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Tales from the Oswegatchie Delta
By James E. Reagen
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Tales from the Oswegatchie Delta

Ogdensburg Court Used To Offer Advice, Guidance On Choosing A Wife

First published: March 26, 2015 at 12:34 am
Last modified: March 26, 2015 at 12:34 am

Ogdensburg City Court Judges have been known to offer their advice to those who appear before them, but 100 years ago, the justices sometimes even helped advise young couples who needed guidance on their love lives.

Take, for example, the case of a young 18-year-old man who gave his heart to a slightly older woman.

The young man had watched the love of his life suffer the loss of her job, her career and even the place where she lived.

In her time of need, he had resolved to run away with her and together to build a new life somewhere else where they could start fresh.

The judge, however, was afraid the young man had given his heart to the wrong woman.

In 1912, Ogdensburg’s city police and city court had devoted a great deal of attention to it’s houses of prostitution, the women who operated those businesses and those who worked for a living in those enterprises.

After the city launched numerous raids on many of those bordellos, some of the women who had worked in those houses of ill repute found it difficult to earn a living in Ogdensburg.

Jennie Wilmot was one damsel in distress who decided after her place of employment had been closed down that she needed to start a new life somewhere other than Ogdensburg.

The Feb. 26, 1912 edition of the Watertown Times offered this description of Jennie Wilmot’s attempt to start a new life somewhere else. The headline reported:

Sordid Romance

Of Underworld Ended

Ogdensburg Youth Tried

To Elope With Former Inmate

Of Disorderly House

OGDENSBURG — Acting on the request of the parents of the young man, the police stepped in and prevented an elopement here Friday. The woman in the case, who gave her name as Jennie Wilmot, formerly an inmate of a disorderly house which was recently closed in this city, has fascinated an 18-year-old youth many years her junior.

When the resort where she was staying was closed recently she went to Montreal, but a week ago, came back to Prescott and since then has been tilting back and forth over the river.

Her youthful admirer threw up his job and decided to go away with her. Friday, they went to the depot and checked their baggage for Utica, but before the train pulled out, a policeman appeared and took the pair before (city court judge) Recorder Gray.

The court gave the youth some good advice and told him that he had better give the woman up and go back to his job.

In the case of the woman, the court told her that if she did not get out of town and leave the boy alone, he would send her up for three years.

This line of reasoning opened the eyes of both, and the woman gladly availed herself of the chance to leave, while the youth said he would resume his place, his employer having been induced to take him back.

The woman in the case, who “was good looking and well dressed,” is said to have another ardent admirer in Watertown, who came here not long ago and tried to induce the other fellow to leave her alone, but did not succeed.

James E. Reagen is a former managing editor of The Journal and Advance News. He is the author of “Warriors of La Presentation” and “Fort Oswegatchie.” He is currently employed by the New York State Senate.

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How An Ogdensburg Irish Dance In 1866 Frightened The British High Command

First published: March 19, 2015 at 1:33 am
Last modified: March 19, 2015 at 1:33 am

When Ogdensburg’s Irish organized a “Grand Fenian Ball,” a month and a half before St. Patrick’s Day for Feb. 7, 1866, just months after the Civil War ended, the British commanders at Fort Wellington prepared for the worst.

While Ogdensburg’s leading Irish citizens were planning a fancy dinner and formal dance for $3 a couple, the British high command in North America directed commanders at Fort Wellington in Prescott to call out the militia, issue ammunition to the troops, and double the guard.

On the night of the ball, while Ogdensburg’s Irish danced, the British fired up the boilers on locomotives that were hooked up to freight cars “prepared to carry valuables to a place of safety in case of a raid,” according to Ogdensburg’s Daily Journal.

For the British aristocrats who oversaw the Canadian army in the 1860s, the idea of American Irish Catholic peasants with guns, who had proven themselves in battle during the Civil War, sent chills of fear down their spines.

With Irish Catholics also living in Canada, the British worried an Irish American invasion might spark an uprising, prompting concerns about the loyalty of any Irish Catholic serving in the militia.

One of the Canadian soldiers called out to defend Prescott ”was “stripped and searched and his effects and boarding house overhauled in a quest for treasonable documents.”

He was scheduled for trial by court martial for “declaring he would never shoot a Fenian.”

The British feared that Fenians, and their sympathizers, were on both sides of the border, plotting against them.

The Irish Republican Brotherhood, forerunners of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), was known in Gaelic as the “Na Fianna,” the ancient protectors of the “Ard Ri,” The High King. During times of crisis in ancient times, the Fenians would come together to fight for Irish independence.

In the 1850s, Irish nationalists named themselves the Fenians, forming an international movement that quickly spread across North America’s Irish communities. Ogdensburg’s local chapter members of the “Na Fianna,” vowed to create a free and independent Ireland, even if it required violence against the British oppressors who had occupied their native country for hundreds of years.

When they looked across the St. Lawrence River, Ogdensburg’s Irish could see the British guns of Fort Wellington aimed at their homes, reminding them of the English aristocrats who had helped the South’s slavemasters wage a bloody rebellion against the Union for four long years.

Ogdensburg’s residents of all religions and ethnic backgrounds felt a personal grudge against the British high command and Canada’s military in the days after the Civil War.

During the war, the British and Canadians had allowed the Confederacy to operate a terror campaign against Northern border communities with impunity with the help of Quebec and Ontario rebel sympathizers.

During the Civil War, the Confederacy attempted to force the Union to divert men and supplies from the war effort in the south by creating fear along the border with Canada.

