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.

Monday, September 11, 2017

The Ghost Train of Mont Pleasant

We can't wait for Halloween over at the Schenectady County Historical Society, so when one of our volunteers found this letter about the "Ghost of the 9:15", we were thrilled and wanted to post it right away. There is not much backstory to it, so we've transcribed the letter below.

December 28, 1992

To: Larry Hart

Larry, here is the real story of the "Ghost" Train.

As a teenager living in Mt. Pleasant in the early 1950s, entertainment for young teenagers was non-existent. The "flockey" as it was called was our playground, the wooded area between Mt. Pleasant and Bellevue. We explored and knew every inch of that land from Altamont Ave. to Lower Broadway Hill.

The "Ghost of the 9:15" was the actual name of the event.

The Ghost was a bed sheet attached to a fishing pole and dangled from a tree branch which was along side the railroad tracks. The white sheet was painted black on one side so as not to be seen when transporting our ghost to and from the tree. The sheet was reversed and the black side covered the fishing pole.

The original story that we had heard was that a hobo was killed in that location years before and that his ghost haunted the 9:15 train. We helped the story to be true. 

You could probably see the ghost train pretty well from this vantage point of the Congress Street bridge. Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library Photo Collection.
We could travel the Mont Pleasant area from yard to yard, alleyway to alleyway in the dark as well as in the daytime. Our schedule was to pick up the "Ghost" bed sheet attached to the fishing pole around 8:30. Wait until it was dark enough, then walk or run from the alleyways between Cutler and Davis Terrace, down to Park St. into the woods and down to 3rd Ave. We then would climb the tree, wait for the train, flip the bed sheet over to the white side, dangle it as the train passed, flip it to the black side, down the tree, through the woods, alleyways, and home. When the news about a ghost got out of control and crowds would gather to try to see him, we would not appear that night and eventually retired him for good. 

That's the story of the "Ghost of the 9:15"

Yours truly,
One time member of the "Cutler St. Gang"

Thursday, September 7, 2017

A Brief History of the Abruzzese Society and Italian-American Fraternal Organizations in Schenectady

This post was written by Archives Assistant Angela Matyi. Angela processed our collection of Abruzzese Society records through a Documentary Heritage Program Grant provided by the New York State Archives.

Officers of the Abruzzese Society, undated. Courtesy of the Abruzzese Society Collection.
In the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, the city of Schenectady saw a massive influx of Italian immigrants.  Like many immigrants to America, they came seeking work and opportunities for economic and social advancement, things that were not altogether difficult to find thanks to the dynamic presence of the General Electric and American Locomotive companies which pulled in laborers by the thousands.  However, opportunity alone does not an easy life make. 

America was an unfamiliar country, with unfamiliar customs and an unfamiliar language.  Adaptation to it all was difficult at the best of times.  It was not long before the Italian immigrants felt keenly the need to establish some kind of organization that would provide immigrants and their descendants a place to engage with fellow Italians, creating and reaffirming bonds of fellowship and, later, providing financial assistance in the event of illness or injury.  The first of these fraternal communities to be founded was the Societa’ Unione Fratellanza, in 1892.  By 1900 it boasted forty members, though these were mainly comprised of the “prominenti,” those men who had already achieved some level of economic success, particularly in business. 

The turn of the century also saw the founding of Schenectady’s second Italian-American fraternal society, the Societa’ Giuseppe Garibaldi.  Though this organization was a combination of a political (GOP) club and a mutual benefit society, there was frequent crossover between it and the simpler Fratellanza, perhaps most noticeably when the Fratellanza’s first president, Stephen Abba, went on to become in the first president of the Garibaldi Society as well.  He was not long for the post.  The position of president in these societies had become one of prestige within the Italian-American community, as well as a vehicle for exercising a degree of true political influence; the result being three leaders of the Garibaldi Society in as many years.

