A Biography of John Magee
Introduction, Chapters One and Two
When John Magee arrived in Bath, New York, in 1816, he was a poor, uneducated young man with a lot of ambition, in an undeveloped frontier region. Upon his death in Watkins (now Watkins Glen) in 1868, he was a multi-millionaire, whose name was inter-woven with many enterprises that had helped tame and civilize the Southern Tier wilderness of New York State. He was a public servant, a businessman, and a benefactor. His influence was felt not only locally in Steuben, Schuyler, and Chemung Counties of New York and Tioga County in Pennsylvania, but nationally as well.
Recognizing the importance of transportation and communication on the growing Western New York frontier, Magee established a stage line. Later, he expanded this by associating himself with others in the stage business and obtaining Federal contracts to carry the mail to much of Western New York. In 1831, the Steuben County Bank was organized under the guidance of Magee. He was a chief stockholder and served as a President of the bank. Next, a new form of transportation, the railroad, attracted much of his attention. Magee was an early proponent of the New York and Erie Railroad that was projected to do for the Southern Tier what the Erie Canal had done for the central region of New York State. He joined with several other prominent men of Bath, Elmira, and Havana (now Montour Falls) to rescue the Erie Railroad from possible failure, and made possible the construction of the railroad from Binghamton to Hornellsville (now Hornell). His wealth acquired from this important undertaking allowed him to speculate in other railroads and in the coal industry.
Magee became known for his business ventures, but he also played a role as politician. He served as Sheriff of Steuben County, was a member of the United States House of Representatives for two terms, and served as a representative of Schuyler County in the 1867 State Constitutional Convention. In his lifetime John Magee did a great deal to develop and serve his community. Through his efforts, many areas, including Elmira, Corning, Bath and Watkins, prospered.
Many of the short biographical accounts found on Magee in county histories of Steuben or Schuyler counties present a glowing image of a great entrepreneur and politician who gave much of his wealth to churches, schools, and his community. These are gilded pictures that do not accurately portray the man. Some sketches of Magee's life offer tales of heroic deeds and a spurned offer for high Federal office. Without substantive proof, these have to be regarded as folklore.
John Magee was not without faults. He mistrusted many political party leaders, whom he viewed as schemers and power-seekers that cared little for the people. This attitude probably was fostered by a political trick played upon him that he never forgot. Some evidence also indicates that Magee was not above making money at the expense of the public.
This article will examine John Magee in the many roles he played during his lifetime: soldier, farmer, businessman, and politician. The biography will present information about Magee that is ignored in other accounts of his life, and try to separate fact from fiction. It also is a tribute to a man who had a prominent part in the development of this area.
The early life of John Magee is not well documented due to the nature of the region in those days. There were few newspapers and few public records kept. With the growth of this area, newspapers arrived. Many contemporary newspapers were useful in telling the later life of Magee. Other sources include county histories of Schuyler and Steuben Counties, New York, and of Tioga County, Pennsylvania.
Many thanks are extended to the Schuyler County Historical Society in Montour Falls, New York, the Davenport Library in Bath, New York, and the Tioga County Historical Society in Wellsboro, Pennsylvania, for their courteous help. Thanks also go to the Department of Manuscripts and University Archives in Olin Library at Cornell University. Mr. William Kelly, Watkins Glen Village Historian, and Mr. James Hope, Bath Village Historian, also have my sincere appreciation for their aid in my effort.
Sometime around the year 1784, Henry and Sarah Mulhollen Magee emigrated to America from County Antrim in northern Ireland. Eventually they settled near Easton, Pennsylvania. It was there that John Magee, the second of the five children that they would raise, was born on September 3, 1794. 1 His two sisters were Rebecca and Mary, and his brothers were Hugh and Thomas Jefferson Magee (called T.J.).2 In 1805, the Magee family moved to Groveland, New York, in Livingston County, and engaged in farming. That same year on October 12, Sarah Magee died,3 leaving John motherless at the age of eleven. Henry Magee and the children continued to manage the farm. The farm was successful until Henry endorsed the notes of a neighbor. The neighbor could not pay, forcing Henry to make good on the notes. The sheriff became obligated to sell some of the Magee possessions.4 Once more, the family pulled up stakes in 1808. They headed west, and settled near Detroit, again establishing a farm.
