I have lived in Saugerties, New York, a village situated between the Hudson
River and the Catskill Mountains, off and on since the mid-1970s. Only in the
past year, however, did I attempt an idle late-night Internet search for
“Saugerties” in the splendid American Memory collection of the Library of
Congress. Of the twenty-five hits, ten were linked to nineteenth-century song
sheets about murders and riots and prize fights by the otherwise nameless
“Saugerties Bard.” The game was afoot; I had to find out more. As it turned
out, the life story of the Bard, an itinerant folklorist named Henry Sherman
Backus, has itself taken on folkloric dimensions: what was strictly factual
has become jumbled up with romantic twaddle, especially around his melancholic
demise. It seemed to me that the songs, early on dismissed as doggerel, were
very good indeed and more worthy of attention than the composer. What was
his place in the long tradition of balladry and broadside, the people’s press?
Was he, like Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie, a moralist in musician’s clothing?
Or was he a mere entertainer and narcissist, a Catskills comic before his
time? Read on. The verses interspersed below are from the Saugerties Bard’s
ballad, “The Murdered Pedlar,” printed in Catskill in 1854.
On Friday, August 19, 1853, Hiram
Williams, an itinerant peddler of
German-Jewish origins, was on the first leg
of his journey home to 113 Walker Street in
New York City. He had completed a
successful tour of the villages of Ulster and
Greene counties, during which he had sold
one hundred dollars worth of jewelry and
lace. Arriving in Greenville too late to make
the Austin Line stage coach to Coxsackie, he
was prepared to wait for the next one until
he crossed paths with an inebriated thirty-year-old alumnus of Sing Sing prison, who
had likewise missed a stage from Albany to
Durham and was walking east.
On the Plank-Road, in Greenville town,
In a statement the mortally wounded
Williams was able to give while clinging to
life, he said that his assailant had come up to
him and, after some perfunctory repartee,
said, “You are a foolish fellow to take the
stage; if you walk down with me, we can get
there before the stage does, and you will save
your money.” Persuading the peddler to stop
at taverns along the way on this hot summer’s
day, Warren Wood inquired how much
money the peddler typically made on such a trip. “I said sometimes one, and sometimes
two hundred dollars; as we came near the
bridge, about half way down the hill, Wood
stepped back, and I saw him pull a pistol
from his pocket; he fired it and shot me
down; the ball entered my back, and passed
through my body, so that the doctor took it
out of my abdomen; he shot again, twice,
striking me about the head; I fell on the road,
and he took me by the legs and threw me
off the bridge and threw down my pack; he
then dragged me to one corner, under the
bridge, and asked me what I had in my small
box, and I told him nothing but spectacles;
he then threw stones on me, and went away”
(“Greene County,” 1853).
A Jewish Pedlar was shot down.
Ah, by a wretch, called Warren Wood,
Who shot the Pedlar in cold blood.
With murder rankling in his heart
From the Empire City did depart,
Arm’d with revolver, six-barrel’d true,
With which he shot the peddling Jew.
When first he shot, the Pedlar cried,
In an affidavit following his capture in New
York City, Wood admitted he had shot
Williams “two or three times” but denied
other seemingly less pertinent details. “The
peddler handed me his pocket-book; I never
asked him for it; neither did I pile any stones on him, or ill-use him. If he went off the
bridge, he must have fell off himself; I did
not throw him off.” Tossing his revolver
into a swamp, after which he “felt somewhat
easier,” Wood paid a local farmer the large
sum of “one gold dollar, a fifty cent piece
and two quarter dollars” to drive him to
Catskill Point. From there he crossed the
Hudson, took the train to Tivoli, and then
the express to New York, where he arrived
near midnight that same Friday (“Greene
Whate’er you want shall be supplied.
His pocket-book to Wood he gave,
In hopes by this his life to save.
Again he shot! O, cruel man!
What mortal can your feelings scan.
Infernal spirits astonish’d stood,
Awhile to gaze on Warren Wood,
Who did the Pedlar’s head then pound
As he lay bleeding on the ground,
Until he thought him truly dead,
And then the monster quickly fled.
