Frederic Franklyn Van de Water.

Grey riders : the story of the New York state troopers online

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of all furnishings but two blankets on which the
couple slept, and into the fresher air of outdoors.

Then, deep in the newspaper parcel the woman

held, they found the voice of the Stamford ghost

-a wizened, dirty, six-week's old baby, with a

sharp-featured monkey's face and the least

possible flesh on its limbs.

From the pair who had trod back over the trail
of civilization for twenty thousand years, the
troopers, by continued questioning, managed to
obtain enough information to explain all possibly
explicable parts of the grisly case.

Both man and woman were degenerates-
throwbacks. They were natives of the region
and products of a long line of inbred ancestors.
The man had been jailed numerous times for

236 Grey Riders

various offenses. The woman had two husbands
living, beside the mate with whom they found
her. The baby had been born without any
medical aid whatever, in an old cabin on the
outskirts of Stamford.

Neighbors had threatened to report the
couple's neglect of the child to the authorities,
so the three had fled to the deep woods and had
taken up quarters in the cave. From there, they
had gone forth at night on forays; stealing, be-
side food, property to the value of about $500
which was recovered stored in the cabin from
which they had fled.

The man was sent to jail, the woman to a house
of refuge, and the ghost that had wailed nightly
about Stamford wept no more.

The life of the twentieth century, flowing like
a great tide over the enlightened Commonwealth
of New York, fashions in its currents strange
eddies and backwaters. Into these drift bits of
human flotsam and jetsam, men and women who
are unable or unwilling to play their roles in the
exacting drama of modern life.

Hermits withdraw to lonely valleys or hills and
there rear cabins, living in unimaginable squalor
and not infrequently making petty forays on
nearby villages for the necessities of life. Else-

The Ghost Catchers 237

where communities, estranged by some shift in
the tide of civilization, robbed of all initiative
by degeneracy, slowly rot away, a menace to
more advanced neighboring villages.

There are spots in the Catskills, the hills of Co-
lumbia County , the Adirondacks, where natives of
the sovereign State of New York dwell in a condi-
tion of savagery. Compared to these festering,
forgotten hamlets, the mountaineer settlements
of the Blue Ridge are advanced communities.

The country folk who tolerate the insane, who
submit to the depredations of the hermit until
he becomes too bold, bear with the degenerates of
Schoharie and the "bushwhackers" of Columbia
County with the same spirit of "live and let

Uneducated, without religion or even the most
elementary social traditions, these folk have en-
dured in the heart of one of the foremost States
in the Union for generations, godless and also
lawless until the troopers came.

To-day, the passing of these backwaters is at
hand. Horsemen in grey have ridden into the
foul settlements and have taken from reeking
cabins desperadoes, thieves, murderers who long
have regarded themselves immune from the law
of the folk of the lowlands. For the first time in

238 Grey Riders

generations, the State has reached out an arm
and come into actual contact with the native born
aliens who have flourished within her borders.

Where the criminal law has placed its hand, it
is not unreasonable to hope that the less stern
functions of the State will follow through. The
grey riders have disclosed the degeneracy that
has lain hidden for unnumbered years in the
heart of New York. To the sallow pale-eyed
mountaineers they have in the four years of their
existence taught the lesson that laws were not
made to be broken with impunity.

They have taught the dwellers in squalid Cat-
skill mountain hamlets that incest is not the
natural state of men and women. They have
ridden far into the fastnesses of the hills and
brought down to the lowlands young men who
had refused to register for the draft because they
were not "goin' to fight to free no niggers."
They have tracked down criminals who never
before had realized that lawbreaking could be
followed with retribution.

They are opening up the degenerate hamlets of
the State. All that police officers can do toward
that end, they are doing. It is now for the State
itself to follow the trail they have cut to the
feeble little plague spots that mar its civilization.



'THEY'LL hear you on the trail," he predicted,
'but you'll never hear them. They'll see you,
too, but you'll not know it. Then they'll run
into their cabins and bar the doors. They're
frightened of people. They're frightened of me
and I've known 'em for years. They'll be scared
stiff of you troopers."

