Ghost Lights: The Legend of the Hookerman

By C.G. Wolfe/© The Black River Journal

North Four Bridges Road area in 2005

In the dark of a still night, along the forgotten railroad beds that branch out from Chester to Long Valley, a spectral light can sometimes be seen bobbing along the abandoned lines and spurs that were once the arteries of the booming iron industry in Morris County. The distant flickering resembles the light cast from an old lantern and swings gently from side to side as if being carried along the tracks by an invisible hand. At times it appears to be just a residual haunting; a remnant from the past, tragically alone and searching for something that has been lost forever. Other times it seems to beckon, challenging those who dare to follow it into the darker shadows of the railroad’s past…

For decades, the lantern light of the “Chester Ghost” or as he is more commonly known, “The Hookerman,” has been seen along the paths of old the railways in Morris County, where phantom train whistles are reportedly heard on a midnight breeze and the now trackless beds still rumble at night with the approach of an oncoming train. Generations of local high school students have spent countless Friday nights searching for the him; panicking when their car stalls on the tracks, flinching at the sound of every snapping twig, screaming, “There he is!,” at every passing headlight in the distance, and then, staring in stunned silence when they finally catch a glimpse of the mysterious light. It’s often described as a dull yellow or green glow from one, to as much as four feet in diameter. Some witnesses say that it swings gently from side to side, others have witnessed the orb bouncing down the tracks, changing colors as well as direction, or zipping by overhead. Sightings have traditionally occurred in Chester, Flanders, Bartley, and Long Valley, but the Hookerman has also been spotted at sites in Somerset and Warren counties. A favorite haunt seems to be a spot off of North Four Bridges Road in Flanders that was so popular among local teens and weekend thrill-seekers in the 1970s that officials tore up the tracks in an effort to discourage trespassers. The former rail line is now part of the 15-mile Columbia Trail.

The enigmatic orb has spawned pages of newspaper and magazine articles over the decades as well as scientific studies, one of which attributed the light to a naturally occurring geophysical phenomenon. But Chester isn’t alone when it comes to mysterious lights along railroad tracks. Scores of communities in New Jersey and the United States have their own “Hookerman” and the legend behind his lantern is a familiar story to those who live and work on the railroads.

In Chester, it’s the tale of a night watchman on the Bartley/Flanders spur who fell into the path of an oncoming train. Knocked unconscious from the collision, he awoke to find that the train had run him over and cut off his left arm. The crew from the train saw what had happened and rushed to his side to try and stop the massive bleeding but he went into shock and soon died. From that time it is said that he wanders the tracks with a lantern looking in vain for his missing arm (although one version claims that it is really a wedding ring attached to the severed appendage that inspires his relentless quest).

The fact that this time-honored tale is so widespread isn’t surprising since most folks who grew up near the perils of an old railroad probably knew of someone who was killed, maimed, or lost a limb to a train accident. In the Chester vicinity however, no record of a railroad worker dying from an amputated arm has been found, although there were several tragic events. One of these incidents, which occurred in 1875, vividly described what a speeding train could do to a mortal being. James Haines, a construction worker on the “Longwood Valley Railroad” near Naughright, in Washington Township, was reportedly drunk when he stumbled out onto the tracks at Chester Depot and stepped into the path of an onrushing freight train. Haines was killed instantly and a reporter on the scene described the results in graphic detail.

“…we were permitted to inspect the remains, and found it an exceedingly disgusting task, and one which…we should have preferred to have left alone. The body was a mass of blackened, sickening fragments, having been cut in two. The head had been severed from the trunk close above the nose, and there were signs of a mouth, but so bruised and torn as to make you doubt what it was; arms and legs had been cut off, the entrails torn out, the liver being found in one place and the kidneys in another and the person generally macerated. We never before held such a sight, and never desire to do so again.”

Although a gruesome testament to the hazards of railroading, an equally incredible incident that occurred on the “Wharton and Northern Railroad” is closer to the saga of the Hookerman and is believed by some to be the true story behind the legend.

On the second day of the New Year in 1908, thirty year-old Peter Stryker, a popular conductor on the W&N, was walking along the tops of a slow moving train when he slipped and fell head first onto the tracks between the freight cars, two of which rolled over him before the train was stopped. In a cruel but oddly fortunate twist of fate, the engineer that ran Pete over turned out to be his younger brother, twenty-six year-old Jim Stryker. Jim was aghast when he saw his brother’s mangled body beneath the wheels of the hissing train, his left arm shorn away from his body along with all the toes on his right foot. But like a true railroad man, the young engineer kept his nerve. With the aid of a brakeman named George Moleski, he rushed Pete to a nearby house and applied a hasty tourniquet to stanch the gushing blood from what was left of Peter’s upper arm. He then dashed to his engine and with a full head of steam, made a short but epic journey to fetch Dr. O’Shea in nearby Dover.

Around deadly curves and over a 150 foot-high twisting trestle, Jim exceeded 60 miles an hour on tracks where the average speed was 12 mph and the limit was 18. The run to Dover and back was 14 miles and usually took over an hour – Jim and George Moleski, fire belching from their engine and Doc O’Shea holding on for dear life, made the harrowing roundtrip in 13 minutes. Even though he was locked in a fight for life and death, Pete, an even tougher railroad hand than his younger brother, couldn’t help being impressed by Jim’s heroic feat and reportedly looked up with a grim smile and said proudly through his clenched teeth, “That’s some of a run, Jim.”

Jim’s quick action was credited with saving his brother’s life. Pete not only survived the accident but went on to become the superintendent of the Wharton and Northern. Ironically, his greatest contribution to the railroad was the money he brought in by staging train wrecks and railroad stunts for movie directors and film makers. One grand scene even involved a forest fire, and Stryker was not only paid for staging the shot, but received money from the property owners where the filming took place for burning off the area of tangled scrub.

Though Peter Stryker didn’t die on the tracks in 1908, some claim it was the memory of his horrific ordeal that was eventually tied to the mysterious light of the Hookerman. Others are still searching for his identity, looking for another victim like Jim Haines, torn violently and unexpectedly from his body by an onrushing locomotive, stumbling along the tracks trying still to find his way home, or looking in vain for an amputated limb or some other severed remnant of a trauma from days gone by.

This is an updated/edited version of an article that ran in our September/October 2005 issue.

Ghost Lights: The Legend of the Hookerman

Love at the Foot of the Lane School

By C.G. Wolfe/© The Black River Journal



The Foot of the Lane school stood at the corner of Black River Road and “the foot of” Long Lane, between Pottersville and Lamington, in Somerset County. The country schoolhouse was typical of the simple, one-room affairs of the day but unique for the notoriety bestowed on it by one of newspaper history’s greatest icons – Horace Greeley.

