The Mystery of Frederick C. French

Mark Dionne


                  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

The Mystery

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:
Fred'k C. French / 1835 - 1881 / Co. E. 10 Regt. Vt. Vols. / Civ. War Vet.

(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...)

The Mysteries

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.
--Clara Barton, Andersonville Prison, July 1865


Notes

  1. Children of Frederick French and Hannah Ripley are:
      i.   Gordon F. French, b. 1854; d. 1890.
      ii.  Fannie Marie French, b. September 1, 1857; d. December 29, 1929; m. Arthur Sweet.
      iii. Catharine A. French, b. February, 1859; m. John S. Brant.
      iv.  Jennie French, b. September 30, 1861; d. May 26, 1930; m. Harry W. Whitney.
    
    More details can be found at: http://markdionne.com/ged/individual.php?pid=I0254&ged=dionne-mason.ged
  2. According to David F. Cross, MD, of Ferrisburgh Vt who wrote A Melancholy Affair at the Weldon Railroad: The Vermont Brigade June 23, 1864 (White Mane Publishing 2003):

    Although the records, including Peck's Roster, give his date of capture as 6/24, it is likely this was the first date he failed to be recorded on the company roll as “present for duty” and, actually, he was captured in the fight at the Weldon Railroad during the late afternoon/early evening of 6/23. 400+ Vermonters were captured at the Weldon Railroad that day from the Vermont Bridge (L. A. Grant's Division). The 10th Vermont was just to the northeast in Ricketts' Division. The putative casualties on 6/23 (until now) include none from the 10th VT. The 10th VT was in the line but not engaged. They were close enough to hear the cheering of the Confederate troops when Major Fleming surrendered his command. The regimental history of the 10th VT records that the 87th PA of Ricketts' division lost 29 men killed plus 4 officers and 53 enlisted men captured. The 14th NJ also of Ricketts' Division lost several killed and about 40 captured. It was pretty quiet on 6/24 near the Weldon Railroad hence Private French was in all likelihood captured the evening before and joined the 400 Vermonters from the Vermont Brigade on the march to Petersburg thence to Richmond and Andersonville as POW's.
  3. According to David F. Cross:

    ... 379 enlisted men [were] captured on June 23, 1864 at the Weldon Railroad south of Petersburg. Initially sent to Andersonville, 224 died during or as a direct result of their captivity (59%).
  4. According to David F. Cross [see above]:

    When he related being imprisoned in Libby Prison he was probably being truthful. Sgt. Luther B. Harris Co. D 4th Vt. Inf. who was captured 6/23/1864 at the Weldon Railroad recorded that on 6/27 he was crowded into one of the warehouses adjacent to Libby Prison and on 6/27 was moved into the old Libby Prison itself. French was probably with him.
  5. David French b. 1813 married Rachel Radley b. 1813, daughter of Jacobus Radley b. Feb 5, 1776 in Florida, NY and Catherine Venton b. 1782. They had a daughter Katherine Radley French (1852-1919) who married John Alexander Donnan (1847-1930) and they had just one child Melvin. After the death of Katherine's parents, she being the only child living, they sold the farm and moved to Amsterdam, NY. Katherine's interment was in the family plot at Minaville, NY cemetery. John's interment was in Van Vechten Cemetery, Scotch Church, Florida Montgomery County, NY.

    In 1850 and 1860 censuses, John French b. 1783 is the neighbor of David French along with his wife Gertrude (Gitty) b. 1781 and son John b. 1843. In the 1840 census there is a John French living in Florida, but he has no sons under the age of 15. If Frederick was his son, he would have been around age 8. (He has a nearby neighbor, Jacob Stayley. Frederick French was living there at the time of his death.)

    The French family plot at Chuctanunda Cemetery, Minaville, N.Y contains the following:
    Gitty b. 1870[sic] d. 1862
    Samuel J. b. 1845 d. 1857
    Hamilton b. 1848 d. 1850
    Mary L. b. 1843 d. 1857
    John b. 1783 d. 1869
    Sarah A., wife of J.F. PACKARD & relict of Marvin HERRICK, d. 2/21/1886 ae 76 yrs
    David b. 1812 d. 11/29/1889
    Rachel, wife of David, b. 1812 d. 1875
    Samuel A. b. 1808 d. 1830

