Catskill Mountain House

Chapter 10

Legends - Biographical Sketches

From "The Catskill Mountains And The Region Around" (1867) By Rev. Charles Rockwell
A Romantic Story.-A Version of it by Colonel Stone.-Howes and Barber.-An Ancient House and Family.-A Female Servant.-Her Fate.-Her Master.-His Punishment.-His Age and Death.-Strange Sights and Sounds.-The Sutherlands.-The Hero of the Tale.-His Last Years.-The Facts in the Case, from Rev. Mr. Searle.-The Servant Girl.-Danger of her Master.-Retribution.-General S.-His Statement.-Ancient Swords. -Sally Hamilton.-Her Character and Violent Death.-Mystery of the Case.-Rev. Mr. Hotchkin.-His Life and Labors.-His Son.-History by Him.-Rev. Dr. Williston.-His Life and Writings.-Rev. Dr. Porter.-Events in his Life.-Samuel L. Penfield.-His Character-His Death and that of Dr. Porter.-Hon. Daniel Sayre.-Burning of his House and Children.-Their Funeral Sermon.-The Pierce Family.-John Pierce.-Ruth Pierce.-General Washington.-Dr. Bard.-Washington's Inauguration.-His Sickness.-His Feelings in View of Death.-Mrs. Croswell.-Mrs. Seeley.-Washington's Sickness, by Irving.

There is a story of peculiarly tragic and romantic interest connected with the early history of Greene County, which I will here give. The first version of it presented will for the most part be that written by Colonel William L. Stone, formerly editor of the "New York Commercial Advertiser," and author of "The Life of Brant " and other works. His version of the story is in Barber and Howe's " Historical Collections of the State of New York," pages 187, 188, and may be briefly stated thus :

Before reaching Cairo, nearly ten miles north west of Catskill, is an ancient stone house, with 1705 on its front, in large iron figures. This house is in the midst of a farm of one thousand acres, which, during part of the seventeenth and nearly all of the eighteenth century, belonged to a single owner, who was one of a family who were the original proprietors of a large domain in that neighborhood. When young, he was of an arbitrary, overbearing disposition, and of uncontrolled and violent passions. A girl, or rather young woman who was bound to service in the family and who it is said had a lover who was interested in the case, and may have had some agency in the matter, ran away. In those days, when slavery existed, and white emigrants, as was true in this case, were bound to service for a series of years, to repay the amount of their passage-money to this country, the control of masters over those thus employed was much more despotic and arbitrary than that which is now claimed or exercised by employers.

The master, having overtaken the fugitive, tied her to the tail of his horse, which, becoming frightened, ran, and dashed her to pieces among the rocks and stones. He was tried for murder, and found guilty; but, being rich and of a powerful family, through the agency of wealth and family influence, the Court was induced to delay the sentence of execution by hanging until he should be ninety-nine years old. He was also, it is said, to present himself once each year before the judges of the court, when it was in session, and always to wear a cord around his neck as a constant memento alike of his crime and its punishment. Aged people, who knew him when he was old, said that they had seen a small silken cord around his neck. For seventy-five years after his sentence he lived a retired, quiet, inoffensive life : but his crime and his sentence were not forgotten; and, when be was ninety years old and upwards, those around him said that he could not and would not die until his appointed time had come, and he had satisfied the offended justice and majesty of law, both human and divine; and that thus he would be like those of whom an inspired Apostle says, "Whose judgment" (or sentence) "now of a long time lingereth not, and their damnation " (condemnation) "slumbereth not." Thus he lived on and on; but great changes had occurred: our Revolutionary War had given us a new government, and who would molest the quiet, inoffensive old man, dead as he was to the world around him, and the world to him ? And so be died, peacefully in his bed, when more than one hundred years old; having undergone an almost lifelong punishment of exile from society around him, and of a living death in the midst of his fellow-men.