Born in 1811, in Amherst, New Hampshire, Greeley, a believer in “orderly” westward expansion, is often remembered for the quote “go west young man,” which he partially used but didn’t actually coin (the quote is attributed to John B.L. Soule) but his real renown is as the founder and influential editor of the New York Tribune. In Greeley’s time, the Tribune was the largest and most powerful newspaper in the country. An active and outspoken editor, Greeley, was among other things, a staunch anti-slavery supporter, an agrarian, a political reformer, a crusader against corruption, a champion of the working man, a pacifist who never-the-less supported the use of force against the secessionist south, an avid vegetarian, and a foe of alcohol, tobacco, gambling, and prostitution. He never failed to speak his mind, or if moved to, change it, and he wasn’t shy about airing his often inflammatory opinions on national affairs or sharply criticizing those who disagreed with them.

In the early 1830’s, however, before he launched himself into the public spotlight, young Horace Greeley was more focused on a certain school teacher outside of the tiny village of Lamington, New Jersey, than he was on the politics of the day. Her name was Mary Young Cheney, a strong-willed, independent minded school mistress from Connecticut. Mary caught Greeley’s eye while they were both staying at the Graham House, a vegetarian boarding house in New York City. (The Graham House was owned by renowned food revisionist, Reverend Sylvester Graham, father of the Graham Cracker.) An avid vegetarian like Greeley, Mary was 22 when she came to stay at Graham House. They shared a passion for poetry and she was a welcome distraction from the habitually dull company and tasteless meals of unrefined bread and unseasoned beans.  She was slim and always well-dressed. Her features have been described as “spare and plain,” but she is said to have had unusually large and radiant eyes that burned with intensity. Greeley quickly became smitten with the intelligent and somewhat like-minded schoolmistress. When Mary was hired to supervise classes at the Foot of the Lane school in Lamington, Greeley pulled himself away from his urban ambitions and ventured to the Bedminster countryside to pursue her.

Throughout their courtship, Horace Greeley was a familiar figure in the Somerset Hills. Distinctive in his white coat, he could be seen trekking across the hills from Bound Brook or walking the dirt roads from Somerville, eventually arriving in Lamington, covered in dust, weary in the legs, but energized by young love. The arrival of Greeley, in his white coat and socks and with the air of an absent-minded professor was remembered by locals who saw him at the school or at Mrs. Duyckinck’s in Vliettown, where Mary boarded.

Mary may have discouraged Greeley’s advances at first, she was a staunch feminist and sometime suffragette, who felt herself ill-suited to domestic life. Also, she must have sensed that they were both too opinionated, strong-willed and contrarian in nature to have a lasting relationship. Eventually, Mary left Lamington for a position at a girl’s academy in Warrenton, North Carolina. Greeley followed her there and his persistence finally paid off and they were married in July 1836.

Sadly, Mary’s intuitions were right and the Greeley’s relationship eroded over the years as her behavior became increasingly “eccentric.” They had seven children but only two survived into adulthood and each death drove Mary further to “nervous exhaustion.” Rumors of her bizarre child rearing techniques, which were supposedly witnessed by locals and related by Mary during a visit to Lamington, if true, would probably be considered abusive by today’s standards. One of her daughters allegedly died of neglect, while Mary, a devoted follower of spiritualism, doted on a son, who she believed was a spiritual medium. She was frequently ill, often depressed and spent long periods abroad while Greeley put in 16-18 hour days at the newspaper. Greeley once lamented to a friend that “Mother’s sanity is not of the highest order.” Greeley confessed in later years that he was never able to understand what happened between them. He speculated that it might have been his devotion to work but then added that his unhappiness at home was one of the reasons he was so devoted to his career.

Unhappily married, Horace and Mary were still bound by mutual admiration, respect, and a moral dogma that would not allow the idea of separation or divorce. Their life, both public and private, was tempestuous, controversial, and often tragic but they remained together until Mary’s death in 1872 and some say that their old flame for each other was rekindled in those later years.

Mary’s death was a crushing blow to Greeley. In that same year, he ran for the presidency (on both the new, Liberal Republican, and Democratic tickets) against U.S. Grant and was trounced in a bitter and humiliating campaign. The defeat, coupled with the loss of Mary, was too much for a now broken and dispirited Horace Greeley to bear. He wrote to a friend, “I am not dead, but wish I were. My house is desolate, my future dark, my heart a stone…” He died shortly after on November 29, 1872.

Horace Greeley reportedly last visited the Somerset Hills area in the year of his death, when he gave a temperance speech at the Second Church of Mendham (now the Bailey Funeral Home). The trip must have been nostalgic for him and that perhaps he let his mind wander back to those blissful walks to Lamington, when the world was still his for the taking and his youthful ambitions were still as big as his dreams. Maybe he was able to lose himself in happier memories for a moment and a smile may have come over his haggard face as he saw himself as a young man again, hurrying down the country lanes with an impatient spring in his step, overtaken by the anticipation of seeing his beloved schoolmistress at the Foot of the Lane.


Love at the Foot of the Lane School

That’s No Bull! The British Raid on Flemington

By C.G. Wolfe/© The Black River Journal

On the graying afternoon of December 14, 1776, two men, just three months apart in age, one the son of a modest farmer, the other the son of a distinguished British admiral, led seven of their men to a wooded patch  along a country lane near Flemington, New Jersey – one of them emerged a local hero, the other was abandoned there for eternity.


Small puffs of steam, barely visible in the half-light of the early morning, flared from the nostrils of the horses and men as British Cornet Francis Geary and seven of his troopers from the 16th (Queen’s) Light Dragoons cantered off toward the sleeping town of Flemington, in Hunterdon County, New Jersey. Geary and his scouting party were the vanguard of a 500-man raiding force of British infantry that were descending on Flemington. Their mission was to secure a large supply of salted beef and pork intended for Washington’s starving army in Pennsylvania, which was reportedly being warehoused in the store of Colonel Thomas Lowery. Geary’s job was to ride ahead of the column with his horsemen, locate the provisions, arrest Lowery if he was there, and report back to the main body, which would then march in and raid the town.

Francis Geary was a stout fellow just three months short of his 24th birthday. The eldest son of a British admiral, he had been educated at Balliol College, Oxford, and purchased his cornetcy (roughly the equivalent of a 2nd lieutenant in today’s US Army) in the 16th Light Dragoons when he was 21 years old, for 1,100 pounds. (Commissions were commonly purchased in the British military and could be resold.) The 16th Light Dragoons were a rough and ready elite unit. Their primary functions during the Revolution were patrolling, reconnaissance, and outpost duties but they could also carry out lightning raids and, unlike regular cavalry, they were armed with carbines and if the need arose, they could dismount and fight as infantry.

The 16th had only been in America since October, but already had a fearsome reputation in New Jersey. The same month they decided to raid Lowery’s storehouse in Flemington, British horsemen swooped down on the village of Pluckemin in Somerset County, capturing a local patriot, vandalizing the town’s church, and skirmishing with local militia. Only one day before Geary set off for Flemington, Friday December 13, a troop of dragoons from the 16th captured American Major General Charles Lee, Washington’s second in command, at a tavern in Basking Ridge.

