A Shameless Plug . . .

I know I haven’t posted much here lately and that’s because I was putting the finishing touches on my new book!

Co-authored with Town of Ossining Historian Scott Craven, it’s called “Croton Point Park: Westchester’s Jewel on the Hudson.” Here’s the cover for your enjoyment:

It’s a fairly comprehensive history of (duh!) Croton Point Park, starting about 25,000 years ago when the ice sheets began their final retreat north. We’ve been getting great feedback on it from people who’ve read it and/or seen one of our presentations.

So check it out! You can buy it at any bookstore in the immediate area, as well as from the usual online bookselling sites. (You can even purchase a Kindle version!)

And please, visit our website: HudsonValleyChronicles.com — you can find other links through which you can purchase the book and read our new Hudson River blog over there.

Thanks for your support!

Ossining War Casualty – U.S. Navy Nurse, Ensign Mary Feeney

Ossining War Casualty – U.S. Navy Nurse, Ensign Mary Feeney

Folks, I have made a mistake.  

Not too long ago, I published a blog post about Private Benjamin Feeney, an Ossining casualty of World War I, and stated that Feeney Road in the Town of Ossining was named in his honor.

Feeney Road is actually named after Ensign Mary Elizabeth Feeney, a U.S. Navy nurse who died in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on April 14, 1943. I learned of my error when I saw a 1963 letter from the Ossining Town Board confirming that two new streets would be named after veterans Mary Feeney and Nathan Bayden.

So, as a prelude to Memorial Day, let’s right that wrong and learn about Ensign Mary Feeney.

Ensign Mary Elizabeth Feeney. Source: Ossining Historical Society pamphlet “A Memorial 1775 – 1983”

Mary Feeney was born in Ossining on September 11, 1916 to John and Ida Mae (Farren) Feeney.  Her father was a desk clerk for the Ossining Police. She was also the niece of our Private Benjamin Feeney — Mary’s father John was Benjamin’s older brother. What a tragedy for him to lose a brother and a daughter in the World Wars!

They first rented a house at 72 South Highland Avenue and then moved to 31 Hamilton Avenue.

Both houses still stand today:

72 Highland Avenue. Photo source: Google Streetview
31 Hamilton Avenue. Photo source: Google Streetview

Mary, I believe, went to Ossining High School, likely graduating in 1935.  (Alas, I’ve been unable to hunt out the OHS yearbook from 1935. I hear the Ossining Historical Society has it, but it is difficult to access.  Someday I shall find it and confirm this assertion.)  

She went on to study nursing at the Cochran School of Nursing at St. John’s Riverside Hospital, Yonkers, graduating in 1937.  

According to the 1940 census, she was listed as being a nurse in “private practice.”[1] (I imagine her taking care of a wealthy but crotchety Victorian invalid who lived in an elegant, but airless and dark home who imperiously ordered Mary about and was perhaps even addicted to morphine.) No wonder Nurse Feeney joined the U.S. Navy Nurses Corps as soon as she saw this poster, signing up as an Ensign in August of 1941.

Navy Nurse Recruiting Poster.  Photo source: National Archives

I haven’t been able to find out anything about where she trained or was posted at first, but I did learn that in May of 1942 she married Bernard Joseph Gordenstein in Hillsborough, New Hampshire.  He was also in the Navy, a pharmacist in fact, but I can’t pinpoint where they might have met.

Less than two months after they wed, Gordenstein shipped out on the USS Cub One Project, sailing from San Francisco.  (This apparently was a code name for Advanced Base Aviation Training Units (ABATU) that were sent to the Pacific to train with and serve the forces fighting there.)[2]

In February 1943, Gordenstein was evacuated from Naval Base Hospital No. 3 in Espiritu Santo by the USS Solace.  From there, he was transferred to US Naval Mobile Hospital No. 4 which may or may not have been based in Wellington, New Zealand.  (Names and numbers of hospitals, especially the mobile ones, got shifted around in the heat of the Pacific battles.) He’s listed as a patient on the manifest of the USS Solace, but no other details are given.

Nice, you say, but what of Mary Feeney (at this point, Mary E.F. Gordenstein)?  

I just don’t know.  I went down the rabbit hole of her husband’s service record because I thought I’d find her lurking in the shadows of the internet, but no such luck.  I see no listing for her on any muster rolls or ship manifests that I have been able to find.

But at some point, Ensign Mary Feeney was posted to Hawaii and served at the Pearl Harbor Naval Hospital.  I think it’s unlikely that she was there for the Pearl Harbor attack in December 1941, because the Navy put its nurses through rigorous training before they were sent out into the field.  However, I don’t know exactly what that entailed or how long it took.  And, as mentioned before, Ensign Feeney signed up in August 1941, so theoretically she could have been in Pearl Harbor that fateful December morning.  But until more documents regarding Navy nurses are digitized over at the National Archives, this is all I know right now.

I did find more information and some photos of Navy Nurses in general on this excellent website if you want a deeper dive:

It’s strange that there is so little information available online about the U.S. Navy Nurse Corps. Well, at least in terms of official service records.  Via the above-referenced website and Wikipedia (I know, I know), I’ve learned that over 11,000 nurses, both active and reserve, served in the Navy during WWII.  When our Mary Feeney joined up, there were only about 1,700 Navy nurses. Throughout WWII, Navy nurses were right there at the battle sites in both the Atlantic and the Pacific, going out onto the beaches to gather the wounded of Guadalcanal, Guam, Leyte Gulf, Iwo Jima, Okinawa (just name-checking some of the more well-known battles, but know that Navy nurses were all over.) Some were even captured and held as POWs (google “Angels of Bataan” for more.)

About 230 US Navy nurses died during WWII.

Here’s a 1942 photo from the U.S. Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery:

Administrative group including Navy nurses and Red Cross workers at the Pearl Harbor Naval Hospital, 1942. Photo source: U.S. Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery

What do you think?  Is that nurse third from the left Mary Feeney? I can see a resemblance to the one photo I’ve found of her.

