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Voices Fall-Winter 2005:
Click on the cover for the Table of Contents. Read “Murder and Mayhem, Tra-La! The Saugerties Bard” by John Thorn here.
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Volume 31

Murder and Mayhem, Tra-La! The Saugerties Bard by John Thorn

I have lived in Saugerties, New York, a village situated between the Hudson River and the Catskill Mountains, off and on since the mid-1970s. Only in the past year, however, did I attempt an idle late-night Internet search for “Saugerties” in the splendid American Memory collection of the Library of Congress. Of the twenty-five hits, ten were linked to nineteenth-century song sheets about murders and riots and prize fights by the otherwise nameless “Saugerties Bard.” The game was afoot; I had to find out more. As it turned out, the life story of the Bard, an itinerant folklorist named Henry Sherman Backus, has itself taken on folkloric dimensions: what was strictly factual has become jumbled up with romantic twaddle, especially around his melancholic demise. It seemed to me that the songs, early on dismissed as doggerel, were very good indeed and more worthy of attention than the composer. What was his place in the long tradition of balladry and broadside, the people’s press? Was he, like Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie, a moralist in musician’s clothing? Or was he a mere entertainer and narcissist, a Catskills comic before his time? Read on. The verses interspersed below are from the Saugerties Bard’s ballad, “The Murdered Pedlar,” printed in Catskill in 1854.

On Friday, August 19, 1853, Hiram Williams, an itinerant peddler of German-Jewish origins, was on the first leg of his journey home to 113 Walker Street in New York City. He had completed a successful tour of the villages of Ulster and Greene counties, during which he had sold one hundred dollars worth of jewelry and lace. Arriving in Greenville too late to make the Austin Line stage coach to Coxsackie, he was prepared to wait for the next one until he crossed paths with an inebriated thirty-year-old alumnus of Sing Sing prison, who had likewise missed a stage from Albany to Durham and was walking east.
On the Plank-Road, in Greenville town,
A Jewish Pedlar was shot down.
Ah, by a wretch, called Warren Wood,
Who shot the Pedlar in cold blood.

With murder rankling in his heart
From the Empire City did depart,
Arm’d with revolver, six-barrel’d true,
With which he shot the peddling Jew.
In a statement the mortally wounded Williams was able to give while clinging to life, he said that his assailant had come up to him and, after some perfunctory repartee, said, “You are a foolish fellow to take the stage; if you walk down with me, we can get there before the stage does, and you will save your money.” Persuading the peddler to stop at taverns along the way on this hot summer’s day, Warren Wood inquired how much money the peddler typically made on such a trip. “I said sometimes one, and sometimes two hundred dollars; as we came near the bridge, about half way down the hill, Wood stepped back, and I saw him pull a pistol from his pocket; he fired it and shot me down; the ball entered my back, and passed through my body, so that the doctor took it out of my abdomen; he shot again, twice, striking me about the head; I fell on the road, and he took me by the legs and threw me off the bridge and threw down my pack; he then dragged me to one corner, under the bridge, and asked me what I had in my small box, and I told him nothing but spectacles; he then threw stones on me, and went away” (“Greene County,” 1853).
When first he shot, the Pedlar cried,
Whate’er you want shall be supplied.
His pocket-book to Wood he gave,
In hopes by this his life to save.

Again he shot! O, cruel man!
What mortal can your feelings scan.
Infernal spirits astonish’d stood,
Awhile to gaze on Warren Wood,

Who did the Pedlar’s head then pound
As he lay bleeding on the ground,
Until he thought him truly dead,
And then the monster quickly fled.
In an affidavit following his capture in New York City, Wood admitted he had shot Williams “two or three times” but denied other seemingly less pertinent details. “The peddler handed me his pocket-book; I never asked him for it; neither did I pile any stones on him, or ill-use him. If he went off the bridge, he must have fell off himself; I did not throw him off.” Tossing his revolver into a swamp, after which he “felt somewhat easier,” Wood paid a local farmer the large sum of “one gold dollar, a fifty cent piece and two quarter dollars” to drive him to Catskill Point. From there he crossed the Hudson, took the train to Tivoli, and then the express to New York, where he arrived near midnight that same Friday (“Greene County,” 1853).

