Monday, October 24, 2016

Executions in Elmira

by Erin Doane, curator

During the 19th century, more than 90 people were executed in New York State. Three of those executions took place in Elmira.

Henry Gardner – Executed March 1, 1867 for the murder of Amasa Mullock

Henry Gardner was a soldier with the 12th Regiment of the United States infantry stationed at the Pickaway Barracks in Southport. The 24-year-old from Ohio was one of many soldiers who came through Elmira during the Civil War. Amasa Mullock was an old man who was well-known about Elmira. On December 29, 1864, Gardner robbed Mullock of $300-$400 and a watch then beat the man to death with his musket.

Nearly three months later, on March 19, 1865, a group of soldiers were rambling in the woods about a mile and a half from Elmira when they came upon Mullock’s body. His head was terribly mangled and the rest of his body showed signs of violence.

Gardner was the last person seen with Mullock before he disappeared in December. He was arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced to death. Hanging was the prescribed method of capital punishment at the time. Gallows were erected in the Chemung County jail yard in Elmira for the execution. Before the sentence was carried out, Gardner spoke to the crowd that had gathered to watch the hanging. He spoke of his misdeeds and declared that “liquor is the ruination of any man.”

The hanging was described as “bungled, horrible and revolting.” Gardner was dropped through the trap three times before finally dying. If that was not bad enough, his body was then turned over to Dr. P. H. Flood, a local Elmira physician. Flood embalmed and mummified Gardner’s body and kept it on display in a glass case in his office for many years. Eventually the body was moved into the cellar of Flood’s home then out to a barn on the property. A group of boys found the body in the barn and stole it. They put it in a vault at the brewery at the foot of East Water Street and set it on fire. Police found the charred remains and briefly investigated the “murder” before discovering that the body was that of Henry Gardner.

Peter H. Penwell – Executed July 20, 1877 for the murder of his wife

Peter Penwell was a resident of the Town of Erin. In December 1871, he married a woman from Toledo, Ohio whom he had known for just a week or two. He was in his late 50s at the time. About five years into their marriage, Penwell became jealous of a “magnetic quack” who was paying a great deal of attention to his wife. As a way to end their troubles as a couple, Penwell and his wife decided to poison themselves with arsenic. He gave his wife a large dose that put her on her sickbed without killing her and he took a smaller dose that was said to have made him crazy. Penwell’s father had died in a madhouse so mental illness was not unknown in the family.

On March 10, 1876, Penwell borrowed a razor from a neighbor, claiming that he needed to shave. He went into the room where his wife lay sick and chopped her to death with an old ax. He then cut his own throat with the borrowed razor. Penwell’s wound was not serious enough to kill him.

When he was first arrested, Penwell admitted to the crime. He said he had committed the murder in a jealous rage. Later he denied killing his wife. He was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death. It was reported at the time that all agreed that he had committed the crime but some questioned the punishment. An Albany newspaper called it a “judicial murder.”

The gallows were constructed in the space between the old and new jail buildings in Elmira and a high board fence was built around the yard to keep out the immense crowd that gathered for the execution. Soldiers from the 110th battalion were even called in to keep the crowd under control.

About 250 people were admitted into the enclosure to witness the hanging. Penwell was attended by three ministers. His last words were of thanks to the sheriff and his family for the kind treatment he had received leading up to the execution. He then turned to the sheriff and said, “I am ready.” Unlike with Gardner’s hanging ten years earlier, Penwell’s execution was flawless and he died almost instantly. 

Joseph Abbott – Executed January 6, 1882 for the murder of George Reed

Joseph Abbot was described as “a tall, stoop-shouldered man with a beardless face and an evil look in his deep black eyes.” On September 14, 1879, he robbed a man named Brown of $5.50 and a silk handkerchief on a highway near Rome, New York. He was arrested and taken to Utica. On the way, he made a desperate attempt to escape. He jumped off a rock ledge, swam across a canal, and ran one and a half miles through a swamp before being recaptured. He was sentenced to the Elmira Reformatory for highway robbery.

While incarcerated, Abbott worked in the Reformatory’s hollowware shop making pots and kettles. George Reed was another inmate working in the shop. He was serving time for grand larceny. Some sort of argument took place between Abbott and Reed in the shop on April 10, 1880. Abbott found a 4-foot long, 1-inch diameter iron rod and hit Reed in the back of the head with it. He beat Reed several more time then returned to his work station.

The morning of his execution, Abbott had beefsteak, potatoes, toast, cake, and coffee for breakfast. He spent some time speaking with family, friends, and reporters. Abbott’s brother was by his side but his father was serving a life sentence in Connecticut State Prison for murder. The sheriff read the death warrant inside the jail because Abbott did not want to stand out in the cold listing to anything, then they proceeded to the gallows in the north jail yard. He was attended by three clergymen. Sources report that there were anywhere from 40 to 150 witnesses at the execution.