In Gotham he hooked up with his
paramour, Emma, who noted that he had
more money at hand than was usual; on
Saturday, with the ill-gotten gain, they visited
the Great Exhibition of Art and Industry at
the Crystal Palace—on the site of today’s New
York Public Library—which had opened its
doors to the public barely a month earlier,
and a Daguerrean parlor where the capture
of Emma’s likeness was to aid in the capture
of her lover. When Wood was apprehended
in New York, he had among his possessions
several items that indisputably belonged to
the peddler. Hauled back upstate, before
being incarcerated at the Catskill jail, he was
brought before the dying Williams, who
could not be moved from his bed at Moore’s
Tavern near Greenville.
Back to New York he sped his way,
Hiram Williams died on September 2 and
was buried after services at the Albany
synagogue. The charge against Wood was no
longer for attempted murder. In the trial that
took place on November 25, he was convicted
and sentenced to hang on January 20, 1854.
In between those two milestones in Wood’s
wretched life, a ballad was printed in the job
shop of the Greene County Whig. That
ballad, quoted throughout this article, was
composed by Henry Sherman Backus, a
sometime Saugerties resident who may have
felt an affinity for Williams, as he too was an
itinerant peddler, although his pack was filled
with songs rather than notions. Publishing
under the pen name of the Saugerties Bard,
Backus specified that “The Murdered Pedlar”
was to be sung to the tune of “Burns’
Farewell,” an air of distant times that was
known to anyone who had spent a bit of
time in a saloon or roadhouse. Though an
accomplished musician who accompanied his
recitations with fiddle and fife, Backus never
composed original music for the ballads he
published, as the convention in the ballad
business, unlike the bustling sheet music
trade, was to supply buyers with lyrics to
tunes they already knew.
To promenade with Ladies gay.
In Cherry Street they did him take:
He now his pleasure must forsake.
Though filled with dread and guilty fear,
Before the Pedlar must appear,
Thou art the man, the pedlar said,
As he then raised his dying head.
I know that coat, the boots likewise—
A dying man will tell no lies,
To Jail the murderer then was sent,
His awful crimes there to lament.
In Christ, the Saviour of mankind,
On the day that he was appointed to meet
his Maker, only twenty minutes before being
led to the Catskill jail’s rigged-up gallows,
Wood made a long and rambling statement,
the essence of which was that yes, he shot
the peddler, but he didn’t know what he was
doing or why. Then he attacked the integrity
of his attorney, the officers who arrested him
in New York, a reporter for the New York
Herald, and one other: “A man from
Saugerties has written some verses about me,
and they have been published by the
publishers of the Green[e] County Whig, and
circulated over the country at sixpence apiece.
I want to ask one question, and that is, if a
man in my situation is not entitled to
sympathy, rather than to be held up to
ridicule and abused in that way? . . . Those
degraded, low, mean, miserable verses are not
worthy of the respect of any man, and I am
sorry that anyone claiming responsibility [by
which he meant the editor of the Whig],
should suffer his press to give to the public
such verses, and shamefully abuse me.” Mr.
Ward, the editor, concluded his story of the
execution and the strange scenes preceding it
with Wood “suspended by the neck until he
was dead. His body hung fifteen minutes,
when it was taken down, placed in the coffin,
and conveyed in front of the jail, where the
spectators might view it. The body was
buried about 2 o’clock, in the village burial
yard” (“Execution of W,” 1854).
Repentance he may truly find:
O, soon he will suspended be,
To pay the law’s just penalty.
A faithful Jury did convict,
The Sheriff must the law inflict,
The penalty to justice due,
To all the guilty, as to you.
No costly gems or diamonds bright,
Disarms the law or aids his flight,
Nor thousand tons of shining gold,
Yet for a groat Wood’s life was sold.
No more, poor man, while here you stay,
The birds will chaunt their cheering lay,
Or friendly neighbors greet again
The wretch that hath the Pedlar slain.