In Gotham he hooked up with his paramour, Emma, who noted that he had more money at hand than was usual; on Saturday, with the ill-gotten gain, they visited the Great Exhibition of Art and Industry at the Crystal Palace—on the site of today’s New York Public Library—which had opened its doors to the public barely a month earlier, and a Daguerrean parlor where the capture of Emma’s likeness was to aid in the capture of her lover. When Wood was apprehended in New York, he had among his possessions several items that indisputably belonged to the peddler. Hauled back upstate, before being incarcerated at the Catskill jail, he was brought before the dying Williams, who could not be moved from his bed at Moore’s Tavern near Greenville.
Back to New York he sped his way,
To promenade with Ladies gay.
In Cherry Street they did him take:
He now his pleasure must forsake.

Though filled with dread and guilty fear,
Before the Pedlar must appear,
Thou art the man, the pedlar said,
As he then raised his dying head.

I know that coat, the boots likewise—
A dying man will tell no lies,
To Jail the murderer then was sent,
His awful crimes there to lament.
Hiram Williams died on September 2 and was buried after services at the Albany synagogue. The charge against Wood was no longer for attempted murder. In the trial that took place on November 25, he was convicted and sentenced to hang on January 20, 1854. In between those two milestones in Wood’s wretched life, a ballad was printed in the job shop of the Greene County Whig. That ballad, quoted throughout this article, was composed by Henry Sherman Backus, a sometime Saugerties resident who may have felt an affinity for Williams, as he too was an itinerant peddler, although his pack was filled with songs rather than notions. Publishing under the pen name of the Saugerties Bard, Backus specified that “The Murdered Pedlar” was to be sung to the tune of “Burns’ Farewell,” an air of distant times that was known to anyone who had spent a bit of time in a saloon or roadhouse. Though an accomplished musician who accompanied his recitations with fiddle and fife, Backus never composed original music for the ballads he published, as the convention in the ballad business, unlike the bustling sheet music trade, was to supply buyers with lyrics to tunes they already knew.
In Christ, the Saviour of mankind,
Repentance he may truly find:
O, soon he will suspended be,
To pay the law’s just penalty.

A faithful Jury did convict,
The Sheriff must the law inflict,
The penalty to justice due,
To all the guilty, as to you.

No costly gems or diamonds bright,
Disarms the law or aids his flight,
Nor thousand tons of shining gold,
Yet for a groat Wood’s life was sold.

No more, poor man, while here you stay,
The birds will chaunt their cheering lay,
Or friendly neighbors greet again
The wretch that hath the Pedlar slain.

On January next, the twentieth day,
The Sheriff must the law obey,
Upon the gallows him suspend,
And thus poor Wood his life will end.

Let all a solemn warning take,
And every wicked way forsake,
For soon we all will ush’rd be
Into a vast eternity.
On the day that he was appointed to meet his Maker, only twenty minutes before being led to the Catskill jail’s rigged-up gallows, Wood made a long and rambling statement, the essence of which was that yes, he shot the peddler, but he didn’t know what he was doing or why. Then he attacked the integrity of his attorney, the officers who arrested him in New York, a reporter for the New York Herald, and one other: “A man from Saugerties has written some verses about me, and they have been published by the publishers of the Green[e] County Whig, and circulated over the country at sixpence apiece. I want to ask one question, and that is, if a man in my situation is not entitled to sympathy, rather than to be held up to ridicule and abused in that way? . . . Those degraded, low, mean, miserable verses are not worthy of the respect of any man, and I am sorry that anyone claiming responsibility [by which he meant the editor of the Whig], should suffer his press to give to the public such verses, and shamefully abuse me.” Mr. Ward, the editor, concluded his story of the execution and the strange scenes preceding it with Wood “suspended by the neck until he was dead. His body hung fifteen minutes, when it was taken down, placed in the coffin, and conveyed in front of the jail, where the spectators might view it. The body was buried about 2 o’clock, in the village burial yard” (“Execution of W,” 1854).

