Monday, January 9, 2017

The Great Escape

By Rachel Dworkin, Archivist

At 3:30 am on the morning of October 7, 1864, a man emerged from a hole on a side street by the northern fence of the Elmira Prison Camp. He was Washington B. Traweek, a nineteen-year-old private from Alabama who had been captured while serving with the Jeff Davis Artillery. There were Union guards on patrol across the street, but they never noticed him as he snuck along the fence before fleeing around a convenient corner.  He was soon followed by nine other men, the last emerging around 4:30 am. It was the single largest escape from the North’s most secure prisoner-of-war camp. 

The escape plot began on August 24th when John F. Maull, John P. Putegnat, and Frank E. Saurine all swore a secret oath to dig together. Traweek joined them almost immediately. The four men started digging the tunnel from Maull and Putegnat’s tent located approximately 68 feet from the camp’s northern stockade wall. The digging was exceptionally slow going so they recruited six additional men, S. Cecrops Malone, Gilmer G. Jackson, William H. Templin, J.P. Scruggs, Glen Shelton, and James W. Crawford, to help out.  Berry Benson of South Carolina joined the team in early September after he spotted Traweek disposing of rocks from the tunnel and asked to be let in.

Berry Benson in his old uniform after the war.

The tunnel took months to dig. Two men would go down into the tunnel where one man would dig with a pocket knife while another would load the dirt into a bag made from a spare shirt. The team up top would unload the dirt into their pockets to be disposed of later around camp and then send the bag back down. Working in the tunnel was deeply unpleasant. In his memoir, Benson said it was “next to death by suffocation to go into it.” The tunnel was so narrow that the digger’s body blocked the flow of air leaving the digger sweltering hot and struggling for oxygen. Diggers came up with racking headaches, dizziness, and vomiting and needed to be relieved every 15 to 20 minutes. 

The bag used to move dirt with insets of John P. Putegnat during and after the war.

In mid-September, Traweek and Putegnat dug a second tunnel from the newly constructed hospital, this time with a spade. They made it to the wall in just two nights but, before they could gather their friends to get them out, the tunnel was discovered. Traweek was thrown in the camp’s jail and the guards conducted a camp-wide search for additional tunnels. Twenty-eight were discovered, but not the team’s tunnel which was concealed by a carefully preserved chunk of turf held in place by a plank just below the surface. 

Traweek was released from the camp jail in late September to rejoin his fellows. By this time, Saurine had been kicked off the team for refusing to dig. It turned out to be a bad decision on his part. All of the tunnel conspirators made it out and away. Maull, Jackson, and Templin made their way south together on foot, as did Traweek and Crawford. Somehow Malone and Putegnat got turned around and ended up in Ithaca. They headed still further north before taking jobs in Auburn and using their earnings to travel to Baltimore by train and boat. Benson and Scuggs both made their own ways home alone while Shelton seemingly dropped off the face of the earth.

The escape was discovered during roll call on the morning of October 7th and threw the camp into an uproar. Guards frantically searched the camp and surrounding area for the tunnel and missing men. Wild rumors circulated among the prisoners. One prison diarist, Wilbur Grambling, wrote that 25 men had escaped, each with a stolen horse. 

Morning roll call at the Elmira Prison Camp

Although many others tried to replicate their feat, theirs was the last successful tunnel escape at the camp. Seven other men managed to make their way to freedom by various other methods. One smuggled himself out in a swill barrel. Another stole a Union sergeant’s overcoat and strolled out the front gate without being challenged. The most brazen escape was by a man named Buttons who faked his own death and jumped out of a coffin on the way to the cemetery.   

Monday, January 2, 2017

A Day in the Life

by Erin Doane, curator

Old newspapers are great sources of information. If you read a newspaper from a single day you can get a fascinating glimpse into the past that hints at the large historical picture. Thanks to websites like Old Fulton New York Post Cards ( a lot of historic newspapers are available now to the public. I found a full 12-page issue of the Elmira Star-Gazette from January 2, 1917 on the Fulton site. So, what can we learn about life in Elmira 100 years ago from the local paper?

Front page of January 2, 1917 Elmira Star-Gazette
The typesetting staff must have been having a rough day.
They got the date wrong on the front page.
The Great War was headline news
While the United States did not official join the fighting in World War I until April 6, 1917, the war was still major news. The newspaper’s top story was about the Allied forces’ rejection of a German peace proposal. They considered the rigid proposal “empty and insincere.” Germany was unwilling to give concessions and insisted on keeping Belgium and Alsace-Lorraine under its control. Even after two years of fighting and a total of over one million dead and wounded on both sides, England, France, and Russia refused to give the proposal any consideration. 

People were feeling the effects of the war locally. Prices of rubber footwear and other products were rising because of war shortages and Elmira lawyer Richard H. Thurston had just learned that his nephew Charles Thurston Bowring had been killed while fighting in France.