    A search of multiple church records, and the 1855 and 1865 NY State censuses, for these two families failed to find any reference to Frederick. Frederick French Jr. and his daughter Daisy are buried in Chuctanunda Cemetery, but not near the plot mentioned above. (May 2011)

  6. Children of Frederick French and Hannah Montanye are:
      i.    Agnes Adell French, b. March 9, 1868.
      ii.   Frederick Abram French, b. September 28, 1869; d. August 10, 1948; m. Eva Sweet Billington,
      iii.  Edgar French, b. May 5, 1871; d. May 17, 1958; m. Isabel Young.
      iv.   Effie O. French, b. February 27, 1872; d. May 27, 1872.
      v.    Oren French, b. August 6, 1875; d. Aug 30, 1972.
      vi.   Lettie M. French, b. February 29 1876; d. February 27, 1885.
      vii.  Edith French, b. June 18, 1877, d. August 18, 1877.
      viii. William Jay French, b. August 24, 1878.
      ix.   Eugenia French, b. February 2, 1882; d. Apr 11, 1958; m1. Frank E. Henion; m2. Charles W. Parry.
    
    More details can be found at: http://markdionne.com/ged/individual.php?pid=I0254&ged=dionne-mason.ged

NEWSPAPER ARTICLES


Amsterdam Daily Democrat, September 5, 1881 (Monday)
--Five o'clock last Friday morning Wm. McClumpha found a horse and buckboard wagon tied to the watering trough near his residence, about a mile south of Port Jackson, on the road to Minaville. He took charge of the animal and placed it in his barn. The owner can have the horse by proving property and paying charges.
Amsterdam Daily Democrat, September 7, 1881 (Wednesday)
Disappeared On the first of last April, Fred French moved into Jacob Staley's house, situated in the town of Florida, one and a half miles east of Minaville. Last Tuesday week, August 30th, French's wife went to Schoharie county to pick hops, taking three of their six children with her. She left the other three, aged respectively ten, four, and two years, at home with their father. Thursday morning French started with his horse and wagon ostensibly for the purpose of going to Amsterdam. Early on Friday morning his horse, attached to the wagon, was found tied to the watering trough at William McClumpha's, who resides about one mile from Port Jackson on the Minaville road. Mr. McClumpha did not at the time know to whom the horse belonged and advertised the finding of it in these columns. Nothing has since been heard of French of his whereabouts, though diligent inquiry has been made concerning him. The young children who are left without father or mother to care for them are deserving objects of pity.
Amsterdam Daily Democrat, September 19, 1881 (Monday)
WAS HE MURDERED? The Body of an Old Man, Probably Peter Erwin Found in the Canal Under Suspicious Circumstances J. C. Smith, while fishing on Saturday evening between seven and eight o'clock, on the four-mile level about half a mile below Port Jackson, found the body of a man apparently between sixty and seventy years of age. The body was in a badly decomposed state. Coroner Graves was informed of the finding of the remains, and repaired to the spot on Sunday morning. He found no clothing upon the body, which was in the same state as when taken from the water, with the exception of part of a shirt and a pair of boots. The left arm and left leg were broken, and there was a bruise about the size of two hands upon the left side. This bruise was discolored, showing that it must have been received before death. The piece of shirt upon the body was also STAINED WITH BLOOD. Coroner Graves brought the body to Amsterdam and buried it in Green Hill Cemetery. Before having it buried he empaneled a jury consisting of George VanDerveer, Worley C. Moat, George DeGraff, Charles Bellman, J. W. Eighmy and Joseph Mickle, who viewed the remains and adjourned to meet on Monday of next week. An effort will be made in the meantime to identify the body. From its general appearance it is supposed to be that of the old gentleman, PETER ERWIN, who several weeks ago left his place of residence at Bull's Head, town of Florida, to go to the home of his daughter, Mrs. Sarah A. Levey, of Mariaville, and has not since been heard from. How he came to his death is a mystery. From the appearance of his remains he seems to have met with an accident or foul play before getting into the canal. The following story may have some connection with his death. It is related that one night a short time ago a man with a team drove by the house of Anna Barber Consaul and called out that he had run over and he thought killed a man some distance below there, but had been unable to find his body. This story, which at best seems improbable, would account for the injuries received by the deceased. Another theory is that he WAS MURDERED and thrown into the canal after being despoiled of his clothing. It is hoped that the coroner's inquest will throw some light upon what is otherwise a dark subject. Old Mr. Erwin has a son residing at Little Falls, named James A. Erwin. Coroner Graves went to the residence of Mrs. Fred French near Minaville and brought her down to see the body, which she said was not that of her husband who mysteriously disappeared a short time ago.
