Thursday, October 27, 2016

Dead Presidents

by Rachel Dworkin, Archivist

Over the course of United States history, four presidents have been assassinated in office: Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, William McKinley, and John F. Kennedy.  In each instance, their deaths rocked the nation. Here at the Chemung County Historical Society we have a surprisingly large collection of material associated with each presidential assassination.
Abraham Lincoln (April 14, 1865)

Thanks to the telegraph, news of President Lincoln’s death spread like wildfire. The assassination shocked and enraged a nation still reeling from the aftermath of the recently-ended Civil War.  His assassination was part of a larger plot to re-start the war. At the time of Lincoln’s death, one of the conspirators, John Surrat, was in Elmira scouting out the Confederate prisoner of war camp in the hopes of opening up a second front behind enemy lines.  He fled to Canada when he heard of Lincoln’s death and was never convicted for his involvement in the conspiracy. 
After lying in state for two days in Washington, D.C., Lincoln’s body was placed on a funeral train which went on to visit 12 cities in 13 days. A public funeral service was held for the president in each city before he was finally laid to rest in Springfield, Illinois, on May 3, 1865. Although the funeral train never visited Elmira, the city did hold a massive public funeral service for him in Wisner Park.
Mourning ribbon worn at the funeral service for Abraham Lincoln in Wisner Park, 1865

James Garfield (July 2, 1881)
President Garfield was shot by Charles Guiteau shortly after taking office and died of his wounds eleven weeks later.  During his trial it became clear that Guiteau was mentally unstable.  He claimed that he killed Garfield out of revenge for not being appointed as the ambassador to France.  

Invitation to the hanging of Charles Guiteau, 1882
Local reporter J.H. Post was invited to attend the hanging of Charles Guiteau on June 30, 1882 in Washington, D.C.  Afterwards, he received a piece of the rope used to hang the assassin.  CCHS has the letter from the hangman authenticating it, but the actual rope fragment has been lost to time.

William McKinley (September 6, 1901)
President McKinley was shot by anarchist Leon Czolgosz while attending the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, on September 6, 1901.  Over the next few days, the nation watched anxiously as he seemed to recover.  On September 13th, he took a turn for the worse when his wounds became infected and died the next morning. 

Pan-American Exposition at night taken by Robert Turner, local amateur photographer

John F. Kennedy (November 22, 1963)
President Kennedy was shot by while riding in a motorcade in Dallas, Texas, by assassin Lee Harvey Oswald. His assassination was captured on film by several people in the audience, including Dallas resident Abraham Zapruder.  The Zapruder film was purchased by Life magazine and key frames from it appeared in November and December issues. On the TV, the nation watched live coverage of Kennedy’s funeral and witnessed his family’s grief firsthand.

Thank-you letter from Jackie Kennedy in response to a letter of condolence sent by Mr. & Mrs. Bernard Webb

Monday, October 24, 2016

Executions in Elmira

by Erin Doane, curator

During the 19th century, more than 90 people were executed in New York State. Three of those executions took place in Elmira.

Henry Gardner – Executed March 1, 1867 for the murder of Amasa Mullock

Henry Gardner was a soldier with the 12th Regiment of the United States infantry stationed at the Pickaway Barracks in Southport. The 24-year-old from Ohio was one of many soldiers who came through Elmira during the Civil War. Amasa Mullock was an old man who was well-known about Elmira. On December 29, 1864, Gardner robbed Mullock of $300-$400 and a watch then beat the man to death with his musket.

Nearly three months later, on March 19, 1865, a group of soldiers were rambling in the woods about a mile and a half from Elmira when they came upon Mullock’s body. His head was terribly mangled and the rest of his body showed signs of violence.

Gardner was the last person seen with Mullock before he disappeared in December. He was arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced to death. Hanging was the prescribed method of capital punishment at the time. Gallows were erected in the Chemung County jail yard in Elmira for the execution. Before the sentence was carried out, Gardner spoke to the crowd that had gathered to watch the hanging. He spoke of his misdeeds and declared that “liquor is the ruination of any man.”

The hanging was described as “bungled, horrible and revolting.” Gardner was dropped through the trap three times before finally dying. If that was not bad enough, his body was then turned over to Dr. P. H. Flood, a local Elmira physician. Flood embalmed and mummified Gardner’s body and kept it on display in a glass case in his office for many years. Eventually the body was moved into the cellar of Flood’s home then out to a barn on the property. A group of boys found the body in the barn and stole it. They put it in a vault at the brewery at the foot of East Water Street and set it on fire. Police found the charred remains and briefly investigated the “murder” before discovering that the body was that of Henry Gardner.

Peter H. Penwell – Executed July 20, 1877 for the murder of his wife

Peter Penwell was a resident of the Town of Erin. In December 1871, he married a woman from Toledo, Ohio whom he had known for just a week or two. He was in his late 50s at the time. About five years into their marriage, Penwell became jealous of a “magnetic quack” who was paying a great deal of attention to his wife. As a way to end their troubles as a couple, Penwell and his wife decided to poison themselves with arsenic. He gave his wife a large dose that put her on her sickbed without killing her and he took a smaller dose that was said to have made him crazy. Penwell’s father had died in a madhouse so mental illness was not unknown in the family.