Life in the Michigan Territory was soon shattered when the War of 1812 broke out. John Magee signed up in Detroit on April 21, 1812. His father and Hugh, his brother, also enlisted.5 They joined Captain Antoine DeQuindre's rifle company of the Michigan Militia. The enlistment was for one year at seven dollars per month.6 John was only seventeen when he enlisted, and he was given the position of fifer. After several skirmishes with the Indians, the rifle company served against the British in the Battle of Brownstown, Canada, on August 5, 1812.7 On August 16th, young John was captured in Detroit when General William Hull surrendered his entire force to a smaller British army.8 It was one of the most embarrassing military defeats in American history. Although he had enlisted for a year, Magee's initial service lasted less than four months. He was later paid twenty-six dollars and twenty-four cents for serving three months and twenty-three days with the Michigan Militia.9 Being a prisoner of war did not entitle a soldier to his pay.
Magee and his company remained prisoners on parole until January, 1813, when they were sent to St. Catherines, Canada West.10 There they were combined with other captured Americans and sent to Fort George. In early March, he was released in a prisoner exchange, and was sent across the river to Fort Niagara.11 He soon joined a command of Mounted Rangers led by Major Cyrennius Chapin. The British had recently surrendered Forts George and Erie to the Americans, and in their hasty retreat had littered their supplies along the way. For several weeks, Chapin's men picked up those precious discarded supplies and foraged for more.12
In June, 1813, Magee was captured once again at the Battle of Beaver Dam in Canada near St. Catherines. He was able to escape on horseback. Most accounts add that it was done under a hail of bullets, and one version tells of a small boy who begged to be allowed to ride behind Magee. British troops in close pursuit shot and killed the boy and wounded the horse. As Magee reached American troops at Fort George, his mount fell dead. He was unharmed, but supposedly his clothes were riddled with bullet holes.13 Although this story can be read in different biographies about Magee, it would be difficult to verify. Even Magee himself made no mention of it in a history of his war experiences that he recounted in 1867 to a Colonel E. Thayer of Watkins, who was writing about the experiences of local citizens in the War of 1812.14
Nonetheless, Magee did escape to Fort George, and he reported the American defeat at Beaver Dam to General Boyd. To reward him, he was made a messenger to carry the government mail in the western section between Niagara and Washington, D. C., and other places on the frontier.15 This service became the basis for another common tale about Magee. He was carrying important dispatches from General Wilkinson at Fort Niagara to the war department in Washington, D. C. He allegedly stayed in his saddle for forty-eight hours straight and reached Northumberland, Pennsylvania, where, due to his extreme exhaustion, he procured a reliable person to reach Washington with the message and return to him with the response. Magee then hurried back to Fort Niagara. Supposedly, General Wilkinson was so astonished that such a feat could be accomplished so quickly, that he gave the daring messenger five hundred dollars in gold from his own war chest. The tale also explains that this money was not the foundation of the great Magee fortune, since all of the reward money was given away to the widows and children of those killed in the war.16 In his statement to Colonel Thayer about his war exploits, Magee made no mention of this event either. One explanation may be modesty, but more likely this story, and some events about his escape, are examples of folklore about his life. It must be kept in mind that John Magee was a politician in his later years. Such stories could easily have been invented by political supporters to attract votes. Unless more substantial proof can be found, such accounts are hard to accept as historical fact.
