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Pine Plains Gang caused a flap in 1890s

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Who was making more noise in town of Wilna Court — the barristers or the hens and rooster?

How much more could 72-year-old Judge James H. Dawley take before he’d pound his gavel and send everybody home, including the notorious Pine Plains Gang?

And what should be done about the latest deposit on the evidence table?

Wednesday, May 6, 1896, certainly wasn’t a typical day in court for the judge of three decades.

The man on trial was Charles Carr, who at 22 was considered the ringleader of “an organized band of thieves and plunderers,” as a Syracuse newspaper described them. In fact, his reputation was soon to crown him “the king of the plains.”

The Pine Plains Gang made its headquarters throughout the “region of sandy barren flats, dotted with myriads of decaying pine stubs and broken at intervals by mirey cedar swamps, tangled ravines and deep hollows filled with stagnant water,” the Syracuse report continued. Today we know the area as Fort Drum.

The Pine Plains Gang was capable of committing any number of transgressions, not the least of which was rustling cattle — and even fowl — from their neighbors in such nearby communities as LeRaysville, Sterlingville, Great Bend, Carthage and all the way to Natural Bridge. And that was why the unpopular Mr. Carr, who also liked to steal men’s wives, was seated here before judge and jury.

The widow Mary Farrell was here too. She’d had her fill of having her hens stolen, as well as just about all of her household goods. She wanted justice, and that live black hen right over there on the evidence table was hers, she insisted.

The chief prosecution witness was a man named Savage, who claimed he had bought the fowl from Mr. Carr, fair and square.

Prosecutor Antonio F. Mills was ready to fight for Mrs. Farrell’s claim, while defense lawyer Frank T. Evans had insisted on a trial. He was accompanied by “a motley crowd” of “berry pickers” arriving “in full force,” according to a Carthage Tribune story that was picked up by other newspapers, including the Daily Journal of Ogdensburg. And Mr. Carr’s mother was there as well, with bushel baskets populated by four more hens and a rooster. They were evidence also, with Ma Carr contending that one of this special breed was what Mr. Savage had purchased from her son — not Mrs. Farrell’s squawker.

So what about the fowl Mr. Savage claimed he bought — the widow Farrell’s hen? Had he, and not Mr. Carr, stolen it? That was the challenge presented by Mr. Evans.

While the lawyers tried to impress jurors with their queries to sworn witnesses, “the hens in the baskets and the hen which had taken refuge in Squire Dawley’s cap on the table kept up a continual noise,” the Carthage paper reported. “First it was the hens, and then it was the lawyers, until one couldn’t tell which was which. The hens in the baskets would make so much noise that Mills would object, and Evans wanted the one on the table fined for contempt of court.”

The loudest of the cacklers was indeed the hen at issue. Judge Dawley could take no more; he instructed his court officer to get her out of the room. The bailiff quickly discovered what all the cackling was about — the widow Farrell’s hen had deposited an egg in the middle of the old magistrate’s cap.

The prosecution’s case went downhill from there. Mr. Mills had a key witness, Mary Britton, the wife of Lewis Britton. Charles Carr had “stolen” this woman from Mr. Britton about six months earlier, and she had given town Constable Edward Simmons an affidavit implicating Mr. Carr in the intrusion upon widow Farrell’s property. But suddenly, she was an uncooperative witness. She did not want to testify against Mr. Carr, and nothing could be done to change her mind.

When time came for the jury to get the case, Judge Dawley tossed it for lack of evidence, setting Mr. Carr free to go break the law again.

What the judge did with the egg, or his cap for that matter, the Tribune did not report.

Although Mary Britton was apparently not disciplined for her refusal to testify, she managed a few months later to land in the county jail. The 26-year-old was jailed a few weeks in February and March 1897 on a burglary charge.

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Charlie Carr began making a name for himself in June 1891, when he was 17. A housewife in Carthage said he’d assaulted her. She wasn’t the only one; he kept on fighting, netting himself sentences in Jefferson County Jail in 1893 and 1896, the latter just three weeks after the fowl caper. The jail welcomed him back in November 1896, now accused of burglary.

