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9. Shadow Play

The Boyd and Parker ambush of 1779, a brutal retaliation against the exterminationist Clinton-Sullivan Campaign, casts a long shadow across Western New York. Though its events were ferociously real, they have been reenacted many times since through exhumations, public ceremonies, parades, re-burials, and staged pageants—most recently at a 225th anniversary event in Groveland, NY. What’s their attraction, the basis for identification? This map proposes that alongside, or rather underneath, the calm inexorability of Empire State history lies a more visceral relation to its bloodier events. Five notorious incidents highlighted here sit precariously on the divide between conscious reality and unconscious fantasy. The episodes are, at a minimum, the work of teenage frauds but also can be read as bloody aftershocks down through the years of early colonization. Their ambiguity remains a source of fascination that sometimes is enacted as performance—everything from public pageants involving thousands of actors, to the private chills of individual imagination. 

Boyd/Parker Ambush: In the summer of 1779, the Sullivan Campaign was launched. The campaign was meant to drive out the Seneca people from Western New York so that settlers could take the land for themselves. After several Seneca raids, George Washington sent General John Sullivan with nearly 3,500 men into Seneca villages to destroy their homes, crops, and food stored for winter. In order to defend the area, the Iroquois Chief Joseph Brant formed an alliance with British Loyalist Colonel John Butler. They had approximately 800 men.

By September, Sullivan and his men had camped in Coneseus. On the night of September 12, Sullivan sent Lt. Thomas Boyd, Sgt. Michael Parker, and a team of 22 other men in search of a nearby Seneca village. They left the same night and passed Brant and Butler's ambush party without either group knowing the other.

On the scouting group's way back to report to Sullivan, they spotted five Seneca who fled. Boyd's guide urged him not to follow, knowing that this was a trap, but Boyd ignored the warning. The five native Americans led them behind Seneca lines, where they were quickly surrounded and outnumbered. Fifteen of Boyd's men were killed, eight escaped, and Boyd and Parker were taken captive.

The two were taken to Little Beard's Town, now Cuylerville, NY, where they were questioned by Chief Brant. When he left, Seneca chief Little Beard tortured and killed the men. Boyd was evicerated, tied to a tree by his own intestines, and forced to run around the tree until he died. They were buried near the tree. The tree still stands in a park meant to commemorate the brutal display of torture.

In 1841, after grave robbers tried to raid Boyd and Parker's resting place, a grand procession to exhume and rebury the two men was made from Cuylerville to Mount Hope Cemetery in Rochester, NY. The procession consisted of five military companies and several invited guests. The place where the men were tortured went largely ignored until 1897, when William Pryor Letchworth decided to approach the Livingston County Historical Society to see about purchasing the property. After thirty years, and after Letchworth's death, the "Boyd and Parker Wayside Shrine" was erected and a ceremony was held to honor the event. In 1970, the name was changed to "Boyd and Parker Memorial Park."

Twice-Cain John Jemison - The Witch of Squawkie Hill: John Jemison, son of "The White Woman of the Genesee," Mary Jemison, earned his "Twice-Cain" title when he killed two of his brothers, both deaths the result of drunken brawls.

Despite his apparent violent streak, John gained a reputation as a mystic healer. He created many "potions," which were likely holistic cures for common ailments, by combining herbs from his herb garden. Mary Jemison was also suspected of being a witch, but neither were ever accused.

Part of John's herb garden still exists, coincidentally, near a Social Services building in Mount Morris, NY. Squawkie Hill remains a popular destination for witchy types who believe John Jemison’s spirit remains there. They hold séances and other ceremonies in his honor.

Mary Jemison was never able to escape the memories of her turbulent life. She told her story again and again, finally relaying it to James Seaver so that he could write Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison in 1824. Her story has also been reimagined in fiction for adults and children, serving as a form of entertainment for many.

