Friday, December 2, 2016

Harry Houdini in Schenectady

When I think of Harry Houdini the first thing that comes to mind are his wild escape acts, mind bending illusions, and amazing feats of physical strength and stamina. A lesser known aspect of Houdini's life was that in the 1920s, he began to focus on debunking spiritualists and psychics. His training in sleight of hand and audience manipulation gave him a keen sense on how to expose frauds, although it didn't hurt that Houdini and his wife would use similar spiritualist tricks when they were strapped for cash.

Advertisement for Houdini's 3 Shows in 1. Courtesy of
the blog Wild About Houdini.
His most famous run-in with a spiritualist occurred during a séance with his friends Arthur Conan Doyle and his wife Lady Jean Conan Doyle, Arthur Conan Doyle's wife. The Doyle's were touring the United States to lecture about Spiritualism. Lady Doyle claimed to be a medium and wanted to conduct a séance to contact Houdini's mother. Houdini's wife, Bess, had previously warned him that Jean had been asking questions about his mother, but Houdini agreed to the séance anyway. During the séance, Jean appeared to fall into a deep trance and began to transcribe what Houdini's mother was transmitting from beyond the grave. Houdini immediately found problems with the sance. He was born in Budapest to a mother who did not speak English and a father who was a rabbi. The first thing that Lady Doyle drew when she went into a trance was a cross and then she proceeded to write everything down in English.

After the séance, Arthur told the press that Houdini had been converted to the religion of Spiritualism. A bit miffed at the untrue accusation, Houdini publicly stated that the séance made him even more skeptical of spiritualism. This exchange put a heavy strain on their friendship and Houdini decided to put on his own anti-spiritualism tour. This tour eventually evolved into Houdini's "3 shows in 1" tour that he would bring to Schenectady in mid-October, 1926. During his three day stay in Schenectady, he gave a lecture on anti-spiritualism at Union College, performed his magic act at the Van Curler Opera House, exposed a Spiritualist that he believed to be a fraud, and gave an address on WGY.
Photo of Harry Houdini from the October 13, 1926
issue of the Schenectady Gazette.Courtesy of fultonhistory.com

Houdini injured his ankle just days before in Albany while performing the Chinese Water Torture Cell at the Capitol Theater. The injury almost caused him to cancel the rest of his tour, but the Van Curler took out an ad ensuring that Houdini "will positively appear" at the theater. There was a clause in his contract stating that if Houdini was to cancel any show due to illness or injury, he would have to pay the theater $1,000 per day. The blog Wild About Houdini states that Houdini wrote an urgent letter to his manager from the dressing room of the Van Curler Hotel where he threatened to cancel the tour if his manager did not remove the clause.

"I am amazed any sensible manager would sign a contract with such a clause in it and I am perfectly willing to leave the road before I would take such a chance. [...] Am perfectly willing to continue if a new clause is inserted but under the present contract I retire gracefully."  -Houdini's letter to his manager, written from the dressing room of Schenectady's Van Curler Hotel.

The injury caused Houdini to switch up his act a bit and he couldn't not perform his best trick, presumably the Water Torture Cell, but ever the crowd-pleaser, he replaced it with five others. An article from the October 15, 1926 issue of the Schenectady Gazette stated that Houdini performed hundreds of tricks during his act and that while his magic show clever, the best part of the show was his performance exposing spiritualists and mediums. Houdini put on a fake séance and invited several audience members to join him on stage, revealed how spiritualists used their charms and interviewed a woman who had went to several mediums in Schenectady. According to the mediums, she had many deceased husbands and children in heaven. The audience got a kick out of the reveal that she had never been married and had no children. You can find the Schenectady Gazette's review of Houdini's show here at fultonhistory.com.

Houdini's stay in Schenectady was lively despite the injury that almost caused him to cancel the whole tour. The injury that he received in Albany is believed to be a direct cause of Houdini's death although there is debate as to whether he was suffering from acute appendicitis and did not realize the symptoms. Houdini would die just 16 days after his last performance in Schenectady due to complications from appendicitis.

Houdini on WGY radio on October 14, 1926. Courtesy MiSci -
Museum of Innovation and Science 
Thanks to the blog Wild About Harry fultonhistory.com and Don Rittner's article on Albany's role in Houdini's death.

-Mike Maloney

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Ellis Hospital during World War II

This post was written by Grems-Doolittle Library Volunteer Gail Denisoff.

Aerial view of Ellis Hospital around 1944.
Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection.
In the early months of 1941, before the United States declared war on Japan, Ellis Hospital was already preparing for the possibility of war.  In The Hospital Courier, a newsletter Published by Ellis Hospital, more and more articles were being written about the role of the hospital in national defense.

The June 1941 issue described the problems hospitals were facing because of the National Defense Program.  Nurses and doctors were being called from hospital staffs to serve in Army and Navy camps and to fill positions in expanded industrial plants.  Defense industries were offering higher wages forcing hospitals to increase salaries to retain personnel.  Suppliers were increasing prices of medical supplies because of the demand by countries at war while delaying delivery of goods.  Ellis, like other hospitals, was feeling the pinch, especially since they weren’t fully recovered from the depression and needed community support.
Ellis Cadet Nurse Corps in 1944. From the Ellis Hospital Collection
at the Grems-Doolittle Library. 
By 1942 the problems intensified.  There was a shortage of nurses for both civilian and military hospitals. Nursing schools were increasing enrollment of students while giving more responsibility to nurses’ aides and other non-professional workers. Ellis began training their first group of 25 women for the Red Cross Volunteer Nurses’ Aide Corps which was to be ready for active service as of March 1, 1942.  By June, Ellis was training its third class although they were still short of the Schenectady quota for volunteer nurses’ aides.

