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Nyack People & Places

An Ugly Horsewhipping on Nyack’s Main Street

It was a spectacle that drew a crowd on a Sunday afternoon in 1885. Two women, Mrs. Shakespeare and Mrs. Harris, took matters into their own hands and horsewhipped John V. Onderdonk in the gardens of Edward Hesdra’s upper Main Street house. Onderdonk’s newspaper published an article stating that Constable David Shakespeare was living with Mrs. Harris, wife of William Harris, also a village constable.

A line drawing of a public horsewhipping in 1883.

Onderdonk was no stranger to controversy, being a prominent real estate developer and newspaper publisher who used his platform to crusade against the use and sale of alcohol. The Rockland County Journal stated in their reporting

“There was great provocation for the attack, and that those seeking justice in the surest way might understand.”Rockland County Journal, April 18, 1885

As it turns outs, it wasn’t the first time Onderdonk had been physically assaulted for his views. Onderdonk was an extreme prohibitionist, temperance being the culture war of its time, who used public office and a newspaper he started to shame individuals without exception who used or sold alcohol or turned a blind eye on those who did.

John V. Onderdonk, Prohibitionist

John V. Onderdonk

The Onderdonk family is a large and extended family in the Hudson River Valley dating back to the early days of the Dutch settlement. John V. Onderdonk(1823-1887) grew up near the family quarry in what is now Grand View near Nyack. Baptized in the Piermont Baptist Church, Onderdonk grew to despise alcohol while working in a store that sold liquor where he was often required to fill a flask for his father. Disgusted with alcohol and family, he moved to New York City and learned the building trade while at the same time assisting in temperance efforts with the Baptist Church.

Onderdonk – Real Estate Developer & Entrepreneur

Onderdonk Block on Main Street between Park and Bridge Streets in 2023.

An earlier Nyack People & Places article investigated Onderdonk’s real estate developments including the iconic Onderdonk Brick Block and Cottage Row. As a politician and publisher of a local newspaper he earned countless enemies.

“To say that Mr. Onderdonk had many enemies is but to tell the truth.”  Rockland County Journal, February 12, 1887

In 1872, Onderdonk started the Onderdonk Water Company,. He leased a water reservoir fed by springs near the Nyack Brook to pipe water to his downtown buildings. HIs company was the first to pipe water to homes in Nyack. He leased the reservoir from Edward Hesdra, husband of Cynthia Hesdra, known to be the chief engineer on the Underground Railroad in Nyack. Hesdra owned two houses on upper Main Street near Route 9W. The reservoir was behind one of the houses. 

Public Office & Publisher

Onderdonk ran for public office once and won handily on a “no new liquor license” platform. He made numerous enemies for his stubborn approach to temperance. In a court case in Pearl River, he not only lost a suit he brought involving illegal liquor sales, but one “Smiley” Bunkey beat him for his strident personal attacks during the trial.

Masthead for the Independent Advertiser located at #4 Onderdonk Block

Around 1880, Onderdonk started a temperance newspaper, the Independent Advertise (The Advertiser), operating out of an office in the Onderdonk Block with his son Millard as publisher. The few surviving issues of the newspaper don’t indicate any of the attacks that made Onderdonk the subject of more than one libel suit, including by the Rockland County Journal publisher. 

“The Advertiser has many times been used as a filthy sewer to convey personal spleen and malice through the entire community.”Rockland County Journal

Reconstructing the Horsewhipping

Line drawing of a public horsewhipping in London in 1871

Newspaper accounts vary widely in describing what happened, but they all agree on the reason for the attack. Onderdonk’s newspaper, the Advertiser, published a scandalous article to the effect that David Shakespeare, village constable, was living with another woman, Mrs. Harris. Mrs. Shakespeare and Mrs. Harris sought retribution. Accounts of women seeking retribution from a gossip-mongering press were uncommon but not unheard of in the second half of the 19th century. Unfortunately, a copy of the issue of the Advertiser with the offending article no longer exists.

 The account in the New York Times, almost impossible to believe, states that, at dawn, two life-size effigies were seen hung from telephone poles in the center of Nyack. One was labeled, “John V. Onderdonk horsewhipped” and the other “John V. Onderdonk hanged.” The effigies were taken down, marched through the village in a mock funeral procession along Broadway. The crowd carried the “body” to Onderdonk’s church, the Nyack Baptist Church, and buried it in the back yard.

Events on Upper Main Street

Probable location of the horsewhipping was behind Hesdra’s house next the reservoir. Highland (now 9W) intersects Main St. near the Hesdra property. The Nyack ice pond is on the left. Nyack Brook runs west to east. Note that the Shakespeare residence on High Street is in the same block.

Other accounts state that everything began around noon on upper Main Street near the water reservoir. The two women, dressed in black, accosted Onderdonk in the Hesdra gardens, forced him to his knees and gave him a “first-class flagellation.” They made him get on his knees and apologize to Office Shakespeare in front of a large crowd of onlookers. No one offered him any help except the woman with whom he boarded. Upon being forced to his knees again, the two women exacted a promise from him that he “would never again say anything against any woman and that he would be good.” According to the Times, Onderdonk was not seriously injured, but was considerably bruised.

Onderdonk Responds

Onderdonk stated to the Times’ reporters that what was published was basically true. However, the women used canes, not whips. He did not get down on his knees voluntarily, Mr. Shakespeare held him down in that position. Onderdonk stated he was attacked first by Mrs. Harris when he left the Hesdra home. He was quoted as saying, “I will have all the parties arrested, and I will send Shakespeare to Sing Sing for bigamy.”  The matter seems to have ended then. Shakespeare continued to serve as village constable until at least 1890.

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Headline of the New York Times article.

A self-serving obituary of Onderdonk published in his newspaper two years later blames the cause of the horsewhipping on an earlier event. According to this account, another event precipitated the whipping. Supposedly, Constable Shakespeare refused to bring charges of arson against a drunk who allegedly started a fire in Onderdonk’s shed. The Advertiser goes on to say that others were involved in the conspiracy including a town clerk. Thus, they concluded a diatribe against Shakespeare was legitimate. 

If so, how the women would be named in this ‘conspiracy” is unknown. Perhaps some other grievance existed between Onderdonk and the Shakespeares whose property abutted Onderdonk’s water reservoir. 

Soon after the event Onderdonk retreated from active work at his newspaper. He developed a long-term illness that resulted in his death some 18 months later. His newspaper stated that only

“the sudden sickness prevented one of the biggest rows and exposures of the so called society that the town has ever had”The Advertiser, February 11, 1887

What Does It All Mean?

Onderdonk’s obituary in his newspaper.

Historians of that era don’t mention the ugly horsewhipping, nor do they mention John V. Onderdonk at all, a curious omission unless it was retribution for his unsavory personality. Despite his contributions to Nyack, two large buildings of which are still visible today, Onderdonk was an extreme culture warrior who went too far. Citizens deemed that they had to take the matter, literally, in hand themselves on that ugly Sunday morning. No one is justified in beating another person, no matter the cause, but it seems that Onderdonk elicited strong emotions. 

“While we don’t give our sanction to any violation of law, yet it seems that human nature leads one oftentimes to get justice in the surest way, even though he makes himself responsible before the law for his act.”Rockland County Journal, April 18,1885

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.

Nyack People & Places, a weekly series that features photos and profiles of citizens and scenes near Nyack, NY, is brought to you by Sun River Health and Weld Realty.

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Nyack People & Places, a weekly series that features photos and profiles of citizens and scenes near Nyack, NY, is sponsored by Sun River Health.

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