On January next, the twentieth day,
The Sheriff must the law obey,
Upon the gallows him suspend,
And thus poor Wood his life will end.
Let all a solemn warning take,
And every wicked way forsake,
For soon we all will ush’rd be
Into a vast eternity.
The brutal detail is offered here because
life was more short and brutish then, with
death and retribution the stuff of everyday
concourse and consequently grist for ballads
and folklore, too. Murder, disaster, tragedy,
and sorrow were the stock in trade of the
Saugerties Bard. Henry Backus was beginning
to earn a reputation as a folk balladist, an
honored practitioner of the people’s press
that links seventeenth-century one-sheets and
broadsides to nineteenth-century penny
dreadfuls and dime novels, on up to story
songsters Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and
Bob Dylan. Backus was perhaps a better social
historian than he was a poet, but he was a
master of brevity, able to tell a story that
would go straight to the heart in a way that
myriad columns in the newspaper could not.
While ballads have traditionally been
about the proximity of the rose and the
briar—love and death—the Saugerties Bard found his calling in the briar patch, perhaps
because life had strewn few roses in his
path. His existence, which commenced on
February 4, 1798, in Coxsackie, New York,
has been festooned with so many garlands
of whimsy if not outright fakery that it is
difficult to separate the man from the myth.
His death on May 20, 1861, followed by a
pauper’s burial in Saugerties, concludes a tale
so sad that it is a pity Backus himself could
not have used it as a subject. In between
those dates, he endured the death of his
father in the War of 1812, became a
schoolteacher, wed, had children, buried his
wife and one of his children, became
estranged from the others, and spent some time in the insane asylum in Hudson (today
that city’s public library).
Broadside of the ballad “Hicks the Pirate,” published in March 1860. Courtesy of the
Library of Congress.
It is a life worth recounting in brief, but
engaging as it may be, the romantic figure of
this balladist—a combination of poet,
moralist, entertainer, lunatic, and huckster—
has received more attention from this
century’s observers than the ballads
themselves. The Saugerties Bard has become
equal parts folklorist and folklore.
Composing sad songs about murderers
and their victims, he pandered to the public’s
taste for sensationalism with a winking touch
of piety. As John Wesley is said to have
grumbled before setting down his five
directions for singing hymns, “It’s a pity that
Satan should have all the best tunes” (Lomax
As time wore on, the life of Henry
Sherman Backus became less eventful and
his balladry more so—and arguably more
proficient as well. With his Saugerties family
falling away from him in the 1850s he beat a
path south to New York City, where he
composed some of his most notable works.
In the latter half of that decade he wrote
ballads about famous murders (for example,
the unfortunate Dr. Burdell and his
scheming wife), riots (notably the July 4,
1857, fracas involving the Dead Rabbits, Plug
Uglies, and Bowery Boys, brought to screen
in Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York), and
executions, especially those of the antisocial
lad James Rodgers and my personal favorite,
the “pirate” Albert Hicks. Some of the
Saugerties Bard’s ballads, notably “Uncle
Sam’s Farm” and “The Dying Californian,”
have conventionally been assigned to other
pens, but nineteenth-century writers gave
credit to Backus. Full lyrics survive for most
of them, as do MIDI versions of the tunes
or—in a handful of cases—newly recorded
Backus was something of an
entrepreneur, paying job printers to run off
his ballads, then selling them from his pack
as he roamed from town to town. He even
produced a now exceedingly scarce Ulster
County Almanac for 1855, which he promoted
with an advertisement in the Saugerties
Telegraph: “[It] contains besides a good calendar some of the best effusions of the
author. The bard will present it to the
inspection of the public as soon as issued
and probably sing most of the ballads as he
is wont to do, accompanied by instrumental
music. The approach of the Almanac will be
announced by music from fiddle and flute”
(qtd. in Jones 1942, 141).
