The attorneys who tried the case of the People vs. Robert Brunt a/k/a Robert Van Brunt were no legal lightweights. The prosecutor was Eugene Myron Bartlett, Wyoming County’s young district attorney. He’d taken office around March 1886. For the defense, former Wyoming County DA, Isaac Samuel Johnson received the assignment to represent the defendant, Robert Van Brunt. General Linus W. Thayer served as co-counsel to the defense, and we’ll tell his story in another post.
I. Sam Johnson was born October 28, 1840 in Centerfield, Ontario County, New York. He was a son of Hiram and Jane Slade Johnson. Sam received his education at Warsaw Academy and the Genesee Wesleyan Seminary. He studied law with General Thayer, Wyoming County judges, H. L. Comstock and Byron Healy.
Johnson joined the Grand Army of the Republic on the 20th of August 1862 at Warsaw. He mustered in as a first sergeant in September and served for three years until his discharge for disability because of illness on January 5, 1864. Sam rose to the rank of first lieutenant during his time of service. In May 1864, he was admitted to the New York State Bar, and the following year he married Mary McFarland of Ohio.
A partnership with Myron Bartlett started his practice of law, then in 1866 he moved to Arcade, New York, to partner with A. J. Knight, who would become one of the county’s district attorneys later on. In 1876, Sam returned to Warsaw for good. Johnson was a skilled lawyer, elected as Wyoming County District Attorney in 1877. He served in that position through 1885. Johnson was a popular speaker at events and took the podium at many local celebrations, especially for veterans. Politically, Sam was savvy, and many looked to him for advice in that difficult arena. Johnson successfully ran and served as a NYS Assemblyman for Wyoming County for two terms and was an outspoken advocate for tax reform. Johnson continued his successful law practice until his untimely death attributed to “heart neuralgia” September 25, 1906. He is buried in the Warsaw Cemetery.
Eugene M. Bartlett was born March 19, 1855 to Myron and Cordelia McFarland Bartlett of Warsaw. He was educated at Geneseo Academy and Cornell University. Admitted to the NYS Bar in 1880, he immediately went into partnership with his father, who was an esteemed attorney. The partnership continued until 1896. Eugene became the district attorney in 1886, when I. Sam Johnson left the position. His first capital case was prosecuting Robert Van Brunt for the murder of Will Roy of Castile, New York in February 1887.
Myron often was second chair for his son in more complex trials, as was the case for Van Brunt. This created conflict with the board of supervisors and the county leaders complained loudly about Myron’s exorbitant fees charged to the county. He billed the county $500 for the Van Brunt matter, but it did include two appeals. Bartlett’s conviction rate was also in dispute—Van Brunt being his only felony conviction. The supervisors didn’t feel they were getting their money’s worth from the DA’s office. This may have been a factor in Eugene’s decision not to run for the office again in 1889.
Van Brunt’s conviction of first-degree murder in 1887 took both Johnson and Bartlett before the state’s highest courts twice--the NYS Supreme Court and the NYS Court of Appeals. The men battled from the onset of the trial in February 1887 to March 1888. The case tested the mettle of the lawyers, but in the end Bartlett prevailed and Van Brunt was executed for his crime.
In May 1892, Bartlett and Johnson faced off over a utility dispute in the Village of Warsaw. The electric company, represented by Bartlett, attempted to obtain exclusive rights over the gas company for lighting. Johnson represented the village in the matter. The messy dilemma ended with Johnson defeating the electric company’s bid to take over. This was after the discovery that some electric company executives were lining their pockets in the scheme.
In 1895 Eugene married Grace Sheldon of Hornell and they had one daughter Margaret. In 1896 the family moved to Buffalo, where Eugene formed the law practice of Bartlett and Roberts. E. M. Bartlett had a distinguished career in Buffalo and he would have another notorious capital case.
He represented Guiseppe and Rosina Barone in 1898a , a husband and wife accused of murdering and dismembering, Fillipe Forestino. The unfortunate Forestino was stuffed in a trunk and tossed in the Blackwell Canal, which is now City Ship Canal in Buffalo. The Barones, already clients of Bartlett, retained him to defend them at the lengthy trial. It was revealed that Mrs. Barone and Forestino were enjoying extra-curricular activities. Guiseppe took exception to the affair, his fiery jealousy leading to Forestino's demise. Rosina was a willing participant in the crime and was sent to prison, while Guiseppe was condemned to die in the electric chair. Bartlett successfully argued before the Appeals Court for a new trial for Guiseppe because of procedural errors in the first. Barone was convicted of manslaughter the second time around, serving eight years in Auburn. His wife served nine. The couple had nothing to do with one another after their respective releases from prison. They were also estranged from their children.
