Scenes: Nyack – De Graff’s drug store, Old Gedney Street Lock-up
Date: Night of June 4, morning of June 5, 1891
Personae: John Harrington, stranger, Gorge Miller, Night Duty Officer, Robert Sippell, drug store clerk
Situation: A fire of unknown origin in the Gedney Street lock-up kills John Harrington, name then unknown
Mystery: Who was John Harrington who spent one day in Nyack? Why was he put in jail? Was the cell really unlocked? Why didn’t he escape? How did the fire start? Was no one on duty at the lock-up?
Result: Inquest, lawsuit, and a new Main St. lock-up, fire station and village hall (now The Hudson House restaurant) approved by voters.
Where was the Gedney Street Lockup?
The 1887 Sanborn Insurance map of Nyack clearly labels the location of the lock-up on Gedney Street just east of New Street (now Lydecker Street) next to the old shipyard lane. By 1887, the lane led to a coal shed that had replaced the earlier shipyard.
The exact age of the lock-up is unclear. The lock-up appears on the 1859 Dripps map of Nyack but it is unclear if it shown on the 1854 Leefe map. The 1884 Burleigh map includes a nice graphical view of the lock-up.
Officer Miller Walks His Beat, Meets Stranger
While walking his nightly beat, Officer George Miller must have been thinking about the new circus in town, the upcoming Cuban Giants versus the West Nyacks baseball game, and the new dairy parlor that just opened at the corner of Lydecker Street and N. Broadway. He walked in and out of the glare of Nyack’s electric arc streetlamps. Miller passed G. H. Hopper’s dry goods store with a sale on women’s summer umbrellas when he ran into a stranger of about 60 years who stopped him to talk. He had a lot of things to say, so much so that Miller wandered if he were drunk.
DeGraff’s Drugstore, South Broadway
At 10p, the stranger wandered into DeGraff’s drugstore on S. Broadway near Main Street that was still open. He was looking for something for an injured hand. The clerk, Robert Sippell gave him a salve at no cost, probably the newly arrived Buckley’s Amica Salve that promised to cure cuts, bruises, chilblains, and piles. The stranger was still talkative and pulled documents out of his pockets. The stranger waved army documents to back up his rambling stories. He said he had recently come from Bath, ME and that he was a Civil War veteran. He hit up Sippell and other customers for money to rent a room. Several gave him 10 cents and he left.
Stranger Reappears, Taken to the Gedney Street Lock-up
Officer Miller encountered the stranger again near DeBaun’s shoe store on Depew Plaza. South Nyack officers Crowley and Steele had the stranger firmly in control. Perhaps, he was hanging around the Nyack train station when the last train arrived at 11:34. He was still talkative, but not drunk Miller decided. Miller escorted the stranger to the Gedney Street lock-up and then to a cell to sleep in for the night. Officer Miller searched his pockets and found no money or matches. Miller did not lock the cell door.
Officer Miller was the first to see the fire and he rang the fire alarm around 3a. Fire bells rang out and train whistles sounded. The Mazeppa Fire Engine Company #2 must have been the first to arrive. Their station was just up Main Street from Gedney. The wooden structure was a mass of flames when they arrived. The firemen were too late to do much. The flames and the fire bells attracted a throng of onlookers.
As the building was reduced to warm ashes, the stranger’s burnt body was found and taken to the Zimmerman funeral parlor. The fire did not start in the jail cell, but the cause of the fire was just the first mystery. If the cell was unlocked why didn’t the stranger get out? Where was Officer Miller at the time? Who was this stranger and what was he doing in Nyack? How did he injure his hand? The death was a troubling tragedy and only Officer Miller to tell the story.
The Stranger Identified
On the afternoon of June 5, John Flende, assistant undertaker at Zimmerman’s, and a Nyack Evening Journal reporter examined the partially burned papers found in the stranger’s coat. The papers identified the stranger as John Harrington, a Civil War army and navy veteran with an address on Dekalb Avenue in Brooklyn.
Harrington Escaped an Earlier Tragic Fire
The irony is almost too much to accept, but Harrington lost his discharge papers, the ones he was reapplying for when he came to Nyack, in an earlier fire. Harrington stayed in Syracuse on a trip away from the Soldiers Home near Bath, ME. He might have been staying in the newly opened Leland Hotel. At six floors and 100 rooms, it was the largest hotel in central New York. A fatal fire broke out in October of 1890. Six people died. Harrington helped to put out the fire and in doing so he lost his discharge papers in the fire.
Harrington’s Civil War Service
John J. Harrington, from Brooklyn, NY, enlisted at age 23 on September 18, 1861, as a Sergeant in the newly formed New York 61st Infantry. The 61st saw much action during the Civil War. First stationed at Fort Monroe, VA, they then participated in McClellan’s ill-fated 1862 Peninsula Campaign.
