A Timeline of Local UFO Sightings

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Local History Index @ Steele Memorial Library

Is there anything a librarian likes better than a look in an old card catalog? Maybe dresses with pockets, but it’s close. An Elmira native, and a past library volunteer, it wasn’t until I began working here 7 years ago that I found the old card catalog in the Genealogy & Local History section of the Steele Memorial Library was an index to Elmira newspaper articles from the 1920s to the mid-1990s, when the catalog went online. (Yes, the news index also went online and is searchable in StarCat!)

With the pandemic still in full swing after a year, and the library noticeably more quiet, I find my time is a little bit more free. With zoom fatigue a real thing, programming had to change as well. Instead of hoping to trap people for an hour in a zoom purgatory, I made this article to be read at one’s leisure. I hope you enjoy this dip into the old card catalogs* as we explore a timeline of UFO sightings in the Chemung County area. At the end of the article I will recap the search strategies used in order to compile the information.

All of the incidences reported are from the Elmira Star Gazette unless otherwise noted.

  • September 18, 1942: “Parachute Reported Near Welles Bridge; Search Proves Futile.” On Welles Bridge on Rte. 17 between Horseheads and Big Flats. At least 7 people report an object falling at the speed of a parachute that looked like a clouded moon with one side cut off falling in the sky. Police were notified and officers from Corning, State police from Watkins Glen and Ithaca, and the FBI searched the area. All off-duty guards at the eclipse Plant were called on duty at 1:45am that evening. Two planes circled in an air search as well. They looked for a parachute that might be caught in a tree or for spots on the ground that might look as if they were burned. Nothing was found.

    This seems like a huge response. Could this be the first UFO sighting?

  • July 7, 1947: “Towanda Woman Sees ‘Saucers.” Mrs. A.C. Smith saw two flying saucers hovering 20 feet off the ground. She described them as ‘saucers of intense light’ of about 6-8 inches in diameter and did not appear to be solid.

  • July 9, 1947: “Reading Rd. Folk Report Seeing ‘Flying Saucer.'” Mr & Mrs. William F. Isley of Reading Rd, Watkins Glen were on the porch one evening and at first thought they saw a shooting star. “The whirling object was as round as a pie plate and left a shower of sparks in its wake. It was right over Seneca Lake.”

  • January 8, 1948: “‘Saucers’ Just Applesauce, Final Report of Air Force.” In the first of many published official denials, this article reports that the U.S. Air Force reports ‘not a shred of credible evidence has been produced in two years of investigation.’ The Air Force explains the sightings as 1. Misinterpretation f various conventional objects 2. A mild form of mass hysteria, or 3. Hoaxes.

  • April 8, 1950: “We Finally get Into the Act: Crude ‘Saucer’ Planted Near Horseheads.” Speaking of hoaxes, a cardboard disc, silvered with aluminum paint, 4 feet in diameter, was fond on the Douglass Farm in Horseheads on Breesport Rd. On the top of the saucer was an American-made radio tube. The FBI was notified.

    Elmira Star Gazette, 8 April 1950. Horseheads Police Chief Marcus V. Dilmore (Right) inspects the disk with the aid of farm-owner Royal Douglass.
  • April 17, 1952: “Seen Any Sights in the Sky? Air Force, CAA Want to Know if You Do.” Now that Sightings have increased nationwide, the Air Force is re-investigating UFO sightings. The night before, April 16 1952, A Pine City woman notified the paper of a red glow appearing in a northerly direction from Elmira appeared red and looked like a big star. Then she said it was south of Elmira and might be over Waverly. The Chemung County Airport said they could not see the glow but that it wasn’t a plane. Captain Robert J. McDougall at the Sampson Air Force Base (on the East Side of Seneca Lake) says that the public is invited to share their reports, and that these reports will be investigated.

  • July 15, 1952: “Hornell Spies Object in Sky.” Several people in Hornell and Emporium, PA saw something drifting in the sky, saying it looked like “an old-fashioned flying saucer” or “metallic and cone-shaped.” The weather bureau at the Buffalo Airport said it was probably a weather balloon which was put in the air that day.

  • July 31, 1952: “Plane Spotter at Horseheads Sees ‘Saucer.” Mrs. Llewellyn Moss of E. Franklin St, Horseheads, was on duty as a Civil Defense Air Spotter at the Moss Hill Post when she saw a “large silver ball” in the sky. It “traveled from the northwest to northeast and resembled a pancake. It reappeared 20 minutes after first being sighted.” This local sighting came on the tails of a July 20 sighting over Washington by “eight experienced CAA radar operators and technicians manning the air route traffic control center over the National Airport who tracked 7-10 unidentifiable and mysterious objects performing strange gyrations in the skies in a 30 mile radius above Washington.” The objects were confirmed to not be aircraft and the radar was confirmed to be working correctly. The sighting was also confirmed by radar at Andrews Air Force Base. It was described as “a good-sized light, yellow to orange in color. At first it looked like a great big star. Then it began to move in a manner which made you realize it couldn’t be a star.”

    For more information about Civilian Air Spotters and the Ground Observer Corps of WWII, go to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ground_Observer_Corps

  • August 1, 1952: “Air Force Sends Jets to Investigate.” A rash of reports of unidentified flying objects occurred around Chemung County. Mrs. Charles Blodgett of Horseheads and her son Charles were on duty as civil air defense spotters at Moss Hill. First they heard a sound that sounded like a jet engine, and then they saw three round silvery objects flying. Mrs. Blodgett said they were “disc-shaped and shiny with a little blister or projection on one side.” She described their movement as that one would appear suddenly, travel across the sky at a great rate of speed while rotating counter-clockwise and then disappear. A truck driver saw the objects and stopped to assist the Blodgetts as they called in their report.

    Philo Nichols, a Horseheads farmer at Tompkins Corners said he was working on a barn when he “heard a shrill whistle and saw six strange objects traveling through the sky in pairs. ‘They looked like big bugs and were higher than any plane I ever saw. They appeared to be just under the sun.” They came from Millport, circled for about 10 minutes, and then traveled towards Beaver Dams. The objects stopped dead in the air for two to three minutes. He thought they might be propelled by propellers at the top of the objects. Two objects would ‘jump ahead a short distance and stop again.” Members of his family also saw the objects and agreed with what he said.

    Other residents on Ridge Rd in Horseheads saw the objects. They described them as “little stars tumbling about and moving in different directions.”

    Mrs. Agnes Houck heard something like thunder and looked up to see “two silver balls with rings around them.”

    E.L. Seachrist of Grand Central Avenue saw two objects “like big balls of cotton as big as dinner plates around 12;45pm and that they were being chased by jet planes.”

    Most Chemung County residents didn’t want to talk about what they saw until they heard that scores of other people had seen the same things.

  • August 1, 1952: “Air Force Study of Flying Saucers Represents About Face Since 1950.” On the same day as the many Chemung County Sightings, the Star Gazette ran a story that amended the Air Force’s previous stance that there was nothing to any UFO sightings at all. “No concrete evidence has yet reached us to either prove or disprove the existence of the so-called flaying saucers. However, there remain a number of sightings which have not been satisfactorily explained. As long as this is true the Air Force will continue to investigate flying saucers reports.”

    As of August 1952, the Air Force had received 432 reports of flying saucers that year.

    August 1,1952 Star Gazette article picturing the CAA staff who all saw UFOs.
  • August 2, 1952: “Interceptors Busy: Findings Unannounced.” “Headquarters of the Air Force Defense Command admits today to being involved in the flying saucer situation.”

  • August 28, 1952: “CD Spotter Reports Shiny Sky Object.” Joseph Hackett and his son Leroy of Balsam St., Elmira, were volunteering as Civil Defense Spotters on Christian Hollow Rd. heard motor sounds around 2:15am. he looked up and described what he saw as “The thing was directly overhead, and was very shiny and very high.” He said it was rocket shaped and had streaks of light from its blunt nose and another from the sharper rear end. He described the sound he heard as a loud purring.

  • December 14, 1952: “‘Flying Saucer’ Images blamed on Wind Eddies.” The Civil aeronautics Administration (CAA) now claims that unidentified objects that showed up on radar were actually wind eddies; dense, swirling sheets of air high in the sky.

  • July 15, 1953: “Air Force Flare–a ‘Flying Saucer?'” The Air Force announces that a powerful flare used for nighttime photography is responsible for some of the reports of flying saucers.

    Elmira Star Gazette, 15 July 1953.
  • August 29, 1953: The “Flying Saucers Researchers” of Brooklyn, NY post an announcement in the Star Gazette asking for information on the many reports of flying saucers in the Elmira area in August of 1952.

  • June 23, 1954: “File Data On ‘Object Sighting.'” Robert Gladke (a licensed commercial pilot) of Carrollton Ave., Elmira reports that he saw an object from his bedroom window. It was traveling southeast about 4 miles from his home at an altitude of 4,000 to 4500 feet. He saw it for about 4 seconds, and estimated it traveled about 3 miles, estimating the speed to be about 2700 miler per hour. It held a straight and level course. it appeared circular in shape, was entirely illuminated, and had no wings.

