Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Building on the Farm: A Legacy of Architecture at the Mabee Farm

Drawing of buildings at Mabee Farm by Keith Prior. From Grems-Doolittle Library Collections. 

The Mabee Farm Historic Site in Rotterdam Junction is where visitors can find the oldest house still standing in the Mohawk Valley. The Jan Mabee House (also known as the Stone House) dates from around 1706 and remained in the Mabee family for almost three centuries. In 1993, George Franchere, last direct descendant of Jan Mabee, made a gift of the Mabee Farm property to the Schenectady County Historical Society. The three historic buildings on the farm -- the Stone House, Brick House, and Inn -- are examples of early Dutch American architecture and are unique in that there has been minimal change, remodeling, or reconfiguration of the structures. The Mabees also left behind a treasure trove of architectural artifacts, remnants, tools and documents which give us glimpses into the lives of Jan Mabee and his descendants. The surviving houses provide insight into early building techniques and skills and illuminate life along the Mohawk River over the course of three centuries. Study of the farm's architecture and artifacts continue to provide us with insights into the journey of the family and life on the early American farm.

Floor plan showing first floor of the Stone House (also known as the Mabee House).  The drawing was made in the 1930s as part of the Historic American Buildings Survey. The original blueprint drawings are collected in the Mabee Family Papers. This digital image can be found at the Library of Congress website (www.loc.gov). 

Many of the buildings on the farm date from the eighteenth century, including the Stone House (built ca. 1706; stone addition ca. 1755), the Brick House (built ca. 1750), and the Inn (built ca. 1790). Additionally, a Dutch barn built around 1760 was acquired by the Society in 1997, dissembled and moved from Johnstown, New York, restored, and re-erected on site. The sheer age of the Stone House is significant in the history of the settlement of the Mohawk Valley by Europeans, and it is truly the centerpiece of the farm. The Brick House is especially noteworthy as one of the earliest unaltered colonial buildings in the area; it has been referred to as "essentially a time capsule from the later half of the eighteenth century" for the lack of alteration over the years.

The architecture of the farm is heavily influenced by Dutch architecture, and the buildings are typical of the Dutch-influenced homes and agricultural buildings in the Hudson Valley and the Mohawk Valley. The exhibit explores the interior and exterior features of the farm's buildings that are typically Dutch, and what they can tell us about the lives of the people who lived there.

The Dutch Barn being reconstructed at the Mabee Farm. Photograph from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection. 

The exhibit also includes information about using techniques such as dendrochronology, reading architectural clues, and examining artifacts in finding information about the history of the buildings on the farm, how they have been altered over the years, how the uses of the buildings have changed over time, how the land on the farm has changed over time, and how principles of historic preservation and restoration have been used to preserve the buildings and to restore the look of the buildings as they were in earlier days.

The Stone House and Brick House. Undated print from a glass plate negative. Photograph from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection.  

Learn more about the architecture of the Mabee Farm by visiting the exhibit, Building on the Farm: A Legacy of Architecture at the Mabee Farm, at the George Franchere Education Center at the Mabee Farm Historic Site, 1080 Main Street (Route 5s), Rotterdam Junction, NY 12150. The exhibit opens on Saturday, May 4 at 10:00 a.m. and continues through July. Admission is free for members of the Schenectady County Historical Society and $5.00 for non-members. Call 518-887-5073 for more information about the exhibit.

We hope you will join us for the exhibit's opening on May 4, when artist Len Tantillo celebrates the public unveiling of Legacy, his new painting of the Mabee Farm finished this year. Trained as an architect, Tantillo uses modeling and historical research to make history come alive in his paintings. Legacy helps capture and reflect the spirit of the Mabee family and of life on the early American farm. Don't miss this special moment at 1:00 p.m. on May 4.

Shortly after the unveiling of Legacy, John Stevens, author and premier expert on Dutch architecture in early America, will give a comprehensive record of buildings constructed by the Dutch. The features of Dutch-American buildings will be compared with Old World prototypes. Stevens will also discuss the decline of Dutch characteristics in second half of the 18th century, as well as the persistence of Dutch timber-framing technology into the middle of the 19th century. Copies of Mr. Stevens' book, Dutch Vernacular Architecture in North America 1640-1830, will be available for purchase. His talk will be featured at 2:00 p.m.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Pink Pills for Pale People

Samples of advertisements for Dr. Williams' Pink Pills for Pale People, ca. 1912. The drawings for these advertisements were made by a Schenectady artist, Margaret Curran-Smith. From Collections of Grems-Doolittle Library. 

