Crime, justice, and punishment at the turn of the 20th Century

— Photo from the Guilderland Historical Society

Farmers and their family members were often working in the fields or barns away from an unlocked house, providing easy daytime entry for pilferers. Here the Chapell family of Parkers Corners is in the field at harvest time.

Town justices of the peace in the 1890s and early 1900s had an easy time hearing the relatively few cases that arose here each year.

Guilderland’s rural area of scattered farms interspersed with a few hamlets and the village of Altamont was inhabited by a homogenous population composed chiefly of white, native-born, Protestant Americans, almost all of whom were law-abiding citizens. As in any community, there were a few whose criminal or antisocial behavior sometimes caused problems.

The town’s major complication was that Guilderland was crisscrossed by both the D & H and West Shore Railroads and by the Western and Schoharie Turnpikes bordered by the city of Albany on the east and Schenectady not far to its northwest. Many strangers, who were occasionally dishonest or sometimes desperately poor, passed through these routes, giving them easy access to the town’s vulnerable homes, farms, and businesses.

An informal survey of many issues of The Altamont Enterprise from the 1890s and early 1900s gives some idea of law and order and the types of cases the town justices were hearing.

The 1886 Howell and Tenney History of Albany County lists the town’s elected officials from the time of Guilderland’s formation until the 1880s. Elected justices of the peace don’t show up on record until 1830, although elected constables were part of town law enforcement since 1803.

No regular stipend seemed to be paid, but each year justices and all other town officials billed for expenses. In 1906, Justice Wm. A. Brinkman claimed $40.90 and Justice Wm. S. Wagoner claimed $39.45.

These figures probably represent the costs created by holding hearings, notifying jurors in the occasional town-level case when a jury was needed, renting space in a local hotel for a trial, and possibly transportation to the county seat. More serious crimes were tried at the county level and those suspects arrested and held were sent to Albany County Jail. Justices operated out of their own homes, there being no town hall in those days.


Just one murder

Violent crime in Guilderland was a rarity.

In 1895, when 70-year-old Philip Richtmyer, “an honest and faithful laborer,” was murdered late one evening in McKownville there was great “excitement” in town. Lured from the house of his employer, Fred Swartz, where he was boarding, Richtmyer was shot, his body dumped near the McKownville’s school, discovered a few days later by a small boy picking berries nearby.

George Smith, arrested shortly after in Rensselaer County, admitted to having shot Richtmyer for a few dollars and his watch. Smith was sent to Albany County Jail, but the outcome of his case is unknown. This murder seemed to have been the only serious crime in town during those years.


Assault cases

Periodically, an assault case came before a justice, some cases more violent than others. A fight between two Italian laborers named Burillo and Spinella escalated from a friendly argument to blows followed by one pulling out a razor and the other a pistol. Neither was injured.

Five witnesses were subpoenaed, but only one appeared and offered such contradictory testimony that Justice Livingston decided to dismiss the case, giving the two men a severe reprimand.

Another Italian, a laborer for a man (neither named in The Enterprise) living a mile from the hamlet of Guilderland, attempted to shoot his employer through his bedroom window but, his aim being too high, the bullet missed his victim.

Soon after, the shooter was arrested by Constable Warner and, after a hearing presided over by Justice Capron, the laborer was taken off to Albany County Jail to await the action of Albany County Court. Anyone who was Italian was an outsider and was considered suspicious by local residents at that time. They were often laborers on the two railroads in town.

Other assault cases were simply local men throwing punches. One night, Allen Settle, a local farm worker, went to the Altamont Hotel for a drink or two.

Bullied in the barroom when one of the fellows drinking there tossed a lighted cigar into the new hat that Settle was carrying in his hand, he accused Charles Ward of damaging his hat. A furious Settle then punched Ward hard enough that Ward tripped, the back of his head slamming against the bar railing, resulting in what was called a skull fracture that required the attention of two doctors.

His condition was considered critical. Settle’s case of second-degree assault was heard by Justice Osborn over at least two, possibly three, days in Altamont’s Commercial Hotel Hall, interviewing witnesses first and then Settle himself.

By this time, Ward had recovered enough to be back out and about. Finding insufficient evidence, the judge discharged the case. This case must have excited much local interest because the details appeared in The Enterprise three weeks in a row.

Other assault cases occurred every now and again, usually resulting in dismissal or in a $15 fine or the possibility of 15 days in the county jail.



Easily the most common criminal activity during those years was burglaries, some perpetrated by tramps, the more serious losses caused by professional criminals who probably fenced their loot in Albany or Schenectady. And there were likely a few town residents who were either having hard times or who were just dishonest and disreputable as well.

Chickens were often the helpless victims of tramps who sneaked into a henhouse in the middle of the night, wrung a few necks, made a fast getaway, and enjoyed roasting a fresh chicken in an isolated spot when they had gotten a few miles down the road, destroying the evidence in the process.

Other chicken thieves, professionals who arrived with horse and wagon, could wipe out a large flock. Forty hens were hauled away from Charles Gemlich’s McKownville henhouse. Having left 23 other hens dead in the road, the thieves must have been scared off before they could load the others.

The “chicken thief fraternity” hit Fred Wormer’s Guilderland Center hennery for 30 of his hens and these two thefts were just two examples of large-scale chicken thefts mentioned, a real financial loss to the farmers involved. After thefts of this size, city butchers were probably selling those chickens the next day.

In addition to the amounts of cash stolen, a huge variety of property was carried off during those years. Among the missing were foodstuffs of various kinds: a turkey, a roast beef, a jug of cider, sacks of salt and flour, fruit, a barrel of corn, canned goods, “provisions,” a pig, a cow, and gum and candy from the slot machines in Guilderland Center’s railroad station.