Amsterdam Daily Democrat, September 23, 1881 (Friday)
THE BODY FOUND IN THE CANAL Who Was It? -- What Coroner Graves has Learned by Investigation In Monday's Daily Democrat we gave the particulars of the finding of the body of a man in the canal near Phillip's Locks. Coroner Graves has been investigating the matter, and has discovered and conversed with one JOHN BLANTCHFIELD (employed on the new railroad near Hoffman's) who ran over the man in the heel path of the canal one night about the first of the present month. The following is the substance of Blantchfield's story. He says he was going down to Hoffman's Ferry to work on the railroad one night in the early part of this month--September 2d, he believes. Was riding on the heel path in a dumping cart, with one horse ahead, and one following drawing a second cart. On account of the darkness his horses had shied out of the road several times, where there were mud holes in the road, and finally he ran over something, and got out of the cart to see what it was. Found that he had run over a man who was then lying in the road. Lifted him up and commenced to scold him for being in the road. Expected the man would talk back, but he merely grumbled to himself, and asked where his boy was. He then lighted a match and looked in his face, and saw that it was deathly pale and part of it covered with dirt. Saw that he was badly hurt, and finally left him lying there and drove on. Stopped at the first house he came to, roused up the people in it and told them he had run over a man a short distance up the road and that they had better go up and tend to him at once, as he was badly, perhaps fatally hurt, and was lying near the canal. The man he ran over had no coat and was thin in flesh. He knew nothing more about the matter. He is a foreigner with a slight brogue, and is apparently a bright, smart fellow. The heartlessness he exhibited in the matter is very censurable. It is reported (but not proven) that the parties who were awakened at the house tried to find the injured man, but discovered only a hat and a whip lying in the road. Coroner Graves will hold an examination in the case at his office next Monday. How the clothes were removed from the body of the injured man is another of the mysteries in the case. Dr. Graves is of the opinion that the body is that of Frederick French, who lived near Minaville, and that the reason his wife was unable to identify it was because it was so badly decomposed. Abram Peck, who assisted in lifting the body from the water, says that in his opinion it is that of Frnch [sic], with whom he was well acquainted.
Amsterdam Daily Democrat, October 5, 1881 (Wednesday)
MURDERED The Coroner's jury in the case of the body, found Sept. 24th[sic], in the canal at Phillip's locks, have come to the con- clusion that the remains were those of Frederick French and that he was mur- dered and his body thrown into the ca- nal. The last and most important wit- ness examined on Tuesday was ANNA BARBER CONSAUL She testified that French called at her house, one and a half miles east of Port Jackson, on Friday, Sept. 1st, at eleven o'clock in the morning and remained a couple hours, when he went away and procured a quart of whisky. He came back and she and French drank up the whisky. She borrowed French's horse and went over to Amsterdam, where she got a quart more of whiskey, and returned home with it. A party of five railroad men boarding at the old Dr. Carroll place came to house in the even- ing and helped French and her drink a pint of the whiskey. French started for home at nine o'clock. She accompanied him as far as the old Dr. Carroll place, because there was a man named Pat Ryan there whom he was afraid of. This is the last she saw of French, who doubtless came to his death soon after she left him. The following is the VERDICT OF THE JURY "In the opinion of this jury the de- ceased removed from the canal about half a mile below Phillips Locks, Satur- day night, September 24th[sic], was Fred- erick French, who resided near Mina- ville and who had been missing since September 2nd, 1881, and that said Frederick French came to his death about Sept. 1st, at or near a point on the canal known as the old Dr. Carroll place, and about one and a half miles east of Port Jackson, by means of vio- lence at the hands of some party or par- ties unknown to this jury, and this jury do hereby recommend that the District Attorney use all means in his power to ascertain who the guilty party or par- ties are, that due punishment may be executed upon them as the law pre- scribes."
Notes added by Mark Dionne: He was wearing boots, but no pants? The canal is the Erie canal. The “heel path” is the path on the opposite side of the canal from the tow path, and is narrower. In the middle section the tow-path was on the north berm of the canal and the heel path on the south.


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.

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