The Story of
Steuben County's Most Famous Crook
The downfall of the Rosenkrans gang occurred in 1866. A member of the gang, Dan McCarty, was arrested, and he told the sheriff that Joe Rosenkrans had hidden in his house 141 fleeces of wool stolen from Chauncey P. Hubbard of Cameron. The sheriff got a search warrant, found the stolen wool, and arrested Rosenkrans.
The search of Joe's house and barns turned up an amazing quantity of loot, which was reported by a Bath newspaper:
First, 200 pounts of maple sugar were stolen from one Johnson, at Loon Lake. Then, from Sol Clark, at Loon Lake, a load of wool was captured. Next a harness and buffalo robe from Larrowe and McDowell, of Cohocton. From Ebenezer Keeler, on the 12 mile creek, 30 bushels of wheat and 8 bags of wool; from one Gray, this side of Avoca, a set of harness; from Levi Keyser, of Avoca, one buffalo-robe; from one Conner, near the Beagle school house in Avoca, one set of harness; from Fox, of Avoca, 4 bushels of clover seed; from a Dutchman at Wayland, a load of wool and a quantity of clover seed; robbed a Jew peddler's wagon at the barn of Parks' Hotel in Avoca . . . From Conner, living in the town of Cohocton, four beehives; from one Jones, two bushels of pears and a bushel of plums; and from Rodman Potter, a lot of onions . . .
The list goes on and on. Almost nothing was safe, or sacred. The Rosenkrans gang stole melodeons from the Baptist Church at Avoca and the Methodist Church at Bath.6 A Bath newspaper reported that a man who owned a steam sawmill asked Rosenkrans to steal him a bell from some church steeple, to use to call the mill hands out of the woods for dinner. Joe rejected the offer because the price offered for the bell was too low.
The investigation shed some light on how the gang disposed of its plunder. Wool, grain, horses, harness, cloth goods, and sheep were hidden until the alarm had died down, then taken out of the county and sold. Sometimes "hot" goods were sent to New York City in exchange for a fresh lot of counterfeit money.
Joe was in deep trouble this time, because he was also wanted for a federal crime. Back in November 1865, he had been arrested in Rock Island, Illinois, for passing a counterfeit $50 U.S. note, or "greenback." (The United States government first issued paper money during the Civil War. This currency was much harder to counterfeit than the old state bank notes, which were now withdrawn from circulation.) Joe had skipped bail for the federal offense. Now, at the request of the federal authorities, the Steuben county sheriff and district attorney took Rosenkrans to Chicago to stand trial. In July, 1866, Joe was sentenced to three years in federal prison in Illinois. On his release he was to be returned to Steuben County to stand trial on four indictments pending there.
As usual, Joe got out of prison early. He received a pardon from President Andrew Johnson in April 1868, after promising to testify in an investigation being carried out by the U. S. Secret Service. (The Secret Service agents were trying to track down some counterfeiters with whom Joe had been associated.) The federal authorities failed to notify Steuben County that Joe was on the loose. However, rumors soon flew that Joe Rosenkrans was home again.
In September, 1868, District Attorney John H. Butler and Deputy Sheriff Aetna M. Davis, both of Cohocton, came to Joe's farm with an arrest warrant and searched for the fugitive. Looking through the cow barn, the deputy noticed a pile of hay that seemed to have been disturbed. He took a pitchfork and started poking in the hay. Joe let out a yell when he was pricked in a sensitive spot, and came out from under the hay. Deputy Sheriff Davis arrested Joe, placed him in irons, and took him to Bath jail to await trial. In December, 1868, Joe Rosenkrans was convicted of grand larceny. County Judge Guy H. McMaster sentenced him to a year and a half of hard labor in Auburn Prison. On hearing his sentence, Joe broke down into tears and begged for mercy: he was growing old (60 years of age) and did not want to die in prison. Judge McMaster rejected Joe's appeal for mercy, and warned him if he ever got into trouble again, there were still several indictments banging over his head.