Just three years before, on Nov. 1, 1863, the mayor of Ogdensburg received a telegram from U.S. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton warning him that the Governor-General of Canada notified the government of a secret plot by Confederate soldiers to attack and destroy Buffalo and Ogdensburg. City officials were warned to be on the lookout for steamships that might be carrying Confederate raiders.

U.S. Major General John Dixon was ordered to take precautions to protect Buffalo and Ogdensburg from Confederate raids from Canada. U.S. Senator Preston King of Ogdensburg, a confidant of President Lincoln, was dispatched to travel to Quebec to meet with the Governor General to discuss the crisis and make him aware of the possible problems both nations could face if an attacking Confederate force was traced to a Canadian base of operations.

A year later, Confederate soldiers operating out of Quebec launched a raid across the border into St. Albans, Vermont where the southerners robbed three banks to help finance the rebel war effort. Several were arrested by the Canadian government which later released them, convincing many northerners that the British were actively conspiring with the Confederacy.

Confederate spies repeatedly planted rumors that Ogdensburg and other border communities were high up on the list of Northern border cities targeted for attacks by rebel raiders.

On Nov. 4, 1864, the Chicago Tribune and other newspapers reported rumors that Confederate soldiers who had infiltrated Canada were preparing to attack Ogdensburg, Oswego, Buffalo and Detroit.

On Nov. 21, 1864, a letter was found in Prescott and sent to the mayor of Ogdensburg. The letter was from Captain Charles Dalton of the 10th South Carolina Cavalry to Lt. W. Holmes of the 22nd Tennessee Infantry indicating that Confederate soldiers were planning a raid on Ogdensburg or Rouses Point.

On Nov. 25, 1864, Confederate soldiers deliberately started fires in New York City at several major hotels, theaters and even P.T. Barnum’s Museum. The fires were extinguished before they could cause a disaster, but the arsons illustrated that the rebel spies were doing more than just making threats and planting rumors.

A few days later, on Dec. 2, 1864, Ogdensburg officials were warned that “sixty suspicious characters” had left Montreal on the train who were suspected of being part of a Confederate plot to attack Ogdensburg. A large group gets off the train at Morrisburg, Ont., just twenty miles east of Prescott.

On account of their suspicious movements, the Canadian authorities of Morrisburg arrested the suspicious characters and kept them in confinement overnight, releasing them in the morning.

In response, New York’s governor assigned a company of troops to defend Ogdensburg from attack and sent enough Springfield rifles to arm the Ogdensburgh Home Guard. The troops were quartered in Parish’s stone store (now the Robert C. McEwen U.S. Customs building) on North Water Street. The Frontier Guards, a detachment of Vermont Cavalry under Captain Rhodes, and a detachment of Massachusetts Cavalry, were also assigned to defend Ogdensburg from Confederate attack.

With citizens constantly in fear of Confederate raiders, the streets were constantly patrolled by nervous members of the Home Guard who arrested anyone they found out after dark.

“Many people sent their silver and most valuable belongings to the country, and plans were made in many households for the spiriting away of the family in case of an attack,” a historian wrote in Reminisces of Ogdensburg. “In many stables the horses were harnessed each night ready to be driven out at a moment’s notice. It is told with laughter to this day, in one family, how one of the daughters, who had lately been married, determined, if she went, she would carry with her the most valued part of her wedding trousseau. She therefore conceived the idea of sewing two of her white skirts together at the bottom and tacking between them many articles, gowns, skirts, wraps, etc., and so on. One night when the rumors had grown more and more alarming, as such things always do, she decided to array herself in this improvised affair. It was a somewhat difficult task, but it was accomplished at last, when to her horror she discovered that she could not take a step. How could she ever mount into the carriage that was to bear her to safety? And so, to her disappointment this plan was abandoned.”

When the war ended, a few months later, the residents of Northern New York felt Canada’s border communities deserved a taste of the same uncertainty and fear that the Americans had suffered during the war.

The Fenian movement gave Ogdensburg and many other Northern border communities, as well as the U.S. government, a way to administer a little revenge on their British and Canadian tormentors.

The U.S. government had demanded reparations from the Crown at the end of the Civil War for some of the damages caused to the U.S. by the British partiality toward the Confederacy.

The Fenians offered a perfect bargaining chip that the U.S. government could use to force the King’s government to pay millions in reparations.

The Fenians had developed detailed plans calling for a multipronged invasion involving separate armies of Irish veterans crossing the border at St. Louis, Buffalo, Ogdensburg, Malone and other locations where they could seize the railroad, key military posts and bring freedom to Canada.

By June of 1866, events like Ogdensburg’s Grand Fenian Ball and other fundraisers held in Irish neighborhoods across America had raised more than $500,000 (worth $7 million today). The Fenians, collected 6,000 weapons and had 10,000 to 50,000 former soldiers who had signed up to help invade Canada.

British Field Marshall Lord Viscount Sir Garrett Wolseley later wrote in his biography “The Story of A Soldier’s Life,” that the British Army constantly sent spies into Ogdensburg and Buffalo to find out the details of the Fenian conspiracy against Canada.

Like many British officers, he admired Canadians, who he described as a “splendid race of men” who “make first rate soldiers,” but dismissed their homegrown officers who he believed had little understanding of the art of commanding troops in the field.

Wolseley had nothing but contempt for the Fenians. “We had long known that another of their active centers was the city of Ogdensburg in the same state, and some 60 miles below where the St. Lawrence leaves Lake Ontario. It is opposite the Canadian town of Prescott and from its neighborhood came much of our information as to the doings of this conspiracy.”

“There were traitors amongst them who for payment supplied us with information secretly as to their doings and intentions,” he wrote.

He also sneered at the Fenian officers who were plotting against the crown, describing them “in every respect the commonest order of Irish mankind.”

