You could see Charles F. Dumbleton coming for blocks. Although he wasn’t exactly well-dressed, he held his head high and had a swagger that said “I’m coming to YOU.” This despite his uncertain gait, a limp supported by his ever present crutches, which confirmed from a distance it was Taffy – the name given to one of the most notorious men in the city of Troy in the mid-nineteenth century.
He wasn’t always notorious. He had built that reputation over years of street fights, petty thievery and bullying his betters. He was a frequenter of bawdy houses, a bartender, a saloon operator, a gambler and political operative. He was one of the leaders of a band of men. Newspapers and night watchmen called them a gang – “a terror of the town,” but loyal friends on the make is a more accurate description.
The Troy Times described them as an “organization of young loafers whose chief aim was to roam the city nights, indulge in frequent bar room fights, get drunk at the expense of the saloon keepers, and always resent a demand of payment for liquors and cigars by ‘cleaning out’ the place of the proprietor so unfortunate as to affront them.”
Dumbleton was born in Troy in 1815, shortly after his father Gad Dumbleton returned from the War of the 1812. “Old Gad Dumbleton” was a well-known figure in his own right. He had married Lydia Cook at the Dutch Reformed Church in the city of New York in 1807 and the couple located in Troy where Gad taught school until 1811. The following year he was enlisted as a Corporal in Peter J. Vosburgh’s (9th) Light Infantry Regiment. He served in Plattsburgh with the 29th U.S. Infantry under Col. M. Smith and then as a recruiter in in Troy, Albany and New York, before ending his enlistment as a Lieutenant at the East Greenbush Cantonment, famous as a birthplace of the phrase “Uncle Sam.”
After the war, Gad return to teaching in Troy, living in the First Ward on Second Street, just blocks from the Five Points, Troy’s rough and ready section of low-slung tenements, shacks, and assorted hovels where many of the city’s Irish and African-Americans lived. In the 1820s, Gad kept a school at 175 Third Street. All the schools in Troy at that time were for whites only, but Gad also allowed black children to attend, and so his was the first integrated school in Troy. (Schools for black students in Troy began in 1830, but were not publicly funded until 1864; they were integrated in 1873, thanks to the advocacy of the city’s leading black political advocate William Rich.)
A man of military bearing, Gad was remembered by his pupils for his “merciless floggings.” In 1830 he was appointed Troy’s High Constable, a position he held for several years. About the time of this appointment he began selling Bed Bug Bane, “an infallible and permanent remedy against the annoyance of Bed Bugs.” Throughout the 1830s Gad continued teaching. Future heavyweight champion and later U.S. Senator John Morrissey, the founder of Saratoga Race Course, was almost certainly among his students.
In 1837 Gad opened a grocery at the corner of Franklin and Division Streets, afterward operated by one of the city’s leading abolitionists and member of local Vigilance Committee, William Henry. It was here were the Charles Nalle lived at the time of his arrest under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. William Rich and William Henry, along with Harriet Tubman, were among the crowd that rescued Nalle and arranged to buy his freedom for $650.
Gad was involved in the local Democratic Party, even chairing a First Ward party meeting at Washington Market that was dominated by the local Tammany Society faction in 1841. Soon thereafter he died, but by then his son Charles was already a “noted rowdy,” and a young adherent to “the Democracy” as the Democratic Party was called. His connections included First Ward political leader William Natew and William Weaver, who ran for Alderman in Troy’s Seventh Ward as a Democrat in 1848. Weaver, along with Jack Boardman and Bob Black, were frequently arrested on various petty charges, including theft, gambling and public drunkenness. These men would form the nucleolus of Charlie Dumbleton’s crowd, and they elevated him to a leadership position. John Morrissey, still in his pre-teens, was there too and it’s said that Dumbleton arranged for the boy to fight the younger hangers-on of his adversaries.
Dumbleton lived on Hill Street, just off the Five Points. Here he was a frequenter of William and Rachel Hunter’s house of prostitution around the corner. Hill Street was prone to landslides from Mount Ida above, in part because this had been the location of brick works that used the clay there, and also where dirt was carted to fill the swampy south side of the city, along the Poesten Kill, which ran beside Hill Street for much of its length.
