Cudmore: Sad stories from Johnstown history

PHOTOGRAPHER:

Elizabeth Woodley, born in Bennington, Vermont, in 1799, was hanged on the Fulton County gallows in Johnstown in 1846. Her parents had died when she was a child.

The late Joan Loveday, Fulton County Historical Society president, in 2008 said that both of Elizabeth’s husbands were “drunkards who were child and wife beaters and non-supporters, who made her and her children’s lives miserable.”

Elizabeth, her first husband and their four children, lived six years in Pennsylvania before moving to near Johnstown, New York. Her first husband’s name is not known.

Her first husband died apparently of stomach problems. Six months later she married John Van Valkenburgh in 1834.

Loveday said, “To remedy the abuse of this husband, Elizabeth laced John’s brandy with arsenic, which of course made him ill. Suspicions were raised and when Elizabeth heard she was wanted for questioning she was found hiding in the foundation of a Kingsboro home.

“She was escorted home for the night. She ran off again with the sheriff in hot pursuit and hid in the loft of a barn. Unfortunately, Elizabeth fell through the hay hole in the loft and broke her hip.”

When John died, Elizabeth was incarcerated in the Johnstown jail for almost a year. At her trial she was found guilty and sentenced to be hanged.
Many people, including 10 of the jurors who had convicted her, petitioned New York Gov. Silas Wright for clemency. Wright wrote he was moved by “her gender and poverty” but found no new evidence to halt the execution.

When Elizabeth signed her confession, she confessed to poisoning her first husband with arsenic as well. The poison was available to her as it was being used to kill rats in the house where she lived.

Since Elizabeth was unable to stand, the gallows had to be modified to hang her in a chair. The execution took place Jan. 24, 1846. Elizabeth is buried without a headstone in the Colonial Cemetery in Johnstown.

Loveday said, “Sympathy ran high for poor Elizabeth, who in 1845 would have had no rights to her children or possessions, had she left her husband. It is a sad story, but part of Johnstown’s history.”

The Fulton County Museum on Kingsboro Avenue in Gloversville has the original gallows used for hangings at the old Fulton County jail in its collection.
Loveday said the gallows is a large wooden beam with a hook on it, “When the Johnstown jail was renovated, I believe then Fulton County Historian Lou Decker brought the gallows to the museum.”

FLOODS IN JOHNSTOWN, N.Y. and Pa.

More than 2,000 people died on May 31, 1889, when the South Fork Dam collapsed at Lake Conemaugh, sending a wall of water and debris into Johnstown, Pennsylvania, already experiencing flooding from the Little Conemaugh and Stony Creek rivers.

Six weeks later, a flood struck Johnstown, New York along the Cayadutta Creek. After heavy rains in July 1889, the Cayadutta Creek raised 8 feet in 30 minutes and the creek banks were rapidly inundated as hundreds of people gathered along the creek and bridges to watch the flood.

Police tried to move sightseers from the water’s edge, but many people were dumped into the raging current. Five men died. Four dams and seven bridges were destroyed. Factories and skin mills along the creek were severely damaged.

The New York Times printed this account on July 11, 1889. “This city is slowly relieving itself of the terror which came down upon it with the flood yesterday, and … wonders at the strange coincidence of name and tragedy with that of the unhappy town in Pennsylvania.”

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