Benjamin Myer Brink, in his Early History
of Saugerties, wrote in 1902:
All through the counties of Ulster and
Greene, at least, was he well known in
the years from 1835 to 1860; and often
was he seen all down the Hudson River
valley, and even upon the streets of
New York, and westward along the
Mohawk he had occasionally wandered,
and into Canada. He was harmless,
eccentric, impulsive, and at times
incoherent, with a faculty for
impromptu rhyming. . . . The writer
can see him now pass by, clad in a suit
of gray, with long gray locks covered
with a cap. (310–1)
Louis C. Jones offered another view forty
years later: “Although Backus died in 1861 a
few old people in the Saugerties area still
cherish him among their earliest memories.
Mr. J. H. Kerbert, a bard himself, recalled
him with remarkable clearness. I have in my
possession a drawing made from memory
by Mr. Kerbert, which shows Backus in his
big hat, with long hair, grizzled beard, pegleg,
and cane” (1942, 140).
But how did this son of Greene County
become the bard of Saugerties, in Ulster
County? This has been a mystery that eases a
bit through genealogical research—only
recently simplified by the digitization of
federal, state, and local records—yet is by no
means settled. Henry’s father, Electus Mallory
Backus (1765–1813), and mother, Sabra
Judson Backus (1764–1838), had both been
born in Connecticut, where they wed in 1784.
They relocated to West Camp, New York,
sometime before 1787, and thence to
Coxsackie. Of their eleven children, all but
one lived to adulthood and married—so
Henry, the seventh, would enjoy a cornucopia
of nieces and nephews, a fact difficult to gibe
with his later solitary life and death.
Electus Mallory Backus was a military man
by election, before the outbreak of war in
1812. Commissioned as major of the First
Light Dragoons in October 1808, he would
die in action at Sackett’s Harbor in June
1813. (For decades thereafter Sabra Backus
petitioned Congress unsuccessfully to
provide her with a widow’s pension.)
Henry’s younger brother Electus Jr. would
also become a military man, matriculating
at West Point and serving with distinction
in the Mexican and Civil Wars. According to
Brink, Henry too “grew to manhood with
a passion for what concerns a soldier. He
possessed a peculiarly correct ear for martial
music, and in early years was an efficient
teacher of the fife, the drum, and the bugle.
Later he taught school, and coming to
Saugerties he married a Miss Legg, with
whom he lived for a number of years. After
her death his mind received a peculiar bias
and he began to lead the life of a wandering
minstrel” (1902, 312).
According to Pauline Hommell, a
Saugerties schoolteacher and historian who
wrote an anecdote-laden profile of Backus
in her 1958 volume Teacup Tales, Miss Legg
was an orphan. In Hommell’s ghostly tale
“The Face at the Window,” she contrives this
comment from Cornelis [Cornelius] Post to
Backus, recently arrived in Saugerties to accept
a position as schoolteacher: “‘You’ve been
seeing our neighbor’s cousin, Alida Legg.
Ach, but she is good to feast one’s eyes on”
(1958, 34). Hommell was not above
inventing dialogue and spooky stories, but I
do not suspect her to have been a fabricator
of basic fact. Katsbaan Church records show
that an Alida was born to Lodewijk Smit
[Anglicized as Lodowick Smith in the 1800
census] and Neeltje Post on March 3, 1799,
and when she was baptized seventeen days
later, her sponsors were William Legg and
Debora Post. Born to Alida’s parents five
years earlier had been Debora Smit,
sponsored by Petrus Post and Debora Post
(Katsbaan Church records, entries 1830 and
2203). According to Hommell, Alida wed
Henry in the early 1820s and died in May
1845, although Teacup Tales makes no
mention of children.
Other sources give Mrs. Backus the name
Eliza or Ann Eliza—possibly Anglicizations,
possibly a confusion with Henry’s older sister
Eliza. Alida/Eliza is also given a maiden
name of Legg, which she might well have
taken upon her adoption. In the 1830 census
the age of Henry “Baccus” of Saugerties is
listed as over thirty but under forty. He has
one daughter older than five but younger
than ten. His wife is listed as over twenty but
under thirty, close enough to the truth and
perhaps flattering. Burial records of
Mountain View Cemetery show that their
daughter Sara Ann died June 6, 1830, at the
age of one year and twelve days (Poucher
and Terwilliger 1931). In the 1840 census
Backus, still residing in Saugerties, presides
over a household of six females: two
daughters under five, two more between five
and ten, another between fifteen and twenty,
and his wife. Yet in the 1850 census, he shares
an abode only with laborer Abraham Wing,
age fifty-eight; he himself is listed with no
profession. At some point in the 1840s he is
said to have spent time in the lunatic asylum
in Hudson. The likely dispersal of his
daughters to other homes following his
commitment or the death of his wife might
have driven any man to despair; it sent Henry
Backus on the road.
