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Special Section: Inside Saratoga

 

Murder, Victorian Style

Tour guide and author Hollis Palmer leads tourists and readers into the bloodier corners of Saratoga history

By Miriam Axel-Lute

 

It’s mid-morning on Saturday, Aug. 12, and relatively cool along the edge of Congress Park in Saratoga Springs, but Dr. Hollis Palmer is still a little overdressed. Along with his trademark derby and a polished oak shillelagh, his outfit includes a pinstriped tailored suit coat over a dark gray vest, both wool, the height of 1880s fashion.

As people gather on the sidewalk across from the Batcheller Mansion and pay a volunteer a fiver each for Palmer’s Merchants and Mansions walking tour, he keeps up a cheerful banter full of historical information. He promises the tour will stop in shady spots whenever possible, and then grins a modest grin and adds, “And anyone who wants a picture with the coat in it better take it now, because it’s coming off soon.”

Although he seems a little bemused that people don’t recognize him without the derby (often because they mistakenly assume he’s bald under there), the former math teacher and principal clearly has had no trouble adjusting to being one of Saratoga’s summer attractions.

Palmer didn’t start out his post-retirement career giving tours. In fact, Derby Tours of Saratoga is only about a year old, begun at the request of a tour operator who had run out of the usual suspects to show a busload of Glens Falls visitors around. They called Palmer because of his books.

In 1998, Palmer was just another person with an interest in genealogy. But as he was investigating his family’s eight-generation history in Saratoga County, he came upon a newspaper account of a murder in Schuylerville in 1878. But this wasn’t just any murder—it had been committed by one of the wealthiest men in Saratoga County, a banker by the name of Billings. He had shot his wife.

Palmer got so caught up in the accounts that he went looking for a book on the trial, which had mesmerized the public in a way that Palmer compares to the O.J. Simpson trial. He was astounded that no such book existed, and determined to write one himself.

To Spend Eternity Alone came out in 1999. Palmer self-published it, and to promote it had his sister make him the top coat and vest to wear at the book party.

Palmer had become hooked on the true-crime genre. To be specific, on true crime in Saratoga County in the Victorian era. Sound like a kind of narrow topic? Not to Palmer. Under the name Deep Roots Publications he put out five more books in the next six years, some encompassing several different cases. “I like to say there was a wild West, and an even wilder East,” he says, noting a bank robbery in Waterford where the robbers made off with 10 times more than Jesse James got in all his robberies.

In at least one case, Maggie’s Revenge, the story of an unsolved murder of an Irish servant girl in Greenwich, Palmer even thinks he knows who committed the crime. He named the book after the uncanny ways in which the alleged perpetrators’ deaths mirrored aspects of their crime.

In fact, Palmer has spent a lot of time just learning the details of Victorian history and culture—from the stock- market crash of 1873 to the philandering habits of industrialists—so he can put what he writes in the proper context. “At this point nothing else attracts me,” he says. “We sometimes overly glorify the Victorian era. I like it, but there was a whole not-nice side of it. . . . It was very hard to get ahead. If you could use the word ‘caste system’ without it being as formal as it as in India, there was a caste system that was extremely hard to break. A girl gets killed, the first people who were called in [for questioning] were the Irish guys. Now the only difference is we start with the family, then go to [the bottom of] the social ladder. We go to the family first, and we should. Things haven’t changed. . . . There are very few random acts.”

There are some threads that link many of the cases Palmer has written about—problems with mistresses, sexual assault, and marital abuse come up time and again. In fact, Palmer’s latest book, which hit the streets last week, is called Leave It to the Ladies, and is all about crimes committed by women. “Not to justify it,” says Palmer, but you have to understand “four of these women were married off at 16, they were in relationships they did not know how to get out of. . . . In desperation, they struck out at their husbands.”

Does all this make him feel a little morbid? No, says Palmer. “The word I think I would use is depressed. Depressed that even today we haven’t found a way out of the problems. This one woman was incredibly abused. She shot her husband. . . . But she would cover for him. People would come to stop the beatings, the one before she killed him even, and she’d protect him. We have the exact same problems today.”

