Accidental death at the Amsterdam Armory in 1898

Members of the 46th Separate Company of the National Guard were preparing to depart for the Spanish

Members of the 46th Separate Company of the National Guard were preparing to depart for the Spanish American War on Sunday May 1, 1898, at Amsterdam’s 4-year-old Armory on the city’s South Side.

A concert was in progress and Shaw’s City Orchestra was performing “My Country Tis of Thee” for a crowd of over 2,000.

At that moment Pvt. Calvin B. Van O’Linda, who had enlisted the previous Thursday, was showing his equipment in the soldiers’ locker room to Anabelle Turner. Two friends, Wilbur Jeralemon and George S. DeGraff, entered the room.

Jeralemon, 16, wanted to see the revolver Van O’Linda had purchased the night before. The soldier found it in his hip pocket and handed it to Jeralemon.

As he did so, Van O’Linda said, “Look out! It’s loaded.” No sooner were the words uttered, according to a Recorder newspaper account, when Jeralemon accidentally pressed the trigger and a .38-caliber bullet entered DeGraff’s right jaw bone.

Van O’Linda, who had been studying medicine on Long Island, held DeGraff and applied a handkerchief to the victim’s mouth to try to stop the flow of blood. DeGraff staggered and fell face down. A Dr. Rulison was speedily summoned but DeGraff died a minute after the physician’s arrival.

The sound of the gunshot was so muffled in the locker room that it was “scarcely discerned” in the armory hall where the concert was taking place. The orchestra finished playing “My Country Tis of Thee” and then played “Auld Lang Syne.”

National Guard Capt. Vunk wanted to avoid panic and kept the news of the death from spreading through the crowded building. He placed a guard at the locker room door and the audience was asked to leave the building when “Auld Lang Syne” concluded.

The newspaper wrote: “While many knew that some accident had occurred, few were aware that the result had been so speedily fatal.”

The body of the young victim was moved to the city morgue and about midnight was taken to the home of his aunt, Elizabeth DeGraff on Grove Street, where he had been residing. Miss DeGraff apparently had taken care of her nephew since he was an infant.

After the shooting, Jeralemon was “stupefied,” wandered about the room and fainted. Van O’Linda was overcome as well. The doctor gave Van O’Linda morphine but it was midnight before he “revived from his comatose state.”

An autopsy of the victim found the bullet drove parts of the jaw bone to the spinal cord and also perforated the jugular vein. The newspaper reported, “Death resulted from hemorrhage, which filled the lungs immediately, and had this been otherwise, the injury to the spine would have resulted in death within a few weeks.”

The day after the accidental shooting, what was now known as Company H of the New York National Guard departed from Amsterdam for the war after a rousing sendoff. The brief war with Spain ended before the local soldiers could get to the battlefields in Cuba. In a sense, though, one young Amsterdamian had lost his life because of accidental friendly fire.

The victim was attending Amsterdam High School. His father, Dr. E.E. DeGraff, was a dentist with a practice at 9 E. 14th St. in New York City. Young DeGraff had been planning to study dentistry and go into practice with his father.

The newspaper wrote, “He was greatly beloved by his schoolmates at the high school and was making every effort to complete his education at that institution this year with fitting honors.” He was buried at Green Hill Cemetery.

Bob Cudmore is a freelance columnist. Opinions expressed in his column are his own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Anyone with a suggestion for a Focus on History topic may contact him at 346-6657 or [email protected]

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