Mr. Carr was due to stand trial in August 1897 for stealing a sheep from one of his neighbors, John Kinsson, but he was a no-show in court, having jumped the $200 bail that his father had posted for him. Pop Carr was out his 200 bucks.

It was the persistent pursuit by town of LeRay Constable Hamilton Timmerman that brought Carr and some of his allies to justice late in April and May 1898. One night, the constable approached a pasture where he heard three men talking. The men, with bundles on their shoulders, appeared to be looking for something on the ground. They panicked when the constable’s horse whinnied, and ran into the darkness.

Mr. Timmerman also retreated, but not before marking the spot, the Syracuse Herald reported. Come daylight, he returned and began digging where the trio had searched in darkness.

“On removing a layer of turf, he came upon what proved to be an old door, and upon taking this up, he found that beneath it was the entrance to a cellar or cave, some 10 feet square and near as deep,” the Herald reported. He found a coat and evidence that plunder had been stored here.

By month’s end, the constable had the infamous Mr. Carr in custody, “after considerable trouble,” the Watertown Re-Union reported. And he also recovered four wagon wheels that had been stolen 10 months earlier off William Wilbur’s wagon; Mr. Timmerman had recognized them when he saw them on Mr. Carr’s buggy.

Charles Carr was back to interfering in domestic tranquility early in the summer of 1899. At first, reporters were a bit stumped about the identity of the man who ran off with another man’s wife, as shown in this July 4, 1899, account in the Ogdensburg Daily Journal:

“John Hemmingway and wife were an apparently happy couple who for the past 15 years had lived in matrimony. Their home was at Reedsville, Lewis County, (a community later swollowed up into present day Fort Drum) and here they lived with their family of four children. Some time ago a young man named Charles Collar began paying attention to Mrs. Hemmingway and of course, this attention was not received with kindly eye by her husband. A few days ago, Mrs. Hemmingway asked her husband for some money ($4) with which she might buy provisions at Carthage. The husband granted the request and she hitched up their little black mare and started for Carthage. At some point on the way Charles Collar was met, and together they began their journeys. They drove from Carthage to Natural Bridge, from there to Antwerp, thence to Gouverneur, and from here to Canton. Where they went from Canton is not known, but the officers ... were able to trace them there. The husband is much infuriated, and is set on following them to the last stretch.”

Collar was said to be in his early 20s; Mrs. Hemmingway was 40.

An officer named Ostler tracked the couple doggedly, writing letters to his acquaintances throughout the region to put them on the watch. Sightings were reported at Waddington, Edwardsville and Chippewa Bay. Finally, the trail got hot enough by the end of July that Officer Ostler, assisted by George Alexander of Reedsville, caught the villain, finally identified as Carr.

“Hemmingway has taken back his wife, and they passed through this village (Gouverneur) yesterday, in company with their many children, and will visit friends at Hanawa Falls,” the Ogdensburg Daily Journal reported.

Aside from that incident, Carr, “a member of the Pine Plains gang which gave the officers so much trouble several months ago,” the Journal reported, was also facing a charge of killing a cow.

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Pine Plains was, according to Syracuse newspaper accounts, “the breeding spot for crime near Watertown.”

Deputy Sheriff B.C. “Charlie” Budd of Carthage was given credit for “rounding up an organized band of thieves and plunderers, whose headquarters were the cabins of several of the members on the Pine Plains” in 1894. Their cabins were “invariabley crowded with ragged unkempt children and mongrel dogs.”

Named among the gang members were William and Louis Draper and Jim Brookmeyer, Melvin Phelps and Henry VanTassell, who “had for a long time been a terror and scourge to the surrounding country.”

William Draper, convicted of burglary, was sent in 1896 to Auburn prison for a three-year stay.

Edward Brotherton was arrested in 1897 for breaking into cottages at the Riverside campground at Felts Mills.

“Constable Hamilton Timmerman drove up to the place where he was supposed to be in hiding and arrived shortly after dark,” the Watertown Re-Union reported. “He walked into the house unceremoniously, discovered the fugitive seated at a table and proceeded to place him under arrest and bring him to Watertown.”

