Life in a small town has long been a part of American lore. From Thornton Wilder’s Grover’s Corners to Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon, the depiction of small town America invokes an element of nostalgia and a yearning for a simpler, easier way of life. We associate a certain benevolence with such an existence. Idyllic, if you will, a sense of belonging, where character is nurtured and shaped and where families care for each other as well their neighbors.
Then again, in a town where everyone knows your name, there is also a good chance they know your “business” — or at least think they do. In short, small towns can have a darker side to them. They can easily thrive on gossip. Their populations can quickly turn suspicious, engage in ostracism, foster bigotry and, when trouble comes calling, can point fingers at those they deem “different” or “lesser.”
Such was the Woodstock Cornell Van Gaasbeek found in 1905. A black man living in a dilapidated structure in Zena near the corners of Sawkill Road, next door to an equally run down house occupied by his three nephews and their father — one of whom shared his bed with a white woman — Van Gaasbeek and the Conine family were labeled by one local press report as Woodstock’s “bad lot.”
Cornell Van Gaasbeek crossed the threshold into the darker side of Woodstock memory early on a Tuesday morning that December. Startled by a sudden pounding on his door, Charles Wolven, an employee of the City of Kingston and supervisor of Reservoir No. 2 in Zena, opened it to find a greatly excited Van Gaasbeek on the other side. As Wolven listened, the reason for his visitor’s agitation became clear. Van Gaasbeek was asking that Wolven call John Harrison, yet another reservoir employee and Zena resident, and tell him his son was dead. “He poisoned himself,” Van Gaasbeek told Wolven. “And he lays in my house dead. He’s all swelled up so you wouldn’t know him.”
In reaching the elder Harrison by one of the few telephones in Woodstock at the time, Wolven was asked by the father if he would go to Van Gaasbeek’s house and see what was going on. Wolven, unsure of himself, hesitated and delayed. As a result, Van Gaasbeek returned and again asked that Mr. Harrison be called to come immediately. Wolven, who would further describe Van Gaasbeek as “perspiring freely, seemed badly frightened and greatly excited,” assured Van Gaasbeek that the elder Mr. Harrison was on his way. With that, Van Gaasbeek took off. It would be the last anyone would see him for two days.
By coincidence, as Wolven debated what to do, Doctor Mortimer Downer of Woodstock arrived at the Wolven home. Upon hearing the story, Downer urged Wolven to go with him to the Van Gaasbeek house at once. What they discovered upon their arrival was reported the next day in the Kingston Freeman:
“Pushing in the front door, he found that while it was not locked there was something against it. The obstacle was the body of young Harrison, who lay stretched out on his back, his head against the door, his right hand above the head as though to fend off a blow, and his left arm bent at the elbow so that the hand was at about his hip. His face was covered with blood and there were marks showing where several blows had been struck on his head. On the end of the sofa at his side lay an old battered hammer with hair adhering to it.”
With a call by Dr. Downer to the coroner’s office from the Wolven home, an investigation was underway.
The dead man lying on Van Gaasbeek’s floor was 20-year-old Oscar Harrison, described by a Freeman reporter as “none to[o] strong mentally and inclined to be wayward.” The younger Harrison had only recently returned to Woodstock, having, earlier in the year, left town after taking up with a traveling vaudeville show that had recently come through Woodstock. Upon his return home, Harrison renewed a long association with Van Gaasbeek and his nephews. As a result, he too would enter a sphere of suspicion that, at the time, surrounded Van Gaasbeek and the Conines.
Cornell Van Gaasbeek was reported to be a well-known “character” who had moved from Kingston to occupy a small home in Zena described in the Freeman as “not presenting an inviting appearance either inside or out.” Next door to Van Gaasbeek, in a similar dwelling, lived the children of his sister, the Conine family — presented in initial reports as a “family of negroes” that included brothers Hiram, George and Albert. Living with the Conines was a “white woman,” Emma Smith.
In addition to the implied racism, the “bad lot” characterization also stemmed from suspicions around Woodstock that the Conines and Van Gaasbeek were responsible for the recent outbreak of chicken stealing that had been reported in town, including the theft of birds from the Norman Lasher family. And, while we my not equate the stealing of chickens with that of horse theft in the old west, stealing home-raised chickens in a rural town was considered a major offense, even a felony in some instances. Long before Woodstockers could walk into Hurley Ridge Market or Woodstock Meats and purchase ready-to-go poultry, chickens and eggs were not only a major component of local diets, but were also a source of income for many. To steal a chicken in early 20th century Woodstock was to steal the food off a family’s table and money from their pockets. So seriously was such theft viewed that one upstater, George Lawyer, convicted on multiple charges of chicken stealing, was sentenced to life in Dannemora prison.
Speaking to his son the night before the murder, the elder Harrison, not comfortable with his son’s association with Van Gaasbeek, urged his son to speak to his friend regarding the rumors about town, and, lest he wished to be connected to such suspicions, to disassociate himself from Van Gaasbeek. In some shape or form, it appears that his father’s admonishment had an impact on the younger Harrison, as he soon left his father’s house to speak with Van Gaasbeek. It would be the last his father would see his son alive.