From another room he brought a half-bushel
basket. It resembled in shape those rickety
containers in which the corner grocer heaps
potatoes. In texture and workmanship it was
as superior to these as is a carpet of Ispahan to
the rag rug of a New England farmhouse.

It was woven of brown weathered strips,
ribbon-thin and a half inch wide, cut with
strange skill from the heart of a white oak. So
tight was the weave that when you held the bas-
ket up to the sun, and looked into the flaring
mouth, no ray of light filtered through. This was


240 Grey Riders

not the product of slip-shod factory methods.
The man who had made it had evidently loved
his work. There was perfect craftsmanship
here, from the ingeniously contrived base to the
rim, bound delicately with smaller withes.

"That's the sort of work they do," our host

"It will hold water," he added, after we had
inspected it. Then, reading the incredulity in
the sergeant's face, he went to the pump and
proved it. This hand-made fabric of oak strips
was not only a basket but a bucket as well.

"They make the best baskets in the world,"
our host asserted and probably was correct.

"But you'll never get within a hundred yards
of any of them, ' he predicted, but in this he

For by grace of the uniforms we wore and the
favor of the Goddess of Luck who relented after
misleading us for hours on the hill trails, we
found the group of tumble-down cabins that is
the city of the Frightened People and spoke to
their inhabitants, face to face.

For many years people of the lowlands say
two centuries or more they have lived in the
heart of the hills, slipping with each generation
a little farther from man-made law; a little nearer

The Frightened People 241

those elemental statutes framed by cold and
hunger and the mating cry.

They have no religion as the foxes and squir-
rels have none. What statutes and traditions
they brought with them out of the unknown
land from which they hailed died of age and
disuse, long ago. Birth and mating and death
come to them as they come to the furred and
feathered wild creatures of these hills. They
keep no livestock, no poultry, and their efforts
at agriculture are limited to draggled little
patches of corn and potatoes, which live or
wither as rain and insects see fit.

Thus have they lived, for perhaps ten gener-
ations, shrinking in fright from outside contact,
untouched by the swelling tide of civilization.
They dwell, these feeble frightened folk, in the
hills not of the Virginia or Carolina hinterlands
-but of Columbia County in the enlightened
State of New York which yearly sends its thou-
sands of dollars to aid the mountaineers of the
Blue Ridge and forgets the Frightened People of
the range that rises about Lake Charlotte.

Ten miles, as the crow flies, from the flourish-
ing city of Hudson; a short day's ride, as the
automobile counts time, from the greatest city
of the western world; an hour's walk from the


242 Grey Riders

summer colony that clings to the shore of the
little lake, men and women are mating, bearing
offspring, and dying without knowledge of the
name of God; ignorant of the alphabet; never
having seen a railroad train or a modern highway.

Fear of the outlander, strong as animals'
terror of fire and dating from no one knows what
forgotten period in their history, keeps them
away from the civilization which now washes the
bases of the hills in which they live.

The folk of West Taghkanic and Glencoe
Mills, the nearest lowland villages, look upon the
Frightened People with the laissezfaire attitude
so common to country folk. They exist. There
they are. That's all there is to it. Taxes are
heavy enough now without thinking up new
ways to spend the county's money.

The fear that has driven the hill folk to shun
the stranger has also kept them from such
flagrant violations of the lowlander's law as
might have brought them, willy nilly, into
contact with the outside world.

" Steal? " the villager snorts when you ask him.
"Shucks, no! They ain't got spunk enough.
They mind their own business and they'll thank
you to mind yours."

So they do, with passionate fervor. Yet had

The Frightened People 243

it not been for a charge of theft laid against them
by the folk of West Taghkanic, the Frightened
People might have remained, unheard-of, in
their squalid huts until the end of the chapter.
It was this charge and the investigation of it by
the New York State Troopers that established
the slender liaison now existing between them
and the world that most of us know.

In 1919 several summer cottages on the shore
of Lake Charlotte were robbed. West Tagh-
kanic, when apprised of the foray, telephoned for
the troopers. W r hen Corporal now First Ser-
geant R. A. Kelly and Trooper now Corporal
-H. R. Snyder rode into the village, they found
that the case had been solved for them by the
amateur detectives at the grocery store. The
"bushwhackers" were the culprits, the troopers
were informed. All they had to do now, was ride
up into the hills and arrest them.

