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.
Cornell Van Gaasbeek was not an educated man but 55 years of living in a white man’s world instinctively told him that when a young white man, the son of a well-respected member of the community, is found dead in the home of an unemployed black man suspected of theft, authorities would arrive at one conclusion. Understanding what that conclusion would be led Van Gaasbeek to consider, in his mind, the only course of action open to him — get out of town.
Meanwhile, the investigation into the murder was struggling to get underway. Though Dr. Downer had contacted the county coroner at 9 a.m., no one, it seems, had notified the sheriff or the district attorney until a Freeman reporter called their offices around 2 p.m. that afternoon. As a result, no official would get to Woodstock until about 4 p.m. — some eight hours after the dead man’s body was first discovered.
Upon arrival, an assistant district attorney finally secured Harrison’s body in preparation for an autopsy that would now have to wait until the following day. Not wishing to have the autopsy performed at his funeral home, local undertaker Ira Bovee arranged with the Reformed Church on the Village Green to have the body taken there, where the procedure would, somewhat incongruously, be performed in the church’s basement.
Somewhere along the line, as witness lists and subpoenas were being prepared, attention finally turned to the whereabouts of Van Gaasbeek. Though the delay in arrival by authorities would, seemingly, have given Van Gaasbeek an ample head start, the color of his skin in predominantly all-white Woodstock would also eventually prove problematic in his hasty departure. Though he was seen in Woodstock shortly after the body of Oscar Harrison was first discovered, where he had disappeared to was anyone’s guess.
So it was, as Woodstockers entered an uncomfortable evening facing the possibility of a murderer among them, a man by the name of Everett Roosa entered the picture.
Roosa, an engineer and mechanic, was a bit of an amateur sleuth. Not officially connected with any local law enforcement agency, Roosa’s “expertise” seems to have come, primarily, from being an avid reader of Sherlock Holmes stories, claiming to have read everything Conan Doyle had ever written. Encouraged by members of the Sheriff’s Department to take up the hunt, Roosa began his pursuit of the suspect by staking out a none-too-savory Woodstock establishment known as the Klondyke — a place Van Gaasbeek was known to have frequented. A long, cold night of waiting and watching proved fruitless, however, and morning found Roosa visiting Van Gaasbeek’s home in Zena to conduct his own search. While there, and permitted to ramble through Van Gaasbeek’s house at will, Roosa came across a letter from another of Van Gaasbeek sisters of who lived in Saugerties. With thoughts that the suspect might have gone there to seek shelter and money, the would-be detective, in the company of Constable Ricks of Woodstock, began the trek to Saugerties on foot.
Near the Woodstock/Saugerties line, the two passed the Daisy School, then one of several one-room schoolhouses in Woodstock. In what would later be described as his ‘Sherlock Holmes moment,’ Roosa had the idea that perhaps one of the children at the school might have either seen Van Gaasbeek or might know something about him. As the Freeman reported, “Entering and politely requesting of the pretty school madam that he be permitted to ask a question of the pupils and permission being granted, Roosa gave a description of Van Gaasbeek and asked if any of the children had seen him lately. One little girl raised her hand and timidly stated that her father had seen the negro on Tuesday about 11 o’clock going up the slope of the Overlook, heading to Will Ploss’s house.”
With the new information in hand, the two-man search party switched direction and pressed up Overlook. Attempting to make sense of the multiple combinations of “wood roads and quarry roads,” however, the two began to lose their way. Frustrated, Ricks and Roosa separated and Roosa forged on alone, eventually finding his way to the Ploss home. Learning that Van Gaasbeek had indeed been there but had moved on, Roosa, zigzagging across the mountain’s slope, began seeking out others who lived nearby. At Luther Cashdollar’s, there had been no sighting. Tracing his route back, Roosa encountered a “German woman” who told him a “negro had been at the house at 5:00 Tuesday evening and asked for something to eat.” Refusing him, he had gone on his way. At a home tucked back off the path he traveled, Roosa learned that “the negro had spent Tuesday night and said he was going to Tannersville.”
