Author A.J. Schenkman has just released a new book that will surely get people talking. The title itself is enticing: Wicked Ulster County: Tales of Desperadoes, Gangs and More. Really, here in our quaint Ulster County?
“Yes,” said Schenkman, who presented a slideshow and some highlights of his new book this past Saturday to a packed house in Clintondale, hosted by the Plattekill Historical Society. There are tales of murder, alligators in Ellenville, rogue rage-filled criminals on the lam and much more in his book culled from 19th-century newspaper headlines, interviews with local families and the historical mining of some of the funnier and darker tales that lurk in the county’s past.
One of the most popular stories, albeit not one with a happy ending, is of the criminal legend Big Bad Bill Monroe, known as the Gardiner Desperado. Schenkman showed a picture of the old Deyo House in Gardiner, which is now Ulster Savings Bank at Ireland Corners. “When I started writing this book, everyone said, ‘You have to write about Big Bad Bill!’” recalled Schenkman.
So he began to do some research, and what he found was a plethora of newspaper accounts from the Kingston Freeman, The New York Times, local stories and “Wanted” posters. “The press couldn’t get enough of Big Bad Bill,” he said, explaining that the Desperado “was a guy from Gardiner that drank too much. And when he drank, he would often go into a blind rage” — so much so that, as the story goes, he got into an altercation with two of the Deyo brothers of Gardiner, one of whom was a lawyer and the other a farmer. The altercation became inflamed after Big Bad Bill went on a drinking tear, and he went over to the Deyo House and “beat up the entire family — even their toddler — and then burned their barn down!” said the author.
This madman was so amused with himself and his violent rages that he would taunt the police, offering a reward for his own capture, faked his death, then wrote the police a letter to come get him at the Orange County Fair — where they still didn’t capture him. After he was finally arrested in California for a relatively minor infraction, two Ulster County officers identified as “Sheriff Decker and Chief Boise” brought him back to the Ulster County Jail. “They were highly respected lawmen, and they were not amused with Big Bad Bill’s request for clean clothes and a good meal and a shave so that he’d ‘look good’ when people would come to visit him in jail.”
The author explains that the press was so riveted with Big Bad Bill that when he’d go to get a “root canal, it was news!” But over time his antics became more violent and without amusement, leading to Bill being charged as an accessory to a very violent murder, which landed him in the not-so-nice prison of Dannemora in Clinton, NY.
Maybe not as wicked, but certainly disturbing, was a trend that Schenkman found of Ulster County residents who had visited Florida bringing back baby alligators as pets. “The problem is that baby alligators become big alligators,” he said with a laugh, showing a home in Kingston where the owners were proud of the full-sized alligators that they kept on the property and would advertise for people to throw stray dogs and cats over the fence to help keep them fed.
But when winter came around, even the most alligator-loving folks were at a loss as to how to tend to their southern-climate-loving gators; reports have them being released into the D & H Canal. “A ship captain near the Strand reportedly spotted one, as did a boater who made the mistake of poking the unknown creature with his oar, only to discover it was an alligator!”
Ghost stories are another hot topic in Ulster County historical lore. One story that the author recounted was of the Rose family, in which a “Mr. Rose had a grudge against God. He told his wife that he didn’t want a priest when he died, or last rites, and did not want to be buried. He had a fear of being buried alive.” As the story goes, when Mr. Rose’s time had come, he reiterated to his wife that she should just “throw his body into the back field and let the buzzards eat me.” He also told his wife on his deathbed, according to the author, that the “Devil is coming for me. I hear the chains. Don’t bury me or else he’ll get me.”
Mrs. Rose attempted to abide by her husband’s wishes, but as Schenkman explained, “Neighbors started to complain of the smell that the dead body was giving off. They told her she couldn’t possibly just leave him in a back field. So with help, they brought the body far out to the back and buried it with a tombstone.” Thereafter, on certain stormy nights, there were several reports of people having seen the “Rose Ghost.”
The audience enjoyed Schenkman’s presentation, but had several questions for the author about murders and dead bodies found in their neck of the woods. One woman asked if he had researched “a murdered women whose body was found naked by the Villa Baglieri.” Another man asked if he wrote about “all of the murders during Prohibition, when the bootleggers would steal each other’s sugar and kill each other. We have plenty of murders right here!”
Schenkman, who is a history teacher for the Wallkill School District, said that while he had written about the Jewish mob in the Catskills, he had not gotten as far as Prohibition or murders in the 20th century. “My main focus is the late 1800s, and no later than 1911/1912,” he explained. “People can get a little sensitive when you write what is perceived as ‘negative’ stories when their family and relatives are still alive!”
As a volunteer firefighter for the Town of Kerhonkson, the author said that many of his stories “begin in the fire station when we’re waiting for a call — or I should say, hoping not to get a call — and these older firefighters start recounting stories. There’s a wealth of information in every firehouse in the county!”
While he highlighted some of the “wicked” stories in his latest book, the author didn’t want to give “all the good ones away.” His book, published by History Press, is one entertaining read, and can be purchased locally at Inquiring Minds Bookstore, Barner Books, Handmade and More and the Mohonk Mountain House gift shop. He will hold another reading/signing on Sept. 1 from 5 to 7 p.m. in Stone Ridge at Family Traditions.