And how about this pic?  Do you think that first nurse on the left could be Mary Feeney?  This actually does seem like a possibility. (I do so want there to be one photo of her in uniform.) If it is, it would have been taken just four months before her death.

U.S. Navy Nurses pose for a group portrait at Pearl Harbor, Territory of Hawaii, December 16, 1942.  Photo source: National Museum of the U.S. Navy

Post your thoughts in the comments (and of course, if you see anything I’ve gotten wrong, or if you have any further information, please let me know!)

Sadly, the last thing I have been able to uncover about Ensign Mary Feeney is that she died of pneumonia on April 14, 1943 while stationed at the Pearl Harbor Naval Hospital and that she was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star medal.[3]

Mary Elizabeth Feeney Gordenstein is buried in the Halawa Naval Cemetery in Oahu, Hawaii, Section C, Grave 330.

Interestingly, her obituary in the Peekskill Star does not mention her marriage, her husband, or even refer to her by her married name.

I know that if I ever go to Oahu, I will be visiting her gravesite.


[1] 1940 US Federal Census

[2] https://military-history.fandom.com/wiki/Cub-1

[3] Peekskill Star, 4/20/1943 Mary Feeney obituary

Ossining War Casualty – Private Elting W. Roosa, 1896 – 1918

Ossining War Casualty –  Private Elting W. Roosa, 1896 – 1918

Continuing my investigation into the stories behind the Ossining streets named after veterans, today’s post begins with Roosa Lane.

Roosa Lane, off Hawkes Avenue, Ossining. Photo by John Curvan

Now, as you will note, Roosa Lane does not have a star on it as other street signs do, but it DOES have a flag.  While I’m still researching this, I believe the older streets (such as Feeney and Bayden for example) have the star while more recent ones, like Roosa, are demarcated with a flag.  

Roosa Lane is named after Private Elting W. Roosa, who died in France on October 25, 1918, just about two weeks before the Armistice.  He was a member of the 105th Co. Medical Training Division, 27th Division at the time of his death.

Private Elting W. Roosa. Photo from the Columbia University Libraries

Roosa was born on July 11, 1896, in Kingston, New York, to William and Mary Roosa.  The family moved to Ossining sometime after 1905 and lived at 4 Church Street, aka the Rowe building.

4 Church Street, c. 1910. Photo Courtesy of Dana White/Ossining Historical Society

Later, they moved to 11 Independence Place in Ossining.  According to the 1914 Ossining City Directory, 18-year-old Elting Roosa was working as a clerk (father William was a carpenter.)  But the next year, Elting enrolled in Columbia University’s School of Pharmacy, graduating in 1917.[i]  Just before he graduated, in April of 1917, he joined the NY National Guard’s 102nd Sanitary Train, composed of ambulance and field hospital companies.

Upon graduation, Elting had quickly found a job as a pharmacist, in Tarrytown at Russell & Lawrie. (Fun fact, if they are not still in existence as of 2022, they were until very recently.) But he was drafted in June, and by July, Private Roosa and the rest of the 27th Division went down to Camp Wadsworth in Spartanburg, South Carolina for training. Just less than a year later, on June 30, 1918, he was sent overseas on the USS Huron and arrived in Brest, France – one of the last of his division to arrive.

I haven’t been able to confirm exactly what he did overseas – I’ve learned that many US Army personnel records spanning the years 1912 – 1963 were destroyed in a 1973 fire, so perhaps that accounts for the lack of information.[ii]  

However, I think it’s likely that Roosa may have served as a medic, an orderly or perhaps even a pharmacist.  But even in those few months that he was overseas, he must have seen plenty of the horrors of war. His Division, the 27th, was involved in the last, great push of the War, the Meuse-Argonne Offensive on the Somme that took place from September 24 – October 1.

Over one million US soldiers participated in this battle and over 26,000 died.  

But our Private Roosa didn’t die in battle – no, he died of pneumonia.  Remember, at this time, the Great Influenza was ravaging armies in the US and across Europe.   And the Battle of Meuse-Argonne happened just as the second, most deadly wave of the influenza epidemic was peaking.  According to an article published by the National Institute of Health (NIH) entitled “Death from 1918 pandemic influenza during the First World War: a perspective from personal and anecdotal evidence,” there were over 100K troop fatalities all told due to influenza at this time.[iii]

Further, the article details reports made by Colonel Jefferson Kean, the Deputy Chief Surgeon of the Allied Expedition Forces based in France.  On September 18, 1918, he wrote of a “Sudden and serious increase in influenza-pneumonia.”  By October 6, he was reporting that “Influenza and pneumonia . . . increased by thousands of cases.  Case mortality of pneumonia 32 percent.”  The next week, it had increased to 45%.  

It was right about this time that our Private Roosa must have contracted what was likely influenza-pneumonia, dying shortly thereafter.  As Sister Catherine Macfie observed at her field hospital in nearby Lille, France: “The boys were coming in with colds and a headache and they were dead within two or three days.  Great, big handsome fellows, healthy men, just came in and died.  There was no rejoicing in Lille the night of the Armistice.”[iv]

A surprising fact I uncovered was that while about 53,000 American soldiers died in combat in WWI, approximately 45,000 additional US soldiers died of influenza and pneumonia. It’s very hard to get one’s head around those figures.

Another surprising fact is that Private Roosa was buried three times – below are the cards for his burials and disinterrments.  

From the Records of the Quartermaster General, Card Register of Burials of Deceased Soldiers,
1917 – 1922, National Archives

This intrigued me, so I did a deep dive and learned that the odyssey of Private Roosa’s remains illustrates two stories: one, the development of how America would treat its battlefield dead going forward, and two, the political nightmare the repatriation of the US war dead was to become.

WWI was the first time the US Government attempted the repatriation of its fallen soldiers, but then of course this was the first time they had sent so many overseas to fight in a war. (Up until the 20th century, casualties of war were buried more or less where they fell.)

But after WWI ended, many families wanted their sons (and daughters – let’s not forget the 400+ American nurses who died during this war) to come home.

Though former President Theodore Roosevelt, whose son Quentin’s plane was shot down in July 1918 over the Marne, publicly announced that he wanted his son to remain where he fell, his sentiment was in the minority.

