September 2022


Michael Bettencourt | Scene4 Magazine

Michael Bettencourt

I've been a denizen of Weehawken, NJ, for over 20 years. I've been reading through the "Weehawken Police Blotter (1898-1903)" from The Weehawken Time Machine (https://weehawkentimemachine.omeka.net/items/show/2970), maintained by the Weehawken Historical Commission, as part of casual effort to learn more about my burg and gather material that could be used for articles, stories and other projects.

The blotter, titled "Sergeant's Blotter/September 1st, 1898" on the inside front cover, is primarily handwritten (though from October 1, 1900, to March 27, 1901 [pp. 116-152], someone typed up the entries, with the handwriting kicking back in on the third entry for March 27 [p. 153] and going forward). Perhaps this was an experiment—after all, the typewriter was a modern invention at this point, having come to market in the 1860s and 1870s, and perhaps whoever was in charge of the blotter thought it was time for the police department to step up technologically.

As I read through the entries, I tried to tease out what living was like at that time, not just the processes but the sensibility of it: the smell of horses and the ozone tang of the electricity going through the trolley wires, the cacophony of the trainyards and ferry terminal (especially when, in 1903, they began the boring of the tunnels down on Baldwin Avenue that would eventually reach into Manhattan and are in such dire shape today), the temperatures (old pictures show that the huge trees we have today were not that huge along the Boulevard, so it must have been hotter in the summer—in fact, there are several entries of people being taken to the hospital for heat prostration), the greater physical energy needed to get through a day (not just the hard labor of working but also getting from one place to another—there were trolleys but things mostly could not move faster than the speeding of a cantering horse), the greater physical dangers and how they affected daily movements (lots of stories about people being crushed, drowned, crashed into, dismembered, not to mention just plain dinged and bruised).

The blotter-writers were not ethnographers, of course, and can't be faulted for leaving out the really interesting things about people's lives because they were not being paid to be inquisitive, so this is where the imagination (fed by other sources) gets to have its field of play, which I will do in a moment.

But for me, the anchor of things helps me anchor my writing. For instance, many entries announce that someone has gone missing (often children, but not always), and to help people find them, the blotter-writer describes the clothes the person wore when last seen (this is how I learned about "congress gaiters"). But I want to also know what these clothes felt like on the body and in the hand, what they smelled like, how were they made, and so on.

To me, the book chronicles an astonishing number of dead animals, usually cats, dogs and horses. (George Vatcky, dead animal collector, was the go-to guy for removal, though he might have had a bit more to handle than he could handle since many entries announce that he had been notified but then had to be notified several other times—perhaps just too many carcasses to collect.) I want to know how the situation played out when Vatcky had to haul a dead horse onto a wagon pulled by other horses (did the other horses have something to say about one of their own being lugged away?), especially when many of these dead animals had already gotten a head start on decomposing. Where did the carcasses go (there is mentioned a Town Pound): buried, incinerated, dumped in the river? How much was he paid: per species, per incident, per pound? And paid how often? Did he follow "best practices"? (Several items mention the S.P.C.A., so perhaps he worked in conjunction with them.) Inquiring minds want to know.

Horses underwent a fair amount of damage, it appeared, being spooked and bolting or run into by a trolley car or poorly driven (slipping down hillsides or getting caught in railroad tracks) or just plain stolen (though not sure how you could hide a large wagon pulled by a horse, especially when the blotter-writers gave very detailed horse descriptions, down to how many hands high they were and the coloring of their bodies, manes, tails, and feet). The horses must also have had to ride the ferry because some of the businesses noted in the lost or stolen reports had New York City addresses—another terror for the horses to face.

Dogs got it in the neck quite often. Many reports of a dog biting an adult or a child and the police officer shooting the dog (or sometimes shooting the dog on the request of the owner, something that happened with horses as well). I tried to imagine that scene—where did the shooting take place? back yard? basement? who got to witness this? and if the children were around—did they see, hear? Was Vatcky then notified (and how, since no radios)? Was the officer trained to do this properly to minimize pain or damage (S.P.C.A.?)? I mean, a dog is one thing, but shooting a horse is another altogether—where to place the muzzle?

