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Thursday, March 30, 2017

From Riches to Rags: One man’s experience in the slums of New York

By Nell Darby

When you think of the emigrant experience in New York, and the reasons individuals had for coming to America in the 19th century, what do you think of? In England, the focus is on the poverty-stricken coming to the ‘new world’ to start again, to seek their fortunes, and to escape the miserable conditions of their old homes. Of course, the experience for many on reaching the ‘promised land’ was not what they hoped for; by the end of the 19th century, the Danish-born reporter and photographer Jacob Riis was talking to emigrants who now lived a wretched life in the slums of the Five Points area, only a step away from complete destitution. Many of these were immigrants, and their lives were lived on a day-to-day basis, wondering where the next meal was coming from. Riis noted the peripatetic nature of some families’ lives, shuttling between lodging house, police station and workhouse - where at least they knew they would get fed. Many of the area’s early immigrants had fled the famine that devastated so many lives in Ireland, and throughout the mid to late 19th century, a substantial proportion of the area’s residents continued to be either Irish-born or of Irish origin. These were people who had little left for them in their homeland, where poverty was what they had known before, and where America represented the possibility of improving themselves. These are the people who have been written about and studied. Yet one man left his home country as a middle-class, educated, 19-year-old, and ended up dying in New York as a destitute, drunken, broken man. His experience showed that America could break as many dreams as it made.

In 1856, the local newspapers in Oxford, England, recorded the death of an 83-year-old accountant, who had been active in local politics. John Harper was a Londoner by birth and ancestry, his family living in the same square as Dr Samuel Johnson, the creator of the modern English dictionary. He had a long life, dying at 83 years old, after breaking his leg. But what was significant about his death was that a reference was made in the death notices to ‘publish this in the Colonial newspapers’. This was the death of an elderly man who had spent his entire life in England; why was his family keen to ensure that the death was publicised overseas? The reason lay with his second son, John Ambrose Harper.

Harper family (credit: Nell Darby) – this image shows the author’s grandfather, John Harper, as a boy 
(front row) and behind, in the bow tie, is his father Seth. John Ambrose Harper was Seth’s uncle

New York State White Caps of 1905

by Richard White


“We have portrayed, in Motion Pictures, in a most vivid and realistic manner, the methods employed by the ‘White Caps’ to rid the community of undesirable citizens.” This was a statement from an advertisement in the New York Clipper on October 14, 1905 for a new movie called “The White Caps” which depicts graphically a husband’s drunken attack on his wife, and the tactics of these moral crusaders and nighttime raiders used to deter him from making another attack. Since the late 1800’s, this movement produced locally organized vigilante squads—usually men but on occasion women -- who wore white hoods when they operated outside of the law as shown in the movie. While the movie was art imitating life, the reality in New York in 1905 was that White Caps were actively engaged in missions of morality in the small towns of Darien Center, Rhinecliff, Penfield, and East Syracuse.

In the quiet hamlet of Darien Center in Genessee County in early February it appears that there were no White Cap operatives. The arrival of one or two families from Batavia prompted their quick formation. According to Batavia’s The Daily News on the 27th, the newcomers “were too lazy to work and were begging through the neighborhood.” On two occasions they were “white-capped,” or confronted in person, by the newly formed band, and “ordered to leave town.” Although these White Caps were recently organized, the movement’s methods were well-known, and the new people left in a hurry. This appears to be the only case of the year in which legal action was taken against the rioters. Two of them who were somehow recognized were “arraigned on a charge of riot” but were released when no one appeared to testify against them. A few months later another White Cap morality foray materialized in a Hudson Valley village.

In July in Rhinecliff in Dutchess County, a mob of White Caps was formed to deal with a wife-beater. The Rhinebeck Gazette observed on July 8 that “there comes a startling tale from Rhinecliff that the picturesque little station village has a band of ‘whitecaps’ duly and properly capped and all its own.” Their solution to this public shame was a beating of the man, Thomas McElroy. One week later, the newspaper published a letter that summed up the situation when the author wrote “Rhinecliff is noted for its peaceful and quiet citizens, and there is no danger of any person being molested in any manner if they behave themselves.” As usual, White Caps sought a solution outside of the law in the form of summary punishment as they would near Rochester in the Fall.