So, the Graves Registration Service (GRA) took on the tremendous project of determining what families’ wishes were and fulfilling them.  To this end, over 74,000 postcards were sent out to the families of fallen soldiers asking if they wanted their remains repatriated.  Ultimately, over 44,000 bodies were shipped home for burial. 

But at the Armistice (11/11/1918), there were over 23,000 burial sites across the war zone. To accomplish their task, the GRA had to consolidate and relocate, establishing 700 temporary cemeteries for this purpose.  

This likely explains why Private Roosa was first buried in a British cemetery in Maissemy, then disinterred and reburied about a year later in an American cemetery, that would be known as Flanders Field.

One thing I think is worth mentioning is that at that time, the US Army was still segregated.  And this task of exhuming thousands of bodies was primarily assigned to the Black labor battalions. [v] This picture, from the National Archives and Records Administration, shows soldiers at work in the Ardennes, France.

Photo courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration

In 1921, Private Roosa’s remains were exhumed and transported back to the States on the USS Cambrai, leaving Antwerp, Belgium on March 21, and arriving in Hoboken, NJ on April 3. (Ossining’s Sergeant Joseph De Barbiery arrived in Hoboken three months later, in July, 1921.)

I also learned that France, desperate to recover from four years of brutal war that had destroyed its farms, towns and cities, not to mention an entire generation of young men, was not terribly enthusiastic about devoting its limited resources to the transport of the dead while its living were in dire need. They also didn’t want the sight of coffins to further traumatize its citizens. So it took several years of diligent diplomacy to make all the necessary arrangements for the 44,000 soldiers whose families wanted them home.vi

Caskets waiting for transport in Antwerp, Belgium, 1921. Photo courtesy of the US Army Signal Corps.

I have found no record of a funeral for Private Roosa, but he lies buried in Ossining, in Dale Cemetery, next to his mother and father and not too far from the street that bears his name today.

Photo by Caroline Curvan

[i] https://library.columbia.edu/libraries/cuarchives/warmemorial/world-war-i/roosa-elting-w.html

[ii] https://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/1998/fall/military-service-in-world-war-one.html)

[iii]  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4181817/  

[iv] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4181817/  

[v] https://www.washingtonpost.com/history/2021/05/31/world-war-i-exhumed-memorial-day

[vi] https://digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc804852/m2/1/high_res_d/thesis.pdf

Ossining War Casualty — Corporal Nathan Bayden

As promised, here’s a post with information on Corporal Nathan Bayden, one of Ossining’s war veterans, honored at the intersection of Feeney Rd. and Bayden Rd.

While Private Benjamin Feeney lost his life in WWI (see full blog post here), Cpl. Nathan Bayden served in WWII and was killed in action in Algeria.

(I do rather wonder how these street names honoring our soldiers are chosen, as this seems a particularly random pairing.) 

Nathan Bayden was born in Ossining on July 21, 1918.  His parents, Benjamin and Fannie, were born in either Poland or Russia (hard to know back then as the borders kept shifting.) The family was Jewish.  

He graduated from Ossining High School in 1935 and immediately went to work, likely as a clerk in his parents’ antique store which they ran out of their house at 107 Spring Street.  

According to the 1940 census, he was a chauffeur, and worked 52 weeks a year, earning the princely salary of $700 a year.  (That works out to about $20,000/year today.)  

Not sure if Nathan was drafted or if he joined up voluntarily, but he officially enlisted on March 5, 1941.  His enlistment record notes that he was a “salesperson”, not a chauffeur, and at the time he enlisted, he wasn’t assigned to a particular service branch at the time.  

At some point, though, he became part of the US Army, 2nd Armored Division, 67th Armored Regiment.

The nickname for the 2nd Armored Division was “Hell on Wheels” and their shoulder patch looked like this:

If you look closely at Corporal Bayden’s picture above, you can see that same patch on his left shoulder, confirming his Division.

I can’t find out when he joined the 2nd, so I’m not sure which battles he fought in, except for his last.  Killed in Action on December 7, 1942 in Algeria, he was originally interred in a cemetery in Tunisia, but at some point his remains were transferred to Arlington cemetery, where he rests today.

So what was this Ossining boy doing in Africa in 1942?  

Frankly, I always forget that battles were raging in Africa during WWII. All I know is that General Erwin Rommel commanded the German Afrika Korps, it was hot and sandy, and the Kasserine Pass is somewhere there.  I believe these battles in Africa were a plot point in Raiders of the Lost Ark, but the European and Pacific theaters generally seem to take up more space in the version of WWII I’m familiar with.

And I’m not going to lie, military history is far too numbers-oriented and remote for me to engage with too deeply, so I’m not going to get into the weeds on all this.  But I did learn that the famous General George S. Patton was in charge of the 2nd Armored Division in 1942.

And while I can’t pinpoint the battle in which Corporal Bayden lost his life, it was likely in the aftermath of Operation Torch – an Allied invasion of the French Colonies in northern Africa.

In reading about this battle, I’m surprised that Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg haven’t done a feature film on it, because it’s just as dramatic and heroic as the Normandy invasion featured in Saving Private Ryan.

Operation Torch took place November 8 – 16, 1942.  As he would be for D-day on June 6, 1944, General Dwight D. Eisenhower was the Supreme Commander of this operation. (No wonder the man smoked up to four packs of cigarettes a day!) 

The invasion involved landing over 75,000 troops in Morocco and Algeria. Like D-Day, this operation involved US and British forces working in tandem.

Why was this invasion necessary?  

Why is war ever necessary, I reply.

Now, I’m not going to pretend that I have a nuanced understanding as to the strategy at work here. But, a careful reading of Wikipedia (ahem!) and a brief conversation with my history guru Ken during a run, the ostensible goal was to liberate North Africa from the Vichy French and the Nazis, but Stalin was really keen on the Allies opening up a 2nd front for the Germans to contend with.

