Thirty-two-year-old John Woodruff of Scotia, New York was a rugged outdoorsman and a crack shot with a firearm, so it was no surprise to those who knew him when he left his job at the real estate office of J.A. Lindsley on State Street in Schenectady to join New York’s Game Protector force. The prospect of an exciting career as a Game Protector was something that appealed to many men who sought to make a living in the outdoors.
John Woodruff’s goal was achieved when he was appointed by New York State Conservation Commissioner George D. Pratt on November 1st, 1919, having finished first on the competitive civil service exam. Had John Woodruff known how short-lived his career would be, and the fate that was about to befall him, he may have had misgivings about the road he had chosen to travel. In April 1921, after missing for a year and a half, the mysterious fate of Game Protector John Woodruff would culminate with the discovery of his remains buried in the bed of Rotterdam Creek in Schenectady County.
Game Protectors in New York had been in existence for only 39 years when John Woodruff joined the Game Protector force. In 1880 Governor Alonzo B. Cornell (1880 – 1882) appointed eight Game Protectors to serve in the Fish and Game Division of the State of New York Conservation Commission, part of a growing national effort to protect declining fish and game populations.
New conservation laws were being passed yearly, and with new laws came the need for men to enforce them. The eight men in plain clothes assigned to patrol 54,566 square miles of New York State were faced with a daunting task, but it was a start. In 1899 Governor Theodore Roosevelt, one of the nation’s earliest proponents of conservation, took an interest in the Game Protector force declaring that he wanted “… as game protectors, men of courage, resolution and hardihood who can handle the rifle, ax and paddle; who can camp out in summer or winter; who can go on snowshoes, if necessary; who can go through the woods by day or by night without regard to trails.”
The Game Protectors soon became a force to be reckoned with, growing to 131 uniformed Protectors by 1919 and achieving a reputation as men who took their mission to protect the state’s fish and game seriously, despite the inherent dangers of the job. However, the formative years for game wardens in New York during the first two decades of the 20th century would prove to be a period of tragic encounters for some of the men who were devoting their lives to protecting fish and wildlife.
In 1901 Sam Taylor was a guard at the Pan American Exposition in Buffalo when President William McKinley was assassinated. He was reportedly the first man to come to the aid of the mortally wounded McKinley, not knowing that he would meet a similar fate years later.
On the morning of Sunday, April 5, 1914, Game Protector Samuel Taylor, 38 years old, of Bouckville, New York in Madison County joined forces with Game Protector John Willis of Oneida to patrol along the banks of the Mohawk River in the city of Rome to check the area for illegal duck hunters. Moving in to investigate the sound of gunfire, the Protectors observed several men shooting robins. As the Game Protectors confronted the violators, advising them that they were under arrest, one of the men carrying a shotgun fired upon them, striking Taylor in the chest and abdomen. He fell to the ground mortally wounded. Protector Willis who just missed being shot himself, drew his service revolver and returned fire. Despite John Willis’ heroic efforts, shortly after midnight on April 6, 1914, Game Protector Taylor died at Oneida County Hospital, among the first New York State Game Protector to die in the line of duty. Two local suspects were apprehended, questioned, and released. No one was ever charged in the murder.
Despite this tragic incident, there was no shortage of men willing to join the Game Protector force. Game Protectors approached their jobs with much enthusiasm, beginning the tradition of a specialized police force whose members protected their assigned areas as if they were their own. During his brief career, John Woodruff was said to be “hated by hunters of game out of season,” and that he was “zealous in his prosecutions of men caught violating state law.”
At 7 am on Thanksgiving morning, November 27, 1919, Game Protector Woodruff, on the job for less than one month, bid good-bye to his wife and children Ferris and Ruth. Mrs. Woodruff was undoubtedly worried whenever her husband would go to work. She was aware that he had already received threats since his appointment as the local Game Protector. Recently she had watched with great concern as he read a letter wherein the writer wrote “I’ll get you”, and “I’m not afraid of you.” She watched with great concern as her husband tore up the letter stating, “Well, they’re not going to get me.” Mrs. Woodruff tried to brush aside her fears that Thanksgiving Day as she watched her husband leave their home on 41 James Street in Schenectady, confident in his abilities to get the job done.
Exactly what happened that fateful Thanksgiving Day remains tangled in a web of contradictory facts and questionable evidence, complicated by the passage of time and faded memories. When John Woodruff did not return home to enjoy dinner with his young family that evening, Mrs. Woodruff became understandably alarmed. She called the police fearing the worse, hoping for the best, and praying her husband would soon be home.
The reaction of the local authorities was swift. The newly organized State Police, founded only two years prior in 1917, joined in with the local Game Protectors, sheriff’s deputies, and Scotia Police, concentrating their search in what was then the wilds of South Schenectady, Guilderland, and Carman.
Even the local Boy Scouts pitched in to help. Despite the intensive effort, after several days the search was called off, the whereabouts of Game Protector Woodruff a mystery.