The 38 students entering the Ellis Hospital School of Nursing in September 1942 was the largest in it's history.  These young women had “chosen a field of study where they can immediately meet the war time needs of the country."  At the same time, there were concerns.  Because of the increasing demands for doctors, nurses and hospital facilities there were suggestions to curtail hospitalization of maternity patients and eliminate courses in obstetrical and pediatric nursing from nursing school curriculum to prepare students more quickly for service with the Army and Navy.  Hospitals didn’t want to sacrifice gains made in lowering maternal and infant mortality rates and were actively fighting those proposals.
Ellis nurse being sworn in. From the Ellis Hospital Collection
at the Grems-Doolittle Library. 
By October 1942 forces serving overseas had their full quota of medical personnel according to the AMA but more physicians were needed for troops assigned to the US.  All able-bodied physicians under the age of 37 were being called for active duty and a high percentage of those under 45 were also being called.  The resulting shortage of doctors to care of the civilian population was hoped to be offset by redistribution of hospital doctors and the call for patients to visit doctors at their offices rather than having them make house calls, conserving time. 

On the home front, stepped up war production and the resulting rise in employment were factors in the sharp increase of accidents and deaths due to industrial accidents.  According to the National Safety Council, job related fatalities in the first year following Pearl Harbor totaled 46,500 while injuries topped 4 million putting a strain on hospitals.  Ellis was no exception to this trend.  With war production booming at the General Electric and American Locomotive plants, there were many work-related injuries resulting in hospital visits putting a strain on the reduced staff.

By mid-1943, food rationing greatly restricted the amount and variety of foods that could be purchased for patients.  Hospital menus became much less varied.  Fruits, vegetables and meats appeared on hospital menus less often.  Dietitians and Red Cross Canteen Corps workers tried to produce balanced diets for patients with what they had.  Patients in the hospital for more than seven days were required to surrender their ration books and the hospital was required to remove the proper number of stamps and turn them in to the local rationing board.  The hospital was not able to get extra food supplies for the stamps, however.  Hospital kitchens and individuals were also called upon to save waste fats when cooking.  When a pound or more was accumulated, they were to take it to a local meat dealer who would send it to a renderer as a material for glycerin, an essential ingredient not only in the manufacture of ammunition but also medicinal preparations such as surgical dressings, acid burn jellies, antiseptics and sulfa ointments.  New mothers were being instructed to breast feed their babies due to the shortage of milk.

Nursing professionals estimated that by the end of 1943, one in four graduate nurses would be needed by some branch of the armed forces both domestically and overseas.   Even more would be required to serve in industrial plants causing even more of a drain on hospitals.  Patients were encouraged not to request private duty nurses, which was common at the time. The School of Nursing enrollment was increased and a second class of students was set to begin in February of 1944.  Ellis was continuing to train Red Cross Volunteer Nurses’ Aides with over 85 in active service and 50 being trained by the fall of 1943. In addition, a new training program was being initiated for the US Cadet Nurse Corps.  It offered young women high school graduates an accelerated training course with all expenses paid and a monthly stipend.  In return, they would be available for essential nursing, civilian or military services for the duration of the war.

Unidentified serviceman at Ellis looking at a baby.
From the Ellis Hospital Collection at the Grems-Doolittle Library. 
The number of births recorded in 1943 was an all-time high for the United States.  As a result, Congress appropriated $20,000,000 in the 1944 fiscal year for the Maternal Care Program.  The program was intended to provide maternal and infant care for wives of servicemen who were earning below their civilian pay levels and couldn’t otherwise afford hospital care.  Ellis Hospital and their doctors cooperated with the Federal government in the local implementation of the program and care was equal to that given to non-military patients. 

Staffing concerns continued to be a critical issue.  The demand for 10,000 more graduate nurses in the armed services by July 1, 1944 was causing a strain on hospitals throughout the country.  Local and state authorities were pushing for an equitable distribution of civilian and military nurses to keep home front hospitals above the danger level in staffing.  All nurses between the ages of 21 and 45 who were physically fit and had no children under the age of 14 were classified as available for military service unless filling what was considered an essential nursing position in a hospital or public health agency. Even those nurses in essential positions, who were older, had families or not considered physically fit were classified as “essential for limited duration”.   The fall 1944 class of the nursing school was the largest in its history at 47, 42 of which were members of the Cadet Nurse Corps.  Ellis relied more and more on volunteers.  By early 1944, eleven classes of Red Cross Volunteer Aides had finished training programs and a new class had begun.  A new group, the Red Cross Dietitian’s Aides, were being trained to assist hospital dietitians with preparation of well-balanced patient meals, an ongoing challenge due to food rationing and limitations.  Civilians were being asked to find ways they could help their local hospitals function. Each Hospital Courier Newsletter ran banners asking readers to buy war bonds, volunteer with the Red Cross, conserve paper for war needs and enlist recruits for the Cadet Nurse Corps.