It seems that our Corporal Bayden’s Division was in the Western Task Force on the Casablanca side of things.  General George S. Patton was in direct command of this part of the invasion, and over 35,000 troops were secretly transported there in ships, nonstop from the United States.  Traveling through waters patrolled by U-boats, arriving right on time, at night, in unfriendly territory in bad weather – the logistical portion alone of this story is remarkable.

Here’s a map of the battle sites I downloaded from Wikipedia – it clarified a lot of this for me. (Cpl. Bayden’s Division is all the way on the left, or western side of French Morocco.)

How exactly did Corporal Bayden participate in this battle?  And how did he lose his life nearly one month afterwards?  Alas, I have not uncovered much detail here, except that a hospital admissions record states that that the Causative Agent of his death was “Boat, sinking, by mine or resulting from unspecified enemy action.”  

And then there’s the clipping (above) that I found in in the Ossining Historical Society’s 1983 Memorial Honor Roll – though Bayden’s death year is incorrect, perhaps the description of the cause is accurate?  Hard to know. If anyone reads this who knows more, please contact me!

Taking into account that Bayden enlisted in March of 1941, and knowing that the majority of the soldiers participating in this battle came straight over from the States, I believe this might have been Bayden’s first, and last, experience in battle.

So the next time you drive up Bayden Rd., take a moment to remember Corporal Nathan Bayden, who died far from home at the age of 26.

Ossining War Casualty – Private Benjamin Feeney

Ossining War Casualty – Private Benjamin Feeney
Private Benjamin Feeney. Photo Source: Ossining Historical Society pamphlet “A Memorial 1775 – 1983”

Today, let’s learn a little bit about Benjamin Feeney, one of Ossining’s own who made the greatest sacrifice in World War 1. (But no, he is NOT the Feeney after whom Feeney Road is named after. It is actually named after Ensign Mary Feeney, a U.S. Navy Corps nurse. See this post here.)

Benjamin K. Feeney was a Private in the 165th Infantry, Company L.  He died in a German prison camp on August 7, 1918 from wounds received in battle on August 1, 1918.

Now, the 165th Infantry Regiment[1] had originally been known as the 69th Infantry Regiment, but for reasons known only to the Army, it was renamed the 165th in July of 1917 and became part of the 42nd Division.  Because the 42nd was comprised of National Guard units from many states, then-Major Douglas MacArthur noted that the “42nd Division stretches like a Rainbow from one end of America to the other.”  Ever after, the 165th was known as the Rainbow Division.

Fun fact – as the 69th Infantry Regiment it was known as the “Fighting 69th”, a nickname supposedly given to it by Robert E. Lee during the Civil War.  Its Armory still stands at 26th Street and Lexington Avenue in New York City and has had a storied history I won’t get into here.  But you should definitely Google it.

Also, here’s another fun fact:  Father Duffy (of the statue in Times Square, right where the TKTS half-price ticket booth is located) was the regimental chaplain for the Fighting 69th.  Poet Joyce Kilmer (you probably know him from the poem “Trees” that begins “I THINK that I shall never see/A poem lovely as a tree”) was also a member of this regiment and was killed on July 30, during the Aisne-Marne counter- offensive, just a week before our Private Feeney died.

Now, I’m not going to get into the weeds about the Aisle-Marne counter-offensive, or the Battle of Second Marne as it is sometimes called, to distinguish it from the first Battle of the Marne that took place in 1914. However, the fact that there are two battles of the same name on basically the same bit of land four years apart tells you something about what deadlock this World War was.

But I will note that this battle was Germany’s last major offensive of WWI and that it signed the Armistice about 100 days later, so this could certainly be seen as the beginning of the end for them. Some even think that the German infantry was decimated by the so-called “Spanish flu” and this contributed to their crushing defeat.

But back to our doughboy, Benjamin Feeney.

According to the 1905 census, Private Feeney was the son of Coleman and Bridget Feeney and born in about 1890.  He lived on Revolutionary Road with his parents and at least seven siblings.[2]  

On November 6, 1917, as a member of the National Guard incorporated into the 165th Regiment, he traveled to France, on the troopship Ascania, departing from Montreal, Canada.

According to the Records of the Office of the Quartermaster General, 1774-1985 [3] Private Feeney took part in several major engagements in France: Rouge Bouquet (in March 1918.) Poet Joyce Kilmer was also in this battle and wrote a poem called Rouge Bouquet in memory of their fallen comrades.

Other battles in which poor Private Feeney fought in were in Baccarat (April 1918), Champagne (June 1918), and Chateau Thierry (July 1918). I realize that these last three sound like a vacation, but they were brutal, trench-based conflicts that make “All Quiet on the Western Front” seem tame.

His final battle was the Aisne-Marne Offensive whose objective was to cross the Ourcq River and force the Germans to retreat (Read this if you want a deeper dive.)  While the Allies were, as previously mentioned, successful, the 165th suffered a 42% casualty rate.  Our poor Private Feeney was one of them.

His record notes “captured August 1/18, released, death at Limburg, Germany of wounds received in action.”  He was likely held at Limburg an der Lahn, a large German POW camp, in the days before he died.  

He was buried at the Oise-Aisne American Cemetery, Seringes-et-Nesles, France.

(And no, Feeney Road in the Town of Ossining is NOT named after him. It is named after Ensign Mary Feeney, who also died in World War II.)

RIP Private Feeney.


[1] https://museum.dmna.ny.gov/unit-history/conflict/world-war-1-1914-1918/165th-infantry-regiment-69th-new-york

[2] https://search.ancestry.com/cgi-bin/sse.dll?indiv=1&dbid=7364&h=2305118&tid=&pid=&queryId=edd8a6b452d613a8248c1e2978ef0da1&usePUB=true&_phsrc=IZv2&_phstart=successSource

[3] The National Archives at College Park; College Park, Maryland; Record Group Title: Records of the Office of the Quartermaster General, 1774-1985; Record Group Number: 92; Roll or Box Number: 379

Captain David Olmsted – Revolutionary War veteran, Ridgefield, CT

I am yet again stretching the relevance of a post, as this one definitely is not in Ossining.  However, it does connect to running. 

