The Mystery of Frederick C. French
There is a gallant regiment Which is called the 10th Vermont Composed of men who are as good As anyone might want; And coming from a State where snow In depth comes several feet It is not strange they drink down here Where there is no snow to eat! --Regimental Song
Were there two men named Frederick French? Why did they keep disappearing? Was one of them murdered over 100 years ago? Amateur detectives will find this sad, true story interesting.
The first Frederick C. French, of Bennington, Vermont
Frederick C. French married Hannah E. Ripley in Bennington, Vermont on May 16, 1852. The 1850 & 1860 census' put his birth as 1831-32 in New York. Their first three children1 were born in 1854, 1857 (my great grandmother, Fanny French Sweet) and 1859. Their fourth and last child was born in 1861, and on August 8 of that year Frederick C. French volunteered and enrolled in Company E, 10th Vermont infantry regiment. He was paid a bounty of $25 and a premium of $200 at enlistment. Edward Kelly, who was married to Hannah's sister Catharine Ripley, enlisted in the same regiment on the same day.
On June 24, 18642 Frederick's life would change. He was taken prisoner near Petersburg, Virgina, and taken to Andersonville Prison in Georgia. Andersonville was a hell on earth3. 13,000 of the 41,000 men who entered the 26-acre open-air stockade died there. At the height of operation, there was 20 square feet of ground per prisoner, just barely enough to lie down.
He was paroled November 24, 1864 at Savannah Georgia, returned to his regiment January 25, 1865 and was discharged with the regiment (and Edward Kelly) on June 22, 1865, in Washington. According to History of the Tenth Vermont, the troops departed on the 23rd and arrived in New York on the evening of the 24th. They arrived in Burlington (by boat) at 2AM on the 27th, greeted by many citizens and comrades who had been discharged earlier. The men were furloughed until July third, when they returned and were paid and discharged.
Then Frederick C. French disappeared. I have found no records of Frederick French in Vermont after the war. As of the 1870 census in Bennington, his wife Hannah was living with her mother and children. The 1880 census in Bennington lists Hannah as divorced, though there is no other evidence of a divorce. In 1880 Hannah's mother Phebe sold her some land. Frederick's name is not mentioned in the deed. His death is not recorded in the state of Vermont, where the death records are usually fairly complete and accurate.
Prior to 1890, pensions for Civil War veterans were limited to those with disabilities. Intense lobbying by veterans led to changes in the law, and a special census of veterans and their widows was held. The 1890 veterans census in Bennington lists Hannah as widow of Frederick French, private in Company E, Vermont 10th infantry, and adds “Prisoner in Libby and Andersonville for several months.” (Libby Prison was primarily for officers, and Fred may not have stayed there.4 But from the History of the Vermont Tenth Regiment, p. 153, we learn that the soldiers of the regiment explored the abandoned prison around May 16-24, 1865 so Fred may have spun a few believable yarns about it.) When Hannah gave Frederick's dates of service to the census taker, she must have guessed--she got his enlistment date over a year too soon.
Hannah Ripley French died in Massachusetts in 1920 when she was 86 years old. She was buried back in Bennington, and her gravestone reads “Hannah Ripley / Wife of Frederick French.” He is not buried there. No record can be found that she ever applied for a war pension.
Fred's father, William French, was living at Hoosick, New York, around the time of Frederick's birth. Hoosick is just a few miles from Bennington. William received a pension for his service in the War of 1812, so there is lots of info on William (but not an exact birth date for his son Fred.) William's father, Asa, was a soldier in the Revolution and descended from John French of Braintree, Massachusetts.
One researcher of this family, now deceased, recorded Frederick's birth date as April 18, 1832, but gave no clue how she learned this date. Birth records in New York are rare before the 1880s.
The second Frederick French, of Florida, New York
However, there were two women named Hannah who claimed to be the widow of Frederick French!