Cats just seemed to die of their own accord, though there is one entry about a cat biting a child and having to be clubbed on the head to get it to let go—wonder what the child had done to provoke the attack? And it's the cat that gets the execution.

Some notable things: technology collisions between trolleys and horses with wagons; lots of children wandering away, sometimes running away, from home (the notations rarely say if the child was found and returned); people getting fined for riding their bikes on the sidewalks (a town ordinance, it turns out); bodies floating in the river, sometimes of abandoned infants; bodies being crushed by the trains in the railyards along the river (many stories of limbs being cut off, fractures, breaks, maimings); lots of drunk and disorderly notifications for both men and women; larcenies, petit and grand; people gathered up for "safe keeping" because they're too drunk to fend for themselves; "demented people" carted off to the County Jail for "examination by the County Physician"—wonder how that went at a place called Snake Hill.


The bulk of the blotter entries are one-offs—people enter and exit, soon gone from sight.

But some names come before the bar of justice multiple times for judgement and punishment.

From these entries, it's possible to sketch out something like a biography, limited, of course, but also fiction's fertile ground.

Introducing Ellen Giles

Ellen first appears in the blotter on Nov. 19, 1898, arrested by Officer Chamberlain and charged with being "drunk and disorderly." She is listed as 38 years of age and "of boat [at the] foot of 17th St."

Many entries in the blotter use the phrase "of boat" or "of boat lying" [and sometimes "laying"] to describe where someone lives. The area mentioned was near the Erie Rail Road Co. Weehawken yards, according to the map of Hudson County, New Jersey 1909 Plate 012.[1] It could not have been a very pleasant spot—noisy, dirty, smelly (not only the stink of the machinery but also the nearby stockyards and poultry yards and the river itself, with the occasional corpses, human and animal, floating along with whatever effluent came from upstream).

And the life of a single woman "of boat," though she may have had a son: a March 31, 1900, entry named a James Giles Jr., 18 years of age, "of boat lying at foot of 17th St." arrested for disorderly conduct (based on a warrant) and fined $5. Apparently, he couldn't pay it and was therefore committed (mostly likely to the county jail) in default.

From the first entry in 1898 to the final one on June 13, 1903, she was arrested 22 times (and if the blotters continued before 1898 and after 1903, I am sure there are probably more entries for her). The usual charge was "drunk and disorderly," but she had some variations on the charges: a drunken condition, charge distroying [sic] property; habitual drunkard; disorderly and calling vile names; disorderly and loitering about the Station House; disorderly person.

The "loitering" accusation is interesting because it comes late in her roster (March 28, 1902). What was she actually doing to be charged with loitering? And each time she does this, she is arrested by Station House Keeper George Frasch; sometimes the punishment is being committed to the county jail for a time, sometimes Ellen/Nellie is "repremanded [sic] and discharged."

(Side note: The name change happens in 1902; in June, she is Ellen, and in December, she is Nellie. Also, her age fluctuates: in the space of two months, from December 1902 to February 1903, she ages two years, from 41 to 43, and during March 1903, when she's nicked three times, her age hovers around 42 and 43.

(I like to think she is just messing with them: when the sergeant or station master or whoever has to handle her at the station asks for name and age, she just says what pops into her head—after all, she is being indicted for being disorderly, so she might as well be disorderly. Or just says, "Guess, if you're so smart—you got it written down there." And so they do.)

As for the loitering: I think she had a thing for George, or they had a thing for each other, but he couldn't acknowledge it because of his domestic situation (and perhaps he also had grown tired of it), so he kept arresting her and sending her away in one manner or another. She is out on the street in front of the station, in whatever manner of drunk she is at the time of day, just walking back and forth. George watches through the window. Up and down she goes, glancing at the window every now and then, a defiant but stupefied look on her face, perhaps every once in a while standing stock-still, arms akimbo, staring hard enough that the window glass would shatter if looks were hammers.