Over 1,500 Fenians came to Ogdensburg to help invade Canada on June 1, 1866. They were prevented from crossing the river by U.S. troops.

But 1,000 Fenians at Buffalo entered Canada, captured Fort Erie and defeated a force of 1,500 Canadian militia and British regulars on June 2nd.

The Fenian force pulled out after U.S. government troops confiscated their supplies and blocked 4,000 Fenian reinforcements from joining them.

Worried by the Canadian defeat, on June 6th, the British government paid the U.S. government $15 million in reparations for their violations of neutrality during the Civil War.

U.S. President Andrew Johnson agreed to crack down on the Fenians after the British capitulated to his demands, issuing orders to arrest any American involved in the invasion of Canada.

On June 7, the Fenian army that had already marched from Malone and St. Albans, Vt., capturing four Quebec villages, found themselves facing a crisis.

The U.S. government they had thought was their ally had suddenly proclaimed them outlaws, destroying the morale of the Irish troops who had suddenly found themselves cut off from supplies and reinforcements by U.S. troops.

Aware that the multi-pronged Fenian invasion was falling apart and that the Canadian sympathizers they had expected to rise up and join them were staying home, hundreds of Fenians began heading for safety.

When British and Canadian forces launched an attack the day after the U.S. branded them criminals, the remaining dispirited Fenian forces broke and ran back to the safety of the U.S. side of the border with Canadian cavalry in hot pursuit.

Ironically, the major result of the Fenian invasion was to bring Canadians together. In 1867, Canada’s provinces agreed to create a stronger federal government with a stronger military force to protect them from invasions.

James E. Reagen is a former managing editor of The Journal and Advance News. He is the author of “Warriors of La Presentation” and “Fort Oswegatchie.” He is currently employed by the New York State Senate.

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In 1901, Ogdensburg Cracked Down On Spitters, Snowball Throwers And Geese Running At Large

First published: March 12, 2015 at 1:14 am
Last modified: March 12, 2015 at 1:14 am

Back in 1901, Ogdensburg had stiff penalties against criminals who dared to throw snowballs, spit on the sidewalk or used vulgar language within hearing of a lady.

Here’s a sampling of local laws from the city’s municipal ordinances:

No person shall throw snowballs, ice balls or shoot airguns or slingshots in any street in the city of Ogdensburg under a penalty of $5 for each offense.

No person shall play ball or knock or drive any ball in any street in this city under a penalty of $5 for each offense.

No person shall deposit or suffer his servant, child or family to deposit any carcass, carrion, putrid meat, fish, entrails, offals, filth, garbage, rubbish or any unwholesome substance in any lot in this city or in any street or lane or upon the bank of any river or in the pond or canal in this city under penalty of $5 for each offense.

Expectorating upon the floors of any public place or on the sidewalks in this city or in any street car is prohibited, under a penalty of $3 for each offense.

No owner or occupant of any lot or tenement shall permit any substance mentioned in the first section of this chapter to remain upon said lot or tenement or to the center of the street adjoining under penalty of $5 for every day during which the same shall so remain.

The mayor, any alderman or policeman may order the owner or occupant of any house, shop, stable, sewer or other building or place which shall be unwholesome or nauseous to cleanse remove or abate the same as often as it may be necessary for the health and comfort of the inhabitants of the city; and any person neglecting or refusing to obey such order shall forfeit the penalty of $10 for each neglect or refusal.

Every person who shall make or assist in making any riot or tumult, or aid or be engaged in any noisy, quarrelsome or disorderly assemblage or shall make any loud or boisterous or noise so as to disturb the peace of the city or shall idle or loiter upon the streets or sidewalks of said city so as to annoy or hinder the people passing thereon or shall use vulgar or insulting language to, or knowingly within the hearing of any female passing upon the streets or sidewalks, or being upon the streets or sidewalks to, or knowingly within the hearing of any female lawfully being in upon premises adjacent thereto, shall be liable to a penalty of $10 for each offense.

It shall be the duty of the policemen to arrest all persons guilty of any offense in the last section mentioned, and also all tramps, vagrants, common beggars and other disorderly persons and take them before the recorder to be dealt with according to the law.

No person shall publicly bathe without bathing suits in the daytime in any river, pond, or canal in this city under the penalty of $2 for each offense.

No person shall threaten or challenge another to fight or engage in any fight within the bounds of the city, under a penalty of $10 for each offense.

No person shall use any building for a slaughterhouse in this city unless the same is located westerly of Jefferson Avenue, or easterly of Champlain Street, and southerly of LaFayette Street under a penalty of $10 for each offense.

No cattle, horses, swine, sheep or geese shall be permitted to run at large in this city nor be driven or allowed on the streets without such restraint as shall prevent such animals from going out of the wagon way, under a penalty of $2 for each offense; to be recovered from the owner or person who allows the same to run at large or go unrestrained upon the streets, or from whose possession the same shall have escaped. Animals being driven on the streets with the immediate and constant attendance of at least one person for every two animals who are keeping such animals in the wagonway and under progress shall be deemed as running at large or not restrained as provided in this section.

Any person who shall cause any animal to escape from a proper enclosure, or be released from proper restraint, shall be liable to a penalty of $5 for each offense.

James E. Reagen is a former managing editor of The Journal and Advance News. He is the author of “Warriors of La Presentation” and “Fort Oswegatchie.” He is currently employed by the New York State Senate.

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Is Pirate James Patterson’s Gold Still Buried In Hammond’s Chippewa Creek?

First published: March 05, 2015 at 1:46 am
Last modified: March 05, 2015 at 1:46 am

Two hundred years later, treasure hunters still search the banks of Chippewa Creek in Hammond looking for some clue to where the pirates buried their gold.