The 26-year-old’s final words were, “Good bye, gentlemen; in my death you witness a terrible injustice.” Abbott was hanged at 11:15am but his neck did not break. He was left to strangle for about five minutes before losing consciousness. He was declared dead by physicians 14 minutes after the hanging. His body was taken by train to his hometown of Waterbury, Connecticut to be laid to rest.

Monday, October 17, 2016

The Tragic Story of Peggy the Dog Heroine

By Kelli Huggins, Education Coordinator

At 3:15 a.m. on January 30, 1946, a fire swept through an apartment building at 107 College Avenue in Elmira. Peggy, a 4 ½-month-old collie puppy, woke her owner, Mrs. Davitt, when smoke began to fill their apartment. Mr. Davitt called the fire department and rushed to alert the other tenants. He carried Peggy under his arm through the smoke to safety. Because of Peggy, all nine people in the building escaped and the firefighters were able to contain the blaze. 

Peggy was treated for minor injuries at the Blostein Animal Hospital at 2046 Lake Street. A photograph of her and her doctors was taken by the press. Peggy was praised as a heroine in the local newspaper.
Press photo of Peggy receiving treatment at the veterinarian's office
Sadly, the next week, on February 4, Peggy was hit by a car and died. She had been staying with her displaced family in the Town of Veteran. The Elmira Star-Gazette said she was a “victim of another form of danger which she was too young to understand.” The Davitts didn’t blame the driver for the accident and recalled their brief time with her fondly. They had purchased her immediately after seeing her in a store window.

The 4 ½-month-old puppy was buried with some of her beloved toys on a hill near Sullivanville. The Davitts wanted to have a plot of land around her grave deeded in Peggy’s name, but this likely never happened.    

Monday, October 10, 2016

Police Collection

By Rachel Dworkin, Archivist

This past Wednesday, the Elmira Police Department agreed to loan us their entire history collection for use in our upcoming exhibit Crime and Punishment. Their only stipulation was that we catalog it for them since they weren’t entirely sure what was in it. I haven’t had too much time to really dig in, but so far the collection seems to have a whole lot of photographs of department personnel and offices; five years’ worth of correspondence from the 1940s; various handbooks and training manuals; badges and obsolete equipment; and miscellaneous stuff. 
Here are, in no particular order, five of the coolest things I’ve discovered so far.

Department daybooks, 1890s-1900s

Police daybook, 1898
The books include a daily account of which officers were on duty for each shift and anything of note they encountered during the course of their patrols. Reading through, this includes fires, burglaries, prostitutes, drunks, unlocked doors, stray animals, and a burst water pipe among other things.

Riot gear, ca. 1980s
The gear includes a helmet with face shield and a bullet-proof vest.  The vest worn by one of the SWAT officers during the Jones Court shoot out on January 8, 1984 where Sergeant John Hawley was killed.

SWAT gear

DARE stuff
There’s a box’s worth of material associated with department’s DARE program including photo albums, scrapbooks, press clippings, and informational brochures.  My favorite part though are the literal slide shows still on their slide carousel with the scripts attached. It’s like a flashback to middle school health class.

Evidence from murder cases

I was really surprised to open a box and find photographs of the autopsies of Police Chief John Finnell and Detective Sergeant Charles Gradwell who were both murdered on March 23, 1915 (see "Elmira's Most Wanted" for details).  The pictures are not for the faint of heart, let me tell you. In another box I also found blood samples and bullet fragments from a 1958 murder case. Here’s hoping they don’t need that for a trial any time soon.

I sure hope no one needs this random bag of evidence.  Be glad I didn't post the autopsy photos.  Yeash!

Retired officers’ questionnaires
Last, but certainly not least, is a binder full of questionnaires filled out by retired officers, most of whom served between 1950 and 2005. In it, officers talk about their training and some of their more memorable moments on the job. Some of their stories are hilarious and some are rather harrowing, but all of them are pretty cool.

Monday, October 3, 2016

SS Ross G. Marvin: World War II Liberty Ship

by Erin Doane, curator

On November 29, 1943 at 3:45pm, Mrs. Gertrude Colegrove Tum of Elmira stood in Baltimore’s Bethlehem-Fairfield Shipyard. In her gloved hands she held a champagne bottle wrapped in red, white, and blue satin. At the signal, she released the bottle. It swung through the air on its attached rope and smashed into the newly-completed Liberty ship, the SS Ross G. Marvin. After the christening, Mrs. Tum and her party retired to the Belvedere Hotel for a luncheon.
Bottle used to christen the SS Ross G. Marvin, 1943
The SS Ross G. Marvin was one of over 2,700 Liberty ships built by the United States during World War II. Marvin, was an Elmira native and arctic explorer who died on the ice while seeking the North Pole with Robert Peary in 1909. (You can read about his tragic, mysterious end in one of my earlier posts – Death in the Arctic.) His niece, Mrs. Tum, sponsored the ship and was given the honor of christening it before its launch.