Eventually, Mr. Brotherton was sent off to the Monroe County prison.

The following year Constable Timmerman was still shadowing the Pine Plains outlaws. “There is still an organized gang of thieves on the Pine Plains,” he told a Syracuse reporter. “It is more than 50 years since the first organized gang of criminals was ferretted out and broken up, and since that time more than two score of criminals have been sent to the penitentiary from those sandy wastes.”

One of those was George Baker, who was convicted of burglary and dispatched to Auburn.

Others were Andrew Garvey, Warren Russell and Lysander William Steele.

Mr. Steele faced four indictments in May 1898. Stolen property, some received from Andrew Garvey, was his game. He had a $12.50 carpet belonging to Jacob Sixbury, a stove that owner John Rice valued at 50 cents, and some items missing from Henry N. Howard’s horse stable, including collar, sweat pad, rubber blanket and a whiffletree (a device used in connecting a horse harness to a carriage), all valued at $4, according to the Re-Union. Another charge was escaping from Constable Timmerman.

And then there was Joseph Cramer, said to be an accomplice of Charles Carr. Cramer was one of those guys who spent more time behind bars than on the outside. Between 1889 and 1901, he was booked into the county jail 15 times. His first venture was forgery, but the majority of his early bookings were for drunkenness. He stepped it up to assault in 1891 and three years later began to tinker with burglary, robbery and theft. Seven times he was sent to prison.

One episode took place in December 1899, after a jury convicted him for the killing of a heifer and the sale of its hide. At his sentencing by County Judge Edgar O. Emerson, Cramer, one of Watertown’s “best known police court characters,” the Re-Union reported, “made a sensational speech, asserting that he was innocent and that the court and every one else but the 12 jurors knew it.”

A prosecution witness against Mr. Cramer was none other than his partner in crime, Charles Carr. For his testimony, Charles got a day’s break from prison.

Joe Cramer was back in Judge Emerson’s court in May 1902, this time for robbery. And off he went on the familiar trek to Auburn, with a reservation for a six-year stay.

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Judge Emerson was quite familiar with members of the Pine Plains Gang, inasmuch as he presided on the County Court bench about 18 years, from 1893 to 1911. Born in the town of Brownville, he was 74 when he died Dec. 14, 1923, at his 324 Keyes Ave. home.

Wilna Judge Dawley, a native of Maine, could boast that in his 36-plus years as a magistrate, serving also in his later years as Carthage village judge, he was never defeated in an election. He died in October 1898, survived by his wife, two sons and a daughter.

The barristers in Judge Dawley’s fowl trial both conducted their law practices in Carthage. Antonio Mills, a graduate of Albany Law School, was just starting his career when he took on the hens. Perhaps it was this trial that steered Mr. Mills in a different direction.

“He was not a trial lawyer,” said his Sept. 16, 1935, obituary in the Watertown Daily Times, “specializing rather in the handling of estates and insurance.” He died at age 63.

Mr. Evans was 43 at the time of the Carr trial and had “quite a reputation as an attorney,” according to his July 9, 1913, obituary in the Times. He was 60 when he died.

Of the lawmen who practically made careers out of tracking the Pine Plains Gang, we find record only of Charlie Budd. Born in 1848, he served as a Jefferson County deputy sheriff and as a Carthage police officer. His March 1900 obituary in the Watertown Herald reported that he and Watertown police chief Miles Guest “have together chased many a criminal, from petty thief to murderer, across the Pine Plains and brought them to justice. It was Mr. Budd who first brought Charles Carr, the notorious leader of the Pine Plains gang, to justice. His one boast was that after he once laid hands on a criminal (the bad guy) might as well give up.”

We wish to thank one of our readers, Terry Baker, for cluing us into the Pine Plains Gang and for giving us direction for research. Times librarian Lisa Carr assisted with research, and Mary Grant of the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department helped scour through century-old jail records. Resources at Jefferson County Surrogate Court were also utilized.

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