Monday, February 25, 2013

Accessing the Mohawk Mercury

Portion of an advertisement for dry goods at Charles Martin's store in the Mohawk Mercury, February 9, 1795.  Grems-Doolittle Library Collections. 

This blog entry is written by volunteer Robert J. Jones. 

The Mohawk Mercury was a weekly newspaper published in Schenectady during the last decade of the 18th century.  In the Historical Society’s collection, we have microfilm of the paper between February 9, 1795 and March 13, 1798.  Published originally by Abraham Brockaw and Cornelius Wyckoff, Wyckoff became the sole publisher in September of 1795 according to a notice of the dissolution of their business partnership printed in the newspaper.  After this notice, no further mention is made of Brockaw, and he fades into history from the pages of his former paper.  Wyckoff, on the other hand, continues his business of selling books and doing print jobs aside from the newspaper itself.  He becomes active in various religious groups and uses his paper to promote books and publications of a religious nature.  According to an August 22, 1954 newspaper clipping from the Union-Star newspaper that we have in the library, a certain John L. Stevenson bought the paper. It is unclear if Stevenson continued printing the Mercury, but in 1799 he was publishing a newspaper under the name Schenectady Gazette (no relation to the present-day Schenectady newspaper), so it’s possible that he simply changed the name of the original publication.  In 1802 Stevenson changed the name of the Gazette to the Western Spectator and Schenectady Advertiser.  Finally in 1807, he discontinued publication. 

Published every Tuesday with essentially the same format in all the issues for which we have examples, the Mohawk Mercury was never more than four pages long; the first two pages were reserved mostly for national and international news, with some state information.  Pages three and four were almost exclusively local news and notices, generally in the form of business ads.  While the first two pages are interesting in their own right for a glimpse into the important matters of post-Revolutionary America, the real treasure of the publication for researchers of local history are the second two pages.  Given the ads and notices published, the Mohawk Mercury reads like a Who’s-Who of 1790’s Schenectady.  In total, some 1,439 individual names are printed on its pages.  Scanning the list of surnames gives an immediate impression of the ethnic make-up of the city at that time.  Not surprisingly, the overwhelming majority of names are ones we closely associate with old Schenectady: Van Antwerp, Veeder and Vedder, Van Eps, and Vrooman just to stick to the V’s.  Most of the names are of course Dutch, but names from other backgrounds are also present such as German, Welsh, Slavic (probably Polish), English, French and Scottish.

A few of those indexed in the paper have no last names.  At least four slaves, Jacob, Jap, Bawn and Joe are listed with no surnames, and of course all had run away.  Run-away wives were also a frequent subject of public notices with warnings not to harbor or help them. During election season, long lists of committee members were published showing who supported each candidate and telling us where these people lived.  Often these contain the names of many of the same businessmen and other worthies who variously ran ads in the paper.  Since the issues we have date from the founding of Union College, for several months after the institution’s founding, a series of witty essays was published lauding or decrying the college, its students and faculty.  All of them of course were published anonymously!

Considering that few other sources for Schenectady give us this kind of information for this time period, the Mohawk Mercury is a treasure trove for researchers.  Until recently, however, accessing this information has been difficult and time-consuming because no complete index existed. A partial index from issues nos. 9–30 was completed some time ago, but considering that the final issue we have was no. 170, very little information was actually accessible.  In the fall of 2012, I completed the index, and it is currently available for use at the Society’s library.  It can also be found online here

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Log Cabin Statesman

Head-and-shoulders portrait of President Abraham Lincoln, traditionally called "last photograph of Lincoln from life." Image from the Library of Congress ( 

This blog entry is written by volunteer Hannah Hamilton. 

He was a physical marvel of his time, and remains an intellectual wonder for all mankind. He, more so than any other president, embodied what many consider to be the American Ideal. Born on a bed of bearskins which hung from the wall by leather straps, receiving only one year of schooling before educating himself through toil of mind and body, he rose to be the man who would ultimately abolish American slavery and preserve the Union. He was “The Giant of the West,” a living paradox in his own right, and his tale has become the stuff of legends.