  • November 9, 1955: The Elmira Star Gazette published a photo of a flying saucer made by Rene Couzinet, a French Inventor.

    Elmira Star Gazette. 9 Nov 1955

  • November 17, 1957: The Elmira Sunday Telegram published another possible explanation for flying saucer sightings. It is a photo of unusual cloud formations that “have been mistaken by the ready-to-believe saucer cult as visitors from another planet.

    The paper reports that sightings happened this week in Illinois, Texas, Georgia, Florida, Nebraska, and Washington D.C. The Air Force assures everyone that they are not flying saucers, but still encourages people to report their sightings.

    Elmira Sunday Telegram: 17 Nov 1957.
  • May 8, 1964: “Did Farmer Meet Spaceman? Yes, Says He-And They Wanted Fertilizer.” Gary Wilcox, a dairy farmer from Newark Valley, NY filed a report with the Sheriff’s office saying that “a spacecraft piloted by man-like creatures who spoke English, landed on his farm about 10 a.m. April 24. The creatures were about four feet tall and robed in a “seamless garment with a full head cover” so as not to reveal their faces. The beings said they were from Mars in their perfect English and that they were “interested in organic materials and were gathering soil and fertilizers.” The farmer offered to get them fertilizer form his barn, but when he turned around, they took off. He said he left the fertilizer in the field and it was gone the next day.

  • August 1, 1964: “Bright Object Spotted Over Elmira.”13 year-old Mel Gridley of W. Water St., Elmira saw a bright object moving south across the sky at the night of August 1. Some say it may have been a weather balloon, but the Chemung County flight service station did not release weather balloons at night.

  • August 4, 1964: An Elmira city chamberlain reported that he saw “two objects moving in opposite directions over Elmira.” He asked that his name not be used in the report.

  • August 18, 1964: “New Area UFO: Red Flare in the…” Sullivanville, Corning, and Painted Post police received several calls about a red flare in the sky around 9:30pm on August 17th. It was about 300-500 feet off the ground, moving southeast over Corning, and appeared to have a small parachute above the light.

  • April 29, 1965: “Greenish Object in Sky Spotted by Two Policemen.” About 10:30pm on April 28, a glowing greenish yellow object fell from the sky. “It was spotted by Horseheads Patrolman Robert G. Waters and Town of Elmira Patrolman James Pirozzolo around the same time.” It seemed to be between Moss Hill Rd. and Lattabrook Rd.

  • March 4, 1965: “What is it? They Chase ‘Light In the Sky.'” Groups of people park at the intersection of Hoffman Hollow Rd. and Murphy Rd. in the town of Chemung to look at mysterious objects that had been there for a few nights.

    Earlier that week, a minister from Wellsburg, Harold Proper Jr., spotted a mysterious glowing object moving slowly across the night sky. His wife and 15-year-old Larry McCormick, a student at Elmira Free Academy, also saw the object.

    Mr. Proper said there wasn’t any sound, the object had very bright lights, like a magnesium light, blinking on where the wings would be on the object.

    They decided to follow the object in the car. They picked up Larry’s friend, Donald Hatch, who was familiar with the area. They followed it down Norway Rd, where it disappeared behind the hills. They then saw a glow against the hillside, and spotted it halfway down a hillside, west of Hoffman Hollow Rd. The lights grew brighter and then dimmed to a bluish cast.

  • May 1, 1965: “Object Seen in Sky.” Teenagers Anthony Haskins and Robert Walker, both of Horseheads, reported seeing a blue and white object streaking over the sky above East Hill.

  • August 20, 1965: “Reports Probed.” Lucinda Mosher of Beaver dams reported that around 10:30pm on August 17, “something that sounded like aircraft appeared to pass very low over her house.” She said she didn’t see a plane but that the area was brilliantly lighted and she heard the sound of an engine. Raymond Cody walked into the woods where the object might have gone, and found a huge footprint. The police officer investigating the case thought that the large footprint was an impression of a large rock that was overturned.

  • April 3, 1966: “Likeness in UFOs: Local, Michigan Sketches Similar.” Frank Mannor, a Michigan farmer, sees an object that looks very much like Larry McCormick’s drawing of the object spotted in Chemung, NY.

    This story is also linked to reports a year and a half earlier of Gary Wilcox, a farmer from Newark Valley, NY. He said that he also saw a similar craft, but that it landed on his property and he talked and joked with the visitors. He said they spoke “smooth English and expressed an interest in fertilizers.” When he turned to get them a bag of fertilizer that they requested, the ship “lifted off the ground and was out of sight in seconds.” Gary Wilcox is described by those who know him as a serious farmer who has no time for publicity and no interest in practical jokes.

  • May 1, 1966: “Seen Any UFOs Lately?” A new organization is formed in Hornell. ELCHEPHI (Electronics-Chemistry-Physics-Scientific-Research-Organization) is formed among 6 high school students to investigate sightings of UFOs using the scientific method. James Baker, club president, said that “ten out of fifteen sightings made in the Hornell area since last August seem to have been bona fide visitors from outer space.”

  • November 23, 1966: “Bogus, but ‘UFO’ is Intriguing.” Reports come into the police of a UFO in a field in Webb Mills, NY. Most of the group of onlookers who gathered stayed on the side of the road, but one person in a Jeep rode over the field to get a closer look. When the Jeep left, the object disappeared. The object was then sighted in the Rt. 328 mall opposite of Pine City, NY. This time, onlookers surrounded it. It was determined to be built of two discarded furnace domes. mounted on three wooden legs, and painted green. The lights were small flashlight bulbs and the colors of the lights were created by colored plastic. Officer O’Dell loaded the UFO into his patrol car. It was determined that some youths from Webb Mills had built another, smaller UFO a few months earlier and had planted it in the same field.

  • December 12, 1966: “‘Space Express’ Bypassing Earth?” A report from a talk given by Dr. Dan Q. Posin at Alfred University states that many scientists believe that “interplanetary flights are taking place within our galaxy but they seriously doubt that any such flights are being made to the planet Earth.”

  • November 23, 1967: “Reports Show Twin Tiers Not Immune to UFO Sightings.” The Star Gazette reports that “in the last few years, there have been more than 250 witnesses to nearly 50 UFO sightings reported. Of these 50 UFO sightings, one has been reported as a weather balloon, and two others are assumed to have been meteors.” UFO sightings were “consistent throughout the summer and fall in Newfield. Dozens of residents have described various objects – stationary red lights, flashing green lights, white glows and lights in triangular pattern.”

    This article mentioned many local UFO sightings, many of which I have found and included in the timeline. I could not find mentions beyond this article of the following occurrences:

    • April 30, 1965: a 2am sighting in Westfield.
    • August 21, 1965: a sighting by 3 Hornell men.
    • August 28, 1965: a sighting in Horseheads and Elmira.
    • April 22, 1966: Sightings all along the eastern United States, including Elmira. Plattsburgh, NY had the most.
    • June 27, 1967: Sighting in Blossburg.
    • September 3, 1967: a local Elmira sighting.
  • December 1, 1968: “UFOs Seen Again, Latest Sighted in Caton-Lindley Area.” John Thomas of Caton Center, his wife Myrtle, and their landlady Mrs. Clara Conklin saw a bright object in the sky. It hovered for about half-an-hour. Mr. Thomas saw something similar earlier in the week. he “said it changed shapes, first appearing as oblong and then becoming long and narrow…it was huge, had a bright steady red light in front and emitted a streaked bluish exhaust.”

    Mr. Thomas also said that earlier in 1968, he “was driving home from Corning on Rt. 225 when he spotted an aerial object approaching him with three oblong lights…A few minutes later, something bumped the roof of his car, his ignition went dead and the car lights dimmed. He said that he heard a humming noise and saw a long, wing-shaped tan object.”

    When he got home he noticed there were black marks on his car roof, and that he was suffering a terrible headache.

  • January 9, 1969: “UFO Sightings Reported.” Late on Jan 8th, many telephone calls came into the Star gazette offices reporting a UFO sighting. The Chemung County Airport thought it was an approaching plane from Binghamton that kept its landing lights on.

    Larry Burbage of Horseheads said the “plane had already come in for its landing…from looking at the lights the object exhibited it appeared ‘sort of circular.’ He said it appeared suddenly like ‘turning a light on.'” It shone with instense red, light orange, and blue colors.

    Mrs. Joseph Pierce, of Church St, and her child were at the Fairgrounds. Henry Doane, also of Church St, saw it and remarked on its red light and that it “dropped a parachute type object over East Hill.” The object moved very fast, and “up and out of sight” to the Southeast.

  • April 6, 1970: “Finger Lakes UFOs – Comets or Jets?” Sightings reported of UFOs along the Finger Lakes were dismissed as sightings of Bennett’s Comet.

    Photo of Bennett’s Comet. The Times Herald, Port Huron MI. 15 April 1970.
  • October 19, 1973: “UFO Bug Strikes Tiers With Sighting Count at 2.”