The first great slide happened on New Year’s Day, 1837. The day after the landslide, the Troy Times described what had happened:
“Early last Summer, many of our readers are aware, a large mass of clay burst from the hill on the east section of the first ward of this city, followed by a gushing stream of water, and doing no other injury than covering a large portion of ground at the base with the bowels of the hill. Last evening, about seven o’clock, a similar occurrence took place on the same spot, but we regret to say, greater in extent and exceedingly fatal in its consequences. An avalanche of clay came tumbling from an eminence of nearly five hundred feet, moving down the base of the hill to level land, and then continued from the impulse it received to the distance of about 800 feet, covering up acres of ground, accompanied with a cataract of water and sand, which kept up a terrible roar. The mass moved along with great rapidity, carrying with it two stables and three dwelling houses and crushing them and their contents in thousands of pieces. The stables and horses were moved to a distance of over 200 feet into a hollow on the corner of Washington and Fourth streets. In its way the avalanche also encountered a brick kiln, burying it partially over and crumbling it together, from which a few minutes after the flames rushed forth and lit up the city as with a great conflagration…
“There were four of Mrs. Leavensworth’s family in her house, herself and three children. Two of the children were in bed at the time and probably asleep, and were afterwards taken from the midst of the wreck dead, crushed almost to a jelly, and were undoubtedly thrown instantly from a natural sleep into the sleep of death. Mrs. Leavensworth was taken out shockingly bruised, and was barely alive when we last heard from her. Fortunately, three of the family were at church at the time and escaped awful deaths. The stables were owned by Mr. Bingham, in which were twenty-two horses, and all carried along with the mass, together with nine or ten dirt carts, Six horses were taken from the ruins alive, the other sixteen were killed. The dead bodies of the horses can this morning be seen mingled among the ruins.
Mr. Bingham’s loss must be considerable. The clay is piled up in masses to the depth of from ten to forty feet over a large surface. It must have moved with great rapidity, and it is fortunate that it had not happened at the time when the laborers were employed in digging from the hill. At the time it was snowing freely, and this morning the scene was entirely covered with a white veil. The scene that presented itself in the early part of the evening was awful in the highest degree. The horrors of an earthquake could not have presented a more dreadful spectacle. In the midst of a mass of convulsed earth, a multitude of human beings were moving to and fro, some carrying torches, and others digging among the ruins, and dragging from the midst the remains of some lifeless body, or were rescuing some one in whom life had not yet become extinct. Some were crying ‘ho! ropes, ropes!’ ‘help!’ ‘shovels!’ while the scene was dimly illuminated by the flames from the burning brick kiln, which is still smouldering like an almost extinct volcano. The scene must have been witnessed to be realized — we can give but a faint description of it. Five large trees were precipitated from the hill, some of which are now standing erect at the bottom, and others in a slightly inclined posture. The whole is considered a singular phenomena, and its immediate cause is the question of much speculation.” Five were killed, apparently most African-Americans, as they were buried from the nearby black Liberty Street Church.
On Friday, February 17, 1843 it happened again. With the temperature below zero, a large section of Mount Ida came loose and overwhelmed nine houses, among them 18 Hill Street, the home of Charlie Dumbleton. When the slide started several teams of men had been at work carting soil from the bottom of the hill – they barely escaped with their lives. At least eighteen were killed as the slide crossed Hill Street and swept down Washington, destroying homes on both sides of the lane. It was likely at this time that Charlie Dumbleton suffered his “hopeless lameness” which required the use of crutches for the rest of his life. It’s also when he got his sobriquet “Taffy,” and one suspects it was the result of having been hauled from the ruins of his home with his legs broken and stretched like the sweet treat.
In 1844, Taffy bucked most of his neighbors and his father’s politics and joined the Whigs for the city’s charter election. He then backed the dissident Whig Henry Clay against eventual winner James K. Polk and in 1848 he supported Old Zach Taylor, the War of 1812 hero who sought sectional compromise in the debates over extending slavery into new territories acquired during the Mexican War. When Taylor won that election, Dumbleton fielded a corps of men to march in the celebration. That would be the high point of Taffy’s political career, which had been bolstered by his partnership in a porter house at 52 Congress Street, a gathering place for the city’s sporting men, and home to the father of John Lawrence, one of John Morrissey’s first promoters.