Their incursions weren’t going unchallenged. Alone and in small groups Jersey militiamen were waging a guerilla war on the weary British regulars and their casualties were slowly mounting. On the same day that Cornet Geary rode off to Flemington, an aide to British General Howe commented that,”It is now very unsafe for us to travel in Jersey. The rascal peasants meet our men alone or in small unarmed groups. They have their rifles hidden in the bushes, or ditches, and the like. When they believe they are sure of success and they see one or several men belonging to our army, they shoot them in the head, then quickly hide their rifles and pretend to know nothing.”

Those “rascal peasants” may have weighed heavily on Cornet Geary’s mind as he and his men rode deeper into the Hunterdon countryside. With the sun up, it would be hard to miss the small but resplendent British scouting party. Decked out in their traditional scarlet red jackets with blue facing and a high leather helmet adorned with a bearskin crest and a painted leopard turban, the dragoons made a tempting target for rebel marksmen.

Geary reached Flemington without incident and found the provisions he was looking for at Lowery’s store. Colonel Lowery had fled before they arrived and, according to one story, watched the British scouts from a nearby hill. His mission halfway completed, Geary affixed the “King’s Seal” on the storehouse and rode off to find the column of British infantry and lead them to Flemington. On his entire journey from Pennington to Flemington, Geary and his men hadn’t encountered a single armed rebel and seemed to have taken Hunterdon by surprise. But a handful of militia from Amwell had heard that Geary was coming and had closed in behind him.

The night before, John Schanck (sometimes spelled Schenk), the 25 year-old son of a well-known Amwell farmer and a captain in the Hunterdon County militia, returned home to his farm near what is now Larison’s Corner in East Amwell Township, and found alarming news waiting for him. His cousin (also John Schanck) had been to New Market earlier that afternoon and gotten information that British Dragoons and infantry were going to raid Flemington the next day. Shanck had no hopes of stopping 500 British infantrymen but he could to try to discourage Geary and his squad of dragoons. The next day, he managed to muster just seven men, including three close relatives. The motley group of citizen soldiers prepared to meet their equal number of elite British light horsemen. Armed with whatever muskets or hunting rifles they owned, the small band of “Old Amwell” militiamen let Geary and his men ride on to Lowery’s store and then gathered in a wooded patch along the road about five miles below Flemington and waited for them to return.

Geary and his men were unaware that more than a half dozen rebel guns were pointing squarely at them as they filed down the narrow dirt lane from Copper Hill to Ringoes. Shanck and his militiamen, whose hearts must have been pounding with adrenaline, waited for the dragoons to get within range and, just as they reached their position, opened fire. Most of the shots whizzed harmlessly past the startled dragoons but there was at least one unnamed marksman in the group of Amwell men who put a carefully-aimed musket ball right through the center of Geary’s forehead and dropped him from the saddle. Shocked by the sudden death of their commander, and believing they were outnumbered, the British returned a ragged volley, wheeled off the road, and fled across an open field towards Somerset. Even Geary’s horse galloped off with the rest of the retreating dragoons leaving his lifeless body behind.

According to a firsthand account, Shanck’s men stripped the dead cornet of anything valuable; Captain Shanck got Geary’s sword, his cousin John grabbed the young officer’s hat and boots, William Van Syckle got his gold watch, and the rest of his possessions, including his scarlet red jacket, were divvied up among some of the other men. Geary’s corpse was then hastily covered in a pile of dead leaves and the men scattered to their homes.

After sunset, the British infantry column arrived near the spot Geary had been killed and stopped at Mathias Housel’s farm to ask if he had seen any British light horsemen. Housel told them of the skirmish earlier that day and of the cornet’s death. The British soldiers made him get a lantern and take them to the spot where Geary had been shot. They found a bloody stain on the ground but Housel didn’t lead them to the body. They interrogated Housel further and he managed to convince them that Washington had crossed the Delaware and large numbers of militia were gathering for miles around. Visibly alarmed at this news, the British column gave up their search for Geary’s body and their planned raid on Flemington and instead, marched off after their routed horsemen – Captain Shanck, his seven men, and the cunning Housel had turned back an entire British regiment. The next day the militiamen returned to the skirmish site and buried Francis Geary under two rough unmarked stones.

For many years after his death, fresh cut flowers were often found on Geary’s crude grave. No one ever discovered who was placing them there but once the form of a woman was seen moving among the trees near the burial site. Witnesses tried to intercept her but she vanished into the woods. Throughout the ensuing decades, more mysteries emerged from this tragic, lonely spot in the woods. According to a series of articles from the 1860s-70s called “Traditions of Our Ancestors,” Geary’s grave became “a place of terror after night.”

“Strange noises have often been heard, and on more than one occasion men have fled screaming to the nearest dwelling, declaring that they heard the British Regular’s groans. Others have seen him stalking through the forest, in full uniform, mounted upon a white horse, and the blood streaming from his forehead…Hugh Capner, Esq.,… says that when he was a young man and rode past Geary’s grave after night, the first question he would be asked on arriving in Flemington, was ‘Whether he’d seen anything of Geary?’ And this became the uniform question put to all those who traveled that way after night.”

One night a farmer living near the spot was startled by a man who burst into his house to take refuge from the restless spirit. He claimed that he heard an unearthly noise down where “the reg’lar was killed” and that the ground was shaking beneath his feet. The farmer agreed to go back there with the trembling traveler, and sure enough, when they got close to the infamous place they heard a low grumble, “boo-woo-wooh.” The farmer immediately recognized the familiar sound and told the man that it was just the neighbor’s bull. “That’s no bull!” the man stammered, before sprinting away as fast as his trembling legs could carry him.

Another legend that sprang from Geary’s grave asserted that his closest comrades sneaked back into the area the night after the skirmish and dug up his corpse, placed it in a coffin and carried it back to Trenton, where it was sealed in a barrel of whiskey and shipped back to his family in England. The argument raged for over a century until the Hunterdon County Historical Society decided to end the speculation once and for all. On May 18, 1891 a committee opened the grave of Francis Geary. Two and a half feet down they found his remains, lying on its right side, evidently dumped hastily into the shallow grave. Among the items found with the assorted bones, teeth and scraps of cloth were several silver buttons from his vest embossed “16 QLD” – the 16th Queen’s Light Dragoons.

In 1907, Francis Geary’s great-nephew, Sir William Neville M. Geary, replaced the two field stone markers with a monument more befitting the son of a British baronet. He was also memorialized back home with a bas-relief erected at his family church in Surrey. The plaque, which depicts the “Battle of Flemington” shows the figure of Britannia weeping over a bust of Francis Geary, below them a slain rider falls from his rearing steed as American militiamen prowl through the woods in the background.

In the last two hundred years, Geary’s gravesite has been surrounded by a changing landscape, from 19th century farm fields that mowed down the woods where he fell to the most recent addition of a residential development named “Geary’s Ridge.” His eternal resting place, partially shrouded once again by woods, now sits on a plot between busy Route 31, a cornfield, and the back of several new homes. Though difficult to find, it is respectfully maintained and has been buffered by a little park-like meadow. A set of unassuming but handsomely landscaped steps, oddly placed between two new houses in “Geary’s Ridge” ascend to a narrow stone path that winds its way around to the Cornet’s grave, where a small silk flower wreath and British Union Jack adorn his memorial stone.

