The Story of
Steuben County's Most Famous Crook
Joe Rosenkrans first got into real trouble with the law in 1840. The charge was forgery. Joe and an accomplice went to Jamestown and pretended to be drovers, buying cattle to drive on the hoof to New York City. In order to get cash to pay for the stock, Joe cashed a certificate of deposit for $2500. (The certificate was purported to be issued by the Steuben County Bank in Bath.) Joe and his partner then left town, without buying any cattle. A few days later in Buffalo they exchanged another certificate of deposit, this time for $2000, for bank notes issued by various Michigan banks. Both certificates turned out to be forgeries. One of the Buffalo bankers who had been swindled pursued Rosenkrans to Detroit, then back to New York state. Accompanied by a Livingston County deputy sheriff, the Buffalo banker went to the Rosenkrans farm with a load of apples. He pretended that he was going to have them pressed in Joe's cider mill. Joe sensed a trick and tried to escape, but the deputy pulled out a loaded pistol and took him into custody. Nearly a thousand dollars in gold coin was discovered in the barn. Joe Rosenkrans was taken to Buffalo for trial. He pleaded guilty, was convicted of forgery in the second degree, and was sentenced to five years at hard labor in Auburn Prison.
Auburn Prison in the 1840s was not a pleasant place. Inmates wore ill fitting black and white striped uniforms and received meager rations. During the day they had to labor in prison workshops in absolute silence, under constant surveillance by the guards. At night they were confined to individual cells, with a bucket as a toilet. After chapel on Sunday mornings they were confined to their cells for the rest of the day, with only a Bible to read. Infractions of the prison rules were punished by lashings. However, Joe behaved well and was never punished during his prison term.
Cynthia Rosenkrans worked hard to get her brother pardoned. Joe had already paid back the Buffalo firm much of the money he had swindled from it. To do so he had borrowed money from Cynthia. She probably wanted Joe out of prison so that he could pay her back. At Cynthia's urging the Steuben County judges (Zenas A. Leland, Lazarus Hammond, Otis Thatcher, and Constant Cook) and the district attorney (Henry W. Rogers) sent letters to Governor William H. Seward recommending clemency. Nearly one hundred Steuben County residents signed a petition to the governor asking for a pardon for Joe. The signers included John Magee, cashier of the Steuben County Bank. The petition stated that Joe had been the "tool of men who were veterans in villainy," who took most of the money they had swindled. The governor should show mercy because this was Joe's first offense. Letters from the Erie County district attorney and the Buffalo money brokerage firm likewise recommended clemency. An official of Auburn Prison wrote to say that Joe wept day and night over his error. Cynthia Rosenkrans herself travelled to Albany in June 1841 and met the governor at his residence to plead her brother's case. Governor Seward finally granted the pardon in November 1842, and Joe was a free man. He was understandably grateful for Cynthia's help. Cynthia had gotten a court judgment from Joe to secure the debt, and court records show that the judgment was satisfied—the debt paid off—by 1845.
For a few years after his release not much was heard of Joe Rosenkrans. He married in 1843, and his first son, Aubert, was born in 1845. However, things soon started heating up for Joe, literally speaking. On the night of September 1, 1846, someone set fires in three stores at the hamlet of Liberty Corners (now Cohocton village). Half of the business district (the south side of what is now Maple Avenue) burned down. Arson was suspected, but no one was arrested immediately. A year and a half later, in the summer of 1848, Joe Rosenkrans was indicted by a Steuben County grand jury and arrested for the crime of arson. Joe demanded a trial, but the district attorney apparently dropped the charges for lack of evidence. However, Joe was a likely suspect. Back in 1845 he had bought and sold the store and lot where one of the fires started. He again bought the burned lot in early 1848. The deeds recorded in the county clerk's office suggest that Joe did not make much out of these deals; maybe that was motive enough for arson.
Joe Rosenkrans's subsequent career indicates that if he was not a hardened criminal when he left Auburn Prison in 1842, he certainly was one by the 1850s, if not before.3 Joe went into the business of making and passing counterfeit bank notes. Until after the Civil War, almost every state-chartered bank in the country issued its own bank notes, which were the main circulating currency. There was then no federal paper money, only coins. With thousands of different bank notes in circulation, no one could be sure if the issuing bank was still in business, or if the notes were genuine. Counterfeiting was epidemic across the country. Bank notes could be easily reproduced because their engraving and paper were not very good. Somewhere Joe Rosenkrans learned the art of counterfeiting. He got hold of a press, engraving plates, and paper and set up shop in the attic of his house. He forced his young son Aubert to hold the lantern while he printed the notes, late at night.
In March, 1850, an Erie County grand jury indicted Joseph Rosenkrans for passing counterfeit money in Buffalo. It took the police over two years to bring him to justice. In February 1851, a Buffalo police officer arrested a woman who had been working with Joe. She had $2000 in counterfeit bank notes sewn up in her garments. An officer by the name of Williams was sent to track down Joe. In Dansville he came into luck: someone pointed out that Joe himself was in town, driving his buggy toward them at that very moment. Williams pulled out his pistol and cried out, "Rosenkrans?" Joe did not stop to engage in conversation but hurriedly turned his buggy around and headed up the plank road toward Wayland. Officer Williams pursued in his own buggy, but was too late. Joe left his horse and buggy on the road and hid in the woods. The officer could not find him and returned to Buffalo in disgust.
The Dansville Herald reported this episode with a humorous comment on Williams's lack of persistence. Two weeks later it printed a curious letter from "A subscriber" in Cohocton. The letter declared that Rosenkrans:
has lived in this vicinity for the last twenty-five years and if in that time he had been suspected of being a counterfeiter, it has never been established as a fact, hence the possibility of innocence. And perhaps an investigation into the Buffalo matter, will show that the frauds there practised were by some other than Rosenkrans. It is not long since, that a man warrant was issued in your village [Dansville] for this same Rosenkrans, and that noted officer, Bill Warren, with his bulldog, was put in pursuit, gave up the chase as fruitless, when Rosenkrans went down and gave himself up, and lo! he was not the man they wanted. I mention this to show the uncertainty of human affairs.
There is no proof, but one can easily imagine Joe himself as the author of this cunning letter—boasting how he and a partner had tricked the Dansville constable, and even brazenly protesting his innocence of any proven wrongdoing. Along with this letter the editor inserted an apology for impugning Rosenkrans's character on insufficient grounds! It seems he had not heard of Rosenkrans's previous criminal conviction, which was not unlikely in an era of slow and poor communications.
In July, 1851, another Buffalo detective finally arrested Joe in New York City. He was then taken back to Buffalo and freed on $5000 bail, pending trial. Joe jumped bail and went west. The Buffalo authorities got an extradition order from the governor. Finally, in June, 1852, an officer arrested Joe in a theater in St. Louis. In the heels of his boots was found $500 in counterfeit bank notes. More counterfeit money was hidden inside the model of a steamboat, which Joe claimed was the model of an invention he had patented and wished to sell. A Buffalo newspaper declared that Joe Rosenkrans "is an old and well known counterfeiter, and the head of a desperate gang who have been located in the counties of Seneca, Chemung, and Steuben for some time past." Joe was tried, convicted, and sentenced to ten years of hard labor in Auburn Prison. Once again, Joe behaved well in prison, and Governor Myron H. Clark commuted his sentence in December, 1855.
© 1993, James D. Folts, Jr.
3. Joseph Rosenkrans was indicted for grand larceny by a Steuben County grand jury in 1848, but he was never prosecuted on the charge.