Long after this crime, even down to our own times, strange tales were told and fearful sights were seen where the murder was committed, as the country youth, returning from late visits to their lady loves or others in that region, passed at midnight by the place. Sad sighs and lamentations were borne along by the night winds. A white cow, which was a favorite with the murdered maid, would stand and sadly moan and low among the rocks ; a wild-looking, shaggy white dog, that had known and was attached to her, would stand howling and pointing towards the house where the lonely criminal lived, and would then disappear as one approached him; a white horse of gigantic size, with fiery eyeballs and distended nostrils, was often seen at night rushing past the fatal spot, dragging a female with tattered clothes behind him, shrieking aloud for help. Then a horse dragging a frightful skeleton after him, half covered with a winding-sheet, with dismal cries and howlings, would be seen borne onwards as on the wings of the wind. Again, a female figure on a huge fragment of rock, with a lighted candle on each finger, would sit and wildly sing, or utter piercing cries or an hysterical laugh. Such, in substance, is the story as given by Colonel Stone, condensed somewhat, and yet inwrought with facts from other sources, and in part in language which is not his.

"The Sutherlands," by Miss Cowles, is a romance founded on this story, she having spent some time in the neighborhood where these events are said to have occurred; and thus she made herself familiar with the traditions related above, and the place where they occurred. In filling out her tale she varies from the commonly received statements of facts in the case, by making the murdered girl a colored slave, half Indian and half mulatto, instead of white; and in other matters. Some of her descriptions have, however, so much of life and truth in them, supposing what she states to be true, that I will briefly quote them.

Speaking of her hero as living alone in his ancient and massive old dwelling, where his servants, even, would not venture at night, but lived in a lodge near by, she says of him, after his sentence: "All ugliness and vindictiveness of temper were gone. He noticed no member of his housebold, and could be made to feel no interest in the management of his estate. His faculties were all unimpaired, his memory vigorous, and his judgment clear. With acute possession of intelligence and reason, and with strangely sustained endurance, lie saw his wrecked and blasted fortunes in the fullest, strongest light. Remorse, not violent, passionate, self-destructive, and exhausting, but remorse that grew upon him, slow, steady, strong, fastening itself upon his soul, fitting itself into it, binding itself about it; this remorse was his companion, night and day. His pain of mind was not intense and racking enough to wear out his body, and his body as yet refused to prey upon his mind. The blankness and desolation of the present, the blackness and shamefulness of the past, the awfulness of the future, these he saw with eyes made clear and strong, for the perfection of his punishment; and yet no groan, no transport of remorse escaped him."

Speaking of him in his old age, as troubled mainly by the officious curiosity of the little ones who clambered up in his lap, searching for and asking about the silken cord be wore about his neck, she says, "It seemed a matter of indifference to him that his neighbors shunned and feared him ; that for weeks together no stranger would come near his dwelling; that, when he walked abroad, the very children shrank away in awe. No emotion seemed to be awakened in his mind when stories of the people's superstitions regarding him and his grim abode came to his cars. The country people would walk miles around to avoid passing within earshot of it by night. Ghosts they believed were its habitual tenants; poor murdered Nattee, chained to her ghastly horse, dashed nightly past the old man's window, and the clatter of his hoofs upon the rocks reached there the whole night long. The old man heard these stories, and knew of this belief; but they never gave him one pang, more or less.

"Children grew into youths and maidens. Some married and went to distant homes, while others lay down to rest in narrower but stiller homes in the churchyard on the hill, and yet the old man's breath was even and his brow unclouded. Changes such as few men live to see passed upon those around him, and left him untouched. He saw the young let go their hold on life and lie down dumb in death, the old sink quietly into waiting graves, and the middle-aged give grudgingly up their cherished idols and obey God's summons. He saw revolutions convulse the State, a republic born, a nation started into life, wars rage and cease, great names made and great men rise and reign and die; and still his worthless, blank, dead life clung to him, still his dreary burden must be borne.