The brutal detail is offered here because life was more short and brutish then, with death and retribution the stuff of everyday concourse and consequently grist for ballads and folklore, too. Murder, disaster, tragedy, and sorrow were the stock in trade of the Saugerties Bard. Henry Backus was beginning to earn a reputation as a folk balladist, an honored practitioner of the people’s press that links seventeenth-century one-sheets and broadsides to nineteenth-century penny dreadfuls and dime novels, on up to story songsters Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and Bob Dylan. Backus was perhaps a better social historian than he was a poet, but he was a master of brevity, able to tell a story that would go straight to the heart in a way that myriad columns in the newspaper could not. While ballads have traditionally been about the proximity of the rose and the briar—love and death—the Saugerties Bard found his calling in the briar patch, perhaps because life had strewn few roses in his path. His existence, which commenced on February 4, 1798, in Coxsackie, New York, has been festooned with so many garlands of whimsy if not outright fakery that it is difficult to separate the man from the myth. His death on May 20, 1861, followed by a pauper’s burial in Saugerties, concludes a tale so sad that it is a pity Backus himself could not have used it as a subject. In between those dates, he endured the death of his father in the War of 1812, became a schoolteacher, wed, had children, buried his wife and one of his children, became estranged from the others, and spent some time in the insane asylum in Hudson (today that city’s public library).

Broadside of the ballad "Hicks the Pirate"
Broadside of the ballad “Hicks the Pirate,” published in March 1860. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

It is a life worth recounting in brief, but engaging as it may be, the romantic figure of this balladist—a combination of poet, moralist, entertainer, lunatic, and huckster— has received more attention from this century’s observers than the ballads themselves. The Saugerties Bard has become equal parts folklorist and folklore.

Composing sad songs about murderers and their victims, he pandered to the public’s taste for sensationalism with a winking touch of piety. As John Wesley is said to have grumbled before setting down his five directions for singing hymns, “It’s a pity that Satan should have all the best tunes” (Lomax 1934, vii).

As time wore on, the life of Henry Sherman Backus became less eventful and his balladry more so—and arguably more proficient as well. With his Saugerties family falling away from him in the 1850s he beat a path south to New York City, where he composed some of his most notable works. In the latter half of that decade he wrote ballads about famous murders (for example, the unfortunate Dr. Burdell and his scheming wife), riots (notably the July 4, 1857, fracas involving the Dead Rabbits, Plug Uglies, and Bowery Boys, brought to screen in Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York), and executions, especially those of the antisocial lad James Rodgers and my personal favorite, the “pirate” Albert Hicks. Some of the Saugerties Bard’s ballads, notably “Uncle Sam’s Farm” and “The Dying Californian,” have conventionally been assigned to other pens, but nineteenth-century writers gave credit to Backus. Full lyrics survive for most of them, as do MIDI versions of the tunes or—in a handful of cases—newly recorded versions.

Backus was something of an entrepreneur, paying job printers to run off his ballads, then selling them from his pack as he roamed from town to town. He even produced a now exceedingly scarce Ulster County Almanac for 1855, which he promoted with an advertisement in the Saugerties Telegraph: “[It] contains besides a good calendar some of the best effusions of the author. The bard will present it to the inspection of the public as soon as issued and probably sing most of the ballads as he is wont to do, accompanied by instrumental music. The approach of the Almanac will be announced by music from fiddle and flute” (qtd. in Jones 1942, 141).