The next year, the 61st Infantry saw action at the Second Battle of Bull Run, South Mountain, and Antietam, the bloodiest battle of the Civil War. At Antietam, the 61st outflanked the confederates at the famous “sunken road”, capturing 300 soldiers. Later, they participated in the Battle of Fredericksburg and the doomed charge up Mayre’s Heights.
Harrington may have also participated in the Battle of Chancellorsville from April 30-May 6, 1863. He was discharged 10 days later due to disability on May 16 at Fort Columbus on Governor’s Island in New York Harbor.
Harrington Enlists in the Navy
Within 75 days of his army discharge, Harrington enlisted in the US Navy on July 30, 1863, for one-year. He served on the USS North Carolina and one other steamship whose name was burned beyond recognition in the papers found on his body. One enigmatic section of the partly burned papers says something about Harrington’s mental state. He described a major event in an odd way.
Got wrecked and the soldiers got wet and went to pieces so destroyed them altogether” John Harrington
Harrington received his discharge on September 11, 1864, on the steamboat USS Princeton II, then serving as a receiving station in Philadelphia. The old Princeton I was notorious for having blown up in 1844 nearly killing President Tyler and killing the Secretary of State, Secretary of the Navy, and two senators who were aboard.
Coroner Kirkpatrick held an inquest on June 16, 1891. Office Miller repeated what he already told people. He added that he did not think Harrington was drunk. The jury returned a verdict of accidental death by fire, the origin of which is unknown.
Harrington’s Brother’s Lawsuit
John’s brother, T. L. Harrington, a plumber by trade, attended the inquest and talked up the idea of a lawsuit. The Nyack Evening Journal opined that it didn’t seem to them that there was grounds for a lawsuit. They stated that Harrington was a brave and honest man, but no one depended on him, no wife or child. He was a roving type, never staying anywhere for long and suffering many injuries. Therefore, his heirs should receive nothing.
T. L. Harrington stated that his brother had come to Brooklyn to replace his lost discharge papers. He left Brooklyn on Tuesday night, June 3, the day before the fire. He filed a lawsuit for $5,000 against the village for causing Harrington’s death.
The case was finally argued in Rockland County Supreme Court in May 1893. It pitted two Nyack legal titans against each other. Arthurs S. Tompkins, later NY State Supreme Court Justice, argued for the defendant, and Clarence Lexow, later an anticorruption crusader and NYS senator for the plaintiff. Tompkins repeated the local argument, that since Harrington had no dependents, damages need not be awarded. He called for an early dismissal of the case, citing several legal cases to support his thesis that a corporation or a municipality could not be sued for anything that happened to prisoners or occupants of poorhouses. His arguments won the day and case was dismissed.
A New Jail, a New Firehouse & a New Village Hall
The ashes of the lock-up were barely cold when villagers pressed for a new jail. The Rockland County Journal called the Gedney Street lock-up a disgrace. They wondered
A proposal put before voters in July requested an appropriation of $5,000 for a new building at 134 Main Street to house a new jail, a firehouse for the Jackson Hose Company # 3, and village administration offices. It passed 94 to 13. The fire company occupied the first floor, the village offices the second floor, and the jail occupied a brick extension on the back.
The jail had two cells and a locked antechamber. Made in one piece by John Kane, a metal worker located on Gedney Street, a team of horses and wagon transported the jail to the building site.
A Tragedy with a Silver Lining
The newly opened Nyack Village Hall itself survived a fire in 1909 that destroyed two fire engines on the first floor. Matt Hudson and staff of the popular Hudson House restaurant are happy to show off the cell in the back of the restaurant. Hudson House has been a kind historical custodian of the building, preserving the jail, tin roof ceilings and walls, the village safe, and the courtroom on the second floor.
The original lock-up is currently the wine cellar. Stepping inside, the jail cell is extremely small and claustrophobic. It is hard to imagine this being an improvement from the old Gedney street lock-up. It measures 5 x 7 x 8. Heavy metal strips bolted together form the walls. The antechamber with two barred windows and a door lets only a small amount of light inside.
An Overdue Memorial
The death of John Harrington struck a chord in the village. With almost no dissension, a new village hall, firehouse, and jail became a reality. Surely Harrington deserved a memorial at the time. We do so now, honoring the Civil War veteran John Harrington, who lost his life in the tragic and mysterious fire at the Gedney Street lock-up.
Michael Hays is a 35-year resident of the Nyacks. Hays grew up the son of a professor and nurse in Champaign, Illinois. He has recently retired from a long career in educational publishing with Prentice-Hall and McGraw-Hill. Hays is an avid cyclist, amateur historian and photographer, gardener, and dog walker. He has enjoyed more years than he cares to count with his beautiful companion, Bernie Richey. You can follow him on Instagram as UpperNyackMike.