During the War of 1812, people on both sides of the St. Lawrence River took advantage of the confusion and hatreds caused by the hostilities to justify their own private vendettas that also sometimes helped them line their own pockets.

Consider Hammond’s James Patterson, as an example. He considered himself an American patriot who was fighting the British crown in his own way.

The British disagreed, calling him a pirate and a horse thief who used the war to justify stealing from Canadians in the St. Lawrence Valley.

The war provoked bitterness among many Americans who had been lured by the British after the end of the Revolutionary War to build homes and farms in Canada’s sparsely populated townships. As tensions rose before war was declared between the two nations, the British issued demands that every able bodied man agree to enlist in the militia to fight for the British against the Americans if war broke out.

Anyone who refused to fight for the King could face eviction from their land and have their property confiscated. Thousands of Americans were forced from their homes in Canada for refusing to fight against the U.S., leaving them bitter enemies against the Crown and Canada.

No one knows for sure whether that led James Patterson to become a pirate and wage his own guerilla war against Canada’s loyalists.

Historian Gates Curtis wrote in his book “From Our County and Its People: A Memorial Record of St. Lawrence County,” that Patterson’s gang of pirates in the Hammond and Chippewa Bay area used the 1,000 Islands to help them plunder the Canadian shore.

Led by Patterson, his brother, Ned; John Hageman, Darius Carpenter and his son, John; and Zach Livingston, the band of pirates waged their own private war against the British with the help of a Frenchman named Binette, who they would send into Canada to spy for them.

“The gang was well rigged out with scows, bateaux and small boats. They had several places on the islands in front of Chippewa Bay to secrete their plunder. One island near the Canadian shore could not be reached only by a circuitous route and an obscure inlet, and there they kept most of their horses, as they could not be seen or heard when passing by on the water or from the shore,” Curtis wrote. “They had also several places up Chippewa Creek to secrete their plunder. Their plan of operation was to send Binette out through the Canadian settlements on a peddling tour. He being familiar with the English as well as the French language could easily learn where the finest horses, cattle or merchandise were kept, and that knowledge was cautiously communicated to headquarters and at the proper time a raid was made on the settlement thus spied out. Their plan was to start out well-armed, with several boats and a scow, and leave them in the bushes at different points near the place of operation, so in case they were hard pressed and their retreat cut off at one point, they could go to another and find a boat.”

“Their plundering expeditions became successful and the band was a terror to the Canadians. The British had a garrison of reserves stationed in Kingston, commanded by one Major Carley, and the soldiers were paid every month in specie (gold and silver coins), which was sent up in two or three divisions, by land and water, so in case of an accident to one, the other might be safe. Binette, through some of his French allies, learned that a bateau manned by three Frenchmen and an English officer would leave Montreal for Kingston with the specie, and would pass the Islands on such an evening following,” Curtis wrote. “This news was communicated to the Patterson gang, who went prepared and laid in wait until the supply boat came along, when they made a bold dash, overpowered the crew and took possession of the bateau and landed their prisoners on an island. With the bateau and contents they made directly, under cover of darkness, for the American shore, and thence up Chippewa Creek where the boat and specie were secreted for the time being.”

“When this act became known at Kingston, Major Carley selected a squad of men and rowed down to these islands with the fierce intent of exterminating the gang. They soon discovered their rendezvous and every man was prepared to fire at a moment’s notice. Suddenly they came upon the pirates who were in their boats, as they were passing around an island, and each soldier, taking deliberate aim, fired. Four of the six pirates were killed outright, and James Patterson was mortally wounded,” Curtis wrote. “Zach Livingston, who was in the same boat with Patterson, was unharmed, and rowed around the island and escaped. Patterson died soon after reaching the American shore. Mr. Swain states that on that night, which was late in the summer of 1814, his father had a beautiful mare, valued at $150, stolen and he believed that Livingston stole her. His father also had eleven head of fine cattle stolen that summer.”

The British never located Patterson’s treasure.

Two centuries later, treasure hunters still search for the buried gold.

James E. Reagen is a former managing editor of The Journal and Advance News. He is the author of “Warriors of La Presentation” and “Fort Oswegatchie.” He is currently employed by the New York State Senate.

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Escaped Slave Isaac Johnson Fought For Freedom And The Union

First published: February 26, 2015 at 1:56 am
Last modified: February 26, 2015 at 1:56 am

AUTHOR’S NOTE - Second in a two part series.

When Isaac Johnson learned that the Union Army had invaded Kentucky, he knew that his best chance to gain his freedom from slavery was to escape from his owner’s plantation and find the Northern soldiers.

He knew if he was captured, his master would kill him.

He’d personally witnessed the sadistic torture that escaped slaves faced for running away.

But Johnson knew that if he wanted his freedom, it was just a risk he would have to take.

When he found the Union soldiers, he offered to work as a cook for their captain if they would take him with them.

When his master showed up and demanded that the soldiers return his slave to him, the Colonel of the Michigan 8th Regiment of Volunteers told the slave owner he would give him just 15 minutes to leave Union controlled territory.

Captain Larkin Smith told Johnson what his colonel had done for him and then gave him a revolver and 20 bullets, telling him: “Take these and protect yourself. That is all we have to protect ourselves and if any man comes to demand your liberty, shoot him, as you would a dog, if you don’t, you ought to be a slave.”

“Oh what a feeling of manhood came to me with those words,” Johnson later wrote in his autobiography “Slavery Days in Old Kentucky. “I felt myself a man every inch of me...I took the revolver and cartridges and made up my mind to follow directions if I should be molested and that I would deserve my freedom.”

Johnson returned to Michigan with the 8th Regiment.

