Woodstock’s Infamous (1905) Murder Trial is author Richard Heppner’s fourth book on the town he serves as historian and councilman. As time travel in a neat (126-page) package, it doesn’t get much better.
Subtitled “Early Racial Injustice in Upstate New York,” it speaks to the repugnant social mores of the time, only 40 years after the Civil War. At times a gripping detective tale, it tells the story of a 55-year old black man “credibly accused” (as we say these days) in the murder of a 20-year-old white man of a prominent family.
The accused, Cornell Van Gaasbeek, though an itinerant worker, carried two of the most prestigious names in Ulster County: Cornell, of river commerce fame, and Van Gaasbeek, owner of the Senate House in Kingston where the New York State Senate met in 1777.
This is also a story of a life-long friendship between Van Gaasbeek and the boyhood playmate who would represent him at his two trials, Kingston corporation counsel Augustus Van Buren. The scion of Dutch settlers (the family traced their Kingston roots to 1720), Van Buren, pro bono, took his case to appeal, winning a new trial and ultimate freedom for his client. Van Gaasbeek spent three years in Dannemora state prison in the meantime.
The Van Gaasbeek case, as unlikely as the outcome would have been at that time, did produce a fundamental precedent in New York law, that character could be used in a defense.
The case was entirely circumstantial. Oscar Harrison’s bludgeoned body was found in Van Gaasbeek’s home the morning after the two had been drinking together. Van Gassbeek, perhaps fearing the kind of injustice that might await him, fled Woodstock and was later apprehended by an amateur detective in Tannersville.
Heppner compares attorney Van Buren with the more famous, though fictional, Atticus Finch of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and there are striking similarities. But there was something closer to home, in the very courthouse where the Van Gaasbeek trials took place. Abolitionist Sojourner Truth, with the assistance of a white attorney acting without fee, succeeded in freeing her son, kidnapped into slavery in the south, at trial in the Ulster County Courthouse in the late 1820s.
Woodstock’s Infamous Murder Trial (actually held in Kingston) is an easy, informative read, chock full of familiar places and photos of bygone Woodstock, Kingston and points between.
Information is available at (888) 313-2665 or at Arcadiapublishing.com.