A blog that looks back to the "good old days" of crime, corruption and catastrophe.

Monday, March 20, 2017

My newest book, "Hudson Valley Murder & Mayhem," will be out June 26, 2017. You can preorder on my website, andrewamelinckx.com. A Hudson Valley book tour is in the works. I'll be posting the schedule of events soon. Cheers!

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The Great Storm of 1888 Strikes Hudson, New York

“A terrible storm of wind and snow set in last evening and throughout most of the day,” reported the Hudson Daily Evening Register of March 12, 1888. “The snow was light and dry and floated through the air like smoke.”

The snow quickly accumulated on the ground creating massive snow drifts that (literally) halted business in Hudson—the county seat—and surrounding communities in Columbia County, N.Y.,  in its tracks. A howling wind blew in from the north east making conditions worse.

Business along the wharves, piers and slips was suspended in Hudson. Train and mail service slowed and finally stopped. The mills and schools were closed. Warren Street in Hudson was nearly impassable. Milkmen had a hard time getting out of town after their early morning deliveries. Special men were placed at all the hose company houses to make sure the firefighters could get out in case of an emergency.

“Did you blow in?” the shopkeepers jokingly asked the smattering of customers who made it to the Warren Street businesses.

The only conversations there revolved around the storm that people were already calling the worst they could recall seeing in more than 60 years. Telegraph wires were snapping all over the county prompting the Register to complain that “the snow raised the devil with the telegraph lines today” and that “our Associated Press news is very meager.”

The Register began its local storm coverage with a poem during each of the three days affected by the blizzard. The first was somewhat hopeful.

“Oh, this is the month of the year where nature says to the snow
It is time that you disappear you must take yourself off, you know
Just get yourself ready and go pack up your drifts and march”

While that newspaper provided poetry, their competition, the weekly Columbia Republican, preferred to insert poetry into their prose.

“The storm increased in violence hour by hour until it finally broke loose in a mighty effort,” reported the paper. “The rage of a howling gale swept over the city, blinding pedestrians with pelting snow and forming great drifts everywhere.”

And this was just the beginning. By the 13th they were referring to it as “the Great Storm.” Columbia County was not alone. The blizzard paralyzed the East from Virginia to Maine and killed more than 400 people. Sustained winds were reported to be 45 miles an hour, snow accumulation of between 40 and 50 inches and massive drifts covering entire buildings. One drift, in Brooklyn, was reported to be 52 feet high.

New York City was almost “shut off from communication with the outside world” according to an AP report, with an “embargo on traffic and travel” in the city. There was an elevated train wreck, people were “overcome by the weather” and snapped telegraph lines were everywhere in Manhattan, wrote the AP. A train wreck blamed on the storm near Dobbs Ferry, in Westchester County killed four. In Troy, the Albany Iron Works’ roof collapsed burying four men who, when found, had severe injuries.

Back in Columbia County, train service from six different railroad companies was completely halted.Three trains were stalled at the Hudson River railroad station. Large gangs of workmen spent the night and morning trying to dig out the engines. One mile from Chatham, heading toward Kinderhook, a passenger train with 25 people aboard was stuck and had been since the night before. Help, in the form of provisions, was sent to the train that was so buried in snow only the engine’s smokestack was visible.

In Chatham village there were 15-foot high snowdrifts. Several narrow escapes were made by residents who were nearly buried alive. Stockport saw 10-foot drifts with the highway between Stockport and Stottville impossible to pass. Area farmers took in “storm bound travelers,” reported the Republican. Blue Stores was “nearly buried in snow” with the tops of fences unable to be seen and “roads that will be impassable for some time to come,” according to the Republican. In Greenport the drifts looked like “small mountains” and the road between there and Hudson was also inaccessible.

As the storm continued, Hudson’s town clock could still be heard chiming on the hour, but the snow muffled the sound to the point of nearly being inaudible. The roads into Hudson were so drifted that “no communication with us could be reached,” reported the Register. Doors and windows were snowed over with drifts reaching to the second story of buildings. One newspaper carrier reported that half the houses on his route were under snow banks.