John Shanck continued to serve with the militia and, according to family history, participated in most of the major engagements in New Jersey, including the Battles of Princeton and Monmouth. He died in 1823, at the age of 73, and is buried next to his wife in the Pleasant Ridge Cemetery near Larison’s Corner on the Old York Road, just a few miles from the grave of Francis Geary. A bronze plaque commemorates his “courage and foresight on December 14, 1776, that saved that part of the county from being overrun by British troops.”

Compared to larger engagements, the skirmish outside Flemington and the strategic value of Thomas Lowery’s store seem trivial, but grand, sweeping battles are few and far between. Often it’s the cumulative effect of small personal firefights, fought close-up and waged over a small patch of ground or, in this case, for a few barrels of salted pork that decide the outcome of a war. For John Shanck and Francis Geary the size of the battle made little difference, yet the stakes couldn’t have been higher or the consequences more serious. When the smoke cleared, a single shot fired during a fight that lasted only seconds, had decided their fate and one man, defending his home and neighbors, went home a local hero while the other, a professional soldier carrying out his sworn duty, was condemned to haunt a lonely patch of woods in Hunterdon County, far from glory and farther from home.













That’s No Bull! The British Raid on Flemington

That Bloody Summer: The Matawan Shark Attacks

By C.G. Wolfe/© The Black River Journal

In the summer of 1916 there had yet to be a recorded fatal shark attack on the eastern seaboard of the United States. The prevailing thought amongst most scientists was that sharks were “no 1916-newspaper-webmore dangerous than any other fish with teeth” and not prone to attacking humans – but that would all change over 12 terrifying days at the Jersey shore.

On July 1, Charles Vansant, a graduate student from Philadelphia, was swimming in chest-deep water near the Engleside Hotel in the resort town of Beach Haven, New Jersey. Earlier, he had befriended a dog that he met on the beach. He was trying to coax the dog into the water with him when people on shore saw a shadowy figure in the water heading towards him. They shouted out a warning as a black fin broke the surface and sliced its way towards the unwary bather. Vansant let out a high pitched shriek and was yanked under the water. He resurfaced, thrashing desperately towards shore but the shark continued its attack. He was only in 3 ½ feet of water when Lifeguard Alexander Ott dove into the bloody surf and tried to drag him to shore but the shark wouldn’t let go. Two residents ran down to the water and locked arms to form a human chain and help Ott pull Vansant from shark’s jaws. The frenzied fish continued to tear at Vansant until it was dragged into water so shallow that it was threatened with being beached. Finally, it gave up its relentless pursuit and swam away.

Vansant’s left thigh was stripped to the hipbone and there was a severe gash in his right leg. Doctors, including Vansant’s own father, fought to save his life but he had lost too much blood and died on a makeshift operating table in the hotel lobby. The gruesome attack shocked New Jersey but the newspapers, not wanting to scare off summer tourists during the busiest weekend of the year, downplayed the event as a freak occurrence and bathers were soon back in the water.

Five days after the attack on Vansant, Charles Bruder, a bell captain at the Essex and Sussex Hotel in Spring Lake, 45 miles up the coast from Beach Haven, was taking a swim with friends during his lunch break. A strong swimmer, Bruder had ventured out alone beyond the beaches lifelines when people on shore heard him scream. Two lifeguards grabbed a boat and launched into the water. They rowed towards Bruder, who was still shrieking as his body was being flung into the air like a rag doll. The shark circled and struck repeatedly. When they drew nearer, Bruder began begging for help.

“A shark bit me!” he cried. “It bit off my legs!”

The lifeguards hauled him into the row boat and saw that both his legs were shorn off at the knees – he bled to death before they could get him to shore. A doctor on the scene had to postpone examining his body to aid witnesses on the beach who were vomiting and fainting from the ghastly ordeal.

This time the attack was taken seriously. Resort owners on the Jersey shore, desperate to save the season, cordoned off their beaches with steel shark netting; armed men in motor boats patrolled the waters offshore; and would-be shark hunters took to the waves equipped with everything from high-powered rifles to axes and harpoon guns. But there was no way anyone could have foreseen what happened next.

The town of Matawan is 30 miles north of Spring Lake and 16 miles inland, its only connection to the ocean is a meandering freshwater creek that shares the town’s name. On July 12, an old salt named Thomas Cottrell was crossing the drawbridge over Matawan Creek when he looked down and saw what looked like an eight-foot shark cruising upstream on the incoming tide. Cottrell ran for the nearest phone and called the town barber, who doubled as the town’s chief of police, but the chief chalked up the sighting to shark panic and went on cutting hair. Frustrated, Cottrell ran down Main Street telling anyone that would listen that a shark was in the creek but no one believed that a shark could have made it that far upstream, especially in freshwater. Taking matters into his own hands, Cottrell went to the favorite bathing spots to warn swimmers of the peril. Shortly after he passed by Wyckoff Dock, a popular swimming hole on the creek, a group of boys who just missed his warning came by for a dip.

“Hey guys, watch me float!” 12-year old Lester Stillwell called out to his friends as he laid back into the murky water and drifted away from the group. But most of the boys had their backs turned and were watching another kid attempt a trick dive off of the pier. Seconds after the diver hit the water they heard a short high-pitched yell and a big splash behind them and turned just in time to see Lester being yanked under the water. Someone shouted, “Lester’s gone!” but just then he broke the surface and the boys saw that he was locked in the jaws of a huge fish. Lester tried to scream out for help but could only manage a gurgle before the shark pulled him back under. His friends scrambled from the water and ran to town for help, crying that a shark had gotten Lester! But still, no one would believe that there was a shark in the creek. Instead they thought it was more probable that Lester, who was an epileptic, had a “fit” and drowned.

Within a half an hour a crowd had gathered at the Wyckoff Dock to watch volunteers search for the missing boy. As men in boats poled the muddy waters, several others including Stanley Fisher, donned swimming trunks and began diving for Lester’s body. After several attempts Fisher finally surfaced with the dead boy and was carrying him into shore when something struck his leg. Fisher staggered, dropped Lester’s body and shouted, “He’s got me! The shark’s got me!” Fisher punched and flailed at the shark. A group of men in a row boat got hold of him and tried to wrest him from the shark’s teeth, as deputy sheriff Arthur Van Buskirk smashed the animal over the head with an oar. The shark finally let go but Fisher’s right leg had been bitten off at the thigh. A local doctor did his best to staunch the bleeding and arrangements were made for the local train to ignore all stops and rush Fisher to Monmouth Memorial Hospital but he died as he was being wheeled into the operating room.