Passing through West Saugerties and continuing his Holmesian technique of interviewing children as he went, Roosa came to understand that his suspect had headed to Palenville. By this point, however, having not slept all night and with some 20 miles of walking behind him, our Sherlock wannabe hired a horse and driver to take him to Palenville. Once there, however, Roosa learned that his quarry remained ahead of him, having moved on to Kiskatom, in the town of Catskill. As Roosa moved on towards Cairo, he passed through the town of Purling, leaving strict instructions at the local post office that should Van Gaasbeek be seen to notify him immediately in Cairo. It proved to be an important request for no sooner had he arrived in Cairo and having entered the Cairo Hotel, Roosa was informed, “your man is in the Purling Post Office. They just telephoned.”
Having worn out the horse he had hired earlier, Roosa commandeered another and, “whirling the rig around, he drove as fast as possible to Purling” where, sitting in the post office, he found his Moriarty.
“Hello,” was the reply from Van Gaasbeek.
“Corn, I want you,” said Roosa.
You know,” replied Roosa.
“What does this mean?” asked Van Gaasbeek
“You know. I want you to go back and explain how Oscar Harrison got killed.”
After a brief search of his suspect, finding only an old jackknife and noticing no bloodstains or marks on Van Gaasbeek, the two began the return journey to Ulster County. By the next morning, Cornell Van Gaasbeek was in jail in Kingston. Continuing to maintain silence, Van Gaasbeek’s one action was to ask for the only lawyer he knew, a childhood acquaintance, Augustus H. Van Buren.
Just one month past the new year, 1906, Cornell Van Gaasbeek sat in a Kingston courtroom as District Attorney Frederick Stephan began his opening remarks. Only the day before, the twelfth juror, Matthew Delany — a fisherman who also maintained 55 beehives — had joined eleven others completing the all-white, all-male jury. As the lawyers had proceeded through the jury pool, the question of circumstantial evidence — and could a juror bring them self to convict on such evidence — had become a central issue. While one potential juror was dismissed because he did not know what the term referred to, the prosecution also dismissed others when they firmly asserted that they could not convict on circumstantial evidence alone. James Ackerman, a farmer from Shawangunk, in response to a question about circumstantial evidence stated, “Circumstances alter cases.” And, no matter how strong that evidence might be, he did not think he could convict on that alone. Yet another perspective juror, David Stilwell from Lloyd put it more bluntly, “A just verdict on circumstantial evidence would be not guilty.”
But in the age before modern police technology and without an eyewitness, circumstantial was the case District Attorney Stephan began to place before the jury. Beginning with testimony by John Harrison, the deceased’s father, Dr. Mortimer Downer, the Woodstock physician who was first on the scene and Charles Wolven, the Kingston City Reservoir employee who was first confronted by Van Gaasbeek, the jury was treated to accounts describing the events on the morning Oscar Harrison’s body was discovered. Dr. Downer described the murder scene he and Wolven had encountered. Identifying the hammer found at the scene, the “disarrayed carpet,” and the spots of blood found on both the floor and the stairs, Downer also mentioned noticing a corncob pipe. On cross-examination, the Woodstock doctor further testified that the “victim was struck on the head and probably fell where he was found,” adding that Harrison had “possibly lay unconscious for three hours after being struck and before death.” Harrison, Downer estimated, had been dead some “12 to 16 hours when found.”
The following day, Dr. Henry Van Hoevenberg took the stand to affirm the findings of the autopsy he had performed on Harrison’s body in the basement of the Reformed Church on the Village Green. Declaring that death had occurred due to a fractured skull, Van Hoevenberg described four contused wounds on the head and one which had been found on the back of Harrison’s neck. In a bizarre bit of courtroom drama the skull of the victim was produced and the injuries shown to the jury. As Van Hoevenberg explained the wounds, according to a description provided in the Kingston Freeman, “morbid curiosity seekers who crowded the courtroom stretched their neck and trod on one another’s toes to get a view of the gruesome exhibit.” During cross-examination, Van Hoevenberg expanded on the previous estimate given by Dr. Downer when he offered that Harrison “had lived some time after receiving the blow — probably five or six hours longer.”
