Monday, September 25, 2017

James Cuff Swits – Herbalist and Gentle Giant

This blog post was written by library volunteer Gail Denisoff.

In April of 1946, a group of “old-timers” gathered at the Schenectady County Historical Society to swap yarns of days gone by. The 12 well known Schenectadians shared their recollections with a packed house in the Historical Society library. According to the Schenectady Gazette, the average age of the group was “more than 75 years”. They began by reminiscing about State Street in the 1880’s – the many stores and groceries, hotels, trolleys, gas lamps and barber shops as well as sharing memories of the Blizzard of 1888. Conversation soon turned to Jim Cuff, a well-known character from the 1800’s.

Jim Cuff was a familiar figure on the streets of Schenectady. His lanky 6’7” frame and odd shuffling gait made him instantly recognizable. He looked even taller than he was because of his unusual clothing. He wore cast offs that were too short leaving his wrists and ankles exposed and an old “plug” hat that added to his height. He always wore a neckerchief fastened with a piece of carved bone and rubbers or galoshes year-round. He carried himself proudly and one of the presenters said of him “how pathetic a figure – such fierce pride coupled with such superb dignity”.

Jim’s heritage is a bit sketchy. He was born sometime after 1800 on the farm of Henry Swits located where Proctors now stands and the area beyond. By most accounts, his father was James Hartley, a black man, and his mother, according to Jim, was the last of the Schoharie (probably Oneida) Indians. Both of his parents worked on the farm as sharecroppers and one or both may have been a slave of Henry Swits. He was named James Hartley Swits but was referred to as Jim Cuff, Cuff being a "Negro name of significance" at the time.
This portrait of Jim Cuff was taken by professional photographer Joseph A. O’Neill in his Jay Street studio, without payment, for the posterity of the city. Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library Photo Collection.
Jim made his meager living as an herb peddler, often called an "herb doctor or "medicine man" around town. Most mornings from early spring to late fall he roamed the Rotterdam Hills, now Coldbrook, as well as the river flats along the old Campbell Road collecting herbs, roots and bark. He peddled the "yarbs", as he called them, door to door to housewives who bought them to make their own remedies. His gaunt figure was a fixture standing in front of the Ellis Building on State Street selling watercress, wild mushrooms, spearmint, fox glove, sunflower and poppy seeds, milkweed and berries out of his huge basket. 

A one room shanty in Cotton Hollow was what Jim called home. He built the shack himself from found materials and reportedly had just one piece of furniture, a cast off chair. Jim slept on the dirt floor near his only source of heat, a fire built in a hollow dug into the floor. The shanty is believed to have been located in the vicinity of the current Lincoln School, between State and Albany Streets.

Jim was a gruff but kind and gentle man who was welcomed into the homes of his customers. If
Jim Cuff standing in front of what is believed to be his shanty. 
Courtesy of
children sometimes taunted him, he would loudly shuffle his feet to shoo them away. Several people looked out for him. Dr. Harlan Swits, a descendent of Henry Swits, had Jim deliver a standing order of herbs to his State Street office and kept an eye on his well-being. He stopped by Colonel A.W. Toll's home most mornings and was given breakfast that he ate in the woodshed. The tollgate keepers on the old Scotia bridge let him pass without cost. He was an avid fisherman and spent many hours fishing at Sanders Lake and along the Mohawk. Jim regularly visited the Wallace Stonecutters where he would shoot the breeze with his friend Tom Wallace. His kindness was exemplified in a story told by Dr. Swits. Once, when a circus came to town, there was a parade on State Street. Horses and buggies were lined up along the curb and people were told to rein in their horses. The parade spooked the horse of one buggy with a young girl at the reins. The horse crashed into the canal bridge and ran off along the bridge as the girl fell to the floor. Jim Cuff rushed from the crowd and grabbed the bridle, calming the horse then carrying the girl out of the damaged buggy. Called a hero by many onlookers, Jim cared only about the well-being of the girl.

He didn't attend church, saying his clothes weren’t fine enough but Jim had his own kind of spirituality. He believed that there was a better place after death, often saying "Someday we shall all be in equal skies". In his declining years, he was destitute and relied on help from some of his friends and customers. When one of his customers didn't see him out with his herbs for several days he checked on Jim and found him in his shack, quite ill. An item in the Schenectady Gazette, dated February 26, 1893, stated “Schenectady’s big Indian, Jim Cuff, who has been ill of consumption and lung hemorrhages, was today removed from his hut to the county almshouse on Steuben Street”. He died there a few days later on March 4, 1893. Dr. William Clute signed the death certificate for "James Cuff Swits" noting the cause of death as pneumonia and giving an estimated age of 72 although many thought he could have been closer to 90. Jim was buried in the Potters Field section of Vale Cemetery in Schenectady. 

James Cuff Swits grave as it now appears in Vale Cemetery. Courtesy of Gail Denisoff.
Jim's story doesn't end with his death. His friend Tom Wallace carved Jim's likeness in bas relief on his headstone, the only such stone in Potters Field. Under his name and date of death, Wallace carved the words "Admitted to that Equal Sky". Forty years after Jim's death, a local physician, to alleviate his guilt, anonymously gave an account to the Schenectady Gazette regarding the placement of that headstone. The physician, a medical student in Albany at the time, decided that Jim's skeleton would be an exceptional specimen for study since Jim claimed to be the last of the Mohawks and was close to seven feet tall. When he got wind that other medical students had the same idea, the physician went to Potters Field at night and switched Jim's headstone with that of a woman who had died about the same time. A few nights later, he returned to dig up the grave. According to his account, the sight of the dead Cuff so unnerved him that he quickly refilled the grave and left the cemetery without the body or switching back the headstones. He claimed not to remember which was the other headstone he switched. Other accounts have Union College students removing Jim's body for autopsy. Whether either of these stories are true is the subject of speculation. Jim may not be lying beneath his headstone but he is not forgotten.

Photos and information for this blog from the Schenectady County Historical Society holdings and the Fulton History collection.

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