“It is near midnight, and I have just come in from seeing enacted a tragedy which will ring down through the ages ‘Till time shall be no more,’ the assassination at Ford’s Theater of Abraham Lincoln, the president of the United States.” –Captain Charles Lewis of Schenectady, NY; April 14, 1865

A Mathew Brady photograph of Lewis taken in Washington on August 7, 1863. Photo from the collections of the Efner City History Center in Schenectady.

Captain Lewis, the son of Taylor Lewis (one of Union College’s earliest professors), was one of at least two Schenectadians present at Ford’s Theater the night of Lincoln’s assassination. In Lewis’ diary, held at the Efner City History Center along with numerous contemporary documents, he recounts the horror and excitement of that tragic night. Lincoln’s death came four short days after the end of the Civil War, and blackened a time of celebratory elation in Washington D.C. and the North. Lewis’ journal provides modern scholars with a firsthand look at the immediate impact of Lincoln’s death, and is especially special to a Schenectadian audience.

Lincoln visited Schenectady twice, the first time following his election as president in February of 1861. Though Lincoln had lost the city of Schenectady in the 1860 election by 33 votes, he was met by an enthusiastic crowd as his train rolled across Union Street five minutes ahead of time. The journey was not a pleasant one for the president, who was described as looking exhausted and frail. 

With rumors of assassination and secession already circulating, it was much to the alarm of everyone aboard the Ernestus Corning when the reverberation of a celebratory cannon welcoming the president blasted out several of the train’s windows. Despite the warm welcome which met him on the rundown Schenectady streets, Lincoln refused to leave the train and take the platform erected for him, because he had refused to do so in other towns. Instead, from the back of the train, he announced to the crowd that he had, “no speech to make, no time to make one and not sufficient strength to make one if [he] so desired,” according to Robert Freeman, the engineer at throttle on the Ernestus Corning.

A 20th century artist’s depiction of Lincoln’s 1861 visit to Schenectady. Located in Lincoln, Abraham In Schenectady clipping file, Grems-Doolittle Library.

President Abraham Lincoln visited Schenectady for the second time in 1865, and this second time, just like the first, he did not leave the train. The funeral train of the president passed through Schenectady piloted by the city’s own Alonzo J. Wemple, born October 1st 1833. Wemple, who served as a railroad engineer for several decades, “recalled feeling pity for the Confederate prisoners of war who were loaded into boxcars and shipped to prison camps in the North.” It was with great pride that he joined the elite team of engineers who piloted the funeral train of Abraham Lincoln, and drove the train as it passed through the city of silent onlookers in 1865.

An artifact held at the Schenectady County Historical Society Museum with a note reading, A piece of the towel used as a bandage round the head of our late President Abraham Lincoln on the night of his assassination. Presented to Joseph H. Lester by Yours Truly, William J. Clark. Collections of the Schenectady County Historical Society. 

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

"A Mutual Flame:" The Love Letter of John Van Rensselaer

First page of Gen L 2, a love letter which is fully transcribed below. From the collections of the Grems-Doolittle Library. 

In celebration of Valentine's Day, we'd like to feature one of the love letters in our collections. Although we cannot be certain, we believe the letter may have been written by John S. Van Rensselaer, a 1810 graduate of Union College. John S. Van Rensselaer went on to become a lawyer in Albany and married Ann Dunkin of Philadelphia, not the "Miss Getty B." addressed in the letter below. The letter was written when Van Rensselaer was a teenager, likely around the age of 16, and it expresses the sentiments expected in a letter of courtship -- longing for his beloved, cherishing her lock of hair, and vowing to hold her intimate thoughts and tender feelings close to his chest. The original letter is fully transcribed below, with the line breaks, punctuation and underlining of the original maintained.

Miss Getty B............