"The slow years grew heavier and slower as they neared that once distant goal. Each day had its own dire, distinct, unceasing weight of dread. He felt life enough in his pulses to carry him beyond that point, vitality enough to hold him in the flesh until justice should have her due. But he need not have feared: men had forgotten if God had not. A new government held the reigns, a new generation had arisen; the old man and his crime were things long buried in the past. In the hurry and tumult of the present, old reckonings were lost sight of, old promises were obliterated. The appointed time of retribution came and passed, and Ralph Sutherland died quietly in his bed, undisturbed of men, and only judged of by God, in the hundredth year of his strange and sinful life. As Moore has well said,

    'To walk through sunlight places,
    With heart all cold the while;
    To look in smiling faces,
    When we no more can smile;
    To feel, while earth and heaven
    Around thee shine with bliss,
    To thee no light is given,--
    Oh! what a doom is this.' "

Some of the principal facts in the case described above, as recently obtained at my request from aged people living in the neighborhood, by my friend, Rev. Mr. Searle, pastor of the Reformed Dutch Church in Leeds, a village in the town of Catskill, are as follows :

Mr. William S---, belonging to one of the earliest, richest, and most respectable families in the county, a man honorable alike in his descent and in his descendants, who still live in the county, was guilty of the crime in question. He did not live in the old house spoken of by Colonel Stone, built in 1705, and now occupied by Mr. James Van Deusen, though he was born there; but in that in which General William S--- formerly lived, and where the family of the late Cornelius Rouse now reside. It is the old stone house near the tollgate, on the road to Cairo, a little more than a mile from the Dutch Church in Leeds.

The girl who was killed was white and of Scotch descent. She had been sold, as it was called, to Mr. S---; that is, she had been bound by her parents to labor for him until she was twenty-one years old, in order to raise money with which to pay for the then recent passage of the family from Scotland, - it being common in early times for persons to sell themselves, or rather their labor for a term of years, or to be thus sold by others, in order to pay for their passage as emigrants from Europe to America. The young woman, not being treated as she liked, ran away, and was pursued and overtaken by Mr. S---. To punish her he tied her hands together with a halter, which he fastened to his horse's tail. While thus dragging her along she stumbled and fell, hitting the hind legs of the horse, and so frightening him that he became unmanageable, and ran at a furious rate with her fastened to him, until after she was dead. Mr. S--- was also thrown from the horse, and with his foot fast in the stirrup would himself have been killed but for the breaking of his shoe-buckle, by which his foot was released. What a fearful spectacle of speedy retributive justice would it have been had his dead and mangled body, with hers, been drawn along the rough road, torn and bleeding, by that fiercely dashing steed! To such an event a parallel could scarce have been found in the poetry or fiction of any age. The place where she was killed was on the old Coxsackie road, half a mile northwest of the church, between the house of Mr. William Newkirk and the foundry of Mr. Milton Fowks. Her body, it is said, was buried on Mr. Newkirk's farm. As applied to cases like that here given, how true it is, that,

    "In a moment, we may plunge our years
    In fatal penitence, and in the blight
    Of our own souls turn all our blood to tears,
    And color things to come with hues of night.
    The race of life becomes a hopeless flight
    To those who walk in darkness;
    And yet existence may be borne, and the deep root
    Of life and sufferance make its firm abode
    In bare and desolate bosoms."

Since writing the above I have called upon General S---, a grandson of the hero of this tale, a highly respectable citizen of Catskill, and a magistrate there. And although it is a pity, a sad pity indeed, to spoil or mar so good a story, so often repeated, and so religiously believed in all the country round, yet I here give the statements he made to me, as received from his father. His impression is that the servant in question was a German, but of this he is not sure. She had been enticed away by, or had gone to the house of, a low family who lived in the fields near where the Jacksons reside, about a mile from Leeds, on the road to Catskill. As she refused to return and fulfil her contract to labor, and behaved badly in other respects, Mr. S--- tied her with a rope, which he fastened around his own body ; and hence, when the horse became frightened and ran, he was thrown to the ground, and was in danger of being killed. He gave himself up to the court, who, on learning the facts in the case, acquitted him and let him go free. He died in the autumn of 1801, a few months after his grandson, General S---, was born. His will, dated February 2, 1800, I have seen, The family have two swords, one marked 1550, and the other 1635, which have come down to them from their first ancestor in this country, a man of high military rank and command. July 25, 1813, a young lady named Sally Hamilton, daughter of Samuel Hamilton, Esq., of the upper village in Athens, in Greene County, opposite Hudson, in a thickly-settled part of the village, was left by friends within twenty rods of her father's house; and three days after her body was found half a mile above the bridge of the creek, north of the village, as far up as a boat could go or the tide could bear it. The skull and cheek bone were broken ; her hands were much injured; and there were marks of blows on her breast: but no other violence bad been offered her. The stifled cries of a woman in distress were heard in the village, as also eighty rods beyond the creek, and there was blood on the timbers of the bridge. She was a young lady of unimpeachable character, attractive in her person, highly respectable in her connections, and in a good degree accomplished. The coroner's jury brought in a verdict that her death was caused by some person or persons unknown; and unknown they still are, after a period of more than half a century. Different persons were at times suspected of being connected with the murder; and one man charged with it was tried, but was forthwith fully acquitted.

