Saturday, September 4, 2010

The Story of Waltz the Murderer, and other Catskill Tales

On the Road Between Athens and Catskill, 2009 - Lucey Bowen

                                                Catskill, New York
                                                Saturday, May 14, 1938
Dear Carl,
      The story of the Waltz murder comes to you from the words of Charles Ernst whose father was the Constable who was killed.
      “In the year 873, the panic had just taken place. Times were hard. But our family was doing well. I remember everything very well even though I was only a fourteen-year-old boy. Father had been Constable in the town of Catskill for some years. Sheriffs changed frequently due to politics but Father remained at the jail as the town Constable. He made things easier for the new Sheriffs as they came in. At that time the Sheriff’s name was Coonley. As a young boy I listened to the older men talk and they paid no attention to me as they thought I didn’t know what was going on. I remember we had a fine set of ponies that I loved very much.
      “I remember that Joseph Waltz’s father, who lived on a fairly prosperous farm on the Albany Catskill road, reported to my father that there had been a robbery at his house. He said a scissor grinder by the name of Hoelcher had stayed at his house and left during the night, taking with him some blankets. About this time I heard my father mention the fact that some relatives of the Hoelchers had made inquiries about the whereabouts of this Hoelcher. He had been last seen heading toward Catskill with his equipment. Neighbors remembered that he had stopped at the Waltz farm, as was his custom several times each year when he came through Catskill. But no one reported as having seen him after he stopped at the Waltz farm. Now the Waltzes had three children, a girl who had moved to the West, a man who was working in New York and another son about twenty-one years old who was known throughout the countryside for his mischievous ways. He often times robbed schoolhouses. It was his habit to leave a candle burning between two beams and then go off and wait until the candle had burned down and set fire to the beams and burned up the school. He stole books but his interest in books as reading matter was not great. He also had robbed many houses and stolen the silver. On his father’s house he had built a stone tower in which he placed much of the silver. On this tower, it was reported, he intended to make speeches to the assembled multitude in the none-too-distant future.
      “As the investigation of the whereabouts of Hoelcher increased I remember my father learning that some of Hoelcher’s effects were found down near the creek and a sign posted on a tree nearby stated that we, a band of murderers had done away with Hoelcher, the scissors grinder. But suspicion pointed to the Waltz family. An examination of the farm and the room where Hoelcher had stayed revealed that the floor of the bedroom where he had slept had been planed. This together with the fact that Hoelcher had benn last seen on the farm and that the iron from his scissors grinding machine were found among some burned wood on the Waltz farm. Father and son Waltz were taken into custody and lodged at the Catskill jail, or the Greene County jail. Young Waltz and his father stayed at the jail for some time and were severely questioned. Finally young Waltz said he was tired of the whole business and confessed that he had gone into the bedroom of Hoelcher when he was asleep and cut open his head with an ax. He had then buried the body of the farm, burned the blood soaked blankets, planed the floorboards of the bedroom where the blood had dripped. From Hoelcher he had taken about $85 and a gold watch. I neglected that young Waltz has also robbed some churches among them the Episcopal Church. He confessed that he had placed the alleged note form the robbers out Coxsackie way himself, and it was found that the note had been ripped from a notebook found in the Waltz’s house. Father Waltz was released.
      Joseph Waltz remained in the prison and there was a great deal of discussion around the countryside as to whether he was insane. Some folks believed he was because of the strange things he had done. Other folks believed he had feigned insanity. Constable Ernst believed he was feigning insanity as he had put a sting up in his cell and put little paper figures on the string and said they were offerings to the Gods. My Father firmly believed that young Waltz was not insane and he made every effort to make him behave. He insisted on remaining in the cell with him. Sometimes my Father fell asleep while reading the papers on the sofa in the cell and young Hoelcher often set fire to the papers but my Father always woke up in time to put the fires out. Many times in the fail young Waltz was heard to utter threats that he would kill my Father. Many persons heard these threats and remonstrated with my Father about taking every precaution. But my Father was a fearless man. He insisted in remaining on the job and seeing that Waltz was properly taken care of.
