JULY 2019




Horse and Wagon

For twelve chilly, meandering hours, the horse had been plodding on its way from one village to the next.  Now, early in the evening of one of the shortest days of the year, Jericho ’s roads were as dark as Freeport ’s had been when the horse set out that morning.  The animal was hungry, and the old fisherman driving the wagon knew it. And so, Bill Rhodes drove to the Jericho Hotel, right at the corner where the Turnpike ended at Main Street .  He tied up his rig and slung a feedbag from the horse’s head.  Content now, the horse began chewing its oats.

Once inside, Rhodes unbuttoned his overcoat and sat down.  A drink would help him warm him up faster.  After chatting with William Horton, the proprietor, for an hour, Rhodes was warm enough, and his horse was rested enough.  The fisherman bade Mr. Horton a good night.  Soon the rig was rolling slowly south along the Jerusalem Road .  Rhodes was heading to a poor black community, where he would peddle the rest of his clams and cod at the end of a long day of fish mongering.  The people there would dicker, and he would lower his prices as much as he had to.  In the end, his wagon finally would be empty.


*


At three in the morning, Thomas Cahill was walking where he always walked with his lantern at that hour, looking over the Main Line’s track from Westbury to Hicksville .  For much of the way, it ran along the crest of an embankment, isolated from the farms on either side.  Mostly, the track-walker was inspecting fishplates – the iron connectors through which the ends of the 39-foot lengths of rail were bolted together to keep them aligned.  Fishplates had a way of working themselves loose.  If they were not kept tight, they might cause a train wreck.

About three-fourths of a mile shy of the Hicksville depot, at a spot where the embankment was fourteen or fifteen feet high, Cahill thought he saw something ahead.  He moved forward, still studying the rails as he walked, and soon came upon shards of a wooden crate, scattered on the track with some fish and clams.  This was unexpected; the track-walker lifted his lantern high and looked around.  Beyond the south face of the embankment, where the lantern light stretched and faded without quite reaching it, something jutted up from below.  It resembled the corner of a wagon’s tailgate.  He clambered part-way down, and the lantern revealed the wreckage of a wagon that had gone down the embankment.  Why would a fish wagon have been up there?  He climbed back up, crossed the track, and worked his way down the opposite face.   Not far away, a culvert crossed under the embankment.  As he approached it, he began to make out a pair of motionless legs which protruded from its mouth.  Again the track-walker lifted his lantern.  Peering into the opening, he saw that the rest of the body was bloodied, and its skull was crushed.

A white horse slowly wandered in the adjacent field, nose to the ground, nibbling.  It did not seem troubled by the broken harness that trailed behind it.  In fact, the horse looked very much at peace with its world.


***


The News

The first reports, written only hours after Thomas Cahill’s gruesome find, opined that the death of Rhodes could not have been accidental.




 
New York Herald, December 18, 1879
The typo notwithstanding, the Herald seemed quite certain
that the death was intentional.

The nearest crossing at which a wagon could turn – intentionally or not – to get onto the tracks was a half-mile distant.  Had it gained the track accidentally, the constant bumping would have alerted the driver to his error.  Regardless, there were no wheel ruts that led from that crossing onto the track.  Indeed, up on the embankment the wheel ruts began only 200 yards east of the wreckage.  It would have been impossible for the horse to pull the wagon from there to where the wagon had fallen, because along the way the animal would have had to walk over a cattle guard (i.e., a frame with many openings, recessed between the rails so that a cow or horse would stumble, and not be able to continue walking along the track). Some people were speculating that the wagon had been carried up the embankment by a group of men.  And the wreckage didn’t look right, either: there was damage that could not have resulted from a plunge to the ground.  How had whatever happened to the wagon not injured the horse?  Although the wagon’s shafts were broken, part of them remained connected to the harness that the horse wore.  And of course, the driver’s body and the wreckage were found on opposite sides of the embankment.  This was no accident.

A
gory puzzle like this one would be in the news for quite some time – but as things turned out, it wasn’t.


***


Shouts of a Chicken Thief’s Wife

Quiet little Hicksville had a knack for making the news.  A year earlier, the Dredgers – a man and his two grown sons – were arrested because their barn was full of stolen items, including about a hundred chickens.  The Dredgers confessed to the theft of everything found in the barn.  The arrests were duly reported by the newspapers, after which unknown other thieves promptly emptied the barn, stealing the almost-recovered property all over again, hens and all.  Moral: In Hicksville , don’t count your chickens until the police return them to you.

Now, two days after news first broke of the puzzling death of William Rhodes, another story put Hicksville in the news yet again.  The Brooklyn Daily Eagle – the evening newspaper with the largest circulation in America – devoted almost a full column to poultry thefts.