Patent medicines -- packaged drugs whose contents are incompletely disclosed -- were plentiful and profitable from after the Civil War through the early twentieth century. Before the first Pure Food and Drug Laws were passed, the manufacturers and promoters of patent medicines made millions of dollars from a credulous public eager for cures for a variety of ailments (and many of whom were unable to afford the regular care of a doctor). One of those patent medicines was Dr. Williams' Pink Pills for Pale People, which were manufactured, distributed, and marketed in part by W.T. Hanson in Schenectady.

Image of Willis T. Hanson from drawing in newspaper. From Hanson surname file. 

There was no "Dr. Williams" involved with the Pink Pills, but early on, there was a Dr. Jackson connected to the product. In 1890, a Canadian physician, Dr. William Jackson, sold the rights to his Pink Pills for Pale People, a "fatigue remedy," to George Taylor Fulford, a Canadian entrepreneur. Sometime soon after, W.T. Hanson, a Schenectady businessman and druggist, secured the sole distribution rights for Dr. Williams Pink Pills for Pale People in the United States. Hanson was at the center of three separate but seemingly connected companies: the W.T. Hanson Company, the Hanson-Fulford Company, and Dr. Williams' Medicine Company. The executive office, advertising department, factory, and shipping department of all three companies was located at 147 Centre Street (now Broadway). A number of prominent area men, including Edwin Conde of Schenectady and Dr. Alexander Duncan Langmuir of Albany, served on the Dr. Williams' Medicine Company's board of directors. Conde also served for a time as the publicity promoter for the company.
Package of Dr. Williams' Pink Pills for Pale People. Packages of 40 pills were sold for 50 cents from druggists or directly from the Schenectady manufacturer. Image from the Kansas Historical Society's  Kansapedia "Cool Things" topics (http://www.kshs.org/kansapedia/cool-things-pink-pills-for-pale-people/10240)

The advertisements for Dr. Williams Pink Pills for Pale People, like those for other patent medicines of the period, offered miraculous personal testimonies, crediting the Pink Pills with rescuing themselves or their children from the brink of death. Statements such as "I tried them and firmly believe that if I had not I should be in my grave right now" and "That Dr. Williams' Pink Pills saved my life is beyond doubt," were common. The medicine claimed to cure chorea, "locomotor ataxia, partial paralyxia, seistica, neuralgia rheumatism, nervous headache, the after-effects of la grippe, palpitation of the heart, pale and sallow complexions, [and] all forms of weakness in male or female." In one advertisement, the Pink Pills were even credited with curing paralysis, after a person took the pills for four months!

The notorious advertisement in which Dr. Williams' Pink Pills for Pale People  is credited with curing a  boy's paralysis.  From Hanson surname file.

Advertisements for Dr. Williams' Pink Pills for Pale People can be found in newspapers from across the country. In 1901, the advertising efforts of Dr. Williams' Medicine Company were the subject of a glowing article in the Omaha Daily News, which heralded the company as "an example of what can be accomplished by young men in this twentieth century of keen business rivalry and ceaseless competition."

As the twentieth century dawned, patent medicines came under increased scrutiny. In an article in Collier's entitled "The Great American Fraud," Samuel Hopkins Adams took on the patent medicine industry.  Adams listed Dr. Williams' Pink Pills for Pale People in a group of nostrums he referred to as "the most conspicuous of this kind now being foisted on the public," and noted the composition of the pills as "green vitriol, starch and sugar." Adams' articles led to the passage of the first Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906. The Act required more accurate labeling of medicines, and curbed some of the most misleading, overstated, or fraudulent claims that appeared on the labels of patent medicines.

In 1912, the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station conducted an analysis of Dr. Williams' Pink Pills for Pale People. The author of a subsequent report could not resist commenting: "in using the pills the patient is directed first to purge the bowels, then take the pills, bathe frequently, keep the bowels regular, and partake of a nutritious diet. The thought occurs that perhaps the desired result might well be secured by following all of this treatment except the taking of the pills." Dr. Pincus Rothberg, a chemist with the Bureau of Chemistry at the Port of New York, also analyzed the pills and found the composition of the pills to be more than 37 percent sugar, 13 percent iron sulphate, 11 percent potassium carbonate, 15 percent starch, and 17 percent vegetable substance, with traces of talc and a small quantity of strychnin. Rothberg's analysis was published in The Composition of Certain Patent and Proprietary Medicines in 1917. The examination of the Pink Pills led to a court battle; in 1917, the Dr. Williams Medicine Company was found guilty of misbranding its product.

