HISTORY AT THE STREET LEVEL by Lowell Thing: The Woman In White

One evening in May 1912, at a rather late hour, Jacob Greenwald and “his two young lady cousins” were walking down West Chestnut Street in Kingston.  Near the elaborate and perhaps at this hour vaguely ominous Van Deusen residence (the house that sits way up and back from the street and with the tower that then and still today commands a view of the Hudson), someone appeared behind Jacob and his cousins and seemed to be following them.  This someone was dressed all in white and when they crossed the street, so did the mysterious blob of white.  At any rate, Jacob’s frightened cousins began to walk ahead of him.  Jacob himself apparently kept calm enough to observe in the gaslight that the figure “was a woman about five feet eight inches in height, was scantily clad, and wore a white sheet thrown over her head.” No one believed this had anything to do with Halloween because it was not even summer yet.  Jacob’s cousins finally began to run wildly ahead toward Montrepose Avenue but soon after, when Jacob looked back, the phantom figure had disappeared.

Meanwhile, on nearby West Chester Street (not to be confused with West Chestnut as I often have to tell people delivering a pizza), another young man, presumably at a different time of the evening, saw this woman in white, who sprang up out of some bushes.  He got a good look at her, saw that she was woman wearing a sheet, and then decided to run away after she began to pursue him.  (I’m paraphrasing the story from the Kingston Daily Freeman.)

On a later night, another two people, two “drummers,” salesmen from out of town staying at a hotel, encountered the woman in white on West Chester Street.  As they were lighting their cigarettes, someone dressed all in white appeared around the corner of a house.  Apparently, the appearance was intimidating because the men immediately ran back to their hotel where they reported something that was nine feet tall with “a most terrifying aspect”!

By the time this story was reported in the Freeman, headed “Woman in White Sought by Police,” several gangs of youths had formed to look for this person or whatever it was.  Meanwhile, at least one young man who thought to have some fun donned a white sheet in imitation of the woman in white and reportedly received “a severe pummeling” from one of the youthful gangs.  All of this right here in my own neighborhood and only slightly more than one hundred years ago.

I happen to know this story because last week Margie Menard, Kingston Library Director, sent a note to the Friends of Historic Kingston to tell them that, beginning immediately, one no longer has to visit the Library to access the local newspaper archives, or at least the Kingston Daily Freeman archives from 1878 through 1969.  I quickly went to the Web site and entered “West Chestnut Street.”  Not only did I read about the mysterious Woman in White, but I learned that my neighbor up the street, Harry Coykendall, son of Ulster County’s greatest businessman ever, Samuel Coykendall, had shot himself hunting but was now at home resting comfortably.  As of October 15, 1905, that is.

In society notes of June 25, 1910, I learned that an earlier neighbor across the street, Edwin Shultz, the brick manufacturer, was entertaining Mr. and Mrs. T. Akahoshi of Tokyo, a couple he had met on the Lusitania.  More tragically, down the street right next to the Ulster Academy, recently made into some condo apartments with blackboards, a man named Clemmons disappeared, leaving a suicide note (February 17, 1904).

And finally some evidence about when the first house on West Chestnut Street met its end, a fact of interest for anyone interested in the Chestnut Street Historic District since this would have been its most historic building.  On May 11, also in 1904, appeared a notice that Samuel Coykendall had put up for sale and removal from his property the original home of James McEntee.  McEntee came to Kingston in 1825 as the resident engineer for the D&H Canal Company.  He later owned the Mansion House by the creek and built the Island Dock in the creek before buying the land that my end of West Chestnut is now on.  There he built the first house and subdivided the property into lots.  McEntee essentially built my street, beginning in 1848.  His daughter Sarah, one of America’s first women physicians, was one of the last McEntees to live in the house and sometime after she died, the McEntee home, the first house on West Chestnut, a large Hudson River Bracketed Italian villa, no longer existed.  But I never knew exactly when that was.  Now I do.  It must have been gone by well before the beginning of 1905.  And that more or less solves that.

But what about the Woman in White?  I could find no follow-up stories in the Freeman, at least in the year 1912 where the file I was looking at ended.  Perhaps the special detail assigned to the case by Chief of Police Wood, if not the gang of ruffians, was enough to encourage her to put the sheet back on the line.  Who she was remains another one of those stories without an ending.

Meanwhile, with this new and powerful local history search tool at our command, the possibilities seem worth thinking about.  You could look up what happened on your own street or, if you’ve lived in Kingston a while, some earlier members of your family.   You could look to find out what brands of automobile were being driven in Kingston in the early 1900s or who sold knickers (the advertisements are included, too).  I have a feeling that even more significant facts could be uncovered by a serious student of history.  At any rate, we owe thanks to Margie Menard, the Kingston Library, the Southeastern Library Council and all the other groups that collaborated to put this historical information online.  Visit the WEB SITE. The search engine is waiting.

- Lowell Thing

3 thoughts on “HISTORY AT THE STREET LEVEL by Lowell Thing: The Woman In White

  1. Kate Lawson says:

    Lowell,

    What a great addition to the KCblog! I’ve already checked out the newspaper archive link and can’t wait until I have more time to weave my way through it in more detail.

  2. debbie brown says:

    what an interesting article!! was bored this afternoon at being housebound and decided to take a peek at the website. Thanks for the entertainment and enlightenment.

  3. Pat Murphy says:

    Having grown up on West Chestnut Street — in Lowell’s house, in fact — I’m not at all surprised that a phantom or ghost might pick the neighborhood to haunt. When dark descended on West Chestnut Street, many bats could be seen wheeling in the sky — especially over the Crispell house (next to the Van Deusen) where there were tall pine trees in which I they spent their days. There was a Woman in White who occasionally appeared in the 1960′s, but that was Mrs. Cordts (63 West Chestnut) wrapped in a sheet and whisking the bats out of her living room (they came down the chimney) and down the sidewalk.

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