Author Archives: carljohnson

Ran-Zee Sign

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Ran-Zee Sign LogoAnother old picture from a stray wander around Schenectady, already 10 years ago. On an old concrete wall underneath the railroad tracks, along the parking lot at Broadway and Liberty, the remnants of some old painted signs were tucked under a tangle of vines, and the only bit that could be made out was the sign-painter’s mark, the logo of Ran-Zee Signs. Unfortunately, we’ve never found much about this company.

An obituary from 2004 says that Michael DeMartino was the owner and operator of Ran-Zee Signs on Albany Street from 1959-1997. A graduate of Nott Terrace High School, he attended Republic School of Sign Painting in New York City, and was employed for several years at ALCO where he used his skill applying gold leaf lettering to the locomotive engines. He was also a free lance artist.

We don’t know where else his mark may be found around Schenectady or the surrounding cities . . . I’m hoping there are still plenty of his little marks to be found. If you want to see this one, though, we’d recommend searching for it in the winter, because this was the state of the vines in 2011:

Street View Broadway and Ferry

WGY Coin & Stamp

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WGY Coin & Stamp Co.We recently ran across this picture we took 10 years ago of a fading sign for parking for the WGY Coin & Stamp Company of Schenectady. This was affixed to the side of the building at the corner of State and South Ferry, now gone. WGY Coin and Stamp was long a fixture at 120 State Street, and later at 142, though as nothing more than the most amateur of schoolboy philatelists, we rarely ventured inside. Unlike the grocery stores that licensed the name, we don’t find an indication of any particular relationship between the numismatic dealer and its namesake radio station. While we have found at least two gentlemen associated with it who have passed on in recent years, we found little on the business or its ownership. In a 1970 edition of the Gazette, it was listed as one of Schenectady’s businesses that had been around for under five years, putting its genesis somewhere after 1965.

WGY Coin Co. Ad

“One Thing I Know, They Won’t Find Arsenic”

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hendrickson-maria-van-deusen-18331853As rough and tumble as Albany could be in the early to mid 19th century, some of the most notable crimes occurred out in the suburbs. One was the shocking poisoning of a young wife, Maria Van Dusen Hendrickson, by her philandering young husband, John Hendrickson, Jr. It was one of the earlier cases of forensic pathology used to prove a murder case in the United States.

In January, 1851, John Hendrickson Jr. married Maria Van Dusen, daughter of former county clerk Lawrence Van Dusen, “a most respectable citizen, and a man of unquestioned integrity;” he was said to have considerable wealth. Maria was 17, “well educated, accomplished, amiable, kind-hearted, affectionate.” Hendrickson pursued Maria although her parents opposed marriage “on the ground that Hendrickson’s character was bad, his conduct rowdyish, and that he had led a life of idleness, and was not, therefore, a fit companion for their daughter.” They married anyway, and lived with the Van Dusens in Clarksville while occasionally visiting Hendrickson’s father, who lived four miles away in Bethlehem.

That very summer, Hendrickson committed a “gross assault upon a respectable young lady in Clarksville.” After a side trip to Schoharie County, where he made a promise of marriage that Maria found out about, he took off for Corning, NY (for reasons not revealed) and stayed there for about three months, until the end of 1851. While he was away, Maria gave birth. Shortly after his return, the six-week-old child was found dead in the bed “in a very singular manner, Hendrickson occupying the middle, the wife the back, and the child the front part of the bed.” More than that is not explained.

“After the return of the prisoner from Corning, he communicated to his wife a loathsome disease, which he had contracted during his absence, and which was the original and only cause of the illness under which his wife ever labored, a disease of the womb, which, as a matter of course, was a source of not only great bodily affliction, but also of intense mortification and shame to her sensitive mind.”

On discovery of this, Hendrickson was cast out of the house in January 1852 and moved to his father’s, but the couple continued to visit each other from time to time. Maria’s health improved (the precise disease she contracted is not explained). In January 1853, Hendrickson convinced Maria to visit his father’s house two or three times, and then she went back there in February to stay for a period of time. She was expected to return to her mother’s house on March 6, a Sunday, but for some reason she did not. That evening she went to church with the Hendrickson family and, after reading from the bible and a religious paper, retired to bed with her husband about 10 o’clock, in an attic bedroom they had only slept in for two or three nights – prior to that, they had slept in the same downstairs room as the two sisters of Hendrickson.

