Book tackles early racial injustice in Upstate New York

Back in December, 1905, when Kingston still got its water from the Zena reservoirs and Cooper Lake was twinkling in the city’s eye, Oscar Harrison was murdered near the water supply. An African American man, Cornell Van Gaasbeek, in whose house the body was found, was charged with the crime and tried in Ulster County Court. He was defended by a local reformer, part politician Augustus H. Van Buren, as the trial unfolded amid the charged racial climate of the early 20th Century. 

If all of this, the subject of Woodstock town historian Richard Heppner’s new book, Woodstock’s Infamous Murder Trial, sounds a little familiar, you might have read a shorter version in 2014. 

But now Heppner has given us a more complete portrait of the times, the landscape and more importantly, the relationships between the inhabitants of our region, as he expands on what is a fascinating story, that has Woodstock at its core. 

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Heppner will read from and sign copies of his new book at 3 p.m. Sunday, February 16 at the Golden Notebook, 29 Tinker Street, Woodstock. 

“I guess local history carries some burdens,” says Heppner. “It’s great we celebrate all the good stuff, though not all of it is great. But it all connects to what our history really is.”

Asked what drew him to the story, Heppner says, “It started with the lawyer…(Van Buren). I found him when I did a piece on the origins of Cooper Lake as the Kingston Water Supply. He was Corporation Counsel for the city of Kingston and they told him to fight all the Woodstock locals who wanted to be paid for the loss of their land and he wouldn’t, he insisted they be paid. Then I found him again when I heard about the murder…”

“In expanding the story, I weaved the community into it more, brought more context to it. You know, our roots aren’t always as pure as we think…that’s kind of what pushed it.”

Heppner talked about inspiration. “Alf (Evers) really had the history, but I like stories that haven’t been reported or brought out. There are lots of sub stories in there that need to be recognized….” ++

Richard Heppner will talk about and sign copies of Woodstock’s Infamous Murder Trial at 3 p.m. Sunday, February 16 at the Golden Notebook bookstore, 29 Tinker Street, Woodstock. For more information, see goldennotebook.com or call 845-679-8000.

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