When he arrived in Detroit, Johnson intended to leave for Canada, a country he had dreamed about for many years.

But when he learned that the Union Army was recruiting African Americans to serve in their own regiment to fight the South, Johnson decided he had an obligation to risk his own life to help free others who were still being held in slavery.

As a member of Company A, 102nd United States Colored Regiment, he and others were served in Maryland, South Carolina and then Florida where they were attacked by Confederate troops.

Johnson and his fellow soldiers fought off the attack, winning the respect of the White troops, many of whom had questioned the value of recruiting Blacks into the Union army.

When Johnson and his fellow troops were sent back to South Carolina, they found themselves in a series of engagements.

At Honey Hill, S.C. Johnson was shot three times during the battle.

“Many of the men, though wounded and bleeding, refused to go to the rear and fought until the battle was concluded,” one account of the battle reported. “In February, 1865, the regiment ... made several expeditions into the enemy’s country, driving off his cavalry and destroying railroads and building breast works.”

When the war ended and he was discharged from the Union Army, he traveled back to Kentucky to search for his mother and brothers, but found no trace of them.

He went to visit his former master and found that he had been in bed for six months, paralyzed from some affliction.

“The Lord has answered my prayer and allowed me to live to see him punished who so cruellly tortured and murdered my friend Bob,” Johnson later wrote.

After finding no sign of his mother or brothers, Johnson moved to Canada, settling in Morrisburg, Ontario at first where he earned a reputation as a master stone cutter and builder with structures like the Winchester, Ontario Methodist Church.

Johnson later moved to Waddington where won the contract to build the majestic Waddington Town Hall.

“This unusual stone building, with its rectangular shape, gable front, projecting towers and oversized round-arched window centered over the entry, more closely resembles religious rather than civic architecture,” according to the nomination papers that were submitted when it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

After building a stone arched bridge at Chamberlains Corners, Johnson moved to Ogdensburg where he lived for 20 years.

He and his wife and children were members of St. Mary’s parish in Ogdensburg.

Johnson was a member of the stone masons union and the Ogdensburg branch of Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), an organization of Union Civil War veterans who attended his funeral and gathered at his graveside when he was buried in the Veterans cemetery in Ogdensburg in 1905.

Dr. Cornell Reinhart of St. Lawrence University who republished Johnson’s memoirs in 1994 wrote that Johnson helped build many of the stone buildings at the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center after he moved to Ogdensburg in 1885. Construction of the hospital buildings began in 1887, two years after Johnson moved to Ogdensburg and joined the stone masons union.

Johnson was injured in a quarry accident in Cornwall, Ontario which forced him to apply for a Civil War pension which he was awarded for his service to his nation.

In September, 1901, Johnson wrote his autobiography “Slavery Days in Old Kentucky” which was published by the Ogdensburg Republican Journal as a small book.

James E. Reagen is a former managing editor of The Journal and Advance News. He is the author of “Warriors of La Presentation” and “Fort Oswegatchie.” He is currently employed by the New York State Senate.

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Isaac Johnson: Ogdensburg Civil War Veteran Escaped From Slavery

First published: February 19, 2015 at 1:32 am
Last modified: February 19, 2015 at 1:32 am

AUTHOR’S NOTE - When escaped slave Isaac Johnson died in Ogdensburg in 1905, the Civil War veteran had earned a reputation as one of the North Country’s most respected builders and stone masons. Johnson had built an international reputation across southern Ontario and Northern New York as a builder of churches, government buildings, bridges and homes. Buildings like the Catholic church in Churubusco in Clinton County, Waddington’s Town Hall, Winchester, Ontario’s Methodist Church and the stone arched Chamberlain’s Corner bridge are a few examples of his legacy.

When 29-year-old Isaac Johnson enlisted in the U.S. Army on Feb. 3, 1864, he knew why he wanted to risk his life to fight for the Union.

He was fighting the Confederacy to make sure no one else ever experienced what he had witnessed as a child.

He could still remember the day his own father had turned his back on him, his mother and brothers just because of the color of their skin.

His father, Richard Yeager, an Irish farmer living in Nelson County, Kentucky had decided when Isaac was just seven-years-old that he was tired of married life, tired of his African-born wife and his own four children.

Yeager decided to sell his wife and children into slavery.

On the auction block, his wife, Jane Johnson, the mother of his four children, fetched $1,100. His four sons also made him a handsome profit. His nine-year-old son, Louis, sold for $800. Bidders paid $700 for seven-year-old Isaac. Their five-year-old brother Ambrose brought in $500. Even two year-old Eddie sold for $200.

Altogether, Yeager was paid $3,300 for his family.

For Isaac, brutally taken away from his mother and family “without even the privilege of saying ‘good-bye’ to each other,” the young boy suddenly discovered that the man who had raised him had abandoned him and sold him into a life of servitude.

His new “owner,” a White farmer named William Madinglay explained that as a slave, Johnson must learn his place because he was just a piece of property.

He must “always take (his) hat off and say “yes sir” or “no sir” and stand to the side when he met a White man or else expect a whipping to teach him his place in the world.

Eventually, he was sold to Madlingay’s brother, John, who owned over 1,000 acres on the Beech Fork River.

Working alongside over 120 other slaves for endless 16-hour days under the Kentucky sun, young Isaac was warned that if he dared to defy his “master,” Madlinglay had a “duty” to kill him just as he would any other misbehaving animal he owned.

Murdering a stubborn slave was no different than killing a mule, he was warned.

While working alongside another slave, Johnson discovered that there were other places in the world where African American men could live free from fear that they might be snatched from their family or off the street and sold into slavery.

“Bob,” a former Canadian steamship engineer, told Johnson that he had been visiting New Orleans when he was accused of being an escaped slave and sold into bondage.