A half-mile downstream from where  Lester Stillwell and Stanley Fisher were attacked, Michael Dunn and his twelve year old brother Joseph were swimming along the north bank of the creek with some other boys when someone shouted to them that there had been two shark attacks and that they should get out of the water. Heeding the warning, they swam to the dock and began clambering up. Joseph, who was behind Michael, had just begun climbing the dock’s wooden ladder when the shark reached up and clamped on to the back of his right leg and pulled him back into the creek. Seeing Joseph struggling in the mouth of the shark, Michael dove back into the water to save his brother. He grabbed hold of Joseph’s hand and tried to pull him to safety but the thrashing shark was too powerful and began to drag Joseph under. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, a brawny bricklayer named Robert Thress, who was passing by and heard the cries for help, reached around and ripped Joseph from the shark’s mouth. His right leg was mangled but none of the arteries had been severed. After 59 days in the hospital, and several skin grafts, Joseph fully recovered from the attack and became the lone survivor of the 12-day feeding frenzy.

Hoping the shark would return on the next high tide, the people of Matawan grabbed sticks of dynamite, shotguns, pistols, pitchforks, hammers, and anything else they thought could kill a shark and lined the banks of the creek, while eager reporters stood by. Underwater charges were set and detonated, blasting geysers of muddy water into the air; shark sightings were reported up and down the creek, and the town shot itself out of ammunition, but at the end of the day it appeared that the shark had eluded their armed gauntlet.

As panic gripped the east coast, swarms of “armed posses” patrolled the waters off New Jersey in search of the rogue killer, destroying hundreds of sharks along the way just for good measure. Then on July 14, the day of Lester Stillwell’s (whose body was never recovered) and Stanley Fisher’s funerals, a taxidermist and circus animal trainer from Manhattan named Michael Schleisser netted a 7 ½ foot great white shark a few miles from the mouth of Matawan Creek. After a terrific fight and a few lacerations and bruises for his trouble, Schleisser and a friend were able to land the shark and bring it to shore.

During an examination of the shark’s stomach contents physicians found chunks of human flesh, an 11-inch piece of a boy’s shinbone, and what they believed to be a human rib. Schleisser declared that he had caught the man-eater. He stuffed the shark and put him on display in New York City. Thousands lined the streets to catch a glimpse of the infamous killer.

With World War One raging in Europe, a polio epidemic sweeping New York and New Jersey, and the Mexican Revolutionary, Poncho Villa, raiding across the US border, the media eventually lost their appetite for the shark story and by the end of the long, hot summer, wary bathers trickled back into the water.

Since the attacks, many skeptics have doubted Schleisser’s claim and theories have abounded as to the type and number of sharks that could have been responsible for the events of 1916. It seems that no one, especially those of us who are drawn to the water each year, wants to believe that a lone shark could acquire a taste for human flesh and single-mindedly stalk swimmers in salt as well as fresh water over such a broad range, but after Schleisser bagged the great white near the mouth of Matawan Creek, there were no more attacks along the Jersey shore that bloody summer.

That Bloody Summer: The Matawan Shark Attacks

Jolly Green 26: The Story of the Larry Maysey Memorial

By C.G. Wolfe/© The Black River Journal 2017

One afternoon in early spring of 2002, Marc Dean and Terry Arentowicsz, two burly veterans who had been friends since childhood, sat on Terry’s porch reminiscing about the past. Terry’s father, Bruno Arentowicz, a veteran of Patton’s Third Army, had recently

Sgt. Larry W. Maysey

passed away. As they talked about old friends and remembered other veterans from their hometown of Chester, New Jersey, one of them mentioned Larry Maysey – the friend and classmate who never came home from Vietnam. Larry was the kind of kid everybody liked. Friendly, helpful, and handsome, he was happy banging heads on the football field, as he did for four years at West Morris Central High School, or sitting quietly and strumming his guitar. He grew up in a rural corner of Morris County, New Jersey. His childhood friend Marc Dean, who swatted baseballs with Larry as far back as little league, remembered that he was a “regular ‘Chester’ kid” who enjoyed fishing, camping and “country stuff” like catching frogs at Crystal Lake.

Larry had a creative side as well. One of his talents was woodworking and his parents considered setting him up in a cabinet shop of his own one day. But Larry had nobler aspirations. When President Kennedy beseeched the youth of America to “Ask not what your country can do for you… but what you can do for your country,” thousands stepped forward to heed the call. Larry Maysey enlisted in the United States Air Force and volunteered for the elite Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Service (ARRS) – the self-sacrificing pararescuemen affectionately known as the PJs (parajumpers).

According to legend, the PJs were born in August 1943 when 21 passengers were forced to bail out of a burning cargo plane over the impenetrable jungle along the China-Burma border during World War II. Volunteers were called for to rescue the survivors – the only way in was by parachute. A lt. colonel and two corpsmen, who had never jumped from a plane before, came forward to accept the hazardous assignment. They dropped in successfully and spent a month in the jungle caring for the injured crash victims until they were finally recovered. (One of the men they saved was television journalist, Eric Severied, who called his rescuers “gallant.”)

From their courageous but humble beginnings, the pararescue service evolved into a highly-professional, versatile force that has become the 911 for downed pilots, US Special Forces, NASA, and a host of other services and scenarios. According to an article in Stars and Stripes magazine, “They can sneak in and out. They can do recon. They can take out targets.” But what they are trained to do best is save lives. In every war since World War Two, they have put themselves on the line to fulfill their solemn motto: “That others may live.”

Larry Maysey decided that becoming a PJ was what he could do for his country. After 18 months of intensive training (90% dropout rates are common in PJ training) that included forest and water jumping, scuba diving, wilderness survival, and combat medicine, Larry received his coveted red beret, a symbol of the blood that PJs are willing to sacrifice to save lives. He was 21 years old when he shipped out to the Republic of Vietnam in the fall of 1967.

The PJs primary mission in Vietnam was to fly into a combat zone aboard a big, lumbering helicopter (HH-3E) known as a “Jolly Green Giant” and drop from a cable into “jungles, swamps, mountains and forests,” usually under fire the entire time. Once on the ground, they tended to the wounded. The most gravely injured were attached to a litter and hoisted up to the helicopter, the rest of the evacuees were hauled up on a seat known as a “jungle penetrator.” Besides their medical kit, flak jacket and flight crew helmet, PJs dropped into combat with a .38 pistol, an M-16 assault rifle, and a survival knife. If they had to, they were prepared to stay and fight or lead the way out.

In the fall of 1967, a Special Operations team that included US and indigenous personnel was inserted into a “denied” area, deep behind enemy lines along the Vietnamese-Laotian border to act as trail watchers. Their assignment, still murky today due to its highly classified nature, was to observe a section of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which was located in Laos. (The Ho Chi Minh trail was the legendary supply artery used by the RVN and Viet Cong to transport materiel into South Vietnam. Some sections were no more than a foot path but the US expended enormous assets to cut the flow of supplies that snaked along its route.)