The White Caps of Penfield in Monroe County knew that Allen Decker had acted badly when he induced a married woman in late October to leave town with him—in fact, she brought along her two children. They went to Niagara Falls where Decker was arrested - apparently on a warrant from a judge in Penfield—on a charge of petit larceny for stealing the children’s clothes. Upon his return to face the judge he was fined and released. Vigilante justice awaited him on February 28 when the town’s White Caps dragged him out of the house where he hid. According to the Monroe County Mail, Allen suffered two humiliations. First, he received “a liberal coating of warm tar” (other sources indicate that feathers were then applied). Second, he was “conveyed to the village mill pond, where a rope was tied about his body to prevent his escape, and he was then thrown into the water and given a good sousing. Pulling him out of the water he was ordered to leave town and he obeyed the order with alacrity.” Within a matter of days in a small village in Onondaga County, there would be a reason for action by the self-appointed morals marauders.

In East Syracuse, there was one planned, and one unplanned, attack by the locale’s White Caps. Their intention was to thrash a husband for wife beating after he became indignant when she tried to dissuade him from seeing another woman. On November 9, The Syracuse Journal described how they gave Frederick John Smith a beating that “he will not likely soon to forget.” However, circumstances arose that spurred another beating when the “other woman,” Mrs. Clark Teft, became involved. Teft rushed to the scene carrying a club, and a few of the White Caps turned on her which resulted in “severe injury to her nose.” These brave, hooded men forcefully stoppeda woman from interfering with their operation.

In 1906, there was no sequel to “The White Caps,” although groups of them in real life continued their reign of terror in New York for a few more years. In August, for example, they covered a man with green paint and feathers due to his relationship with a married woman in East Syracuse. Other communities where they organized and operated that year include Jordan, Tonawanda, and Milton.

About the author: Richard White's articles have appeared in Civil War History, The Journal of Negro History, and other publications.


Sunday, February 19, 2017

Frederick Douglass in Whitney’s Point, 1880

by Richard White


Frederick Douglass
“Bear with me kindly, for my voice is broken, and my throat is ragged and sore.” These were the words of the famous orator, Frederick Douglass, on October 22, 1880 in Whitney’s Point (now known as Whitney Point) as published a few days later in the weekly Broome Republican. In spite of a sore throat, he spoke to hundreds of people in “front of the academy” for two hours on an almost sacred topic to him — to rally voters to the Republican Party in this Presidential election year. Douglass had often stated, “The Republican Party is the ship, all else is the sea.” In the Point and elsewhere, he addressed crowds of all races about the seaworthiness of this “ship.”

For the second year in a row, the Republican State Committee selected him to campaign around the State on behalf of its candidates. After all, not only was he skilled speaker but also a devoted Republican. In fact, in 1879 in Binghamton, he addressed a crowded Ouaquaga Hall on behalf of the Party, and its gubernatorial candidate, Alonzo Cornell.

The Binghamton Daily Republican offers the most thorough coverage of this event in its October 23 issue. Most of Douglass’ speech in the Point extolled the virtues of Republicans. After all, he declared, “thanks for the magnanimity, humanity, and greatness of the Republican Party, I am an American citizen.” A “grand procession” led by people carrying flags and banners, and “a large cavalry company,” took Douglass to the stage where “a vast audience” awaited him. Not surprisingly, local Democrats were anxious. Earlier on the 22nd , the Binghamton Daily Democrat demeaned Douglass, stating that he only supported Garfield in order “to hold onto a good thing four years longer” in regard to Douglass’ position as U.S. Marshall for the District of Columbia. The newspaper concluded by suggesting that “Fred., although not a full-blooded white man, has more brains than all the [unreadable] law combined in the county.” But Douglass was at least used to such derision, and worse.

His opening remarks were patriotic, and not partisan-- Frederick Douglass profusely praised America. The Daily Republican recorded Douglass's words, some of which were,

“Ours is a great land. We see its greatness manifested in its commerce….in agriculture, invention, and the cultivation of the high arts. But it is greater in nothing than in the recognition which it bestows upon the rights of its people. We are here to exercise this afternoon one of its rights—the unchecked freedom of speech.” 

