The Story of
Steuben County's Most Famous Crook
During the later 1850s and early '60s Joe Rosenkrans's main criminal activity seems to have been larceny, both grand and petty. One opportunity for theft ran right through Joe's Avoca farm—the railroad.4 The Buffalo, New York & Erie Railroad, later part of the Erie Railroad system, was completed in 1852. The trains were small and slow. The little wood-burning locomotives pulled trains of no more than a dozen cars or so, and they travelled no more than twenty miles per hour. Box cars were not much used until some years later, and most freight was transported in boxes and barrels tied down to open flat cars. This made it easy to steal stuff from passing trains.
As a train left "Wallace's Switch," as Wallace was then known, Joe's accomplices would jump on board a car and crouch down among the freight. When the train passed through the woods near Joe's house, the thieves pushed off what they wanted and then jumped off themselves.
Another trick was to climb an overhanging tree and knock off freight with a long pole or hook. The railroad men were bribed to look the other way. The railroad was a tempting target because of its disastrous financial career. The Buffalo, Corning & New York had gone bankrupt in the mid-1850s and was sold on the auction block to Buffalo and New York City speculators in 1857. The stockholders, many of them local farmers, lost their whole investment. Creditors were never paid for the lumber and supplies they had furnished to the railroad company.
Joe alway liked good horses, and was known locally as a "horse dealer." He also engaged in occasional horse theft. To disguise a stolen horse, Joe and his accomplices would singe the horse's hair until the skin blistered. The hair then grew back in a slightly different color. During the Civil War years Joe Rosenkrans was not the only one stealing horses. In 1863 three men were arrested at Wallace for horse theft, which a newspaper report called "a common everyday affair all over this county." The high prices paid for horses by buyers for the U. S. Army unfortunately spurred horse stealing in Steuben County and across the northern states.
Nothing was really safe from the Rosenkrans gang. One time Joe was coming back from Dansville in a wagon. He noticed that there was no one home at a farm house. He stopped, rolled a big barrel of salt pork onto his wagon, and headed home. The farmer who lived there came back just in time to see Joe driving away. He noticed that the pork was gone, caught up with Joe, and made him give the pork back.
What did the gang do with the stolen goods? Some of it was eaten—sides of beef were among the booty, furnishing a fare of beef steak, roast and stew for somebody. The gang sold some of its stolen goods to peddlers who travelled through the countryside. Other items were taken out of the county and sold. Until buyers were found, Rosenkrans and his gang stored loot in one or more hiding places. Joe's house and barns had secret rooms or spaces. On one occasion a deputy sheriff came to question Joe in connection with some crime. The deputy searched the farm buildings and could not find Joe. Then he hailed the engineer of a passing train and asked him to stop his train near the Rosenkrans farm and hold down the whistle. Then somebody ran up to Joe's place yelling that the locomotive was about to blow up! This brought Joe out of his hiding place in a hurry.
The late Hugh McKay of Wayland, a descendant of Levi Rosenkrans, related that when he worked for Byron Rosenkrans in 1918, he realized there was an underground passage from the house to the main barn. Wagons made a hollow rumbling sound when they were driven across it. The barn itself had a secret compartment under the hay mow.
Joe is also said to have stored loot in the house of Dan H. Davis, which still stands against the hill on route 415 a mile south of Cohocton. (Two of Davis's daughters married into the Rosenkrans family.) Still another hiding place for booty was a "cave" or hollow in a rocky hillside east of the old North Loon Lake Church in the town of Wayland. Most of the residents of the neighborhood were recent German immigrants who barely spoke English and were unlikely to say much about wagons coming and going on odd errands.
Joe Rosenkrans did not operate alone. Throughout his career Joe had partners in crime. Some of them lived in Avoca, Cohocton, and neighboring towns, while others were scattered across western New York and other states. Gang members were always ready to hide and later sell stolen goods. They acted as lookouts and provided alibis when a gang member was arrested. Counterfeiters had nationwide networks for passing bogus money.
Who were the leading members of the Rosenkrans gang? At the time of Joe's final arrest in 1866, the Bath newspapers reported that his closest partners were Webb Covert of Kanona and David Belcher of South Cameron. Covert already had a long criminal record. Another gang member, who worked for shares in the loot, was Daniel McCarty of Avoca. Charles Forrester of East Springwater was said to have worked with the Rosenkrans gang. The names of others are known only through tradition; at least some of them were residents of Cohocton and Avoca.
Newspaper reports from the 1850s and '60s identify other "rings" or "gangs" of counterfeiters and thieves in Steuben County. Dr. James Cutler of Corning, his daughter Susan, and Titus Locey were active counterfeiters during the early 1850s. Charles Miner of Wayland, Samuel C. St. John of North Cohocton, and Othniel Preston of South Dansville were arrested one after another in 1857-58, on counterfeiting or related charges. In reference to the Miner gang, a Rochester newspaper declared in 1857 that:
it has long been a fact known to the public and the police that there existed a confederacy of thieves and counterfeiters in Steuben County, whose center was at Blood's Corners [now North Cohocton]. This gang is composed of men who hold responsible positions in society, some of them being worthy farmers, others mechanics, and all having visible means for obtaining an honorable and comfortable livelihood. They have confined their operations chiefly . . . to horse stealing and counterfeiting, and so adroitly do they operate, it has been difficult to bring them to punishment.
The editor of the of Steuben Farmer's Advocate criticized this report, which implied that the whole county was full of criminals. And the editor was right: we need to place criminal activity in Steuben County during the mid-nineteenth century in perspective.
In some respects there was not much serious crime in the county. Steuben County had only three murders during its first sixty years. During the period 1825-60 the justices of the peace of the town of Cohocton reported to the county clerk just two or three criminal convictions a year (usually assault and battery or petit larceny). Minor crime in the rural towns of Steuben county seems to have decreased after 1850. However, throughout the county disrespect for law and authority seems to have increased in part because two powerful institutions dominating Steuben County's economy seemed not to treat people fairly.
Both railroad companies serving the county failed during the 1850s, leaving stockholders and creditors in the lurch.5 The railroads became targets of a lot of theft and vandalism. The coming of the railroad did cause an economic boom in Steuben County, raising wages and property values. But not everybody shared in the prosperity. Many farmers up in the hills were finding that their farms had poor soil. These marginal farmers were also being squeezed by the Bath land office. The Pulteney family of England still owned much of the land in Steuben County. In 1860 the Pulteney heirs ordered their new land agent in Bath to step up collections from settlers who were buying farms under land contracts. If settlers would not or could not pay, the land agent initiated law suits to evict them from their farms. These land office policies caused much resentment among poor farmers, which showed itself in "anti-rent" organizations; in lengthy, costly litigation over the title to the Pulteney Estate; and in some incidents of violence. In sum, during the 1850s Steuben county experienced great economic change and dislocation. It is perhaps not surprising that some unscrupulous individuals who envied their better-off neighbors joined criminal gangs to get a share for themselves.
© 1993, James D. Folts, Jr.
4 The Rosenkrans house was so close to the tracks that in later years the daily newspaper was thrown from a passing Erie train onto the porch.
5 The Erie Railway Company went bankrupt after the financial panic of 1857, and was not reorganized until 1863. See above for reference to bankruptcy of the Buffalo, Corning & New York Railroad Company.