A brief sketch of Rev. Mr. Stimson, of Windham, in Greene County, a pioneer settler there, has been given in this work. There are others of the same class, who deserve a record here.

Rev. Beriah Hotchkin, from New Haven County, Connecticut, came to Greene County in 1792, and is said to have been the first missionary from New England to the white settlers west of the Hudson River. Like Roger Sherman, of Revolutionary fame, a native of the same State, and others who have risen to distinction, he was a self-made man, and a shoemaker. He founded most of the Presbyterian churches in the county, including those in Catskill, Cairo, Greenville, Windham, and Durham; and labored with energy and success in Greenville from 1792 until 1824, soon after which he died. He was a sound and able divine, dignified, venerable, and much esteemed and beloved. Like Dr. Porter, of Catskill, be wore the small-clothes of early times until he died. His son, Rev. James H. Hotchkin, who entered the ministry in 1801, published in 1848 a very useful and instructive work of five hundred pages octavo, on the settlement of Western New York by the whites, and the rise and progress of the Presbyterian Church in that region.

Rev. Dr. Williston, pastor of the Presbyterian Church in Durham from 1810 until 1828, was born in Suffield, Connecticut, in 1770; was a graduate of Dartmouth College in 1787, and a fine scholar; had once as a pupil the celebrated Unitarian divine, Dr. Channing, of Boston; was a very grave, devout, and able minister; and published many tracts, sermons, and theological treatises. His thorough conscientiousness, deep-toned and earnest piety, and familiar knowledge of the sacred Scriptures, have rarely been equalled or surpassed. He died in 1854, in the eighty-first year of his age.

Rev. Dr. Porter, of Catskill, was a native of Hebron, Connecticut; was born in 1761 ; was ten months in our Revolutionary army; graduated at Dartmouth College with high rank as a scholar, in 1784; came to Catskill in 1803, when it was small, and by his energy, talents, learning, thorough knowledge of men, and his ability and piety as a Christian preacher, did more than any other man to form and control the early religious character of the place. He died in Catskill in 1851, in the ninetieth year of his age.

Mr. Samuel L. Penfield, a native of Fairfield, Connecticut, came to Catskill as a clerk, when sixteen years of age; was long a merchant in the place, a man of intelligence, energy, strict integrity, and uncommon purity and worth; and was for many years an elder in Dr. Porter's church. He and his pastor, who for forty-five years had together lived and labored, and prayed and praised the Lord of all, justly loving and esteeming each other in advanced years with matured Christian piety, died the same day and the same hour of the day. " Lovely and pleasant in their lives, in their death they were not divided." Together their spirits ascended to heaven, together were their bodies borne to the house of God, where they had so often united in prayer and praise, and together were they laid in their graves. It was as if Elijah and Elisha had together, from the banks of the Jordan, gone up to heaven, or from the summit of Tabor or of Olivet our Saviour had taken the beloved disciple with him up to heaven.

Hon. Daniel Sayre came from Long Island to Cairo in 1794, was a pioneer there, and long a leading man in the place. He was one of the founders of the Presbyterian Church, a member of the Legislature, and a county judge. January 8, 1808, his house was burned in the night; and four of his children, one son and three daughters, aged four, seven, eleven, and fifteen years, perished in the flames. Their funeral sermon, by Dr. Porter, with the facts in the case, was published; and the tradition of the sad event will long live in all the region round.

