Grandpa was a Horse Thief -
and other tales from the Potter Enterprise
Submitted and Transcribed By Frankie Stonemetz and Tim Chase
Much has been written about the upstanding men and women who settled in Potter County during its infancy - businessmen, doctors, lawyers, their spouses and descendants who brought prosperity and a semblance of respectability to the area during a rough-and-tumble time.
But what about the scoundrels and rascals who lurked in the hills? Potter County histories contain few words about the blackguards, horse thieves, counterfeiters,and murderers whose deeds often remained unknown and unpunished in a county populated largely by itinerant lumberjacks.
Early historiansí apparent reluctance to pass along the deeds of unsavory characters which were nonetheless chronicled by the newspapers, the disappearance of the logging camps where much of the disorder occurred, and the accompanying exodus of their inhabitants have all combined to leave us with limited knowledge about the darker side of Potter County life in the 1800s. Other than Joshua Jones of Genesee, who shot his wife, was captured, escaped from jail, was recaptured and became the first person hanged in Potter County, and Charles Brewster, condemned to death, for killing his stepfather in the early 1900s, early criminals and their deeds are not widely remembered. There can be little doubt that crime was abundant - the young Countyís heavily forested hills and valleys and its lumber camps populated by rough characters with whom unsavory element mixed provided ideal hideaways for anyone eluding the regionís few lawmen.
One man who arrived in Coudersport in 1841 described it as one of the worst places of its size he ever seen. One of his first actions was to assist in the arrest of a local fighter who had drank too much and was only apprehended by throwing a rope around his shoulders and hauling him through the mud to jail.
Tales of Thievery
One of the most famous local outlaws of the mid-1800s was Abram or "Brom" Rohrabacher, who lived in various places around eastern Potter County and whose name was a household word. A brawny, broad-shouldered fellow, he was said to be a strong as an ox and unbeaten in his frequent fights and wrestling matches.
Rohrabacher came to this area from the Finger Lakes region of New York, reportedly fleeing to elude authorities after for knocking a man off a wharf into Cayuga Lake.
A famous log driver and raftsman, he also belonged to a gang of horse thieves operating in the Coudersport and Galeton areas.
Rohrabacher was once suspected stealing a heifer from a prominent Coudersport resident, but the crime was never proven. Twenty-five years later, he confessed, saying he had always been ashamed of it. But that theft appears to have been only one of many in which he and his cronies were involved.
Civil War era newspapers often chronicled the dastardly deeds at a time when Potter County was known "Horse-Thief Heaven" The only road, which bisected the county from southeast to northwest, was considered to be a "horse thief highway" andí it was said that all roads traveled by horse thieves in southern New York and the neighboring regions of Pennsylvania led to Potter County. Once into that county, the thief and horse generally disappeared completely,
The mid-1850s, a gang of horse theirs had a hideout in a hollow which emptied into the Genesee Fork of Pine Creek, above West Pike. They reached the spot by riding their horses up the bed of a creek, leaving the main road at a barnyard by the stream. The barn was owned by a man who was one of the gang.
"In this woodland retreat, a skillful operative colored the horses so that they would not be recognized", stated Victor Beebe in his "History of Potter County." The horses were then sold in Jersey Shore or Williamsport.
The Looters Are Always with Us
On May 18, 1880, the entire downtown of Coudersport was destroyed by fire. Without time or means to save the buildings, men, women, and children worked feverishly to move contents out of the buildings ahead of the flames. Goods of all kinds were piled in the street and on the courthouse square. There were piles of merchandise, furniture, ledgers, books, even safes. Some items burned because the flames could not be fought back and some were stolen by looters. According an article in the May 19th Potter Enterprise, "to their disgrace, may it be written that some people seemed bent upon plunder, quietly picking up any article which might possibly be of value to them and making off with it." An emergency meeting of the town council held that night hired special police to guard the exposed piles of goods and protect them from looters.
When a showcase was removed from a store to the street, looters kicked it in and stole 3000 cigars. Likewise dry goods, hardware and other items just disappeared. Some merchants complained that more goods were stolen than were burned.
One Manís Crusade
Few thieves and even fewer horses were arrested or recovered here, despite the efforts of respected local lawman Orange A. Lewis, who spent years gathering evidence in an attempt to apprehend one notorious band, probably the group that operated out of the West Pike area. Lewis spent a lot of time ostensibly fishing in the Nine Mile area, and would track the stolen horses.
A Lewis descendant later maintained that in 1856, a year that brought increased horse stealing and a political campaign in which Lewis was up for reelection as associate judge of the county, Lewis received an anonymous letter that threatened him with arrest and exposure for his part in the underground railroad, which helped fugitives slaves travel to freedom.
But Lewis continued his efforts over the next few years and by 1861 had accumulated sufficient evidence to arrest the band.
Then Civil War broke out, and several of the suspected thieves enlisted in the Union Army. Lewis and prominent local attorneys John S. Mann and Isaac Benson decided that no legal action would be taken until after the conflict, and that those accused who were honorably discharged would not face prosecution for their earlier actions. Fate intervened again and the 58-year-old Lewis, who had also enlisted, died in 1862 during a Union retreat.
During Lewisí lengthy investigation, it was suspected that certain prominent individuals whose names have not been recorded by historians were collaborating with the horse thieves.
An Inside Job?