The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, December 20, 1878
Ethnic references abounded in the press of the day.  Almost always, African- Italian- Jewish-
Polish- Chinese- and German-Americans who made the news for any reason were labeled
 ethnically. My favorite example is a story about a man’s being rescued from drowning; the
title read simply SAVED BY AN ITALIAN


An angry, battered woman had shouted to the world that her husband, Pete Thompson, was a chicken thief.  Word spread, and Thompson was arrested.  He confessed, implicating three others.  He said that the four men (two German-Americans and two African-Americans) had been responsible for many of the thefts.  Thompson, James Seaman, and a man called Reinhardt were roving thieves; Jacob Gobhardt of Hicksville was their fence.  Birds were delivered to Gobhardt’s home in Hicksville in exchange for cash (six cents per pound for chickens, and a full dollar – equivalent to twenty-one dollars today – per turkey).  Until slaughtered, the birds were concealed in a secret cellar that Gobhardt had dug for precisely that purpose.  After he slaughtered a batch of birds, Gobhardt drove to Brooklyn , always late at night.  He then took a ferry to Manhattan .  Come morning, he sold his ill-gotten poultry.  Following a search of his Hicksville property (including the secret cellar below the trap door), Gobhardt was arrested.  Seaman and Reinhardt could not be found.

The importance of these arrests could not be exaggerated.  For more than a year, the county had suffered an astounding incidence of poultry thefts – more than ten thousand chickens per month.  There had been neither progress nor suspects.


***


An Oyster Planter’s Inquest

As news of the chicken ring ebbed, the Rhodes story briefly resurfaced.  On the day after Christmas, newspapers reported that Oyster Bay Town Coroner Valentine Baylis had concluded an inquest into the death.  A few new facts of interest had been divulged:

Although the wagon was damaged, little of the damage was caused by its rolling or sliding down the embankment.

Traces of hair from the wagon horse’s front legs had been found in the boards of the track cattle guard.

In addition to a fractured skull, Rhodes had suffered a wound to his head, a gash so deep that it penetrated his brain.  The injury had been caused by an axe or similar implement; no such item was found at the scene.

After selling fish all day, Rhodes should have had twenty dollars or more on his person; almost no money was found.

When last seen, he was wearing his distinctive overcoat, but no overcoat was found at the scene.

 

In short, there now were more reasons to think his death suspicious.  Nonetheless, within a week of the incident, the inquest had been adjourned, without mention or hint of any criminal act.  The peddler’s demise was ruled an accident.  How was this possible?


*


In the 1870s, the towns of Oyster Bay and Hempstead each elected a Town Coroner as part of county elections.  Candidates were selected for nomination primarily because they were well-known and respected – in other words, because voters would recognize their names.  Baylis had first been nominated because he was a well-regarded oyster planter, someone proficient at transplanting “seed” oysters to local beds (a skill vital to the Town’s economy).  As part of the winning party’s ticket, he was swept into office.  The party and its coroner were still in office in 1878.

Despite lacking preparation and training to be a Town Coroner, a man might still have strengths.  For example, Baylis was shrewd.  He was admired by some for his clever and dogged questioning of uncooperative witnesses, such as the time he tripped up some criminals who had attempted to misidentify remains found floating in the waters of Oyster Bay.  On the other hand, the press found it appropriate to recount how Baylis once had authorized the burial of a body before an autopsy had been performed.

Cases like the chicken thefts, or the death of William Rhodes, presented challenges.  The Town’s investigative resources were limited, both in terms of quantity and quality (e.g., forensic analytical ability).  Coroner Baylis could not create witnesses or evidence out of thin air.  Nor could he create informants, who seemed to form the backbone of most criminal investigations in the county.  It appeared that the police never got anywhere unless someone squealed.  Had Mrs. Thompson kept quiet, they still would be ignorant of how 100,000 hens had disappeared without a single cluck, and of whose pockets had been filled in consequence.

Now, the coroner’s mind was on Hicksville, which was about as far from salt water as an oyster man could get in the Town of Oyster Bay , and Valentine Baylis was well out of his depth.  He could do nothing to promote justice in this case.


*


In his defense, the citizens who were empaneled for the Coroner’s Jury were worse than no help at all.  Much later, it would be revealed that all the jurors but one had closed their minds at the outset of the process, for they “knew” what had happened:

Rhodes must have spent all the money from his fish sales on whiskey at the Jericho Hotel, getting hopelessly drunk.  He was there, wasn’t he?  Then he accidentally turned onto the railroad tracks from the crossing, and he drove along until he fell from the embankment and died.  Case closed.