Although the Dr. Williams Medicine Company continued to exist in Schenectady in the early 1920s, it was surely in its decline as the tide turned away from the patent medicine era. In 1922, popular rhyming syndicated columnist Walt Mason singled out Dr. Williams Pink Pills for Pale People in two different columns disparaging patent medicines. "And then at last we're ailing and getting worse each day, and pink pills, unavailing, seem made to throw away," he wrote in one, and "I take pink pills to cure my ills, my gout and flu and tetter; I swallow ten, and now and then I think I'm feeling better" in another. The terminology of the patent medicines began to be used as references to touted would-be panaceas that have little actual benefit; in 1926, a congressman derided a bill before the House of Representatives as being "pink pills for pale people." As early as the 1930s, patent medicines, including Dr. Williams' Pink Pills for Pale People, were being exhibited as artifacts of a bygone era.

Monday, April 15, 2013

The Murder of Ettie Demacsek

Excerpt from newspaper article regarding the Demacsek murder case published in the New York Times, 17 July 1892. Image obtained via www.fultonhistory.com.  

Around noon on June 14, 1892, 12-year-old Gussie Frisch heard a heavy blow, a scream, and a sound that she likened to that of a butcher cutting meat. She knocked on the door of the Demacseks' home on Rotterdam Street (once an extension of Washington Avenue that ran south of Water Street to Kruesi Avenue) in Schenectady, then opened the door and entered. As she entered the house, a man ran past her out of the house, past a group of men on the porch of Scrafford's Hotel across the street, and escaped. Inside the house, Frisch discovered the body of her neighbor, Ettie Demacsek, on the floor of the front room. Demacsek's throat was slit and she had been stabbed in the chest. Her skull was fractured in two places.

Ettie's husband, Alexander, was at work at the time of the murder. When he was questioned by police, he provided a short list of possible suspects and insinuated that he suspected John Feltheimer, a former boarder in the Demacsek house, of the murder. Demacsek himself was not arrested, but the police thought his behavior suspicious. "While he was not arrested," the Adirondack Times reported, "he was given to understand that if he attempted to leave the city he would be locked up. The police shadowed him continually."

Feltheimer was thus the first suspect in the case, but he was able to prove an alibi; he was at work at the locomotive works at the time of the murder. Horrified by Ettie's murder, Feltheimer at once began working with police to help find who was responsible for the killing. The Schenectady police swore in Feltheimer as a special officer so he could work on the case. He had a strong suspicion of Cornelius Loth, a close friend of Demacsek's and a former boarder at the Demacsek home who had moved away from Schenectady a few months before the murder. Through speaking with Loth's acquaintances in Schenectady, Feltheimer was able to find where Loth was in New York City. Feltheimer traveled to New York City and alerted the police there. Two days after the murder, Cornelius Loth was arrested for the murder of Ettie Demacsek. Based on other information uncovered by Feltheimer, Alexander Demacsek was also arrested for complicity in the crime. According to a newspaper article covering the murder, Loth and Demacsek were said to have discussed using a foot-log butcher knife in the Demacseks' home for the murder. "It was not sharp enough, [Loth] was reported to have said to the conspiring husband. The latter took the knife and sharpened it . . . It is even said that his wife turned the grindstone upon which the implement was ground."

After being arrested, Loth at first claimed that he was innocent. Loth and Demacsek were both held to testify before a grand jury. Witnesses were called to the stand with regard to the complicity of Alexander Demacsek, including a family friend who Demacsek had visited the day after the murder. She claimed that Demacsek had told her that he knew who his wife's murderer was and that he didn't want him to be caught. When the woman, shocked, replied that he should let the police know at once who was responsible, Demacsek began to cry and said "You don't know what you would do in my place." Jacob Lockwood, who boarded at the Demacsek home, came home with Demacsek immediately when police informed them of the murder. Ettie's body was then still in the home; Lockwood testified that Demacsek stared at his wife's corpse for a minute and a half, then turned away trying to hide a smile. Demacsek himself admitted that he had beaten his wife several times, and had twice whipped her. The Schenectady Evening Star reported that Demacsek was "voluble and clever" in his replies to being questioned and that "a smile rested on his features almost constantly" as he testified.