His service as a messenger continued until late December, 1814, when Fort Niagara fell to the British and the city of Buffalo was burned.17 The Treaty of Ghent, ending the war, had been signed in mid-December, 1814. By the end of January, 1815, the fighting was over. John Magee stayed in the army until the spring of 1816.18 With his brother, Thomas (T. J.) he set out on foot from Buffalo for Bath, New York, to make a new life.19
Following the path, that often was only markings on the trees, John and T. J. Magee arrived in Bath in the springtime of 1816.20 John found employment cutting wood for Captain William Bull. For his hard work he received twenty-five cents per cord of wood.21 It was a two-mile walk to work everyday, and a good day's work was usually 2 cords of wood.22
That same year, John found employment on the farm of Adam Haverling, who had married one of John's sisters.23 Possibly it was this union which attracted John, T. J., and later Hugh Magee to Bath. John worked for his brother-in-law until 1818, receiving eight dollars per month.24 Part of his job entailed the purchase and slaughter of animals.25 Later in life, he would reflect back on those days with pleasantness. Surely, those days must have seemed carefree and enjoyable in comparison to his hectic later life, made complex with politics and business. When working for Adam Haverling, Magee often relaxed by hunting. One source claimed, "Being a keen-eyed and skillful hunter, he kept a trusty rifle at hand, and often found opportunities to make good use of it."26 In his later days, while in the company of some friends at a place called "Deer Lick," which was on property once owned by Adam Haverling, Magee bragged that he must have "cut one hundred cords of wood, and hereabouts, at different times, I must have shot at least one hundred deer."27 People who lived in the area, when Magee worked for Haverling, confirmed that on three occasions, while standing in the barn on Haverling property, John shot a deer in an adjoining buckwheat field.28
Magee was very religious and attended the Presbyterian church in Bath every Sunday.29 Sunday afternoons often were spent in self education. The poverty of the family and the lack of schools on the frontier provided little opportunity for education in Magee's early life.30 His lack of schooling was an embarrassment to him and at times led to accusations that he was illiterate and could barely write his name. Bath resident, Ansel McCall, who knew John Magee, denied that Magee was nearly illiterate, noting that Magee spent a great deal of his life recording accounts and financial transactions.31 Speeches given by Magee, when he ran for State Senator, and during his service at the 1867 New York State Constitutional Convention, showed that Magee could express himself clearly, and serve to corroborate that Magee did succeed in gaining an education.
The year 1818 was a pivotal year for Magee. The office of constable and collector was vacant, and he decided to run for election for the position, giving up plans to move west when notice of the opening was publicized.32 Magee won the election and served well enough that he was re-elected the following year.33 He earned the reputation of being efficient and trustworthy.34 This was an important step for Magee that began to open other doors.
On February 19, 1819, Magee was appointed Deputy Sheriff serving under Sheriff George McClure.35 On January 20, 1820, he married Sarah McBurney, the daughter of a county judge, Thomas McBurney.36 Such a marriage indicated the growing respectability of John Magee. That same year, the Deputy Sheriff received a new job. He was appointed Marshal of Steuben County to take the census.
The Steuben County of today is much smaller than the Steuben County of 1820. The area to be surveyed by Magee for the census was over two times the size of the modern day county.37 His duty took Magee as far as Ontario County to the north, the state line with Pennsylvania to the south, Livingston County and Allegany County to the west, and Tompkins County to the east.38 Much of this traveling was done on foot.39 It is said that Magee kept the names and answers to the census questions in his head, and that his wife wrote them down at night.40 It seems unlikely that the entire census could have been conducted in the manner, however, possibly some of it was. Perhaps his wife's help was needed because Magee still was lacking in his education at that time.
For his dedication and accuracy of his report, the census bureau showed its appreciation by awarding Magee with a set of table silver.41 His duties as marshal completed, fate was about to be an impetus for a further rise in his career.
Steuben Sheriff Henry Shriver died in 1821. The position was an appointive one, and John Magee was selected to complete Shriver's term.42 At that time, sheriffs received their one-year position from a Council of Appointment, and no one could be appointed to more than four successive years.43 However, in 1821, a new state constitution was written that amended the office of sheriff to a three-year elected position.44 No sheriff could serve two consecutive terms. After completing Shriver's term in 1821, Magee was appointed to two more one-year stints as sheriff. When the new constitution went into effect, he ran for election in 1822, and won a three-year term.