Of course, he also cheerfully notes that he did a book entirely about women perpetrators because “I know my demographic, and it’s women between the ages of 30 and 65.” (He says knowing this is also part of what makes him qualify as his own press now, rather than self-published, something he estimates generally happens about the third book.)

Good business instincts aside, Palmer clearly loves history and is enjoying his pursuit of it tremendously. With his next book, due out this fall, and his tours, he is moving beyond the true-crime genre and into storytelling about the families who built the houses of Saratoga Springs. “A lot of cities tear down old homes, convert them, allow them to fall by the wayside,” he says. “I’m very proud of Saratoga.”

Not that this means he’s left the twisted stuff behind entirely. “I never said they were happy stories,” he playfully chides one of women on his tour who has made a face as he rattles off a the details of a series of suicides. “Happy news doesn’t make the newspapers.”

The tour on Aug. 12 covers a mixture of the mansions on lower Circular Street and Union Avenue, and merchants’ homes along Phila Street (Palmer also gives tours that are entirely either mansions or merchants’ homes), and it stretches somewhat beyond its scheduled 90 minutes, despite Palmer’s promise to get people to the track on time. This might be partly due to the slightly longer stop at the house where the owner is out watering his pachysandra and tells us of finding old documents in the attic and hosting a family reunion for the family who had originally built the house. Or just the sheer volume of information in Palmer’s head.

Along the way we learn of Dr. John Clarke, who in the mid-1800s pressed for a law to reduce property taxes for those who planted street trees outside their homes; drained the swamp that is now Congress Park; and built a stately home with six pillars in front shortly after a rival built a home across town with four pillars.

We stand outside the house of Florence McQueen, who got sent to a convent school in New York City for bad behavior, and in her second year got on the train but didn’t arrive at school. After ruling out foul play, her family began running newspaper advertisements promising not to send her back to the school if she’d come home. She did. Palmer had her grandson in school.

Later in the tour we see Florence’s grandfather’s house, now under reconstruction. Daniel McQueen was vice president of Schenectady Locomotive, later ALCO. It was a feud between him and his business partner, the Ellis for whom Ellis Hospital is named, that led to Edison and GE being invited to Schenectady. Palmer likes to sketch the connections between the houses as he walks you past, detailing families growing, shrinking, intermarrying, wanting more space to house the inevitable track-season guests.

He easily amassed too much information for one book, so it’s going to be a series; the first one will be about houses along Broadway. He hopes to inspire others to delve similarly into the histories of their cities. “I would really feel very good if I know someone copied the book I’m doing in Saratoga,” he says. “That would make me feel incredibly proud.”

Will the Hollis Palmer of 100 years from now be writing about the Porco case? Absolutely, said Palmer, interviewed before the verdict. “Whichever way it comes out, I hope somebody does. [Events like that] take time to gel. We can’t judge a president or someone [like that] until 10 years after they’re gone.”

He pauses. “It would be really neat to write about today as if it were 50 years from now. But I’m not going to get into that.”

More information about Deep Roots Publications, Derby Tours of Saratoga and Hollis Palmer’s other speaking engagements can be found at www.derbytoursofsaratoga.com.

 

Saratoga Calendar

 

Concerts

 

REEL MEALS (86 Congress St., Saratoga Springs, 583-8883). Sun-Thu: Sinatra—An American Icon with Val Peters.

SARATOGA GAMING AND RACEWAY (342 Jefferson St., Saratoga Springs, 584-2110). Thu: Bluz House Rockers. Wed: the TrueTones (noon).

UPBEAT ON THE ROOF (815 N. Broadway, Saratoga Springs, 580-8080). Fri: Doc Scanlon’s Rhythm Boys.

Clubs

 

9 MAPLE AVENUE (9 Maple Ave., Saratoga Springs, 583-CLUB). Fri: Jonathan Lorentz Group. Sat: Jon LeRoy Trio.

THE ALLEY BAR (Long Alley Road, Saratoga, 587-9766). Tue: karaoke with Mark the Shark.