Volunteers from the Schenectady County Chapter of the
 American Red Cross setting up a food table from the
World War II photo collection of Hershel Graubart. 
Ellis joined the Red Cross and other hospitals around the country in collecting blood and plasma for use by the armed forces.  By the end of 1943 close to 6 million units had been collected with another 5 million units requested for 1944.  Civilians were encouraged to regularly give blood for both military and local use. In 1940, Ellis had opened the first blood bank east of Chicago and was essential in this endeavor.  Locally, there was a noticeable increase in accidents causing severe injury or death to children under the age of 14.  This was attributed to fathers being away and mothers not at home, working in war industries.  Traffic fatalities were down due to gas rationing but household and industrial accidents continued to rise.  Care for accident victims took a toll on hospitals in the form of unpaid bills and putting more of a strain on limited staffs and supplies.

The heavy influx of injured workers from GE and ALCO overtaxed the facilities of the hospital.  In 1944 alone, 14,657 patients were admitted to Ellis.  With the staffing shortages, it was sometimes necessary to close some floors and limit surgery to emergency cases.  The Red Cross volunteers proved invaluable during this time.

As the war continued to rage on in Europe, hospitals on the home front began to prepare for the post war challenges to come. Hospital services would need to be expanded to meet the needs of injured veterans.  It was expected that many hospitals would be building additions and updating facilities in the post war years.  Adequate care of wounded veterans and their families would be a major national concern and hospitals would need to work with the government to ensure veterans receive care in their local communities for both service and non-service related disabilities.  Even though mortality rates were dramatically down from previous wars due to the care received on the front, civilian hospitals were expected to receive an influx of war veterans with a wide range of injuries and special needs.  The Rehabilitation Act proposed using all existing hospital facilities for the treatment of returning military as well as civilians disabled by injury.  Federal and state funds were to be used for this program and civilian hospitals were expected to make every possible bed available when asked to do so by the Veterans Bureau. Cadet nurses were still being recruited to begin training so that they would be ready to serve in veteran’s hospitals and for postwar duties in civilian hospitals.  In total, 104 Cadet nurses were trained at Ellis Hospital.

Even with the war winding down in mid-1945, the increase in returning veterans and the depleted hospital staffs was causing some hospitals to curtail admissions.  By this time. Over 60,000 doctors, 54,000 graduate nurses and thousands of technicians were serving the military while civilian hospitals were treating more patients than any time in their histories.  Ellis was meeting the need of the community through the dedication of their staff and volunteers. 


At the end of the war, returning doctors and nurses were welcomed with open arms.  Hospitals slowly began rebuilding their staffs and changing to meet the needs of veterans.  Veteran nurses returned home with valuable skills and experiences, increasing their professional status. The Army had trained many nurses in specialties such as anesthesia and psychiatric care, and nurses who had served overseas had acquired practical experience otherwise unobtainable.  These new skills proved invaluable for Ellis and other hospitals as they continued to meet the challenges of post war America.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Schenectady Sluggers, Part 3: Joseph "Pep" Cassillo and His Outdoor Boxing Ring in the East Front Street Neighborhood

This post was written by SCHS member Mary Ann Ruscitto. It is a continuation of the Schenectady Sluggers series which focuses on boxers in Schenectady. Here is Part 1 and Part 2.

As you may know or maybe you don’t know I live in my Grandfather Gaetano Ruscitto's house. This house has been in our family about 110 years! Living in this house and in the East Front St. neighborhood for the better part of my life I have heard the stories. I have heard the stories about the ALCO and all the foot traffic that was seen when the whistle blew signaling that the work day was done. I also heard the stories about how there used to be many taverns in the East Front Street area and how the guys from the ALCO would stop for a drink after work. I heard about the “bookie joint” on Jefferson St. and was told never to go into that building when I was a kid. I remember the trains coming down to Front St. and into Sheldon's hay grain and feed store and how there was a turn-about in the back of their property near the John St. Side. I can still hear my Mom saying to me “Don’t talk to the trainmen!!” But, they were so nice and they used to give us kids big pieces of chalk! 


Oh such great memories. What prompted this story is the request from Mike Maloney the Librarian/Archivist from the Schenectady County Historical Society (the hidden gem of Schenectady) I kept mentioning to him that there was an outdoor boxing ring on the eastside of Front St. has he ever seen any information on it. As I started thinking about the rumors of this outdoor ring I started remembering the stories I used to hear my Dad and his friends talk about and never really paid attention to until lately. My father and his friends talk about boxing. I can still remember them all gathering at our house, I believe it was on a Friday night, to watch the boxing matches on this little TV screen. They would have such a great time. Did you know that the first fight that was ever televised was aired here in Schenectady New York in the studios of WRGB!  As the Saratogian Reported on October 10, 1942; three Saratoga fighters win on first televised boxing card in history. They were Henry Johnson, Jimmy Beach, and Ben Dowen. Joseph “Pep” Cassillo arranged the bouts under the sponsorship of AAU and WRGB. “Pep” as he was known in and around boxing was the person who was instrumental in starting the outdoor boxing ring in the East Front St. neighborhood.

The pictures are from the personal scrap book of “Peps” wife Mary Casillo
As I grew older I realized that boxing had an even bigger presence in our neighborhood and in my life. My best friend Daniel Barone’s dad was a boxer! They lived right next door to us on Front St. I would hear the adults telling stories about boxing but really never paid attention. Because in 1947 when Tony Barone was boxing Danny and I were just mere infants! As I asked the questions to prepare for this story I found out that “Pep” was Tony’s trainer until he decided to go pro. 