Bob told Johnson that North of the St. Lawrence River, Black men could own property, work for themselves and care for their families without fear of being forced into slavery.

But Isaac and Bob decided to escape together and flee north to Canada, they were betrayed by a fellow slave who informed on them, helping their “master” to recapture them.

Madinglay blamed Bob for convincing Isaac to try to escape.

Madinglay and three of his slave drivers “drove four stakes in the ground and (Bob) was tied to these with his back up and the four men took turns lashing him with a rawhide whip” … “until his back appeared like a piece of beefsteak pounded. They then took hot coals from the furnace and poured them over his back, after which they took him to the punishment cabin, shackled his feet, chained him to the punishment block and in the night two of them went into the cabin and cut his throat, taking care not to cut the jugular, but cutting just enough so he would die gradually in torture.”

“Bob’s condition was a lesson to the rest of us. He lived in this condition for five days” before he died. Johnson wrote in his autobiography “Slavery Days in Old Kentucky. A True Story of a Father Who Sold His Wife and Four Children. By One of the Children,” published by the Ogdensburg, N.Y.: Republican & Journal in 1901.

Johnson later wrote that slavery as an institution and way of life “not only degraded the slave, but it degraded the master even more” because it encouraged them to become monsters who would brutalize and even murder their fellow human beings just to maintain their control over others.

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“Black Swan” Taught Ogdensburg To Judge Opera Singers On Voice, Not Race

First published: February 12, 2015 at 1:20 am
Last modified: February 12, 2015 at 1:20 am

AUTHOR’S NOTE - Black history month seldom points out Ogdensburg’s role in helping African Americans obtain recognition in fields that were often barred to the sons and daughters of former slaves.

—-

When Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield came to Ogdensburg for the first time in the 1850s, she was a little known singer who had faced more than her share of tough crowds.

After all, for African-Americans, finding employment of any kind could be difficult, especially since New Yorkers had only abolished slavery just 25 years before.

But at a time when African-Americans could be seized on the street on suspicion of being an escaped slave, and shipped south into bondage, former slaves like Miss Greenfield fought racial prejudice and stereotypes that dictated “Black” performers stick to traditional spirituals or humorous performances.

No one had ever heard of an African-American opera singer before she came to town.

But Miss Greenfield wowed the Ogdensburg audience, winning over the crowd at Eagle Hall with her renditions of opera arias, sentimental parlor songs and hymns, impressing the audience with the sheer range of her voice.

Born a slave near Natchez, Mississippi, the young singer had never found it easy pursuing her passion for singing.

Her owner had moved to Philadelphia, Pa. when she was still a child, eventually joining the “Society of Friends,” known as the “Quakers,” who opposed slavery and pursuits like singing in public.

Miss Greenfield had taught herself instruments like the harp and piano, but found that few music teachers would take her on as a pupil. In segregated America, many White families refused to send their children to classes taught by someone who would teach “coloured” students.

But Miss Greenfield practiced and performed when she could at private parties where her talents were encouraged.

In 1851, she had been “discovered” at a private party in Buffalo, New York. After performing on stage and winning rave reviews as the “Black Swan” and “African Nightengale,” she set out on a series of performances in the few upstate New York communities willing to book an unknown African American opera singer.

But in Ogdensburg she demonstrated she was far more than just a novelty act.

She was someone worth seeing again.

On June 2nd, 1852, an Ogdensburg newspaper reported:

“The ‘Swan’s’ second concert, which came off last evening, was quite as largely attended as the first; and we noticed, particularly, that the patronage of those who attended on the former evening was largely drawn upon.

“The same manifestations of delight at the performance of the several artists, were apparent with the audience of last evening, and many who had come to listen for the second time, were inspired with a more accurate appreciation of the “Swan’s” merits. The troupe proceed hence to Burlington. She goes to Europe soon for the purpose of receiving instruction from the best masters.”

When the “Black Swan” came to New York City in March 1853, just nine months after her Ogdensburg performance, to sing at the “Metropolitan,” racists threatened to burn down the theater if she went on stage.

Over 4,000 turned out to see her in Manhattan debut.

Not long after, she was performing at Buckingham Palace before Queen Victoria and receiving instruction from Europe’s top instructors.

When she eventually returned to the U.S., her performances before Europe’s royalty helped her gain entry onto many stages that had previously been denied to her.

In Ogdensburg, a newspaper reviewer wrote of her return to the Maple City for a performance.

By 1857, she had established herself as one of the nation’s top performers, black or white, in the entire U.S., smashing the stereotypes that had kept her out of many concert halls.

But despite her victories over the color bar and the recognition by Ogdensburg concert goers that they might never see anyone of her ability and talent again, the “Black Swan” would always face a special barrier that no operetta could help her cross.

“Miss E. T. Greenfield, perhaps the sweetest singer alive,” the reviewer wrote: “gave a concert at the Eagle Hall in Ogdensburg Sep. 21, 1857. This is her third visit, and if she had white skin, she would be followed by a suit of admirers.”

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Brooklyn Mob Hid Canadian Liquor In Madrid’s Cottage Cheese

First published: February 05, 2015 at 2:16 am
Last modified: February 05, 2015 at 2:16 am

For a Brooklyn gangster like Sam Abramson, Madrid, New York in 1921 must have seemed like a dream come true.

With federal prohibition agents prowling the roads across upstate New York, searching vehicles for Canadian liquor, Sam was convinced that he had found the perfect scheme to safely ship Canadian liquor to New York City.

Two Massena men, Alfred Baxter and Sylvester Planty had leased William Oken’s cheese plant in Madrid.