At some point in the mission, the Special Operations team was discovered and took heavy casualties during a savage firefight. They were being relentlessly pursued by communist forces and the decision was made to pull them out. Two Air Force helicopters from the 37th ARRS at Danang Airbase, “Jolly Green 26” and “Jolly Green 29,” were scrambled for the desperate night extraction. Sgt. Larry Maysey was the rescue specialist aboard Jolly Green 26. He had been “in country” for just 23 days.

Two Army helicopters had already gone down trying to aid the remaining members of the bloodied Special Ops team, which was now holding a tenuous perimeter on a steep jungle slope. A C-130 cargo plane circled overhead dropping flares around the drop zone as three helicopter gunships poured rounds into the flickering half-light trying to suppress the enemy’s guns. Jolly Green 29 swooped in first; the steep angle of the hill required incredible airmanship but they were able to pick up three of the indigenous operatives before being damaged and driven off by automatic weapons fire.

Jolly Green 26, piloted by Captain Gerald Young, rumbled in next. The hostile fire was more concentrated now but Young hovered unflinchingly as Larry Maysey dropped down into the maelstrom like a sitting duck. Exposing himself to a hail of fire, Sgt. Maysey stabilized two of the wounded survivors and got them loaded onto Jolly Green 26. Just as Young began to pull away, the helicopter was raked by machine gun fire at point blank range. The mortally wounded Green Giant rolled over and burst into flames as it crashed to the ground. Captain Young survived by leaping from a window of the exploding helicopter but Sgt. Larry Maysey was dead, along with the two special forces operatives, MSgt. Bruce Baxter and Sgt. Joseph Kusick and two crewman, SSgt. Eugene Clay and Capt. Ralph Brower.

Despite serious burns, Captain Gerald Young continued to aid his comrades on the ground. Somehow the embattled survivors of the Special Operations Team and the fatal rescue attempt held on all night and into the next day. After a second rescue mission was called off, a Special Forces Strike Team was landed nearby and fought their way to their stranded comrades. Finally, on November 10, seventeen hours after the downing of Jolly Green 26, the survivors were rescued. Gerald Young would receive the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions. Larry Maysey would become one of only 22 enlisted men to receive the Air Force Cross.

Later that day the bodies from the crash site of Jolly Green 26 were identified and prepared for evacuation but bad weather and the enemy prevented their recovery. After two days, the strike force had to reluctantly abandon the crash site. The remains of Larry Maysey and the men that died alongside him had to be left behind. Though Larry’s mother Charlotte Hoffman, finally accepted that her only child was killed in Vietnam, she never stopped hoping that Larry’s remains would be brought home to Chester. Her effort on behalf of Larry and other MIAs was tireless, but sadly she died before she could bring her son home from Laos.

As Marc Dean and Terry Arentowicsz thought more about the selfless and tragic loss of their classmate it occurred to them that, although the Air Force has dedicated three buildings throughout the country in Larry Maysey’s memory, there is no building or monument in Chester that bears the hometown hero’s name. They decided “right then and there,” that whether his remains were recovered or not, they were going to “bring Larry home.” Dean and Arentowicsz formed a committee to spearhead the building of a memorial to Larry Maysey and all of Chester’s veterans. Dean admits that it’s a group he is “very proud of. “All the members are former West Morris Central High School students and several are also former servicemen, including Navy veteran Larry Oppel and Marine Corps combat veteran Albert Seals. Other members include, Bruce Campbell, David Steffan, Scott Hoffman, Larry Maysey’s step brother and the minister at the Chester First Congregational Church, Linda Oppel and Willard Bergman, Esq. Even the architect for the project, John Dean was a classmate of Larry Maysey’s.

The monument, which sits on a small island of grass in the center of Chester Borough, was dedicated on Memorial Day 2005. It includes a curved granite wall inscribed with the names of all of Chester’s veterans from the Revolution to the present. In front of the wall, a bronze likeness of Larry Maysey stands on a three-foot high base. Larry is wearing his jump boots and red beret, with an M-16 slung over his shoulder. He’s stooped over with his hand outstretched to passersby, a symbolic gesture of hope and comradeship that is as poignant today as it would have been in 1967. It is a reminder of the generations of young men and women who have faced death so that “others may live.”

Jolly Green 26: The Story of the Larry Maysey Memorial

Burning the White Marble

By C.G. Wolfe/© The Black River Journal

“It was a rude, round, tower-like structure about twenty feet high, heavily built of rough stones, and with a hillock of earth heaped about the larger part of its circumference; so that the blocks and fragments of marble might be drawn by cart-loads, and thrown in at the top. There was an opening at the bottom of the tower, like an over-mouth, but large enough to admit a man in a stooping posture, and provided with a massive iron door. With the smoke and jets of flame issuing from the chinks and crevices of this door, which seemed to give admittance into the hill-side, it resembled nothing so much as the private entrance to the infernal regions.” (Nathaniel Hawthorne, “Ethan Brand: A Chapter from an Abortive Romance”)


The overgrown remains of local lime kilns can be seen along the country roads of Hunterdon County.

In the ebbing daylight of autumn or the early sunrise of spring, New Jersey’s lime burners stood their lonely vigils, stoking the hot coals and “burning the white marble”– limestone. Also known as calcium carbonate, limestone is a shale-like sedimentary rock that can be broken down at high temperatures and pulverized into a white powder. It was used in a host of products including cement and plaster, and according to a 1994 article by Art Charlton, in New Jersey Outdoors it was even fed to chickens to thicken their shells. In northwest New Jersey it was mainly used to “sweeten” farmland by neutralizing acids in the soil. Northwest New Jersey, particularly the valleys of the highlands, is rich in limestone deposits and by the late 1700s farmers like James Parker, who resided near Clinton, in Hunterdon County, had turned to the ancient and widespread tradition of lime burning to replenish their hard worked farms and plantations.

By day smoke billowed from lime choked shafts and by night fires would have dotted the landscape as most farms with access to limestone were operating kilns by the mid eighteenth century. They varied in style, size and design but most kilns could fit easily into Hawthorne’s description of the “rude, round, tower-like structure.” They were usually built of field stone and set into a hill or embankment so that wagon loads of quarried limestone could be driven to the top of the shaft. The limestone was packed into the cylindrical interior in alternating layers of limestone and wood (later coal was used and one local history book even mentions corn cobs being layered with the stone). The top of the shaft was then covered in sod and the kiln was lit. The white hot fire (lime burns white) had to be kept burning until all the wood in the shaft was consumed and the lime was broken down, a process that could last days. The hot lime would then drop through a grate onto a hearth below where it was raked out, cooled and slaked with water. Bushels of it were then loaded onto farm wagons and hauled to the fields where it was spread by the shovel-full over acres of hungry, plowed up earth.