How the alarm was raised was not quite explained, but somewhere around 2 in the morning, Hendrickson was “halloing” and his sisters went up the stairs to find Maria non-responsive, but they were not of the belief that she was dead. None of the family thought to ask him what had happened.  In his address to the jury, the district attorney, Andrew J. Colvin, said,

“Return we now to the deceased. We shall find the family engaged in using means for her revival, but to no effect. Neighbors were sent for, but not physician, although she was not supposed by them to be dead for a considerable time after they found her. And, gentlemen, it will be told you that there was no physician residing within three miles, and that for that reason they did not send for any . . . The prisoner follows the body, as of course he must, or instant accusation would have been the consequence, and a coroner and able physician and surgeon from the city follow in his wake on the same day; for, gentlemen, suspicious circumstances attend the event of her death, and the whole community is moved by the apprehension that a dark and shocking murder has been perpetrated.”

Hendrickson apparently immediately embarked on a campaign of appearing as suspicious as possible. Actually, the campaign had started at least a week before. Hendrickson had been wandering around Albany, visiting pharmacies asking for prussic acid. “On Tuesday or Wednesday of the week preceding the death of his wife, the prisoner is found asking for prussic acid at Dr. Springsteed’s. On Saturday he is seen going into another drug store, and some time during the same week, a person answering exactly to the general appearance, and dressed in a costume corresponding exactly with the ordinary apparel of the prisoner, buys of Mr. Burroughs, the druggist, an ounce of the tincture of aconite, the very kind of poison with which, it is charged in the indictment, the prisoner poisoned his wife.”

Tincture of aconite was known for its potency and it difficulty of detection. So, while being held, and while a post mortem is being conducted, Hendrickson asked someone what the physicians and coroner were doing and what they had found. He was told they were taking out her stomach, and that it was not known that they had found anything. To that he responded, “One thing I know, they won’t find arsenic.” Well, yes, that’s an innocent statement. Then he asked, “Suppose they put poison into her stomach yesterday, can it be known or ascertained?”

There is more, so much more, to show that Hendrickson was an all-around horrible human being, and that he may have tried to poison her once before. He claimed he got the venereal disease from a “fall on the railroad” while in Corning. He was caught passing a note to a prostitute. After his child’s death, he was courting a woman he had previously been engaged to. He gambled and stole and fought with his wife. A week after the death of his wife, he was “seen in the county jail dancing negro breakdowns and other hilarious dances with all the vehemence in his power, and subsequently doing the same on the Sabbath as well as on week days.”

The DA introduced evidence that she died by tincture of aconite, which created some particular effects revealed by autopsy, and which was found in her body. (You may know aconite as monkshood or wolf’s bane.) The post mortem was conducted by the esteemed Dr. Swinburne. With a preponderance of evidence of the terrible character of the suspect and his own semi-incriminating behavior, the jury did not delay in finding Hendrickson guilty, guilty, guilty.

In pronouncing sentence upon Hendrickson, Judge Richard P. Marvin showed tremendous prescience:

“…I desire to impress, not only upon you, but upon all, the fact, that as science advances – as it unfolds to the student the great storehouse of knowledge, and lets man penetrate into the very arcana of nature – that as it advances, step by step, it enables its votaries to detect the most subtle poisons, and to trace the very footsteps of crime. Chemists are enabled now, through the wonderful developments of science – and science detects your crime – to detect almost all poisons, whether vegetable or metallic, to trace out cases of poisoning, (no matter what may be the character of the poison administered), with almost unerring certainty. And it is as dangerous to attempt murder with the most subtle vegetable poison, and as certain to be detected, as if the murder were committed with the dirk or the stiletto. Your case may have its moral effect upon community in this view of it. Community should understand that the crime of murder cannot be committed in this day of light, in any manner or by any means, without leaving the evidence of guilt; and this evidence always points out, unerringly, to the guilty individual.”