So may we conclude that the Saugerties
Bard’s odd demeanor was born of trauma?
Or might it have been at least in some
measure calculated? In The Catskills Alf
Evers wrote, “Local eccentrics found the
[Catskill] Mountain House an irresistible
target and they often served to brighten a
dull day. Among them was Henry Backus,
‘the Saugerties Bard, a Cosmopolitan, a
Travelling Minstrel,’ as he was inscribed on
the hotel register. Backus sang songs he
composed and sold printed copies of them
to guests. He put together a Mountain
House ballad in 1856” (1972, 458). Clearly
eccentricity was a solid marketing tactic then
as now; Backus may have been the Tiny Tim
of his day, ridiculed by his audience but
laughing all the way to the bank. Certainly
his mind was sufficiently composed to
produce lyrics that generally scanned and
always told a story.
Reviewing his list of songs, it is clear that
the “Catskill Mountain House Ballad,” printed
June 30, 1856, marked very nearly the end of
Henry Backus’s rural phase. His brother
Electus had been installed as the army’s
superintendent of general recruiting services
at Fort Columbus on Governor’s Island in
New York harbor. He and his brother had
seen little of each other for decades, but the
Saugerties Bard nevertheless boldly headed
south to the city of lights and shadows. In
the four years remaining to him he would
publish at least fifteen (and perhaps many
more) ballads with the three prolific New York
song-sheet publishers, Andrews, Wrigley, and
De Marsan. Indeed, no one knows precisely
how many song sheets, slip ballads, and
poetical broadsides the Saugerties Bard may
have composed or published, and additional
ones may yet be identified, especially those
that may have been printed in newspapers but
not distributed as broadsides.
Living in New York and Hoboken, Backus,
nearing the age of sixty, did some of his best
work. There were the songs about famous
riots (“The Great Police Fight [Riot at City
Hall], June 15, 1857”), boxing matches (the
156-round affair celebrated in “Bradley &
Rankin’s Prize Fight for $1000 a Side”), and
especially notorious villains such as Mrs.
Cunningham (“Dr. Burdell, or the Bond Street
Murder”), Francis Gouldy (“Heart Rending
Tragedy”), and my favorite murderer, Albert
W. Hicks (“Hicks the Pirate”), the man who
for a few months pushed Abe Lincoln and
secessionist rumbling off the front page.
Hicks was a waterfront thug, not a pirate,
who in March 1860 was drugged by a rival
gang member and woke up to find himself
“shanghaied” onto the oyster sloop E. A.
Johnson and bound for Virginia. Knowing
from past practice just what to do, he
murdered the entire crew—the skipper
Captain Burr and the brothers Watts—with
an axe, gathered up their clothing and
valuables, and threw them overboard.
Managing the sloop badly as he turned it back
toward New York, he collided with the
schooner J. R. Mather, outbound for
Philadelphia. Hicks lowered a boat piled high
with his victims’ belongings and made for shore at Staten Island. When the wrecked E.
A. Johnson was brought ashore awash in blood,
Hicks’s day of reckoning neared. Chased from
New York to Providence, Hicks was
apprehended, tried on federal charges of piracy
on the high seas, and won a nickname that he
took to his grave ... and beyond.
|Songs of the Saugerties Bard|
The Powder Mill Explosion at Saugerties, New York. 1847.
The Dying Californian. ca. 1850.
Uncle Sam’s Farm. Air—Walk in de Parlor and Hear de Banjo Play. ca. 1850.