They had arranged to have Canadian liquour smuggled across the St. Lawrence River to their cheese plant where they carefully packed the whiskey inside cans filled with cottage cheese.

From Madrid, they could ship it to New York where the Brooklyn mobsters could sell it for higher prices than the bathtub gin and homemade beer their competitors were selling in speakeasies and underground saloons.

But Abramson, who would later gain fame and notoriety when he and fellow Brooklyn Jewish mobsters moved to Detroit to join the notorious “Purple Gang” which supplied Canadian booze to Al Capone’s Chicago mob, never reckoned that the St. Lawrence County Sheriff’s Department was hot on his trail.

On April 13, the Potsdam Courier reported that Sheriff’s Deputy Lockwood and his associates had been alerted to the scheme.

They staked out the cheese plant, seized 25 cases of illicit Canadian whiskey, and captured Baxter, Planty, Abramson and Benjamin Kissen, another New York mob associate.

They were arraigned before a justice of the peace at Madrid, pleaded not guilty, waived examination and were held for the grand jury which meets at Canton in May.

Baxter and Abramson were held on $1,000 bail each and Planty and Kissen on $500 bail each. They furnished bail.

The authorities had received a tip that liquor was being brought to the cheese factory of William Oken.

Deputy Sheriff Lockwood and his assistants concealed themselves near the factory and waited. At about 10:30, the car arrived.

The officers waited until the men began to unload the liquor and then they closed in on the occupants. In the car were Baxter, Planty and John Vail.

In the factory were Abramson and Kissen. These two came to unload the car.

Baxter was the driver of the machine and he left the wheel and attempted to start the engine.

The officers, however, drew their revolvers and ordered him to throw up his hands, which he did. They then placed the handcuffs on him.

While this was going on the other two men escaped. Planty and Kissen were later arrested on the streets of Madrid village.

Abramson escaped without any overcoat and very thinly clad. His criminal enterprise dreams had become a nightmare as the New York City man wandered around all night around the Madrid countryside. Friday morning he appeared at a farm house near Madrid village and hired a man named Hugh Arnold to drive him for $7 to Massena.

There is no lockup in Madrid and Deputy Sheriff Lockwood and his men sat up all night in the hotel office guarding Planty and Kissen.

While the arrest of Planty and Kissen was being made, Baxter, who was wearing the handcuffs, jumped from the car’ and escaped from the officers. He also wandered around all night, coming towards Massena.

During his travels, he came through a cemetery where he sawed the handcuff chain on the top of a gravestone. His wrists were badly cut and bruised when he smashed the cuffs on the same stone. He arrived in Massena some time Friday morning and was arrested by Chief of Police B. J. Demo and taken back to Madrid where arraignment was made.

Two years later, Abramson and several other Brooklyn mobsters moved to Detroit where they joined Detroit’s notorious “Purple Gang,” which was later linked to the St. Valentine’s Day massacre and other atrocities.

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War On Prostitution In Ogdensburg, Gouverneur: Tales From the Oswegatchie Delta

First published: January 29, 2015 at 1:12 am
Last modified: January 29, 2015 at 1:36 am

Despite Ogdensburg’s campaign to rid the city of prostitution, the Dec. 21st edition of the Ogdensburg News in 1900 showed that “houses of ill repute” were still serving their customers in Ogdensburg’s Second Ward.

Headlines reported:

FIRE IN THE

TENDERLOIN

DISTRICT

Furniture and Trunks

Thrown Out of Windows,

and General

Pandemonium

Reigned

A barn belonging to Mr. Merridew, on Main Street, was totally destroyed by fire at 3:30 o’clock’ this morning.

George Roe, who with his family occupies the house, was awakened early this morning by the cries of Fire ! Fire ! Fire!

Mr. Rowe ran to the window and saw the barn afire. He rushed out of the house and immediately sent in an alarm. The firemen quickly responded and worked hard to save the property adjoining the Merridew premises. The fire was in the tenderloin district and a number of the houses were on fire and it looked for awhile as if the entire district would be cleaned out. All the prostitutes in the houses were throwing out their trunks and furniture and general pandemonium reigned for a while.

After the firemen got control of the blaze, order was again restored, and the crowd that congregated helped get the articles that were thrown out back in the houses.

A horse valued at $100 was in the barn, when the fire started, but was gotten out, although badly burned. Mr. Roe lost his hack and a set of double harnesses.

The loss is covered by insurance.

Of course, Ogdensburg was not the only community where the world’s oldest profession flourished.

The Watertown Times reported in its Jan. 27th, 1905 edition reported that Gouverneur’s efforts to drive its houses of ill repute out of business were being fought by its most famous female entrepreneur.

Madame Viola Blair argued that the charges of keeping a disorderly house against her ought to be dropped because she did not technically own them.

Viola’s attorney, H. Walter Lee, argued that his client was actually selling the houses where the young ladies plied their trade.

The “workers” were paying fees monthly to Mrs. Blair as monthly payments for the sale of the houses, the attorney argued, telling the court that the verdict ought to be set aside.

Mrs. Blair testified in answer to the clerk’s questions that she was 40-years-old and that she was born in Virginia. She said she had pleaded guilty three times before to keeping a disorderly house and had paid fines.

Her attorney, Mr. Lee, then addressed the court on her behalf and said that four years ago his client was indicted and pleaded guilty to keeping a house of ill fame at Gouverneur and that she was then fined by Judge Swift, who gave her to understand that if she was again convicted of that crime he would impose a sentence other than a fine. He said that Mrs. Blair returned to Gouverneur and was confronted with a condition, not a theory. She had on her hands two pieces of property, “The Willows” and the “Yellow House.”