Bartlett was a skilled orator in the courtroom, making frequent appearances in the appellate court. He was a member of the Sons of the American Revolution, active in the Republican Party, the Masons, and the Buffalo Historical Society. Eugene was especially proud of his heritage, tracing his ancestry back to one of the drafters and signers of the Declaration of Independence.
The Bartlett’s daughter, Margaret, passed away in 1920, leaving a husband and young son. At the time of Margaret’s death, Eugene suffered several health issues. Poor health followed him until his death in March 1922. His funeral was held in Buffalo, and he was buried in Warsaw Cemetery.
Resources: Wyoming County Historian
Civil War Muster Record for Johnson
Obituary for Johnson, Democrat & Chronicle, September 26, 1906
Obituary for Bartlett, Western New Yorker, March 1922
Jury May Disagree, The Buffalo Express, May 13, 1900
Barone Tells How He Slew Forestino, Buffalo Evening News, October 15, 1898
One of the “vanished villages” along the Genesee River is Gibsonville. The long-ago thriving town was located in the Town of Leicester in Livingston County. Its former boundaries are within Letchworth State Park now, and a historical marker shows its location.
The frontier village had its beginnings with the building of a sawmill erected in 1792 on Silver Creek by the infamous Indian “Ebenezer” Allen—we can save his story for another day. With the commencement of the sawmill, settlers began constructing homes and businesses in the area, which included Henry Gibson of Canandaigua--hence Gibsonville. Amos Austin and Josiah Wilson, joined Gibson in taming the wilderness of the Genesee Valley, starting businesses. The river afforded excellent transportation of goods up and down the long valley, and those early settlers believed the new town would become a city. It was a prime spot to make a home and a living.
In 1796, a two-story inn was built, and it quickly became a social hub for dances and parties. Mildred Anderson wrote about the hostelry in her book, Genesee Echoes. It was a well-made building constructed from solid oak, sheathed with two-inch planks, and sided with pine timber. The bar room was where men conducted business transactions and had a beer at the same time. Named the Jane Grey House, it was visited by Mary Jemison, Red Jacket, and many famous personages of the time who attended various functions there. Soon a paper mill, grist mill, rug factory, and a woolen mill added to the commercial prosperity, along with a post office and school. Early settler, Oliver Taplan came to town and opened a cooper’s shop to supply barrels, and John Anderson started a blacksmith business. Mr. Powers, who owned the paper mill, did a brisk business with his product. At the height of operation, the paper mill produced 3,000 pounds of paper a day, and a team of oxen hauled it from the valley to be sold to distributors in towns and cities of the region. Trapping was another profitable venture, and a steady stream of trappers came through Gibsonville seeking to transport their goods to Rochester.
Reportedly, an acre of land valued at fifty-cents an acre increased to $170 per acre during this economic upswing. At the height of its population, there were around 200 residents. Mrs. Anderson also mentions some interesting remnants of stories that included robbery and murder in the rough-and-tumble days of the early 1800s. A rich Frenchman and a peddler of lace and notions met their doom there. There was even a ghost or two involved afterward. No doubt, it was a dangerous place with villains and upstanding folks alike creating a new town.
The opening of the Genesee Valley Canal tolled the death knell for the village as river traffic slowed significantly. Although the canal itself was short lived, the years of its operation brought many Gibsonville businesses to a halt in between 1840-1878. The grist mill was eventually converted to a paper mill, which continued operations until it burned in 1894.
A handful of people lived in Gibsonville into the 20th century, but they eventually abandoned it as Rochester Gas & Electric bought up land in anticipation of building a dam. Most of those who stayed into the 1920s traced their lineage back to the pioneers who came in the late 1700s.
The tiny town was briefly revived with the establishment of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in 1933. Barracks were constructed at the town site, housing some of the men who built the beautiful stone walls, cabins, roads, and much more that we enjoy in the park today. Not only did the men labor in construction, but classes were given in mechanical drawing, engineering, cooking, typesetting, shorthand, bookkeeping, and many other subjects. Well-qualified men, who diligently sought to improve the lot of these young men, provided the training. The camp even produced its own newspaper at one time, and it also boasted a gymnasium and auditorium, which gave the workers a recreational outlet. The village was once again booming in a different manner during the Great Depression.
After the CCC left, the buildings became barracks for women between the ages of 18 and 35 in 1944. These young women worked at various canning factories in the area 40-48 hours per week. The requirement was a stay of two weeks to work at a factory for the war effort. They were called “Gibson Girls.” This was to be the last hurrah for the feisty pioneer village. After WW II ended, the camp was torn down and the last house in Gibsonville was razed in 1954. Today, you can still explore the area on Trail 19 in Letchworth State Park.