Benjamin Myer Brink, in his Early History of Saugerties, wrote in 1902:
All through the counties of Ulster and Greene, at least, was he well known in the years from 1835 to 1860; and often was he seen all down the Hudson River valley, and even upon the streets of New York, and westward along the Mohawk he had occasionally wandered, and into Canada. He was harmless, eccentric, impulsive, and at times incoherent, with a faculty for impromptu rhyming. . . . The writer can see him now pass by, clad in a suit of gray, with long gray locks covered with a cap. (310–1)
Louis C. Jones offered another view forty years later: “Although Backus died in 1861 a few old people in the Saugerties area still cherish him among their earliest memories. Mr. J. H. Kerbert, a bard himself, recalled him with remarkable clearness. I have in my possession a drawing made from memory by Mr. Kerbert, which shows Backus in his big hat, with long hair, grizzled beard, pegleg, and cane” (1942, 140).

But how did this son of Greene County become the bard of Saugerties, in Ulster County? This has been a mystery that eases a bit through genealogical research—only recently simplified by the digitization of federal, state, and local records—yet is by no means settled. Henry’s father, Electus Mallory Backus (1765–1813), and mother, Sabra Judson Backus (1764–1838), had both been born in Connecticut, where they wed in 1784. They relocated to West Camp, New York, sometime before 1787, and thence to Coxsackie. Of their eleven children, all but one lived to adulthood and married—so Henry, the seventh, would enjoy a cornucopia of nieces and nephews, a fact difficult to gibe with his later solitary life and death.

Electus Mallory Backus was a military man by election, before the outbreak of war in 1812. Commissioned as major of the First Light Dragoons in October 1808, he would die in action at Sackett’s Harbor in June 1813. (For decades thereafter Sabra Backus petitioned Congress unsuccessfully to provide her with a widow’s pension.) Henry’s younger brother Electus Jr. would also become a military man, matriculating at West Point and serving with distinction in the Mexican and Civil Wars. According to Brink, Henry too “grew to manhood with a passion for what concerns a soldier. He possessed a peculiarly correct ear for martial music, and in early years was an efficient teacher of the fife, the drum, and the bugle. Later he taught school, and coming to Saugerties he married a Miss Legg, with whom he lived for a number of years. After her death his mind received a peculiar bias and he began to lead the life of a wandering minstrel” (1902, 312).

According to Pauline Hommell, a Saugerties schoolteacher and historian who wrote an anecdote-laden profile of Backus in her 1958 volume Teacup Tales, Miss Legg was an orphan. In Hommell’s ghostly tale “The Face at the Window,” she contrives this comment from Cornelis [Cornelius] Post to Backus, recently arrived in Saugerties to accept a position as schoolteacher: “‘You’ve been seeing our neighbor’s cousin, Alida Legg. Ach, but she is good to feast one’s eyes on” (1958, 34). Hommell was not above inventing dialogue and spooky stories, but I do not suspect her to have been a fabricator of basic fact. Katsbaan Church records show that an Alida was born to Lodewijk Smit [Anglicized as Lodowick Smith in the 1800 census] and Neeltje Post on March 3, 1799, and when she was baptized seventeen days later, her sponsors were William Legg and Debora Post. Born to Alida’s parents five years earlier had been Debora Smit, sponsored by Petrus Post and Debora Post (Katsbaan Church records, entries 1830 and 2203). According to Hommell, Alida wed Henry in the early 1820s and died in May 1845, although Teacup Tales makes no mention of children.

Other sources give Mrs. Backus the name Eliza or Ann Eliza—possibly Anglicizations, possibly a confusion with Henry’s older sister Eliza. Alida/Eliza is also given a maiden name of Legg, which she might well have taken upon her adoption. In the 1830 census the age of Henry “Baccus” of Saugerties is listed as over thirty but under forty. He has one daughter older than five but younger than ten. His wife is listed as over twenty but under thirty, close enough to the truth and perhaps flattering. Burial records of Mountain View Cemetery show that their daughter Sara Ann died June 6, 1830, at the age of one year and twelve days (Poucher and Terwilliger 1931). In the 1840 census Backus, still residing in Saugerties, presides over a household of six females: two daughters under five, two more between five and ten, another between fifteen and twenty, and his wife. Yet in the 1850 census, he shares an abode only with laborer Abraham Wing, age fifty-eight; he himself is listed with no profession. At some point in the 1840s he is said to have spent time in the lunatic asylum in Hudson. The likely dispersal of his daughters to other homes following his commitment or the death of his wife might have driven any man to despair; it sent Henry Backus on the road.

