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County History

Living in Short Tract; Also, A Hanging

Living in Short Tract; Also, a Hanging

(excerpted from Tales of "Old Mortality" : Dansville in the Canal Days, by Cyrenus L. Norris ; edited & annotated by David Gilbert., pp. 39-42.)

In this installment of his memoirs, Cyrenus Norris "recalls" the first nine or so
years of his life. Before moving to Woodsville around 1831, his family lived in the little
Allegany County comnunity of Short Tract. Most of these recollections, of course, would
be those of his parents, including the hanging, on March 3, 1824, of convicted-murderer
David D. How, the first public execution in Allegany County history.

"Backward, roll backward, 0 time in Thy Flight,
Make me a child again, just for to-night. "


While I try to write of some of the people and of their doings in a little portion of
the then howling wilderness, of "Old Allegany," as I now remember them, when I was but
a little kid of about six or seven years, and believing that the Express sometimes penetrates
that section of the county known as the "Old Short Tract," in the town of Allen, and a
portion of Angelica town and village, perhaps the mention of the names of a few of the
settlers might catch the eye of some of their descendants of the present day.
Somewhere about 1824 my father migrated from the town of Williamson, Wayne
County, to what was then known as the "Genesee country," and took up a piece of land
on the "Short Tract." Allen Ayrault was the agent for the sale of the lands of the portion
of the ''Holland Land Company" lying east of the "transit line," of which all the residents
of the county must remember. And my earliest and the very first recollections of my life
begin at a log house under a hill, about a half mile from the ''McBride Tavern" on the new
road leading over to the "Short Tract," where a Mr. Roach kept the post office.
Manassah French had a potashery, and his sons Philander and Horace, and daughter
Maria, were good friends to the little five year old kid who went to his first school in a
small log house on the hill, and which was called the "Short District." Miss Jane McBride
was the teacher. The old Webster spelling book was the one in use then. A Mrs. Lyon, a
widow, also taught that school; she was related to the McBrides and boarded at my
father's as long ago as I can remember. Among our neighbors were Manassah French,
Mr. Durkee, postmaster Roach, Mr. Bingham, Asa Cooper, Mr. Moose, all of whom had
large families of boys and girls of about my age and older. Then over on the "State road"
was the McBride family, consisting of John McBride, a printer, and for several years was
noted and known as a journalist and editor of several papers in Ohio and lliinois, Robert
McBride, James McBride, Wm. McBride, Hannah McBride, and the Jane McBride before
spoken of. P. Nowlan kept a tavern at the forks of the road leading to Geneseo and
Dansville.


About 1828 father bought a small farm of Daniel Shaw over on the town line, so
that we slept in the town of Angelica and did our eating in the town of Allen. That section
of country was known as ''Baker's Creek." The school house was at the junction of
Crugar's Creek and Baker. Among the residents were Daniel Shaw, David and Israel
Jennings. They had a saw mill on the creek. Daniel Shaw ran a brick yard, near by.
Widow Armstrong with her two sons, James and John, and daughter Mary Anne, owned
and kept a hotel, or as it was called, "Armstrong Tavern." John Armstrong was a short
man in stature, with no neck to speak of, his large head set square on his shoulders, but 0,
my, he was a giant in strength of arms and body.


My father's uncle Abram Baldwin was a hatter by trade and lived on the creek at
the foot of the hill leading to the Short Tract," and was the last slave owner any where
around. How well I remember the good kind young negro Bob, but 0, he was terribly
abused by that same old professing Christian Uncle Baldwin. Everybody hated him and
was glad when he emigrated to Canada in 1828, and nigger Bob was a free man. Moses
Baldwin, another uncle, owned quite a large farm and blacksmith shop on the State road.
He was a justice of the peace, and held various town offices for many years. There were
the Harwoods, Buckleys, Banwicks, Thippins, Wilsons, Taylors, Autcaults, Hammonds,
Dempseys, Chafeys, the Hookers, Rice, Dimmick, Giles Willis, Arunah Willis, Joseph Sanford,
Ellen Sanford, and their three maiden sisters, Eliza, Marcia, and Minerva. Polly
Willis taught the district school and gave the writer many well deserved, good sound
whippings, and afterwards became the wife of Joseph Sanford.


There was a Mr. Upthegrove, John Sparling, a carpenter, who married Miss
Angeline Bingham, Henry Sparling, who married Miss ------ Lucky, a sister of the Rev.
Samuel Lucky, D.D., the eminent divine of New York City, whom no doubt some must
remember of seeing and hearing preach in Dansville at the general conference there in
1840 or '41. I first heard him at a quarterly meeting at Angelica about 1830. There was
the Ackerman family whose children's names were Con, John, Maria and Susan. Susan
was a pretty, black-eyed girl of8 years and the writer was at the advanced age of 10 years.

"She was my sweet heart,
I was her beau."