    Mrs. George Reynolds of Athens PA saw a white object with a long tail streaking across the sky at dusk. She had previously seen strange objects in the sky in Sacramento, California, and recognized this object as similar to what she saw then.

    Linc Howe, a farmworker in Owego, NY saw a “large, circular, spinning, noiseless, and flashing red and green marker lights” right over the barn, like it had landed on top. Tioga County Sheriff’s Deputy Edward R. White investigated the incident, and came upon two beagles in a nearby field “‘barking their minds out’ at nothing he could see.” Howe also found that after the incident, 5 cows were missing, thought they did turn up a little later.

  • October 19, 1973: “Expert in Corning Shoots Down New UFO Reports.” The former head of the Project Blue Book Study of the US Air Force now resides in Corning, NY. Project Blue Book was cancelled in 1969 after the Air Force ruled that UFOs didn’t pose a threat. The Project investigated 12,000 sightings since 1947. He said “Ten percent of the sightings between 1947-1969 were never explained…but this was chiefly due to vague descriptions and reports that made investigations impossible.”

  • April 21, 1983: “UFOs: It’s that time.” News reports say to expect an increase in UFO sightings, which happens every 19 months as Venus draws closer to Earth.

  • January 28, 1987: “More UFOs and a sighting of three Giants.” Harley Marlatt of Knoxville, Tioga County, PA (about an hour west of Elmira) says “I saw this strange looking thing coming slowly over the steep hill in front of my home…I could see very plain the outline of the plane and could hear the engines. it was all decked out with colored light all around the wings and fuselage.”

    Others also reported seeing a strange object but didn’t hear the engines.

    (The Giants were three members of the Giants football team the day before they won the Superbowl. Elmiran Marty Chalk took a picture with them while he was in California to see the big game.)

  • May 23, 1988: WBNG Action news investigates to see if UFOs are in the Twin Tiers.

    Elmira Star Gazette, 23 May 1988.
  • June 16, 1989: “Reports of UFOs raise ruckus around Cornell University.” On May 20, 1989, a cloudy, rainy Ithaca night obscuring the full moon, several Cornell students saw something “weird.”

    Beverly Gaede saw a “semi-circle of white lights.” The driver in front of her did as well as slowed way down. She pulled over and watched it for about 10 minutes.

    75 callers to local police reported seeing “a large low flying object or objects – perhaps eight aircraft flying in formation.”

    But the Tompkins County airport said that no aircraft were cruising through the local airspace, and there was no military activity.

    John Orak and his wife Stephanie saw it. John compared it to a blimp, saying “it turned so gracefully. If it was a formation, what could turn that slow?”

    Other callers said they saw “five to eight white lights and an oval or oblong shape.”

    It was compared to a shield. Some said it had red and green lights. Other heard some humming.

  • November 30, 1996: “UFO Network looks at local sightings.” There were several sightings in the night sky along the east coast the night of November 16, 1996. The Mutual UFO Network compiled all the reports and added likely sightings into a database.

    Someone in the Waverly area called authorities to report seeing a “a greenish light falling from the sky” near the Lowman Crossover.

    A resident of Burdett saw something “with a white and blue light with a tail running through the sky.”

    An Elmira man saw a “ball of red light and later a white light.

    The sightings on November 16 could have been due to the annual Leonid meteor shower.

  • December 15, 2013: “Corning native finds career in UFOs.” Cheryl Costa, of Corning NY, began a blog about UFO sightings in New York State for the Syracuse Times. In this article, she shares her experience as a girl of 12 or 13: “We were in Savona visiting relatives and coming down a hill in that area, and it was a bright August afternoon. I was looking to the west and there was a bright ball in the sky, and it wasn’t the evening star at 3pm. It sat and hovered for 20 minutes.”

    Visit her column here: https://www.syracusenewtimes.com/category/blogs/new-york-skies-ufo-blog/

  • April 28, 2020: (New York Times) “The Pentagon Released U.F.O. Videos.”

    “The Department of Defense confirmed what seekers of extraterrestrial life have long hoped to be true: They’re real.

    At least, these three videos are. What the videos show? The government isn’t so sure there.”

    Link to full article:

    After all this time, though this article doesn’t foretell a breakthrough, the Air Force, instead of dismissing UFO reports as “Applesauce,” they admit they don’t know what they are.

*Research in this article started with the old card catalog, but it didn’t end there.

After that, I searched the newspaper database located within the library catalog Starcat. Local History news articles began to be entered into StarCat in 1995 and 1996. Many local obituaries are also located here.

To search the newspaper database, enter “Include – newspapers” under “Material Type” on the left hand side of the screen.

I also made use of the subscription site of the Star Gazette Archives. Even if you don’t pay for a membership, you can still search the database and write down the citations to look up later on library microfilm. But newspapers.com, which has many US newspapers digitized, and the Star Gazette archives, which includes the Star Gazette and Advertiser, are a treasure trove of information and an invaluable tool for any genealogy or local history researcher.

The library also has a newspaper database under its Resources tab. The path to find the newspaper databases is as follows:

ccld.lib.ny.us>Resources>Databases & E-Resources>Newspapers. You can search Gale OneFile and New York State Newspapers for free through your local library.

Search terms are an important consideration when searching newspapers. The term UFO didn’t show up until about the 1960s in the newspapers. Earlier reports all used the term flying saucer. Other articles referenced neither UFO or flying saucer, but instead used terms like “light in the sky,” “meteor,” “weather balloon,” or “object.” Even though I had found many articles searching for “Flying saucers” and “UFOs,” there were still some that didn’t show up with those terms, and I am sure there are more articles out there that I missed.

Additionally, the Steele Memorial Library has two reference text resources for people interested in UFOs:

UFO Sightings Desk Reference: United States of America 2001-2015. According to this book, Chemung County had 31 UFO sightings between 2001-2015, with 11 in 2009 alone. This book gives county by county breakdown for each state of UFO sightings, as well as a list of the top ten counties in each state, and the shapes of UFOs reported.

The UFO Encyclopedia. The UFO Encyclopedia provides everything you many want to know about UFOS, with an in-depth definition of terms. For example, did you know that the term “Foo Fighters” refers to mysterious lights and objects, aka unconventional aerial phenomena, seen in the air in World War II? Pilots thought it was strange new secret weapons employed by the Axis powers. But, it wasn’t!

Newspaper search on starcat

The safe place in Elmira: A tale of travel in an age of racism

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Earlier this year, we shared a story about the first automobile in Elmira. The car was purchased in 1899 and was huge news for the area. By 1919, there were 4,000 cars in Chemung County. Those numbers kept growing, and soon the United States was firmly in the age of the automobile. Never before had so many people been so able to travel. More and more people were ready to hit the road with their families to visit different places and go on vacation with their families.

In racially divided America with jim crow laws and sundown towns, it was more dangerous for African Americans to travel than whites. Through word of mouth, news spread about safe places to visit. Then a Postal Carrier based in Harlem named Victor Hugo Green decided to compile the potentially life-saving information in printed form, and the Negro Motorist Green Book was born. The first issue was devoted to areas friendly to African Americans in the New York City area, and in subsequent years expanded to include many cities across the country.

“The Negro Motorist Green Book was a guidebook for African American travelers that provided a list of hotels, boarding houses, taverns, restaurants, service stations and other establishments throughout the country that served African Americans patrons.

Victor H. Green published it annually from 1936 to 1966 when discrimination against African Americans was widespread. During this period, African Americans faced racial prejudice, price gouging and physical violence while traveling around the United States. The information included in The Negro Motorist Green Book helped increase their safety and treatment.”*

In 1939, three homes in Elmira were listed as safe and welcoming to African American travelers. These were the homes of Mrs. J.A. Wilson of 307 E. Clinton St., Mrs. A.L. Pierce of 654 Dickinson St., and Mrs. G. Brooks at 516 High St.

From 1940-1942, and 1946-1947 (publication of The Green Books was suspended from 1942-1946 due to WWII), the only entry for Elmira was for the Tourist Home of J.A. Wilson. Tourist homes were private homes that were open to travelers.

The home of John A. and Almaria Wilson was purchased by the couple in 1934 a few months before John passed away. Almaria was now a widow raising their child Anna Mae (listed in census records as Etta Mae). The Wilson Tourist Home was located at 307 E. Clinton, in the area now surrounded by Finn Academy and Libertad. Before Libertad, the housing complex was called Jones Court, named for John W. Jones of Elmira. This housing complex was built on an area which was formerly the African American residential neighborhood of Elmira.

John Wilson was born to Alexander and Elizabeth Wilson of 423 1/2 Standish St., Elmira, in 1883. He worked for 38 years as a chauffeur for the Dix W. Smith family of Elmira. Both he and his wife Almaria were active members of the Douglass Memorial AME Zion Church. He is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery, Elmira.

Almaria Wilson was born around 1877 in Virginia. An 1880 census reveals a 2-year old “Elmira” Allen living with her parents and 5 older siblings in Otter, Bedford County, Virginia. Her father, Aaron Allen, was a farmhand and had been born around 1832. Elmira’s mother was listed as Rachel Allen, born in Virginia around 1835. Bedford County, Virginia is located in the West Central region of Virginia and before the Civil War, had the largest population of people enslaved in Virginia, an estimated 10,176 people. Almaria passed away on the 9th of October in 1952. She is also buried at Woodlawn Cemetery.