Rocky Graziano
As The Kingston Daily Freemen, Kingston NY, Tuesday Evening May 13, 1947 edition reported with
a headline that “ROCKY GRAZIANO TO ATTEND LOCAL BOXING CARD” The newspaper goes on to say that “indications that there will be a capacity crowd at the Tony Barone-Eddie Morton match here Thursday night and among the fans at the ringside in the municipal auditorium will be ROCKY GRAZIANO. The contender for the middleweight championship of the world told a Freemen sports writer that he will attend the local fistic show to take a peek at Tony Barone. It seems that the Schenectady Welterweight’s ability to reach the finals in the national AAU tournament at Boston has been acting as a magnet in drawing the attention of men in the professional field.

The KINGSTON DAILY FREEMEN goes on to report that on Friday Evening May 16, 1947 Rocky Graziano shows up for the Barone-Mortan fracas. He sat quietly through the pre-lims but left during the semi-finals. Had he remained he would have witnessed a contest that for sheer intensity, ferocity and cold-blooded dramatics was without parallel in amateur boxing. Barone chopped the deciding bout in the three with Morton by a split decision. The paper states that when the final records of classic boxing brawls is written you will find the match between Tony Barone and Eddie Morton close to the top of the list. 

Mary, Pep, and Angie
Now this leads me to another person in my life that I have heard stories about and just never paid much attention to. You know that old saying is “if I could just sit down with these people one more time and hear the stories.” Anyway, my Godparents Alfred and Angelina (Maiello) Villano had family that they were very close to. Their names were Joseph “PEP” and Mary (Maiello) Cassillo. I would hear the conversations about boxing but never paid attention.

Mary Cassillo, “Peps” wife and my Godmother Angie were Sisters some people said they looked like twins. They were two short little munchkins that were very attractive and adored their husbands. Pep was a man of strong build and I remember him to be very quiet and attentive to his wife and children. They had four children, Marilyn (Cassillo) Cardinal, and Paul, Donna, and Joe Cassillo. 

This article is from the private collection of Mary Cassillo “Pep Cassillo's
wife it was not noted who wrote this.
Joseph “Pep” Cassillo’s life started in the East Front St. Neighborhood at 320 Front St. His mother lived on Madison St. and “Pep” with his wife Mary when they first got married lived on Front St. Their daughter Marilyn was born on Front St. and as his family grew he moved to Avenue A in Schenectady, NY and then on to Maple Ave. in Glenville NY.

Marilyn Cassillo Cardinal and Joe Cassillo at the Erie Blvd Arena
The way Paul Cassillo (“Peps” youngest son) tells the story to me is that the house at 320 Front St. was a two family house his Uncle and Aunt Andy and Mary Cassillo lived up and his Father and Mother lived downstairs and the property behind this house extended to Erie Blvd. This property is in the area next to the old Coyne Laundry which is now a vacant piece of property. This is where the Erie Boulevard Arena was located. There used to be a bath house at 1311 Erie Blvd that the boxers would use to prepare for their fights. Then they would go from the bath house to the boxing ring.

Articles from Mary Cassillo's Scrapbook.
This outdoor boxing ring would draw large crowds as the Union Star reported; "Johnny Linsey stepped into the ring against Freddy Bala of Amsterdam and stopped the rugged Army private in 36 seconds of the last round in the five-round feature of the Bucci A.C.’s weekly amateur boxing show before the biggest crowd of the year at the packed Erie Boulevard Arena."

Another headline states “a capacity crowd is expected to turn out for the Bucci A.C.’s all star benefit amateur boxing show for Joe Nagorka at the Erie Boulevard arena. The entire proceeds of the card will be given to Nagorka, former popular amateur and pro boxer here who is now recovering from a serious illness. Headliner for this five-rounder was between Schenectady’s Johnny Mazzonable and Allen Huriburt of Westmoreland and Jim Dooley Beats Lem Thomas."

Pep's son Paul told me that they used to sell bags of peanuts for 10 cents and soda for 10 cents. Oh where do I stop so many stories with so many boxers and so much that Joseph “Pep” Cassillo contributed to in boxing and to the City of Schenectady. I can go on and on with pages and pages of info. But, I think I need to close this story. The Erie Blvd. Boxing Ring was closed in 1947 after the owner Mary Cassillo decided to use land for other purposes. Pep Cassillo along with the many positions he held also became the commissioner of boxing. “Pep” and his wife Mary started Ring 26. His wife Mary would work right along side of her husband. I remember Mary sitting at her kitchen table with piles of paper all around her preparing for the next boxing match.

In 1969 the Veterans Boxing Association Ring No. 26 elected Pep to be their President. One of the stories I found was from The Knickerbocker News which reported on Feb. 26, 1968: 

“200 Attend Servo Fete, More than 200 people attended a benefit dinner for Marty Servo last night in Schenectady. The event was sponsored by Ring 26 of the Veterans' Boxing Association and held at the Sons of Italy Hall.  Servo, the Schenectadian who won the w o r l d welterweight crown, is seriously ill in Colorado.  The money will be used to help defray medical expenses.  Phillip Schuyler High principal, Ben Becker, a leading boxing figure, was the main speaker. Ring 26 president Joseph “Pep” Cassillo was program chairman.”

Joseph “Pep” Cassillo was a good man who was passionate about boxing, his City of Schenectady and people in general. He helped many young people thru his boxing experiences and the coaching program that he started at the WMCA. He also was one of the coaches of the 1982 US Olympic boxing team.