Magee would reminisce in his old age about how he sometimes took up vigil at late hours under an elm tree in Watkins, which denoted the boundary between Steuben and Tompkins Counties (Schuyler County did not exist at that time), watching for fugitives attempting to cross county lines unnoticed.45 However, the most memorable event in his years as sheriff surely must have been the hanging of Robert Douglas, the first execution in Steuben County.46
Douglas had arrived in Steuben County from Philadelphia in 1823 at the age of 21.47 He followed in his father's footsteps becoming a millwright, and built water wheels for mills near Addison.48 His life changed for the worse when he befriended an infamous Mayberry family (sometimes also spelled Maybury). the Mayberrys ran a log tavern on the Canisteo River near Cameron Mills (then called Hubbardsville). It was rumored that peddlers, who stayed at the Mayberry tavern while traveling the Canisteo River by flatboat, sometimes disappeared without a sign.49 The Mayberry family also was suspected of printing and passing counterfeit money. 50
The ties between the Mayberrys and Douglas grew stronger when he married a Mayberry and joined their tavern business. Soon Douglas was traveling the area selling goods from a backpack, that many whispered had been stolen from another unlucky peddler.51 Some of his customers claimed to have received bogus bills from Douglas as their change. One such dissatisfied patron was Samuel Ives from Troupsburg.52 Ives vowed to get even with Douglas who had given him a phony five dollar bill. Ives' revenge would have to wait since Douglas had been jailed on counterfeiting charges.
A neighbor to Douglas, James Hallett, paid Douglas's five hundred dollar bail.53 A few days later, Douglas was spotted by Ives as he passed the vengeful man's home. Ives raced after him waving the five dollar bill in his hand. Douglas denied the charge. Ives then grabbed Douglas, who broke free only to be caught again and knocked down by Ives. In his wrath, Ives began choking Douglas, who then pulled out a pocket knife.54 After being stabbed, Ives staggered to his house, fell on a bed, and died.55
A huge manhunt ensued, organized by Sheriff Magee. He called out the county militia, numbering seven hundred men, and was reinforced with two hundred volunteers.56 A one hundred dollar reward was offered for the capture of the killer. The large force went crashing through the woods trying to find their prey. The Mayberry place was found deserted. The search was called off after days of searching, drinking, fighting, and foraging. Food that had been sent in wagons by local merchants had run out.57 Douglas had hidden in a cave in a ravine near the Mayberry place, where he could even observe his pursuers.58 When he felt it was safe one night, he went to the home of his friend, James Hallett, for food. Little did he know that sleeping inside were two militia men who had decided to continue the search on their own. Also, Hallet saw Douglas' trust in him as a chance to get back a hundred dollars of the five hundred dollar bail that had been sacrificed. After arranging a meeting with Douglas in his barn to deliver food, Hallett alerted the militia men, who sent for help. Douglas was seized by a dozen men when he came out of the barn.59
Douglas was placed in the jail on Pulteney Street in Bath. Tried for first degree murder, he was found guilty and sentenced to hang. Although Douglas had killed Ives in self-defense, the intense hatred for the Mayberry family proved stronger than justice. An appeal and a change of venue to Albany were made, only with the same results—guilty.60 Gallows were erected on the first hill north of Bath on the south side of Geneva Street.61 (The site of the hanging is now a residential area known as Haverling Heights.)62 The execution date was set for April 29, 1825. Thousands of people migrated to Bath to be entertained by Douglas's execution. Some camped on the hill for three days to be assured of a good view. Vendors hawked gingerbread and cider.63 On April 29, a carnival atmosphere prevailed. the multitude, which some sources estimated at 10,000, expected to be entertained. The fanfare that followed did not let them down, and assuredly John Magee had a hand in it.