Where 307 E. Clinton would have been located.

From 1948-1952, there were no entries in the Green Book for Elmira at all.

In 1953, this changed with the inclusion of Green Pastures. Located at 670 Dickinson St., the club was also open as a Tourist Home for travelers. The owners of Green Pastures at this time were Ed Hodges and Beatrice Johnson. Green Pastures was listed in the Green Book until the Book ceased publication in 1966, after the Civil Rights Amendment of 1964 ended segregation in public places.

Green Pastures moved to its final location on Madison Ave sometime between 1967 and 1970. Howard Coleman, who many of us knew, always helped out around the club and was first mentioned as the proprietor in the Star Gazette in 1970.

1953.
1954
1955
1956
1957
1958
1959

nypl.digitalcollections.089a5a60-848f-0132-a7aa-58d385a7b928.042.w
1961
1966

Resources Consulted

The Negro Motorists’ Green Book. Select years online at NYPL:

1946: accessed at LOC https://www.loc.gov/item/2016298176/

1953: The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1953. https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/2bc86d90-92d0-0132-e771-58d385a7b928

1954: Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division, The New York Public Library. “The Negro Travelers’ Green Book: 1954” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1956. https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/3c85ba30-9374-0132-9292-58d385a7b928

1955: Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division, The New York Public Library. “The Negro Travelers’ Green Book: 1955 International Edition” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1955. https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/2a146d30-9381-0132-f916-58d385a7b928

1956: Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division, The New York Public Library. “The Negro Travelers’ Green Book: Fall 1956” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1956. https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/9c454830-83b9-0132-d56a-58d385a7b928

1957: Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division, The New York Public Library. “The Negro Travelers’ Green Book: 1957” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1957. https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/089a5a60-848f-0132-a7aa-58d385a7b928

1958: accessed via LOC: https://lccn.loc.gov/53030287

1959: Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division, The New York Public Library. “The Negro Travelers’ Green Book: 1959” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1959. https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/89ed7cc0-8486-0132-e7b6-58d385a7bbd0

1961: Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division, The New York Public Library. “The Travelers’ Green Book: 1961” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1961. https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/5ae34320-942e-0132-7630-58d385a7bbd0

1962: Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division, The New York Public Library. “Green Book: 1962” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1962. https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/786175a0-942e-0132-97b0-58d385a7bbd0

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division, The New York Public Library. “Travelers’ Green Book: 1966-67 International Edition” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1966. https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/27516920-8308-0132-5063-58d385a7bbd0

Iszard’s Tea Room and Brown Bread Recipes

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Many Elmirans remember visiting the Iszard’s Department store and eating lunch in their tea room. Periodically a conversation comes up in Elmira groups about Iszard’s recipe for their famous brown bread. We have looked in our local cookbooks and have selected some recipes. Other recipes have been shared online in the groups. We have compiled some for you, try one or all of them, and let us know, which one comes the closest?

Cook’s World Tour Around Elmira, Elmira YWCA, 1950.

Quantity Recipes: From Meals for Many. (Cornell Extension Bulletin 477) by Marion A. Wood & Katharine W. Harris. 1966.

If you know who submitted this recipe, please let us know so we can give them credit!

Recipe submitted on facebook by Mary R. Yusko

100 years ago: A baby born in a NY prison concerns the nation.

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A young mother with an Elmira connection is convicted and imprisoned for murder. She pleads for clemency for her infant daughter Gloria, and the nation wonders — should a murderer be freed to raise a child?

–(Hutchinson Gazette, Hutchinson Kansas, Fri, Feb 25, 1921).

According to local papers, Baby Gloria’s mother, Pearl Beaver O’Dell, once worked as a domestic servant in Elmira. When she was 15, she became involved with a 19 year old named Edward Knelp. Pearl stated that he drugged the chocolates he had given her and subsequently took advantage of her. He then didn’t marry her as he had promised. When Pearl met James O’Dell soon after, he asked her to marry him. She accepted his proposal, but she felt duty-bound to disclose of her previous involvement with Mr. Knelp. James O’Dell became enraged. He confronted Edward with Pearl in tow. Three weeks after Pearl’s marriage to James O’Dell, in an incident the papers called “The Honeymoon Murder,” the couple assaulted and ultimately murdered Edward Knelp, leaving his body in a culvert in Rochester NY. All parties were very young. Edward Knelp was 23 when he died. His murderers were 18 and 21.

The case made national headlines. Both Pearl and James tried to take the full blame to save their spouse. But evidence determined that they acted together and both were convicted. James O’Dell was found guilty of First Degree Murder and was sentenced to die at Sing Sing Prison. Pearl was found guilty of Second Degree Murder and was sentenced to 20 years to life at Auburn Correctional Facility.

The Anniston Star (Anniston, Alabama) Mon, Jan 19, 1920.
Pearl O’Dell’s Conviction

While in prison, Pearl gave birth to a baby girl. The rules of the prison stated that children could stay with their mother until the age of 2, but then had to be re-homed outside of the prison. Pearl O’Dell pleaded for clemency in order to raise her daughter, and though perhaps incredible by today’s standards, thousands of Americans agreed. Petitions and pleas to free the mother so the child wouldn’t suffer circulated in the nation’s newspapers after the trial and sentencing.

–(The Richmond Item (Richmond, Indiana) Sat, 26 Feb, 1921).

When the Governor did not release Pearl, the line to adopt “Baby Gloria” was long. In the news article below, it is reported that no fewer than eighteen women were eager to adopt the child. Ultimately, the child was placed in the care of James O’Dell’s mother.

The Wilkes-Barre Record (Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania) – Mon, Apr 24, 1922.

–Star-Gazette (Elmira, New York) 01 Mar 1921.

Though one hundred years too late, I too became curious as to what happened to Baby Gloria. It felt like I had exhausted the newspaper resources, so I turned to the genealogy records available in ancestry Library Edition in order to try to find out what became of the baby. Looking in the Birth Index of New York State, I couldn’t locate a Gloria O’Dell born in 1920. Unable to find a match, I browsed the collection and looked through all babies born with the last name O’Dell in the State of New York that year. The only one that might fit was a child by the name of “Mildred Naomi.” I was interested in this name because the child had been born in Auburn, NY, where Pearl was serving time. On a hunch, I typed “Mildred Naomi O’Dell” into my newspaper search and found that my hunch had been correct. “Baby Gloria” was actually “Mildred Naomi O’Dell.” Before his execution at Sing Sing, James O’Dell had written to Pearl and asked that the child be named “Naomi” after his mother.* Pearl agreed and and changed the child’s name from Gloria to Mildred Naomi. James O’Dell was executed having never met his infant daughter, but was buried with the photograph of her seen below:

The Brooklyn Citizen (Brooklyn, New York) Sat, May 21, 1921.
McKean County Miner (Smethport, Pennsylvania) Thu, May 12, 1921.

In 1930, NY Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt commuted Pearl O’Dell’s sentence. The woman caring for Mildred Naomi had died, and the Governor agreed to free Pearl in order that the child be raised by a relative.

The York Dispatch (York, Pennsylvania) Tue, Dec 23, 1930.
Star-Gazette (Elmira, New York) Tue, Dec 23, 1930.

Additionally, the State of New York agreed to protect the privacy of Pearl and Mildred Naomi, in order that the child not be brought up under the stigma of being the child of two convicted murderers. The genealogical trail grows cold here. Though I could find records before this date, perhaps names were changed to protect the small family’s privacy, and the rest of their lives remain a mystery. Two public family trees on ancestry reported two different death dates for Pearl; one in 1977 and the other in 1990, but both records pointed to different Pearl O’Dells. The records of a different person were attached to the former Pearl Beaver.

A search for the obituary of James O’Dell’s mother also went cold, and was made more confusing by the newspaper reports and public family trees of the O’Dell family. An ancestry family tree listed his mother as Ellen May Fish. One newspaper article lists his mother as “Sarah,” so why does he ask that the child be named “Naomi” after his mother? Still another newspaper article says that he was actually brought up by a Mrs. B.E. Arnold, and spent the rest of his youth in the Children’s Aid Society Boys’ Home in Buffalo, N.Y. His marriage license lists his mother as “unknown.”

The Bangor Daily News (Bangor, Maine) Wed, Dec 24, 1930.

Though the lives of criminals can be very sad, there are often more ways to find your ancestors if they ran afoul of the law. An old saying goes, ” A true gentleman is only in the newspaper three tmes in his life: at his birth, his marriage, and upon his death.” These vital statistics are essential for genealogists tracing their family trees, but don’t give us very much information about who these people were and the stories that governed their lives. The slew of newspaper articles about Pearl and James O’Dell really fleshed out their personalities, and provided a lot of clues to a genealogist. At the same time, the uncertain circumstances of a troubled home life make is nearly impossible to find concrete information about the continuation of the line. This is illustrated by the shifting accounts of the identity of James O’Dell’s mother. You never know what might cause a brick wall, or a genealogical dead end, when searching for family members. In this case, what happened to Pearl and Mildred Naomi after 1930 is shrouded in mystery because of a nationwide effort to show them mercy, and a governor’s commutation and promised state protection of a convicted murderer for the sake of an innocent child.

Once you begin your genealogy research, it is surprising what can be uncovered. The longer you look, the more apparent it becomes that we have people both eminent and infamous in our lines. But the credits of our fore-bearers don’t all transfer to the next generation. You never know the one person in your line who will change the fates of everyone around them. In this case, Pearl and James made some bad choices. The unexpected appearance of an infant ultimately changed Pearl’s life in ways she could not have predicted.


Additional Genealogical Records

NYS Birth Index: “Mildred O’Dell.”
All the O’Dells born in upstate NY in 1920 (NYS Birth Index).
Marriage Record of James O’Dell and Pearl Beaver.
US Federal Census, 1930. Pearl O’Dell, Inmate, Auburn NY.

–Image of Pearl O’Dell: The Anniston Star (Anniston, Alabama). Mon, Jan 19, 1920.

–Image of James O’Dell: McKean County Miner (Smethport, Pennsylvania)Thu, May 12, 1921.

–(I was unable to locate a picture of Edward Knelp.)

The Woodmere Fruit Farms and Pekinese Kennels

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100 years ago, a most interesting lady lived in Hector. Mrs. Harriette Wood-Johnston, a lawyer and leading suffragette, who previously worked in New York City, came home to Hector to run Woodmere Fruit Farm and to breed Pekinese dogs. The 100 acre farm in Schuyler County had 50 acres of vineyards and 4,000 peach and fruit trees. It extended to Seneca Lake towards the west and and had one thousand feet of waterfront. The dogs were sold at prices ranging from $50-$1,000.

Mrs. Harriet Wood-Johnston in 1929.

11 September 1919
Elmira Star Gazette, 23 Feb 1921.
1925, Elmira Star Gazette
Image from page 624 of “The dog book : a popular history of the dog, with practical information as to care and management of house, kennel, and exhibition dogs; and descriptions of all the important breeds” (1906)
Elmira Star Gazette, 19 September 1927

Mrs. Harriette Wood-Johnston’s father fought in the Civil War, her great-grandfather in the War of 1812, and her great-great-grandfather in the Revolutionary War. Her grandparents — Derrick & Hannah Milliman Johnson, and her parents — Rufus Willard and Mary Matthews Johnson, all resided in Hector. It seems that Woodmere Farm, however, was purchased at some point by her husband, William Wood. Her gravestone, obituary, and the 1870 census say Harriette was born in 1865. Her first marriage license and the 1910 Census say she was born in 1872. As a child, she went by the name Hattie.

1870 Census, “Hattie” Johnson.

Harriette Johnson was a graduate of the woman’s law class at New York University and was one of the first women admitted to the Bar. She met Deputy Attorney General, William H. Wood, while she worked as a court stenographer on a case he was arguing. They married in 1903. She and her husband practiced law together in New York City until his untimely death in 1916.

New York Tribune, 05 Dec 1903.
The Buffalo Times, 24 Dec 1903

Tragically, right before Mr. Wood was to tour New York State speaking on behalf of President Wilson in his 1916 presidential campaign, Harriette found William dead in the bathroom, a victim of gas poisoning.

The Buffalo Courier, 21 July 1916

After Mr. Wood passed away, she moved to Hector to run the farm and married Harold Johnston, an ex-British army officer. In order to do so, she had to give up her US citizenship and the right to vote. Though she was glad to leave the rat race, as a pioneering lawyer and suffragette who had spoken across the United States, she viewed the loss of her citizenship as an injustice she didn’t wish others to suffer.

[Poughkeepsie Eagle News, 16 Jan 1920.]

Mrs. Wood-Johnston was active in the Daughters of the Revolution Society. She planned their 1929 National Convention in Watkins Glen, where the Society formally petitioned Congress that the Star-Spangled Banner be officially adopted as the National Anthem of the United States. The New York Chapter of the Daughters of the Revolution also unveiled during that convention a monument in Peach Orchard, Hector, NY to mark the expedition of General Sullivan. After this unveiling, Mrs. Wood-Johnston hosted a reception at her house, followed by lunch at Valois Castle. She had been in talks with Mrs. Calvin Coolidge to attend the convention, but news reports don’t indicate that the former First Lady was able to attend.

Valois Castle was destroyed by fire in 1932

She briefly ran for a spot on the Assembly in 1933, but withdrew from the race without explanation. Could it be perhaps that her citizenship remained revoked?

Elmira Star Gazette, 20 July 1933.

Henry Schleper purchased Woodmere Farm in 1944.

Elmira Star Gazette 06 Sept 1944

Harriette M. Wood Johnston passed away in Hector, NY in 1953 and is buried at the Hector Presbyterian Church Cemetery.

Elmira Advertiser, 01 May 1953

After being a trailblazer in her profession, a leading advocate for the right to vote for women, and then being stripped of her citizenship, I am glad that she was able to find a slice of heaven here in the Finger Lakes region of New York.

Shawnee News-Herald, 12 Jan 1911.

Further Resources: Valois Castle on Seneca Lake .::. Our Finger Lakes History https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5iO-4vbBtGo

“Cho-Cho the Health Clown” comes to Elmira: how a clown got American children healthy again, and the formidable search to find out who he really was.

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I often look to the local papers to find stories of interest to share. Elmira has many local historians, so I try to focus on people. But I couldn’t help but pause on this 1921 headline: Happy Health Clown Coming to Make Merry.

SATURDAY, FEB. 12, 1921. HAPPY HEALTH CLOWN COMING TO MAKE MERRY “Cho-Cho” of the Child Health Organization Will Bring Delight to the Heart of Every Youngster — teaches them how to keep fit physically. He’ll be at the Academy next Saturday. The announcement of the visit of the happy health clown of the Child Health Organization brings delight to the heart of every child. And it should bring gratification to the ‘ heart of every mother. For Cho-Cho teaches the children how to keep fit and how to acquire rich, red blood and the proper weight. And he does it in such a manner that they think health is the most important thing in the world and they vie with each other to acquire it. Probably there are many parents who do not realize that their child’s health is the most important thing in the world that on it depends the future of the race. Nevertheless the Parent-Teachers’ Associations of Elmira in an effort to co-operate with the Child Health Organization and the United States Bureau of Education are presenting Cho-Cho to the children of the public schools here.

I had to know, who was the famous Cho-Cho? it was easy enough to find an image of him. Cornell University and the Library of Congress have good quality images of him available. It was easy to find Cho-Cho mentioned in the papers, but finding out who actually played Cho-Cho proved to be a far greater challenge.

Wearing a harlequin-checked shirt with a ruffled collar, paired with large white bloomers, white stockings, and with his painted face perpetually thrown back into a wide mouthed grin, Cho-Cho is thrilled wherever he goes. He is found weighing children in his first job with the Children’s Health Organization (CHO) in an effort to re-nourish children as America comes out of the Spanish Influenza pandemic of 1918-1920. He tours schools and promotes healthy eating.

How did Cho-Cho come to be? Based on the clown’s own description from an interview in the Tampa Tribune, he was in New York City in 1918 when the Children’s Health Organization asked a booking agency for a clown to weigh children at a milk show. He was the only clown available at the time and got the job. He was such a hit at the milk show, the government had him tour schools across America for the next two years. After the government gig ended, Cho-Cho went solo and continued to tour on his own as the Health Clown. At least, that’s what Cho-Cho said. The real story is a little more complicated.

According to a 2008 book entitled “Children’s Health Issues in Historical Perspective” edited by Cheryl Warsh:

The clown Cho-Cho was trained to “teach health, sugar coated with all the nonsense and fun of the sawdust ring.” The Health Fairy, a public health nurse, told “delightful stories,” and a cartoonist drew “a white loaf of bread into a sour-faced boy,… a brown loaf into a round-faced smiling boy,” and “vegetables weeping great tears because children do not eat them.”

All three travelled to elementary and secondary schools, as well as exhibitions, fairs, and “any place where children were gathered together. A less traditional figure was CHO’s pseudo-professor Happy (played by Clifford Goldsmith), who entertained child and adult audiences with snappy health maxims.

Happy, the Health Fairy, and the cartoonist worked well within the boundaries of CHO’s program, but when the clown who played Cho-Cho began to regard himself “as a real authority on diet, hygiene, and even the morals of childhood,” and deviated from his “carefully learned lines,” the organization had to find a new Cho-Cho.

This reminds me of David Schwimmer’s character on 30 Rock, “Greenzo.” Schwimmer plays an actor named Jared hired to play a character shaped like the earth to support GE’s green initiatives. He’s a huge success, but then Greenzo appoints himself as the highest authority on environmentalism and veers bizarrely off script, threatening his corporate sponsors at GE. I wonder if the writers at 30 Rock got inspiration from the strange story of the Health Clown?

It’s not clear exactly when the original Cho-Cho was replaced. But pictures show that after the first few years, other Cho-Chos were used. They still used the original Cho-Cho into 1922, as I found him pictured in Courtland, Kansas in August 1922.

1920 Cho-Cho
The original Cho-Cho the Health Clown in 1922
Cho-Cho in 1925

Being a genealogist, I thought it might be fun to find out who Cho-Cho the Health Clown really was. A simple search in newspapers.com brought up a famous Cho-Cho, billed as the original Cho-Cho the Clown, who died in California. His name was William Lea, born in 1863, who ran away from Mississippi at age 13 to join the circus and wound up travelling the world. Before Cho-Cho, he was known as Lucifer the Clown. His daughter, Emilie Lea, went on the be a Hollywood and Broadway actress. Cho-Cho passed away in May of 1939.

I found this interesting. The California papers were reporting this as the original Cho-Cho, but made no mention of him being a Health Clown for the nation’s children. Plus, the face paint was different from the other pictures I had of the Health Clown. I was confused. So, I kept searching the newspapers. And it seemed Cho-Cho kept working after his death, as I found news reports of Cho-Cho the Health Clown performing in 1940. The health clown was not William Lea, after all. There were two famous clowns known as Cho-Cho working in the United States at the same time, and apparently many lesser known imitators using the same name.

Finally, I came across a 1936 article in Billboard Magazine. In 1936, When William Lea/Cho-Cho was injured in California and had to have his leg amputated, Billboard learned of Cho-Cho the Health Clown who was a regular in the Tampa Tribune news cycle. Finally, I had proof that these two were separate clowns. But I still didn’t know who Cho-Cho the Health Clown was.

Billboard March 14, 1936

The Tampa Tribune ran a lengthy interview with Cho-Cho the Health Clown in April 1940. He won’t reveal his name, and we learn he registers at hotels as Cho-Cho. We learn, however, that he is a bachelor, born in Philadelphia and living in Palmyra, N.J. He also does not reveal his age. The newspaper reporter guesses he is in his fifties or sixties. We learn that he doesn’t have any money and can’t afford to retire. He came to Tampa, FL to perform for children every year of his long career.

The original Cho-Cho in 1939 in Tampa FL
Cho-Cho in Tampa in 1940

Since he seemed to have a special connection in Tampa, I kept checking the Tampa Tribune for more news on Cho-Cho. Sadly, on September 24, 1943, the newspaper reported his death. Billboard Magazine ran the announcement on October 9, 1943. Cho-Cho passed away July 30, 1932 at the home of his sister, Carrie Humphries, in Philadelphia. Finally, his real name is revealed: Conrad John Denrici of Palmyra, N.J.

Billboard October 9, 1943

Great! Except that, there is no Joseph Conrad Denrici of Palmyra, N.J. I scan census records and city directories online through ancestry.com, but I get no results. I expand to other similar last names like De Rico or Dericci, and again I come up with nothing.

I decide to search for his sister in Philadelphia. I search the 1930 and 1940 census records for Philadelphia and find three women who might be Carrie. I am not sure what the nickname “Carrie” is short for. It could be Carolyn, Caroline, or some other form of the name. I do a wild card search. For the first name, I enter “Carol*”. The asterisk (*) can substitute for up to five letters. I find a Lewis and Carolyn Humphries but her maiden name is revealed as Seitz in the marriage records. Another Carolyn Humphries is widowed and lives with her sister whose last name is “Cartereau.” I double check earlier census records and find that Cartereau is indeed her maiden name. So far nothing that sounds like “Denrici.”

The third entry is Caroline Humphries, married to Walter E. Humphries. Searching marriage records, I learn her maiden name. Finally, I hit pay dirt. Her maiden name is “Henrici.” The Tampa Tribune and Billboard Magazine spelled his name incorrectly.

Now, finding Cho-Cho is easy. Conrad Joseph Henrici was born on January 28, 1862. This would have made him 81 years old at the time of his death in 1943, not in his fifties or sixties as the Tampa Tribune surmised. His father, Karl Henrici was born in Germany, and his mother, Cathar Heintz was born in England. Karl and Cathar were married in Philadelphia on January 1, 1860.

1940 Census record for Conrad Henrici in Palymyra, N.J. Occupation is listed as “Travelling Circus.”

This search illustrates several important lessons when searching for people.

  1. Newspapers are invaluable.
  2. Newspapers are mostly right but sometimes wrong. Older newspapers didn’t have the advantages we have today of centralized information. A newspaper in California could report on the original Cho-Cho, not knowing that on the east coast is another original Cho-Cho. Misprints and misspellings happen, and we can’t guarantee that each reporter and editor had access to the information to correct all mistakes.
  3. A person’s own reporting of his or her life may contain both fact and fiction, as we all want to gloss over some less savory life-defining moments like getting kicked off a national clown tour by the Federal Government.
  4. America has had innumerable clowns named Cho-Cho in the twentieth century.
  5. It is challenging to do genealogical research on people who travelled a lot, such as circus performers. William Lea, the California Cho-Cho, spent much of his life all over the United States and had lengthy stays in Europe and Asia. Unless they achieved some degree of fame, it would be impossible to track family members down who may have run away with the circus.

The original Cho-Cho the Health Clown always stayed passionate about health. He was a lifelong vegetarian and either through necessity or conviction, kept spreading the word about healthy eating to schoolchildren in Tampa into his eighties. Though both Cho-Chos, Mr. Henrici and Mr. Lea, were famous, there wasn’t much money in clowning. I wonder if anyone still remembers Cho-Cho the Health Clown at their school.

UPDATE: Cho-Cho’s performance in Elmira went really well. Here’s a picture:

Cho-Cho, Elmira Star Gazette: 21 Feb 1921.

Cho-Cho performed in front of hundreds of Elmira’s children. Outside, the sidewalks were packed with children who couldn’t get in to the packed auditorium. But, they got into the second performance that day. Margie Smith of Elmira said that he was better than Charlie Chaplin. Agnes Brown said that her brother told her that Cho-Cho wasn’t a real clown, just a men with his face all whited-up. Concerns were alleviated when soon after, a car pulled up to the curb and a clown with red cheeks got out of the automobile and clumsily tripped up the lane carrying a metal scale to weigh Elmira’s undernourished children, and a basket of green vegetables with a saucepan, a coffeepot, and a pint of milk. Both of his performances went well, and as he left, he left these parting words, “Drink plenty of milk and eat all the green vegetables you can, whether you like them or not. They’ll make you strong and healthy. Brush your teeth, take plenty of baths and sleep with the windows open, and Cho-Cho says you will gain half a pound a month”


The Sad and Troubled Life of Maggie Scouten

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Today we return to looking at the lives of everyday people in Elmira. Today’s subject is Maggie Scouten. Her troubles were well documented in the local news. News reports covered her absconding with a married man, her arrests for intoxication and prostitution, and the frequent assaults and robberies committed against her.

Maggie Scouten first appears in Elmira newspapers in 1904. It is not clear where she came from, but a search on one of her purported husbands leads to a Mary Van Scouten in Lockport, NY in 1900. Due to several other newspaper articles in the next decade on charges of bigamy, representing herself as a widow, and an appearance of a John Van Scouten in Elmira, Mary could very well be Maggie.

12 Jul 1900, Buffalo Commercial.

Newspaper articles grow increasingly snarky towards Maggie as her troubles increase. She is sentenced to jail a few times and sent away at least once. A few short years later, she dies alone and without family.

Was she a prostitute? It is not clear. It would be safe to say that she struggled with alcohol abuse. But how could a woman with no husband support herself? It is entirely possible that she turned to sex work in order to make ends meet.

A timeline of her troubles

June 18, 1904: Maggie Scouten posed as Andrew Horn’s wife in Buffalo. He deserted his actual wife and family in Elmira. When Maggie Scouten came back to Elmira, Annie Horn (Andrew’s daughter) pressed charges alleging she was a ‘disorderly person’ and Maggie was placed in police custody. Andrew Horn was arrested in Buffalo for abandoning his family.

18 June 1904

July 13, 1904: Due to a technicality, Maggie Scouten’s sentence of 100 days in prison for prostitution and vagrancy is overturned. It was determined that she was not properly sentenced, and she was not a vagrant. She had pled not guilty but did not receive a trial.

13 Jul 1904

Sept 3, 1904: The news contains a report that George Moser has stolen $15 from Maggie’s bedroom. He says he was an invited guest and he was asked to enter Maggie Scouten’s residence. Maggie Scouten says he took her bag containing $15. The case was not deemed strong enough and George was released from custody.

03 Sept 1904

Dec 7, 1905: Maggie Scouten appears in court to dispute an arrest and charge of intoxication. The news reports that she has returned after an absence of several months, and last year (1904) was a frequent offender who kept the court recorder busy doling out jail sentences. The report, growing ever snarkier as the writing progresses, says she appears well-attired in a light fawn automobile coat and silk dress, but makes note that she appears without a hat “there has been too much talk about wearing hats lately anyhow and Ms. Scouten appeared very properly wearing a bright red fascinator over her head. That Ms. Scouten is getting stylish is further evidenced by a new handle to her name. From now on it is Maggie Van Scouten if you please, with emphasis on the ‘Van.”’ She says she was in a private house, and makes note that it was empty, and disputes that she was intoxicated.

07 Dec 1905

Dec 8, 1905: Maggie Scouten has her trial for intoxication after pleading not guilty the day before. People of Slabtown served as witnesses. Scouten was found guilty and had no money, so she served thirty days in jail instead of paying $10, as she had spent all her money in securing legal represenatation. She had no money to avoid jail. Slabtown in Elmira was a section of the city between Lake St and Clemens Center Parkway, known for the unique construction of its houses from wide slabs of wood instead of standard 2×4 framing. It was a predominantly African-American community that was razed for the construction of the John Jones Apartments, now known as Libertad. It was first settled in the 1840s and 1850s by people who had escaped slavery in the American South. It became Elmira’s first integrated neighborhood, housing both African Americans and whites of recent European emigration. White Elmirans from other neighborhoods looked down upon the residents of Slabtown.

08 Dec 1905

Dec 11, 1905: A man named John J. Van Scouten from Corning is arrested in Slabtown for intoxication and for saying he intended to poison the police officer with carbolic acid due to the arrest of Maggie. John is taken to jail and doesn’t have enough money for bail. Maggie has secured money for her bail, and has a little extra, and bails out her husband. The news reports that Maggie had announced herself as a widow, but that her husband looked very much alive.

11 Dec 1905

Dec 22, 1905: Two weeks later, Maggie reports that someone has stolen her bed. The journalist writes “Maggie Van Scouten, who is better known to the police than any other section of polite society, has lost her bed. Some one stole Maggie’s bed from her house on Baldwin Street, not while she was occupying it however. The claim of the woman, who appeared at police headquarters today and asked that Detective Gradwell be put on the case, is that her bed was taken from the house lately and sold to a second-hand dealer. She can’t even sleep under the bed now, but has to lay right out in the open in the middle of the room, and Maggie don’t like this just at Christmas time.”

22 Dec 1905

Jan 3, 1906: Just a few days into the new year, she is arrested again for intoxication. “It is Mrs. Van Scouten’s contention that the police arrest her just for the mere joy of it and not because she ever fails to walk the straight and narrow path properly. At her last trial she swore she hadn’t taken a drink since last July and stated that perhaps it was just beginning to take effect.”

03 Jan 1906

Jan 10, 1906: “Mrs. Maggie Van Scouten appeared in police court yesterday afternoon and withdrew her former plea of not guilty and pleading guilty to the charge of intoxication in a public place. [she was] sentenced to pay a fine of $10 or spend twenty days in jail, thus valuing Mrs. Van Scouten’s presence at only 50 cents a day whereas the average offender is worth a dollar.”

10 Jan 1906

May 28, 1907: “Another Bigamy arrest possible: If the conditions prove to be as the police believe them in a case of alleged bigamy in which William Van Scouten, Maggie Van Scouten and Martha Kelly, who pleaded guilty this morning to petit larceny and was sentenced to a year in jail, are the principals, the woman who was placed behind the bars will have a companion whom she has known well for a long time.
The police have obtained information from Maggie Van Scouten and Martha Kelly which leads them to believe that William Van Scouten is a bigamist. They allege that several years ago he married Maggie Van Scouten, a Police Court Character, and that six weeks ago he transferred all his attentions from his wife to Martha Kelly and that the two were married in Horseheads. Martha Kelly has admitted that she and Van Scouten were married but insists that she did not know that Van Scouten was already a husband.”

28 May 1907

Aug 10, 1908: Maggie Scouten was brutally beaten by James Qualey. But since she does not stay in the courtroom, Mr. Qualey is allowed to go free. “James Qualey, aged 30, on Friday was arrested on a warrant charging him with having assaulted Margaret Scouten, of 456 Baldwin Street, in a brutal manner. When first arraigned Qualey protested his innocence and his trial was set down for this afternoon at 2 o’clock.
Before the trial Margaret Scouten was around the court room but when the trial was begun she could not be found. Consequently the acting recorder discharged the prisoner on the ground that there had been no appearance on the part of the complainants.

10 Aug 1908

Her Death

July 16, 1909: Less than a year after the beating, her death is reported. “Mrs Margaret Scouten dies yesterday afternoon at 2:30 o’clock at her home, 654 Baldwin Street. The remains were taken to Hughes & Sullivan’s undertaking rooms and the funeral arrangements have not been completed.” She was buried in an unconsecrated plot in St. Peter and Paul’s Cemetery in Elmira, NY.

16 Jul 1909

July 24, 1909: “The will of Mrs. Margaret Scouten has been admitted to probate in Surrogate’s court and Mrs. Anna Auten has been appointed administratix. Mrs. Scouten was a well known woman, who resided on Baldwin Street in the vicinity of East 4th St several years. She was ill for a short time and was cared for by her friend Anna Auten, to whom her estate consisting of a small life insurance policy for about $260 and a small amount of household goods is awarded for her service. Several other persons had an idea they were to share in the estate but Mrs. Scouten called in Attorney Wilcox two weeks ago and executed her will, the contents of which were kept secret until after Mrs. Scouten’s death last week. Some of the disappointed ones threatened to make trouble but no claims have been filed against the estate as yet.”

24 July 1909
https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/152782915/margaret-scouten

Who was she?

Finally, some searching of the men reported as her husbands has lent a clue. An ancestry search for John Scouten led to a 1900 Census record for a John Scouten and his wife, Margaret, in Harrisburg, PA. Off of that clue, I found a Pennsylvania marriage record from October 1899 for John and Maggie. This gives her maiden name as Stonestreet and lists her parents as deceased. Ages on these documents would place her year of birth around 1860, making her around 48 years of age at her death in Elmira. She self-reported on the census that her parents were born in Ireland and she was born in Virginia. The census also lists that they have one child, though that child doesn’t appear to be living with them at the time of the census. If conceived around the time of their marriage, the child would be a year or less in age. On the marriage license, John lists his parents as Simeon and Deborah, which matches up to the 1870 US Census of the Scouten Family in Corning, NY, with Simeon, Deborah, and son John. Towards the end of his life, John wound up living with his brother, States Scouten, in Corning. John passed away in 1925 and is buried in Hope Cemetery in Corning, NY.

A further dive into Maggie’s origins stays hazy, as the only Margaret Stonestreet I could find who was born around 1860 in Virginia (now West Virginia) appears to be a different person who lived a happier life, enjoying one long marriage and many children in Kanawha, West Virginia.

1900 US Census. Margaret’s Birth is listed as Sept 1860. Year: 1900; Census Place: Harrisburg Ward 6, Dauphin, Pennsylvania; Page: 5; Enumeration District: 0057; FHL microfilm: 1241402
Ancestry.com. Pennsylvania, U.S., Marriages, 1852-1968 [database on-line]. Lehi, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2016.
Original data:Marriage Records. Pennsylvania Marriages. Various County Register of Wills Offices, Pennsylvania.
The Scouten Family in Corning NY. Year: 1870; Census Place: Corning, Steuben, New York; Roll: M593_1095; Page: 107B; Family History Library Film: 552594

[All newspaper clippings are from the Elmira gazette, unless otherwise noted.]

Elmira’s First Automobile

Today it is hard to imagine a world without cars. But the first car in Elmira was such a big event that its purchase and delivery were covered in the local newspaper. In 1899, Dr. W.H. Fisher purchased the first car in Elmira, an 1899 Winton Phaeton. In 1898, 22 Wintons were sold in the United States. In 1899, Dr. Fisher was one of 100 people to buy the cars. Cars were a luxury item enjoyed by the rich, but were also purchased by doctors in the interests of perhaps making their house calls with a bit more ease.

Below is a picture of Dr. W.H. Fisher in his horseless carriage. The picture is from a 1957 Star Gazette article entitled “Elmira to Binghamton in Ten Hours: When New Cars were Something New.” The article’s author, Frank Tripp, recalls his first car ride in 1903, when it took 10 hours to travel to Binghamton from Elmira in an early automobile on rough roads.

Elmira Star Gazette (Elmira, NY) 20 Oct 1957, page 3B.

News of Elmira’s first automobile spread quickly, as evidenced by the clipping from June 27, 1899 (below), announcing the doctor’s purchase of the Winton Phaeton. There were no car dealerships at the time, though the Winton Company would later invent them, so the car had to be special ordered directly from the manufacturer. The Phaeton looked more like a carriage than a car. It was a two-seater car, about eight and a half feet long,with rear-wheel drive, and an ice-cooled engine in the rear of the carriage.

To start the car, Dr. Fisher would have turned the hand crank in the front of the vehicle. This required some physical effort and could be dangerous. If the engine backfired, the operator could be hit with the crank. After a certain number of turns, the engine would start the necessary process of internal combustion.