Never mind that the horse could not walk across the cattle guard.  Never mind the axe gash to the dead man’s head.  Never mind the overcoat that wasn’t there, or the horse that wasn’t injured from a fall.  Those were just details for someone more clever than they were to explain.  Besides, the jurors had to be rid of all this nonsense, so that they could go home and prepare for Christmas.

At first, the lone dissenting juror had tried.  On his own, he visited the scene where everything was discovered, trying to grasp what had happened that night.  He came back to the jury and argued with the others, but arguing with them proved futile, and ultimately he gave up.  I surmise that Coroner Baylis gave up as well.  At the inquiry, testimony pointed out all the discrepancies, but the jury did not listen.  It was not going to reach a verdict other than accidental death.  Even if it did… well, what kind of investigation could the Town muster?  It wasn’t as if some perpetrator’s wife was going to shout out the truth in the street this time around.

The inquest was concluded; there was nothing else to be done.  Outraged, one newspaper reacted bluntly:




Rockville Center South Side Observer, February 13, 1880

***


Shouts of a Different Chicken Thief’s Wife

Through all of 1879, there were no further revelations concerning the death of Rhodes , even though people now and then wrote to the local newspapers and demanded action.  Then one day, about a month into 1880, something unexpected occurred.  Mary Jane Wood, wife of James Seaman, shouted angry words on the street where everyone could hear.  When someone blurted out a reply, the wheels of justice for Bill Rhodes finally creaked and began to turn.  The New York Times printed this:



New York Times, January 28, 1880
“Guinea Town,” an allusion to the region in the southern part of Africa’s bulge, was a name
sometimes given to free black settlements in the years preceding and following the Civil War.
In this case, it referred to an area near Rosyln.  I believe it was used much as the phrase
China Town ” is still applied to Southeast Asian enclaves, and was not intended as a slur. 


As had happened earlier with the chicken theft ring, through no investigative skills of their own, the local authorities had been given a lead.  In fact, the James Seaman in question was one of the thieves “still being sought” as part of the chicken-theft ring (but apparently not being sought very effectively, as he had remained at large nearby).  At the end of 1878, when the news of Rhodes ’ death broke, the Seaman family had suddenly left New Cassel.  At the time, James told the neighbors he was moving because Mary Jane had “run off with a long-haired Indian.”  Although that story may have sounded plausible to him, it did not convince the neighbors.  Now they understood; James had feared being arrested for the murder of the fisherman.

Seaman was questioned on and off over the next few weeks.  In his second interview, he offered a near-confession.  He went on to almost-confess repeatedly, and the facts which he admitted kept changing.  He had been home the entire night of December 16-17, 1878 (his grown daughter and his wife denied this assertion).  No, he had not stayed home, he had gone out for a walk with William Weeks (an Irish-American who since had been imprisoned, having confessed to a number of burglaries).  Neither man had gone to Hicksville .  Well, actually, Weeks had, but he had gone to Hicksville alone, while Seaman waited in the cold, sitting on a certain fence (the investigation showed that the fence he identified was in fact too pointed to sit on).  No, Seaman made a mistake; he had sat on a different fence.   Seaman had not seen the peddler’s wagon that night.  Well, Seaman had seen the wagon, but he had not seen Rhodes .  Actually, Seaman had been with Weeks after all.  Weeks had threatened Seaman and his family, so he was with Weeks.  And he had seen Rhodes, too, whom Weeks hit with a club, but without killing him.  Etc., etc.



Sing Sing Prison Admission Register for William P. Weeks, September 1869
A man of many convictions, Weeks served time in several prisons in New York State ; this entry,
dating from almost a decade before the killing of Rhodes , records his second arrival at Sing Sing.

When Bill Weeks was interrogated in prison, he denied having seen Seaman for some time before the incident, or having seen him at all on the night in question.

Mary Jane Wood stood her ground.  She said that Weeks had been in her home that night, and he had told her that he needed money.  Weeks and James had left for a while, and they had returned later with both money and liquor.  Weeks then remained in the Seaman home for five days, during which he hid whenever someone came to the door.

Evaluating all that had been said, constables questioned a number of possible witnesses and informants, some of whom shed more light on the crime.  Particularly damning was the recovery of the missing overcoat.  After killing Rhodes , Weeks hid the victim’s coat on a farm near the murder site.  He retrieved it several days afterwards.  When he later volunteered a confession to burglaries, and was jailed in Riverhead, he gave the coat to a prisoner who was about to be released.  The true purpose of his generosity was to deflect suspicion from himself, should the garment ever be recognized as having once belonged to Rhodes .  Weeks’ confessing to those burglaries had been a senseless attempt to deceive.  For some reason, he had concluded that his going to prison for the earlier burglaries would remove him from suspicion in the Rhodes murder.