On the second day of the trial, District Attorney Stephan moved on to his prime witness, Van Gaasbeek’s own nephew, George Conine. As reported in the Freeman following his testimony, “George Conine, negro, testified that he lived in the house near Van Gaasbeek’s house” and went on to establish the presence of Harrison at Van Gaasbeek’s home on the day of the murder. “I saw Oscar Harrison at Cornell Van Gaasbeek’s house about dinner time. He stood by the door.” Conine further offered, “I saw Harrison again about 3 o’clock that afternoon. I was in the yard near the corner of the house and he stood about 100 feet from Van Gaasbeek’s house. He was not walking around but standing still. No one was near. He was alone. I did not see Oscar alive after that.”
Upon further questioning from the district attorney, Conine delivered an even more dramatic element to the case against Van Gaasbeek. Noting that it was a cold night when he (Conine) finally returned home, the witness told the jury that he had gone outside to retrieve some dry wood for the fire. Explaining that he walked halfway between the two houses where there was some “hickory brush,” Conine then related, “As I was breaking it up I heard a groaning noise and like somebody stomping around the floor. I listened for a minute and went into [my] house.”
After tending to the fire and eating his dinner, Conine testified, that “between 10 and 11 o’clock Cornell Van Gaasbeek came in, stood by the stove warming himself, got a chair, sat down and went to sleep.”
The next morning, Conine told the jury, though he wanted to get ready for work, Van Gaasbeek was still at his house. Conine then related the following conversation with his uncle:
“Uncle Corny, if I was you I’d go over home and see what went on at your house last night. I heard very strange noises there.”
“I’m kinder afraid to go up there after what you say,” responded Van Gaasbeek.
“That’s strange,” I told him. “Afraid to go to your own house? I’ll go with you.”
Approaching the house, Van Gaasbeek found the door would not open all the way. Squeezing through what opening there was, Conine testified that his uncle, once inside, shouted, “He’s dead. Look here, he’s dead.”
Looking in, Conine explained, he could only see a leg and a foot. Feeling there was nothing else he could do, he returned to his house only to be followed by his uncle calling after him, “George, what shall I do? What shall I do?”
“I don’t know,” Conine responded, “unless you telephone to his father.” With that, Conine prepared to head to work offering, before he left, that Van Gaasbeek had commented to him, “It was a strange thing for that boy to poison himself in his own house.” Conine would also testify that that would be the last he saw of his uncle the rest of the day.
Before the district attorney was finished with him, the nephew’s testimony would drive an additional nail into his uncle’s legal coffin. Describing Conine’s assessment of his uncle’s physical state as the day of the murder progressed with the headline, “Three Stages of Inebriety,” the Freeman reported that Conine told the courtroom, “He was intoxicated.” “He was drunk.” “He was drunker yet.” To underscore Conine’s contentions, the prosecutor called others to the stand who had also observed the defendant that day. Nicholas Dibble, who operated the old Disch Mill in Woodstock, testified that he had seen Van Gaasbeek at the mill on the afternoon in question and that “he staggered.” Henry Longendyke, also at the mill that day, corroborated Dibble’s testimony. DA Stephan then brought 13-year-old Sarah Wolven to the stand who told the jury that, as she headed home from school that day, her path crossed Van Gaasbeek’s and that he was intoxicated and staggering. Similarly, Peter Anson who, along with his wife was the proprietor of the infamous Klondyke, a tavern/alleged brothel out near what is now Route 28, also invoked “he staggered” in his description of Van Gaasbeek when he saw him at about 6:30 that evening. Anson recalled telling Van Gaasbeek, “I say you’re quite drunk.” Van Gaasbeek, according to Anson, replied, “Do you think so?”
Finally, would-be detective Everett Roosa was called before the jury for the primary purpose of reminding the jury that Van Gaasbeek had fled town following the discovery of Harrison’s body on the floor of his home. Adding to what had already been published regarding his brief conversation with the suspect in Purling, Roosa testified that he had asked Van Gaasbeek, “What did you lay that fellow out that way for?” Roosa stated that Van Gaasbeek hung his head and replied, “I don’t know.”
“Circumstantial evidence is a very tricky thing. It may seem to point very straight to one thing, but if you shift your point of view a little, you may find it pointing in an equally uncompromising manner to something entirely different.” – Sherlock Holmes in The Boscombe Valley Mystery.