Many farmers, like James Parker, who produced thousands of bushels of lime on his farm, hired lime-burners to handle the tedious chore. A slave to the flames, they kept the fires burning continuously for days to produce the “sweet” powder. Stooping into the “eye of the kiln” and laboring before the white glow in the dark of midnight, they must have resembled devils toiling in the “infernal regions”. Maybe that’s why lime kilns and the men who tended them often fueled superstitious imaginations. In, In Search of Lime Kilns in Warren County, published by the Warren County Historical and Genealogical Society, Gladys Harry Eggler writes that folks “would spin tales of Satan and evil spirits that dwelled in the fires of the lime kilns. In addition to emitting an eerie glow, explosive outbursts of crackling limestone would lend credence to many ghostly tales.” Hawthorne’s lime burner, Ethan Brand, was said to have “conversed with the devil himself in the lurid blaze of the kiln”. Though demonic tales and local ghost stories found inspiration in the flames, some old-timers admit that the only real spirits dwelling near the kilns was the occasional jug of applejack, though there were a few gruesome scenes from time to time. In search of Lime Kilns in Warren County notes that in 1827 a burning kiln collapsed and buried the lime burner in “an avalanche of scorching lime”. Transients were also known to sleep on top of the kilns to keep warm and could be smothered in their slumber by the smoke from the shaft if the winds blew in the wrong direction.

Eventually, chemical fertilizers and safer methods of mass producing lime drove the rural kilns into extinction. Today they can still be seen by an observant eye while driving some of the back roads in places like Hunterdon and Warren Counties. Some, like the commercial kilns in Peapack, are carefully preserved while others are crumbling ruins spilling from a hill or roadside embankment. Most have outlived the farms they once nourished. They stand as forgotten monuments to a bygone way of life, and as Hawthorne writes, they are “long deserted, with weeds growing in the vacant round of the interior, which is open to the sky, and grass and wild-flowers rooting themselves into the chinks of the stones.” But many of these rural landmarks have stoically weathered time thus far and as he adds admiringly, they “may yet be overspread with the lichens of centuries to come.”

Commercial Quarries and Lime Kilns – Lime burning wasn’t confined to the family farm and commercial quarries became big business, shipping tons of lime by rail and via the Morris Canal. Some had six or seven kilns that could produce 100,000 bushels a year and one quarry near Philipsburg had 15 kilns that burned continuously. Farmers that weren’t lucky enough to have access to limestone on their property took advantage of the commercial burners, gathering together to “make a day” out of their trip to the quarry during outings known as “lime frolics”.

Burning the White Marble

Jersey Things: Pork Roll or Taylor Ham

By C.G. Wolfe / ©The Black River Journal

In Northern New Jersey the mere mention of the name “Taylor Ham” can cause hungry mouths to water, while in the southern parts of the state it’s “Pork Roll” that brings on this Pavlovian response. Since our village pork rollstraddles the border of Hunterdon and Morris Counties, the vernacular Mason-Dixon Line so to speak, I tend to throw around either term as the mood strikes me. Recognized as the “unofficial” meat of New Jersey, Some Garden State gourmands like it cut thick and barley warm, while purists like it cut thin and fried to a crisp. But no matter how you slice it this pork product from Trenton is as New Jersey as Sloppy Joes, rippers, and saltwater taffy.

Made from coarsely ground pork shoulder and spices, (the complete recipe is a closely guarded company secret) Taylor Ham was developed in the mid 1800s by John Taylor (1837-1909), New Jersey Sate Senator and founder of the Taylor Provision Company of Trenton, New Jersey, the company that still turns out Taylor Ham today. (John Taylor was also the founder of the Taylor Opera House in Trenton and has a street named for him in that city.) Called “pork roll” because of the tube or log shaped package that it’s traditionally sold in, several other manufacturers, including Taylor’s cross town rival, the Case Pork Roll Company, vie for pork roll supremacy, but John Taylor’s namesake and legacy has become synonymous with this smoky, mildly spiced meat product so dear to native New Jerseyians.

Order breakfast in any respectable Jersey diner or deli and you’ll find the celebrated Taylor ham, egg, and cheese sandwich, known in diner lingo as the “Triple Bypass.” Blasphemously compared to Canadian bacon or even Spam, this sausage-like delight goes great with any breakfast fare, but true devotees will tell you that the best way to enjoy it is grilled or griddled up crisp and served with melted American cheese on a hard roll, adorned simply with a generous squeeze of ketchup (or mustard, again, depending on regional taste and tradition). This is the way I was first introduced to Taylor Ham and I’ve never looked back. But today, pork roll is finding its way into just about any recipe as a substitute for ham or sausage. So go ahead and Jersey-up that mac ‘n’ cheese, Sunday quiche, or slice of pizza.

Other serving suggestions:

“Notch Meat”: To keep your pork roll from curling up during cooking, slice four cuts from the outer edges inwards about 3/4 inch to an inch towards the center, evenly spaced around the circumference.

“The North Jersey Slider”: For a variation on the traditional Pork Roll sandwich mentioned above add a thick slice of Jersey tomato.

“The Jersey Burger”: Forget the bacon and add a slice of Taylor Ham the next time you grill up a hamburger.

Jersey Things: Pork Roll or Taylor Ham

New Jersey Notables: J.Geils

By C.G. Wolfe / © The Black River Journal

Baby Boomer
s and Generation X-ers alike are mourning the passing of J. Geils, a guitarist whose eponymous group, the J.Geils Band, was part of the soundtrack of our high school and college days, bringing us everything from the amped-up blues of the 1970s to the synthesized, nej.geilsw wave sounds of the 1980s.

Born John Warren Geils, Jr. on February 20, 1946, in New York City, “J” whose father worked for Bell Labs, grew up in Morris Plains, New Jersey but spent his high school years in the Somerset Hills. The Geils’ moved to a house on Old Farm Lane in Bedminster Township in 1959, and Geils graduated from Bernards High School, in Bernardsville, in 1964 (two years ahead of sophomore, Meryl Streep), where he played horn in the high school band.

After graduation, Geils moved to Massachusetts to attend college at Northeastern before transferring to Worcester Polytechnic Institute to study mechanical engineering. Here, Geils, who eventually traded in his trumpet for a blues guitar, hooked up with harmonica player Richard “Magic Dick” Salwitz and bassist Danny Klein to form his first band, Snoopy and the Sopwith Camels. They later moved to Boston, and with the addition of drummer Stephen Jo Bladd, keyboard player Seth Justman, and vocalist Peter Wolf, formed The J. Geils Blues Band which was later shortened to The J. Geils Band.

Geils was often overshadowed by his charismatic, fast-talking front man Peter Wolf, a former Boston radio disc jockey known as “Woofa Goofa.” But for most fans, Wolf’s funk just wouldn’t have been as funky without Geils’ bluesy riffs, and driving leads, never demonstrated better than in 1977’s live version of “(Ain’t Nothin’ But) a House Party,” recorded at the legendary Winterland Ballroom (if you haven’t seen or heard it lately, check it out on YouTube). The J. Geils Band churned out albums from 1970 to 1984 and had early top 40 hits with a cover version of The Valentinos’ “Lookin’ for a Love,” which appeared on their second album The Morning After, and another one of my favorites, “Must of Got Lost” from 1974’s Nightmares…and Other Tales from the Vinyl Jungle.