On March 10, 1876, Penwell borrowed a razor from a neighbor, claiming that he needed to shave. He went into the room where his wife lay sick and chopped her to death with an old ax. He then cut his own throat with the borrowed razor. Penwell’s wound was not serious enough to kill him.

When he was first arrested, Penwell admitted to the crime. He said he had committed the murder in a jealous rage. Later he denied killing his wife. He was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death. It was reported at the time that all agreed that he had committed the crime but some questioned the punishment. An Albany newspaper called it a “judicial murder.”

The gallows were constructed in the space between the old and new jail buildings in Elmira and a high board fence was built around the yard to keep out the immense crowd that gathered for the execution. Soldiers from the 110th battalion were even called in to keep the crowd under control.

About 250 people were admitted into the enclosure to witness the hanging. Penwell was attended by three ministers. His last words were of thanks to the sheriff and his family for the kind treatment he had received leading up to the execution. He then turned to the sheriff and said, “I am ready.” Unlike with Gardner’s hanging ten years earlier, Penwell’s execution was flawless and he died almost instantly. 

Joseph Abbott – Executed January 6, 1882 for the murder of George Reed

Joseph Abbot was described as “a tall, stoop-shouldered man with a beardless face and an evil look in his deep black eyes.” On September 14, 1879, he robbed a man named Brown of $5.50 and a silk handkerchief on a highway near Rome, New York. He was arrested and taken to Utica. On the way, he made a desperate attempt to escape. He jumped off a rock ledge, swam across a canal, and ran one and a half miles through a swamp before being recaptured. He was sentenced to the Elmira Reformatory for highway robbery.

While incarcerated, Abbott worked in the Reformatory’s hollowware shop making pots and kettles. George Reed was another inmate working in the shop. He was serving time for grand larceny. Some sort of argument took place between Abbott and Reed in the shop on April 10, 1880. Abbott found a 4-foot long, 1-inch diameter iron rod and hit Reed in the back of the head with it. He beat Reed several more time then returned to his work station.

The morning of his execution, Abbott had beefsteak, potatoes, toast, cake, and coffee for breakfast. He spent some time speaking with family, friends, and reporters. Abbott’s brother was by his side but his father was serving a life sentence in Connecticut State Prison for murder. The sheriff read the death warrant inside the jail because Abbott did not want to stand out in the cold listing to anything, then they proceeded to the gallows in the north jail yard. He was attended by three clergymen. Sources report that there were anywhere from 40 to 150 witnesses at the execution.

The 26-year-old’s final words were, “Good bye, gentlemen; in my death you witness a terrible injustice.” Abbott was hanged at 11:15am but his neck did not break. He was left to strangle for about five minutes before losing consciousness. He was declared dead by physicians 14 minutes after the hanging. His body was taken by train to his hometown of Waterbury, Connecticut to be laid to rest.

Monday, October 17, 2016

The Tragic Story of Peggy the Dog Heroine

By Kelli Huggins, Education Coordinator

At 3:15 a.m. on January 30, 1946, a fire swept through an apartment building at 107 College Avenue in Elmira. Peggy, a 4 ½-month-old collie puppy, woke her owner, Mrs. Davitt, when smoke began to fill their apartment. Mr. Davitt called the fire department and rushed to alert the other tenants. He carried Peggy under his arm through the smoke to safety. Because of Peggy, all nine people in the building escaped and the firefighters were able to contain the blaze. 

Peggy was treated for minor injuries at the Blostein Animal Hospital at 2046 Lake Street. A photograph of her and her doctors was taken by the press. Peggy was praised as a heroine in the local newspaper.
Press photo of Peggy receiving treatment at the veterinarian's office
Sadly, the next week, on February 4, Peggy was hit by a car and died. She had been staying with her displaced family in the Town of Veteran. The Elmira Star-Gazette said she was a “victim of another form of danger which she was too young to understand.” The Davitts didn’t blame the driver for the accident and recalled their brief time with her fondly. They had purchased her immediately after seeing her in a store window.

The 4 ½-month-old puppy was buried with some of her beloved toys on a hill near Sullivanville. The Davitts wanted to have a plot of land around her grave deeded in Peggy’s name, but this likely never happened.    

Monday, October 10, 2016

Police Collection

By Rachel Dworkin, Archivist

This past Wednesday, the Elmira Police Department agreed to loan us their entire history collection for use in our upcoming exhibit Crime and Punishment. Their only stipulation was that we catalog it for them since they weren’t entirely sure what was in it. I haven’t had too much time to really dig in, but so far the collection seems to have a whole lot of photographs of department personnel and offices; five years’ worth of correspondence from the 1940s; various handbooks and training manuals; badges and obsolete equipment; and miscellaneous stuff. 
Here are, in no particular order, five of the coolest things I’ve discovered so far.