A Love Letter

Union College Dec 27, 1807

My amiable friend,

At length my doubts have ended,
at length my charmer has condescended to con-
fess to her Van Ransalaer a mutual flame.
Imagination alone can paint to your mind
my sensations at present. With unfeigned
delight I am anticipating the pleasure of
again beholding you, of again pressing you
to my bosom which sighs for you alone.
How shall I express my gratitude for the lovely
lock of hair you sent me. The form of it was
so congenial to pleasure I felt on reading your
letter, that I unintentionally imagined that
our harts were united in one. Forgive me my
lovely friend, if in the warmth of my expres-
sions I have intimated any thing repugnant
to that delicacy to which I would rather sacrifice
my own happiness, than offend. You desired
me in your last letter to send you a lock of
my hair as I valued your affection, "need I again
mention how much I value it." still circum-
stances oblige me to confess that the unrelenting
Barber has unfortunately sheered it so close,
that it is altogether impossible to say properly
that my head is in possesssion of a single lock
of hair intire. You have requested me so often
not to shew your letters to any one, that if it
is possible I am almost offended with you.
Can my dear girl suppose that I can be
so mean and ungenerous as to betray an af-
fection which she has deigned to bestow on me.
Banish such ideas, and know my charming
angel I am selfish enough to imagine that if
another was to participate with me in reading
your letters. I would not be sensible of that
pleasure which I now derive in perusing
them. Present my sincere respects to my
dear Peggy G... and tell her I shall wear her
chain to my watch as a sacred momento of
her friendship. My respects to all enquiring
friends. I subscribe myself with pleasure
Your devoted
JS Van Rensala

P.S. Inclosed I send you
a list of the students
of Union College

Monday, February 4, 2013

The Walter Johnson - Frank Wickware Showdown at Schenectady

Frank Wickware, ca. 1913. From the Frank Keetz Professional Baseball Collection. 

Excitement was running high in Schenectady in the period leading up to October 5, 1913, when Washington Americans pitcher Walter Johnson and a team of "All Americans" -- all minor league players -- would come to Schenectady to face the local all-African-American team the Mohawk Colored Giants and its strongest pitcher, Frank Wickware, for the last game in the Giants' very first season. "Never has such interest been aroused among baseball fans," wrote the Schenectady Gazette. "No more fitting close could possibly have been arranged for the local fans and the largest crowd that has ever witnessed any athletic event or baseball game will be on hand." The newspaper touted the game as "a test of the best white pitcher versus the best colored twirler."

Walter Johnson's visit to Schenectady was scheduled just after Johnson had completed a stellar season with a 36-7 record -- including 11 shutouts -- with the Washington Senators. He was also the American League MVP that year. One of the greatest pitchers in the history of baseball, Johnson's fastball struck out more players than any pitcher in history until the 1980s. Some of the pitching records he set during his 21-year career remain unbroken to this day. Johnson would go on to be honored as one of the "Five Immortals" -- one of the first five players elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Walter Johnson, 1913. Image from Library of Congress. 

On the Schenectady side, Frank Wickware was considered one of the best African-American pitchers of the day, and was compared to white major league legends of his time. The Schenectady Union-Star called Wickware "the best colored pitcher in the world." The Amsterdam Evening Recorder held that it "was no wild assertion to say that were it not for his color he would be placed in the same class with [Walter] Johnson, [Christopher "Christy"] Mathewson, [Charles "Chief"] Bender and other stars of the game." Reporter Frank G. Menke described Wickware as "one of the greatest pitchers the game ever has produced" and decried the color line that barred him from joining the major leagues. Menke described Wickware's style of pitching as having "marvelous speed, a weird set of curves and wonderful control. And he has a trick that has made him feared among batters. He throws what seems to be a 'bean ball' but his control is so perfect that he never yet has hit a batter in the head. But when the batters see the ball, propelled with mighty force, come for their heads, they jump away — and the ball, taking its proper and well-timed curve, arches over the plate for a strike."