Hudson’s mayor and the common council were “doing everything possible to keep our streets passable,” stated the Register on March 13. “Teams of men are at work and the sidewalks on the principal streets are such that people can find their way through them.” The resulting passages through the snow were described as “miniature Suez Canals” and “an immense fortress.”

The Register’s readers, on March 13, were treated to a second poem. This one was a bit more mournful than the previous piece.

“Ah there my weather so cold, so bright
How do you do after so stormy a night?
Do you feel like an owl or a dickey-bird dear?
Or a defeated candidate finding solace in beer”

The next day, March 14, saw the storm begin to subside and clean-up begin in earnest. In New York City the AP reported that business was partly “revived” and that the stock exchange had reopened. Hudson was back open for business as well and its streets were sufficiently cleared to allow teams of horses, without loads, to make it through.

More than 20 inches of snow fell on the area during the storm, but by the 14th the Register was already chiding people for not clearing off their walks. “Only those negligent to their duties failed to clear the walks and gutters,” stated the paper. The road to Greenport once again opened thanks to that town’s supervisor, Fred Jones, along with 70 men and 20 mules. Train and mail service also began to trickle back into the county.

The train stuck outside of Chatham was finally dug out and the Register’s final poem of the storm was published.

“When the winter cold is over and we gambol in the clover
Or escape the shining sunlight in some cool and shady spot
When the snowdrifts have disappeared and the birds sing happy-hearted
Then we’ll kick around and grumble that the weather is so hot”

A different version of this story appeared in The Register Star on Feb. 26, 2011.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

I'm happy to announce that my newest book, "Murder & Mayhem in the Hudson Valley," will be out in early 2017 from Arcadia Publishing and The History Press. I'm hard at work researching and writing the stories for the book and boy there was some pretty outrageous crimes in the area back in the day. Here's a taste.

In 1851, Ann Hoag, to all appearances a good wife and mother, murdered her husband of many years with arsenic in order to be with her lover, but she paid for her passion at the end of a rope in Dutchess County, just after giving birth to a sixth child.

In November 1855, the schooner Eudora Imogene was found scuttled in Long Island Sound off the coast of Westchester County. The captain and a mate were missing but there was evidence that a brutal double murder had been committed with everything pointing to the ship’s cook, George Wilson. The man would eventually be executed for the crimes. 

After authorities discovered a man’s remains in the kitchen of Oscar Beckwith in Austerlitz, N.Y. in 1882, he was dubbed the “Austerlitz Cannibal” by the New York press. The 78-year-old hermit almost got away with the crime after escaping to Canada, but an intrepid investigator hauled Beckwith back to Columbia County, New York, where he was found guilty after two trials and executed for his crime three years after the killing. He was the last man to be hanged in New York state. 

Friday, October 30, 2015

My book "Gilded Age Murder & Mayhem in the Berkshires" is now available from Arcadia Publishing/The History Press. Fourteen heart-pounding true crime stories from between 1870 and 1911 await! Check it out here.

Monday, February 9, 2015

The Battle and the Damage Done

Editor's note: In honor of the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Iwo Jima, I'm posting this story I wrote a few years back that appeared in the Register Star newspaper in a slightly different version. 

Marines storm the beach at Iwo Jima.

It was 1945 and Fred Doty was on a transport leaving Iwo Jima. Looking back at the 21-square mile volcanic island, he could see the seemingly endless rows of graves of his fellow Marines on shore, and he wept. 

“I’m alive,” he thought. “I’m coming home.”

He had survived one of the toughest battles of World War II and now he was heading back to the U.S. and to safety, but for years afterwards the horrors he experienced stuck with him, a wound that refused to heal. 

During his time on Iwo Jima one of his jobs had been to help bury his fellow soldiers.

“It was pretty rough,” he recalled recently, his emotions rising to the surface. “They had crewcuts just like me. It could have been me.”