Who were the bushwhackers? Oh, they were
that queer gang that lived back in the moun-
tains. No one knew why they were called
that. Such had always been their name to the

Did these people steal much? Well, perhaps
not. But they were queer and there wasn't any
question that they had departed from their ways

244 Grey Riders

of timid rectitude this time and had pillaged the
cottages. West Taghkanic was certain of that,
and two young men of the village were most
vociferous in reiterating the charges against the
Frightened People.

Corporal Kelly and Trooper Snyder promised
to investigate. For the first time in two hundred
years, horsemen rode up to the doors of the hill
cabins, frightening the sallow, bedraggled occu-
pants therein out of their feeble wits. The
riders were much astonished, a little sickened, at
what they found there. They asked questions,
few of which were answered. They made notes
and embodied them in a report they sent later to
headquarters. Then they rode back to West
Taghkanic with the case still unsolved.

On their way to the stronghold of the Fright-
ened People, they had stopped at the plundered
cottages on Lake Charlotte. They had listened
to the lists of articles stolen, recited by the
victims of the foray. They had inspected the
broken doors, the empty salmon tins and ale
bottles that told of the meal the robbers had
enjoyed. And Corporal Kelly, after noting all
this, had picked something from the floor of one
of the cabins and dropped it without comment
into the pocket of his riding breeches.


* __

Hunting Freight Thieves

Protecting the Highways; Weighing a Truck Believed to be Overweight

The Frightened People -45

Later, he showed it to Snyder. It was a wad
of chewing gum, hardened by exposure. In it
were clear incisions of someone's upper and lower
front teeth. There was doubt in the troopers'
minds whether the Frightened People had
advanced on the road of progress as far as the
chewing-gum stage.

Back to West Taghkanic the riders went and
reported progress. There was audible comment
on their ability as policemen. The case was
solved already. Why didn't they arrest the
bushwhackers? Loudest and most insistent in
the making of such queries were the t\vo young
men already mentioned.

Corporal Kelly went shopping. Trooper
Snyder went sleuthing. Corporal Kelly re-
turned from his mission with some plaster of
Paris and a lump of beeswax. Trooper Snyder
came back from his, somewhat ruffled as a man
will be who has been laughed at over much. He
had been making inquiries as to the record of the
two insistent accusers of the Frightened People,
and had received in return some scorn, consider-
able jeering, and a little information; all of the
latter favorable to the pair in question.

Together, Kelly and Snyder mixed the plaster
of Paris with water. They filled the indentations

246 Grey Riders

in the gum with the paste and when it had hard-
ened found they had fairly accurate casts of
someone's upper and lower incisors. Then they
went to the two chief accusers of the hill folk
and told the pair they wanted to talk to them.

They talked for a long time. They watched
the air of injured innocence turn to indignation
and then to downright defiance. Eventually
under the continued strain of questioning, the
nerve of one of the pair broke. He began to
cry but continued to insist that he was guiltless.
The other clung to his bravado. He laughed
at the troopers. He jeered at their questions.
He insisted that they had nothing on him and
never would have. The one who wept now lifted
up his voice to announce that he would do any-
thing in the world to convince these cruelly
suspicious men in grey that he had had nothing
to do with the Lake Charlotte robberies.

Kelly wheeled on him suddenly at his words
and thrust forward a lump of beeswax.

"Bite it ! " he commanded and the other obeyed
before he realized.

Then Snyder and Kelly mixed more plaster
of Paris explaining meanwhile what they were
doing and why they were doing it. The bravado
oozed out of the blustering youth like wind out

The Frightened People 247

of a toy balloon. The tears of the other were
suddenly dried.

They sat, silent and pale, while the cast made
from the incisions in the wax was compared with
the earlier one obtained from the gum. They
were identical.

Eventually, the lately defiant young man

"All right," he conceded, "you've got us.
We confess. Now we'll show you where we hid
the stuff."

In a barn, fifteen miles away, Kelly and
Snyder found the stolen property. They took it
and their prisoners before a Justice of the Peace,
charging the captives with indiscreet gum chew-
ing and other offenses.

