Thursday, July 07, 2005

The Saugerties Bard, Part II

Last week I suggested that Henry Sherman Backus, “The Saugerties Bard,” had become equal parts folklorist and folklore. He composed sad songs about murderers and their victims, pandering to the public’s taste for sensationalism with a winking touch of piety. As John Wesley is said to have grumbled before setting down his five directions for singing hymns, “It’s a pity that Satan should have all the best tunes.”

Backus was something of an entrepreneur, paying job printers to run off his ballads, then selling them from his pack as he roamed from town to town. He even produced a now exceedingly scarce Ulster County Almanac for 1855, which he promoted with an advertisement in the Saugerties Telegraph: “[It] contains besides a good calendar some of the best effusions of the author. The bard will present it to the inspection of the public as soon as issued and probably sing most of the ballads as he is wont to do, accompanied by instrumental music. The approach of the Almanac will be announced by music from fiddle and flute.’”

Benjamin Myer Brink, in his Early History of Saugerties, wrote in 1902, “All through the counties of Ulster and Greene, at least, was he well known in the years from 1835 to 1860; and often was he seen all down the Hudson River valley, and even upon the streets of New York, and westward along the Mohawk he had occasionally wandered, and into Canada. He was harmless, eccentric, impulsive, and at times incoherent, with a faculty for impromptu rhyming [a prototype rapper?].... The writer can see him now pass by, clad in a suit of gray, with long gray locks covered with a cap.” Louis C. Jones offered another view in the quarterly New York History forty years later: “Although Backus died in 1861 a few old people in the Saugerties area still cherish him among their earliest memories. Mr. J.H. Kerbert, a bard himself, recalled him with remarkable clearness. I have in my possession a drawing made from memory by Mr. Kerbert, which shows Backus in his big hat, with long hair, grizzled beard, peg-leg, and cane.”

But how did Henry Sherman Backus, born February 4, 1798 in Coxsackie, become The Saugerties Bard? This has been a mystery that lifts a bit through genealogical research yet is by no means settled. Henry’s father, Electus Mallory Backus (1765-1813), and mother, Sabra Judson Backus (1764-1838), had both been born in Connecticut, where they wed in 1784. They relocated to West Camp, New York, sometime before 1787, and thence to Coxsackie. Of their eleven children, all but one lived to adulthood and married — so Henry, the seventh, would go on to enjoy a cornucopia of nieces and nephews, a fact difficult to gibe with his later solitary life and death.

Electus Backus was a military man by election, before the outbreak of war in 1812: commissioned as major of the First Light Dragoons in October 1808, he would die in action at Sackett’s Harbor in June 1813. (For decades thereafter Sabra Backus petitioned Congress unsuccessfully to provide her with a widow’s pension.) Henry’s younger brother Electus, Jr., would also become a military man, matriculating at West Point and serving with distinction in the Mexican and Civil Wars. According to Brink, Henry too “grew to manhood with a passion for what concerns a soldier. He possessed a peculiarly correct ear for martial music, and in early years was an efficient teacher of the fife, the drum, and the bugle. Later he taught school, and coming to Saugerties he married a Miss Legg, with whom he lived for a number of years. After her death his mind received a peculiar bias and he began to lead the life of a wandering minstrel.”

According to Pauline Hommell, a Saugerties schoolteacher and historian who wrote an anecdote-laden profile of Backus in her 1958 volume Teacup Tales, Miss Legg was an orphan. In her ghostly tale “The Face at the Window,” she has Cornelis [Cornelius] Post comment to Backus, recently arrived in Saugerties to accept a position as schoolteacher, “‘You’ve been seeing our neighbor’s cousin, Alida Legg. Ach, but she is good to feast one’s eyes on.” Hommell was not above inventing dialogue and spooky stories but I suspect she was not a fabricator of basic fact. Katsbaan Church records show that an Alida was born to Lodewijk Smit [Anglicized as Lodowick Smith in the 1800 census] and Neeltje Post on March 3, 1799, and when she was baptized 17 days later, her sponsors were William Legg and Debora Post. (Born to this couple five years earlier had been Debora Smit, sponsored by Petrus Post and Debora Post.) According to Hommell, Alida wed Henry in the early 1820s and died in May 1845, though Teacup Tales makes no mention of children.

Other sources give Mrs. Backus the name Eliza or Ann Eliza — possibly Anglicizations, possibly a confusion with Henry’s older sister Eliza. Alida/Eliza is also given a maiden name of Legg, which she might well have taken upon an adoption. In the 1830 census the age of Henry “Baccus”of Saugerties is listed as over 30 but under 40. He has one daughter older than 5 but younger than 10. His wife is listed as over 20 but under 30, close enough to the truth and perhaps flattering. Burial records of Mountain View Cemetery show that their daughter Sara Ann died June 6, 1830, at the age of 1 year and 12 days. In the 1840 census Backus, still residing in Saugerties, presides over a household with six females: two daughters under 5, two more between 5 and 10, another between 15 and 20, and his wife. Yet in the 1850 census, he shares an abode with laborer Abraham Wing, age 58; he himself is listed with no profession. At some point in the 1840s he is said to have spent time in the lunatic asylum in Hudson. The likely dispersal of his daughters to other homes following the death of his wife might have driven any man to despair; it appears to have sent Henry Backus on the road.