Credit: http://www.naturegeezer.com/2017/05/capt.html

I’ve run by this house six or seven times over the past 10 years – it sits at about the 5 and the 10 mile mark of the Ridgefield Half Marathon. In fact, think I’ve run this race more than just about any other race – there’s something about the season (it’s always in October), the weather (it’s generally crisp with peak leaves) and the fact that it’s super well-organized (this year they gave out locally crafted wooden medals and a very comfortable hoodie.) 

Best of all –  it benefits the Boys and Girls Clubs of Ridgefield.

So let’s learn about the Captain David Olmsted house c. 1750.  

Who was he?  Did he really live here?  Was he related to Frederick Law Olmsted of Central Park fame?  This is a classic Ossining History on the Run post, because I’ve thought about all of these questions over the years and never looked it up.

Until now . . .

As far as I can tell, the David Olmsted of this house was born in 1748 in Ridgefield, and died in 1815 in Jamesville, NY.  He came from a long line of Olmsteds who came to the New World from Essex, England in the 1600s – at some point, one of them helped found Ridgefield. I also believe our David Olmsted was indeed distantly related to Frederick Law Olmsted as that Olmsted was also born in Connecticut and was also descended from Olmsteds who came here from Essex, England in the 1600s.

Our David married Abigail Ingersoll in 1768 when he was 20 and she was 18. (Abigail was related to Jared Ingersoll who helped write and then signed the Constitution as a representative for Pennsylvania.) 

David and Abigail went on to have about eight children, one of whom, born in 1776, was named George Washington Olmsted.  Nice.  

David was apparently one of the first young men in Ridgefield to join the Revolution and lead a company to join Washington’s army in 1776. (Hence the naming of his son?)   As a Captain, he served honorably in several skirmishes – at West Point, at Fairfield, and at the Battle of Ridgefield.

It’s here that legend takes over, and the Story of the Red Petticoat emerges.  Supposedly, as the British approached Ridgefield at dawn on April 27, 1777, the Patriots fought valiantly at the barricades (led by none other than General Benedict Arnold!) but scattered to the woods surrounding the town as the British advanced.  According to Silvio A. Bedini’s 1958 history “Ridgefield in Review” the tale goes something like this:

Abigail Olmsted remained at home with her children, anxiously awaiting word of her husband and of the progress of the conflict. When the detachment of British troops came marching along Olmstead Lane to the camp site [on Wilton Road West], she feared that her home would suffer the fate of others that had been burned by the British during the day. Looking about for some means of saving it, she thought of posing as a Tory. Having no other suitable symbol at her disposal, she removed her red petticoat and waved it from the house as the British soldiers came marching off West Lane Road and along the lane. The British, thinking it was a Tory house, left it unharmed.

When her husband arrived home at last during the night or on the following day, Mrs. Olmsted proudly recounted the incident, pleased with her presence of mind. Not so her husband. Livid with rage, Captain Olmstead thundered: ‘Woman, if I had seen you, I would have shot you dead!’ Far better it would have been to have this home destroyed than to have his wife suspected of being a Tory.

Now, this story raises several questions in my mind –  did nice gentlewomen in 18th century Connecticut habitually wear red petticoats?  Would Captain Olmsted really have threatened to shoot his wife?  And finally, why would anyone make this story up?  What’s the germ of truth behind it?

Alas, I can answer none of those questions (but if any of you dear readers can, please comment in the notes section!)

Apparently, the Olmsted house suffered a fair amount of damage from the British onslaught, red petticoat notwithstanding.  According to some pretty serious sleuthing by Keith Jones, in his book “Farmers Against the Crown,” we learn that Captain Olmsted requested reimbursement from the Connecticut government for property damage to the tune of £54, which was a significant sum in those days.

Ridgefield Town Historians have, over the years, confirmed that the house I’ve repeatedly run by, at 91 Olmsted Lane, was indeed owned by Captain David Olmsted of Revolutionary War (and Red Petticoat outrage) fame.  At least, they put up a sign to that effect in 1976 during the Bicentennial celebration.

By the end of the War, Olmsted was apparently promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel, but was always known around town as Captain.  After the War, he became a well-respected member of the community, holding several offices in local government.  

At some point he decided to leave Ridgefield for reasons I haven’t uncovered, moving to Jamesville, NY, located in the Syracuse area. (Maybe because no one in Ridgefield would call him Colonel?) 

Perhaps the move had something to do with the fact that at that time New York State, in dire need of money to pay off its war debts, began pushing the Iroquois off their lands, despite the new Federal government’s promise to honor the sovereignty of the Six Nations.  (I actually read a fascinating article about all this called “The Iroquois And New York State: Two Centuries Of Broken Treaties And Map Lies” by Jo Margaret Mano of The College at New Paltz, State University of New York.  Google it if you want to know more.)  

The upshot was that millions of acres of Iroquois land was “purchased” by New York State and then sold to the highest bidder in the 1780s.  I guess after serving in battle, Captain Olmsted still had an itchy foot for action and decided to make a move. 

Wife Abigail died in 1805 in Jamesville at the age of 63.  

Olmsted is said to have remarried, to an Abiah Keeler.  However, my desultory research (which consisted of a quick glance through Ancestry.com and Google) has turned up nothing about this marriage.

Captain David Olmsted died in 1815 and is buried next to first wife Abigail in the Walnut Grove Cemetery in Jamesville, NY.  No word on where second wife Abiah Keeler ended up.

Sources:

http://www.naturegeezer.com/2017/05/capt.html

http://dunhamwilcox.net/ct/ridgefield_ct_rev_war.htm

Prince Sergei and Princess Catherine Gagarin

So, this isn’t Ossining-related, but it is running and history related, so please to enjoy . . .

Now, sometimes I do the environmentally horrible thing and DRIVE to a run.  Like take a 30-minute away drive.  

This run starts at the Buxton Cemetery on Succabone Road in Bedford Hills, and it’s so delightful and challenging that I try do it weekly.  After our run, my friend and I cool down by walking through the cemetery and drinking our water.  And we have learned a lot about the people who lived around here, going all the way back to the Revolutionary War.