Oil painting of Ross Marvin by James Vinton Stowell
 Liberty ships were a class of cargo ships used as transports during the war. The quickly-built ships, based on the design of an 1879 British ship, were nicknamed “ugly ducklings” by President Franklin Roosevelt. A Liberty ship measured 441 feet long and 57 feet wide. A 3-cylinder, reciprocating steam engine fed by two oil-burning boilers produced 2,950 horsepower and could propel the ship across the waters at 11 knots. Over 9,000 tons of cargo could be stowed in five holds with watertight bulkheads. Each ship was also equipped with a distillation system to make sea water drinkable for the wartime crew of 40 merchant marines and 30 navy gunners.

Between 1941 and 1945, eighteen shipyards built over 2,700 ships at the cost of about $2 million each (equivalent to about $34 million today). Baltimore’s Bethlehem-Fairfield Shipyard in Maryland was the largest of its kind in the United States. Each ship was made of 250,000 prefabricated parts from all over the country. The modular construction of the ships reduced the amount of man-hours required to build them so the shipyards were able to produce many ships very quickly. The first Liberty ship, the SS Patrick Henry, which launched September 27, 1941, took 244 days to build. By 1943, a ship could be built in as little as 16 days. The SS Robert E. Peary was built in world’s record time of 4 days, 15 ½ hours. It took 23 days to construct the SS Ross G. Marvin. Overall, the average construction time of a Liberty ship was about 40 days.

Completed Liberty ship ready to be launched at 
the Bethlehem-Fairfield Shipyards, Baltimore, 
Maryland, April 1943
 Liberty ships were named after notable, deceased Americans including founding fathers, civil leaders, scientist, and authors. 114 ships were named after women and 18 after African Americans. The last 100 ships that were constructed bore the names of merchant seamen who had died in service during the course of the war. Ross Marvin was chosen because of his involvement in Admiral Peary’s arctic expeditions. It is also interesting to note, however, that John M. Carmody, Commissioner of the United States Maritime Commission in Washington, and chairman of the ship naming committee was also an Elmira native who had attended school with Marvin.

Construction of Liberty ships ended in 1945. About 200 of the ships were destroyed and sunk during the war. After the fighting ended, most of the ships were sold into private hands and converted for a variety of different uses. The SS Ross G. Marvin was sold privately then scrapped in 1947. Today, only two fulling-operational Liberty ships still exist as floating museums – the SS Jeramiah O’Brien in San Francisco, California and the SS John W. Brown in Baltimore, Maryland.


Monday, September 26, 2016

This Story is Bananas!

By Kelli Huggins, Education Coordinator

The mysterious banana photo, c. 1900
For years I have been trying to figure out the historical explanation for this unusual banana photograph in our collection (and by “trying” I mean periodically thinking that I should look into it and then forgetting). I simply couldn’t understand why a single Elmira fruit dealer around the turn of the 20th century would have that many bananas in stock. I mean, how could they possibly sell them all before they spoiled? Was there really that big of a market for bananas here? Well, I think I’ve finally cracked the code.

A fruit dealer with a far more sensible amount of banana merchandise, c. 1895.
Bananas were available in the US after the Civil War, but they were at first expensive and a luxury. They cost a dime each, about $2 today. They were sold peeled and cut so that their shape would not offend prudish Victorians. By the 1870s, large-scale banana importation began, with American ships sailing to the Caribbean and South America for product. As refrigerated shipping increased the quantities of bananas on the market, prices dropped and they became a normal part of many American’s diets. They were billed as a nutritional powerhouse, particularly for poor families.

This 1894 Elmira price listing shows that banana prices were decreasing, but still weren't the cheapest food.
In the 1890s, smaller importers merged to create United Fruit Company, which dominated the market, squashing competition and putting pressure on small fruit retailers. The new banana trust was importing around 12 million bunches of bananas a year by 1900 and their monopoly allowed them to bully small businesses.

In Elmira, fruit dealers felt the pressure. They were charged exorbitant fees for the product and were forced to purchase more bananas than they wanted or could sell. Local merchants were forced to sign a contract to receive 300 bunches every week for the entire year. One anonymous fruit dealer said, “There is absolutely no redress for the merchant. And you must take the kind they ship you. Some of the bunches have to be thrown away because of decay.” This pressure forced some local dealers out of the banana game and ultimately led to a scarcity of bananas in the city by 1903.

