The Saugerties Bard
On Friday, August 19, 1853, Hiram Williams, an itinerant peddler of German-Jewish origins, was on the first leg of his journey home, 113 Walker Street in New York City. He had completed a successful tour of the villages of Ulster and Greene counties in which he had sold $100 worth of jewelry and lace. Arriving in Greenville too late to make the Austin Line stage coach to Coxsackie, he was prepared to wait for the next one until he crossed paths with an inebriated thirty-year-old alumnus of Sing Sing who had likewise missed a stage from Albany to Durham and was walking east.
On the Plank-Road, in Greenville town,
A Jewish Pedlar was shot down.
Ah, by a wretch, called Warren Wood,
Who shot the Pedlar in cold blood.
With murder rankling in his heart
From the Empire City did depart,
Arm’d with revolver, six-barrel’d true,
With which he shot the peddling Jew.
In a statement the mortally wounded Williams was able to give while clinging to life, he said that his assailant had come up to him and, after some perfunctory repartee, said, “‘You are a foolish fellow to take the stage; if you walk down with me, we can get there before the stage does, and you will save your money.’ Persuading the peddler to stop at taverns along the way on this hot summer’s day, Warren Wood inquired how much money the peddler typically made on such a trip. “I said sometimes one, and sometimes two hundred dollars; as we came near the bridge, about half way down the hill, [the man whom he later identified as] Wood stepped back, and I saw him pull a pistol from his pocket; he fired it and shot me down; the ball entered my back, and passed through my body, so that the doctor took it out of my abdomen; he shot again, twice, striking me about the head; I fell on the road, and he took me by the legs and threw me off the bridge and threw down my pack; he then dragged me to one corner, under the bridge, and asked me what I had in my small box, and I told him nothing but spectacles; he then threw stones on me, and went away.”
When first he shot, the Pedlar cried,
Whate’er you want shall be supplied.
His pocket-book to Wood he gave,
In hopes by this his life to save.
Again he shot! O, cruel man!
What mortal can your feelings scan.
Infernal spirits astonish’d stood,
Awhile to gaze on Warren Wood,
Who did the Pedlar’s head then pound
As he laid bleeding on the ground,
Until he thought him truly dead,
And then the monster quickly fled.
In an affidavit following his capture in New York City, Wood admitted he had shot Williams “two or three times” but denied other seemingly less pertinent details. “The peddler handed me his pocket-book; I never asked him for it; neither did I pile any stones on him, or ill-use him. If he went off the bridge, he must have fell off himself; I did not throw him off.” Tossing his revolver into a swamp, after which he “felt somewhat easier,” Wood paid a local farmer the large sum of “one gold dollar, a fifty cent piece and two quarter dollars” to drive him to Catskill Point. From there he crossed the Hudson, took the “way-train” to Tivoli, and then the express to New York, where he arrived near midnight that same Friday.
In Gotham he hooked up with his paramour, Emma, who noted that he had more money at hand than was usual; on Saturday, with the ill-gotten gain, they visited the Great Exhibition of Art and Industry at the Crystal Palace (on the site of today’s New York Public Library), which had opened its doors to the public barely a month earlier, and a Daguerrean parlor where the capture of Emma’s likeness was to aid in the capture of her lover. When Wood was apprehended in New York, he had among his possessions several items that had indisputably belonged to the peddler. Hauled back upstate, before being incarcerated at the Catskill jail he was brought before the dying Williams, who could not be moved from his bed at Moore’s Tavern near Greenville.
Back to New York he sped his way,
To promenade with Ladies gay.
In Cherry Street they did him take:--
He now his pleasure must forsake.
Though filled with dread and guilty fear,
Before the Pedlar must appear,
Thou art the man, the pedlar said,
As he then raised his dying head.
I know that coat, the boots likewise—
A dying man will tell no lies,
To Jail the murderer then was sent,
His awful crimes there to lament.