So may we conclude that the Saugerties Bard’s odd demeanor was born of trauma? Or might it have been at least in some measure calculated? In The Catskills Alf Evers wrote, “Local eccentrics found the [Catskill] Mountain House an irresistible target and they often served to brighten a dull day. Among them was Henry Backus, ‘the Saugerties Bard, a Cosmopolitan, a Travelling Minstrel,’ as he was inscribed on the hotel register. Backus sang songs he composed and sold printed copies of them to guests. He put together a Mountain House ballad in 1856” (1972, 458). Clearly eccentricity was a solid marketing tactic then as now; Backus may have been the Tiny Tim of his day, ridiculed by his audience but laughing all the way to the bank. Certainly his mind was sufficiently composed to produce lyrics that generally scanned and always told a story.

Reviewing his list of songs, it is clear that the “Catskill Mountain House Ballad,” printed June 30, 1856, marked very nearly the end of Henry Backus’s rural phase. His brother Electus had been installed as the army’s superintendent of general recruiting services at Fort Columbus on Governor’s Island in New York harbor. He and his brother had seen little of each other for decades, but the Saugerties Bard nevertheless boldly headed south to the city of lights and shadows. In the four years remaining to him he would publish at least fifteen (and perhaps many more) ballads with the three prolific New York song-sheet publishers, Andrews, Wrigley, and De Marsan. Indeed, no one knows precisely how many song sheets, slip ballads, and poetical broadsides the Saugerties Bard may have composed or published, and additional ones may yet be identified, especially those that may have been printed in newspapers but not distributed as broadsides.

Living in New York and Hoboken, Backus, nearing the age of sixty, did some of his best work. There were the songs about famous riots (“The Great Police Fight [Riot at City Hall], June 15, 1857”), boxing matches (the 156-round affair celebrated in “Bradley & Rankin’s Prize Fight for $1000 a Side”), and especially notorious villains such as Mrs. Cunningham (“Dr. Burdell, or the Bond Street Murder”), Francis Gouldy (“Heart Rending Tragedy”), and my favorite murderer, Albert W. Hicks (“Hicks the Pirate”), the man who for a few months pushed Abe Lincoln and secessionist rumbling off the front page.

Hicks was a waterfront thug, not a pirate, who in March 1860 was drugged by a rival gang member and woke up to find himself “shanghaied” onto the oyster sloop E. A. Johnson and bound for Virginia. Knowing from past practice just what to do, he murdered the entire crew—the skipper Captain Burr and the brothers Watts—with an axe, gathered up their clothing and valuables, and threw them overboard. Managing the sloop badly as he turned it back toward New York, he collided with the schooner J. R. Mather, outbound for Philadelphia. Hicks lowered a boat piled high with his victims’ belongings and made for shore at Staten Island. When the wrecked E. A. Johnson was brought ashore awash in blood, Hicks’s day of reckoning neared. Chased from New York to Providence, Hicks was apprehended, tried on federal charges of piracy on the high seas, and won a nickname that he took to his grave ... and beyond.

Songs of the Saugerties Bard

The Powder Mill Explosion at Saugerties, New York. 1847.

The Dying Californian. ca. 1850.

Uncle Sam’s Farm. Air—Walk in de Parlor and Hear de Banjo Play. ca. 1850.

Dunbar, the Murderer. 1851.

The Burning of the Henry Clay. 1852.