BACKSTREET BILLIARDS (63 Putnam St., Saratoga Springs, 583-2503). Fri: Ralph Renna’s Birthday Bash.

BAILEY’S (Phila and Putnam streets, Saratoga Springs, 583-6060). Thu: Jeff and Becky Walton. Fri: Rich Ortiz. Sat: Pangaea. Sun: Nate.

BRINDISI’S RESTAURANT (390 Broadway, Saratoga Springs, 587-6262). Thu, Sun: Al Bruno. Fri: Vivid. Sat: the Heaters, Standing Room Only. Tue: Rich Ortiz. Wed: Bobby Dick.

CAFFE LENA (47 Phila St., Saratoga Springs, 583-0022). Thu: open mic (7 PM). Fri: Rosanne Raneri. Sat: Hilltown Ramblers. Wed: Andrew Eckel.

CIRCUS CAFÉ (392 Broadway, Saratoga Springs, 583-1106). Sat: karaoke with A-Man Productions.

CLANCY’S TAVERN (43 Caroline St., Saratoga Springs, 584-1338). Mon: Chance.

THE CLUB HOUSE (30 Caroline St., Saratoga Springs, 580-0686). Fri-Sat: DJ Daniel Van D, hiphop, club mixes.

HORSESHOE INN (1 Gridley St., Saratoga Springs, 587-4909). Wed: the Heaters (6:30 PM). Thu: TS Ensemble (6:30 PM).

MARE RISTORANTE AND OTTO LOUNGE (17 Maple Ave., Saratoga Springs, 583-6955). Thu: Bobby Dick and the Sundowners. Fri: Robonic Reggae Band. Sat: IMI. Mon: Pangaea.

ONE CAROLINE STREET (1 Caroline St., Saratoga Springs, 587-2026). All shows at 7 PM unless otherwise noted. Thu: Masters of Nostalgia. Fri: Sarah Pedinotti.

SIRO’S (168 Lincoln Ave., Saratoga Springs, 584-4030). All shows at 6 PM. Thu-Wed: Roger Morris (7 PM). Thu: the Refrigerators. Fri: the New York Players. Sat: the Burners UK. Sun: Johnny Rabb and the Jailhouse Rockers. Mon: the Schmooze. Wed: Bluz House Rockers.

VENUE NIGHT CLUB (30 Caroline St., Saratoga Springs, 580-0686). Fri-Sat: DJ Daniel Van D, hiphop, club mixes.

Theater

 

Skull Session Six, StudioArts Entertainment, Saratoga Arts Center, 320 Broadway, Saratoga Springs. 8/24-26, 9:30 PM. $14, $10 students and seniors. 636-4674.

Dance

 

Healthy Living Dance Program, National Museum of Dance, 99 S. Broadway, Saratoga Springs. Thu, 1-2 PM: a class designed to promote the health of seniors. Free. Pre-registration encouraged. 584-2225.

Master Class, National Museum of Dance and Hall of Fame, 99 S. Broadway, Saratoga Springs. With Garth Fagan dancers. 8/28, 4:30-6 PM. $15. Pre-registration required. 584-2225, ext. 3001.

Milonga/Tango Party, Saratoga Savoy Center of Dance, 7 Wells St., Saratoga Springs. 8/26, 8-11 PM. Includes master class with Norberto “El Pulpo” Esbres and Luiza Paes. $10. 587-5132.

Museums & Galleries

 

62 Beekman Street Bistro Gallery, 62 Beekman St., Saratoga Springs. 683-1631. Works by Zachary Lobdell. Through 8/31.

70 Beekman Street Fine Art Gallery, 62 Beekman St., Saratoga Springs. 542-6688. The Summer Show 2006—Salem Art Works. Through 9/6.

Gallery 100, 468 Broadway, Saratoga Springs. 580-0818. Get Your Beverages Here, a juried exhibition. Through 9/10.

Gallery at Wesley, 131 Lawrence St., Saratoga Springs. 587-3600. Works by Barbara Riehle. Through 8/31.

