Roguery in Skaneateles

In 1857, James Fitton of Skaneateles and Chester Moses of Marcellus purchased a stock of cloth and raw materials from Dorastus Kellogg, a prominent local manufacturer of woolens, and went into business on their own, happily at first.

In June of 1858, Mr. Fitton journeyed to New York to raise funds for the purchase of wool, and Mr. Moses went west to contract for its delivery. However, when Mr. Moses returned to Skaneateles, he did not find Mr. Fitton. He became uneasy and went to New York to discover Fitton’s whereabouts. Upon arrival, he learned that Mr. Fitton had raised $40,000 on Wall Street, but was nowhere to be found.

Back in Skaneateles, Mr. Moses learned that a Mrs. Anderson of Skaneateles, “with whom Fitton was suspected of being on rather familiar terms,” was also missing, “and this satisfied him that there was roguery in the case.” Indeed, after some study, Moses learned that the couple had sailed for Europe in June, under fictitious names, and were now across the Atlantic.

This was bad news for Mr. Moses, but also for Mr. Fitton’s wife and children, who had been visiting friends in Providence, Rhode Island. The Times noted, “His wife was greatly overcome by the astounding intelligence.”

The New York City police sent Captain James Leonard to England in pursuit of Fitton, and he was soon on the fugitives’ trail. The New York Tribune reported:

“Fitton was followed about from place to place in company with his compagnon du voyage. Soon after Capt. Leonard’s arrival, and the discovery of the guilty pair, some disagreement arose between Mr. Fitton and his companion, in consequence of which she left him and returned by the next steamer to New York.

“Fitton soon became lonely, and his conscience smiting him sorely, he had determined in his own mind to return home… At the time of his arrest Capt. Leonard found upon his person about $25,000… Mr. Fitton made a full confession… He deeply regretted the course he had taken, and stated that he had made up his mind to return and make full restitution to those he had wronged. He had become infatuated with the woman, and it was on her account that he had pursued such a course. He frankly acknowledged his ‘departure from the paths of rectitude and virtue’ and seemed in great tribulation… He is about 45 or 50 and has a wife and very large family of children living at Skaneateles.”

For the readers’ edification, the Tribune also reported this about Fitton’s companion, “She is young and of very captivating appearance.”

As it turned out, Fitton could not be arrested in Europe, and was released. But true to his word, he returned on his own. In September of 1858, the Auburn Daily American described his reception in Skaneateles:

“The people are somewhat indignant, and on Wednesday evening last, Fitton was burned in effigy in the streets of that village. Fitton was sued the same day by one of his former partners, for the balance of the money alleged to have been taken by him.”

Done with Fitton, Chester Moses made a success of his woolen mill in Marcellus, supplying uniforms to the Union army during the Civil War, and serving as that village’s president for three one-year terms during the 1860s. His business flourished until his death in 1870.

And what of Captain James Leonard, who tracked down Fitton? The New York Tribune reported:

“Captain Leonard, when last heard from, was about visiting several of the continental cities, with a view of examining their various police systems — and such information as he may obtain will be used toward the improvement of our department. He will probably return in a week or two.”

Probably.

* * *

“Extensive Swindling Operation — The Swindler Gone to Europe with Another Man’s Wife” in The New York Times, July 16, 1858

“Remarkable Elopement and Desertion. From the New York Tribune.” in The Albany Evening Journal, August 31, 1858

“The Case of Fitton: He Repents and Will Return” in The Buffalo Courier, September 2, 1858

“James Fitton” in The Auburn Daily American, September 25, 1858

The Spirit World and Lizzie Gasser

In July of 1900, the New York Times reported that Miss Lizzie Gasser of our village was in Chicago, where a convention of mediums was being held, on the trail of two spirit mediums who had separated her from a large sum of money.

Miss Gasser’s misfortune began in Syracuse, where she met a woman named Mrs. Williams, who claimed to be a medium. The lady, in turn, introduced Miss Gasser to her “son,” who agreed to tell her fortune. The Times noted:

“The son, who was an adroit talker, looked into the future and announced that she was soon to fall heir to a large fortune. In order to secure this money, however, he told Miss Gasser she would have to pay them $11,000.”

Miss Gasser, possessed of a surplus of trust, and not one to pass up a large fortune, parted with a small one. Predictably, the “mediums” disappeared. The newly shorn Miss Gasser contacted the Syracuse police, with no result. But after reading a newspaper article about a convention of mediums in Chicago, and ever the optimist, she traveled west hoping to find the couple. In the absence of a follow-up from the Times, we can only guess how she fared.