Early in my professional life I preached for a time in Litchfield, Connecticut, where I had a home with two ladies of the name of Pierce and their brother, all of them advanced in life and unmarried. The ladies of the family had long carried on a female boarding-school, said to have been the first one in point of time in our country, and continued so long that three generations in the same family had in some cases been educated in the school. Their brother, John Pierce, was Paymaster-General of our Revolutionary army through the whole of the war; having been selected for that office and appointed to it by the special urgency and effort of General Washington, as one "in whose ability and integrity he had entire confidence," as is learned from his letters. Our National House of Representatives, also, at the close of the war, passed a vote of thanks to Mr. Pierce, as one whose "heart was pure and his hands clean."

Mr. Pierce married a daughter of Dr. Bard, an eminent physician in New York, who was the medical attendant of General Washington when he was in the city. Ruth Pierce, a sister of John, was born in Litchfield, February 22, 1765, so that she was ten years old when the Revolutionary War began, and sixteen when it closed. Her family connections, as stated above, led her to be acquainted with General Washington and his family. At the age of twenty-four she witnessed his inauguration as President of the United States; and she ever afterwards retained a distinct and lively impression of his majestic and commanding form and bearing, as, stepping forth upon the balcony of the old Federal Hall, in New York, which stood where the Custom-House now does, he there received the oath of office, in the presence of an immense crowd of spectators.

After this, Miss Pierce was invited to take tea with General Washington's family, at a time when he was severely, if not dangerously ill with quinsy. While she was there Dr. Bard came in from the General's room, looking very grave, and related what had passed between them. Washington, knowing the danger there was of his dying from suffocation, said, "Doctor, if I am to die, do not hesitate to tell me of it. I am quite prepared. If it be the will of God, I am prepared to fall asleep, and in this world never wake again."

In 1791 Miss Pierce was married to Dr. Thomas O. H. Croswell, and the next year removed to Catskill, in the infancy of the village, where, as a refined and intelligent Christian lady, she lived seventy years, highly and justly beloved and esteemed. On removing to Catskill, I early sought her acquaintance, and learned from her the story of her early life, as she was then in full possession of her faculties; and she went abroad until her death, which took place January 7, 1862, at the age of ninety-six years, ten months, and fifteen days.

Of about the same age with Mrs. Croswell was Mrs. Maria Seeley, who died at a later date. She was a parishioner of mine, and I often visited her in her old age. Her mind was weakened by age and infirmity; and she had a distinct recollection of the beginning and whole course of the Revolutionary War, as it raged on the bloody ground of Ulster County, where the burning of Kingston, the frequent savage raids of Indians and tories, with the massacre and frequent carrying away into captivity of those around her, made a deep impression on her mind. She used often to apologize to me for her want of early education, by saying that when she was young the schools were all broken up by the war.

In the Life of Washington, by Washington Irving, vol. iv., page 312, and elsewhere, we have a record of events referred to above, which is as follows :

"Washington was inaugurated April 30, 1789. At nine o'clock there was prayer in all the churches. At twelve the city troops presented themselves before his door. At half-past twelve the procession moved, with the Committees of Congress and Heads of Departments, in carriages, to the place of inauguration."

In vol. v., pages 21, 22, of the same work, we have the following account of General Washington's sickness, already referred to. Speaking of his early Presidential life, Irving says, " It was interrupted by an attack of anthrax "(a general inflammation of the throat, tending to mortification, and much more extended than quinsy, which commonly affects only the tonsils and upper part of the throat). "For several days he was threatened with mortification, and a knowledge of his dangerous condition caused great alarm in the community. He, however, was unagitated. His medical adviser was Dr. Samuel Bard, an excellent physician and estimable man, who attended him with unremitting assiduity. When, at a certain time, alone with Washington, the President looked steadily at him and asked him his candid opinion of the probable result of his sickness, and said to him, with placid firmness, 'Doctor, do not flatter me with vain hopes; I am not afraid ; I can bear the worst.' The doctor told him that there was ground for hope, but yet there was also reason for apprehension as to the result. 'Whether I die to-night or twenty years hence,' said Washington, I makes no difference to me. I know that I am in the hands of a Good Providence.' His sufferings were intense, and his recovery slow. For six weeks he could lie only on his right side. After a time he had a carriage so contrived that be could lie in it at full length, and thus take exercise in the open air."

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