His spiral downward began in 1849, when he struck the watch from the hand of man in the street, smashing it beyond repair. Charged with robbery, his followers packed the court house and it was said that he couldn’t have been convicted on the charge had he been properly defended. Instead, he was sentenced to 10 years and 6 months in Clinton Prison.
From Clinton, Taffy worked to show he had been reformed. He joined the prison choir. In 1851, he wrote to friend who was experiencing his own legal troubles. In the letter, published in the Troy Daily Times, he laments for his friend “the sad event which has thus blighted all the prospects of your youthful hopes, filled your own bosom with unspeakable anguish, and brought upon your mother, sister Margaret, and brother Phillip, such an accumulation of sorrows.”
Taffy asks his friend to “look up to high heaven for that mercy, which the atoning blood of a crucified Savior has procured for those who feel their need of it, and in penitence and sincerity seek it.” The Daily Times believed this letter a sign that Taffy might deserve pardon for his sins: “the punishment he has already suffered has evidently done its work in effecting in him a thorough reform.”
In June of 1852 his followers filed a petition for a pardon. Positive letters from the prison chaplain and the district attorney followed. That August some prison guards at Clinton joined the effort and another petition for his release from the citizens of Troy was filed a year later. In February of 1854 New York Governor Horatio Seymour granted the pardon and Taffy was released, having served 5 of his 10 years and 6 months.
The Troy Whig acknowledged that a injustice had been corrected, but argued that he still deserved the time he got. “The offence of which he was convicted was a trivial one compared with the punishment meted out to him, but the severity of the sentence was provoked as much for crimes the punishment for which he escaped from time to time, as by the one he was convicted of,” the paper’s editor wrote. “Since his confinement he has manifested much contrition, and has conducted himself in a manner to secure the favor of the keepers of the prison. No one will regret his release if he holds good to his resolution ‘to become a better man.’”
Taffy arrived back in Troy early Sunday morning February 19, 1854 to the cheering of more than a hundred of his compatriots, some of whom had been up all-night celebrating his imminent arrival. He was escorted to the Alhambra, Troy’s sporting man’s headquarters, where the boys “went in for a jollification and good time generally.”
The Troy Daily Budget opined that “now that Dumbleton has been pardoned, it is to be hoped that he will cut himself loose from his old associates and habits, and become a peaceful and industrious citizen. Those who have taken an interest in securing his pardon should use their influence to see that he does not, fall into the career which made him so notorious before his conviction.”
Taffy did more than cut himself loose from his former associates, he left town altogether. He traveled to Rhode Island and to New York, but by 1857 he was back in Troy, tending bar for John Morrissey at the Ivy Green, 124 Fourth Street, and boarding with him next door. While Morrissey was focused on training for his fight with John C. Heenan in 1858, Taffy got up to old tricks. He was arrested for a string of offenses. One of the first involved defrauding a Custom House officer in Brooklyn, whom he had persuaded to loan him valuables by saying that Morrissey had requested them. A charge of forgery followed, brought by a West Troy merchant who was swindled out of a new suit of clothes. Then a charge of theft. When Morrissey sold the Ivy Green in the that fall, Taffy was set adrift. In Albany the following year he accosted a man with one of his crutches.
By 1861 or 62, Taffy was finally down for the count. Ill from consumption, he was forced to resort to the generosity of Morrissey, who paid for his lodgings (and cigars) at the county poor house. He spent the last years of his life there, dying April 7, 1870 of consumption at the age of 55.
Illustrations: A 19th century street fight in NYC (detail); a view of Troy from the Watervliet Arsenal in 1838; detail from an 1838 map showing the Five Points neighborhood and Mount Ida; detail from ca. 1860 photograph showing the neighborhood around the Five Points; a detail from a 1845 map showing the Five Points and the area of the landslides; a Zachary Taylor campaign banner; the “Church of the Good Thief” at Clinton Prison; and the former Alhambra on River Street in Troy.