Dunbar, the Murderer. 1851.
The Burning of the Henry Clay. 1852.
Explosion of Steamer Reindeer. On the Hudson at Malden, September 4, 1852.
The Burning of the Reindeer, September 10, 1852.
Whipoorwill, or American Night-bird: A Poem. 1852.
John Mitchel, Irish Patriot in Exile. Air—Hail to the Chief. ca. 1853–4.
The Murdered Pedlar, Catskill. Air—Burns’ Farewell. 1854.
The Baptist Preacher or the Drowned Woman and Child, Kingston, May. Air—The Rose
My Heart’s in Old ’Sopus Wherever I Go. Kingston. June 1855.
“Catskill Mountain House Ballad” [original title unknown]. June 30, 1856.
Dr. Burdell, or the Bond Street Murder. Which Took Place Jan. 30, 1857, in the City of New
York. Air—Burns’ Farewell. 1857.
The Great Police Fight (Riot at City Hall), June 15, 1857. Air—Root Hog or Die. 1857.
Dead Rabbits’ Fight with the Bowery Boys. July 4, 1857. Air—Jordan. 1857.
The Murdered Policeman, Eugene Anderson, Who Was Shot by the Desperate Italian Burglar,
Michael Cancemi, Cor. of Centre and Grand Streets, July 22, 1857. Air—Indian Hunter.
The Bellevue Baby Mrs. Cunningham’s Adopted. Air—Villikins [and His Dinah]. 1857.
Mrs. Cunningham and the Baby. Air—Villikins and His Dinah. 1857.
The Cunningham Baby. Or The Heir from Over Jordan. 1857.
That Baby on the Half Shell. 1857.
Bradley & Rankin’s Prize Fight for $1000 a Side. At Point Abino, Canada, August 1, 1857.
Air—Old Virginia’s Shore. 1857.
The Queen’s Telegraphic Message, and President Buchanan’s Reply, Hudson. August 18, 1858.
The Thirtieth Street Murder. A Horrible Tragedy. Air—Burns’ Farewell. 1858.
Heart Rending Tragedy, or Song No. 2 on the 30th Street Murder. Air—Meeting of the
Waters, or Indian Hunter. October 26, 1858.
Execution of Rodgers. 1858.
The Press Gang. Air—Tom Haliard. 1860.
Hicks the Pirate. Air—The Rose Tree. March 1860.
The American Flag. n.d.
Warren’s Address. To the American Soldiers Before the Battle of Bunker Hill. Air—Bruce’s
Johnny Bull and Brother Jonathan. Air—Yankee Doodle. n.d.
Four Germans Drown’d in Rondout Creek. n.d.
There would be no schoolboy mewling for
this hardened criminal who, with a twentyfirst-
century sense of commerce, hired a writer
to make his confession suitably bloodcurdling
to sell to a publisher, with the
proceeds to go to his widow. This will give
the picture: “I have killed men, yes, and boys too, many a time before, for far less
inducement than the sum I suspected I should
gain by killing them; and I had too often dyed
my murderous hands in blood in days gone
by, to feel the slightest compunctions or
qualms of conscience then” (“Execution of
H,” 1860). Ah, they don’t write ’em like that
today, and more’s the pity!
Convicted of the triple murder, Hicks was
slated for execution on July 13, 1860, at a
gallows constructed on Bedloe’s Island (also
known as “Gibbet Isle”) out in the harbor,
where the Statue of Liberty has stood since
1886. His procession from jail to gallows
took on the aspect of a circus, and a general
holiday atmosphere prevailed. Excursion
boats had been lined up beforehand for the
twelve thousand spectators (a New York Times
estimate) to have a memorable outing: “HO! FOR THE EXECUTION” read the
headline on one classified ad (1860). Peanut
vendors and lemonade stands did a brisk
business to the beat of the fife and drum.
The thirsty “imbibed lager-beer,” reported
the Times, and in rowboats there were “ladies,
no, females of some sort, shielding their
complexion from the sun with their parasols,
while from beneath the fringe and the tassels
they viewed the dying agonies of the choking
murderer” (“Execution of H,” 1860).