Later, he reasoned why voters must consider Republican office seekers. “Parties make candidates….Whatever may be said in behalf of a candidate it is better to know and understand the party that supports him. Parties are the assimilation of moral conditions….and principles of a people. ” Douglass must have praised to his Party’s nominee for President, James Garfield — as he would at a rally in New York City on October 25—but the Daily Republican’s coverage does not say so. (The local Democratic newspapers do not offer follow-up coverage on this rally).

Douglass did not stay in Broome County for long. His schedule required a political stump speech the next day in Woodhull in Steuben County. In Whitney’s Point, though, he illustrated why he was sometimes called “Old Man Eloquent,” especially for his devoted support of the Republican Party.


About the author: Richard White's articles have appeared in Civil War HistoryThe Journal of Negro History, and other publications.

Friday, February 10, 2017

“No Man’s Land” Revisited


The New York and Vermont State 1814 Border Monument and
 the 1904 Marble Obelisk on Washington County Route 153.
By William A. Cormier
Salem, New York Historian

When James and Marilyn Alcott, residents of Beattie Hollow Road, invited me to visit the deteriorating Beattie Hollow boundary monument with them, I realized that another chapter regarding “no man’s land” needed to be written.

Few people remember the long-standing, and sometimes violent, border disagreement between New York and Vermont. In particular, the land of the Town of Rupert, Vermont, bordering Salem and Hebron, was hotly contended. In fact, the boundaries between New York and her other neighboring states and Canada were contested for many years until properly surveyed, agreed upon by the surveyors of both sides, and officially approved by their respective legislatures. New York agreed to the boundary on June 8, 1812; Vermont agreed to the boundary on November 6, 1812.

According to The History of New York State, Book I, Chapter I, Pt. III, by Dr. James Sullivan, once the boundary survey had been approved, markers were to be placed every mile along the boundary of Canada, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. Nevertheless, until uniformity was decided upon as to the placement and type of the monuments, monuments were of various sizes, shapes and materials.

Monday, January 30, 2017

The Joseph Belt Case’s Impact on NYC’s on Black Residents, 1848

By Richard White

“The case has caused a great deal of excitement among the colored population, the Court room and the avenues being densely crowded…” This was the reportage in New York City’s Morning Courier on December 27, 1848 concerning the case of alleged fugitive slave from Maryland, Joseph Belt, before State Supreme Court Judge, John W. Edmonds, at City Hall. The case intensified African American sentiments so much that they held a meeting on Christmas night to record their concerns.

The case arose from the seizure of an alleged runaway slave beginning on December 20, and the quick action the same day by Judge Edmonds to prevent his forced departure. Judge Edmonds’ hearings began three days later in order to allow attorneys time to prepare. In Gateway To Freedom (2015), Eric Foner describes Belt’s chief attorney, John Jay II, as emerging “as the city’s leading lawyer in fugitive slave cases”(page 112). Jay’s studious arguments, and Edmonds’ sympathy for Belt, resulted in the defendant’s freedom on December 29. However, “the colored population” did more than pack Edmonds’ courtroom. They staged a rally, which has been a neglected aspect of the Belt case.

Led by a civil rights activist, Jeremiah Powers, a protest meeting was organized in Terence Hall on Church Street on December 25, no doubt due to the pressing nature of the case. As Chairman, Powers orchestrated the writing a five-part resolution that underscored their anger, as reported the next day in the New York Tribune. Section 1, for example, emphatically declares that the kidnapping of Belt “is an alarming outrage upon all the social and civil rights and guarantees of the citizens of New York.” Section 2 states that the case “affects the security of every colored man, woman, and child in the City.” Sections 3 and 5 refer to the principles “of the process of law” and ”due process” in any case like Belt’s. However, when these two legal principles are ignored, then Section 4 mandates that “no colored person ought to allow themselves to be arrested as a slave upon any conditions whatsoever: at the risk of life itself….they should deem it a question of life and death, to be settled on the spot….” This pointed language entails no reading between the lines.

Edmonds’ decision to free Belt sparked a display of deep relief that was covered across this State. On December 30, for instance, the Geneva Gazette, described the final scene as follows: “[Belt] was borne in triumph from the City Hall by a large company of colored people who rent the air with acclamations of joy,” and apparently left the City. Due to circumstances in New York City at the time, a black man was not enslaved, and freedom prevailed.