But we only just noticed these gravestones:

Prince Sergei, Princess Catherine Gagarin and their family

It’s a little strange that it took us this long, because these headstones are entirely different from all the others. However, they are off to the side of the cemetery and are quite obscured by the ferns growing up around them. 

I noticed them mostly because the last name is “Gagarin” and Yuri Gagarin was the first human who ever went into space (Vostok 1, 1961. Yes I am a space nerd.)   However, I don’t think there’s a connection, as I don’t think he was from a noble family. At least, his origin story involves working at a steel plant and never mentions nobility. But then it wouldn’t, would it? (However, readers, always feel free to correct me!)

UPDATE 10/17/21

Thanks to an eagle-eyed reader of this blog, I was sent the following obituary of Prince Serge Gagarin, the son of Prince Sergei and Princess Catherine. The very last line says the following: “In case you were wondering, Serge Gagarin is not directly related to Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin, the cosmonaut who, in April 1961, was the first human to orbit the earth. Yuri Gagarin was descended from serfs owned by the Princes Gagarin. He died in the crash of his MiG-15 in 1968.” I had no idea that Russian serfs took on the name of their “owners.” Clearly, more research is needed, but it certainly gives Yuri bona fides as someone who represented Marxist ideals.

I have learned, through my armchair research, that Prince Sergei and Princess Catherine were indeed legitimate Russian nobility.  

It seems that the Gagarin family goes back centuries, some say 31 generations (!!), and were close to many Czars and Czarinas over the centuries.  Unfortunately, in 1917, after the Russian Revolution and the following civil war, being a noble was not a good thing – in fact, the concept of nobility was abolished.  The Gagarin family fled to Turkey, then France, finally settling in the US with other Russian ex-pat nobility.  

I did find an interesting article that seems to indicate that before he fled, Prince Sergei was involved in helping pack up St. Petersburg’s famed Hermitage Museum: “Crown diamonds – the symbols of the imperial power, genealogical books and treasures from the Jewel Gallery, earlier kept in the Winter Palace, left for Moscow in August 1914, immediately after the outbreak of World War I, and were stored in the Kremlin Armory. Now the royal throne and the palace silver were to be taken out of the palace.”

Both the Prince and Princess rated obituaries in the New York Times.  Princess Catherine died in 1938 at the age of 50 “of a heart ailment,” and is described as married to “a diplomat of the Czarist regime.”  And Prince Sergei, whose 1941 obituary states that he was “connected with the Russian Foreign Office” tells the horrible tale of his death “when a hot-water heater exploded at his Summer home in Bedford, New York.”  Yikes!  

However, both of these obits seem to skim over stories that are much more involved (and possibly dark?) than the New York Times felt like sharing.  I wonder what they are?

765/1340 Kitchawan Road

So here’s a place I’ve wondered about for years . . .

I’ve driven by here many Saturday mornings, after my weekly run with the Taconic Road Runners Club. (Come join us! We’re friendly!)

But that slowly sinking tower . . .


765/1340 Kitchawan Road (photo by the author)

The elegant gate . . .

This sure looks like an estate, no?  So grand!  So stoney!  Somebody important must have lived here, right?

Perhaps . . . if you know who Mrs. Georgia McDonald Reed was. According to Patrick Raftery of the Westchester County Historical Society, she was a daughter of John B. McDonald, a contractor/engineer who oversaw the construction of August Belmont’s Interborough Rapid Transit Line, aka the first subway line in Manhattan. Check out what I found in the Library of Congress’ “Chronicling America” about her father:

The St. Louis Republic. [volume] (St. Louis, Mo.) 1888-1919, May 08, 1904, The Sunday Magazine, Image 57
Image provided by State Historical Society of Missouri; Columbia, MO
Persistent link: https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84020274/1904-05-08/ed-1/seq-57/

That’s an interesting connection, but it doesn’t tell us anything about her or her husband. What I CAN tell you is that the lake you can glimpse from the road, is indeed a manmade lake (like so many others in this neighborhood.  Teatown Lake is another.)  Apparently, it was a big thing in the 1920s to dam up creeks and create a private lake, and here’s a news item detailing Mrs. Reed’s dam project: 

Courtesy of the Westchester County Historical Society

And here, in this 1929 map, you can see Shadow Lake, the fruit of the above labors:

Courtesy of the Westchester County Historical Society

(You can also see Jeanne Eagels’ estate right across Croton Dam Road on this map! Check out this previous blog post if you don’t know who that is!)

Now, after years of intermittent and desultory armchair research, I have turned up little more about the Reeds. In fact, I still haven’t found anything about Mr. Reed. According to the 1930 census, Mrs. Reed was married, living on her Shadow Lake estate, but was listed as the head of the household (where was Mr. Reed?) She also had a “lodger” whom I only mention because his name was enchanting – Archibald M. Fauntleroy. I think I shall name my next cat after him.

I did find this one delightful item in the Ossining Citizen Sentinel from May 7, 1931 in which Mrs. Reed loans some land to Ossining Boy Scout Troop 10, allowing them the privilege of camping on her property and swimming in her lake:

Courtesy of the Westchester Historical Society

I am curious to know precisely what portion of the estate was set aside for the scouts to use. The article says it is “nearest Ossining and within easy hiking distance of the community.” I wonder if it traversed some of the Briarcliff-Peekskill trailway, perhaps skirting around David Abercrombie’s Elda Castle? Regardless, this seems like a lovely thing to do, but the way the article is written gives the impression that Mrs. Reed was a bit pruney:

“Shadowlake is well kept and cared for and it is expected by her that if the troop uses the land it will not suffer by their occupancy.” Ah, I suppose that was the just the style of the times.

But if anyone can shed any more light on Mrs. Georgia McDonald Reed (or the elusive Mr. Reed) please leave a comment!

High Tor – Haverstraw, NY

This will be my last post from the Rockland side of the Hudson, at least for a while. But this may well be the most spectacular hike of the two I’ve recently blogged — the first mile of the hike is a bit of a scramble, but the view from the top is not to be equaled:

New York City from the top of High Tor; Lake DeForest in the foreground (Photo by the author)

High Tor has a long history — as the highest point on the Palisades, it likely was an important site for the Lenape (possibly the Rumachenanck?) tribe.