Explosion of Steamer Reindeer. On the Hudson at Malden, September 4, 1852.

The Burning of the Reindeer, September 10, 1852.

Whipoorwill, or American Night-bird: A Poem. 1852.

John Mitchel, Irish Patriot in Exile. Air—Hail to the Chief. ca. 1853–4.

The Murdered Pedlar, Catskill. Air—Burns’ Farewell. 1854.

The Baptist Preacher or the Drowned Woman and Child, Kingston, May. Air—The Rose Tree. 1854.

My Heart’s in Old ’Sopus Wherever I Go. Kingston. June 1855.

“Catskill Mountain House Ballad” [original title unknown]. June 30, 1856.

Dr. Burdell, or the Bond Street Murder. Which Took Place Jan. 30, 1857, in the City of New York. Air—Burns’ Farewell. 1857.

The Great Police Fight (Riot at City Hall), June 15, 1857. Air—Root Hog or Die. 1857.

Dead Rabbits’ Fight with the Bowery Boys. July 4, 1857. Air—Jordan. 1857.

The Murdered Policeman, Eugene Anderson, Who Was Shot by the Desperate Italian Burglar, Michael Cancemi, Cor. of Centre and Grand Streets, July 22, 1857. Air—Indian Hunter. 1857.

The Bellevue Baby Mrs. Cunningham’s Adopted. Air—Villikins [and His Dinah]. 1857.

Mrs. Cunningham and the Baby. Air—Villikins and His Dinah. 1857.

The Cunningham Baby. Or The Heir from Over Jordan. 1857.

That Baby on the Half Shell. 1857.

Bradley & Rankin’s Prize Fight for $1000 a Side. At Point Abino, Canada, August 1, 1857. Air—Old Virginia’s Shore. 1857.

The Queen’s Telegraphic Message, and President Buchanan’s Reply, Hudson. August 18, 1858.

The Thirtieth Street Murder. A Horrible Tragedy. Air—Burns’ Farewell. 1858.

Heart Rending Tragedy, or Song No. 2 on the 30th Street Murder. Air—Meeting of the Waters, or Indian Hunter. October 26, 1858.

Execution of Rodgers. 1858.

The Press Gang. Air—Tom Haliard. 1860.

Hicks the Pirate. Air—The Rose Tree. March 1860.

The American Flag. n.d.

Warren’s Address. To the American Soldiers Before the Battle of Bunker Hill. Air—Bruce’s Address. n.d.

Pocahontas. n.d.

Johnny Bull and Brother Jonathan. Air—Yankee Doodle. n.d.

Four Germans Drown’d in Rondout Creek. n.d.

There would be no schoolboy mewling for this hardened criminal who, with a twentyfirst- century sense of commerce, hired a writer to make his confession suitably bloodcurdling to sell to a publisher, with the proceeds to go to his widow. This will give the picture: “I have killed men, yes, and boys too, many a time before, for far less inducement than the sum I suspected I should gain by killing them; and I had too often dyed my murderous hands in blood in days gone by, to feel the slightest compunctions or qualms of conscience then” (“Execution of H,” 1860). Ah, they don’t write ’em like that today, and more’s the pity!

Convicted of the triple murder, Hicks was slated for execution on July 13, 1860, at a gallows constructed on Bedloe’s Island (also known as “Gibbet Isle”) out in the harbor, where the Statue of Liberty has stood since 1886. His procession from jail to gallows took on the aspect of a circus, and a general holiday atmosphere prevailed. Excursion boats had been lined up beforehand for the twelve thousand spectators (a New York Times estimate) to have a memorable outing: “HO! FOR THE EXECUTION” read the headline on one classified ad (1860). Peanut vendors and lemonade stands did a brisk business to the beat of the fife and drum. The thirsty “imbibed lager-beer,” reported the Times, and in rowboats there were “ladies, no, females of some sort, shielding their complexion from the sun with their parasols, while from beneath the fringe and the tassels they viewed the dying agonies of the choking murderer” (“Execution of H,” 1860).