Lawmakers were trying to make changes in the New Year
On January 1, Republican Charles Seymour Whitman began his second term as governor of New York. In both houses of the state legislature, Republicans outnumbered Democrats 2 to 1. In the new term, the legislature would be considering many new bills. There would be attempts to impose censorship on motion pictures and efforts to both legalize and prohibit the showing of movies on Sundays. There were proposals for compulsory military training in public schools and for requiring state farms to provide produce to state institutions. Legislators would also take up the question of enfranchisement of women, or giving them the right to vote.

On a national level, some bills set to come before Congress could change election laws. There were proposed limits on campaign contributions. Individuals would not be able to contribute more than $5,000 to a presidential campaign and corporations would be prohibited from contributing at all. Also, election betting and advertising of election odds would be a felony if upcoming bills were passed.

The weather was typical for the season
Tuesday, January 2 was a cloudy day with a temperature around 35 degrees. The ice on the Chemung River was thick enough to ice skate on between the dam and Rorick’s Glen and there was enough snow to enjoy coasting, or sledding, in the surrounding hills. Unfortunately, most kids wouldn’t have a chance to enjoy free time outdoors. The schools were back open that morning after a 10 day holiday break.

The snow and ice did cause some problems, however. Just a day or so earlier several youngsters coasting over in Pine Valley ran into a concrete horse block and suffered severe sprains and bruises. A car and a delivery truck went sliding on the ice and collided at the corner of Railroad Avenue and West First Street in Elmira. In another incident, five-year-old Robert Mooney stepped off an ice wagon and ran across Grand Central Avenue. He slipped on an ice covered snowbank and was run over by a police auxiliary automobile. The boy wasn’t seriously hurt; only one of the front wheels ran over him.

There were a ton of things to do for fun in the city
Back 100 years ago there was little danger of not finding anything to do in Elmira. The paper is filled with entertainment options. The YMCA presented a pet and hobby show and a gymnastic exhibition and the Business Women’s Club held a dance at the Federation Building. The Mozart Theater was hosting the play “Puddin’ Head Wilson” based on Mark Twain’s novel, “Other Man’s Wife” was playing at the Lyceum Theater, and there was a vaudeville show at the Majestic.

Boxing and bowling were particularly popular. There were several small articles about the results of boxing bouts. Elmira boxer “Cyclone” Williams was defeated by Harry Boyle in Binghamton in a bout that fans called “one of the classiest that has been staged in the city for many months.” Bowling scores from various local teams were also reported. The new bowling alley had just opened at Morrow Manufacturing Company’s plant and Tool Room #1 team was at the top of the rankings.

Individuals also attended all sorts of other events from card parties and bridal showers to dinners and bon fires, many of them held in private homes. This leads me to the next thing I learned about people back then...

Everyone was up in each other’s business
Did your out-of-town niece visit over the holidays? Did you have a nice dinner with six of your closest friends? Did you have an emergency appendectomy? Well, if you did, you very well could have ended up in the paper. This one issue alone has pages and pages of social announcements. There are listings of births, engagements, weddings, and funeral, as is typical in our newspapers today, but there was also more personal information. For example, everyone got to know that Mrs. O.D. Shoemaker of Van Etten was staying with Mrs. John Bigley while Mrs. Shoemaker’s daughter was in the hospital here and that Mr. and Mrs. William B. Howe of Euclid Avenue spent New Year’s with Mrs. Margaret Howe of Binghamton. Who cares? Well, apparently the readers of the Star-Gazette did.

People are just people no matter the time period
I think ultimately what I learned about life here 100 years ago was that it was not that different from the way things are now. The newspaper ran advertisements for groceries, undergarments, records, and miracle cures. It listed commodity prices and stock market reports. It published editorials, funny stories, comics, and recipes. The classifieds were filled with employment opportunities, apartments for rent, and miscellaneous items for sale. People lost jewelry and found stray dogs. They offered painting and handyman services and bred ferrets for sale as pets. They read world, national, and regional news but seemed most interested in what was happening in their own hometown.

Oh, and one more thing I learned…

Everyone was constipated

Monday, December 26, 2016

Finding Horace McDuffee: A Historian’s Struggle

By Kelli Huggins, Education Coordinator

Horace McDuffee with unidentified cat
The photograph above, with this older man and his cat in a humorous scenario, is one of my absolute favorites in our collection. That said, we didn’t really know anything about it except that it was supposedly of “Horace McDuffie.” If you’ve read our blog for awhile, you probably realize that I like to take a mysterious photograph and try to find the answers to the questions it raises. So, I decided to put my research skills to the test to find out more about Horace. This blog post is about Horace, but it is also about the historical process of putting together shreds of evidence about his life. This post is a little long, but I think it’s important to talk about how historians know what we know. The work of historians can be shrouded in mystery, and if you’ve never done historical research yourself (or even if you have), it can be difficult to know where to start. So here is how I went about “finding” Horace McDuffee.