Joe survived his fourth prison term, came home, and seems never to have gotten into trouble again. But he was always a prime suspect when something valuable turned up missing. One day in the winter of 1881 an officer came to Joe's house to question him. Even though it was the middle of the night, Joe took off and bid in the woods near his house, wearing nothing but his nightshirt. Unfortunately he got frostbite on his feet and came down with pneumonia, from which he died, February 10,1881.
© 1993, James D. Folts, Jr.
6 The melodeon was a type of reed organ, and was usually the first keyboard musical instrument acquired by a small country church.
The story of Joe Rosenkrans has been reconstructed from many different sources. Genealogical data is found in Allen Rosenkrans, The Rosenkrans Family (Newton, N.J.: 1900). On the "Mayberry gang" of the 1820s, see The Trial of Robert Douglass, Who Was Executed at Bath, Steuben County, New York, April 29th, 1825 (Geneva: 1825) and William M Stuart, , 3d ed. (Dansville: 1935), pp. 130-39. Joe Rosenkrans's encounters with the law during the 1Stories of the Kanestio Valley830s are documented in county court minutes and judgment rolls in the Steuben County Clerk's Office. On Joe's arrest in 1840, see the Naples Neopolitan, Nov. 18, 25,1840 (microfilm in Naples Library).
The Auburn Prison punishment register is in the New York State Archives. On life in Auburn Prison, see W. David Lewis, From Newgate to Dannemora: The Rise of the Penitentiary in New York, 1796-1848 (Ithaca: 1965). The petition for pardon of Joseph Rosenkrans and accompanying letters to Governor Seward are in the Seward Papers, University of Rochester Library.
A copy of Joe Rosenkrans's 1848 indictment for arson was (mis)filed among the reports of convictions by justices of the peace, Steuben County Clerk's Office. (The writer transcribed this indictment prior to the records' authorized destruction in 1981.) The Supreme Court judgment in favor of Cynthia Rosenkrans is in the New York State Archives. Joe's flight and eventual arrest in 1851-52 are reported in the Dansville Herald, Feb. 12, 26, 1851, July 7, 14, 1852, and Steuben Farmer's Advocate, July 23, 1851. His second pardon is recorded in the register of executive orders for commutations and pardons (vol. 4), New York State Archives.
Joe Rosenkrans's 1866 arrest and trial are reported at length in Steuben Courier, March 7, June 20, 27, July 18, 1866, with further details in the same paper, Dec. 17, 1873. Joe's final trial is reported in Steuben Courier and Steuben Farmer's Advocate, Sept. 30, 1868, and Courier, Dec. 23, 1868. See also Steuben County Court minute book (vol. 7), in County Clerk's Office. President Andrew Johnson's pardon of Joseph Rosenkrans is found in Record Group 204, Record B, p. 395, National Archives.
Other reports of criminal activity in Steuben County during the 1850s and '60s are found in Dansville Herald, July 23, 1851; Steuben Farmer's Advocate, Jan. 27, July 7, 1858; Aug. 15, 1860, Dec. 9, 1863, July 27, 1864; Naples Weekly Express, June 13, 1860; and the Rochester Union and Advertiser, Dec. 26, 1856, Jan. 14, 1857, Sept 27, 1860, and July 22,1864.
Detailed stories about Joe Rosenkrans were related to me in 1989 by Hugh McKay of Wayland, now deceased, a descendant of Joe's brother Levi. (Keith Conrad of Atlanta introduced me to Mr. McKay.) Other stories about Joe Rosenkrans or his farm were related by the late Esther B. Snyder, Cohocton Town Historian; by the late Manley A. McDowell of Cohocton, in reminiscences recorded by his son, Robert J. McDowell, in 1955; and by Rum Strobel and Stan Strobel of Cohocton, whose mother worked for Aubert D. Rosenkrans. One item of information was relayed by Grace S. Fox, Avoca Town Historian.