For me personally I remember as the years came upon all of them “Pep” his wife Mary and my Godmother Angie (Mary Cassillo’s Sister) they would like to go and play bingo at the Sons of Italy that was located on Liberty Street at the time. First it would be Me, Mary and Angie and then as “Pep” became more frail he would join his wife and all of us to play bingo. I remember that the Alzheimer’s was setting in and he would need help with finding the numbers on his bingo card. So I would sit next to him and help him out. I remember when he would see me walk in he would put a big smile on his face and say “here comes my bingo buddy” come sit by me. Good memories of all them and I consider myself blessed to have had them in my life and “Pep” as my friend.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Schenectady's Fire of 1861

This post was written by library volunteer Diane Leone

The week of October 9-15, 2016 was Fire Prevention Week, an annual public education campaign since 1927, commemorating the Great Chicago Fire of October 8-9, 1871, one of the deadliest blazes in US history.  Like most other cities and towns, Schenectady has had its share of fires.  Perhaps the most well-known is the 1690 blaze set by the French and Hurons during the Schenectady Massacre, which consumed the frontier village.  The other major conflagration is the fire of 1819, which wiped out the business district on the Binnekill, destroyed many early Dutch buildings, and left 200 families without homes.  In 1861, the city was to experience the second significant fire of the nineteenth century. 

Broomcorn growing along the banks of the Mohawk with the Burr Bridge in the background
Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library Photo Collection.
In the mid-1800s, Schenectady was growing.  Broom making was a major industry in Schenectady County, with Schenectady, Scotia and Glenville responsible for 1,000,000 brooms per year. These brooms were produced from broomcorn, a type of sorghum. The low-lying land and islands of the Mohawk River were fertile grounds for growing this crop.  Otis Smith was one of the first to grow broomcorn in the county.  He owned 125 acres, and a factory that by mid-century turned out 192,000 brooms and 180,000 whisk brooms (Cheetham, Peg. “Broom Trade Once Swept Schenectady into Spotlight.” Schenectady Union-Star, 22 Apr. 1955.) Unfortunately, on an August afternoon in 1861 that factory, located on the northwest corner of Washington Avenue and Cucumber Alley, was the source of a conflagration that eventually destroyed it.

How the fire started is not entirely clear.  A contemporaneous newspaper report describes how a worker at the broom factory may have been at fault: “He had been pitching the roof with a pail of tar.  In some way, perhaps in lighting his pipe, the pitch burst into a blaze and spread and ran down to a heap of dried broom stalks as inflammable as guncotton.”  (“The Great Fire in August, 1861.” Schenectady Gazette, 20 Dec. 1911.).   Claims by some that this occurred on the north end of the building were contradicted by others’ assertions that the fire started at the southwest corner of the building.  In any event, the First Dutch Reformed Church bell would have rung out the alarm, along with other church bells and locomotive whistles.

Once it began, the fire, assisted by a strong wind from the northwest, quickly spread from Otis Smith’s factory at the foot of Cucumber Alley to the corners of Church and Washington, and the western end of Front Street.  It spread along the western side of Washington to the Mohawk River in the north and extended south, and reached houses on the eastern corners of Front and Washington.  In an effort to beat back the fire, residents on the western side of Ferry Street were soaking their wooden roofs with pails of water.

Photo of an early "engine" in Crescent Park. Courtesy
of the Grems-Doolittle Library Photo Collection.
Firefighting in the mid-nineteenth century was very different from that endeavor today.  After the fire of 1819, the city purchased a piece of equipment called a forcing pump, which has been described by Larry Hart in Volume 1 of Tales of Old Schenectady  as “…a tub on wheels (though called an engine) which was fitted with a fixed nozzle  and dragged to the scene of a fire like a feeble cannon.”  Hauling this cart over cobblestone streets could not have been an easy task for the volunteer firefighters; horses were not used until 1896 because part-time volunteer companies could not look after the animals.  Fighting the fire was a bit awkward, as the firefighters had to position the cart correctly in order to aim the hand-pumped stream of water at the flames.  The cart was filled with water from cisterns, located at key points in the city, and refilled as necessary.  By the 1830s, the city turned to suction pumpers, which replaced the need for bucket brigades in drawing water from the cisterns.  One model was the “Button” hand pumper, pulled by a large crew of men, who also had the exhausting job of operating the pump handles.  Individual residents still used leather pails to quench fires in their homes. 

One can imagine the pandemonium let loose by this catastrophic event.  In 1861 the firefighting service had a limited capacity to check the spread of fires.  Residents were very concerned, some even panicked, about the ultimate safety of their homes and possessions.  Many were dousing their houses with water. Some were conveying their property into the streets.  Adding to the chaotic scene was the cacophony of sound, made up of the shouting of firefighters and residents, the clacking of fire engine wheels and the licking of the flames devouring wood.  Completing the picture was the chilling sight of buildings ablaze, with the billowing clouds of smoke looming above.  Sadly, thieves took advantage of the disorder to ply their trade.

Painting of the 1861 fire that consumed the Dutch Reformed Church. Courtesy of the
Schenectady History Museum.
In the path of destruction stood the Old Dutch Reformed Church.  This brick building, which had a cupola and bell tower encasing a two-ton bell, was constructed in 1814.  Among its treasured contents were a very large brass chandelier and an organ.  While people were occupied with the danger to their own homes and businesses, the edifice caught fire.  Unfortunately, the engines were located near the river, which put them too far away from the church to save it.  However, people did their best to salvage whatever they could on the inside, including the pulpit, books, carpets, and a chandelier; the organ was not saved.  Ironically, in 1861 the church’s 3,200 pound bell had been in use for only 13 years.  It replaced the famously sonorous 1732 bell, which cracked in 1848 and was melted down into miniature bells for the congregants.  A local reporter dramatically described the destruction of the steeple and the bell on that afternoon in August of 1861:

“With steady rapidity the work of destruction circled the steeple, till it tottered and fell with a tremendous crash, and spread over the roof till it thundered down.  The bell, weighing 3,200 lbs., was eaten away from its supports, and fell, crashing through floors, partitions, and masonry, making more noise in its last moments than it ever made in its life, killed, like a faithful sentinel, by the very enemy whose approach it had heralded.” 