Hiram Williams died on September 2, and was buried after services at the Albany synagogue. The charge against Wood was no longer for attempted murder. In the trial that took place on November 25, he was convicted and sentenced to hang on January 20, 1854. In between those two milestones in Wood’s wretched life, a ballad was printed in the job shop of the Greene County Whig. That ballad, quoted in part above and concluded below, was composed by Henry Sherman Backus, a sometime Saugerties resident who may have felt an affinity for Williams as he too was an itinerant peddler, though his pack was filled with songs rather than notions. Publishing under the pen name of “The Saugerties Bard,” Backus specified that “The Murdered Pedlar” was to have been sung to the tune of “Burns' Farewell,” an anonymous air of distant times that was known to anyone who had spent a bit of time in a saloon or road house. Though an accomplished musician who accompanied his recitations with fiddle and fife, Backus never composed original music for the ballads he published, as the convention was to supply buyers with lyrics to tunes they already knew.
In Christ, the Saviour of mankind,
Repentance he may truly find:
O, soon he will suspended be,
To pay the law’s just penalty.
A faithful Jury did convict,
The Sheriff must the law inflict,
The penalty to justice due,
To all the guilty, as to you.
No costly gems or diamonds bright,
Disarms the law or aids his flight,
Nor thousand tons of shining gold,
Yet for a groat Wood’s life was sold.
No more, poor man, while here you stay,
The birds will chaunt their cheering lay,
Or friendly neighbors greet again
The wretch that hath the Pedlar slain.
On January next, the twentieth day,
The Sheriff must the law obey,
Upon the gallows him suspend,
And thus poor Wood his life will end.
Let all a solemn warning take,
And every wicked way forsake,
For soon we all will ush’rd be
Into a vast eternity.
On the day that he was appointed to meet his Maker, only twenty minutes before being led to the Catskill jail’s rigged-up gallows, Wood made a long and rambling statement, the essence of which was that yes, he shot the peddler, but he didn’t know what he was doing or why, and so on. Then he attacked the integrity of his attorney, the officers who arrested him in New York, a reporter for the New York Herald, and one other: “A man from Saugerties has written some verses about me, and they have been published by the publishers of the Green[e] County Whig, and circulated over the country at sixpence apiece. I want to ask one question, and that is, if a man in my situation is not entitled to sympathy, rather than to be held up to ridicule and abused in that way? ... Those degraded, low, mean, miserable verses are not worthy of the respect of any man, and I am sorry that anyone claiming responsibility [by which he meant the editor of the Whig], should suffer his press to give to the public such verses, and shamefully abuse me.” Mr. Ward, the editor, concluded his story of the execution and the strange scenes preceding it with Wood “suspended by the neck until he was dead. His body hung fifteen minutes, when it was taken down, placed in the coffin, and conveyed in front of the jail, where the spectators might view it. The body was buried about 2 o’clock, in the village burial yard.”
The brutal detail is offered here because life was more short and brutish then, with death and retribution the stuff of everyday concourse, and consequently grist for ballads and folklore, too. Murder, disaster, tragedy, and sorrow were the stock in trade of The Saugerties Bard. Henry Backus was beginning to become well known as a folk balladist, an honored practitioner of the “people’s press” that links 17th century one-sheets and broadsides to 19th century penny dreadfuls and dime novels, on up to story songsters Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and Bob Dylan. Backus was perhaps a better social historian than he was a poet but he was a master of concision, able to tell a story that would go straight to the heart in a way that myriad columns in the newspaper could not.
While ballads have traditionally been about the proximity of love and death — the rose and the briar — The Saugerties Bard found his calling in the briar patch, perhaps because life had strewn few roses in his path. His existence, which commenced on February 4, 1798 in Coxsackie, has been festooned with so many garlands of whimsy if not outright fakery that it is difficult to separate the man from the myth. His death on May 20, 1861, followed by a pauper’s burial in Saugerties, is a tale so sad that it is a pity Backus himself could not have used it as a subject. In between those dates, he endured the death of his father in the War of 1812, became a schoolteacher, wed, had children, buried his wife and one of his children, became estranged from the others, spent some time in the Insane Asylum in Hudson (today that city’s public library), and more.