Doty had been on the island for months, beginning in February 1945 when his ship, the USS LST 84, a tank landing craft, was among the nearly 900 vessels in the largest armada invasion of the Pacific War up to that time. Doty was a corporal attached to the 5th Amphibious Corps of the Fleet Assault Marine Force.

Doty had volunteered to stay on the bridge to watch for enemy aircraft as the armada made its way to the target since he had a cracker jack ability to spot enemy aircraft. He slept on the bridge in all kinds of weather and kept a look out for the Japanese suicide pilots, known as Kamikaze, who crashed their planes into U.S. ships.

“The worst was the suicide pilots,” he said. “They were very scary.”

Thirty miles from Iwo Jima, his ship came under fire. He alerted the crew and began feeding ammunition to both the gunners helming the 40 millimeter weapons and the gunner at the 50-caliber machine gun.

“We got credited with shooting down three or four (suicide pilots),” he said. “I got a Bronze Star for it.”

Doty said they were lucky. At one point the ship had been the last in the convoy, but traded spots with another ship, the USS LST 477. On Feb. 21, 1945 a Kamikaze pilot managed to slam into the side of LST 477, dropping a bomb on deck just before doing so.

“It got hit broadside,” he said. “I wouldn’t be here today…Someone was looking out for me.”

A few days later Doty disembarked onto the beach, just before the famed raising of the American flag on Mount Suribachi by Marines and a Navy corpsman.

He recalled the incessant shelling of the beaches by the Japanese who were extremely well dug in at Iwo Jima, with a honeycomb-like defensive position with 16 miles of tunnels connecting 1,500 separate rooms dug out of the rock.

“It was a lot of hell,” he said of the battle that raged for more than a month, from Feb. 19 to March 26, 1945.

The island was considered home soil by the Japanese, while the Americans thought it vitally important as a strategic position due to its location.

Long range B-29 bombers were executing bombing raids on Japanese cities, but the U.S. had no fighter escort planes with the range necessary for the long flights. Iwo Jima, which had three airfields, was perfect for a fighter escort station.

“That’s why we were there,” he said. “For the airfield.”

While Doty liked combat—“I was young and crazy,” he remarked—often going out with a buddy to shoot Japanese snipers with their .45s when troops were “mopping up,” he also found his time there to be frightening.

The nights were the worst. There were always two men to a fox hole to guarantee a modicum of safety.

“One slept while the other kept look out,” he said. “The Japanese would sneak up on you in the middle of the night, cut your throat and take your canteen.”

On one of these long, often mundane nights, a nearby ammo dump suddenly went up with an earth-shaking blast that jolted those lucky enough to get some sleep awake. Doty was just a few yards away from the blast. Clouds of white sulfur blanketed the area requiring the use of gas masks, which clouded the soldiers vision  and made it that much harder to see if an enemy attack was on the way. 

None came that night, but Doty, scared by what happened, had a terrible night. 

He was still on Iwo Jima on Victory over Japan Day, Aug. 15, 1945, when the end of the war was announced.

“We were getting ready to go to Japan,” he said. “I guess they figured if (the Fifth Amphibious) could take Iwo Jima, we could take anything.”

The planned invasion of Japan, code-named Operation Downfall, never materialized, due in part to the U.S. dropping an atomic bomb on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, followed by the detonation of another over Nagasaki on Aug. 9.

Doty had heard rumors of a new weapon.

“There were a lot of Air Force men flying in and out of Iwo Jima,” he said, and they told him about “something special. A special bomb.”

With the war over, Doty was returning to Columbia County, N.Y. where he was born and raised, but while the fighting had ended he continued to suffer the effects of his experiences.

Back home in Columbiaville he took a boat out to the Hudson River, but when a seagull swooped down close to him he began to suffer flashbacks from the war.

“That’s when it all started,” he said.

“He hated to go to sleep,” recalled his wife of more than 60 years, Shirley. “We’d be getting ready to go to bed and he’d just be starting a project around the house.”

Doty wasn’t alone. He said several of his friends also suffered from their experiences.

