This is really a Pittstown story, but I can’t resist telling it. It does connect with Schaghticoke’s Gothic novelist, Ann Eliza Bleecker, and it occurred during the Revolutionary War, so it’s in the time frame I’ve been writing about. But it interests me also because it is both gruesome and poignant. I think we all have a vision of historical times as somehow being different than our own, the people more honest, harder working, more patriotic, just better people somehow. As a teacher, I always heard parents and other teachers say, “Oh, kids today are more disobedient, less disciplined, etc… than in MY day.” Well, I have to say that I feel that people are just the same they always have been. Human nature is human nature. And this story is an illustration. It is also an illustration of how difficult it is to piece together a story that occurred over 200 years ago. Many of the facts I will cite below come from the hard work of Warren Broderick of Lansingburgh.
Around the time of the American Revolution, a large family surnamed Yates moved to the Schaghticoke area from Westchester County. They are not to be confused with the family of Peter Yates, the Colonel of our local militia unit during the war. He and his large family moved here about the same time, but they were of Dutch descent, from Albany. The Yates family I am speaking of was of English descent, and from the New York City area. Some of the family, including the father, Richard, were Loyalists during the war. The grown children of the family were Peter (1755-1813); Eve (1744-1825), wife of Richard Green; Rachel (1752-1825), wife of Jacob Overocker; Eleanor, wife of Dr. Samuel Jackson, and James, who is the protagonist of our story. The Jacksons were Loyalists, who left the area in 1782. They all lived in and around what is now the Melrose part of Schaghticoke, some in what is now Pittstown. Peter Yates, Eve Yates Green, and Rachel Yates Overocker are all buried in St. John’s Lutheran Cemetery, at the junction of Northline Drive and Valley Falls Road.
James and his wife Elizabeth lived in the “ west part of Pittstown.” Three of their children, Isaac (1777), Joseph (1779), and Maria (1781) were baptized in the Gilead Lutheran Church in Brunswick. Maria’s baptismal sponsors were Henry and Maria Grawberger, who lived in the Melrose area and are buried in St. John’s Lutheran Cemetery. Those are the clues to where James and his family lived. There is also a James Yates on the list of those in the 14th Albany County Militia.
I was reading about the other Yates, Colonel Peter, and the border problems with Vermont in the letters of Governor George Clinton, when I came across this passage in a letter from one Simon Pendleton,
Upon the 4th instant (Dec. 4, 1781), in the Night, one James Yates, living upon the Western boundaries of Pittstown, Murdered his Wife and four Children with an Ax; the eldest 6 years of age, and the youngest a sucking child. He likewise killed his two horses, his Cow, and his Dog, which was all the living creatures he had about his house. The murderer was the first that made the discovery; nor did he attempt to make his escape. He was brought into this City (Albany), this afternoon.”
Amazingly to me, there is an extensive article about the murders in Wikipedia- the unknown author cites several contemporary newspaper accounts: one in the “Connecticut Courant” in Hartford, Conn. on December 25, two in the “Massachusetts Spy” in Worcester, Mass., on December 27, 1781 and February 14, 1782, and one in the “Salem Gazette” in Salem, Mass. on February 7, 1782. The articles add the information that his neighbors said James was healthy and sane before the incident, and that Mrs. Yates and the baby were found dead at a distance from the house, apparently killed trying to flee. Also, Yates went to his parents’ home nearby the next morning in the nude and confused, and that he felt he had been killing Indians and had been “tempted to this horrid deed by the spirit.” One of the papers also stated that Yates had been a member of the Shaker sect. I have not been able to confirm this- he would have been a very early member- as the Shakers only began in 1777- and as the Shakers were celibate and he had several children, I don’t think it is possible.
In earlier posts, I wrote about Ann Eliza Bleecker, a young, educated mother who came to Schaghticoke with her husband about the same time as the Yates. She suffered through the Revolutionary period, which included her evacuation south and the death of one of her small daughters. She wrote a fictionalized and sensational account of the Indian massacre which had occurred in Schaghticoke in the early 1700’s. At the exact time of the Yates ax murder, Mrs. Bleecker and all of the town residents were in turmoil due to the controversy over the location of the border of Vermont. Mr. Bleecker was one of those who had been kidnapped and taken to Vermont temporarily during the controversy. Plus the war was still on, and there was constant worry about incursions by Tories from Canada.
Mrs. Bleecker evidently plunged into the events surrounding the murder. She wrote a letter to a friend about the event, and Warren Broderick feels that two articles about the tragedy appearing in the “New York Weekly Magazine” and the “Philadelphia Minerva” in 1796 were also by her. All were published posthumously, as Mrs. Bleecker died in 1783. She had been in poor health since suffering a miscarriage shortly after the events of December 1781. In the letter, she reports “the most tragical afffair has happened here that I ever remember to have heard of.” She reports the facts just as in the letter above, concluding, “by all appearances he is a religious lunatic.” In the magazine articles, she adds that Yates was interrogated at her house before being sent to the jail in Albany, where she had sent him some fruit. The following August she reports that “poor Mrs. F___ was lately delivered of a child who is a terror to everyone who sees it. It seems she was struck with so much horror at the sight of James Yates’s murdered family, that it made too fatal an impression.” Unfortunately, the wikipedia article cited earlier includes Mrs. Bleecker’s fictionalized account of the murder as fact.
Unfortunately, we don’t know the end of the Yates story, as the court records are lost, and no local newspapers from the time survive. We can only speculate as to why he committed the murder. Some thoughts are: stress from the repeated deployments with the militia, or from the split in his own family between patriots and loyalists, or from the new agitation and worry over the border dispute with Vermont; stress from trying to survive as a poor farmer on the frontier with a growing family; marital or other family problems; mental illness; and temporary insanity. I’m not sure what to make of Mrs. Bleecker’s claim of “religious lunacy,” concluding that Yates was “under a strong delusion of Satan.” But I think that this sentence from the first letter is very telling: “ The murderer was the first that made the discovery; nor did he attempt to make his escape.” That tells me that the act was done while Mr. Yates was in some sort of state where he was unaware of what he was doing. Today we might have more clinical speculations as to why such an event might occur: depression, schizophrenia or other mental illness, a fugue state, or whatever. But while we know that events like this do happen from time to time, but they remain, “beyond the conception of human beings” to understand.
Broderick, Warren, “Fiction based on well-authenticated facts”, Hudson Valley Regional Review, 1987.
Bleecker, Ann Eliza, “Posthumous Works”, reprinted 1970.
“Public Papers of George Clinton”, Letter No. 4198, p. 556.