Contributing to this sudden prominence was the spike of Italian immigration to Schenectady in the early twentieth century, which both allowed for and necessitated a sudden motley assortment of region-specific fraternal organizations.  This was as much a consequence of the geographical and social makeup of pre-1900 Italy itself as the desire for community felt by the new Italian-Americans and their children.  For centuries, “Italy” was a more abstract concept than a geopolitical reality; a vaguely understood umbrella title used for the collection of the various kingdoms and city-states that happened to call the Italian peninsula home.  Though the “Kingdom of Italy” was officially declared in 1861, it was not until 1870 that full political unification within the borders of a geographically recognizable modern-day Italy was technically complete.  Even then, a few hundred years of social habit was hard to break.  For decades afterwards, many people still identified themselves socially and politically with a specific region rather than with the nation-state.  With regional customs and, especially, dialects slow to give way to pushes for standardization, cultural fragmentation was still the Italian norm into and past 1900.

It was this mindset that the Italian immigrants brought with them to Schenectady, preferring to refer to themselves as Calabresi (Calabrians); Siciliani (Sicilians); or Napoletani (Campanians, or “Neopolitans”).  Although the Fratellanza and Societa Garibaldi were open to all Italians regardless of origin, this wave resulted in the founding of multiple regional fraternal societies.  Curiously, none dedicated solely to peoples coming from Campania were ever founded, despite their soon accounting for about 60% of Schenectady Italians; though a society for immigrants from the Campanian town of Alvignano, confusingly located in the province of Caserta, was formed, the Society of the Laboring Men of Alvignano.  In any case, regional societies founded after 1900 included the Benevolent Brotherhood of the Sons of Northern Italy (popularly referred to as the “Alta Italia Society) in 1902, several organizations for Calabrians and Sicilians in the 1920s, and the Societa Laziale for Roman Italians in 1930.

Members of the Abruzzese Society during an annual meeting, undated. Courtesy of the Abruzzese Society Collection.
Into this mix was added the Abruzzese Society (Societa Abruzzese) in 1912, established for immigrants from the (then combined, now separate) regions of Abruzzi and Molise in southern Italy.  This was the first regional mutual benefit society formed for any part of the Italian-American community, and not a moment too soon.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, the greatest employers of the immigrants’ unskilled labor, the General Electric Company and the American Locomotive Company, were also the greatest source of injury to their (overworked and underpaid) employees.  To address this issue, the Abruzzese Society followed the typical model of mutual benefit societies. 

 In this model, members would pay a small monthly due so that, in the case of illness or injury, they would be entitled to a certain amount of money per week for up to twelve weeks, and a larger amount of money in the event of a death.  During the Society’s earliest days, the due was one of $0.50, the weekly payout of $6.  If a member of the Society did indeed die, a sum of $50 would be given to the deceased’s family to cover the funeral costs.  Furthermore, all other members would be required to attend the funeral service, with a fine of $5 imposed for failure to attend.  Since the first members of the Society were relatively young and in good health, this mortuary fund was little used in the early years.  Poignantly, though, one does see small expenses for things such as wreaths ($10) and a carriage to carry Society representatives ($15), usually for the funeral of a member’s child.  

Handbook for the Abruzzese
Society. Courtesy of the
Abruzzese Society Collection.
Admission to the Abruzzese Society was restricted to males between the ages of fourteen and forty-five, with initiation fees increasing with the age of the initiate; the idea being that young children and those verging into seniority would be more likely to fall ill, and thus constitute a drain on the Society’s finances.  For this reason, admission was further contingent upon good physical health and “spotless reputation” (though exceptions, decided by an assembly, could be made in the case of minor misdemeanors), and members were not entitled to benefits for injuries or illnesses brought about by brawling, venereal disease, or drunkenness.  Within a few years of its founding, the Abruzzese Society could boast seventy-two members, and its example was being followed by other regional groups.

Many of Schenectady’s Italian-American fraternal and mutual benefit societies continued well into the mid-twentieth century.  However, after this point they started gradually to decline and disappear.  The Abruzzese Society was the only one, along with the national Sons of Italy organization, to remain in operation into the twenty-first century, celebrating its Centennial in 2012.  Nevertheless, its membership continued to dwindle, and in early 2016 the last ten members of the Abruzzese Society decided to disband the organization.

Boxes of the Society’s records were donated to the Schenectady County Historical Society, and now offer a unique look into a defining part of Schenectady’s history and culture.