Such was the first contact of the troopers with
the Frightened People. The report that the
patrol sent to headquarters made no furore.
There are too many such backwaters of civili-
zation in New York for the men of the service to
get excited over one of them. They themselves
are too few to attempt to reform and enlighten
people whom the other departments of the State
government have neglected entirely.

Yet since then, they have done what they
could. Several times a year now, the grey

248 Grey Riders

riders penetrate into the hills and preach to the
Frightened Folk the necessity of sending their
children to school.

Sometimes the hillmen obey, when the snow
does not lie too heavy on the trails. But the
methods for teaching the young, prescribed by
the Department of Education, were not designed
to bring back into the fold the children of folk
out of touch with all civilization for a century or
more; who in addition have no desire to return.
You might as well send fox cubs to kindergarten.

Yet each fall, now, a patrol rides through to
maintain the liaison they have established with
the Frightened People and to inform them, if
they can catch them, of the advantages of edu-
cation. It was the privilege of the writer to ride
on such an errand, authorized by Captain E. F.
Tobey of Troop A, and shepherded by Sergeant
J. R. Lockman, as patient and considerate a
gentleman as ever wore spurs*

Apart from these visits of the troopers, the folk
of the rest of the State have few dealings with
the "bushwhackers." Occasionally, one of the
hillmen ventures down to the general store in
West Taghkanic, there to trade the burden of
baskets he carries for provisions and clothing.
The folk of the Columbia County hinterland

The Frightened People 249

have far less native resource than the mountain-
eers of the Blue Ridge. They weave no home-
spun. They do not even brew illicit liquor. A
little hunting with ancient muskets, some trap-
ping and fishing, the harvesting of their meager
garden patches, and the weaving of perfect bas-
kets are their only gainful activities.

The process of shopping is long and ceremo-
nious. The storekeeper takes the baskets and
announces that he will give two dollars for the
lot. The hillinan insists that the money be
handed over. Then he returns it to the store-
keeper and demands salt pork. He will not,
under any circumstances, make known the entire
list of his wants at once and have it filled, as far
as his money will go. After each purchase, he
demands the change, looks at it wisely though
there is doubt whether he can count it and then
after some hesitation orders another article.
When the last coin has been spent, he slings
the resultant bundle on his back and the village
has seen the last of him until these provisions
run out.

He and his sallow brothers and sisters of the
woods have no more idea whence their stock
came originally than has the negro who mows
your lawn. One theory is that it was a part of

250 Grey Riders

the wave of pioneers that swept west across the
New England border two centuries or more ago.
Others say that the original forefathers of the
Frightened People were folk of ill repute who left
Connecticut when it became too hot for them
and hid in the New York hills.

The latter theory accounts for their inherited
fear of the outlander. Only two facts are fairly
certain concerning their origin. They were few
to begin with, for there are only two surnames
in the clan Proper and Hotaling. If the
evidence of complexion and feature goes for
anything, they have kept the white strain

"The flu wiped out about half of them a couple
of years back," the sergeant remarked.

We had left our horses stabled at the Lake
Charlotte Hotel, for the going was rough for
mounted men, and were clambering up through a
brush-choked gully, following a trail that was
little more than a game run.

"They died like flies," the sergeant added.
"They buried their dead sometimes. Other-
wise well, there were two cabins, each with a
family. The flu got the father in one and the
wife in the other. So the survivors just com-
bined forces. They do that.

The Frightened People 251

"But that isn't all of it. They took the dear
departed and stacked them up in the shed out-
side the cabin just rolled them up in blankets
and left them there. There they stayed, all
through the honeymoon, and then some. They'd
have been there yet if a hunter hadn't passed
and found them which wasn't much of a job.
The poorinaster of West Taghkanic came up
with a couple of men and buried them."

The trail climbed to a knoll overlooking the
lake. There the gaunt ruin of a cabin stared at
us with empty windows.

'They lived here once," Lockman explained,

'but when people began to come to the lake in

summer, they took to the deep woods. They

can't stand looking at strangers, even a mile


Past the crumbling shanty, the trail ran up to
meet the virgin growth of beech and oak, gold
and crimson in their October foliage. Several
times it forked, and at length the branch we
followed ran out entirely.