Their reputation was such that no decent people would rent them and the only way she

could get any income from them was to rent them for immoral purposes. She consulted three attorneys in Gouverneur and was advised by them that by entering into a contract for the sale of the properties, such at that proven in evidence yesterday, she could successfully evade the law. She had placed her trust in the contract and supposed she was acting within the law.

District Attorney Ferris said in reply that the woman owned several houses there and had them all filled with girls and was receiving as high as $50 a month ($600 a year) for what was to all intents and purposes rent for the houses, since the contract price was too great that the persons to whom they were contracted could never pay for them. He said that the woman had been repeatedly convicted of keeping a house of ill fame and that she was a common prostitute.

This amused Viola and she exclaimed with virtuous indignation. “I am not a common prostitute. I am a married woman.”

Mr. Ferrand said he had a copy of the record of conviction showing her to be guilty of that crime.

The court sentenced the defendant to serve six months in the county jail.

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Ogdensburg’s 1899 Crusade Against ‘Gutter Nymphs’

First published: January 22, 2015 at 1:48 am
Last modified: January 22, 2015 at 1:48 am

The thundering headline on the front page of the Saturday, Feb. 18, 1899 edition of the Ogdensburg News announced a major victory in the city’s moral crusade.

“GUTTER

NYMPHS

ARRESTED

And Arraigned Before Acting Recorder McRostie

And Placed Under Suspended Sentence”

For Ogdensburg’s most enterprising businesswomen, the turn of the century offered little in the way of respect for practitioners of the world’s oldest profession.

In the late 1890s and early 1900s, the Maple City had three groups of women who sold themselves to make a living.

For those who could afford it, the city had various “houses of ill repute,” where prostitutes serviced wealthier clients under the direction of a manager who operated the business and collected the fees.

The operators, who ran the businesses were sometimes men, and sometimes women, who would lease the building, recruit the staff and collect the money for the girls.

But if the house got raided, the operators could face hefty fines that could be as much as $100 to $250 during an era when young women who worked 54-hour work weeks at Ogdensburg’s mills were lucky if their seamstress skills could earn them $12 to $24 a week.

A second group of Ogdensburg prostitutes worked the streets and bars, some of them soliciting clients in the city’s numerous commercial areas like Ford, Isabella, Lake and Main Streets.

A particularly loathesome group were “family” run businesses whose male owners often put both wives and daughters to “work.”

At the turn of the century, it was not unusual for city police to arrest a few streetwalkers almost every month to demonstrate their efforts to clean up the commercial areas.

But on Feb. 18th, 1899, the editors of the Ogdensburg News were patting themselves on the back for their efforts to force the city to crack down on prostitution after a series of raids by city police.

“As a result of a crusade started by the NEWS sometime ago, much has been accomplished,” the editors wrote in a front page article. “The city treasury is the richer by $125. Madame Dunnlgan, the “Queen of the Demi Monde,” has been arrested, fined $150, compelled to close her three houses of prostitution and is placed under suspended sentence. Eva Lewis, alias “La Barr,” was fined $160 and given three days to get out of town, and if found in the city limits after, to be sent over the road.

Fanny Clark arrested and fined $125, and promised to reform. This is a very creditable showing in a short time, and the police are now after the street walkers, or solicitors, as they are called.

Two of these characters, one Mary L. Daniels and Kate Thrasher, were arrested late Thursday evening, and was brought before Acting Recorder McRostie yesterday morning They were placed under suspended sentence and warned that if arrested on similar charge again they would be sentenced to jail.

“This soliciting business has been going on for years, and it is high time to rid the city of these solicitors, If all characters of this type were sentenced to Canton Jail for six months twice a year, the city might soon be rid of them. As soons as the bauds understand that the officials mean business, Ogdensburg will cease to be a mecca for moral outcasts.”

Despite the initial victories of the newspaper’s moral crusade, the readers of the News discovered within a year that some businesses are not so easy to run out out of town.

In the Dec. 8th, 1900 edition of the News, readers learned that Ogdensburg’s Finest were continuing their efforts to wage war against immorality, especially illicit family-owned businesses that forced mothers and their own daughters to sell themselves.

The headline reported:

Found Woman

Under The Bed

Wife Enters The Jail Her

Husband Is About To Leave

“A few weeks ago, the police were anxious to secure the arrest of Mrs. George Bushy. She left town, however, before the raid was made upon her house. She went to Flackville at the time, but so long as she remained away from Ogdensburg, the department was satisfied. The country air did not, however, appear to agree with her, and like the moth and the flame, she came back to the city. Yesterday, the police learned that she was in a house in the Fourth Ward with a couple of men. A couple of officers entered the house, and after considerable searching, found the woman hiding under the bed. Being unable to induce her to come out, they lifted the bed over and then escorted her to the police station.

“She was subsequently sentenced to five months at Canton for prostitution.

“Her husband, George Bushy, has just about completed serving a sentence of five months in the same institution, so it is not likely that there will be a family reunion on Christmas, especially as one daughter was sent to the Hudson House of Refuge (a reform school for young women between the ages of 15 and 30) about a week ago, and the other daughter is in the city jail awaiting trial on the same charge.

“The elder daughter, Emma, was married a few weeks ago to William Andrews, a blacksmith. A few days after she was gathered in by the police when the raid on the house was made. On account of her recent marriage and promises to turn over a new leaf, she was allowed to go upon suspended sentence.

“A few days after, however, she ran away from her husband, joined her mother at Flackville, and with her, returned to the city. She is a young girl and may also be sent to Hudson.

James E. Reagen is a former managing editor of The Journal and Advance News. He is the author of “Warriors of La Presentation” and “Fort Oswegatchie.” He is currently employed by the New York State Senate.

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