Sam Patch's Last Leap: Sam Patch began leaping from high places when he was a child mill laborer in Rhode Island. By his young-adulthood, he was challenging himself to ever-higher jumps. In the fall of 1829, Patch successfully jumped into the Niagara river from a spot near the base of Niagara Falls. This jump gained him national fame, but Sam set his sights even higher.

Sam Patch travelled to Rochester, NY with his pet bear cub. He chose the 99-foot High Falls of the Genesee river for his next jump. The event was scheduled for November 6, 1829. In front of a crows of nearly 7,000, he went out on a rock lege over the falls. He first threw his pet bear cub over the ledge and when the cub managed to swim to safety, Sam followed with similar success.

Because this first jump into the Genesee didn't yield enough money, Sam decided to raise the stakes even higher for his next jump on November 13, 1829. He chose the same spot, but this time built a 25-foot platform on top of the rock ledge. When he jumped this time, though, he did not achieve his usual feet-first entry into the water. Witnesses reported hearing a loud crack as Sam hit the water and he never surfaced.

Several people believed rumors that Sam had planned his disappearance and that he was hiding out in a cave at the base of the falls, hoping that his fall was part of the perfomance. These rumors  stopped when Sam's body was found in the ice in Charlotte early in the following spring. He was buried in a Charlotte cemetery, near where his body was found. A plank of wood (now gone) placed over his burial site read, "Sam Patch - Such is Fame."

The Fox Sisters - Teen Spiritualists: In 1848, the two younger Fox sisters, Margaret and Katherine, were living in their family home in Hydesville, NY. Older sister Leah was married and living in Rochester with her husband. A few months after moving into the home, Margaret and Katherine began reporting unexplained sounds in the house that they described as "rappings." After several months, the girls, fed up with the noises, challenged the "spirit" to reveal itself. According to their reports, it did. Soon, neighbors were called in to witness the phenomenon. The girls eventually were able to work out a system with the "spirit" where different knocks indicated different letters of the alphabet. The spirit reportedly told the girls that it had been murdered in the house and that its skeleton was buried in the cellar.

When a few bone fragments were actually found buried in the basement, the girls rise to fame began. In the excitement, the two younger Fox sisters were sent to live with their older sister in Rochester, NY. The "rappings" followed them. When Issac and Amy Post invited the girls to their home, Spiritualism was born. The sisters began to perform seances in 1850 and quickly became household names. Their seances attracted notable people like William Cullen Bryant, James Fenimore Cooper, and Sojourner Truth along with a considerable amount of wealth.

There were skeptics, however, of the girls' talent. Several of them tried to debunk the young mediums and their "rappings." They assumed that the girls were cracking their joints in order to create the sounds, but since the girls could not and would not submit to a bodily search, they were allowed to continue their performances. By 1880, though, the girls admitted that they were frauds and always had been. The original "rappings" heard in their Hydesville home were the product of an apple tied to a string being repeatedly bounced on the floor.

For the professional seances, though, the girls used more advanced props. They engineered a table with a mechanism inside that would create the "rappings" at the touch of a button. This table is on display at the Rochester Historical Society. The girls, though they were frauds, were able to make their own money and had successfully made their voices heard at a time when women's freedom was significantly limited.

Francis Tumblety - The Rochester Ripper: Born in Ireland, Francis Tumblety emigrated to Rochester with his family when he was only a few years old. By age 17, he had left home and was working as a cleaner in a hospital. As far as any research suggests, this was his only experience working in a hospital.

He traveled around the United States and Canada, claiming to be a great physician, but was commonly perceived as a quack. He made frequent trips through Europe, Canada and the United States. Often, he would set up shop long enough to gain a few patients, but was forced to move after patients lost faith in him and business trickled to a stop. There is an arrest record for him in November of 1888 in London, thereby placing him in London at the time of the Jack the Ripper murders. After his arrest, he fled to France and then came back to the United States.

Tumblety was a known misogynist. He seemed to revile all women, but he hated prostitutes in particular. At an all-male dinner party in Washington, D.C., Tumlblety proudly displayed his collection of women's organs kept in glass jars which he said came from "every class of woman."