      “The trial consisted entirely of evidence as whether Waltz was insane. Neighbors gave testimony on both sides. But in the end Waltz was sentenced to be hanged. The execution was set for May first At the Catskill Jail. Shortly after lunch on Thursday April thirtieth my Father got up from the dinner table in the Sheriff's dining room at the jail and walked into Waltz’s cell. Waltz lay into him with a bludgeon he made from folding some iron stripping for the floor. He hit Charles Ernst several times and there was a slight scuffle but almost immediately Ernst fell in a heap on the floor of the cell. Just at that moment the door bell of the Jail rang and the Sheriff or one of his children or one of the helpers got up to answer it. On his way to answer the doorbell he saw that Ernst was lying on the floor and he immediately gave the alarm. As news spread throughout the town a mob gathered at the entrance of the Jail.
      Now all the sentiment and sanity argument about Waltz vanished. The mob was out to get him now because Ernst was greatly loved in the town. The Sheriff remonstrated with the crowd but they continued to say they wanted to handle Waltz themselves. Word was sent to Albany Governor Dix sent the State Militia to Catskill and the hanging went off the next day as scheduled. My Father died a day or two after. The wounds in his head had been too much. His death threw my family into poverty as my father had lived way beyond his means. I remember the ponies were sold at auction and it nearly broke my heart. All of my brothers and myself had to go to work. I was the oldest and went to work right away in the brickyards. I later had my own butcher shop. He got nothing from the town and my father had no insurance. It was a great struggle from then on for all of us to make our way in the world. But we did and we have come out all right.” The old guy who told me this story is tall and rather handsome in a way. He has white handlebar mustaches.
      When the new County Jail was built a lady by the name of Beasley bought the old jail and turned it into an inn. It was called the Old Heidelberg. She didn't do so very well with it and sold it. The people who bought it didn't do so well either and now it is closed up. Old Man Ernst said he didn't wonder. There had been three or four hangings in it and the Lord knows what awful man had been imprisoned there. Folks around Catski11 say the place is unlucky and believe that it can never succeed.
      Around 1866 there lived in Catskill a man named Benjamin Wey. He had plenty of money and among other things he owned one of the local drug stores. He was supposedly happily married to Ellen Wey his wife. One cold winter night Ellen left the house and made for the Catskill Creek, which empties into the Hudson at Catskill. Her husband followed her through the snows by her footprints. She went out onto the ice on the Creek and went into the water a place where ice had been cut that day. With the help of some townspeople, Benjamin took her body out of the water and carried her in his arms back to his house. Some time later he married again. The second marriage was believed to be a happy one also and it lasted until Benjamin became an old man. Then one day while he and his second wife were driving across the Creek in a horse and carriage, he stopped the horses, laid aside the reins, pulled back the lap robe and got out of the carriage in the middle of the bridge. It was just over the spot where his wife had drowned herself. He jumped in and was drowned also. Folks around the town say that he had looked down onto the creek and seen Ellen. The old lady who told me this story said she remembers as a little girl looking at the old man's sad and tired face in church and wondering if perhaps too often he didn't feel the cold slender body in his arms recalling to him forever the night he carried his drowned wife back to house.
      The Salisbury family around Catskill trace their ancestors to Anne Boleyn. They have a painting in their house, which they say is a Hans Holbein portrait of Anne Boleyn. Folks say that many years ago when people had slaves that the Salisburys had a slave girl who was very beautiful. She fell in love with a man on a neighboring farm and ran away. One of the Salisbury boys followed her and captured her. He strapped her to his horse, some say he tied her and let the horse drag her. Then suddenly the horse got away and the girl and horse went over a cliff and were dashed to pieces. The Salisbury boy was sentenced to be hanged for her murder but the magistrate did not set the date and turned Salisbury loose but decreed that he must wear a noose around his neck until the date of the execution when it should be set. But the date of the execution was never set. And it is recorded that many folks used to see an old man around Catskill a black tiny silken rope around his neck fixed like a noose. He is said to have worn this until his death and he lived to a ripe old age. For references see Catskill Mountains and the Regions Around by Rev Ch. Rockwell, 1873 page 148 also Historical Collection of the State of New York by Barber and Howe page 187, 188.