* * *

“Says Mediums Got $11,000. Woman Victim of Skaneateles, N.Y., Searching Chicago for Swindlers” The New York Times, July 27, 1900

Drink Up!

Beginning on July 1, 1894, the city of Syracuse began drawing its water supply from Skaneateles Lake. Eight years into the enterprise, the city received this bit of news:

“The city of Syracuse is confronted by an interesting problem in connection with its water supply which comes from Skaneateles lake. The village of Skaneateles at the foot of the lake sewers into the water and has done so for years. The city’s intake is farther up the lake and ordinarily would be considered safe from any danger from the sewage below. But some state jetties are so situated that contaminated water may be blown by north winds so it would reach the city’s intake. Therefore, Prof. Landreth of Schenectady who has just investigated the Skaneateles lake situation recommends that a sewage disposal plant for Skaneateles with necessary connections, etc., be erected and maintained at the expense of Syracuse. If Syracuse wishes to get rid of danger from Skaneateles sewage in its water it must pay for it. That seems to be the law in this case.”

— “Syracuse’s Water Supply” in Municipal Engineering (1902)

Skaneateles, 1849

“The village of Skaneateles is one of the most lovely and picturesque in western New-York. From this village the eye measures about half the distance of the lake to the south, a mile and a half in width. On the shores are no bogs or marshes to disfigure the prospect; the rich velvet like green of the gradually sloping banks of the lake, seem to be resting on the water’s brink. Villas and lawns give a charm which distance lends to the view. The woodlands, clothed in the richest green, rock and rustle their foliage in the wind, and the golden grain of the cultivated fields waves in the breeze. The herds and flocks graze in slothful competency over the luxuriant pastures, and the light bark glides gracefully over the sweet bosom of the water.

“The hum of prosperous business is heard amid the rattling of the rail road cars, the clinking of hammers, the rumbling of machinery and the rushing of water falls, and the happy faces and the happy homes of the citizens, invite the settlement of many more among them. The society, the schools, the scenery and the prospects of business, are all wholesome and flourishing, and it may be said, without fear of contradiction, that few if any villages present so many great and desirable advantages.”

Onondaga; or Reminiscences of Earlier and Later Times (1849) by Joshua V. H. Clark, A.M.

A Fallen Woman, 1904

“His amusement at the kittenish behemoth on the stage was increased by her successor, a woman of a homely and spinster type of countenance, one of those whom we think of as virtuous by compulsion. She was what they call in the Bowery concert halls a ‘classic’ singer, for down there any song that is not ‘rough house’ is classic.

“In the hope of preventing further music, Joyce called a waiter and said: ‘The girls look very thirsty; perhaps they’d like some beer up in the balcony.’ The waiter surrounded the affair with an air of great mystery and danger, but the girls, after slipping on long skirts over their short ones, found their way to a table in the gallery running around the hall. Joyce lost little time in asking the usual question: ‘How did you come to this?’

“The homely spinster explained with chin still tremulous, ‘You see, I was born in Skaneateles, and my parents is very respectable. Oh, they’re right in the push in Skaneateles. Paw is the best sign-painter in town. They give me a splendid education— oh, I was educated grand! But one day along come a handsome traveling man — oh, but he was a handsome devil! — and he stole my young affections, and asked me to run off with ‘um. He promised to marry me — honest he did — and then we come to New York, and then he deserted me cruel. And that is how I come to this. Maw would be broken-hearted if she knowed I was in this business.’ ”

— From The Real New York (1904) by Rupert Hughes

Grace’s House

Built in 1901 on land originally owned by Laura Fitch, Grace Parcell’s house is the only Dutch Colonial Revival-style house on West Lake Street. Its residents have included members of the Morris, Day, Warner, Hannah and Parcells families. I admire its modesty, its outlines, its wooden shingles, and most of all, I admire Grace Parcells.

When I first came to Skaneateles in 1998, I took long walks through the village, drinking in the remarkable beauty. I saw Grace often, riding her bicycle to and from her little house on the lake. One sunny afternoon, as she passed, I called out, “You are an inspiration to me.” She laughed and rolled her eyes. I love this house, and I cherish that memory.

A snapshot from the 1952 Appraisal Report by William A. Maloney & Associates, courtesy of the Skaneateles Historical Society