In September 1857, a team of oxen was stolen from H. L. Bird of Sweden Valley. He followed the thieves to Williamsport and found that his oxen had already been sold to an unsuspecting butcher. One of the animals had already been slaughtered. Bird recovered $75 from the butcher. Eventually, James H. C. Coe was arrested, confined to jail in Coudersport, and convicted of the crime. At his sentence, he deliberately walked out of the courtroom, unhindered by the sheriff or anyone else - perhaps a sign of that suspected collusion on the part of some highly-placed official??
It's believed that some of the area outlaws in the post-Civil War era were members of a notorious group called Widger Gang, led by Captain Willam D. Widger, who was dishonorably uncharged from the Union army after serving briefly during the war,
Beer's and Beebe's histories report that upon returning to Potter County, Widger and a brother organized a gang with a man named Paul Howard and Howard's brother. The group stole honey, then sheep and cattle. The meat was sold in lumber camps or shipped out of the area salted down in barrels. Freshly-washed clothes hanging on lines in people's yards, dry goods, hardware, cutlery - nothing was immune to the thievery.
Suspicions led to the Widger/Howard Gang, and when McDougall's store at Oswayo was burglarized, a search revealed the stolen goods in a box sunk into the ground at Sheldon Hollow, about three miles from Coudersport.
Beebe related, "Ephriam Bishop discovered a quarter of the mutton stolen by one of the gang, by moving a chair in which the thief's wife sat, much against her will, the mutton dropping from beneath her skirt." Beef was also found buried in the garden of another gang member. A grindstone stole from John S. Mann was also found. One of them turned state's evidence, sending the rest to the penitentiary.
One of the Widger/Howard gang was also accused of murdering an army chaplain during the war. The chaplain had returned from the front with a considerable amount of money to be given to soldiers' families and was last seen leaving an Olean hotel with a stranger. He was believed to have been murdered near the Five Corners in Hebron Township, and buried in the woods. A young woman reportedly found the grave but was so frightened that she did not report it until long afterwards.
The horse thieves were also thought to be in collusion with counterfeiters operating in the area. In April 1868, counterfeit money was found by workmen tearing down a wall at D. F. Glassmire's store in Coudersport. The bills had been secreted in the wall, and appeared to have been there for quite some time. Counterfeit money was also found in a house owned by W. B. Gordnier, located east of town. These bills also appeared to have been there for a long time, placed there by John Crittenden, who had once been convicted of counterfeiting several years earlier.
Justice Not Done?
Mrs. H. D. Graves of Millport became one of the most notorious females of the late 1800s, when she was accused of being an accomplice of her husband. George Haynes was convicted of the crime and sentenced to 'life in prison', but Mrs. Graves was acquitted by the court. Many people felt that she was truly the guilty one, plotting the crime, coercing Haynes to carry it out. Few details of the case have been passed down. Beebe's history states, The trial attracted much attention and was filled with 'nauseous details which do not propose to relate here. The historian attributed her acquittal to the reluctance of the judge and jury to sentence a woman to death.
Haynes was pardoned in 1888, suffering from tuberculosis. Mrs. Graves left the county but was suspected in a similar case some years later.
Lonely highways which were little more than foot paths were ideal spots for crime. Frank Welton, driver of the Sinnemahoning stage, was shot by a thief who he was taking to jail. The man escaped but was later apprehended on charges of larceny and burglary in Emporium. Welton recovered but lived the rest of his life with a bullet in his neck.
Hotbeds of Crime
Pig's ears - illegal drinking establishments that abounded throughout the county during the period when prohibition laws were in effect - were also hot spots for all kinds of illegal activities, fueled by the patrons' consumption of the beverages offered.
June 1894, Fot Spicer shot Officer James Higgins of Austin when the lawman attempted to arrest him in a pig's ear in Galeton. Spicer was a character who had already served prison terms for larceny and counterfeiting. When Higgins entered the establishment, Spicer recognized him and spoke, but received no response from the officer. He then blurted, "You are Jim Higgins; give me that warrant or I'll blow your brains out."
Higgins answered, "I guess not". Spicer shot him through the neck; Higgins shot Spicer through the heart.
In January 1896, Julius Zimmerman killed Andrew Stroup in a quarrel over a game of cards in the Crowell House in Coudersport, with only very light consequence.
Arthur Gordnier shot and killed C. Don Banfield in the barroom of John Kelly's hotel in Austin in July 1901. Banfield was drunk, and evidence indicated that Gordnier shot him in self-defense. The only crime Gordnier was convicted of was selling Banfield the liquor that made him drunk.
Blowville, at the forks of Bailey Run, was a short-lived hamlet surrounded by lumber camps. The town consisted of two restaurants, two hotels, two boarding houses, two drug stores, two pigs' ears, one barber shop, a blacksmith shop, two stores, 13 dwellings and a multitude of camps in the surrounding woods. It vanished without a trace, but in the late 1890s, it was known as a famous resort for ruffians. William Ayers, an old man living alone, was murdered in the vicinity in 1898, with robbery as the suspected motive. Several suspects were arrested, but nothing was proven.
Such incidents led to the widely-held and often expressed belief that in Potter County, no case, regardless of the strength of evidence, would result in the penalty of a murderer losing his life. The execution of Charles Brewster, who murdered his stepfather, finally dispelled the myth.
With the advent of the 20th century and the decline of lumbering and tanning, the camps disappeared and the once-thriving hamlets became ghost towns. Prohibition was repealed and liquor flowed flowed freely in most areas of the county, but held less charm to the established residents than it had to the itinerant lumbermen. Horse thieves disappeared as horseless carriages became the transportation of choice. It was an end of a colorful era in the history of Potter County.
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Last Update May 8, 2011
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