A Frederick French married Hannah E. Montanye March 22, 1867 in Esperance, New York (near Amsterdam, about 70 miles from Bennington). She was not yet 15, he was 35. In August 1870, they were living nearby in Duanesburgh, about 20 miles south of Amsterdam, New York, with a three-year-old daughter Agnes and a 9-month-old son Frederick Abram. His age in the 1870 census is 30, while the Frederick French from Bennington would be 38. Hannah's parents were living in Duanesburg in 1865 and 1880.
In 1880, they were living in the town of Florida, in Montgomery Co, New York. The census indicates that Frederick's father was born in New York and mother in Massachusetts. (This part of the census is frequently inaccurate, but note that William French was born in Northampton, Massachusetts.) The census puts his birth in 1836. In the next house is living David French5, age 67, with daughter and her husband and son. Other census data shows that he was living in the same neighborhood for over 30 years, along with John French5, who could have been his father. (In addition, Peter Erwin, mentioned in the newspaper articles below, was also a neighbor for 30 years.)
On September 1, 1881, Frederick French disappeared. He and Hannah had had eight children6, born 1868-1878, but two had died. Their 9th child was due in 5 months. A few weeks later, on September 17, a body was found in the Erie canal, badly decomposed, and stripped of most of its clothing.
At first it was thought to be Peter Erwin who had also been missing, and that he was murdered. Fred's wife looked at the body, and said it was not her husband, but several other witnesses said it was Fred. The coroner's inquisition report contains testimony from multiple witnesses that put Frederick French, on September 1, in the immediate vicinity of the place where the body was eventually found. (One witness also said, “...he was a drinking man. I do not think I ever saw him sober.”) The coroner's jury concluded it was in fact the body of Frederick French and recommended that the district attorney should start a murder investigation. (I have not found any record of it.) His body was buried in Green Hill Cemetery, possibly before identification was final.
The June 1890 veterans census in Amsterdam, New York, lists Hannah as widow of Frederick C. French, private in Company E, 10th Vermont Infantry, adding “Finger shot off, prisoner in Andersonville 5 months.” (There was only one Fred French in the 10th Vermont Infantry. This is the only known reference to a missing finger.) The dates of military service that Hannah provided to the census taker match exactly the dates in his official records. This is the first time that the middle initial C appears in this Frederick's name.
Hannah applied for a widow's pension in July 1890. The application provides some details, including a notarized marriage certificate (with his name Frederick French--no middle initial) and a list of family birth dates with Fred's birth date, April 18, 1832, and his middle name, Cady. (There is no other record of a middle name. The Fred French from Bennington had an uncle by marriage named Stiles Cady. Also, note that Frederick of Bennington had a brother Orrin and Frederick of Florida named a son Oren. Cady is a relatively common name around Montgomery County, NY.) Hannah died October 16, 1906, and her death notice mentions a surviving husband, Frederick H. Smith, apparently the ex-spouse of Hannah's sister Elizabeth. (He probably should have been mentioned in her pension papers, but he was not.)
On the pension application, Hannah and several others, including her sister, swore in affidavits that he was not previously married. The pension application has very little detail about his military service and does not mention imprisonment or missing finger. Neither does it explain why he enlisted in Vermont.
The New York Genealogical & Biographical Record, 1937, p. 185 has a list of graves in Green Hill Cemetery, Amsterdam, New York, which includes Frederick French and mentions his Vermont Civil War service. Two more recent lists from that cemetery do not mention his grave.
In May 2011 I found a marker in a Civil War section of the cemetery.
There are about 25 identical stones in a circle around a tall monument topped with an eagle,
and flag pole, far back from the cemetery entrance.
There could be room for the bodies to be buried there,
but more likely the stones are just memorials.
The latest date of death on any stone is 1918.
It seems likely that the information on the stone was determined long after
Fred was actually buried in the cemetery. The actual wording is:
(Why did his wife have trouble identifying the body if his finger had been shot off? Why did newspaper articles at the time of his death not mention that he was a veteran?)