So, may we conclude that the Saugerties Bard’s odd demeanor was born of trauma? Or might it have been at least in some measure calculated? In The Catskills Alf Evers wrote, “Local eccentrics found the [Catskill] Mountain House an irresistible target and they often served to brighten a dull day. Among them was Henry Backus, ‘the Saugerties Bard, a Cosmopolitan, a Travelling Minstrel,’ as he was inscribed on the hotel register. Backus sang songs he composed and sold printed copies of them to guests. He put together a Mountain House ballad in 1856.” Clearly eccentricity was a solid marketing tactic then as now; Backus may have been the Tiny Tim of his day, ridiculed by his audience but laughing all the way to the bank. Certainly his mind was sufficiently composed to produce lyrics that generally scanned and always told a story.

Reviewing his list of songs, it is clear that the “Mountain House Ballad” (printed June 30, 1856 according to an undated newspaper clipping) marked very nearly the end of Henry Backus’s rural phase. His brother Electus had been installed as the Army’s Superintendent of General Recruiting Services at Fort Columbus on Governor’s Island in New York harbor. Though he and his brother had seen little of each other for decades, The Saugerties Bard boldly headed south to the city of lights and shadows. In the four years remaining to him he would publish at least 15 and perhaps many more with the three prolific New York song-sheet publishers, Andrews, Wrigley, and De Marsan. Indeed, no one knows precisely how many song sheets, slip ballads and poetical broadsides The Saugerties Bard may have composed and/or published, and additional ones may yet appear, especially those that may have been printed in newspapers but not distributed as stand-alones.

Living in New York and Hoboken, Backus, nearing the age of 60, did some of his best work. There were the songs about famous riots (“Dead Rabbits’ Fight with the Bowery Boys,”), boxing matches (the 156-round affair celebrated in “Bradley & Rankin’s Prize Fight for $1000 a Side”), and especially notorious villains such as Mrs. Cunningham (“Dr. Burdell, or the Bond Street Murder”), Francis Gouldy (“Heart Rending Tragedy”), and my favorite murderer, Albert W. Hicks (“Hicks the Pirate”), the man who for a few months virtually pushed Abe Lincoln and secessionist rumbling off the front page.

Hicks was a waterfront thug, not a pirate, who in March 1860 was drugged by a rival gang member and woke up to find himself “shanghaied” onto the oyster sloop E.A. Johnson bound for Virginia. Knowing from past practice just what to do, he murdered the entire crew — the skipper Captain Burr and the brothers Watts — with an axe, gathered up their clothing and valuables, and threw them overboard. Managing the sloop badly as he turned it back toward New York, he collided with the schooner J.R. Mather, outbound for Philadelphia. Hicks lowered a boat piled high with his victims’ belongings and made for shore at Staten Island. When the wrecked E.A. Johnson was brought ashore awash in blood, Hicks’ day of reckoning neared. Chased from New York to Providence, Hicks was apprehended, tried on Federal charges of “piracy on the high seas,” and won a nickname that he took to his grave and beyond.

There would be no schoolboy mewling for this hardened criminal who, with a 21st century sense of commerce, hired a writer to make his confession suitably blood-curdling to sell to a publisher, with the proceeds to go to his widow. I wish that space permitted me to quote more but this will give the picture: “I have killed men, yes, and boys too, many a time before, for far less inducement than the sum I suspected I should gain by killing them; and I had too often dyed my murderous hands in blood in days gone by, to feel the slightest compunctions or qualms of conscience then.”

Convicted of the triple murder, Hicks was slated for execution on July 13, 1860 at a gallows constructed on Bedloe’s Island (a.k.a. “Gibbet Isle”) out in the harbor, where the Statue of Liberty has stood since 1886. His procession from jail to gallows took on the aspect of a circus and a general holiday atmosphere prevailed. Excursion boats had been lined up beforehand for the 12,000 spectators (New York Times estimate) to have a memorable outing: “HO! FOR THE EXECUTION” read the headline on one classified ad. Peanut vendors and lemonade stands did a brisk business to the beat of the fife and drum. The thirsty “imbibed lager-beer,” reported the Times, and in rowboats there were “ladies, no, females of some sort, shielding their complexion from the sun with their parasols, while from beneath the fringe and the tassels” they viewed the grisly scene.

Soon after Hicks was buried his body was dug up by grave robbers, spawning a long-standing rumor that he had somehow defeated the hangman and was running around wreaking havoc under an alias; in fact his body had been sold to medical students. Within a month of the hanging, P.T. Barnum’s American Museum featured a wax image of Hicks among its other notorious figures. The Great Showman’s newspaper ad described his sundry marvels:

Not these alone attention draw; Figures in wax are found;
Classic and modern; Christian Sage and heathen of renown;
All characters whose names have a very familiar sound.
A Mummy here, a Judas there — a “Tommy” done up brown;
A John Brown or an Albert Hicks — a Lambert and his wife.
The Siamese Twins and Albert Guelph — all true to life.

“Hicks the Pirate,” The Saugerties Bard’s ballad published right after the hanging, marked the end of a tradition. Songs about solo murderers would soon pale before the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of our best in blue and gray. The young Henry Backus had not gravitated toward the military as his father and brother had done; he would not do so now. Out of fashion and perhaps increasingly addle-pated, he headed back north. “During the winter,” according to Brink, “he was hardly seen.”

On Monday, May 13, 1861, Backus slept in an old shed in Katsbaan outside a hotel maintained by James H. Gaddis, who found him the following morning, emaciated and unconscious. The Bard was taken to the village of Saugerties, where he was fed, charged with vagrancy, and taken to Kingston’s jail. There he lingered unattended until he died on May 20. His body was given a pauper’s burial in Saugerties. Few members of his extensive family had stood by him in life; none now came in death. His remains were placed, in Pauline Hommell’s aptly chosen words, “into the six-foot cavity which is the common portion of all the sons of Adam.”

--John Thorn


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