Horse and carriage items disappeared too: harnesses, horse blankets, carriage robes, and at least three horses. Other property that walked off included barbering, blacksmithing and wheel-making tools; school books and drawing compasses, postage stamps, jewelry, cigars, silverware, and much men’s clothing and shoes.

Among the more unusual items that disappeared were two bushels of grass seed; a quantity of stone; and, from St. Lucy’s Chapel, the altar wine replaced by water.

Several homes, stores, schools, farm buildings, and craftsmen’s shops were broken into over the years, some of the stores and shops more than once. Every part of town was hit, but communities and farms on a transportation artery suffered worst.

Occasionally thieves were seen escaping. Mrs. Handy saw a tramp intruder just as he was slipping out of a window in her Meadowdale home. It was soon obvious he had gotten away with gold rings.

Three strangers at the Altamont depot, suspected of being thieves, apparently realizing they were about to be arrested, “the birds took leg bail,” each heading off in a different direction, managing to escape.

Two men were seen running in the direction of Voorheesville after blowing open the safe in Petinger’s Guilderland Center store, getting away with $35. Crooks blew open the safe at the Guilderland Foundry, but weren’t so lucky. Their efforts paid off with a paltry $8.


Citizen threats

Did any of these thieves ever get caught? Rarely, it seems, though George L. Barnard and Charles Vinhout were both charged at different times with burglarizing Pitts’ store in Altamont and another. Also, Delville Staats faced charges for stealing a bicycle from Keenholts and Warner’s store in Altamont.

Occasionally, suspicions that a thief was a neighbor led to pointed threats of public exposure in The Enterprise.

Someone in Guilderland Center who substituted an old hand pump for a new one in someone’s yard was warned “we know who you are” on being instructed to return the new one to save himself some trouble and to keep his name from being made public.

The person who removed a turkey from Keenholts market should return the turkey or $2 or he would “be exposed by one who saw him do it.”

Threats of taking the law into their own hands if burglars were caught on their property appeared with some regularity, sometimes making Guilderland sound like the Wild West.

It was highly unlikely the actual thieves were reading these threats in the paper, but it made the locals feel in some control as when one farmer threatened he would “make it hot for him” if he ever caught the man who stole his pig.

Perhaps the crooks might have been a bit more nervous if they knew citizens were being advised to “oil up their trusty revolver and be ready for business” or “house revolvers should be kept handy for use as burglars are prowling about” or “keep your shootin’ irons in order and if they call on you at night let ’em have it” — that last advice from a town justice no less.

Actually the suggestion, “Keep a good watch dog about the premises to keep tramps and burglars away” made the most sense.

It’s very possible some farmers let go with a shotgun or townspeople roughed up a suspicious character skulking about, but it’s very unlikely they’d insert the news in their local column in the paper although the gold-bowed spectacles incident did appear.

One day, a peddler stopped by the Dunnsville home of Mrs. Henry Shaver who at the time was entertaining some of her lady friends. After the peddler had gone on his way, one woman realized her gold wire spectacles were missing.

The loss was discovered quite some time after the peddler had left but local men followed him, eventually catching up to him. When questioned, he admitted to having taken the spectacles and immediately after was the recipient of a severe “booting,” which his pursuers hoped made him “wiser and sorer.” And yes, the lady got her gold-bowed spectacles back!


Swindlers and pickpockets

Other crimes in those days included the loss of cash to pickpockets or silver-tongued swindlers, often when the Altamont Fair was in session or a traveling circus or show stopped in town.

A 1908 visit to Altamont by a traveling circus resulted in one elderly Guilderland Center gentleman being talked out of $200 while another man was “flimflammed” out of $56 by the ticket seller.

Another swindle involved a cow that had been purchased on the hill, brought down into Altamont, and left off at the Altamont Hotel stable temporarily until the new owner would come back to retrieve it.  A drover who was walking a number of cows to market stopped at the hotel, saw the cow and inquired about it.

After enjoying dinner there, the drover slickly explained he was picking up the cow for its owner, mingling the purloined cow among his other cows and was on his way to market. When the real owner, Alonzo Strope, came back to the hotel to claim his cow, it was long gone.

Senior citizens, then as now, were targeted. Civil War veterans were warned that a man who claimed he represented the G.A.R., the Grand Army of the Republic, the national Union veterans’ organization, was a fake.



Punishments for convictions included fines or jail time if fines were not paid. Illegal train-riding was a $5 fine while assault was $15, though many cases were discharged for lack of evidence.

Prejudice against individuals probably played a part in sentences handed out. Tramps, the name given to wandering homeless people of the day, and Italians probably were treated more harshly than a hometown fellow, especially if he had the right connections.

However, a local man, formerly of Voorheesville, one of three brothers with an “unsavory reputation” accused of stealing a new wheel (bicycle) was quickly sent off to county jail for the grand jury to consider his case.

Most times, it seems the justice who heard the case decided the outcome, but there were times when a jury was seated, often in civil cases such as the one involving Sands Sons of Altamont, businessmen who sued Datus Wood for the balance of money owed for a gasoline engine Woods had purchased.

This case was serious enough that lawyers were involved. From the bits of information recorded in The Enterprise, it’s difficult to tell how often lawyers were represented plaintiffs or defendants.

At the turn of the 20th Century, life in a rural community was less complicated in so many ways, including dealing with crime, justice, and punishment. With the coming of the automobile, prohibition, and population growth, things changed rapidly.