The judge pronounced that on August 26th, 1853, Hendrickson was to be hung by the neck until he was dead. He was the first prisoner hanged in the new Maiden Lane jail.

 

Fred Lillie, Armless Announcer

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While describing the relative safety of employment at the Schenectady GE works in 1913, we glossed over what was one of the most dangerous forms of employment of the time, railroad work. At that point, railroad work carried a fatality rate of 2.4 deaths per 1000 employees. Non-fatal accidents, of course, were even more common, and many were the workers who went home short a limb. Fred Lillie was one, as told in this 1906 Albany Evening Journal article:

Fred Lillie, the young messenger of the New York Central Railroad Co., who had his arms cut off in the West Albany yards about a year ago, has secured a position as train announcer at the Union station. He took up his duties this morning, but few of the many persons who passed through the station realized that the clear-voiced young man was armless.

Lillie was at one time employed as a messenger by the Central and made frequent trips between here and West Albany. About a year ago he jumped on the engine of train 29 at the Union station and started for West Albany. Arriving there he leaped from the engine while the train was in motion and fell across the opposite track with his arms spread across the rail. Another train came along at the time and severed his two arms near the shoulder.

He was taken to the hospital, where he recovered, and has secured a pair of artificial arms. Of course he is practically helpless, but the Central officials looked about to see what they could do for him, and it was decided that he could perform the duties of announcer very well. The megaphone which Announcer Day used has been suspended on a hook so that it just reaches Lillie’s mouth, and there is no doubt that he will make good as a caller of trains.

In 1905, Frederick C. Lillie was listed as 19 years old, a messenger living at 5 Clinton St. with family –  his 23-year-old sister, and his mother Mary and  stepfather Joseph Alexander. We’re sorry to say that while the loss of his arms led him to work that depended on his lungs, Fred’s lungs weren’t on his side either: he died of tuberculosis in 1907, at the age of 22. He is buried in Albany Rural Cemetery.

Fishing Is Dangerous!

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Ripley’s “Romance of a Great Factory” from 1919 gives us an unsurprisingly romantic view of the Schenectady General Electric works at that time. In addition to providing us with Charles Steinmetz’s private shorthand method, its appendix section (titled “Fragments”) gave a little recitation of industrial accident facts to show that life at GE was pretty safe, especially in comparison to some occupations.

“A man who fishes for a living is really in a very dangerous occupation, as on the average three men out of 1,000 lose their lives at this work every year. Comparing this with the figures of the General Electric fatalities . . . it is seen that in round umbers that it is 30 times more dangerous to fish for a living than to work in the General Electric shops, surrounded by high pressure steam, high voltage electricity, with tons of steel and cast iron being swung over your head by the electric cranes, and with tens of thousands of tons of freight moved daily on the two railway systems within the works.”

industrial-accidents-1919Using figures from 1913, Ripley showed that pretty much every industry of the time had a significantly higher rate of fatal accidents than the GE Schenectady works did. At a time when the works employed nearly 21,000 people, it suffered only two fatalities in 1916 (a rate of 0.099 per 1000). Only the line of “general” manufacturing even approached GE’s rate, at 0.25 per thousand. Only the overall rate for “all other occupied females” fared better than GE, at 0.075 per thousand.

“Who would ever imagine that men engaged in agricultural pursuits, the farmers, should suffer from a high rate of ‘industrial accident?’” Hoxsie has met a lot of farmers and even today, their fingers often don’t add up to 10, so this is no surprise.

It’s a little hard to make a comparison to the present day, as what is included in these categories may have changed over time. What then fell under draymen and teamsters would almost certainly be truck drivers and freight loaders today, with a whole different set of threats. It’s certainly safer today to be a street railway employee, though the opportunities have also decreased. But for even a rough comparison, the building and construction trade saw 1875 deaths in 1913. In 2014, the private construction industry saw an uptick in fatalities, to a total of 899 (according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics). If you lump together mining and quarrying in 1913, there were 3560 fatalities. A century and a year later, fatal injuries in the private mining, quarrying, and oil and gas extraction industries rose to 183. BLS now lumps farming, fishing and forestry together, with 253 deaths (77 of those in logging) in 2014; in 1913, that number was probably more like 5,447.