In his approach to the case and in his efforts to convince twelve white men who occupied the jury box that Cornell Van Gaasbeek was an innocent man falsely accused, defense attorney Augustus Van Buren argued that the case against his client was thinly circumstantial. As he stood before George Conine to begin his cross-examination, Van Buren’s opening question took the witness — and the courtroom — by surprise. He knew of the corncob pipe, along with some Mullen’s tobacco (a local product out of Higginsville which the Freeman noted was, “the product of every true and loyal son of Ulster County”) that had been found at the scene — and he also knew that Van Gaasbeek did not use Mullen’s, let alone a corncob pipe.
“George, have you any smoking tobacco on you?”
“Guess, I have,” replied Conine.
“Let me see it, will you? Mullen’s isn’t it?”
“Yes sir, everyone smokes Mullen’s up here.”
“Got your pipe with you?” inquired Van Buren.
“Where’s it at?” wondered the defense attorney.
“I don’t know.”
“Guess not,” offered Conine, claiming that he had it earlier in the day.
“Where did you buy it?”
“Beekman’s,” replied the witness, referring to the general merchandising store in Woodstock.
“How much did you pay for it?”
“Clay?” wondered Van Buren.
“I don’t use clay.”
“What do you use?”
“Mostly corncob,” was Conine’s response.
Van Buren had other questions for Conine, who he fully suspected knew more than he was willing to admit. Specifically, the defense attorney zeroed in on the morning Van Gaasbeek and Conine had discovered Harrison’s body. Returning to testimony Conine had given earlier, Van Buren noted that Conine had not gone any further than the front step of Van Gaasbeek’s home. And yet, after the defendant had squeezed through the door to find the body of Harrison on the floor and called to Conine, “What shall I do?” Conine responded by telling him to call the dead man’s father. There was just one problem with his suggestion. Conine had testified that he had only seen the leg of the dead man and, as Van Buren pointed out to the jury, Van Gaasbeek “had not said who the body was.”
Finally, Van Buren went looking for motive and to cast further suspicion on the Conine household. That motive, he seems to have believed, somehow connected to the white woman, Emma Smith, who lived with the Conines and, Van Buren believed, may have also had a relationship with Harrison. Were he able to raise the slightest possibility that such a relationship might have existed, then, perhaps, jealousy as a motive could be laid at the doorstep of one of the Conines.
Under questioning by Van Buren, George Conine described living conditions within the two-room Conine household. Just prior to the day Oscar Harrison was murdered, the house in question was occupied by the three Conine brothers, their father and Emma Smith. On the evening of Harrison’s death, George Conine testified, his brother Arthur and Emma Smith occupied one room in the house while the remaining brothers and their father stayed in the other. Only weeks before, however, those living arrangements had been quite different. Explaining that, originally, his father and Emma Smith had “set-up housekeeping” earlier in the winter, Conine revealed that, “Brother Arthur supplanted father about three weeks before the murder.” As Van Buren attempted to weave his way through testimony that he hoped would expose a situation sorely lacking in basic 1905 morality, he also managed to establish that Harrison was no stranger to the Conine household. With George Conine testifying that he had known Oscar Harrison “since he was a little boy,” he also admitted that Harrison had taken food at their table. Van Buren’s next question, seemingly innocent on the surface, was obviously, in light of what had already been established, meant to imply more than the simple response it appeared to seek. “Slept there?” asked Van Buren, referring to Harrison. “O, yes,” was the response.
Finally, it came time for Cornell Van Gaasbeek to take the stand in his own defense. Though the Freeman declared in its coverage the next day that the “defendant made a poor witness in his own behalf,” Van Gaasbeek began his testimony by tracing his work history and describing his relationship with Oscar Harrison who, he told the jury, he had known for “two or three years.” While admitting that Harrison had been at his home on the day in question and that the two had discussed where to find some work in town (Van Gaasbeek was interested in seeing if he could find employment with one of the bluestone quarries still operating in Woodstock), the defendant testified that he left Harrison at 5 o’clock that afternoon to walk into Woodstock and, as he left, he stated that the younger Harrison was “going towards the Conines” and that was the last he saw of him.