(“The Fire of Tuesday.” Evening Star and Times [Schenectady, NY], 9 Aug. 1861, p. 1.)

In an interesting side note, the pastor was reputedly far from distressed by the collapse of the building. On the contrary, the destruction “…was viewed with unconcealed joy by the pastor, who had been struggling and fighting for a new church for years.”  (“The Great Fire in August, 1861.” Schenectady Gazette, 20 Dec. 1911, p. 12.). 

Although the five volunteer fire companies were making heroic efforts to stem the tide of the flames, it became clear that they needed aid from other locales. In the absence of the mayor, the city’s recorder telegraphed Albany, Troy and Amsterdam for help.  All responded, arriving as the fire was dwindling.  Extraordinarily powerful at the time was Troy’s steam pumper, the Hugh Rankin.  Although situated in Governor’s Lane north of Front Street, it pumped water all the way to Washington Avenue through 15,000 feet of hose. It was reported that the powerful stream destroyed the walls of the building it was targeting.  In spite of these efforts, the wind-swept fire did spread to areas farther away.  Embers landed on rooftops as far afield as the area around the junction of State Street and Nott Terrace/Veeder Avenue.  A building on Nott Terrace was set ablaze, as well as one at 117 South Center Street, near the corner of Franklin Street.

Members of the Protection  Hose Company No. 1.
 located on State Street near South Ferry. Courtesy of the
Grems-Doolittle Library Photo Collection.
The cost of the fire was $120,000, which is equivalent to over $3,000,000 today.  Although no one died, there was substantial property damage. The Smith factory and warehouse were destroyed, along with ancillary buildings, equipment, and products. The Old Dutch Church was destroyed.  Severe damage was done to the western portion of Washington Avenue, particularly heading north to the river; only one building remained standing between the Otis broom shop and the Scotia Bridge at the end of Washington Avenue.  Additional damage was done to two houses on Washington Avenue south of Front Street.  The eastern corners of Front Street and Washington Avenue were also involved in the blaze, as was Church Street.  Destruction was limited by the concerted efforts of residents, who doused buildings with water and, in some cases, knocked down blazing structures to halt the spread of the flames.

Photo  showing Cucumber Alley and the Whitmyre Broom Factory.
The Dutch Reformed Church can also be seen in the background.
Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library Photo Collection.
The fire brought changes.  The Otis property was purchased by Charles L. Whitmyre, who later built the Whitmyre and Co. Broom Factory on the site.  A new stone church was built in 1862, positioned farther away from the front of the street.  Sadly, it was the victim of the fire of February 1, 1948 and was once again rebuilt.  The fire department replaced hand pumpers with three steam pumpers between 1864 and 1869.  These too were replaced in 1872, as the introduction of fire hydrants, as part of a municipal water system, made them obsolete. Toward the end of the century, hand-drawn hose carts gave way to horse power. 

The broom factory at Cucumber and Washington would see another
blaze in the 1870s. After it became the WhitmyreBroom Factory.
Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library Photo Collection.
The First/Dutch Reformed Church would also see another
destructive fire in 1948. Courtesy of the
 Grems-Doolittle Library Photo Collection.
The 1861 fire was certainly not the last in the city. With the continual evolution of firefighting techniques and more sophisticated equipment, we will never again witness a conflagration like those of earlier times.

For more information on the fires of 1819 and 1861, see Robert A. Petito Jr.'s excellent article “The Fires of Schenectady,” in the May-June 2011 issue of Schenectady County Historical Society Newsletter

Thursday, September 29, 2016

The Schenectady Beer Squad


Policeman Karl Peters manning the traffic signal
at the intersection of State and Centre Street
c. 1924. Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle
Library Photo Collection.
The year was 1933 and the age of prohibition was over. Rum runners no longer had to run, people could bathe again as bathtubs no longer had to be used for making gin, and you no longer had to pay off your local pharmacist for a whiskey prescription. Bars and saloons began springing up across Schenectady, but some were still more used to the unregulated speakeasies of the ‘20s and early ‘30s and they didn’t always follow the new laws and regulations set up by the New York State Liquor Authority and Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control.  By 1936,  the Schenectady Police Department started getting cracking down on these unlicensed bars, as well as other violators of Alcohol and Beverage Control Laws. That solution was to assign patrolmen Joseph Madden, Karl Peters, and Charles Cole to the newly formed beer squad.

