Four New Historic Markers Erected

From a Proven Patriot to an Alleged Cannibal, Austerlitz Marks its Past

Tom Moreland, Austerlitz Town Historian: The Austerlitz Historical Society has installed four new historical markers around the town of Austerlitz, highlighting three persons notable in the town’s past plus one important building. These markers have been funded by the William G. Pomeroy Foundation of Syracuse, which since 2006 has helped place over 800 historic markers around New York State.

Former Hotel

What is now the apartment building across the street from the Spencertown store was a hotel from about 1850 and later, from 1909 until 1953, the home of the Austerlitz Grange. The marker notes these facts and highlights one notable event: a speech made from the hotel’s then balcony in 1862 recruiting volunteers for the Union army. The speaker was Dr. Wright H. Barnes, a prominent local physician who served two terms as town supervisor.

This building, now owned by Greg Campbell, may date back to at least the very early 1800s. Spencertown resident Charles Davenport wrote an article in 1923 stating that his father had worked in the store of a Mr. Parke in the building in the 1840s, and that his father had told him it was not a new building even then. It would appear that it was constructed as a residence and was the house of Elisha Murdock from 1814 to 1832. If true, then the building was the site of the first town meeting of Austerlitz in 1818: the statute creating Austerlitz required (for reasons unknown) that its first meeting be held in the house of Elisha Murdock.

But there are no deeds or other documents proving this possible earlier history of the building. Pomeroy Foundation markers are restricted to facts supported by primary sources, an important requirement since undocumented historical lore can often be wrong. Thus this marker asserts only the building’s documented identity as a hotel starting around 1850.

Charles Kinne

This marker stands in front of the former home of Charles Kinne (1808 – 82) on Route 22 in the hamlet of Austerlitz. Kinne conducted a wagon making business from about 1847 to 1880. It was probably the largest employer in the hamlet, with all of three workers. The business, which did not survive Kinne’s death, included two manufacturing buildings nearby. Kinne also built around 1873 the two Gothic Revival houses standing to the south of this one, as the marker notes. This section of Austerlitz is called Kinneville by some longtime residents, but that name is not on this marker since we have no evidence of its use prior to the 1950s. Kinne’s house was probably constructed around 1810 by Lewis Bristol, but evidence of that was not sufficient for inclusion on the marker.

Caption Joel Pratt

The proven patriot in this article’s title is Captain Joel Pratt (1746-1821), who organized a Spencertown company of 49 men in 1775, at the beginning of the Revolutionary War. Pratt initially planned to march his troops to Boston but was persuaded instead to march to the relief of Fort Ticonderoga by the Albany Committee of Correspondence. The company returned to Spencertown before reaching the fort, as the threatened British attack did not materialize. Pratt continued to fight for independence throughout the duration of the war.

Joel Pratt was the younger brother of David Pratt, another Spencertown Revolutionary War hero who is honored by a Pomeroy marker, this one at the Van Alstyne home which David built in 1777.

The Joel Pratt marker stands in front of the house owned since 1975 by Lynne O’Connell (and her late husband Thomas). Joel Pratt owned and occupied the house from at least 1790 until 1802, when he moved to Steuben County. Probably he was living in the house years earlier with his father Elisha, who is believed to have built the house in the 1760s. The house, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is commonly thought to be the oldest house in Spencertown. But this early history remains in the realm of conjecture, absent any deed or other proof, and thus is not mentioned on the marker.

Oscar Beckwith

Surely the most unusual of these markers is this one remembering (“honoring” would be the wrong word) Oscar Beckwith, often referred to as the “Austerlitz Cannibal.” While this label is disputed (and not mentioned on the marker), on January 10, 1882, Oscar did kill Simon Vandercook, his partner in a failed gold mine, in Beckwith’s shanty in the Austerlitz hills. He then cut the body into many pieces, intending to burn the evidence in his stove. Before he could do so Vandercook’s landlord, puzzled by Vandercook’s disappearance and suspicious of Beckwith, alerted the Sheriff. The Sheriff’s posse broke into Oscar’s shanty and discovered the grisly sight. Some later maintained they had seen evidence that Oscar had planned to devour Vandercook’s liver and heart or had actually done so.

Oscar had fled before the posse arrived. Some 72 years old, he managed to walk over 600 miles to a remote area some 200 miles north of Toronto. There he lived under an alias, eluding a nationwide search. He was finally captured in 1885 after disclosing his alias and location in a letter to a Spencertown relative asking for money (so he could buy a set of teeth).

Beckwith was extradited and then tried twice in Hudson for murder. The two trials -- the first guilty verdict was vacated based on claimed newly discovered evidence -- captured national attention. Sentenced to death six times, as the case ran up and down the court system, Beckwith was ultimately hanged in Hudson on March 1, 1888, on gallows imported for the occasion from New York City.

Why commemorate this sordid tale? Because it was the most notorious event in the history of Austerlitz. The Beckwith marker stands on the east side of Route 22, a half mile north of Upper Hollow Road, in front of an open field owned by Darin Johnson and Gregory Keffer. From there one can see the Austerlitz hills where, some 1.6 miles to the east, the dastardly deed took place.