Admitting that he got a “little drunk” that evening, Van Gaasbeek went on to describe his movements on the night of the murder. Explaining that it was a very cold night and having not been home since the afternoon, “he hated to make a fire that time of night, so I walked into Conines, as I had done often before.” The next morning as he prepared to go back to his house to make breakfast, Van Gaasbeek stated that George Conine told him, “Last night when I went out for a pail of water I heard a terrible noise over in your house. Maybe it was Oscar Harrison and there is something wrong with him.”
After describing his initial reactions to finding the body and his encounter with Wolven, Van Gaasbeek was led through an attempt to explain why he had fled. Responding to the question, “why did you go?” from his lawyer, Van Gaasbeek answered, “Well, when I went in the house and found Harrison lying there I didn’t know what to do or where I was going.”
“You got scared and you went?” asked Van Buren.
“Yes sir, that’s it,” responded Van Gaasbeek.
As his last witness, Van Buren called Charles Merritt of Kingston to the stand. Merritt would testify that he had known the defendant some “25 or 30 years” and that, at one point, he had even employed Van Gaasbeek. When asked to testify regarding Van Gaasbeek’s character and reputation, however, Judge Charles F. Cantine ruled such questions out of order and Merritt was dismissed.
While Merritt may have been a minor witness in Van Buren’s efforts to defend his client, it is doubtful he, or anyone in the courtroom that day, could comprehend just how critical his testimony — or lack thereof — would be to the future of Cornell Van Gaasbeek.
With Merritt’s testimony concluded, the defense rested. For his part, District Attorney Stephans approached his summation to the jury in a straightforward, matter-of-fact manner. Taking his time so that the jury clearly grasped the importance of the testimony before them, Stephans highlighted to the twelve men the events and actions that, in his considered opinion, would lead to only one conclusion — guilty.
In contrast to the district attorney, defense attorney Van Buren went about his summation in a far different, emotional manner that attempted to demonstrate the lack of hard evidence against his client. Centering on his belief that the prosecution had failed to offer a motive for the murder of Harrison and that the evidence presented was circumstantial at best, Van Buren told the jury that while Van Gaasbeek “may” have killed Harrison, so it was equally possible that George or Arthur Conine “may” have perpetrated the brutal act. And, as summarized by the Freeman, Van Buren concluded, “Any of these things may have happened, but a jury cannot convict a man on what may have occurred.”
Van Buren then proceeded to attack the testimony of Everett Roosa, “a gentleman,” he offered, “on whom fame burst in a day — an obscure individual who leaped in an instant into an eternal fame.” Not content with his initial portrayal of Rosa, Van Buren further characterized him as, “the most ridiculous man on earth,” and as a “half-baked ignoramus.” Continuing his contempt for the witness, Van Buren concluded with the thought that Roosa believed himself to be “Webster’s dictionary and encyclopedia combined, and when he gets one idea in his cranium you cannot force another in without an explosion.”
As he attacked the credibility of Roosa, Van Buren did so in an effort to convince the jury that simply because his client had run away was no reason to charge him with the crime of murder. In fact, he offered, you could equally argue that to remain in Woodstock might have been the “safest course,” so as not to draw attention to himself.
Finally, Van Buren brought his summation to a close with an attempt at sentimental discourse relating to his relationship with Van Gaasbeek. Noting that he and the defendant use to go swimming together as children, he described their relationship as not unlike a “parti-colored Damon and Pythias affair.” It was his final statement, however, that realistically underscored the true nature of that relationship within the context of 1906. “Cornell Van Gaasbeek,” Van Buren declared, “was a good natured ignorant fool of a nigger who wouldn’t hurt a mosquito.”
With that, following a review by the judge on the different degrees of murder and manslaughter, the jury was charged and asked to begin its deliberations. They wouldn’t talk long. By the next day, word spread that a verdict had been reached. As a result, the curious began to flock to the courthouse, creating a scene, as described by the Freeman, that saw “spectators so numerous that they seemed to hang on the window sills and sides of the room like flies in August.”
Despite the crowd, the courtroom fell silent as the verdict was read — “Guilty of manslaughter.”