In his testimony, Loth admitted to killing Ettie Demacsek and provided the details of the murder. The New York Times reported that Loth gave his testimony "as calmly as though he were reading a newspaper report of another man's crime."  Loth claimed that Alexander Demacsek had been asking him to kill Ettie since February of that year, and began to offer Loth money to kill her. Loth said that he was finally convinced to kill Ettie after Alexander Demacsek promised to forgive all of the financial debts that Loth owed Demacsek -- a substantial amount -- and, additionally, to pay Loth a large sum of money.

Artist's rendering of Cornelius Loth, who confessed to murdering Ettie Demacsek. From Demacsek surname file. 

Loth testified that he arrived in Schenectady on the morning of June 14 and immediately went to the Demacsek home. He chatted with Ettie Demacsek while a man was working on plastering the kitchen. After the man left, Loth said, Ettie Demacsek "gave me bread and butter to eat . . . she told me she was sleepy and went into the front room and lay down on a lounge. I could see her from where I sat as she lay there." After waiting a few minutes, Loth took out a brass club which he had brought with him, entered the room where Ettie lay, and struck her multiple times on the head with it. "She screamed then, but could not say anything," Loth testified. "Then she fell down on the floor, and I went into the kitchen and got the butcher knife and went back again. I was afraid she was going to stand up, and would know who it was, and I cut her throat and stabbed her once or twice in the breast. About two minutes after I had cut her throat I heard a rap at the door, but I did not say anything. Then I took my hat and club, ran out of the house, through the streets, across the Glenville Bridge, when I threw my club into the Mohawk, and down along the railroad to the station, where I caught the 1:33 p.m. train and went back to New York."

Following his testimony, Loth was indicted for first-degree murder. Alexander Demacsek was not charged in connection with the murder. When Loth saw that Demacsek was not charged, he immediately denied his confession and claimed that he was forced into making the statement that he gave by the police. Loth was convicted of Ettie Demacsek's murder on November 30, 1892, and was sentenced to death. He was sent to the prison at Dannemora, where he was executed the following January.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Happy Birthday, Charles Steinmetz!

Charles Steinmetz at work. Photograph from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection. 

"Through a decade he led the advance of electrical engineers to the modern understanding of the electric circuit, the transformer, induction motor, alternator and high-voltage phenomena. Dr. Steinmetz assisted his brother engineers by an untold degree by his books, papers and discussions, by his profoundly intelligent vision and by his example of persistent, ably directed enthusiasm." 
- Professor Harris J. Ryan, President of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers

"mathematics to Steinmetz was muscular strength and long walks over the hills and the kiss of a girl in love and big evenings spent swilling beer with your friends"
- John Dos Passos, The 42nd Parallel

April 9, 1865 marks the birth of one of the most famous Schenectadians - Charles Proteus Steinmetz. Known as the "Wizard of Schenectady," Steinmetz was a mathematician and engineer. He was born in Breslau, Germany, and came to the United States at age 24 to work for the General Electric Company. After working in Lynn, Massachusetts, Steinmetz moved to Schenectady, where he lived until his death in 1923.

Charles Steinmetz at his camp along the Mohawk River to the west of Schenectady. Photograph from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection. 

Steinmetz is best known for his work in developing a mathematical method of understanding alternating current using complex numbers, which allowed engineers to extend the transmission of electrical current over long distances and enabled the great expansion of the electric power industry in the United States. His research on magnetism led him to his discovery of the law of hysteresis, which allowed inventors to design motors that would not overheat. After he began working for General Electric, he very quickly became a star engineer for the company. He helped to found the GE Research Laboratory and was a distinguished professor at Union College, where he founded the electrical engineering program. In 1916, he built a lightning generator. His discoveries with the generator helped to create efficient devices to harness electricity for use in industry. Steinmetz also held over 200 patents. 

In addition to his achievements as a scientist and mathematician, Steinmetz was well known for his activity as a Socialist. His political convictions began when he was a young man in Germany; increasing scrutiny of Socialist activity likely contributed to his decision to leave the country (his home life with his family was also tense). Steinmetz began serving on the Board of Education in 1908, where he introduced free textbooks for primary-level students, established a free lunch program, and advocated for special education programs. When the Socialist Party came to power in Schenectady with the election of Mayor George Lunn, Steinmetz was elected President of the Common Council and was appointed to serve as President of the Board of Education. Following the Russian Revolution, Steinmetz wrote to Vladimir Lenin, offering to help electrify Russia. Lenin declined the offer, but sent a photograph of himself and signed it "To the highly esteemed Charles Proteus Steinmetz, one of the few exceptions to the united front of representatives of science and culture opposed to the proletariat." 