In those days "little pitchers had large ears," and I remember hearing all about the
''Morgan abduction,"1) hearing my mother read the thrilling narrative of the white woman
Mary Jemison. I often saw Major Van Campen before he left Angelica and came to
Dansville. My father and three uncles prided themselves as being on the list of
acquaintance and friends of Major Moses Van Campen, and one of his choicest books in
his library was the ''Life and times of Van Campen. " Yes I remember him well, but in
those days he was no more thought of or appreciated than any young kid would look upon
a Major of our late unpleasantness.


Of the many early recollections, I often think of the hanging of David D. How2 at
Angelica, away back in the year 1824 or 25, for the murder of [Othello] Church, and I
wonder how many of the residents ever think or know anything about the tragic scenes or
history of the case as I find it indelibly stamped on my mind and memory tonight. I will
make my views of it as short as possible.


In the year 1820 or thereabouts, How was a well to do farmer, a wide awake go
ahead active business man. He took the contract to build a turnpike road from Almond to
Angelica, but like many others before and since his time failed to connect, or in other
words failed to meet his monetary obligations as they became due, and among his
numerous creditors was [Othello] Church, a wealthy and prominent official of the county,
who would show How no lenity whatever. In those days there was no exemption, and
imprisonment for debt was the law. How was followed and punished for all the law was
worth.


Church's grist mill was burned. How was suspected, arrested, tried, but failed to
be convicted, and when finally released from jail Church renewed his claims and pushed
then to the utmost, until goaded to desperation, with a sick wife and famishing little ones.
How took a neighbor's horse, borrowed a gun, and took several drinks at the Eagle hotel
and a pint bottle of whiskey, rode out in a dark night over a muddy road to the residence
of Church, rapped at the door, Church came out in his night clothes, and was shot to
death. The neighbors were aroused, immediate pursuit followed, the horse was found in
the stable soaking with sweat and foam from fast riding. How was tracked to his home
and immediately arrested, was tried, convicted of murder in the first degree and sentenced
to be hung.


In those days executions were in public, Sheriff Wilson conducted the execution,
my uncle John Norris was one of the deputies and he got my father and mother a place
about fifteen feet in front of the gallows. I was a baby of two years in my mother's arms-so
I was told--my aunt stood next to mother, and I have been often told as I now relate it,
that when How was led to the scaffold he came with a firm tread and in the presence of
more than a thousand spectators3 he made a public confession, giving a history of the
cause that led to the crime. Among which he said that when Church brought the sheriff to
make a final levy, after taking everything in the lower room they ascended the ladder to
the chamber and Church pointed out a small· pile of onions. How says ''for God's sake
don't take them, for my poor sick wife raised them." Church said "Sheriff, do y.our duty,"
and pointing to a little heap of scallions said, "Them are good enough for the d----d
scoundrel." "Then," said How, "the thought of murder first ·entered my heart." He then
bade an affectionate farewell to all, asked to have the hymn commencing,

"Show pity, Lord, 0 Lord forgive,
Let a repentant sinner live."


After which he made a short prayer the black cap was drawn over his head, the
drop fell and he was launched into eternity. And when the drop fell my mother fell in a
fainting fit to the ground with me in her arms, the crowd surging and screaming with
terror. It seemed a miracle that we were not crushed to death. Five years after, when I·
was seven years old, my father took me to the village and showed me the gallows still
standing there where How was hung, and pointed the exact spot where mother stood, and
for three years after then I used to see the same hateful thing, and for all I know it is
standing there yet.


My recollection of Angelica can be briefly told. The old Arnold grist mill, Logan's
tannery, Sherman's general store, Ira Davenport, the old bachelor, store, Doctor Charles,
the printing office of the Angelica Repository, -------- Christ, editor--I forget the first
name. Oh, well I can't remember the names, and it is just as well perhaps. And wishing
you all good night, I am yours truly,
"Old Mortality."
(3/31/1892)

In this article, Norris made brief mention of Major Moses Van Campen, the
celebrated Indian fighter and Revolutionary War scout (whose life and exploits were told
more-or-Iess factually in his autobiography) who resided in Dansville ill the 1830 's. A
fact Norris did not mention. .. perhaps he did not know it ... was that Major Van Campen
served as foreman on the grand jury that indicted David How for murder.

 


 

1 The 1826 abduction of publisher William Morgan~ whose disappearance and presumed murder resulted in the creation of the Anti-Masonic political party. See p. 11.
2 In his article, Norris spells his last name as "Howe"; however, the various Allegany County histories
spell it "How/' so I do so in this transcript. Also, Norris refers to the victim as "Thomas Church," when
his first name was actually Othello.
3 At least one county history puts the crowd of spectators at 10,000 people, including several local militia companies on hand to keep the peace, and, if necessary, to prevent any organized attempt to break How free (he had a great many sympathizers, as Othello Church seemed to have had quite a reputation as an S.O.B.). Norris does not mention that Joseph Wilson~ the sheriff presiding over How's execution~ was also another of How's creditors, although (again, judging from the county histories) How apparently made his peace with Wilson before his hanging.

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