Yesterday's Magazette

6 – County Home

Murder At The County Home

By William Easton

The poor farm, or county home as it was known in my town, was an inheritance from England. There, as described by Charles Dickens, it was commonplace to believe that it was criminal to be poor and unable to support oneself.

New York’s Poor Law, passed in 1824, provided that the following unfortunate folks were subject to confinement in a county poor farm: Paupers, Disorderly Persons and Child Beggars. That certainly sounds like “Oliver Twist” and Dickens own youthful experiences. While debtors and the mentally ill were not listed, a mid 19th Century report from my county included some of both. The residents were fed and housed, but expected to perform such work as they were able, raising vegetables and livestock. They were supervised and controlled by an appointed caretaker. Many such homes were self-sustaining with the farm products providing food for residents and staff. The overseer had the task of monitoring this motley population, so troubles were common.

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The murder referred to in the title took place about 1940 at the county home located just outside my village, the county seat. The image shows the  building as I recall it, an impressive stone two story edifice with a basement for “culinary purposes.” Since the community is identified, I have changed the name of the culprit to protect any remaining family members.

The home was located on a paved road just outside the village, beyond the last residence to which I had delivered papers. According to newspaper accounts that I have been able to glean from the Internet, the Home Superintendent informed police that two residents had been fighting, culminating when one, whom I shall call Lansing, pushed the other through an upstairs window, causing death.The culprit was convicted of Manslaughter 2nd Degree and sentenced to New York State prison at Attica. I did not discover the name of the victim or length of the killer’s sentence.

All I know is that I observed him walking the streets of my town in the late 1940s. My newspaper research showed that he had previously been convicted of Forgery, apparently based on illegally obtaining funds from local businessmen. Therefore, he had probably spent time at Attica before residing at the county home.

When I saw this middle-aged, lean, tanned man walking around downtown near its single traffic light, my curiosity prompted me to ask my dad about him. Who was this man? My dad returned from military service at the end of 1945, so I assume this would have been in 1946 or 1947, when I was about ten years old. Most men drove cars, youths rode bicycles, and no one just walked about without purpose. My dad did have some good stories, although I was disappointed that he hadn’t shot any German POWs while guarding them. He simply answered me that Lansing had killed a man and had spent time in prison. He assumed that he was unemployable for that reason and thus would have neither driver’s license nor car.

Lansing came from a prominent local family. Again my research revealed that his father, whose name he bore disgracefully, had been a partner of my great-grandfather and a cousin in various businesses. His father had been Commander of the GAR Post. The son was of draft age for World War I and his name appears on an eligibility list. I could not find any place of employment and wonder whether his earlier conviction was at the expense of any of his father’s partners.

Those weekly papers, mostly full of social comings and goings, did note that Lansing had been seen in his regular village meanderings. Worthy of reporting was when he had hiked 100 times into town. Apparently, he occupied his time at the county home by painting because the press reported that his hunting scene was being displayed in the local hardware store window.

I learned that he died about 1953. But of more significance to me was the earlier obituary of his widowed mother, which identified as survivors, a daughter, a son, Lansing, and a cousin, Anna E. Crawford. Cousin Nan, as we called her, was a first cousin of my grandfather. I don’t remember my dad confiding that family skeleton information to this inquisitive ten year old. But I can now say that not only did I grow up on a street named for the family of a killer, I was actually related to one. I wonder if my Internet research will uncover any more family secrets.

I don’t recall visiting the county home, since I never knew any residents and it certainly wasn’t on a school field trip. With the passage of the national society program and improved state and local welfare benefits, the need lessened and these institutions were phased out in the 1950s.

Vol. 39 – Copyright © Yesterday’s Magazette – 2012

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