During the American Revolution, High Tor was apparently used as a place to send signals up, down and across the river.

In fact, if you look around carefully, you’ll see some very old graffiti carved into the rocks. Here’s a cool one:

Looks like this says “Crocheron 1862” (Photo by the author)

Also, note the wavy, scratchy lines all over the rock? Pretty sure that’s evidence of the Laurentide ice sheet that covered this whole area up until about 20,000 years ago. (Here’s a link to another blog post about that time.)

Later, during WWII, according to Wikipedia, High Tor was used as an air raid lookout point. Supposedly Kurt Weill, the composer, was a volunteer air raid warden. (Fun fact: Weill wrote the score to Maxwell Anderson’s “Knickerbocker Holiday.” More on Anderson anon . . .)

Artistically, High Tor has been quite inspiring: The New York Historical Society has this John William Hill painting from 1866 — he is considered one of the “American Pre-Raphaelites,” devotees of England’s famed critic John Ruskin. He made this watercolor, likely whilst sitting atop High Tor, and then completed the larger painting in the comfort of his studio.

And then in 1936, Maxwell Anderson, a playwright of some renown at the time, wrote a three-act play called “High Tor” in which he describes the trials and tribulations of Van Van Dorn, the poor scion of a Dutch family who had owned the peak since the 1600s. Evil agents of a trap rock company keep trying to buy the land out from under him for a pittance to “chew the back right off this mountain, the way they did across the clove there. Leave the old palisades sticking up here like bill boards, nothing left.” (Actually, you will see a mountain that, sadly, looks EXACTLY like that just south of High Tor when you head back to 9W.)

The plot is melodramatic, with characters such as a ghostly, shipwrecked Dutch crew, an Indian, the evil trap rock men — oh, it’s a bit tedious to recount it all. Yet this play won the New York’s Critic Circle Award for the 1936-37 season.

Image Courtesy of Work Projects Administration Poster Collection – Library of Congress

Fantastic comedy? I think not.

I will say, though, Anderson gets in a couple of nice observations about the area. For example, Lise, the ghostly, shipwrecked Dutch lady who speaks in verse, laments the scourge of quarrying that is destroying the area:

Only five thousand for this crag at dawn

Shedding its husk of cloud to face a sunrise

Over the silver bay?  For silver haze 

Wrapping the crag at noon, before a storm

Cascading silver down the black rock’s face

Under a gray-sedge sky?  For loneliness, here on this crag?  

Anderson lived nearby in Rockland at the time he wrote this play, and was instrumental in saving the peak from certain destruction by helping form the Rockland County Committee to Save High Tor – they raised money, purchased the land, and turned it into High Tor State Park. (Fun fact, the actor Burgess Meredith, whom you might remember from the original “Rocky”, was a neighbor of Maxwell Anderson’s and played the character of Van Van Dorn in the original production of “High Tor.”)

One of my favorite bits about the play is the final speech, said by the dying Indian:

There’s one comfort.  I heard the wise Iachim, looking down when the railroad cut was fresh, and the bleeding earth offended us.  There is nothing made, he said, and will be nothing made by these new men, high tower or cut or buildings by a lake that will not make good ruins . . . When the race is gone, or looks aside only a little while, the white stone darkens, the wounds close and the roofs fall and the walls give way to ruins.  Nothing is made by men but makes, in the end, good ruins.

Nothing is made by men but makes, in the end, good ruins.

TREASON!

So, very exciting — I found the exact site where the American traitor Benedict Arnold met the British Major John Andre to negotiate the surrender of West Point. Honestly, it shouldn’t have been that hard — if I’d only walked five more minutes up the trail the other day, PAST the switchbacked Treason Trail, I would have come upon this sign. But no matter — here it is. Now I can start planning a midnight re-creation of Andre’s rowboat trip from the HMS Vulture to the Rockland shore . . . Check back here in September.

I thought today was a good day to post about treason, because we’ve been throwing this word around a lot. However, I wonder how much we really understand what it means. So let’s talk treason and why Benedict Arnold’s name is still synonymous with it.

First, I think we all need to start on the same page when it comes to a definition of treason, and what better page than the Oxford English Dictionary? They define “High Treason” as “Violation by a subject of his allegiance to his sovereign or his state.” I think we can all agree that this means doing something that knowingly harms your country. So what did Benedict Arnold do? Read on, MacDuff . . .

Come back to the Revolutionary War with me, back to 1741 when the aforementioned Benedict Arnold was born in Norwich, Connecticut to a fairly wealthy, well-connected family. Private school and Yale were in the cards for him, but for his father’s drinking problem and business failures. Nathaniel Philbrick, in his engrossing historical novel, Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution, describes Benedict thusly:

He was short, solidly built (one acquaintance remembered that “there wasn’t any wasted timber in him”), and blessed with almost superhuman energy and endurance. He was handsome and charismatic, with black hair, gray eyes, and an aquiline nose, and carried himself with the lissome elegance of a natural athlete. A neighbor from Connecticut remembered that Benedict Arnold was “the most accomplished and graceful skater” he had ever seen.

First, may I recommend Mr. Philbrick’s book as an engaging, informative read about a complex, challenging and difficult man? To say Benedict Arnold was just a traitor not only oversimplifies the story, it also de-fangs it of some of its potency. Valiant Ambition gives a nuanced, in-depth look at what caused Arnold to do what he did, without excusing or defending him. Go read it.

I personally was surprised to learn what a courageous and successful general Arnold had been. George Washington thought him one of his most reliable officers in the Continental Army. Combining daring, skill and audacity, Benedict Arnold notched up significant triumphs over the British in battles such as Fort Ticonderoga, Saratoga and Ridgefield, just to name a few. (Of course, he could also be accused of losing far too many of his men due to his risky strategies, an accusation that could also be levied against George Washington in the early years of the Revolution.)

Arnold was wounded badly several times — in one battle having two horses shot out from under him in as many days — and at one point John Adams suggested that the Continental Congress have a medal struck in Arnold’s honor to acknowledge his bravery and sacrifices for the Patriots’ cause.