It is a life worth recounting in brief, but appealing as it may be, the romantic figure of this balladist — a combination of poet, moralist, entertainer, lunatic, and huckster — is less worthy of attention than the ballads themselves. We will have more to say about both the life and the work of The Saugerties Bard in next week’s column, especially as we follow his winding path south to New York City, where he composed some of his most notable work. In the latter half of the 1850s Backus composed ballads about famous murders (for example, the unfortunate Dr. Burdell and his scheming wife), riots (notably the July 4, 1857 fracas involving the Dead Rabbits, Plug Uglies, and Bowery Boys, brought to screen in Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York), and executions (those of the antisocial lad named Rodgers and my personal favorite, the “pirate” named Hicks). What follows is a listing of the ballads of plausible authorship by The Saugerties Bard as they have come into view in my research. (Some, notably “Uncle Sam’s Farm’ and “The Dying Californian,” have conventionally been assigned to other pens.) Full lyrics survive for most of them, as do MIDI versions of the tunes or — in a handful of cases — newly recorded versions, all of which I will be pleased to share with anyone who contacts me at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Corrections and additions are also most welcome.
SONGS OF THE SAUGERTIES BARD:
The Powder Mill Explosion at Saugerties, New York. 1847.
The Dying Californian. ca. 1850.
Uncle Sam’s Farm. ca. 1850. Air — Walk in de Parlor and Hear de Banjo Play.
Dunbar, the Murderer. 1851.
The Burning of the Henry Clay. 1852.
Explosion of Steamer Reindeer. On the Hudson at Malden, September 4th, 1852.
The Burning of the Reindeer, September 10th. 1852.
Whipoorwill, or American Night-bird: A Poem, 1852.
John Mitchel, Irish Patriot in Exile. ca. 1853-54. Air — Hail to the Chief.
The Murdered Pedlar, Catskill, 1854. Air — Burns' Farewell.
The Baptist Preacher or the Drowned Woman and Child, Kingston, May 1854. Air — The Rose Tree.
My Heart’s in Old ‘Sopus Wherever I Go. Kingston. June 1855.
"Catskill Mountain House Ballad" [actual title not known]. June 30, 1856.
Dr. Burdell, or the Bond Street Murder.Which Took Place Jan. 30, 1857, in the City of New York. Air — Burns' Farewell.
The Great Police Fight (Riot at City Hall), June 15, 1857. Air — Root Hog or Die.
Dead Rabbits’ Fight with the Bowery Boys. July 4, 1857. Air — Jordan.
The Murdered Policeman, Eugene Anderson, Who Was Shot by the Desperate Italian Burglar, Michael Cancemi, Cor. of Centre and Grand Streets, July 22, 1857. Air — Indian Hunter.
The Bellevue Baby Mrs. Cunningham’s Adopted. 1857. Air — Villikins [and His Dinah].
Mrs. Cunningham and the Baby. 1857. Air — Villikins and His Dinah.
The Cunningham Baby. Or The Heir from Over Jordan. 1857.
That Baby on the Half Shell. 1857.
Bradley & Rankin’s Prize Fight for $1000 a Side. At Point Abino, Canada, August 1, 1857. Air — Old Virginia’s Shore.
The Queen’s Telegraphic Message, and President Buchanan’s Reply., August 18, 1858. Hudson.
The Thirtieth Street Murder. A Horrible Tragedy. 1858. Air – Burns' Farewell.
Heart Rending Tragedy, or Song No. 2 on the 30th Street Murder. Oct. 26th, 1858. Air — Meeting of the Waters, or Indian Hunter.
Execution of Rodgers. 1858.
The Press Gang. 1860. Air — Tom Haliard.
Hicks the Pirate. March 1860. Air — The Rose Tree.
The American Flag. No date.
Warren’s Address. To the American Soldiers Before the Battle of Bunker Hill. No date. Air. — Bruce’s Address.
Pocahontas. No date.
Johnny Bull and Brother Jonathan. Air — Yankee Doodle. No date.
Four Germans Drown’d in Rondout Creek. No date.