I started out with the one piece of evidence I had: the photograph. Horace is holding a copy of the Elmira Star-Gazette so that gave me a pretty good indication that he was local. He doesn’t, however, show up in the Elmira City Directories, which is always one of the first places I look. The photograph is actually a printed photo postcard. This gives us a rough idea of the date of the image, placing it most likely in the 1900s to early 1910s (the date on the newspaper isn’t visible, so it’s hard to date it exactly).

All well and good, but there were even more clues on the back. Someone had written a brief inscription, which identified the man as “Horace McDuffie,” father of Inez McDuffie Baker Schuyler. Cool, now we have two names to work with. There is also a personal anecdote on the back: “He was such a dear old man. He carried the mail between the Swartwood Lehigh Valley R.R. station to the Rodbourn L.V.R.R. ‘depot.’”

Even better, we have a little glimpse into his profession, where he lived, and his personality. To me, the “dear old man” piece is so important, because it confirms to me the kindness that I read from him in this picture. I know that this sentiment is a little ahistorical, but there is such humor and sweetness to his interaction with the cat in this photograph. You feel like you understand something about Horace’s personality, which I think is what draws me to it.

This piece also gave me an indication of why I couldn’t find him in the Elmira directories- he didn’t live in Elmira. But where was Swartwood? After consulting with my brilliant colleagues and a map, I located Swartwood. It is an unincorporated area in the Town of Van Etten, near the Erin border. And lo and behold, you can see the tracks of the old rail line where Horace delivered mail.

Map showing Swartwood
Since I’m the kind of person that won’t stop researching until I’ve exhausted all reasonable avenues, I wanted to know what else I could find out about Horace. So I turned to the newspapers. Digitized newspapers, like those on or the New York Historic Newspapers website, are my go-to sources for much of my historical work. I typed in “Horace McDuffie” and couldn’t find any results about my guy.

With no results to show with that name in the newspapers databases, I plugged it into a basic Google search to see what would come up. There, I found an issue. The inscription on the original photograph had his name misspelled. I found a Swartwood Horace McDuffee, with an “ee” not an “ie” in 1878-1880 Elmira directories transcribed on the website of local historian Joyce Tice. The directories those years included brief sections of residents in small towns and villages outside of Elmira, including Swartwood. This feature was just in those couple of directories, and not the ones I had initially looked at. Plus, without keyword searchability and knowing exactly what town he lived in to start, looking for Horace was a little like looking for a needle in a haystack.

The directory entries did more for me than just confirming the spelling of his name. It gave me his profession: farmer. Had I just stopped at the original photograph, I wouldn’t have known that and would have assumed he was a postal employee. Now, it seemed that this work delivering mail was in addition to his work farming.

With his name correctly spelled now, I went back to the newspapers and found a couple of hits. “Horace McDuffee” showed up in the classifieds of the 1920 Elmira Star-Gazette. He was advertising chickens for sale and his address was listed as Swartwood.

But that confirmation that he was a farmer was basically it. I refined my search to include other variations instead of just the search term “Horace McDuffee” to allow for other ways that it might be written. There I found him as “Horace M. McDuffee” in his brother Charles’ 1900 obituary.

Now I knew that he had a brother and I knew his middle initial. Both were helpful pieces of information. I once again returned to a basic Google search, but this time for “Horace M. McDuffee.” This linked to a Find A Grave page and a cemetery listing for the Ennis Cemetery in Cayuta, Schuyler County on Joyce Tice’s website. From these listings, I learned not only where he was buried, but also his birth and death dates (1840 and 1924), and the names of his other family members, including his wife, Elsie.

Now that the pieces were all coming together, there was still one more place to look for Horace McDuffee: the census. You can easily search for census records on (with a subscription) or sites like Tracking Horace in the census from 1860 to 1920 further confirmed some things I had already discovered and provided a little more detail, too (it also introduced another misspelling of the family name, McDuffey).  In 1860, for example, 20-year-old Horace was living at home with his parents Catherine and Daniel, on a farm next to the farms of other McDuffee relatives. The family also had a “domestic” worker, 18-year-old, Celista Thorn.

The 1892 State Census showed Horace and his wife living with their daughter Inez, then 21, and his aged parents. By 1910, however, Horace was a widower and the household consisted of just him and his daughter, who had since married and went by the name Inez Baker (interestingly she wasn’t marked as widowed but her husband also was not listed as living with the family). In 1920, Horace and Inez (then Inez Schuyler, having married and widowed again) were still living together. Horace died in 1924 at the age of 84.    

If you’ve made it to the end of this lengthy blog post, I hope you’re not disappointed that I wasn’t able to dig up any terribly notable incidents in the life story of Horace McDuffee. But frankly, I think it’s just as important to learn about the Horace McDuffees of this world as it is to learn about the Mark Twains. Looking into the histories of most people in the past would yield a similar, normal paper trail. For many people, there is even less information. As a historian, it can be maddening to not find the answers. All in all, I spent a morning searching for Horace McDuffee and now I better understand the man in one of my favorite photographs.

No word on the story of the cat, however.