Genesee Echoes, Mildred Lee Hills Anderson
New College is Budding Forth, The Perry Herald, 5 February 1935
Sleepy Historic Hamlets, Buffalo Courier-Express, 12 April 1936
Knowing Perry, The Perry Herald, 18 November 1954
Today’s Gibson Girl is a Real Worker, The Perry Herald, 14 June 1944
One of the most influential and successful businessmen in Castile, NY, between 1861 and 1908 was Willis Frederick Graves. Born on January 14, 1831, in the Town of Eagle, Willis was the second child of Ralph Graves, who had relocated from Vermont in 1819.
From the start, Willis proved himself an industrious worker on the family farm. He rapidly discovered the value of saving his money and the importance of an education. After exhausting the resources of the school library in Arcade, NY, he turned to private education. He earned enough money to attend Arcade
Seminary to be trained as a schoolteacher.
In 1849, he began teaching school near Arcade, working on the farm or selling books for supplemental income during school vacations. He soon moved up through the ranks to serve as principal at several different union schools in the region, including Sandusky, Pike, Centerville, Portageville, Attica, and Arcade. In 1854 he attended Normal School in Albany to complete his education. He also married Jennie Colton of Arcade that same year. While in Albany, he was employed at a piano factory, which eventually led him to the initiation of his musical instrument business at the beginning of the Civil War.
While teaching at Portageville in 1855, he ordered a piano from Albany, which was transported in the final leg of its journey on the Genesee Valley Canal. He later sold the instrument, which may have been the light bulb moment for him to alter his career path from education to retail.
W. F. Graves proved to be a gifted salesman, able to sell pianos and organs easily at a considerable profit throughout the state. He left education altogether in the early 1860s, selling a farm for capital needed to establish his musical instrument business in Castile. He was proud of the extensive floor space in his store to show off his wares, which enticed buyers from all around the area. As his reputation and fortune grew, piano and organ manufacturers visited his business, vying for contracts with him to sell their products in his establishment. Before long, he enjoyed customers in almost every state in the Union, acquiring the nickname “Piano King.”
Graves was a man recognized for his integrity. Willis was also a willing lender for mortgages and other debt instruments. He worked tirelessly to improve the business climate in Castile. He was extremely involved in village affairs, frequently lecturing about best business practices to his colleagues. Never satisfied with his success, Graves became a real-estate broker, amassing many properties in his portfolio. He owned farms throughout Wyoming County, the Wiscoy Hotel in Wiscoy, and several properties within the village of Castile. He was the ideal entrepreneur with well-diversified investments.
W. F. Graves was one of those larger-than-life people with a dynamic personality. Physically, he was a strapping tall man, reportedly weighing 245 pounds. He enjoyed robust health throughout his life and Castilians said he could move a piano by himself if necessary. His wife, Jennie bore him one child who died in infancy and the couple remained childless after this heartbreaking loss. Although rumored to possess a frail constitution, Jennie was an important contributor to his business.
Willis’ involvement in the Robert Van Brunt murder trial and the Roy family in 1887 did stain his reputation during that time. He publicly denounced both Maggie and Eva Roy—mother and daughter over their perceived immoral conduct in connection with the murder of Will Roy, Eva’s half-brother. Eva sued him originally for $30,000 and Maggie sued for $5,000 in February, 1887, only days after the conclusion of the trial. The case was resolved in September, 1887 for a measly $500. The judge threw out several of Eva’s causes of action, which quickly reduced the amount. The women may have achieved some satisfaction in their “win,” but for Graves, it was probably no more than a nuisance suit.
W. F. Graves enjoyed prosperity and fame until his death on the streets of Warsaw, NY on October 30, 1908. Graves suffered a stroke that claimed his life within minutes. At the time of his death, his estate was valued at $212,000, which in current valuation would be over $5.6 million dollars. A large, well-attended funeral was held at the Presbyterian Church in Castile, and he was buried in the Graves’ family plot, Arcade, NY.
Wyoming County History 1841-1880, F. W. Beers & Co.
The Daily News, February 26, 1887
Buffalo Evening News, September 9, 1887
Buffalo Weekly Express, September 29, 1887
Wyoming County Times, December 13, 1906
The Castilian, November 8, 1908
The Nunda News, April 24, 1909
If you've visited Letchworth State Park or are from Wyoming County, NY you're probably familiar with Mary Jemison a/k/a The White Woman of the Genesee. Hers is a fascinating story spanning the years before the Revolutionary War into the early 1800s. Mary's life is a Western New York legend, a rich part of the pre-Revolutionary War history of the beautiful Genesee River valley.