The beer squad had the task of cleaning up grills and taverns that didn’t comply with regulations controlling the sale of liquor. Liquor dealers were not caught completely unaware as a two week educational process was enacted by the squad. Madden, Peters, Cole, and even Police Chief William Funston surveyed the city and warned tavern owners that those who did not obey the regulations would be harshly punished. One of the first victims of the beer squad was Thomas Burns a bartender at the Hotel St. Clair on North Broadway. Burns was charged with selling liquor on primary day and his bail was set at a whopping (for the time, at least) $500. This law forbidding selling liquor on primary and election day is thankfully now defunct (as we could all probably use a drink on election day), but it was meant to combat the tradition of trading votes for booze. This tradition goes back to George Washington who won campaigns by “swilling the planters with bumbo” which was a type of rum.
Advertisement of the Hotel St. Clair. They probably needed a new bartender
after Mr. Burns was busted by the beer squad.
By July of 1936 there was talk about increasing the size of the beer squad. This talk did not come from the Police Bureau, but from the Schenectady Wine, Beer and Liquor Dealer’s Association. They held a conference with Police Chief Funston, not to chastise or criticize the beer squad, but to call for more men to oversee the over 110 alcohol selling establishments in Schenectady. The association was also concerned that taverns outside of city limits weren’t being held accountable the same way those in Schenectady were. The biggest complaint was that taverns outside of the city were allowed to stay open later. Schenectady County also had a beer squad of three patrolmen who Sheriff Thomas Walsh said “make a careful checkup of all places selling alcoholic beverages.” By the end of 1936, the beer squad made 7 arrests and 5 convictions for violation of alcohol and beverage control laws, bringing in $1,025 out of a total $11,952 for the whole police bureau in 1936.

Patrol car from 1941. The beer squad was a plainclothes department, so there
would be no patrol car or uniform to tip off wary bartenders. Courtesy of the Larry
Hart Photograph Collection.
The beer squad worked closely with the special service squad to clean up the streets of Schenectady.  The special service squad was created in 1927 to investigate disorderly and gambling houses, many of which were probably operated out of the bars that the Beer Squad investigated.  Newspaper reports from the 30s and 40s show Karl Peters and Joseph Madden assisting in the arrests of those being charged with prostitution, operating a disorderly house, and running dice and numbers games. Schenectady was especially notorious for illegal bookie joints according to a Times Union article by Marv Cermak. Cermak writes about a Schenectady institution called the Bellevue Athletic Club that was a front for a bookmaker. The Bellevue Athletic Club may have started out as a legitimate sports club, but by the late 1950s it was known for Schenectady gambling kingpin James “Dietz” DiDonato and William “Wild Bill” Anderson, DiDonato’s “lieutenant.”
"Dietz" and "Wild Bill" (sporting sesqui beard). It was suspected that DiDonato
had ties to the mafia. When asked if it was true he stated that his Schenectady operation
was a "small town affair" referring to possible mafia connection in Utica he said
"I've only been in Utica once in my life. All the racketeers I ever knew were right here."
Photo is courtesy of Fultonhistory.com.
It appears that the Beer Squad was merged with the Special Service Squad at some point during the early 1940s as a newspaper report lists former beer squaders Joseph Madden and Karl Peters as working in the special service squad. Newspaper reports of Schenectady’s beer squad start to decrease around 1938 and 1939. By the mid-1950s other types of beer squads start to pop up like the Ballantine Beer Squad, the Schaefer Beer Squad and the Schlitz Beer Squad, all bowling and softball teams.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Chester Arthur and the Birther Scandal of 1881

Chester A. Arthur as a young lawyer.
Courtesy of the National Portrait
Gallery at the Smithsonian.
The early 1880s were a turbulent time for American politics. In 1880, President Rutherford B. Hayes declined to seek re-election leaving the task to James Garfield who took office on March 4th, 1881. Five months later, Garfield would be shot by assassin Charles Guiteau. Garfield lingered until September 19th when his health took a turn for the worst and he passed away. This left the presidency open to Garfield's vice-president, Chester Arthur. One year with three presidents. Surprisingly, this had happened once before in 1841 with a similar situation when Martin Van Buren was defeated by William Henry Harrison. Harrison died shortly after his inauguration and vice-president John Tyler took office. As a former supporter and benefactor of the spoils system, Chester Arthur did not instill the most confidence in people. His bad political reputation aside, one other thing caught the eye of his critics, Chester's birthplace.

Although Chester Arthur lived in Schenectady, he wasn't born there. His father, William Arthur was an Irish immigrant, Baptist minister, and a teacher who often traveled from his home in Fairfield, Vermont over the border to Canada to teach and preach. Malvina Arthur, Chester's mother, also had family in Canada who she stayed with often. This, combined with the fact that his family frequently moved created problems for Chester during his nomination for vice-presidency.

Chester lived at this house on the corner of Liberty and Yates
while attending Union. Later on, the building would
become the Jersey Ice Cream Factory. Courtesy of the
Grems-Doolittle Photo Collection
By 1832, the Arthurs left Fairfield and eventually made their way over to Schenectady, New York. The family lived on the corner of Liberty and Yates Street in a house that would eventually become the Jersey Ice Cream Factory. Chester enrolled at Union College in 1845 and remained there until his graduation in 1848. Arthur's first foray into politics came during his teenage years. Chester firmly supported the Whig Party and even threw a few punches for them when he got into a brawl with students who supported James K. Polk. In addition to his schoolyard political melees, young Chet also helped throw the Union school bell into the Erie Canal as a prank.

After his education at Union, Chester Arthur moved around New York and Vermont where he taught and studied the law at State and National Law School in Ballston Spa. Chester moved to New York City to work at the law office of Erastus D. Culver who was an abolitionist lawyer and friend of the Arthur family. After being admitted to the bar, Arthur joined the firm which became Culver, Parker, and Arthur where he worked on several anti-slavery cases. One of the most notable was the case of Elizabeth Jennings Graham who was denied a seat on a trolley because she was black. Winning this case resulted in the desegregation of New York City streetcar lines.

