Monday, October 2, 2017

Murder at the Glen

by Erin Doane, Curator

Sometime ago, I came across a tale of murder told by Ausburn Towner in his history, Our County and Its People. While Towner was writing in the early 1890s, the story was from some 50 or 60 years earlier. The incident took place in a pretty glen that was later the site of the Rorick’s Glen amusement park from 1901 to 1918. In the 1830s and 1840s, people would go to the glen for picnics. Brewster Tuthill ran a big flat scow on the river bringing stone from a nearby quarry into the town. He would also transport parties of picnickers to the glen.

Towner tells the story of one of those parties. Rather than retelling it in my own less-lyrical way, I will share what he wrote:
A picnic there one summer day is indelibly impressed on the minds of more than one now elderly person in the city. Just as the scow was ready to start an Italian with his hand-organ and monkey hove in sight, and was instantly engaged to furnish the music for the occasion. Many of those, both young ladies and gentlemen, belonging to the best families in the village were among the picnickers, and everything was conducted in the most decorous manner, but in some way the monkey was shot dead. The exhibition of grief displayed by the Italian was something very pitiable. He moaned and wept, and embraced the dying dumb creature with a display of as much emotion as a mother would manifest over a wounded child. It ruined the picnic, cutting it short by many hours, and although a purse of nearly $50 was made up for the Italian it didn’t soothe nor console him in the least, and he quitted the party with the little dead body in his arms.

This story just brings up so many questions: What happened that someone felt the need to shoot the monkey? Why was a young gentleman, or lady, from one of the best families in the village carrying a gun at a picnic? Did the picnickers honestly think that $50 would take away the man’s grief after they had murdered his pet/business partner?

Stuffed monkey toy, early 20th century
I searched and searched for more information about the story but came up emptyhanded. I have no way of proving if Towner’s story is entirely true or if it is just one of those stories based on a real event that got change and exaggerated over time. I did, however, find some information from the 1890s that might help me try to answer some of the questions the story brought up.

Let’s start with why the man was still upset by the death of the monkey even after being given $50. Well, obviously, his pet had just been shot in front of him and died in his arms. I imagine that would be thoroughly upsetting to anyone and not easy to shrug off. On a more practical level, the monkey was likely not just an animal on a leash; it was his means of earning a living. The man would have spent countless hours training the monkey to dance and do tricks. An article that appeared in the August 27, 1898 Elmira Telegram describes how a fantastically-dressed monkey would dance to hand-organ music, turn summersaults, take coins and put them into its pocket, take off his hat and bow, and shake hands with people. The picnickers’ offer of $50 would have been the equivalent of about $1,400 today. A tame, perfectly docile monkey cost around $15 (or about $390 today) according to an 1890 ad in the Elmira Telegram. The cost of a new monkey (not wild but not trained) plus the time and effort that would go into training it may have been much greater than the money offered.

From the Elmira Telegram, September 28, 1890
Next, why would someone have brought a gun on the picnic? Now, this answer is pure speculation on my part. This story took place sometime in the 1830s or 1840s when Elmira was much smaller. The town’s population was between 3,000 and 5,000 in those years. The glen would have been out in the countryside, in the wilderness. It sort of makes sense that someone might choose to carry a gun in that case.

And finally the big question, why would someone shoot the monkey? Well, monkeys are wild animals. They obviously can be trained to wear cute little outfits and dance around but they have also been known to attack people. I found several newspaper reports of trained monkeys injuring people. On June 30, 1894, the Star-Gazette reported on Leland Smith, a ten-year-old boy whose hand was bitten by such a monkey.  On July 21, 1910, the newspaper reported that an organ grinder’s monkey, while in an ugly mood, leapt at the young daughter of Mrs. Miller of Corning and inflicted painful scratches. The musician and his monkey were ordered out of town. It is entirely possible that the monkey at the picnic in the glen fell into a bad mood and was thus shot. There is no way to know for sure without finding other reports of the incident, but it seems like a reasonable guess.

From the Elmira Star-Gazette, May 5, 1894

1 comment:

  1. What an exciting day to be at a picnic with a man with a hand organ and a trained monkey...then to have the monkey shot dead would have been so sad. I'm sure those at this picnic told the story for years to come.