Wickware shone during the Mohawk Giants' 1913 season. "The Mohawk Giants were a good baseball team," wrote local baseball historian Frank Keetz, "but with Frank Wickware pitching, they were a great baseball team." Wickware was often pitted against the Giants' toughest competitors. He was responsible for defeating four State League teams, and had a personal record of 24 wins, 5 losses, 2 ties, and 2 saves. He pitched 9 shutouts and assisted in 2 other shutouts that season. When the Chicago Cubs came to the area for an exhibition game against a Rutland, Vermont team, Wickware was picked to pitch for the Rutland team as a ringer. However, the Cubs refused to face Wickware, citing the $1,000 fine that major league teams faced if they played against an African-American player.

The Johnson-Wickware game was to be played at Island Park, on Van Slyck Island (later Iroquois Island) in the Mohawk River. Baseball games had been regularly played at Island Park since the turn of the century. Fans paid their admission at the foot of Water Street in Schenectady, then crossed a pontoon bridge on foot to the stands. The construction of the new Western Gateway Bridge during the 1970s would later prompt the filling in of the Binnekill, transforming the area into one large piece of land from the rear of the Schenectady County Community College down to the Mohawk River.

On the day of the game, roughly 7,000 fans flooded into Island Park, with overflow from the packed stands covering much of the outfield. After both teams held their pre-game practice, the Mohawk Giants players suddenly ran off the field and across the pontoon bridge to the ticket booth. The players claimed that the team's manager, Bill Wernecke, had not paid them for the past six weeks. Since this was the last game of the season, they feared they would not be paid, and they demanded to be paid immediately. Seeing the players at the gate and sensing that the game would not go on, fans streamed to the ticket booth and demanded refunds. The scene of anger, fear, and confusion, according to an article in the New York Times, "came near developing into a full-fledged riot." The Union-Star described the behavior of the players as "disgusting" and "disgraceful," particularly noting that "Wickware, in an ugly mood, used his tongue too freely as he strode about the crowd, swinging a bat dangerously near the spectators and muttering threats against Wernecke." Police soon arrived and calmed the crowd. Alfred Nicolaus, a local restaurant owner and silent partner in the Mohawk Giants team, rushed part of the funds to the striking players. The game finally began a hour and a half after the scheduled 3:00 p.m start time. After another brief interruption -- the agent who had brought Johnson to Schenectady demanded his payment, as well! -- the game went on.

The crowd was excited to see an out-of-town star, and Johnson met their expectations. He struck out the Mohawk Giants in the third and fifth innings, and only gave up two hits during the entire game. He also hit two doubles in his two appearances at bat. In comparison to Johnson's pitching, Wickware "struggled a little," according to Frank Keetz. Over the course of the game, Wickware gave up five hits, walked three, and hit one batter with a wild pitch. During the fourth inning, the Mohawk Giants scored one run -- the sole run of the game. After five and a half innings, the game was called on account of darkness. Fans were likely disappointed that that the game was cut short, but the crowd left, according to the Schenectady Gazette, "perfectly satisfied that they had seen the world's best twirler perform."

You can learn more about Wickware and other members of the Mohawk Giants on Saturday, February 23, when local baseball historian Frank Keetz will trace the history of the team. This lecture will be featured in conjunction with the exhibit The Mohawk Colored Giants, which will be on display at our museum through May 2013. Details about the talk are featured below.

Lecture: "Black Baseball Players, White Crowds: The Mohawk Colored Giants of Schenectady"

Speaker: Frank Keetz

Date: Saturday, February 23, 2013

Time: 2:00 p.m.

Location: Schenectady County Historical Society, 32 Washington Avenue, Schenectady, NY 12305

Cost: $5.00 admission – Free for SCHS members            

Local baseball historian and author Frank Keetz will trace the history of the Mohawk Colored Giants, an all-African-American professional baseball team in Schenectady, and discuss the team’s impact and legacy in the area. Keetz has written several publications about sports in the Schenectady area, including The Mohawk Colored Giants of Schenectady, Class ‘C’ Baseball: A Case Study of the Schenectady Blue Jays in the Canadian-American League 1946-1950, and They, Too, Were ‘Boys of Summer:’ A Case Study of the Schenectady Blue Jays in the Eastern League 1951-1957.