George's fellows in the station house (assuming a couple are around and not out shooting horses or rousting kids on bicycles off the sidewalks) give each other knowing looks behind his back—a finger by the side of the nose sort of thing—and George is aware of this, a slow burn of shame and annoyance creeping up the back of his neck. Perhaps someone clears his throat; someone else repeats that; the kind of clearing of the throat that says (if gutturals had a vocabulary), "Hey, George, what d'ya got goin' on over there, eh?" followed by a sly needling grin.

Meanwhile, Ellen/Nellie is doing her Dance of the Loiter, and George is her only audience, and throats are being cleared and knowing looks exchanged and it's hot in the station house and George is worried that Ellen/Nellie will tell his wife (or whoever his domestic partner is—we shouldn't assume a conformity) and the pressure "to do something" to avoid embarrassment and ribbing builds and builds until George, jamming on his headgear (watch cap, helmet—not sure what the station house uniform entailed), traipses out to the perambulating Ellen/Nellie and does his formal shtick of having her name inscribed in the blotter of life.

I want to learn about what the actual process entailed: Does George get to set the level of punishment or does this go to a judge of some sort because she can be fined, reprimanded and discharged, or sent to the county jail—there doesn't seem to be any consistency in these rulings. If she is committed, where does she stay while they call in whatever transportation they use to cart people out to the jail at Snake Hill in Secaucus? Is there a bathroom of some sort? What if she's still menstruating (after all, she's only in her late 30s)? How much is a fine of $5 in today's money (one website calculated it as $168)—not an easy sum to rustle up on demand, especially if your only lodging is "of boat lying." (And what kind of boat—presumably more than a dinghy, but was it sheltered from the seasons and could she store clean clothes—and how did the clothes get washed? And bodies get washed? The questions unfold unendingly like two facing mirrors.)

I also wonder if grief abides in Ellen/Nellie. Assuming that James Giles is her son, 18 years of age, born when she was 20, he follows her wayward path, unfathered/untethered as he is. (And the father—love of her life who trashed her and drove her to these extremes, from which she could not—perhaps did not—want to pull back, given the pain?) On November 18, 1900, James is taken to the hospital "in a very sick condition"—perhaps he did not recover, disappeared into a pauper's grave because Ellen/Nellie couldn't even pay the fine to keep herself out of jail, much less afford last rites for her son. (The county did have a potter's field,[2] and I assume that the town's Poor Master Quinn or Poormaster William Finley consigned unclaimed remains as part of their remit, just like George Vatcky's job of discarding Weehawken's dead animals).

When they did commit her to the county jail, how did they get her there—how did they get anyone there, including her as well as the deemed insane, the tubercular, the smallpox-ridden? What were the vehicles? What were the protocols? What roads (and how rough to ride)? Manacled or unmanacled? And then there, for 30 or 90 days—how could she be sure they would let her go? With whom was she housed? What were her days (and nights) like, especially if she did not have access to her substances (or perhaps she did, clandestine black markets in the wards)? Speaking of that, where did she get her alcohol if she could not pay her fine?

And yet all we have are the repeated telegraphic scribbles by a flourished hand in a 400-page police blotter. I wonder if she has guest appearances in other police blotters, both before and after this one. When was her last entry? Die young or old? Did she end up being one of the approximately 10,000 unmourned people buried in a pauper's grave at Snake Hill? If so, what was that last journey like?


[1] https://wardmapsgifts.com/products/hudson-county-new-jersey-1909-plate -012-union-weehawken-and-west-hoboken

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Snake_Hill ; https://weirdnj .com/stories/abandoned/snake-hill/ ; https://www.nj.com/inside -jersey/2014/10/the_mystery_of_secaucus_snake_hill.html


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Michael Bettencourt is an essayist and a playwright.
He writes a monthly column and is
a Senior Writer and columnist for Scene4.
Continued thanks to his "prime mate"
and wife, María-Beatriz.
For more of his columns, articles, and media,
check the Archives.

©2022 Michael Bettencourt
©2022 Publication Scene4 Magazine



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