Charles Steinmetz with his adopted grandchildren -- Billy, Marjorie ("Midge"), and Joe Hayden -- and actor Douglas Fairbanks in Hollywood, ca. 1923. Photograph from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection. 

Steinmetz suffered from dwarfism, hunchback, and hip dysplasia, which ran in his family; he chose not to marry and create a family for fear of passing on his conditions to children. However, he longed for family life. Steinmetz became very close friends with one of lab assistants, Joseph LeRoy Hayden. Eventually, Hayden and his wife, Corinne, moved into Steinmetz's Wendell Avenue home. Steinmetz legally adopted Joseph Hayden as his son, and Joseph and Corinne's three children had "Daddy" Steinmetz for their grandfather. "He was a perfect dear, and I really can't say enough about him," 94-year-old Marjorie Hayden said of Steinmetz in 2003. "Whatever we wanted, he got for us. We were completely spoiled by him."

In addition to his achievements in life, Steinmetz was known as a colorful character. He kept a strange assortment of animals at his home, including owls, alligators, a raccoon, and a Gila monster. He was almost always seen chomping on a cigar -- even when swimming. He kept up an active social life and was known as an avid card-player and practical joker. His colleague Ernst Berg later recalled "it seems extraordinary that so much real work was done because we played so much."

Monday, April 1, 2013

History Among Us: The Korean War POW Experience of Richard “Dick” Whalen

Richard Whalen at St. Alban’s Naval Hospital upon his return stateside – still grievously ill but overjoyed to be home.  Image from Dick Whalen Collection. 

This blog entry is written by library volunteer Hannah Hamilton. 

From Thanksgiving of 1950 to late April of 1953, the Mr. and Mrs. Frank Whalen were unsure whether or not they would ever see their beloved son, Richard “Dick” Whalen, again. Rotterdam Junction’s own Dick Whalen was taken Prisoner of War at Unsan, North Korea by the Chinese in November of 1950. He was at times declared “Missing in Action” and at others “Dead” by the Pentagon. Through the years of Whalen’s imprisonment, his parents’ lives were plagued by sporadic and conflicting messages pertaining to their only son’s well-being. It was not until approximately April 30th of 1953 that the Whalens received a letter from their son confirming that he was alive, and would soon be returning home.

An image of the Pyoktong POW Camp in North Korea with the Yalu River in the background, where a young Richard Whalen spent years alongside his comrades. Image from Dick Whalen Collection. 

Whalen considered himself as having been “treated well” in the POW camp, despite the horrors he faced. Upon his release in the summer of 1953, he was swiftly airlifted back to the U.S. where he spent more than a year undergoing treatment for an advanced case of tuberculosis. Whalen was brought to the notorious Camp Five at a time when prisoners were dying at a rate of a dozen per day, and managed a close scrape with death. Decades later in April of 1982, he wrote to Congress on behalf of fellow American Soldier Tibor Rubin, insisting that Rubin was deserving of the Congressional Medal of Honor. Whalen accredited Rubin with his own survival in the camp, as well as that of many other prisoners.

Frank Whalen of Rotterdam Junction holds a photograph  of his son, Dick Whalen, in the hospital after leaving a POW camp in North Korea. Photo by Kolenberg, Albany Times-Union. Photograph from Dick Whalen Collection. 

Whalen wrote of Rubin, “He stood out in the crowd as he helped those of us who became sick or who needed encouragement not to give up as this was a prelude to dying.” Whalen also spoke of Rubin’s bravery in procuring extra food for the sick and in doing all he could for those in need of help, at no small risk to himself: “In Camp Five under the Chinese, it would have meant an extra work detail or a couple of days in the hole.” 

Korean War veteran Tibor Rubin received a Medal of Honor in 2005. From U.S. Department of Defense website (www.defense.gov). 

The once-army-cook maintained correspondence with many of his fellow soldiers in later years, and also served as Historian for the Town of Rotterdam. His was a true labor of love, as he built up a vast collection of documents and photographs pertaining to the area, particularly Rotterdam Junction. Tragically, his collection of photographs and documents was heavily impacted by flooding in the wake of Hurricane Irene (click this link for more information about the damage done and salvage efforts). Recently the Library has worked to make many of those preserved records available to the public. Of course, none of the work which is now underway would have been possible without the steadfast work of Richard Whalen, or perhaps without the undaunted Tibor Rubin, who helped him to see Camp Five through.

A youthful Whalen (far right) smiles in the Korean POW Camp, a locale which, Whalen remarked, “would have been a hit if it were in Lake George." Image from Whalen surname file.