But Arnold’s personality contained an arrogance and sense of entitlement that caused him to feel keenly any perceived slight or lack of respect. Perhaps it was his rather Dickensian childhood that fueled his zeal for money, accolades and flattery. Dogging his career were ongoing rumblings of war profiteering, the proceeds of which he used to finance a wildly extravagant lifestyle. Combine this with an increasing bitterness on his part for not being promoted as quickly as he felt he should have been, and you have the recipe for a traitor.

Around June of 1779, Benedict Arnold’s profiteering caught up with him, and a court martial was begun. In January of 1780, he was acquitted of all but two of the most minor charges. His punishment, it seems, was just a snarky letter from General Washington expressing his disappointment in Benedict’s “imprudent and improper” actions. Washington went on to give Arnold command of West Point almost as a consolation prize. Pretty light punishment I’d say, but it just served to wind Benedict up. By July of 1780 he was giving the British classified military information.

At last, let’s talk about that fateful night of September 22, 1780, shall we? West Point, which was just a fort then, not the famed military academy it is today, was key to the British strategy of splitting the colonies and ending their troublesome revolution. For several months, bitter, lame and juggling creditors, Arnold had been secretly corresponding with Major John Andre, head of the British Secret Service in America and Adjutant General to General Henry Clinton, hatching a plot to turn West Point over to the British in exchange for L20,000. (It should be mentioned here that Major Andre had briefly courted Arnold’s young, Loyalist second wife, the lovely Peggy Shippen, and continued corresponding with her after she married Arnold. She seems to have played a major role in connecting the two men.)

One of my favorite details about Arnold’s correspondence with Andre is that not only was it written in code AND invisible ink, but they used noms de guerre — Arnold was Gustavus and Andre was John Anderson.) Because of the uncertainty as to Gustavus’ actual identity, General Clinton insisted that Major Andre have a face to face meeting with this mysterious double agent before any deal was finalized.

After several missed connections with Arnold, Major Andre went up the Hudson River in the British sloop the HMS Vulture, which anchored right off Teller’s Point (aka Croton Point.) Two young patriots, Jack Peterson and George Sherwood, spied it and began shooting at it with their muskets. See this plaque commemorating their heroism that can be still found at Croton Point Park:

They ran out of ammunition, and headed off the Fort Lafayette in Verplanck to secure more. During the lull, Joshua Hett Smith and two oarsmen, commissioned by Arnold, silently rowed up to the Vulture to take Major Andre to the appointed meeting place. All three maintained they had no idea they were being used in service of treason, having only been told that Arnold was gathering intelligence about the British strategy.

So it was right here, on the west bank of the Hudson River, right in this very forest that Major Andre and Benedict Arnold negotiated the price and logistics of Arnold’s treason: For 20,000 British pounds sterling (which is over $3 million in today’s dollars), Arnold was not only going to give the British the plans to West Point, but, as its commander, he was also going to make sure that the majority of the fighting men weren’t there when the British made their assault. Even worse, George Washington had just indicated his plan to inspect West Point in the coming days, and Arnold was ready to sacrifice Washington as well.

As the night began to turn to day, Joshua Hett Smith became increasingly anxious about the tide and the light and feasibility of rowing Andre back to the Vulture without being seen. Arnold had anticipated that his negotiations would take time, and had arrived with two horses. He and Andre rode them the few miles back to Smith’s house and continued negotiating. Smith and oarsmen, I guess, retreated upstream to stow their boat.

Here’s an old photo of the so-called “Treason House” — it was demolished in the 1920s and the Helen Hayes Hospital sits on this site today:

However, soon after sunrise, our friends Jack Peterson and George Sherwood returned to Croton Point Park with a cannon and began shelling the Vulture. Seeing no sign of Andre, the sloop retreated down the Hudson, back to the British line. Andre is said to have watched in horror from an upstairs window in Smith’s house as he saw the boat disappear, leaving him alone behind enemy lines in his telltale red coat.

Arnold was unruffled, giving Andre a change of clothes, a passport, and instructions to hide the plans to West Point in his stockings. Joshua Hett Smith, the most oblivious man in history, was tasked with accompanying Andre back down to the British lines. They rode up what is now 9W to King’s Ferry, took said ferry across the Hudson to Verplanck, and rode down towards Tarrytown. Smith left Andre at the bridge in Croton, near Van Cortlandt manor, which was the southern border of the American lines at the time. Andre continued south until he was captured by “three honest militiamen” named John Paulding, Isaac Van Wart and David Williams. Andre was frisked, the plans found, his disguise unmasked and he was hanged as a spy three days later in Tappan, NY.

And Arnold? Well, he had hotfooted it back to his house, and on September 23rd was waiting to breakfast with George Washington in advance of the General’s inspection of West Point. Right before Washington’s arrival, Arnold learned that Andre had been captured. He told his wife Peggy the gig was up, promised he’d send for her and their infant son, then dashed to the shore to be rowed down the Hudson to the Vulture. Peggy, upon Washington’s arrival, created a scene that both detained Washington and convinced him of her instability (and thus, the unlikelihood that she would have been involved with the plot of which Washington was soon to learn.)

The Arnolds eventually escaped to England, and despite the fact that Peggy was presented to the court and received a token of the Crown’s appreciation, to the tune of 100 pounds sterling per annum, the couple found themselves to be personae non gratae there. They moved to Canada, where Benedict continued his downward spiral with bad business deals and petty lawsuits. Finally, they returned to London where he fought duels to protect what honor he had left, and possibly spied for the British during the French Revolution. He died London, deep in debt, in 1801 and is buried there.

For a country that generally has a short historical memory, Benedict Arnold’s treachery lives on. In 1865, Harper’s Weekly published a cartoon equating Arnold with Jefferson Davis, depicting them sharing a “treason toddy” in Hell.

To this day, Benedict Arnold’s name is one of the more recognizable ones from the Revolutionary War years. While we may not all remember the details of his treachery, we all seem to know that his name is synonymous with treason — which, according to Article III, section 3 of the US Constitution is defined as “Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort.