Past Brown Bag Lunchtime Talks (Jamestown Post-Journal)

Past Brown Bag Lunchtime Talks (Jamestown Post-Journal)
Michelle Henry, Chautauqua County historian and records manager, exploring the consequential — and checkered — life of Patrick Tyrrell during the Fenton History Center’s latest Brown Bag Lecture. P-J photo by A.J. Rao

Fenton Lecture Explores Life of Former Secret Service Agent – Jamestown Post Journal (April 13, 2017): A closer look at one of the country’s first Secret Service agents.

Patrick Tyrrell may not be a well-known figure in history. But over 100 years ago, the Chautauquan became one of the country’s first Secret Service agents, and as such, helped protect the body of one of the nation’s most celebrated presidents.

On Wednesday, Michelle Henry, Chautauqua County historian and records manager, explored the consequential — and checkered — life of Tyrrell during the Fenton History Center’s latest Brown Bag Lecture.

Tyrrell was first brought to Henry’s attention when one of his descendants contacted her and requested if she could dig up more information about her ancestor, who apparently had a sterling reputation busting counterfeiters in 1870s Chicago.

While researching, Henry was surprised to find Tyrrell’s name popping up more for his legal troubles than anything else.

“I could only find court actions against him at that time period,” Henry said. “So (his descendant) is either going to be tickled that I found anything or she’s going to be disappointed that her ancestor may not have been the character she thought he was.”

Tyrrell, an Irish immigrant turned Sheriff’s deputy in Dunkirk, apparently used his role as a law enforcement officer to con and steal from members of the public. He also had marital problems that led to a separation from his wife and seven children.

Tyrrell would reappear in Illinois in the 1870s; strangely, he was now married to his eldest son’s widow. The drama was indeed an unlikely backstory to what would arguably become Tyrrell’s greatest achievement.

In 1871, Tyrrell was hired by the newly-formed Secret Service, which sought to root out the rampant use of counterfeit money in the country. When Tyrrell nabbed Benjamin Boyd, a notorious engraver of counterfeit bills, the engraver’s gang hatched a plot to ensure his release.

“The gang decided the only way to maintain their business was to get Boyd out of jail,” Henry said. “So they hatched a plan to steal Abraham Lincoln’s body, take it to some sand dunes in Indiana and bury it … and demand a ransom of $250,000 and the release of Boyd.”

The scheme would take place on Election Night 1876 when people would not be paying attention to Lincoln’s monument, the gang thought. Unfortunately for them, one of Tyrrell’s men learned of the plot and a trap was set.

As two gang members broke into the monument and struggled to lift Lincoln’s lead casket, they heard a noise from one of Tyrrell’s men and fled the scene. They were captured 10 days later.

Lincoln’s son, Robert, was so pleased by the result that he presented Tyrrell with a framed portrait of his father. Incidentally, Robert Lincoln, an attorney, once represented Brocton native George Pullman, who developed the Pullman railroad sleeping car. The body of President Lincoln would later be buried in the same manner as Pullman, who requested his body be buried in an enormous grave with iron bars and filled with cement.

Henry called Tyrrell an interesting and far more complex character than history books claim.

“He’s a fun character because I think he really was good at his job … and a lot of published histories paint him in a very favorable light, which is fine,” she said. “But people have two sides. Maybe in his personal life, he just wasn’t that easy to live with. You can decide how you feel about him.”

Amanda Brainard, the town of Leon cemetery records keeper, delivering a presentation during the Fenton History Center’s Brown Bag Lecture series Wednesday. P-J photo by Dennis Phillips

Fenton Hosts Cemetery Preservationist Lecture – Jamestown Post-Journal (April 13, 2017): There is a possible new solution to preserving rural cemeteries.

On Wednesday, Amanda Brainard, the town of Leon cemetery records keeper, discussed what can be done to preserve rural cemeteries during the Fenton History Center’s Brown Bag Lecture series. Brainard, who has been working with the town of Leon since 2014, said one aspect to help preserve rural cemeteries is to stop thinking of them as ”creepy” places.

”As a community, we need to look beyond the ghosts,” she said.

As far as laws, she said there are basically no federal laws and very few New York state laws to assist with the preservation of rural cemeteries. She said possible solutions for people or organizations would be to start a volunteer maintenance program; contact the state Office of Historic Preservation to see if it can be registered as a historic place; contact veteran groups to see if they are willing to help preserve the cemetery if military personnel have been buried there; and contact local municipalities to see if they are willing to pass laws and fund money to help preserve the cemetery.

Brainard said there is a new group called the Northeaster Coalition For Cemetery Studies that has been created to help preserve rural cemeteries in Western New York.

She said the mission of the nonprofit group is to assist in writing, correcting and editing laws addressing abandoned cemeteries; study rural cemeteries for records; analyze and preserve documents for historical preservation; and manage the preservation and restoration of cemeteries.

Brainard said the Northeastern Coalition For Cemetery Studies goals include addressing the lack of laws to protect cemeteries; assisting municipalities with preserving cemeteries; starting volunteer maintenance programs; and establishing noninvasive cemetery research programs that will use ground penetrating radar, GIS, topographic surveys and cadaver dogs to help preserve the cemetery.

The first pilot preservation project for the Northeastern Coalition of Cemetery Studies is the Leon Hollow Cemetery on Riga Road in Leon, Brainard said. She said the hope is to get grant funding to purchase equipment to analyze the cemetery for preservation. For more information on the grassroots group, visit

Mary Jane Phillips Koenig speaking about her great-uncle’s letters he sent to his mother during World War I. Koenig’s great-uncle was Private Russell Archie Harvey who served in the Army’s 357th Infantry Regiment, 90th Division. The letters are part of a Fenton History Center’s World War I exhibit Over There: World War I and Jamestown. P-J photo by Dennis Phillips

Voice of War Echoes at the Fenton – Jamestown Post-Journal (May 11, 2017): The words of a World War I veteran echoed at the Fenton History Center Wednesday.

During the Brown Bag Lecture series, Mary Jane Phillips Koenig presented her presentation, “Why It Matters: His Voice Echoes Still Across America,” about letters her great-uncle, Private Russell Archie Harvey, wrote to his mother while serving in the U.S. Army’s 357 Infantry Regiment, 90th Division during World War I.

Koenig, a retired school teacher, said she has spent a “lifetime” researching her great-uncle’s 20 letters that were saved by Harvey’s sister, May.

Koenig said Harvey was born in Corry, Pa., in 1888. She said Harvey’s family sold the family farm and moved to Jamestown around 1900. She added that Harvey spent around 14 years in Jamestown before the war. In an edition of the Jamestown Evening Journal from 1913, Harvey participated in a play as a member of the Knights of Pythias. The play included several other notable Jamestown residents of the time, which included Mayor Samuel Carlson and future Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson.

Koenig said Harvey was drafted into the Army in 1918 while he was living in Iowa. After Iowa, he went to Texas for basic training and then to New York City to make his way to the fighting in Europe. Harvey’s letters discuss several topics, including the steamship trip on the Delta to France. Harvey said he didn’t get seasick on the journey, but other troops on the ocean voyage weren’t so lucky.

Other topics discussed in letters included a 120-mile march by foot in France between posts; seeing an old castle that must have been built when “knights still wore armor;” about Harvey being a company scout; and about digging battlefield trenches.

In a letter dated Nov. 16, 1918, five days after the armistice that ended World War I, Harvey wrote a letter expressing that he is sincerely thankful to his mother and wants to live near her once he returns back to the United States.

Another letter expressed how, at one point, Harvey didn’t think he would see Christmas, which is why he didn’t request a gift package coupon for his family. Harvey wrote that he thought he would be “pushing up daisies” by Christmas.

In another letter not written by Harvey, a Robert Marx wrote Harvey to thank him for pulling him off the battlefield while he was injured. Koenig said that during her research she discovered that Marx later went on to create the Disabled American Veterans organization.

Before returning home to Jamestown, even after serving on the front lines in France, Harvey’s regiment served as guards in Germany after the war.

Koenig said that Harvey died in 1924. He is buried in Soldier’s Circle at Lake View Cemetery.

Copies of Harvey’s letters are on display at the Fenton History Center, located at 67 Washington St., as part of the exhibit, Over There: Life in Jamestown During WWI. The exhibit tells the story of what it was like in Jamestown during The Great War.

Steve Trask, Vietnam War Veteran, spoke about his experiences as a sniper during the Vietnam War at the Fenton History Center on June 14, 2017, in recognition of the U.S. Army’s 242nd Birthday and Flag Day 2017.

Veteran Discusses Experience in Flag Day – Jamestown Post-Journal (June 15, 2017): Flag Day was an appropriate time to hear from a Vietnam War veteran about his service to his country, which demonstrated the sacrifices made by all military personnel so Old Glory can be honored each year by Americans.

During the monthly Brown Bag Lecture Series at the Fenton History Center, Steve Trask, a Vietnam War veteran who was enlisted in the U.S. Army from 1965 to 1969, talked about his experiences during the Vietnam War. Trask was a sergeant who completed Special Forces training in Ft. Devens, Mass.; airborne training in Ft. Bragg, Texas; Ranger Training in Az.; winter survival training in Klondike, Alaska; and jungle training in Panama before he started serving in Vietnam in 1968, three days before the Tet Offensive.

Trask said his journey to Vietnam wasn’t a smooth trip, which started with him traveling to Buffalo during an ice storm. From there he faced delays, which included him traveling across the state by train to finally take a flight to Seattle. He arrived at the bus to the base at 11:45 p.m., which was barely before his midnight deadline to report for duty.

Once in Vietnam, Trask said he was promoted to sniper and went to sniper training school. He talked about his experiences as a sniper, which included spending days in towers with his rifle aimed at the enemy or months at a time hiding in the jungles of Vietnam. He discussed how one piece of advice he received was not to look at the enemy’s face nor to count the number of enemy soldiers he shot.

“I don’t know how many people I shot,” he said. “I don’t remember a face.”

During his discussion, Trask talked about an up-close encounter with a tiger, enjoying a special Thanksgiving dinner on a ship with three of his cousins who were also serving in the U.S. military in Vietnam and how a pilot gave him his survival knife after Trask saved him after he parachuted into the jungle.

Trask said after his first year in Vietnam he re-enlisted for five more years. He said he was almost through his second tour when he was badly injured.

Trask sustained his injury following a blast from a satchel charge that was thrown into a bunker he was protecting. He was blown 100 feet behind the bunker after the blast. He added that he was covered by palm tree branches that had been cut down by enemy machine gun fire.

Trask remained covered by the palm tree branches for two days while in a coma before his body was discovered.

He then spent two-and-a-half weeks in a China Beach hospital, which he said was unlike the television show that aired in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Trask talked about how the doctors kept pestering him about going to Japan, which he refused. He then finally asked the doctors why they wanted to send him to Japan.

The doctors replied that he could be evaluated there so he could be sent back to the United States. Trask joked that he wishes the doctors would have told him that from the start.

Once back in the United States, Trask said he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, which led him to therapy for two-and-a-half years at the VA Medical Center in Erie, Pa.

Trask also said he spent 13 years in college at Jamestown Community College and Buffalo State following his service in Vietnam.  

Pictured above: U.S. Army Veteran Steve Trask. 

September 13th: Walnut Grove Archaeology Project: Year 6: Dr. Thomas Greer discussed the archaeological excavation that have been underway on the grounds of the Fenton History Center and additions to the artifacts that have been collected.

Team members of the Walnut Grove Archaeology Project continued in an area where an early structure associated with the mansion once stood. Dr. Thomas Greer and his colleagues investigated the location of the carriage house and west side house addition.

Interested in participating? Dig days take place on Tuesdays and Wednesdays throughout the summer beginning in June.  Excavation may also take place on some Saturdays.  The days that are not spent digging will be spent washing artifacts. Due to the confined space and small scale of the project, the number of participants is limited. If you would like to join us call the Fenton History Center at (716) 664-6256.

October 11th: The Chautauqua County Historic Structure Database: Michelle Henry, Chautauqua County Historian, and Wendy Straight, Chautauqua County Historical Structures Volunteer, demonstrated the Historic Structures of Chautauqua County Database and outline the project’s specific goals.
Wendy Straight discussed the project’s history and Michelle Henry covered recent additions from county and museum records. Those who attended learned how to submit material from their own family’s archives.
The photograph featured is in the database of the Residence of Thomas D. Spiking, Charlotte, New York.