That quickly, the trial was over. Van Buren offered a motion for a new trial. Denied. District Attorney Stephan moved for sentencing and, following some basic questioning of the defendant in which Van Gaasbeek informed the court he was “quite temperate,” in nature, that he could read and write, that he had received “religious instruction in the Reformed Church,” and that this was his first conviction, Van Gaasbeek heard his fate pronounced — 17 years at hard labor in Dannemora Prison.
In a simple matter of six weeks, Cornell Van Gaasbeek had been arrested, tried and convicted, a process the Freeman called “prompt and efficient.” Citing the efforts of the district attorney’s office and Everett Roosa, the paper further noted that that area resident should be justly “proud” that justice had been done and that Van Gaasbeek had been found guilty “of the highest crime that could be proved against him.”
So it was that Cornell Van Gaasbeek was transferred to Clinton County in upstate New York, where, considering his age, it seemed likely he’d spend the rest of his life. Back home, few would give the matter further consideration. Life in Woodstock moved on. The Conines once again faded into obscurity. Little more would be heard from Everett Roosa. But as the pages turned on their lives, one man continued to press for justice on behalf of Van Gaasbeek. Augustus Van Buren.
Unfortunately, for the man behind bars, it would take more than a year before Van Buren’s efforts began to bear fruit.
Arguing on appeal that the trial judge had erred when declining to permit testimony attesting to Van Gaasbeek’s character, Van Buren found a sympathetic ear in the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court. In an opinion written by Judge Kellogg, the court specifically referred to the abridged testimony of Charles Merritt. Though the witness, it was noted, had been permitted to testify as to his acquaintance with the defendant — some “25 or 30 years” — when asked to offer testimony regarding Van Gaasbeek’s reputation, objection was raised and sustained on the basis that “no proper foundation had been laid for the proof and it was not a proper way to show character.” Judge Kellogg disagreed. Believing that the objection should have been overruled, Kellogg argued, “Evidence of good character may of itself create a reasonable doubt, when without it, none would exist.” As a result, the court ordered that, “the conviction and judgment should be reversed and a new trial ordered.”
The decision to overturn Van Gaasbeek’s conviction and the ordering of a new trial, however, brought yet another appeal, this time by the district attorney’s office to the Court of Appeals. Once again, Van Buren would argue that the prohibition against testimony attesting to his client’s character had seriously jeopardized the case. And, once again, Van Buren prevailed. Cornell Van Gaasbeek would finally receive a new trial and, with a court date set, Van Gaasbeek was returned to the all too familiar accommodations of a jail cell in Kingston to await its start.
While some two years had passed since Van Gaasbeek was found guilty, it was, perhaps, the passage of time that most enhanced his chances for acquittal. First, and foremost, the chief witness against him, George Conine, had died — as had his father. In addition, as the Freeman reported, Emma Smith and Arthur Conine, though both were subpoenaed, seemed to have “had a falling out and (she) is now living with another negro.” Additionally, as Van Gaasbeek sat in prison far to the north, small town gossip — this time — moved in his favor as rumors and reports surfaced around Woodstock that George Conine had, on his deathbed, confessed to the murder of Oscar Harrison. Though unsubstantiated, even though an investigation followed, press reports regarding an end of life confession certainly could not have been detrimental to Van Gaasbeek’s chances.
With such factors, seemingly, weighing in his favor, Cornell Van Gaasbeek once again found himself seated before an all-white, all-male jury. As the attorneys for the second trial moved through what had become familiar territory, little was offered that varied from the original trial. The witness list remained much the same as Wolven, Downer, Van Hoevenberg, those who had claimed to have seen the defendant “staggering” from drink, and, of course, Everett Roosa played their familiar parts. The one major exception, of course, was the absence of George Conine. As a result, his testimony from the previous trial was read to the jury and, in the process, its impact seemed to have lessened.
What did change were the witnesses brought forward by Van Buren to attest to Van Gaasbeek’s character. Despite attempts by the prosecutor to undermine their impact, those who were called, men who had known Van Gaasbeek for “15 to 30 years, drunk and sober,” testified that his “reputation for peacefulness was good.” One witness, Officer Thomas Johnson, even managed to turn what most would fail to consider a ringing endorsement into high praise when he told the jury that even when he found Van Gaasbeek “asleep in a doorway and leaning against buildings,” he always, “went on about his business.”