Shortly before noon, Douglas was brought out from his cell, but only after an escort of six armed militia companies and a wagon pulled by a white horse containing a coffin had been paraded in front of the jail to await his deliverance.64 Several accounts claim Douglas rode in the wagon seated on his coffin, but one version claims he chose to walk escorted by two guards.65 Sheriff Magee, on a milk-white horse gave an order to march, and the procession began its morbid trek, while its vanguard, a military band, played the "Dead March."66
Douglas, a black hood on his head, was placed on the scaffold and the noose was adjusted around his neck. The spectacle that followed is recalled by William Stuart in his book, Stories of the Kanisteo Valley:
While the people gaped, there came a pounding of hooves along the road that led from Bath. A terrible figure advanced at a gallop. It was a horseman all dressed in black, with a black mask over his face, while his mount also was sable. As he reached the scaffold, he checked his steed, leaned over, pulled a rope and then thundered down the road and no man in all that crowd, save probably two or three, could say who he was. The drop fell and amid a great gasp from the crowd, Douglas was snatched into eternity.67
Actually, Douglas was hardly "snatched into eternity," since the rope failed to break his neck.68 He was strangled to death. At the moment of the execution, an electrical storm broke, causing the crowd to disperse quickly. To some it was a divine sign of injustice.
Douglas's body was claimed by his widow and buried at Cameron Mills. Twenty-five years later, the Erie Railroad was laid over his forgotten grave, his remains doomed to be rattled by the passing trains.69 The Mayberry gang was rounded up and sentenced to prison terms.70 The Douglas hanging was the focus of local gossip for years. Who was the mysterious executioner? Surely, John Magee and some others must have known. No one ever told the secret.
His service as sheriff brought John Magee into greater esteem in the community. During the 1893 centennial celebration in Bath, Clark Bell, in a speech entitled "Reminiscences," said that the office of Sheriff had "…brought out the sterling qualities of Mr. Magee and also brought him into greater prominence." This could be substantiated by the fact that he was nominated by the Democrats in 1826, at the age of 32, to represent the twenty-eighth Congressional district in the House of Representatives. This district included Allegany, Steuben, and Cattaraugus Counties.71 Magee won the election and went to Washington, D. C.
The years as Congressman would be interspersed with sadness and joy, and end with frustration and bitterness. The end of his first two-year term in Congress brought the death of his wife, Sarah, on May 15, 1828.72 The marriage had been childless. It was the same year that he had bought up lots to form a 2½ acre plot of land in Bath to be the site of a home.73 The Italianate-style house that he built of brick was elegant. It was later remodeled and can still be seen today as it houses the Steuben County Historical Society and the Steuben County Historian's office. In the yard were fountains spraying water.74 Water was piped from the Conhocton River nearby to supply water to the premises.75 Visitors to the Historical Society can still see the beautiful marble fireplaces. The Magee residence was indicative of his growing status and wealth.
The year 1828 was also an election year, and Magee won re-election. Being a Democrat, Magee advocated the policies of the Democratic President, Andrew Jackson. Magee supported Jackson's stance against the Bank of the United States, a popular position with his constituents.76 The Bank of the United States was able to keep a lid on loans extended by state banks. However, there was a great demand by the nation for money to expand farmlands or speculate in land. The head of the Bank of the United States, Nicholas Biddle, was seen as the villian using his powers to prevent the numerous state banks from loaning money wildly, which could bring disastrous results (as would happen when Jackson destroyed the Bank of the United States by preventing a renewal of the bank's charter). Magee's congressional district, located on the western frontier of New York State, surely would have supported any measure against the Bank of the United States. In the election of 1828, Andrew Jackson carried Steuben County with 2,878 votes to John Quincy Adams' 1,480.77
This showed the popularity of Jackson in Magee's area. Yet Magee did have his enemies. A handbill entitled "Disgraceful" and dated Novemeber 1, 1828, criticized Magee's politics saying, "If the three counties which compose this district cannot produce a man better qualified than John Magee, we would advise them, for their own credit, to send none."78 Its timely release indicated it was probably a political maneuver shortly before election day to deny votes to Magee.
