The rest of the story, part 1

The area at the center of this map — near O’Neil Flow, just southwest of Blue Mountain — is where in 1932 a group of white men, including state troopers and gamekeepers, hunted and killed a Black man who was living in the woods. The Black man was never named, and newspapers exaggerated his size and his actions. (Map by U.S. Geological Survey, 1903, Blue Mountain Quadrangle)

(Note by columnist Howard Riley: Last week’s column was entitled “Hunt for man who threatened trappers” — a story lifted from the pages of the Malone Evening Telegram of March 4, 1932. At the end of the column I asked my friend Tracy Schrader, Long Lake native, if she could get the “rest of the story.” In the meantime I got a call from Nancy Bernstein Saturday introducing me to Dr. Eliza Jane Darling, who has dug deep into this Adirondack story … thus today’s incredible column, with part 2 to follow. Luckily I got a hold of Tracy before she made a special trip to Long Lake on my behalf to get the “rest of the story.”)

Only three men knew the full story of what transpired in the desolate Adirondack country between O’Neil Flow and Donnelly Mountain in 1932. One never made it off the mountain alive. The other two are long in the ground. The rest of us are left to make sense of an apocryphal tale with only one certainty: the man who died on the mountain was Black, and the men who killed him were white.

This much seems true: Ernie Blanchard and Lester Turner of Indian Lake came upon a stranger living rough in the woods some miles east of Blue Mountain in early March of that year. What happened next is unclear, but in the aftermath of this encounter, they filed a complaint with the State Police. Over the next three days, a shifting roster of three civilians, two state gamekeepers and four state troopers pursued the man across the wilderness to his death, later claiming that he initiated a gunfight rather than surrender. He died before revealing his identity and was buried, nameless, 30 miles away in North Creek.

Newspapers across the nation cast the Adirondackers as a stalwart “posse” on the trail of a dangerous outlaw. Official reports gave a more sober account of an unfortunate but justified shooting. Some of those involved would live to develop reputations inspiring faith in their integrity, including Blanchard, who died a celebrated Adirondack guide, and gamekeeper Merritt Lamos, who became a widely respected Hamilton County sheriff. Amidst broad support for the killers, a lone voice dissented. The Glens Falls Post-Star wasn’t buying it, for good reason.

The Post-Star’s objections could have been lifted straight from today’s headlines. The “giant negro” described by many newspapers turned out to be all of 5 feet, 6 inches and 130 pounds at his autopsy. Could nine well-fed men not have subdued him, or waited him out? What crime had he actually committed? As with similar cases today, the legitimacy of the shooting hinged partly upon the justification for summoning the police in the first place. Justification, in turn, hinges upon which version of the story is true.

That determination is no simple task, for even official accounts do not agree on exactly what happened when Blanchard and Turner first encountered the victim.

The police report claims the men were “confronted by a negro” in the woods. Blanchard, by contrast, told a coroner’s inquest that they came across his tracks, followed them for nearly a mile, found him gathering firewood and “hollered at him,” suggesting it was they who initiated the confrontation. While the two men were often described as “trappers” in the press, both official accounts indicate that they were hunting, and therefore, presumably, carrying guns — a crucial point glossed over by the inquest. Turner reveals they had a dog with them. Both documents agree that the man was startled, ran to grab a gun, pointed it at them from a considerable distance and told them to stay away because he did not want to shoot them, at which point they retreated. Dick Farrell, posse member and caretaker of a nearby sportsmen’s camp where the pursuers bunked overnight during the manhunt, further testified that someone had recently peered through a camp window before running away, and that some shotgun shells had gone missing.

The newspapers could hardly have told this tale differently. “Adirondacks Combed for ‘Wild Man,'” announced the Albany Times Union on March 4. “Indian Lake Trappers Terrorized by Man Clad in Deer Skin,” ran the strap line, while the article below claimed that authorities were on the hunt for “a wild man fugitive, roaming through that section and terrorizing guides and trappers with a sawed-off shotgun” after breaking into multiple camps from Indian Lake to Speculator. The Malone Telegram, which misprinted Turner’s name, alleged the man had “threatened to kill them.”

The story grew ever more implausible as the decades wore on. Post-Star columnist Don Metivier, interviewing survivors in the 1970s, was told of “a huge creature covered with hair from head to foot” with a footprint “nearly a yard across,” about which the State Police had received “several calls” after the creature “burned down several lumber camps and hunting cabins.” By the time Bob Elinskas came by the story for his 2005 volume “A Deer Hunter’s History Book,” the diminutive victim, far from warning them off from a distance, was a “big guy” with “huge foot coverings” who “jumped out” at them and “had a double-barreled shotgun pointed right at Ernie’s chest.”

“Sensationalized” does not begin to capture the extent to which this story has been inflated by secondhand sources. Within hours, the man had been dehumanized as an animal, pathologized as a lunatic, and criminalized as a burglar, an outlaw and a terrorist. A conservation official speculated that the victim would have raped a white woman if he’d had the chance. The passing decades would inexplicably add arson to this litany of fictional crimes and further dehumanize him as an “Adirondack Bigfoot” — the literal title of Metivier’s chapter on the subject in his 1993 collection “On Metivier.”

Over 90 years of revisionist history, not one author has ventured to run a mile in the victim’s shoes. What must have gone through this man’s mind as two large, armed white men tracking him with a dog emerged from the bush and entered his camp in the remote Adirondack backwoods in 1932? Who was terrorizing whom? For all the fanciful imagination it takes to conjure wild men, desperadoes and Sasquatches, an alternative narrative — say, “Black man pays with his life for standing his ground against white assailants” — seems to have occurred to no one.

I belabor the details because the devil within them defines the difference between a posse and a lynch mob. And yet they are insufficient to prove that distinction on their own, for the context of these events casts doubt on the veracity of even the official account. I will address this backstory, and the subsequent pursuit, in Part 2.

Dr. Eliza Jane Darling lives in the Hamilton County town of Benson, is the former Hamilton County historian and teaches remotely as an associate adjunct professor in the Anthropology Department at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.


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