We backtracked and tramped another fork
until it vanished in the undergrowth. The hills
were laced with little blind paths, running in and
out of ravines, between bowlders, twisting and
branching endlessly. These were the highways

252 Grey Riders

of the Frightened People, used for mysterious
ends of their own.

At length, when breath and patience were
growing uncomfortably short, and the pessimis-
tic predictions of the proprietor of the hotel had
begun to assume all the weight and veracity of
the decalogue, Luck relented.

Above the speech of the breeze in the leaves
and our own heavy breathing, w r e heard the
voices of children. We headed toward them,
cautiously as possible, over the brittle leaves
underfoot. At length they heard us and their
voices were cut off as quickly as though the
needle had been lifted from a phonograph record.
But we had been going up-wind and w r ere close to
them. We came out on another trail and met
the Frightened People, face to face.

They were frightened. Five children and two
women, one little more than a child, though two
babies clung to her, huddled together and stared
at us, as deer do before they wheel to run. The
arms of the women and older children were filled
with the dead wood they had been gathering.

Their clothing was ragged and dirty past all
identification. Lank hair streamed over sallow
faces that bore no evidence of even a remote
acquaintance with soap. The eyes that watched

The Frightened People 253

us were not humanly curious. They held the
blank terror of wild things.

"It's all right!" the sergeant called. "We're
State Troopers. You know us."

But llioy cowered and shrank away as we
approached. The old woman grimaced, mon-
key-like. We were in her presence probably an
hour altogether. In that time she never said a
word to us; only glared at us malevolently. The
young girl held her children close to her and
answered our questions mainly by nods. The
eldest boy, a lad of eleven, grinned at us from
beneath the ruin of a derby hat which he wore
pulled well down over his ears. His name w r as

Gently, the sergeant explained our mission.
They continued to stare.

The young mother at length told us her name.
She spoke with a queer blur, a thickening of
speech, that we found to be characteristic of the
entire tribe. Her maiden name, she said, had
been the same. She denied that she had married
her cousin. She did not know the ages of her
children but said her father did.

The older woman tossed her head, muttered
something, and started off down the trail. She
had seen my camera. Behind her, the flock

254 Grey Riders

trailed along like geese. When we made to
follow, the beldame snarled at us.

For fifteen minutes they traveled as swiftly
as the smallest toddler could walk. Abie of the
derby brought up the rear of the procession,
tripping persistently over the armful of wood he

Eventually, the trees thinned out and through
them we saw the colony, set in a dip between the
hills. Crumbling chimneys perched drunkenly
on sagging ridgepoles amid rotting shingles.
Numberless seasons had stained the cabins the
hue of the rock ledges and the tree boles until
they seemed a part of the wilderness itself. A
few of the huts were of two stories. Ladders, not
stairs, were used to reach the upper floors. The
best of the houses, toward which the procession
was hastening, had window panes. In the
others, rags or paper had been stuffed into the

The vindictive old woman hustled her flock
into the cabin, holding the door open just enough
to let them squeeze through. Then, as the ser-
geant tried to follow, she slipped in herself and
slammed the portal in his face. Entirely un-
ruffled, he set his shoulder against it and pushed
it open, before she could bolt it.

The Frightened People 255

There was an ancient stove, beside which Abie,
the derby crowned, was piling his sticks. There
was also a rickety double bed covered with an
old red blanket, a workbench, and one senile
chair. These were the chief furnishings of a
chamber not larger than the average city flat
living-room. The air was filled with the pungent
reek of dust and neglect that seems always to
accompany abject poverty.

At the workbench sat "Pap," patriarch of his
clan and headman of the settlement in so far as it
was he who generally packed the baskets down
to the West Taghkanic store and traded them for
supplies. Long withes of white oak were coiled
like wire about his feet. Between his knees, he
held the beginnings of a basket; the uprights
flaring out from the plaited bottom like petals
of a gigantic sunflower.

He was blond to the verge of albinism, with the
face of a feeble baboon. His faded blue eyes
peered up beneath sparse brows and, meeting
yours, flickered down again. He was stunted

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Online LibraryFrederic Franklyn Van de WaterGrey riders : the story of the New York state troopers → online text (page 12 of 18)