An additional exception to testimony from the original trial also occurred when two doctors, George Chandler and Mark O’Meara testified that the injuries sustained by Oscar Harrison could have “been caused by falling during an alcoholic fit.” Though the prosecution attempted to push back on such an assertion, the possibility that Harrison’s death might have been accidental added one more argument to Van Buren’s efforts to raise the question of reasonable doubt.
As the second trial wound down, it was, finally, left to Van Buren himself to move the jury in the direction of Van Gaasbeek’s innocence. In a summation described by the Freeman as “masterful,” Van Buren continued to assert, as he had at the first trial, that motive had not been proven and that if this case, in the minds of the jury, were to “bear equally on two interpretations, that they must place the innocent interpretation or the innocent construction upon it.”
Not relying on legal constructs, however, it was Van Buren’s description of his personal commitment to the case that proved to be the centerpiece of his summation and, for that matter, the entire trial:
“I know that all criminal actions here alleged are foreign to the nature of this man,” he began. “I knew him as a boy. I’ve grown up with him in a sense and I have fought the fight of this negro because I believe that he is innocent and I’ll fight it as long as there is any fight left in me. I’ve dragged this case through every court in the state and I’ll do it again if necessary and I don’t care if it doesn’t cost the County of Ulster a cent or if it bankrupts it. I am not a great believer in the law. I believe that nine times out of ten it’s wrong. But I believe in eternal justice. I believe if you can get a case away from the lawyers and into the hands of twelve honest, decent men, you’ll get justice and that is all I ask of you.”
As Van Buren concluded, he turned to find his client in tears.
The trial ended on a Friday afternoon. The jury was charged once more and sent off to arrive at a verdict. Working through the weekend, the jurors, having taken an initial ballot, found themselves deadlocked, six to six. With their second ballot, movement began in the direction of Van Gaasbeek’s innocence, as nine members now favored acquittal. Eventually, two more would join the majority and, on Monday morning, the vote of the jury stood at 11—1. Following breakfast, the twelve men convened once more. Finally, the last man standing in the way of a not guilty verdict gave in, they were unanimous. After more than two years of proclaiming his innocence — while so many had pointed the finger of guilt in his direction — the long ordeal of Cornell Van Gaasbeek was about to come to an end.
At 8 a.m. that Monday the verdict was announced. The Freeman declared, “Corney Van Gaasbeek is a free man.” Upon hearing the verdict, Van Gaasbeek proceeded to shake the hand of each of the jurors and thank them for his freedom. Following the judge’s discharge of the jury, the man who was no longer a defendant was returned to his cell to collect his belongings and, at 8:20 a.m. Cornell Van Gaasbeek stepped onto the streets of Kingston a free man for the first time since December, 1905.
It had been two years and four months since Cornell Van Gaasbeek first pounded on Charles Wolven’s door, setting in motion a process that would shock a small town and intertwine so many lives. For the individuals involved, it was finally time to move on. District Attorney Frederick Stephan would go on to serve as a New York State Assemblyman and as Vice President of the Rondout Bank. Augustus Van Buren would continue his work as a lawyer while also serving as an alderman in Kingston and as a member of the county’s Board of Supervisors. Little was ever heard again from the remaining Conines, while the last public account of Emma Smith noted her application for assistance through the Overseers of the Poor. Turned down for failing to meet the residency requirement, it is known only that, at the time, she was ill and living near the Woodstock/Saugerties line. Everett Roosa’s career as the next Sherlock Holmes was not to be. The best Roosa would do to advance his career in criminal justice would be to secure a position as a security guard at the newly constructed reservoir for $75 a month. And, for Cornell Van Gaasbeek, the last account of his whereabouts following acquittal indicates that he finally found work outside of Kingston as a cook — for Augustus Van Buren.
In the end, no one would ever know exactly how Oscar Harrison died. There would be no further investigation, no further arrests. And so, Woodstock moved on as well. But a small town is not a small town without something to talk about and, in the early 1900s, chance and geography had conspired to offer new concerns and new targets for suspicion around Woodstock. Who were these artist people anyway?
All quotes in this article, unless otherwise noted, are from the pages of the Kingston Freeman (as it was then known) — December, 1905 through March, 1908.
Richard Heppner is Woodstock Town Historian.