The Chester A. Arthur statue at Union College.
Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library Photo Collection.
During the Civil War, Arthur was commissioned as a brigadier general in the New York State militia's quartermaster department where he excelled at the position and was promoted to quartermaster general. After the Civil War is when Arthur really began getting involved in politics. Arthur became good friends with Utica's Roscoe Conkling who assisted Arthur in getting lucrative positions. Arthur would be appointed to the Collector's position at the Customs House at the Port of New York where he made over $50,000 a year, which was more than the President and more than enough to fund Arthur's growing pants collection.

While Arthur had many friends in Washington, President Rutherford B. Hayes was not one of them. Hayes pledged to reform the spoils system that directly benefited Arthur, Conkling, and the like. Arthur was able to survive in the political arena by campaigning for politicians who would turn a blind eye to Hayes' attempted reforms and appoint Conkling's men.

Campaign poster for the Garfield and Arthur ticket. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

By 1880,  Hayes had declined to enter the presidential race which left the Republican ticket open. James Garfield was the popular choice for the Republican nominee and Levi P. Morton was his first choice for VP. Morton consulted with Roscoe Conkling who convinced him to decline the position. Garfield's supporters then went to Arthur who accepted against Conkling's wishes. After Garfield's assassination by Charles Guiteau, Arthur was sworn in as President of the United States where he exceeded both parties expectations by reforming Civil Service.

"I may be President of the United States, but my private life is nobody's damned business." - Chester A. Arthur to a temperance reformer.

Back to the birther controversy! Republican bosses reportedly wanted proof of Arthur's birthplace before he was sworn in, which he either could or would not produce. The Democrats caught wind of this and hired a lawyer and political opponent of Arthur named Arthur Hinman to investigate Chester's birth. At first, Hinman accused Chester of being born in Ireland and immigrating when he was 14 years old. This was proven to be untrue and easily disproven. Hinman wasn't done with Arthur yet, though

He dug a little more into this created controversy and found Arthur family acquaintances who claimed that Chester was born in Canada. While hearsay from some friends doesn't seem like the best evidence, it was good enough for Hinman who wrote a short book called How a Subject of the British Empire Became President of the United States. Neither of Hinman's claims gained traction in the public eye, nor did they seem to affect the Garfield/Arthur ticket. Chester Arthur always insisted that he was born in Fairfield, Vermont.  As may be expected, Vermonters claim Chester A. Arthur as the first president from Vermont, while some Canadians think Chester was the first Canadian president. A 2009 article in the Boston Globe looked into this controversy and found no record of Chester Arthur's exact birthplace so we may never know exactly where Arthur was born.


Friday, August 26, 2016

New York Heritage Collection Highlight: Schenectady, NY Street Scenes

Our newest collection on New York Heritage is Schenectady Street Scenes which was funded by a grant from the Capital District Library Council. This collection is pretty self-explanatory in that it has photos of the offices, factories, residences, trains, and other buildings all along Schenectady's streets. These photos give a glimpse of Schenectady throughout the years and you can really get a sense of how the city changed over time. This post will highlight just a fraction of the photos in this collection. You can view all of the photos in this collection by following this link to our New York Heritage page. A special thanks goes out to library volunteer Angela Matyi. Angela did a great job scanning the photos and entering all the data into New York Heritage for this collection.

A hunter in the Bowery woods near Summit and Paige ca. 1890. These woods were a favorite spot for hunters, picnickers, walkers, and those who just wanted a nice view of the city.
How could I mention the view of Schenectady from the Bowery woods without actually showing the view? In this photo of Schenectady from Summit Avenue you can see the construction of the United Methodist Church close to the middle and the old Schenectady Armory on the right as well as smoke from the city's various industrial pursuits in the background.

Look close in the first photo and you can make out a familiar building. Finding out when and where this photo was taken is a bit tricky as neither Johnson Street, nor Terrace Place exist anymore and its is a bit more developed than it was in this photo. This area was redeveloped in the 1950s so we think the date of the photo is somewhere between the opening of City Hall in 1931 and the 1950s. We were able to figure out that it was taken close to where the Bechtel Plant currently is. This portion of the 1900 Sanborn map shows the intersection of Johnson and Terrace, as well was some of the buildings that were in the area.

Also in this collection are photos of storm damage around Schenectady. The first photo shows huge chunks of ice from a major ice storm in 1914. The second shows a battered silo on Maxon Road.
The raising of Schenectady's railroads was a great boon for public safety. These two photos show the before and after of the raising of the rails. In the early 1900s, pedestrian deaths and injuries caused by trains were steadily increasing and by 1907 the city decided to do something about it. State Street was one of the most dangerous and as seen in the first photo from the 1900s, very busy. Adding trains to the mix made the street dangerous and often congested. The second photo shows the opening of the rail bridge on State Street. Now pedestrians could freely cross State Street, all they had to worry about were trolleys, horses, and the ever increasing amount of cars on the roads.


Speaking of trolleys (and streets that don't exist anymore), this great photo from around 1915 shows a mix of trolleys, cars, and pedestrians on Villa Road. Villa Road was the portion of  current day Broadway that ran from Weaver Street to the top of Bellevue Hill.
Connected to the last photo is this peaceful scene on Bellevue Hill from the late 1800s. From dirt roads to cars andelectric trolleys, these two photos really shows how Schenectady progressed.