About the author: Richard White's articles have appeared in Civil War History, The Journal of Negro History, and other publications.


Thursday, January 5, 2017

From Boyhood to the Battlefield and Beyond: Cherry Creek Seven at Verdun at the end of The Great War


By Sharon Howe Sweeting and Joanne Mansfield


CHERRY CREEK NY November 2016 

Kindled by the eyewitness accounts written by Private Donald D. Curtis to his father Edgar, we researched the other six lads traveling with the Buffalo New York Regiment called into service on July 15, 1917, and drafted into the US Army as the 106th Field Artillery on August 4, 1917. Our lads enlisted in June/July 1917 but most did not travel overseas until June 1918 following training at Camp Wadsworth, South Carolina.

A letter headed “Somewhere on the Atlantic” dated June 1918, describes the journey with the flotilla including the troop carrier, destroyers and smaller vessels and introduces us to the lads. First we meet Curtis’s friend Harold [Harold Blaisdell], and then Fowler [Laverne Fowler]. Next we meet Abbey [Charles Abbey], Dick [Richard Langworthy], Dub [Hobart James] and Hub [Ray Hubbard].

“We Cherry Creek fellows have been together a great deal, playing 500 [Rummy]. Our band plays twice a day – morning and afternoon. They are improving too. ” [Hub plays the bugle.]

“I hear they got a couple of submarines off the Jersey coast yesterday. They put up all the important news they pick up on the wireless. I see Harold a great deal. There is a Y.M.C.A. man on board so we can get books. You can’t get away from the Red Cross or the Y.M., they are everywhere.”

“Harold and I are sitting behind a life boat writing. We have a wonderful view from here. Just water everywhere but it is such a pretty color. . . . Probably Dad is up the lake fishing now. We might be sailing on Chautauqua now only this ship is about as wide as those boats are long.”

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Black Citizens Celebrate Battle of Fort Wagner

By Richard White

“The forty-ninth anniversary of the battle of Fort Wagner will be celebrated by the colored citizens tomorrow.” 

 This was the announcement in The Auburn (New York) Citizen on July 17, 1912, although the newspaper did not have to remind many readers of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry’s gallant charge on the Confederate fort near Charleston in 1863. After all, Harriet Tubman—who nursed wounded soldiers there—was a leading resident in the small city in central New York. In fact, her Home for the Aged was dedicated just four years earlier. In addition, veterans of the 54th lived in the city.

Auburn was the site of numerous events that commemorated themes from the War Between the States due to a vibrant, active African American community.

In 1909, they observed the 100th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth. One year later, they assembled at the A.M.E. Zion Church to honor the memory of John Brown. Most recently, they celebrated in 1911 the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation. Black citizens of Auburn were well-skilled in holding commemorations in recognition of pertinent Civil War era people and events.

Yet there is no record of a planning committee which organized the day’s program. However, the program began with a luncheon for the veterans and guests at the Tubman Home, although she did not attend. The local black veterans were Edward Watkins, Perry Williams, John Ware (on occasion spelled Waire), and Thomas Parker. A prominent guest included “Major” Alexander H. Johnson who was a drummer in the 54th. On July 17, The Auburn Semi-Weekly Journal briefly critiqued this opening event, simply noting that the attendees “listened to a number of speeches and reminiscences.” There was no shortage of reporting on the evening’s exercises at the A.M.E. Zion Church where a patriotic and musical program would occur.

One of the opening speeches was delivered by Rev. C. A. Smith, a member of the 54th, who discussed its Commander, Colonel Robert Shaw. Auburn’s Democrat Argus reported the next day that later Smith joined a local chorus in singing, “The Old Flag Never Touched the Ground,” whose lyrics originally were inspired by the regiment’s attack on Fort Wagner. One of the two representatives of the local G.A.R.---which was segregated—made brief remarks but there were no speeches by local elected officials. In addition, two women delivered recitations. The program concluded with a drumming exhibition by Johnson, which prompted the Argus to declare that “he had not forgotten how to handle the sticks.”

On July 18 the following year, the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Battle of Fort Wagner was observed in cities and towns across the nation. The black citizens of Auburn, however, expertly organized and presented their own extensive, patriotic observance in 1912.