      I met a girl in the office of the old Catskill Packet (published under another name now but said to be the oldest consecutively published paper in the country. She sent me up to see her family. Their name is Riley and their Mother was an Abeel.  One of the Abeels married an Indian Princess named Cornplant. She wonders if Chief Cornplanter (her kids gave her the book) is a descendent. She has a booklet called The Abeels and Allied Families, which tell something about it. They want to drive over to see him. The Abeels are one of the very old families around Catskill. They have one of the finest of the old bobsleds, which used to be used quite a lot around the country by people. They slid down the hill toward the Creek and on to the bridge. People cou1d slide from both ends of the town and meet on the bridge. They told me that at Catskill Henrick Hudson stopped and was fed roast dog by the Indians. There is another lover's leap at Catskill only it is called Hop-o-Nose and an Indian maiden leaped to her death off of it because she was disappointed in love, Schoharie, they said, there is still an association for Catching Horse Thieves. At Pot Cheese Rock folks often report that they see standing there an old white horse, which, years ago, drowned, in the quick sand. Murderer's Creek empties into the Hudson at Athens and at the time of the Revolution Sally Hamilton was murdered there and two soldiers were blamed for it. At Broom Stick Hill folks report they have seen an old Witch riding a broomstick flying past it. I ran into an old poster dated Albany Dec 23, 1833 and advertised coaches "ALBANY & CATSKILL. During the Suspension of Steam Boat Navigation the subscribers (for the better accommodation of passengers between Albany and Hudson and Catskill) will run a daily of coaches between said cities (Sundays excepted) leaving Catskill every day at 7am and Hudson at 8am and arriving at Albany at 12 noon. The proprietors have taken the utmost care in procuring the most comfortable coaches, fast riding teams, and sober and obliging drivers E.S. Johnson, agent."
      J.B. Hall was a copperhead and editor of the Recorder around 1883. He wrote such inflammatory editorials that he was once shot at and thereafter he wrote his editorial with a loaded shotgun beside his desk. In a history called Dear Old Greene County I noticed this: "Next to the great Hudson Fulton Celebration, the greatest celebration every held in Green County was that of the Old Home Week, Oct. 4 to 7 1908 In Catskill. The ball was set rolling on Sunday with services in the several churches. There was a church parade one half mile long." Catskill gave a $4000 contribution toward the Hudson Fulton Celebration.
      The calling of our government Uncle Sam originated in Catskill. Several brothers Uncle Nathan Wilson, Uncle Jonathan and Uncle Sam operated a meatpacking house or slaughterhouse. They Hived in the house in which Martin van Buren was married to Hannah Hoes in 1797 from 1817 t© 22• Either on the Catskill or Troy meat packing house some way asked what US stood for as he noticed it on the boxes of meat being sent to the arm in the war of 1812. Someone said that stands for Uncle Sam. And from there the phrase came to be used all over. I think it is inter­esting that Uncle Sam had a Brother Jonathan which was also used to refer to the US for a time.
      I was told by a Catskill physician of a sociological island called the Bushwhackers who lived in Columbia County back of Hudson near Taconic. They made wicker baskets and there were about 200 of them and they were mostly wiped out by the influenza epidemic. One or two of the group did all the dealing with the outside world and went into town with their wares and sold them. This doctor had helped deliver a baby for one of the women. Katherine Newlin Burt is supposed to have written some stuff on them. A young lawyer told me that he had seen pasted on some books in the courthouse the rule etc. for an anti-dueling society formed around 1800. He thinks it was part of a movement after the Burr-Hamilton duel. The Catskill patent is as if someone drew three arcs of a circle. This lawyer's brother, a dentist, has the hobby of photographing scenes mentioned in the Drums.[1]


[1] Carmer’s Listen For A Lonesome Drum, treating all of New York except the Hudson was published in 1936.

1 comment:

  1. It's so sad to read that many of the Bushwhackers died in the influenza epidemic. I would not be surprised if they lived in poverty. These people would have been my relatives. For an isolated group that was pretty large. Maybe that's one reason why I haven't found so many other people like me.