And maybe a third Frederick French, of Wisconsin?
Records of Andersonville prison say that Frederick French was released on parole November 24, 1864. Coincidentally, on that exact date, in Wisconsin, a Frederick French enlisted in the 44th Wisconsin regiment. This Frederick French lived in that state after the war, marrying Helena Ott on July 22, 1866 in Neena, Wisc. They had 4 children, born July 10, 1867, May 20, 1870, April 5, 1873 and April 5, 1880. (Compare these dates to the dates for Frederick French's children born in Amsterdam, New York.)
In 1890, he applied for a pension. He worked as a trapper and woodsman, after earlier work as a cooper. Around October 5, 1897, he disappeared. On November 1, his body was found. He had been shot, and his body sunken in a lake with weights. His long-time partner, John Bumiller, who had been suspected of other crimes, disappeared.
Military records for this Fred list him as 5 feet 8 inches with hazel eyes. Frederick French who enlisted in Bennington was 5 feet 8 inches with blue eyes, brown hair and light complexion. When discharged from the army, William French (the father of Frederick from Bennington) was 5 feet 7 1/2 inches, hazel eyes, brown hair, and light complexion. (The body found in the canal was 5 feet 8 inches.)
Researchers of his family say that Fred had a crippled hand due to a gunshot wound in 1875. These researchers think this Fred may have been the son of William, born April 18, 1832, but the source of this information is not well documented. (More...)
What happened to my great great grandfather, Frederick French? Did he abandon his family in Vermont and marry a young girl from Esperance, New York? Was he psychologically damaged from the war and imprisonment? Why did he go to the Amsterdam area?
Or, did Hannah Montanye marry a different Frederick French, and then concoct a story about him being a war veteran, in order to collect a pension? (Peter Blanck and Chen Song have written about Civil War pension attorneys who actively sought out candidates for pensions, often fraudulently. Hannah's attorney her pension case was John W. Eighmy, who also was a member of the jury for the coroner's inquest to Frederick's death. Eighmy, whose practice was mainly pensions, was convicted of forgery multiple times.) If this was the case, what did happen to the other Fred French from Vermont? Why did both families have knowledge of exactly the same birth date, a date that was not recorded in any known public records?
The Frederick French in Wisconsin is probably a different person, but the gunshot wound to the hand is quite a coincidence.
The coroner's inquisition report about the death of Frederick French reads like a smaller mystery within the larger mystery. Follow the link to read the entire text and to see a map showing the key locations in Florida, NY.
Please contact me (at the email address below)
if you have insights or questions. - Mark Dionne
These men bear with them the seeds of disease and death,
sown in that fatal slime, and ripening for an early
harvest. With occasional exceptions, they will prove
to be short-lived and enfeebled men, and whether they
ask it or not, will deserve at your hands no ordinary
share of kindly consideration. The survivor of a rebel
prison has endured and suffered what you never can,
and what I pray God, your children never may.
With less of strength, and more of sad and bitter
memories, he is with you now, to earn the food so
long denied him. If he ask “leave to toil,” give it
him before it is too late; if he need kindness and
encouragement, bestow them freely, while you may;
if he seek charity at your hands, remember that
“the poor you have always with you,” but him you
have not always, and withhold it not.
Copyright © 2002 Mark Dionne. All Rights Reserved. This work is based on original research by Mark Dionne. Permission to copy or reprint this work is granted, provided: (1) the copy or reprint is used for non-commercial, educational purposes; (2) the work is copied in its entirety or a single paragraph is used as a quotation, and; (3) the author's name (Mark Dionne), email address, the URL mentioned in the following paragraph, and this notice are all included.
Latest revision: May 27, 2011. The master copy of this document resides at http://www.markdionne.com/frederickfrench.html Revisions may have been made since this copy was taken. Please refer there for the latest revision.
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