The Washerwoman’s Genes

September 5, 2007

Port Ewen in the News: The Brooklyn Perspective

Filed under: Story — by WWG @ 9:48 am

References to Port Ewen show up in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle from time to time. I checked them in case, admittedly unlikely, a family name might crop up. Fortunately, none does, for the articles about Port Ewen tend to the scandalous or the truly bizarre:

In 1892, a column of newsworthy oddities includes this item: “One of the feet of Mrs. Mary Munnelly, of Port Ewen, . . . which was amputated, has been buried in St. Mary’s cemetery . . . beside the body of the woman’s husband.” Now that is news you need to know.

Because of its location on the “corner” of Rondout and Hudson, many of the Eagle’s references to Port Ewen have to do with boating. One early article from 1860, “Marine Disaster—Loss of Life,” describes the sinking of the schooner A.L. Packer near Providence after a trip from Port Ewen. “During a heavy northerly blow and high cross sea off Timble Island . . . all hands, five in number, perished.”

Some years later, a lengthy feature article, “River Boats: An Interesting Sketch of Steamers Whose Names Are Familiar,” briefly describes Port Ewen’s status in the shipping world of 1885: “Many of the steamers of the [early] period have long since passed out of existence, while some of them are still in service as tow boats, and others are rotting away at Port Ewen, on the Hudson. This place is called the cemetery for old steamboats, scores of them having been brought there, their engines taken out and placed in other boats, and their hulls broken up.” The heyday of the Rondout and Port Ewen had been long before, during the canal age of the early nineteenth century. The coming of the railroad had ruined the economy of this boat-building river port while larger, oceanside cities—Brooklyn foremost among them—continued to prosper.

Along with the decline came hard living, and the paper’s other mentions of Port Ewen document this.

In February 1860, a page-one article is titled “Bloody Affray on the Ice at Port Ewen—Two Men Killed—One Fatally Wounded and Another Badly Hurt.” It describes the “excitement” that “has prevailed . . . in and around Port Ewen” because of a fight that occurred “on the ice near that village.” Some young men, early twenties-ish, traveled on the Hudson in an ice boat from Esopus (which now encompasses Port Ewen), tied up their boat at PE about 3:00 on a Saturday afternoon, and “went into a tavern to drink.” Three Irishmen saw the craft and decided to take it for a spin. Seeing them, one of the boatsmen went out on the ice and challenged the thieves, only to be immediately stabbed. His companions, one of them his brother, then rushed out on the ice and found him “insensible,” i.e., dead. A brawl ensued. “One of the Irishmen seized the tiller and struck the friend of the brother a terrible blow upon the head. . . . He was alive at last accounts, but his recovery was despaired of.”

The remaining fellow got himself a pistol from the tavern and ”went back to the boat and shot one of the Irishmen, instantly killing him.” He returned to Rondout (on the opposite, Kingston, side of the creek) with the Irishmen “in hot pursuit” and surrendered to the police.

The tale would make a scene from an action B-film, or maybe, better, a Keystone Cops short. Yet it also evokes the times: the river frozen in deep winter yet still offering those with an iceboat a way to get around; young men, one only twenty, restless, needing respite, “going for a ride” and ending up drinking of a Saturday afternoon. A band of “Irishmen” at such loose ends they pinch the iceboat for a bit of recreation. It all signals, a world of few diversions and rare inspiration. A world of petty crimes, of pranks, really, met with petty indignation, and, quite likely, ethnic prejudice and class arrogance: what would have been a laughable stunt if committed by Thompson, Dubois, and TenEyck was a heinous violation by a couple of Micks. And finally, the story tells the easy availability of a gun, passed from hand to hand and out the door to the native-born kid having a fit over the grubby Irish mitts on his tiller.

Another tale of murder in Port Ewen—more complex and premeditated—a case for CSI—is related in April of 1875. A fellow named Hiram Sluyter, already under suspicion for a previous murder, poisoned a woman who could bear witness against him. According to the Eagle, “Sluyter, a dweller in Esopus, appears to have been a basket maker, a perpetual whiskey drinker, a shiftless fellow who was not proud but moved humbly about at night among his neighbor’s hen roosts.” When his neighbor let out the dogs, Sluyter shot him, but escaped and remained “at large” because of weak evidence. But the recently killed Mrs. Ann Davis could have “sworn to facts that would have hanged him,” and he was captured and held in the Kingston Jail to await a Grand Jury verdict.

“His conviction seems probable,” the Eagle summed up, but then remarked about the crime venue in general: “The testimony of some of the witnesses indicates a very low state of society in Esopus.”

I’ll say.

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