Since those are absolute numbers, not rates, it helps to have a little bit of perspective. In 1913, the US population was about 97.23 million. In 2014, it was about 318.9 million – 3.28 times greater.

So for everyone who says, “We didn’t used to have all this safety stuff, and we were fine” – no, you weren’t. You died in droves. Unless, of course, you worked at the Schenectady works.

How Dr. Steinmetz Writes

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steinmetz-introductionCharles Ripley’s “Romance of a Great Factory” is a 1919 love letter to the Schenectady General Electric works, printed by the Gazette Press, and with an introduction by none other than Dr. Charles P. Steinmetz, the electrical wizard. In an afterword section titled “Fragments,” Ripley presented a short explanation of “How Dr. Steinmetz Writes,” detailing his self-created shorthand.

“Dr. Steinmetz, one of the greatest authorities on matters electrical, and an author of many volumes useful to the scientific world, possesses no ‘neck in the bottle,’ when it comes to jotting down the results of his researches in his wonderful laboratory at Schenectady. All of his writing is done in shorthand; that is, this shorthand is the medium between his mind and the typewriter and printing press.”

He goes on to quote Steinmetz as saying:

“With this shorthand I can write as fast as I can think. The only other way in which I could put down my thoughts as fast as I could think, would be to dictate to a phonograph but I have not always a phonograph with me. I learned this shorthand while I was in high school in Europe, and while in college took all of my notes in shorthand. All of these notes I have preserved and had bound, and I can read them as well after thirty-five years as I could after thirty-five minutes.”

Here please allow Hoxsie to admit that his own handwriting is often indecipherable after 35 seconds.

Ripley said that Steinmetz’s system, evolved as the best adapted for writing on electrical subjects, was based on the Arends stenography system taught in Europe, under which words were written phonetically, such that “height” would be written as h, long i, t.

steinmetz-shorthand“With a view of affording every reader some knowledge of Dr. Steinmetz’ system, a reproduction is given of the alphabet, written out by the famous electrical wizard himself. A second illustration is given [shown above] which shows the start and finish of Dr. Steinmetz’ introduction at the beginning of this book and how it looked when written originally by him in his shorthand. The space required for the shorthand is but approximately one-third of the introduction when typed with double spaced lines.”

Delavan House Menu: Maybe Just The Toast

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Delavan House Menu ca 1875

From the collection of the Library Company of Philadelphia, an 1875ish breakfast menu from Albany’s leading temperance hotel, the Delavan House, in the era when Charles Leland was running it (which puts this between 1867 and 1882).

Founder Edward Delavan was a rabid temperance advocate who brought prohibition to the state of New York long before that other prohibition everyone is so familiar with, but only for a very short time.

The hotel ended in tragic fire in 1894.

As for the menu, maybe we’ll just have a salad. No salad? Toast, then. The toast looks safe.

History Links! Get Yer History Links Here!

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It’s been a while since we did a Phoenixville Phriday. So, a couple of cool bits of local history news came out of our new hometown region this week.

The first was the amazing news that little Phoenixville was, for 17 years, hiding a secret treasure trove. Revolutionary War muskets, cannons, paintings, sculptures, uniforms, and George Washington’s frickin’ portmanteau were stored just a couple of blocks from our home. Now they’ve been transferred to the new Museum of the American Revolution, which will open next spring. You can read all about it here.

The second was that south of Philadelphia, the Lazaretto, the oldest surviving quarantine center and intake center for tens of thousands of immigrants who came in through Philadelphia, is going to be saved and repurposed. Read all about it!

The third isn’t exactly news. But, it is a good little list of facts about the encampment at Valley Forge, published at the Journal of the American Revolution. Since Hoxsie now spends more time in Valley Forge than you could imagine, it’s useful to remember why we preserved this rolling landscape along the Schuylkill. Check it out.

But we haven’t forgotten our origins. Fan of Washington Irving and headless Hessians? Check out this story on the Revolutionary Beginnings of the Headless Horseman.