Department daybooks, 1890s-1900s

Police daybook, 1898
The books include a daily account of which officers were on duty for each shift and anything of note they encountered during the course of their patrols. Reading through, this includes fires, burglaries, prostitutes, drunks, unlocked doors, stray animals, and a burst water pipe among other things.

Riot gear, ca. 1980s
The gear includes a helmet with face shield and a bullet-proof vest.  The vest worn by one of the SWAT officers during the Jones Court shoot out on January 8, 1984 where Sergeant John Hawley was killed.

SWAT gear

DARE stuff
There’s a box’s worth of material associated with department’s DARE program including photo albums, scrapbooks, press clippings, and informational brochures.  My favorite part though are the literal slide shows still on their slide carousel with the scripts attached. It’s like a flashback to middle school health class.

Evidence from murder cases

I was really surprised to open a box and find photographs of the autopsies of Police Chief John Finnell and Detective Sergeant Charles Gradwell who were both murdered on March 23, 1915 (see "Elmira's Most Wanted" for details).  The pictures are not for the faint of heart, let me tell you. In another box I also found blood samples and bullet fragments from a 1958 murder case. Here’s hoping they don’t need that for a trial any time soon.

I sure hope no one needs this random bag of evidence.  Be glad I didn't post the autopsy photos.  Yeash!

Retired officers’ questionnaires
Last, but certainly not least, is a binder full of questionnaires filled out by retired officers, most of whom served between 1950 and 2005. In it, officers talk about their training and some of their more memorable moments on the job. Some of their stories are hilarious and some are rather harrowing, but all of them are pretty cool.

Monday, October 3, 2016

SS Ross G. Marvin: World War II Liberty Ship

by Erin Doane, curator

On November 29, 1943 at 3:45pm, Mrs. Gertrude Colegrove Tum of Elmira stood in Baltimore’s Bethlehem-Fairfield Shipyard. In her gloved hands she held a champagne bottle wrapped in red, white, and blue satin. At the signal, she released the bottle. It swung through the air on its attached rope and smashed into the newly-completed Liberty ship, the SS Ross G. Marvin. After the christening, Mrs. Tum and her party retired to the Belvedere Hotel for a luncheon.
Bottle used to christen the SS Ross G. Marvin, 1943
The SS Ross G. Marvin was one of over 2,700 Liberty ships built by the United States during World War II. Marvin, was an Elmira native and arctic explorer who died on the ice while seeking the North Pole with Robert Peary in 1909. (You can read about his tragic, mysterious end in one of my earlier posts – Death in the Arctic.) His niece, Mrs. Tum, sponsored the ship and was given the honor of christening it before its launch.

Oil painting of Ross Marvin by James Vinton Stowell
 Liberty ships were a class of cargo ships used as transports during the war. The quickly-built ships, based on the design of an 1879 British ship, were nicknamed “ugly ducklings” by President Franklin Roosevelt. A Liberty ship measured 441 feet long and 57 feet wide. A 3-cylinder, reciprocating steam engine fed by two oil-burning boilers produced 2,950 horsepower and could propel the ship across the waters at 11 knots. Over 9,000 tons of cargo could be stowed in five holds with watertight bulkheads. Each ship was also equipped with a distillation system to make sea water drinkable for the wartime crew of 40 merchant marines and 30 navy gunners.

Between 1941 and 1945, eighteen shipyards built over 2,700 ships at the cost of about $2 million each (equivalent to about $34 million today). Baltimore’s Bethlehem-Fairfield Shipyard in Maryland was the largest of its kind in the United States. Each ship was made of 250,000 prefabricated parts from all over the country. The modular construction of the ships reduced the amount of man-hours required to build them so the shipyards were able to produce many ships very quickly. The first Liberty ship, the SS Patrick Henry, which launched September 27, 1941, took 244 days to build. By 1943, a ship could be built in as little as 16 days. The SS Robert E. Peary was built in world’s record time of 4 days, 15 ½ hours. It took 23 days to construct the SS Ross G. Marvin. Overall, the average construction time of a Liberty ship was about 40 days.

Completed Liberty ship ready to be launched at 
the Bethlehem-Fairfield Shipyards, Baltimore, 
Maryland, April 1943
 Liberty ships were named after notable, deceased Americans including founding fathers, civil leaders, scientist, and authors. 114 ships were named after women and 18 after African Americans. The last 100 ships that were constructed bore the names of merchant seamen who had died in service during the course of the war. Ross Marvin was chosen because of his involvement in Admiral Peary’s arctic expeditions. It is also interesting to note, however, that John M. Carmody, Commissioner of the United States Maritime Commission in Washington, and chairman of the ship naming committee was also an Elmira native who had attended school with Marvin.

Construction of Liberty ships ended in 1945. About 200 of the ships were destroyed and sunk during the war. After the fighting ended, most of the ships were sold into private hands and converted for a variety of different uses. The SS Ross G. Marvin was sold privately then scrapped in 1947. Today, only two fulling-operational Liberty ships still exist as floating museums – the SS Jeramiah O’Brien in San Francisco, California and the SS John W. Brown in Baltimore, Maryland.