Researched, Transcribed & Submitted by Mary Rhodes
Allegany County Democrat, March 20 and 27, 1889
WELLSVILLE REMINISCENCE: A BRIGHT AND INTERESTING HISTORIC SKETCH OF ALLEGANY’S METROPOLIS
A Lively Scrimmage in Which Our Village is Credited with Her First Murder
As one alights from the train at Wellsville, and comes through our depot to the street platform, the familiar call of the porters for the Fassett House, the Commercial, and for many years the Howell House have given the stranger and citizen alike a cordial welcome. The other night, or perhaps better say a few weeks ago a pleasant faced stranger was among the number corralled by the jolly Peter to complete a ‘bus load for the Fassett House’. The finest hotel, says Peter, in the town. Electric lights, natural gas, hot and cold water, and just where he would have stopped, we don’t know, but someone pulled the ‘bus door shut and the driver took his seat for down town.
The stranger referred to leaned forward, spoke to a Wellsville passenger, and said, “I have not been in Wellsville in thirty years and I suppose it will be changed wonderfully”. Then he dropped his eyes thoughtfully. “Yes, it is just thirty three years next spring. My first visit here was upon the very night or rather the one before that on which Mart. Van Buren was murdered, and although I was here frequently during the year following I have never been here since then.” The stranger was a man quite well past the prime of life, with whitened hair and whiskers, and inquiry elicited the fact that he was a well to do citizen of a western city, and was evidently of considerable prominence at his western home.
“Would you mind telling something of that story” said his Wellsville acquaintance.
“Not in the least, “ was the answer, “and in fact I would like to, for although I staid about here during the trials following the matter has always been a down right mystery to me and is yet, except one unpleasant and disagreeable theory,”
The ‘bus had reached the hotel and the stranger, after removing his overcoat, took a seat behind the big stove and continued.
“I came from the wilds of Kettle Creek Penna., here by the way of Coudersport and arrived at the Van Buren house early in the evening of the day preceding. It appears that rivalry of the bitterest kind was in progress between the hotels here, and so sharp was the competition that bloody fights were often the result of contentions at the trains for incoming passengers. The railroad had been built four or five years, and was known as the New York and Erie. It appeared to be quite a shipping point for lumber and shingles, and as one would express it now days, the place seemed booming. It was built right in the woods. The great forests of hemlock and pine looked dark and gloomy, coming down to river road on one side of the town and nearly to the river on the other. It must have changed wonderfully, wonderfully, and I shall enjoy a look at it in the morning. “
“The Van Buren house was a remarkably good hotel building for the time. The upper or second story came out over a long porch running the whole length of the house, fronted with great square posts or columns. The office and bar room at one end and the public parlor at the other, or rather, across the hall from it. It was back from the street and a wide side walk and driveway in front of it. In the bar or sitting room was a regular old fashioned fire place, one of the largest I ever remember seeing. I can recall to mind just how it looked then and it seemed a most cheerful and inviting place to a stranger. It was to me. Van Buren seemed to be a model landlord. A regular giant in physical strength and appearance,. He extended a cordial welcome to his guests and seemed surrounded by a family quite remarkable in their adaptation of just such a position.
The sons, William, Livingston and Matthew (Martin), were interested or employed about the house or the stage lines connecting Wellsville to the then great wilderness of Pennsylvania south of here. The daughters, grown to womanhood, were well known to later life in Wellsville as Mrs. John B. Smith, Mrs. Henry G. Taylor and Mrs. James Fowler. Sons and daughters alike occupying good social position in the town and over the range of extended outside acquaintances. As I bring them to mind it seemed to me that all in all they formed quite an unusual family group. During the time or interval between the night of the murder and the summer following I came to see and know considerable of them, and of Wellsville.”
“But of the night in question, and what are the occurrences, tell me that”
And the stranger somehow shrugged his shoulders, drew a little nearer and began again.
“It appears, “he went on to say, “that in one of the daily struggles for passengers, the Van Buren House had during the temporary absence of Mart been badly worsted at the depot, some blood had been spilled, some heads banged pretty severely, and a large amount of bad feeling left over. All day long, in and about the hotel, after I came, I had heard the muttered threats that at the train that night some of the wrongs would be pretty summarily righted. Several friends of the boys were invited to go up to the depot, to either assist in or witness the destruction of the Clinton House gang.”
“I was a tall, slender young fellow of twenty, quite interested at the time in anything like a scrimmage, and after the ‘bus left the hotel for the depot, I followed on foot. The usual crowd was about the depot platform when I reached there, and several of the characters in the coming tragedy were at hand. It was a very dark night, and as I passed around the end of the platform and over to the front or track side of the station, I was obliged to go between some board or lumber piles, and while making this passage ran upon a group of plotters there in the dark or shadow. What would I not have given for a flash of light, if only for a moment, upon that party.”
“Angry words I heard just then up at the west platform and I hurried on in the darkness, to where the disturbances appeared to be. Just then the three men I had passed between the board piles rushed by me, and in an instant more engaged in the fighting then fairly under way. It was not one fight, but a dozen; not in the daylight, but in the pitchy dark with the aid of a lantern or two. It was not a soft glove entertainment, after the manner of later days in a twenty foot ring, but a regular old knock-down, tramp on and drag out, butchering sort of performance. A knife was as good as a stone, probably better, certainly good. A club trump, most of the time. Down along the front side of the depot the fight went on. Then in an instant, almost, it was transferred into the crowded waiting room.”