Headline from the Elmira Star-Gazette, April 20, 1903.
The P. Laskaris and Brothers “Greek Fruit Dealers” shop in the photograph likely signed one of these unfair banana trust deals. They opened this shop in 1889 and sold fruit, candy, ice cream, and soda. And bananas. Lots and lots of bananas.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Fangirls Gonna Fan

by Rachel Dworkin, archivist

I am, I confess, something of a fangirl. These days there are a lot of ways for fangirls like me to get our geek on. There are entire industries which market toys and apparel to them.  Tabloids and Twitter help fans keep track of their favorite celebrities. Social media offers fans across the world a platform where they can discuss the latest episode of their favorite shows. Fans can cosplay and meet both fellow fans and content creators at conventions. They can share their fanfic, fanvids, and other fan-created stuff on websites like and Archive of Our Own.  Unless they’re stalking Jody Foster and shooting Ronald Reagan, there’s no wrong way to be a fan.
While there have always been fans, it wasn’t until the early 20th century when industries rose to cater to their interest. The first fan magazine, that is to say a magazine geared towards fans of a specific aspect of popular culture, was called Photoplay. When it first appeared in 1911, each issue was basically a condensed tie-in novel for recently released films.  In 1915, they reformatted to include reviews of films, actor interviews, and celebrity gossip. This became the hallmark of later fan magazines for all sorts of fandoms including film, radio, TV, and sports.

Screen Secrets, March 1930
Back during the 1920s and ‘30s, local teen Ruth Collin took full advantage of the fandom industry of her day.  Her first foray into fandom was a scrapbook made between 1926 and 1928, which she filled with advertisements and reviews of every one of the 87 films she watched during that period.  Starting in the late 1920s, she began subscribing to film magazines including The New Movie Magazine, Movie Mirror, Silver Screen, Screen Romances, and The Modern Screen Magazine. She got studios to send her autographed portraits of her favorite stars.

New Movie Magazine, April 1930
Signed photo of Joan Crawford sent by MGM Studio.  The dog did not sign.
In addition to the collection documenting Ruth Collin’s fanish obsession, we also have a collection of baseball scrapbooks from the 1940s and ‘50s, and a bunch of 1990s boy band posters.  Now all we need is a Star Trek fanzine from the 1960s and we’ll be all set.  Seriously though, if you have one of those, we really do need one.

Monday, September 12, 2016

The Beginning of Licensed Toys

by Erin Doane, curator

If you have walked down the toy aisle lately, I’m sure you’ve noticed that it is very difficult to find a toy that is not connected to a television show, cartoon, movie, or video game. The unbranded stuffed animal and generic bouncy ball seem to be things of the past. That was not always the case, however. It wasn’t until the early 20th century that licensed toys began to be mass-produced. During the Great Depression, toy sales dropped dramatically. To boost sales, companies began making toys that tied in to movies and cartoons of the time. Here at the Chemung County Historical Society, we have a small collection of these types of toys.

Shirley Temple doll, 1930s
Shirley Temple started acting in 1932 at the age of three. She quickly became America’s sweetheart during the Great Depression, starring in a string of popular movies. In 1934, the Ideal Novelty and Toy Company approached the young singer/actress’s family about creating a doll in her likeness. The Shirley Temple doll quickly became Ideal’s best-selling product despite being relatively expensive at $3.00 for the smallest doll.

Hopalong Cassidy’s “Dairy Lea” toy gun, 1950s
Author Clarence E. Mulford created Hopalong Cassidy in 1904. The cowboy was the hero of a series of novels and short stories through the 1930s. Hopalong Cassidy first appeared on the silver screen in 1935 with William Boyd in the starring role. In all, 66 movies were made through the 1930s and 1940s about the cowboy’s adventures. Hopalong Cassidy also appeared in television and radio shows. His name and likeness were put on products of all sorts from lunch boxes and cameras to watches and cap guns.  

My Pal Lassie stuffed dog, 1950s
In 1940, the novel Lassie Come-Home by Eric Knight was published. Three years later MGM released a feature film version of the story. Ten more Lassie films were made between 1945 and 2005. A dog name Pal played the first Lassie on film and a series of his descendants have played the character through the years. In 1954, Lassie first appeared on television. The Emmy Award winning series was on the air for 19 years. Fans of the show could own their own My Pal Lassie stuffed dog.

Bendix bicycle stick shift, c. 1958
The teenage character Archie Andrews first appeared in 1941 in Pep Comics #22. He became so popular that he got his own series of comics, Archie Comics, in 1942. In the 1950s, Bendix used Archie to sell its bicycle stick shift. The Eclipse Machine Co. in Elmira was a division of the Bendix Corporation. The company produced bicycle brakes and components throughout the 1950s and 1960s including the stick shift that let you “shift your bike like a racecar driver!” Archie is still appearing in comics today and a television series entitled Riverdale about Archie and his high school friends is scheduled to air on the CW network during the 2016-2017 season.