 

New York Herald, February 12, 1880

The Kelsey tar and feathering case?????


***


Trial and Sentencing

Events had unfolded far more productively than they had during the Town Coroner’s efforts, no doubt in large part because this investigation had a known target from the start.

Justice Losee of Hempstead presided over the trial.  The defendants’ efforts to distort the facts and to fabricate alibis failed to thwart the prosecution.  William Horton of the Jericho Hotel was asked about the hour during which Rhodes sat at his bar, and he swore that the fish peddler had remained sober throughout.  Some said otherwise, but no one dared contradict Horton, for his hotel was a respectable establishment, which often hosted meetings of the incumbent County Democratic Party .  Other patrons who had been at the Jericho that night did corroborate Horton’s testimony.  Mary Jane Wood’s testimony was believed.  Despite her admitting that the Seaman home long had been used to conceal criminal fugitives, the press painted her as a rather admirable and honest woman.  The trial’s outcome quickly came into focus.

 

Sag Harbor Corrector, April 24, 1880

Both Weeks and Seaman were convicted of second-degree murder, and they both were sentenced to life imprisonment.


***


As For the Real Story…

Following the conclusion of the trial, William Weeks provided a credible statement about the true events of the evening of December 16-17, 1878.

Rhodes had started to sell what was left of his fish to people in New Cassel.  In fact, he had knocked on the door of the Seaman home, where Weeks happened to be visiting at the time.  Making a sale, Rhodes had to make change, and in doing so he removed from his pocket what Weeks and James Seaman mistook for a very large roll of bills.  Thinking he was carrying at least one hundred dollars, the two men soon went out after the peddler.

They attacked him in a deserted spot, only to discover that he possessed no more than eighteen dollars in bills, which had looked like more money because the bills were wrapped around a roll of paper.  To divert attention from the site of the crime, they drove his wagon eastward, away from New Cassel, with Rhodes inside, lying unconscious.  Then they managed to get the wagon and horse up the side of the railroad embankment.  They started to drive west along the track, as if Rhodes had never made it to New Cassel.  Soon the horse’s front legs slipped into the cattle guard, and the horse’s sudden drop broke off the wooden shafts that projected forward from the wagon.  They extricated the horse and led it down the embankment, leaving it on farmland.  They pushed the wagon further, and then smashed it to make the staged wreck seem more serious.  Finally, they rolled it down one side.  At that point, Rhodes – perhaps still alive – was thrown headlong down to the culvert from the other side.  Then they moved his body further into it.


***


Conclusion

Newspapers wrote fancifully about James Seaman’s being a “broken man” whose hair suddenly had turned grey.  What was said about Bill Weeks was more concrete.  He confessed to more crimes, including the unsolved torching of a shop in Huntington .  It also was claimed that he had told one official that his life sentence “would be for the best,” because he would have shelter and regular meals, instead of constantly living on the run and having to steal to get food.

The two men began their respective life sentences at Sing Sing, one of Weeks’ several alma maters.  Seaman may not have known what to expect at the barren, solid stone complex, but Weeks did.  Prisoners’ lives were tightly regulated there.  To move between their cells and work details (or training classes, which included knitting!), the men had to march in “lock step” – tight single file, stepping in unison, each man’s hands resting on the shoulders of the man in front of him.

 

 www.singsingprisonmuseum.org

 

Sing Sing Prison Admission Register for James Seaman, April 23, 1880

In the end, justice seemed to prevail in this case, although its circuitous, uncertain route makes one question how often it got to prevail on Long Island during the 1870s and 1880s.  All told, this era probably was not Hicksville ’s finest hour.


***


I’ve got a Photo Left Over!

Some time ago, I came by this photograph.  I wish that I could provide a credit for it, but at present I have no idea where I found it.  I offer my sincere apologies to the unknown source.



Postcard of Hicksville Depot by Rave’s Pharmacy

This is one of the few surviving photographs of the little Hicksville LIRR station which existed when the events described in this article occurred.  The photographer was facing east, standing to the north side of the Main Line , which was then only a single track.  The Jerusalem Road was behind him, immediately beyond the water tank that quenched the thirst of passing steam locomotives.  Looking ahead, Broadway was just beyond the depot, running through the gap between the two buildings on the right, where the white sign post can be seen.  To the north (left), the freight yard was filled with wooden box cars.

Just before 1910, this station was demolished, the tracks through Hicksville were rearranged, and a new station was constructed to the west of Jerusalem Avenue .

That’s it for this month.


***

Ciao!