For him, joining the Civil Air Patrol after the war and working with young people helped him.

“It eased my mind,” he said.

Even with his harrowing war time experiences, Doty said he would do it all again.

“I’m proud of what I did. I’m proud to have served,” he said. “This is the greatest country in the world.”

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Over there: They fought for America and respect

Editor's note: I'll be posting some stories I've written over the last few years related to World War I (1914-1918) and World War II (1939-1945). While these stories aren't strictly old-time crime related, they deserved to be reissued and I felt this was the most appropriate venue of my many blogs in which to present them. So without further ado, here's the first of three, "Over there: They fought for America and respect."
A version of this story appeared in the Register Star newspaper in February 2010. 

Private Jacob Van Alstyne is second from the left in the front row. (Photo courtesy of Chatham historian and archivist Fred Friedel).

The men stood at attention. While still in their civilian clothes, many had already begun to assume a military air. They were all headed to Camp Upton, an army base on Long Island, and while all these young African-American men made it back to Columbia County, N.Y., one of them, Jacob Van Alstyne, would return a changed man.

In 1917 the United States declared war on Germany, entering a conflagration that had already been raging for three years.

The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, by a Serbian radical in 1914 led to a domino effect of European countries declaring war on one another. Eventually America would join the fray.

Many African-American men stateside believed joining the war effort could help African-Americans gain the respect of white America by proving their valor and love of country.

At the time, America was a segregated society, more so in the South with its Jim Crow laws, but in the North as well, where second-class citizenry was the norm for African-Americans.

A week after the U.S. declaration of war the quota for African-American soldiers had already been filled.

In May 1917, the U.S. government began requiring all males between 21 and 31 to sign up for the draft and soon the lottery began to fill the Army’s ranks with men of all races. While some waited to be drafted, Van Alstyne volunteered.

Born in Stuyvesant Falls on Feb. 2, 1876 to Robert and Sarah Van Alstyne, Jacob became a farmer, living in Old Chatham, N.Y. before the war, where his wife died while she was still relatively young.

Van Alstyne was inducted into the Army in Hudson, N.Y., on July 31, 1918. After a few months of training at Camp Upton and later at Camp Hampton, also in New York, he became part of the 547th Engineer Battalion as a private.

While there were a few African-American combat units, notably the 369th Infantry — nicknamed the “Harlem Hellfighters” — most of the men, including Van Alstyne, would serve their country in labor battalions. These non-combat units were the backbone of the Army, keeping the supplies flowing to the front and helping to shelter and feed the men in the trenches.

Van Alstyne soon found himself at the Western Front attached to the 20th Engineers, a forestry regiment that was responsible for supplying wood for the Army. He was there at the final great allied offensive that broke the stalemate brought on by a strategy of trench warfare. While in France’s Argonne forest, scene of the French and American push against the German line that helped end the war, Van Alstyne first saw the yellow-brown gas that floated through the forest and smelled the acrid scent of mustard that burned his nostrils, then his lungs, and then his skin.

This was the first of three times he would suffer a gas attack by the enemy, along with a severe leg wound. But even with these battle scars he would stay on in service to his country, beyond the Armistice of Nov. 11, 1918 and into the next summer.

He returned to Columbia County and to farming in the summer of 1919, settling in Ghent.

The African-American men who went to war in the hopes of finding some equality back home would have to wait for a new type of strategy, one that involved civil disobedience rather than state-sanctioned violence to achieve its aims.

Van Alstyne’s battalion was integrated beginning in 1953, two years after the Army’s plan to unify its troops began, not in the name of equality, but rather for the sake of efficiency.

Van Alstyne would pass away in 1961 just as the Civil Rights Movement was rising up to force the nation this soldier proudly served to face the institutionalized racism that kept African-Americans second-class citizens.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

I'm happy to announce I'll be having my book about murder and mayhem in the Gilded Age Berkshires (1870-early 1900s) published by the History Press. Look for it in the fall of 2015. I'll update readers on my progress as it moves along.