Though many will always remember them as the ultimate live party band of the 70s, J. Geils reached their peak commercial success in the 1980s with a string of hits that were staple rotations on MTV, including “Come Back,” “Freeze Frame,” “Centerfold,” (which spent six weeks at number one on the “Billboard Hot 100”), and “Love Stinks,” which saw new life in 1998, when it was performed by Adam Sandler in the movie, The Wedding Singer.

When Peter Wolf left the band in 1983, to launch a solo career, leading to the band’s eventual dissolution in 1985. Geils turned to his second love, auto racing, and started KTR Motorsports, a vintage sports car restoration shop in Carlsile, Massachusetts. He returned to music in the 1990s, producing, and playing in the bands Bluestime, the New Guitar Summit and the Kings of Strings, and released a solo jazz album in 2005. Geils and his horn came back to Bernardsville in 2015, for his induction into the Bernards High School “Wall of Honor,” where he played the school’s rally song and thrilled the audience with a few blasts of “Centerfold.”

Geils was found dead in his Groton, Massachusetts home on April 11, 2017, but he’ll live on in our hearts and on our classic rock stations.

New Jersey Notables: J.Geils

Oh How Sudden was the Stroke of Death…

By C.G. Wolfe / © The Black River Journal

How many of us occasional sinners have entered a church and joked, “I hope I don’t get struck by lightning.” Well, it turns out that it can actually happen.

Mendham-Grave33 year old Martha Drake was sitting in a pew at the end of Sunday services, on May 16, 1813, in the Hilltop Presbyterian Church, in Mendham, when a bolt of lightning came through a window and struck up to ten parishioners. Martha was killed instantly. All the other victims somehow survived. Martha Drake is buried under a sycamore tree in the churchyard, her red sandstone marker, now illegible from years of erosion, reads in part: “Martha, wife of John Drake was killed instantly by lightning as she sat Church on Sunday the 16th of May, 1813… How sudden, oh how sudden was the stroke of death, That instantly all mortal ties dissolved, And left the lifeless corpse bereav’d of breath…”

The church was replaced by a newer building in 1816, which was destroyed by fire in 1835. A new church built in 1835 burned down in 1859. The present day church, which is the fourth church to be built on the site, was dedicated in 1860.

© The Black River Journal 2012

Oh How Sudden was the Stroke of Death…

New Jersey Notables: Liver Eatin’ Johnson

By C.G. Wolfe / © The Black River Journal

I had a recent request for this article and had to do some real digging. I finally found it in our Summer 2007 issue. Hope you enjoy this grisly tale from the archives of The BRJ.

liver_eating_johnson450Details of his early life are still sketchy, but John Garrison, a legendary mountain man of the old west and the basis for Robert Redford’s title character in the 1972 movie “Jeremiah Johnson,” was actually a New Jersey native, and may have hailed from the Alexandria and Union Township area of Hunterdon County. Unlike Robert Redford’s character, however, Garrison’s life was less romantic and much more gruesome.

Born around 1824, Garrison first sought adventure on the high seas before heading to the American frontier. It’s believed that he joined the navy during the outbreak of the Mexican-American War in 1846, but his life as a sailor came to an abrupt end when he struck an officer and deserted before military justice could catch up with him.

Looking to put his troubles behind him, Garrison changed his name to John Johnson and lit out for Wyoming and Montana, becoming a hunter, trapper, and a “woodhawk,” cutting cordwood for the river steamboats.

As was the custom with many lonely mountain men, Johnson traded with local natives for a wife and was married to a woman from the “Flathead” tribe around 1847. Later that same year Johnson returned to his cabin from an extended trapping expedition and found that she had been murdered by a Crow raiding party. Adding to his grief, Johnson discovered that his wife had been pregnant. A big man with a hot temper, Johnson grabbed his 30. Caliber Hawken rifle and his Bowie knife and set out on a path of vengeance, waging a one-man war with the Crow that lasted almost 20 years.

Unlike his portrayal in the 1972 movie, Johnson wasn’t the hunted – he was the hunter. He tracked and stalked Crow braves wherever he could find them and after killing and scalping his victims, he would reportedly cut out their livers, take a bite and the spit it out, shouting “Crow liver isn’t worth eating,” which was apparently an unpardonable defilement and insult to his native foes. The cannibalistic ritual earned him the nickname “Liver Eatin’ Johnson.

As the body count grew so did Johnson’s legend. The Crow were said have sent out twenty of their bravest warriors to kill Johnson and to put an end to his reign of terror – none of them were ever seen by their tribe again. Finally, Johnson was captured by a party of Black Feet, who intended to trade him to his Crow enemies. In an escape that could only have taken place in the tall tales of the old west, Johnson gnawed through his leather bindings and killed the lone guard outside his teepee. Using the dead sentry’s knife Johnson cut off the Black Foot’s leg. When the rest of his captors discovered him trying to flee, he used the severed limb as a club, pummeling his pursuers and making good his escape. Embarking on a 200-mile trek to safety, Johnson used the gruesome trophy as nourishment during his journey. He continued his bloody feud with the Crow earning the native moniker, “Crow Killer.” During his two decade rampage, it’s reported that Johnson killed anywhere from 40 to 300 Crow warriors. Eventually, his weary enemy followed the old adage, “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” They invited Johnson to make peace and he was made an honorary chieftain of the tribe. Johnson accepted, and from that day on, he not only ceased his aggression against the Crow, but spoke of them as family.

In 1864, during the last year of the Civil War, Johnson joined the Union Army as a sharpshooter. He was wounded in the second battle of Newtonia and honorably discharged in 1865. Johnson returned to Montana, where he served as a guide for settlers heading west and later on as a scout for the US Army. In the early 1880s, Johnson came down from the mountains and tried his hand as a lawman, first as a constable in Colorado and later as the marshal of Red Lodge, Montana. Here, his reputation made him a sort of boogie man for the local children and mothers would often admonish their unruly youngsters to behave or “Liver Eatin’ Johnson” would get them. Johnson also took his turn performing in one of the traveling Wild West shows that were so popular at the time and shared the spotlight with Calamity Jane, Tom LeForge, and 100 of his former Crow enemies.

Succumbing to age and a hard life on the frontier, Johnson eventually moved to Los Angeles, California, where he died in an old soldiers’ home in 1900, at the age of 76. Johnson was buried in a nearby cemetery but after the movie “Jeremiah Johnson” rekindled interest in his life and times, he was reburied in Cody, Wyoming in 1974. Johnson’s grave is still visited by tourists, and many also view his rifle and hunting knife which are on display at the Cody Firearms Museum. His cabin, which still stands in Red Lodge, Montana is also a popular destination.

Romanticized by some and reviled by others, Johnson ranks right up there with other larger-than-life figures of the old west, but few who ponder the adventures of this fabled mountain man realize that he started out as a humble “Jersey boy.”

© Black River Journal

New Jersey Notables: Liver Eatin’ Johnson