“The fight was hot indeed for a few moments in the waiting room. The faces were all recognized and almost as suddenly as they came in all were out on the track side of the platform, still fighting again. It was here that by the light of a lantern held by the old man Van Buren the sharpest set to occurred between Smithy, or Red Shirt as he was called, and Mart. Van Buren. Encouraged by the father, Mart. made his best fight, worsting Smith badly. Again the general fight hotter than ever, surged up the platform, engaging all parties. Chance Weedrick, Mart., and Bill Van Buren, Abe Jewell, McDougal (the Scotchman), Smith or Red Shirt, Charley Walker, the nephew of Jabe Walker, who in those days kept livery there at the Clinton House.”
“Into the waiting room again came the fighters, angrier, uglier and worse hurt each time. Matters so far were about at a stand off so far as a victory was concerned, and all parties were desperate. The Scotchman, at first a neutral, was now fairly with the Clinton House Crowd. And words cannot describe the struggle there in that little room. Red Shirt, badly whipped, had come out of the front door to take breath, stepped down from the platform to the ground. A moment later there was a sudden lull in the fight in the depot.
“Mart. Van Buren staggered to the front door and out on the platform. Smith, or Red Shirt, had turned and was going back toward the door; seeing Van Buren coming, and evidently not relishing another clinch, grabbed a shaved shingle-band and dealt Van Buren a blow over the head, breaking his skull, and falling him to the ground near the omnibus and off the platform.”
“The fight ended here. Van Buren was taken to the hotel more dead than alive in the omnibus. It was nearly an hour afterward before it was known that a dirk had been plunged into his abdomen with such terrific force as to come nearly through his body along side his back bone. After an hour of pain, death came to relieve the sufferings of a man who had received not one, but two fatal blows, either of which would doubtless have resulted in death alone in shorter time than both did.”
“The knife with which the stabbing was done was found years afterward, in removing an old board pile. It was made or supposed to have been made by a tough citizen then living here, who worked in the Ephraim Smith Foundry, (now Sweet’s). He was called Bill Narrigan, and will be remembered by many.”
“In the trial that followed of Smith for the killing, no conviction was had, and the accused went free. Some startling facts however came to light. Enough would seem to have been discovered to establish the fact that the stab with the dirk was never meant to reach Mart. Van Buren, but was in truth struck to aid him, and at someone else, supposed to have been McDougal in the crowded clinch of the waiting room.”
“Before daylight and morning several of the active participants had fled from the town. Weedrick being hurried that same night out of the country, into Pennsylvania. I spent several days here much interested to learn the inside, if possible, of a tragedy of which I had been almost an eye witness. Several times I thought myself in possession of the key to the mystery of that murder and the matter has been on my mind many days and hours since then. I wonder if I could find some of the folks,” said the stranger as he stopped to take a full breath, “that were here then.”
The interested Wellsville citizen suggested a cigar, which being lighted, seats were about to be resumed, when the night watchman from the depot came in hurriedly, asking Charlie Wheeler if George Brownlow were stopping there. On being told that he was not, started quickly for the door, when the stranger jumped up saying “this is my name, what is wanted”? A very important message,” said he handing over the envelope. Quickly opening it, the stranger turned pale, asked when he could get the first train for Buffalo, was told that No 4 was due at that moment, and in an instant he was gone on a run to the train that whistled below the station as he life the door.
The story of the stranger left a strong impression on the mind of his Wellsville acquaintance and effort failed to recall to mind the place he gave as his residence. Inquiry proves that the story he tells was in most part true and deals with perhaps the most exciting time in our village history. Most of the parties engaged in that affair have passed on to the land beyond the sun, and where if ever may be known the true inwardness of that story of murder.
Today as in the years gone by, the veil of uncertainty hangs to hide the hand that dealt the dirk knife blow that actually did take the life of Martin Van Buren. Many citizens will recall vividly the pictures presented, and many others actively interested in Wellsville then, sleep in our cemeteries the sleep that knows no awakening. Many others then interested here, are with us yet. Hoyt & Lewis, then young men, had just moved out a little shanty store on the McEwen corner, way up town to where the Hosea Marion or Wetherby grocery building stands today.
Jno. B Clark was in business at or near the New York and Erie depot. The Brown Brothers, six in number, carried on a large establishment on the present site of the Lincoln Hall; wholesale groceries and clothing. They also ran the mill at the foot of what is now known as Mill street. The old “Regulator” store of Clark & Phillips stood up near the Duke crossing of Pearl street and Carleton Farnum was running the “Empire store,” on the present site of our Opera House block.
The Seymour Johnston homestead was then where James Thornton’s residence now stands.
J. B. Macken then carried on blacksmithing near where Doty Brothers are today and the sons, seven in number, were then as always to the front. Jim was living with E. C. Higgins at the Clinton House, and Doc Macken was in the employ of Dr. Purple, who afterward ran away with Mrs. Klein, the butchers’ wife. Wm F. Jones a young attorney, defended Smith and associated with him were I. N. Stoddard, a one-armed lawyer well remembered here and Martin Grover.
I.W. Fassett and D. Dobbins had just purchased and were operating the Hull & Morse mill at Riverside, then known as Coats switch, and down where Elwell’s mill stands, the great Church mills stood.
The District attorney was named Stewart. He died in the Allegany County Poor House last winter. Associated with him was Judge Peck of Nunda, at that time the great legal light of this country.
Capt. Moses Stevens lived in a little house standing in the Grove where now the residence of Wm F. Jones stands.
Dr. H. R. Nye, then a young man, was the coroner who held the inquest and his examination and cross examination on Smith’s trial are still remembered as the “battle” of years between witness and counsel. The whole country, were greatly excited for miles around, over Allegany’s first murder trial, and the partisans on both sides were active and earnest.