11 July 2010

Early NY Paper Reveals Family Murder

by Jan Alpert, NGS President

Some gems of information take a little tracking, but that makes the discovery all the dearer. Here is one that recently rewarded my efforts:
On Saturday evening last, in Painted Post, Steuben co, a Mr. Birst [Borst] killed a Mr. Wagon [Wygant], by literally beating out his brains. Wagon kept a tavern and had been drinking freely as also had Birst. A scuffle commenced, during which both parties became much exasperated. The women interfered and Birst was put out doors, where he remained nearly an hour, using the most provoking language. Wagon finally tore away from his family — Birst retreated a few rods— the scuffle was renewed, and Wagon was soon taken up nearly lifeless. His skull trepanned but he died the next day. Birst is in custody. We have these particulars from a gentleman direct from the scene, and they are a striking commentary on the folly of intemperance.
Finding a copy of this newspaper article has been on my research list since last November, when I was at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City. There I found reference to a murder in Painted Post, New York in an Index to the Newspapers Published in Geneva, New York edited by Gary B. Thompson in 1981. Today I found a wonderful website, http://library.hws.edu/archives/newspapers with a copy of the article from The Geneva Palladium, 1826, Ja 4, 3:3. At that time I noted the source as The Geneva Palladium, Vol. 10, January 4, 1826 (every Wednesday morning) Geneva, NY (Ontario Co.) p. 3 column 3 (from the Geneva Gazette), showing that the item was originally published in the Geneva Gazette.

The names in the article are both spelled incorrectly, so I enclosed the correct spellings in braces. This spelling variation added a sleuthing challenge, but it is understandable because the article is being reported in another town that is not familiar with the families mentioned. Henry Borst is my ancestor, and I first learned about the murder on page 307 in the Historical Gazetteer of Steuben County, New York by Millard F. Roberts, Syracuse, NY 1891. John Wygant had designed a replica of the “Painted Post” about 1824. The Steuben County history reports, “He was killed some years after in a broil with Henry Borst, who fractured Wygant’s skull with a stone, for which Borst suffered legal punishment.”

Only a family historian can tell you what was omitted from both articles, that Henry Borst’s daughter, Polly, was married to George Wygant, the victim’s son. This missing fact helps explain why “the women interfered” and tried to break up the fight. I imagine the family felt the effects from the devastating murder for several generations. However, the family and descendants lived in the community for at least another fifty years, and this story was not passed down in family folklore.

A few years ago I found a copy of the badly decayed court documents in Steuben County, New York, but they did not include details of Borst’s conviction or sentencing. Although not online, the same newspaper archive listed above has the following entry in the index: “Steuben County—Courts, H. Bust [yet another spelling] sentenced for manslaughter, Geneva Gazette, 1826, Je 28, 3:2.” I have just written to the Geneva Public Library for a copy of the article.

The Warren Hunting Smith Library at The Hobart and William Smith Colleges has a subject index found at http://library.hws.edu/archives/newspapers covering the surviving issues of the two Geneva newspapers, the Geneva Gazette and the Geneva Palladium, between 1806 and 1839. Not all of the issues are available online. If you have ancestors in western New York during this time period, it is worth a look. Note that the names of the individuals were not indexed; however, I found the entries under “Murder” and “Steuben County—Courts.” If you find any nuggets, feel free to post them to the UpFront blog.


  1. What a great find! These early newspaper articles really can mangle the spellings of surnames. Makes it interesting to track down all the details.

  2. Yesterday I received a copy of the follow up newspaper article 28 June 1826, Geneva Gazette, page 3, column 2, "Henry Bust, for the murder of Wygant, was found guilty of manslaughter, and sentenced to ten years imprisonment, at hard labor, in the Auburn State Prison." Yet another spelling. Now for the next research step, a letter to Auburn State Prison. Jan Alpert

  3. In 2008, in conjunction with the NGS conference in Kansas City, I made plans to spend a few days at the State Historical Society of MO in Columbia. Before the trip I searched an online index to selected MO newspapers (1819-1886), not expecting to find much about my less-than-newsworthy Davis family. I was shocked to find this tantalizing entry: "Robert T. Davis shot and killed Wm. Mays at the residence of Mr. R. S. Simms." The Historical Society sent a digital image of the article, which confirmed that my great-grandfather killed a man back in 1871. The town was anxious to catch the young ruffian and hang him, teaching a lesson to all the young men of the area who were running around with guns and drinking alcohol. Additional on-site newspaper reseach uncovered the fact that my Robert Davis was on the lam for 18 years. When he was finally captured, there was a very large, almost full-page article giving his physical description, the history of where where he had been for 18 years, a recounting of the killing (over a woman of course), etc. He spent a year in jail, eventually freed without trial. The rest of the story? He died in 1922, a respectable constable in Bartlesville, OK. I can't help but wonder if my mother ever knew her grandfather killed a man. If so, it was a well-kept family secret. Pam Pearson