos…though modern efforts to diminish the biting beasties made a great difference in their population.  And I do recall the size of the spiders that would build webs in the shutters of our home…and the audible “dunk” of their bodies clinging on the webs spun across against the window panes.  Well fed by the throngs of mosquitos, no doubt.

Deborah Martin-Plugh

Author, Historian and Genealogical Researcher

(c) Copyright 2012.  All Rights Reserved