In later years, Magee was often attributed with having a close friendship with Andrew Jackson. It was said that President Jackson "regarded him (Magee) as a man of extra-ordinary sagacity and soundness of judgment, and made him his confidential friend and advisor. He often consulted him upon important questions, and offered him a seat in his cabinet, which Mr. Magee, however, declined."79 It has been indicated that the cabinet position tendered to Magee was that of Secretary of State. Without some reliable contemporary sources to verify this, the tales of close friendship with Andrew Jackson and the spurned cabinet position need to be questioned. However, Magee's staunch support of Andrew Jackson need not be questioned. A Bath newspaper, The Farmers' Advocate, reported in 1831:
Through the politness of Mr. Magee we have been favored with the first number of The Globe, a new republican paper, just established at Washington city, by Mr. Francis P. Blair. The paper is dedicated to the discussion and maintenance of the principles which brought General Jackson into office, and which he brought with him into office.80
As the Presidential election of 1832 drew near, The Farmers' Advocate was adorned with a large political endorsement on the front page urging voters to vote for Andrew Jackson, along with many other Democratic candidates for other government positions on the national, state, and local levels. At its conclusion was printed the names of John Magee, D. W. Franklin, P. C. Cook, and John Evans. They had been appointed by the Democratic convention in Steuben County to place before the voters the names and virtues of the candidates of their party. In its conclusion, the article stated, "This election will probably decide the important question whether freemen are still capable of self-government;—or whether they must submit to the Bank of the United States and the aristocracy of the union; and thus bid farewell to all their liberties."81
In 1830, Magee stood for re-election once more. Erwin Near in his History of Steuben County contends that Magee's defeat in that election was due to a political prank enacted by those wishing to unseat him. In the town of Bath resided another man named John Magee. He occupied himself and his large family by making brooms, splint baskets and splint seats for chairs.82 Congressman Magee's opposition wrote up a letter, that was to be an address by him to his constituents, which heavily criticized President Jackson's Bank position as being deceptive and unfounded.83 The basket-maker Magee was convinced to sign the letter, and it was also signed by a justice of the peace and a county clerk to verify that John Magee had indeed signed the letter.84 The letter was printed up in large numbers and carried by the stage coach mails throughout the district so that the day before the election the letters were everywhere. Communication was slow then, being done mainly by the stage lines. It was too late to refute the bogus letter. The letter was withheld from the public in Bath until election day. Then Samuel Hammond, a lawyer, stood in a wagon and read the letter aloud.85 There were "shouts of approval, derision, laughter and cheers."86 When the votes were tallied, Grattan H. Wheeler had been chosen to represent the twenty-eighth district in the twenty-second Congress.87 If Near's explanation is correct, it is ironic that Magee should lose the election because of his constitutents' devotion to Andrew Jackson.
Of course, Magee never forgot the underhanded ploy that unseated him, nor those who supported it. Over thirty years later, when a cousin asked Magee for a loan, he rejected it saying, "You were one of the fellows that laughed and shouted when Sam Hammond read that miserable old basket maker's letter in front of the Mansion House in Bath."88
Before leaving Washington, D. C. Magee married Arabella Stuart from Maryland. They would have ten children, only four of whom would live to adulthood: Duncan, George, John Jr., and Hebe. The ex-Congressman and his new bride returned to Bath to raise their family in the home that he built. Business ventures that Magee had speculated in, were growing and demanding more of his time. The seeds of the Magee wealth were planted and being nurtured.
© 2000, Gary M. Emerson
Notes to Chapters One and Two
82, 83 & 84 Near, in his History of Steuben County, p. 260, offers the only account of the political prank that cost Magee re-election to Congress in 1830. Lack of other sources to corroborate the story makes it questionable.