Lives of crime
Backcountry fastnesses—mountains, forests, canyons—have always been havens for those who take proper behavior with a (sometimes very large) grain of salt. Think the Wild Bunch (also known to moviegoers as the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang) or the Hatfields and McCoys. Closer to home, we have the likes of French Louie and Noah Rondeau, individualists who operated on the fringes of society and lived by their own code of conduct, although, by way of hometown defense, those two never killed anyone. Perhaps tipping our hats to an independent streak that goes back to Colonial times, we tend to make folk heroes out of these characters.
But places like the Adirondacks have also harbored more sinister individuals with little heroic dimension to their lives. In her new book Adirondack Outlaws: Bad Boys and Lawless Ladies, Niki Kourofsky shares the stories of a representative sample.
The first thing you notice about this collection of tales of ne’er-do-wells and their dastardly deeds is the typeface on the cover. It’s 1890s, right out of B-grade western movies, and it sets the mood perfectly for what’s to come. So do the gray visages of three stern-looking crooks, two frankly looking more scared than anything else, the other suave and self-assured behind a handlebar mustache that Oil Can Harry would covet.
Kourofsky, a senior editor at Adirondack Life magazine, sets the stage in her introduction, a fine, concise history of the region that morphs gently into comments on why many residents have taken a liberal view of laws (including relatively recent land-use regulations) imposed by outsiders. “Like many other Adirondackers whose roots go back a few generations, I come from a family of outlaws,” the Lyon Mountain native owns up.
“Most settlers didn’t worry too much over game laws when taking a deer meant feeding your family. And if setting up a still meant taking the edge off risking life and limb in a mine for barely enough to survive, the disapproval of the revenue man didn’t carry a lot of weight. But the outlaws on the following pages aren’t your garden-variety Adirondack scofflaws and scallywags—the majority of them weren’t even local.”
That established, we launch into sixteen stories of rumrunners, bank robbers (some of whom were champion vault demolishers), con men (and women), murderers, and fugitives who’ve spiced up the Adirondack scene since the late 1800s. Kourofsky is a good raconteur, able to bring suspense to these tales with lively language that sometimes subtly pokes fun at the idiotic mistakes her subjects were prone to make and at the flowery, often shamelessly biased lexicon the regional press employed to describe them and their exploits.
Most of these folks worked solo, but the Adirondacks were not immune to the presence of gangs.
Kourofsky describes the 1890s offenses of Hamilton County’s Windfall Gang, which comprised an extended family of chronic robbers and burglars whose collective name derived from their hangout in a storm-ravaged stretch of woods. Brazen as their crimes may have been, even more entertaining were their breakouts from the notoriously casual confines of the county jail, about which one New York City newspaper claimed that the punishment for misbehavior was denial of dessert.
The vocabulary tends to parody the gangster era. Words like caper, collar, gumshoe, heist, and slammer permeate the text. This can get tiresome, but no one said you have to read the book from cover to cover. It’s a good one to pick up from time to time and choose a random chapter.
One particularly interesting chapter’s name is drawn from the book’s subtitle: “Lawless Ladies.” We generally assume male when we hear the word criminal, but the fairer sex, as journalists of yore condescended to call them, were not immune to the temptation to break the law and, perhaps, its attendant adrenaline rush. Thus we are introduced to Lucy Johnson, a Raquette Falls hotelier who continued to serve trout after trout season ended; when asked what kind of fish it was, she said it tasted like trout but had no name. We also meet chronic burglar Florence Hilton; bootleggers “Wild Jess” Elliott of Beaver River and Anna Mayo, described as “a vaudeville ingénue”; and Saranac Lake trapper-turned-fur thief Harriett Riga.
Another woman is part of the cast in another appealing section, “Unsolved Mysteries.” Agnes Elliott (no relation to Wild Jess, apparently) was not a hard-core criminal, however. Plenty of funny business accompanied the investigation into the 1916 disappearance of a large sum of cash from a Lake George trolley car, and it turns out Elliott was a government agent who was trying to corral the guy suspected of doing the deed.
The book concludes with another unfinished tale, one that speaks much of a socioeconomic state of affairs that has been simmering in the Adirondacks for going on 150 years—the battle over land use, often between local residents and well-heeled outsiders. In 1903, conflict between Orrando Dexter, a prickly, rich, and rather odd city fellow, and local folks culminated in the murder of Dexter, who’d bought up and posted thousands of acres near St. Regis Falls in the 1890s. No one was ever convicted, though the word is that to this day people in the remote northern stretches of the Park know exactly who did it, and why.
Chambers of Commerce may not like this book. It doesn’t paint the Adirondacks as perpetual blue skies and friendly neighbors and fancy resorts. But it brings to life an undeniable reality of the region’s colorful history, whether or not we like to admit to it.