Classified ad for an execution
“Ho! for the execution.” A classified advertisement in the July 12, 1860, issue of the New York Times offered one-dollar steamboat excursions to the execution of Albert W. Hicks on July 13.

Soon after Hicks was buried, grave robbers stole his body, spawning a long-standing rumor that he had somehow defeated the hangman and was running around wreaking havoc under an alias. In fact, his body had been sold to medical students. Within months of the hanging, P. T. Barnum’s American Museum featured a wax image of Hicks among its other notorious figures. The Great Showman’s newspaper ad described his sundry marvels (“Amusements,” 1861):
Not these alone attention draw; Figures
in wax are found;
Classic and modern; Christian Sage and
heathen of renown;
All characters whose names have a very
familiar sound.
A Mummy here, a Judas there—a
“Tommy” done up brown;
A John Brown or an Albert Hicks—a
Lambert and his wife.
The Siamese Twins and Albert
Guelph—all true to life.

“Hicks the Pirate,” the Saugerties Bard’s ballad published right after the hanging, marked the end of a tradition. Songs about solo murderers would soon pale before the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of our best in blue and gray. The young Henry Backus had not embraced the military as his father and brother had done; he would not do so now. Out of fashion and perhaps increasingly addlepated, he headed back north. “During the winter,” according to Brink, “he was hardly seen” (1902, 314).

On Monday, May 13, 1861, Backus slept in an old shed in Katsbaan outside a hotel maintained by James H. Gaddis, who found him the following morning, emaciated and unconscious. The Bard was taken to the village of Saugerties, where he was fed, charged with vagrancy, and taken to Kingston’s jail. There he lingered unattended until he died on May 20. His body was given a pine-coffin burial in Saugerties. Few members of his extensive family had stood by him in life; none now came in death. His remains were placed, in Pauline Hommell’s aptly chosen words, “into the six-foot cavity which is the common portion of all the sons of Adam” (1958, 37).


John Thorn is the author and editor of many books. He lives in Saugerties. He writes a column for the Woodstock Times and Kingston Times called “Wake the Echoes,” in which an earlier version of this article originally appeared. Voices will welcome John Thorn as a regular columnist in 2006.

Henry Backus was beginning to earn a reputation as a folk balladist, an honored practitioner of the people’s press that links seventeenth-century one-sheets and broadsides to nineteenth-century penny dreadfuls and dime novels, on up to story songsters Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and Bob Dylan.


“Amusements. Barnum’s American Museum. Advice Given Gratis.” February 28, 1861. Classified advertisement. New York Times:7.

Brink, Benjamin Myer. 1902. The Early History of the Saugerties, 1660–1825. Kingston, NY: privately published.

Evers, Alf. 1972. The Catskills. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.

Execution of Hicks, the Pirate. July 14, 1860. New York Times:1.

Execution of Warren Wood, from the Greene County Whig, Jan. 21. January 25, 1854. New York Times:8.

The Greene County Murder—The Peddler’s Affidavit—Wood’s Confession. September 3, 1853. New York Times:6.

“Ho! For the Execution.” July 12, 1860. Classified advertisement. New York Times:7

Hommell, Pauline. 1958. Teacup Tales. New York: Vantage Press.

Jones, Louis C. 1942. Henry Backus, the Saugerties Bard. New York History 23.2:139–48.

Katsbaan Church records. Reformed. Town of Saugerties, Ulster County, New York.

Lomax, John A. and Allan. 1934. American Ballads and Folk Songs. New York: Macmillan.

Poucher, J. Wilson, and Byron J. Terwilliger, ed. 1931. Old Gravestones of Ulster County, New York : Twenty-Two Thousand Inscriptions. Kingston. Rpt. 1998. Boston: New England Historic Genealogical Society.

This article appeared in Voices Vol. 31, Fall-Winter 2005. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.

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