“Ho! for the execution.” A classified advertisement in the July 12, 1860,
issue of the New York Times offered one-dollar steamboat excursions to
the execution of Albert W. Hicks on July 13.
Soon after Hicks was buried, grave robbers
stole his body, spawning a long-standing
rumor that he had somehow defeated the
hangman and was running around wreaking
havoc under an alias. In fact, his body had
been sold to medical students. Within months of the hanging, P. T. Barnum’s
American Museum featured a wax image of
Hicks among its other notorious figures. The
Great Showman’s newspaper ad described
his sundry marvels (“Amusements,” 1861):
Not these alone attention draw; Figures
in wax are found;
Classic and modern; Christian Sage and
heathen of renown;
All characters whose names have a very
A Mummy here, a Judas there—a
“Tommy” done up brown;
A John Brown or an Albert Hicks—a
Lambert and his wife.
The Siamese Twins and Albert
Guelph—all true to life.
“Hicks the Pirate,” the Saugerties Bard’s
ballad published right after the hanging,
marked the end of a tradition. Songs about
solo murderers would soon pale before the
slaughter of hundreds of thousands of our
best in blue and gray. The young Henry
Backus had not embraced the military as his
father and brother had done; he would not
do so now. Out of fashion and perhaps
increasingly addlepated, he headed back
north. “During the winter,” according to
Brink, “he was hardly seen” (1902, 314).
On Monday, May 13, 1861, Backus slept
in an old shed in Katsbaan outside a hotel
maintained by James H. Gaddis, who found
him the following morning, emaciated and
unconscious. The Bard was taken to the
village of Saugerties, where he was fed,
charged with vagrancy, and taken to Kingston’s jail. There he lingered unattended
until he died on May 20. His body was given
a pine-coffin burial in Saugerties. Few
members of his extensive family had stood
by him in life; none now came in death. His
remains were placed, in Pauline Hommell’s
aptly chosen words, “into the six-foot cavity
which is the common portion of all the sons
of Adam” (1958, 37).
John Thorn is the author and editor of
many books. He lives in Saugerties.
He writes a column for the
Woodstock Times and Kingston
Times called “Wake the Echoes,” in
which an earlier version of this article
originally appeared. Voices will
welcome John Thorn as a regular
columnist in 2006.
Henry Backus was beginning
to earn a reputation as a folk balladist, an
honored practitioner of the people’s press
that links seventeenth-century one-sheets and
broadsides to nineteenth-century penny
dreadfuls and dime novels, on up to story
songsters Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and
“Amusements. Barnum’s American Museum.
Advice Given Gratis.” February 28, 1861.
Classified advertisement. New York Times:7.
Brink, Benjamin Myer. 1902. The Early History
of the Saugerties, 1660–1825. Kingston, NY:
Evers, Alf. 1972. The Catskills. Garden City,
Execution of Hicks, the Pirate. July 14, 1860.
New York Times:1.
Execution of Warren Wood, from the Greene
County Whig, Jan. 21. January 25, 1854. New
The Greene County Murder—The Peddler’s
Affidavit—Wood’s Confession. September
3, 1853. New York Times:6.
“Ho! For the Execution.” July 12, 1860.
Classified advertisement. New York Times:7
Hommell, Pauline. 1958. Teacup Tales. New
York: Vantage Press.
Jones, Louis C. 1942. Henry Backus, the Saugerties
Bard. New York History 23.2:139–48.
Katsbaan Church records. Reformed. Town
of Saugerties, Ulster County, New York.
Lomax, John A. and Allan. 1934. American
Ballads and Folk Songs. New York: Macmillan.
Poucher, J. Wilson, and Byron J. Terwilliger,
ed. 1931. Old Gravestones of Ulster County,
New York : Twenty-Two Thousand Inscriptions.
Kingston. Rpt. 1998. Boston: New England
Historic Genealogical Society.
This article appeared in Voices Vol. 31, Fall-Winter 2005. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.
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