While driving, Dr. Fisher would work the two-speed transmission, and steer the car via a tiller connected to the front wheels. The gas tank held three gallons. He would have had to to check the oil often, as oil was dripped onto the transmission, engine, and differential while driving in order to keep the car running.

Driving then was a different experience than it is today. Paved roads were rare. Passengers often had to walk outside the car when the driver attempted a steep hill. The car often got stuck in sand or dirt. People followed railroads and telegraph lines when traveling rurally, and did not have the luxury of road maps.

Elmira Daily Gazette and Free Press (Elmira, NY) 27 June 1899.

Finally, the car arrived in Elmira and made the news again. The July 15, 1899 newspaper announced the arrival and mentioned that it would be “operated by an expert operator.”

Elmira Daily Gazette and Free Press (Elmira, NY) 15 Jul 1899.

A week later,the local paper ran a story that the noise of the automobile had frightened a horse near Bulkhead and ran away. No one was injured but the horse’s cart was damaged. Karl Fisher (Dr. Fisher’s son) wrote in the Elmira Herald in 1915 that when the car arrived, the Erie Freight Depot was unable to handle the crowds of people who had gathered for its arrival. The car’s initial drive through downtown Elmira became a parade, with throngs of people crowding the streets. The County fair that year held a race between Dr. Fisher in his car and a bicyclist. The bicyclist won as the car’s engine died and the vehicle had to be towed home that night by a team of horses.

Elmira Daily Gazette and Free Press (Elmira, NY) 22 Jul 1899.

It seems that the car made a very positive impression, as in that same week, the local paper ran a longer story that two more people were going to buy automobiles. George McElroy, a Market St. bicycle repairman, and maker and inventor of the McElroy coaster brake was announced to be working on two vehicles, one for himself, and the other for LeRoy Baker of the County Clerk’s Office. The delay of steel castings meant that the cars would be completed in 6-10 weeks.

These two new cars were just the beginning. In 1899, the Winton Car Company was the largest automobile company in the United States, boasting the sales of 100 cars that year. In 1919, as evidenced in the article below, there were four thousand cars in Chemung County, or one car for every fifteen residents.

The Winton Motor Carriage Company continued to make cars until 1924. They continued to produce diesel engines and in 1930 The Winton Engine Company was sold to General Motors and became GM’s diesel subsidiary.

Elmira Gazette (Elmira, NY) 10 March 1919.

Dr. William Henry Fisher was born in Spencer, NY in 1854 and studied medicine in NYC and Berlin. He returned to this area to practice medicine the rest of his life. Dr. Fisher sold the car in 1903 to John Rhoades, who used the car for towing. Dr. Fisher had a serious illness soon after, and though he recovered and rebuilt his practice, he passed away in 1910. His obituary describes him as a kindly and lovable man with host of friends. He was survived by his widow and two children, Mrs. Ransom Pratt of Rutherford, New Jersey, and Karl W. Fisher.

Further Resources, References

Winton Engine Company: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tc6ZfUE4Ez0

Horseless Carriage 1896 Replica: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T_u7fihGNL4

Columbus Neighborhoods: From the Vault – The Winton Car: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YOtwnx8Z_EU

Historic Structures: The Winton Motor Car Company, Cleveland Ohio: http://www.historic-structures.com/oh/cleveland/winton_motor_company.php

Second Chance Garage – All about car restoration: http://www.secondchancegarage.com/public4/winton-the-king-of-cars-1.cfm

Smithsonian – Early Cars: Fact Sheet for Children: https://www.si.edu/spotlight/early-cars

The Washington Post – AMERICA’S AUTO INDUSTRY GEARED UP A CENTURY AGO: https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/1996/07/10/americas-auto-industry-geared-up-a-century-ago/4cbae9ab-136a-4c70-8890-992a50681ac4/

Roads & Bridges – The Open Roads of America: 100 Years in the Making: https://www.roadsbridges.com/open-roads-america-100-years-making

The tragedy of William Frear

Today we look back on the lives of ordinary Elmirans. A gripping headline from 100 years ago reveals the tragic death of a teenage boy and the dire consequences to his family.

William Frear was born in 1903 to George and Fannie Frear of Lowman, NY. His sister Julena was four years older. Around 1915, the Frear family moved to the City of Elmira and William began working in William Ells’ motorcycle shop on Lake St. At age 16 he had become the main source of income for his family.

1910 US Census: Frear Family (Seeley Rd, Horseheads NY).

On August 6, 1920, a truly disturbing head line ran in Elmira’s Star Gazette. William Frear had been burned to death, and a police officer was arrested on manslaughter charges.

Elmira Star Gazette (Elmira NY). 06 Aug 1920, page 19.

Police officer Stewart Smith had been sent to the garage to fetch gasoline needed for the department. William Frear accidentally spilled gasoline on his clothing. He was upset, concerned that the gasoline had permeated his clothing and would blister his skin. Officer Smith joked that he should burn the gasoline off and lit a match. Officer Smith maintained that William had approached him as he lit the match. Dougall Espey, another youth working at the shop, said that Officer Smith had put the lit match to William’s saturated pants.

Example of a 1920s Motorcycle that William Frear may have been working on.
Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lea_Francis_early_motorcycle_-1920s%3F(4978640413).jpg

William was engulfed in flames. Water was poured on him, which only made the flames worse, and a blanket was finally procured from across the street. Unwrapping the blanket when he got to the hospital, it was found that William’s clothes were still on fire. William remained conscious but passed away the next day. Officer Smith was arrested and held in jail and faced manslaughter charges with up to 15 years in prison if he was found guilty.

Elmira Star Gazette (Elmira NY). 06 Aug 1920, page 19.

The next mention of the incident occurs in December 1920. William Frear’s parents were awarded damages as William was the sole breadwinner. We also learn that Officer Smith was not found guilty of manslaughter and the death had been ruled an accident.

Elmira Star Gazette (Elmira NY). 30 Dec 1920, page 10.

The next mention of Stewart Smith is in July 1922 when it is announced that he is to begin a new career as a prison guard at the Sing Sing Prison Death House.* Three months prior he married Leda Johnson. Smith worked at Sing Sing for two years and then transferred to the Elmira Reformatory and worked there from 1924 until 1959. He passed away on February 12, 1968. He was survived by his wife, daughter, and two grandchildren.

Elmira Star Gazette (Elmira NY). 28 July 1922, page 9.

The year after William Frear’s death, his sister Julena married Glen Rolling Wilson. They would remain married their whole lives and bore two children. William’s mother Fannie passed away in 1951. His father George passed away in 1960. George, Fannie, and William are all buried at Hilltop Cemetery in Breesport, NY. Julena and her husband Glen are buried in Horseheads at Maple Grove Cemetery.

Elmira Star Gazette (Elmira NY). 06 Sept 1960, page 7.

The 14 year old boy who witnessed the death, Dougall Espey, remained in Elmira, married, and had children. His son, Dougall Espey, Jr., would serve in the army and die in action in Korea in 1950. His remains weren’t discovered until 2008 and he finally returned to the States in 2009.

*More information about the history of Sing Sing Prison: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sing_Sing

Christmas Crimes in Elmira, 1891

For most people, the holidays are a time for peace. But there are always a few rabble-rousers for Santa’s naughty list. Here are the culprits from Christmas in Elmira, 1891.

Frederick Wilson and Charles McInerney were fined $3 or 7 days in jail for public intoxication. Charles paid. John Ryan was fined $5 or fifteen days in jail for the “usual offense.” What was his usual offense? There’s no way to know for sure. There were four John Ryans living in Elmira in 1891. One John Ryan was found hanged in a tree in 1913 due to despondency over domestic troubles and drink, but I cannot be sure it is the same man.

1891 Elmira City Directory

A man known simply by “VanOrman” came to Elmira from Ithaca and “swapped” horses with John Carpenter. He also visited a saloon and lost his watch and $50. Police found opium on his clothing.

Thomas “Squaker” Dunn was arrested for intoxication and disturbing the peace. While in lockup, he found an axe and laid waste to the walls. He did a lot of damage and cut up a policeman’s coat as well. He was fined $150 or fourth months in prison. Incredibly, this wasn’t the only time Squaker chopped up the prison. He was a well-known person in Elmira due to his many arrests for intoxication, and he was a regular at the jail. He was so regular, that he was given free rein and often cooked for everyone while he was there. On another occasion, he took an axe again and chopped down the back door to the jail and escaped. The police said they expected him back at any time. He was being arrested for intoxication in this area as late as 1915. Squaker is apparently a term used to describe a whistling balloon.

“Josh” Cooney was arrested and charged with disturbing the peace by threatening to shoot two people at Mrs. Johnson’s boarding house at 109 W. Church St. Josh Cooney capped off his night by also threatening the arresting officers. He was held on a sum of $500. Unfortunately, Josh Cooney also had a lifetime marked by heavy intoxication and violence. His name appears often in the local papers. In 1916, arrested for intoxication again, he nearly bit off the arresting officer’s finger.

As we leave this brief glimpse of unhappy lives, we hope everyone stays safe in this season. And we extend our thanks to the police officers in this city and elsewhere who work a very tough job every day.