A daughter of Thomas and Jane Jemison, Mary drew her first breath on board the sailing ship William and Mary in the fall of 1743. Her parents, of Scotch-Irish heritage were Protestant settlers in Adams County, near Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
On April 5, 1758, Indians and Frenchmen descended on the frontier neighborhood, killing many and dragging off captives. Mary, her parents and siblings, several neighbors along with their children were among those captured. The settlers were forced to march many miles through woods and swamps. Their fate was almost certain death, but the second night on the march, Mary was given a pair of moccasins to replace her shoes. A young boy was also given a pair of moccasins that same night. Mary's mother believed her daughter would be spared because of this gesture, which proved to be right. Mary had to endure the sight of her parents' scalps hung to dry after that night.
Mary was adopted by two Seneca sisters who taught her the language and customs of their tribe. They gave her a new name--Dehgewanus, which meant Two Falling Voices. Jane Jemison's parting words to her daughter were to never forget the prayers she'd been taught and her own language. She never did forget, but Mary was wise enough to understand that her life was changed forever and quickly immersed herself in the ways of the Seneca. She married a Delaware warrior and bore two children. Her firstborn, a girl lived only a couple of days and then a son was born, whom she named Thomas after her father. Mary moved with the Seneca sisters and eventually took up residence in Little Beard's Town or present day Cuylerville, NY. Sheninjee, her husband went off to fight and never returned the summer of 1760. Many months later she learned he had died from illness in Ohio.
Around 1763, Mary married Hiakatoo, a well-known Seneca chief. He was much older than Mary--over 60 years old at the time and she was only 24. Six children were born to them, two sons and four daughters: John, Jesse, Jane, Nancy, Betsey, and Polly. She remembered her family in the naming of the children after those murdered in the raid during the French and Indian War.
Hiakatoo was powerful and a fierce chief. Reported to be over six feet tall, he provided protection and security for his tiny wife. They were married for over 40 years and by her account it was a happy marriage. Her children, although her greatest joy, were also a source of great sadness. Her son, John killed his two brothers in separate alcohol-induced fights. Thomas was murdered in 1811 and Jesse in 1812. The men were in their fifties at that time. John was eventually killed in a drunken brawl at Squawkie Hill Reservation. A link to the map is here.
Mary never went back to the white culture, although she was given opportunities over the years. Her adopted people, the Senecas were her family. However, she never referred to herself as Indian and all of her children were given English names. She became a highly respected woman among both the Senecas and settlers. In 1797, the Council of Big Tree was convened on the banks of the Genesee River, near present day Geneseo, NY. Land had been promised to Dehgewanus (Mary) and now that the Seneca Nation was in negotiations to relinquish over a half million acres of land to a land speculator, Robert Morris, it was time for Mary to select her land. A huge tract of land was eventually given to her - 17, 297 acres, an area six miles wide, 4 3/4 miles long on both sides of the Genesee.
Red Jacket, one of the Seneca chiefs, fought against Mary with great eloquence. However, Red Jacket lost the argument and Dehgewanus' claim was approved. Cabins were built for her children and herself on the Gardeau Flats. Her good friend and adviser, Thomas Clute helped her manage the tract of land and leases for many years.
In 1823, James Seaver interviewed Mary at the home of Mrs. Jennet Whaley in the Town of Castile. Seaver recorded that even at 80, Mary walked without assistance and she still had a peaches-and-cream complexion. Seaver's book, A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison is a classic in Western New York history.
I highly recommend reading his book if you want to learn more about this fascinating woman. Seaver's formal style of writing may be a challenge, but his in-depth interview with the elderly Mary is riveting. Arch Merrill, a well-known WNY journalist in the 1940s and 1950s wrote several books about the history of the Genesee Valley and his easy-to-read style may suit you better. Merrill's book, The White Woman and Her Valley is also recommended.
Mary Jemison died at around age 90 on September 9, 1833 and was buried on the Buffalo Creek Reservation in Buffalo, NY. William Pryor Letchworth, who owned what is now Letchworth State Park, and which was part of Jemison's land, created a memorial to her in the park. In 1870, he had the Seneca Council House located in Caneadea, NY moved to his property and in 1874 received permission to move Jemison's remains to be re-interred near the Council House. A bronze statute of a young Mary was also erected in September, 1910 to honor the memory of this courageous woman.
Her life will always be one for the books. As Arch Merrill said in The White Woman and Her Valley,
"No frontier girl was ever forced to lead a stranger life. Mary Jemison's years were full of toil and woe. Yet she never lost her sunny smile, her fortitude or her abiding generosity."
Resources: History of Wyoming County 1841-1880, F. W. Beers & Co.
A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison, James E. Seaver, 1824
The White Woman and Her Valley, Arch Merrill, 1955
Helpful Links: http://www.letchworthparkhistory.com/jem.html
Ebook Link to Seaver's book