National Museum of Dance, 99 S. Broadway, Saratoga Springs. 584-2225. Eleanor Rigby’s Resurrection: Images Inspired by Music’s Icons. Through 9/6. Also, Dance of the Iroquois, an exhibit exploring the social traditions of the Native Iroquois; also, Young Dancer, photographs by Mark Sadan; also Memoirs of a Lake George Showboat Performer. Through 12/31.

National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame, 191 Union Ave., Saratoga Springs. 584-0400. California Images: the Racing Photography of Bill Mochon; also, Golden Memories; also, paintings from the Charles H. Thieriot collection. Through 12/31.

New York State Military Museum, 61 Lake Ave., Saratoga Springs. 581-5100. Worth a Thousand Muskets: Civil War Field Artillery. Ongoing. Also, Battleground for Freedom: New York during the Revolutionary War. Ongoing. Also, To the Standard: Civil War Cavalry Flags from the NYS Battle Flag Collection. Ongoing.

Saratoga Automobile Museum, 110 Avenue of the Pines, Saratoga Spa State Park, Saratoga Springs. 587-1935 ext. 20. John Fitch: An American Racing Hero. Through 11/14. Also, East of Detroit, and New York Racing exhibit. Ongoing.

Saratoga Cardiology, 6 Care Lane, Saratoga Springs. 587-4101. Works by Preston Babcock. Through 8/31.

Saratoga County Arts Council, Members Exhibition Hall, 320 Broadway, Saratoga Springs. 584-4132. Works by Judy Drake. Through 8/31.

Saratoga County Arts Council, Arts Center Gallery, 320 Broadway, Saratoga Springs. 584-4132. Saratoga: Inside Out, a juried exhibition. Through 9/3.

Saratoga Hospital Medical Library, 211 Church St., Saratoga Springs. 583-8301. Works by Viviana Puello. Through 8/31.

Saratoga Springs Amtrak Train Station, Station Lane, Saratoga Springs. Works by Marianne Szuberla. Through 8/31.

Saratoga Springs Public Library, 49 Henry St., Saratoga Springs. 584-7860. Works by Christina Sokolow. Through 8/31.

Saratoga Traveler, 400 Broadway, Saratoga Springs. 583-2929. Works by Cynthia Whitman. Through 9/4.

Saratoga Visitors Center, 297 Broadway, Saratoga Springs. 587-3241. Works by Judy Rosell. Through 8/31.

Skidmore College, Schick Art Gallery, 815 N. Broadway, Saratoga Springs. 580-5049. Misleading Trails. Through 9/22.

Tang Teaching Museum and Gallery, Skidmore College, 815 N. Broadway, Saratoga Springs. 580-8080. Opener 11: Nina Katchadourian: All Forms of Attraction. Through 12/30. Also, And Therefore I Am, an exhibit that questions the nature of human consciousness. Through 9/10.

Wellness Center of Saratoga, 6 Care Lane, Saratoga Springs. 583-6821. Works by Pam Malsan. Through 8/31.

Farmers Markets

Malta/Saratoga Farmers Market, Dave Meager Community Center, Route 9, Malta. Tuesdays, 11 AM-2 PM.

Saratoga Farmers Market, High Rock Park, High Rock Avenue, Saratoga Springs. Saturdays, 9 AM-1 PM; Wednesdays, 3-6 PM.

South Glens Falls/Saratoga Farmers Market, Village Park, Spring Street, S. Glens Falls. Mondays, 11 AM-2 PM.

Saratoga Shots by Martin Benjamin

 

 

 

 

Saratoga Race Course

Open daily through Sept. 4, except Tuesdays

Location 267 Union Ave., Saratoga Springs, 584-6200.

Admission $3 grandstand, $5 clubhouse; children under 12 free; seats are $6 and $7, respectively

Parking $10 per car at the trackside and $5 across the street at the Oklahoma Training Track. General parking is free.

Racing Nine or 10 races a day; pari-mutuel wagering on every race.

First Race Post Time is at 1 PM (except Travers Day, Aug. 26, when it’s at 12:30 PM).

Major Stakes Races the Travers Stakes (Aug. 26); the Woodward (Sept. 2).


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