There were initially very few leads in the case. In 1920 a witness, 21-year-old Rotterdam Junction resident Fred Ferredino, provided a statement to the Schenectady District Attorney. He stated that at approximately 11am on the day of Woodruff’s disappearance he was in the waiting room of the local railway near the Nine Mile Bridge and Lock #9, waiting for a trolley, when he observed two men near the tracks. He could overhear one of the men telling the other that he was under arrest, as well as a somewhat heated discussion about ferrets, the use of which had been outlawed for hunting. The hunter was in possession of a shotgun. The men walked past the waiting room and into the woods, but not before the hunter fired two shots into the air from a revolver, later assumed by investigators as an attempt to get his hunting dogs to come to him. The two men then disappeared into the woods. The vague description of the hunter included the fact that he was a “foreigner” who spoke with an accent. However, this incident would later be discounted as there were conflicting reports of Woodruff being sighted later that evening.
After Woodruff’s disappearance in 1919, the local newspapers carried the story for several days but then both the trail and the media coverage went cold. However, on April 3, 1921, sixteen months after John Woodruff had failed to return home, George H. Barrett, a railroad car repairman from Rotterdam, was hiking through the woods near Amsterdam Road (NYS Route 5) near the Nine Mile Bridge on what was then known as the Johnson farm, in search of arbutus, when something out of the ordinary caught his eye in the bed of Rotterdam Creek.
George became increasingly alarmed as he realized that what he was looking at were the skeletal remains of a man with two gold teeth. The remains were held down in a depression in the stream bed by heavy slate stones that had been placed atop of the body forming a partial tomb. Game Protector John Woodruff had been found.
The reaction of the local authorities was swift, again involving the State Police, the Scotia Police Department and the Schenectady County District Attorney’s office. Governor Nathan Miller directed the Conservation Commission to assign Game Protector and Confidential Inspector Delbert Speenburgh of Catskill to the investigation. Speenburgh later went undercover, spending time working with a suspect who had gone to Canada, hoping to acquire clues to the Woodruff murder. Now searching the area where John Woodruff had been found, Speenburgh and the other investigators looked upon the tragic scene. Woodruff’s skull had been smashed open. His hunting boots and other clothing, a gold watch, Conservation Commission identification, some Conservation Commission related papers, and a holster for a .38 caliber revolver were found with the remains. The revolver however, and John Woodruff’s #68 Conservation badge were missing.
The remains were taken to the office of local Coroner Alexander. G. Baxter, who determined that Woodruff had been killed by a blow to the back of the skull made by a “powerful man.” Given Woodruff’s prowess with a revolver (he had just recently won a shooting contest at a Game Protector’s event) as well as his physical abilities, it was assumed that the assailant had taken advantage when John had turned his back on him. Despite Speenburgh’s best efforts, and interviews of various suspects, the identity of the assailant remained a mystery.
John Woodruff was interred at the Vale Cemetery in Schenectady. The loss to his family was devastating. The $50 per month stipend his wife received from the Conservation Commission was not enough to support the young family, and according to Woodruff’s surviving great-granddaughter they lost their home. The case lay quietly until February 1947, when the State Police reopened the investigation based upon a new lead that had been provided by the FBI’s Buffalo office.
Two men had come to the Buffalo office on February 7th, 1947 to relate to Agent Robert Stone that their stepfather claimed that he and an accomplice had murdered a man in the woods in Schenectady about 20 years before. Reportedly, the victim had attempted to arrest the stepfather for shooting a bird illegally.
After identifying and interviewing this suspect, the story was discounted. However, two facts interested the investigators. According to the two informants, their stepfather claimed he had tied the victim to a tree, and following a severe snowstorm, the victim died of exposure. The stepfather also claimed that he had killed his victim with a blast of a shotgun to the head.
In fact, on Thanksgiving night 1919 there was indeed a severe winter storm, which led investigators at that time to believe John Woodruff’s remains were buried in a snow drift. Also, when interviewed by investigators in 1947, Speenburgh stated that his observation of Woodruff’s remains in 1921 noted that a portion of Woodruff’s skull had in fact been shot away by what appeared to be a shotgun. However, during a lie detector test, one of the stepsons claimed that they had made the story up in an attempt to get their stepfather out of the way due to a family dispute. State and local police investigators could not make an arrest based upon their interviews of the persons involved.
Investigators continued to work on the case, interviewing the witness Mr. Ferredino again, who stated a photo of the stepfather from Buffalo was not the man he had seen with Woodruff in 1919. The District Attorney even offered to exhume Woodruff’s body if enough evidence was found to warrant this. Then once again, the investigation went cold. In the early 2000s a rumor emerged of a deceased Glenville man who had told his wife that he had killed John Woodruff. The validity of this story remains unconfirmed, however.
Sadly, the killing of Game Protectors did not end with the murder of John Woodruff. In 1929, Game Protector William Cramer of Queens, NY was slain by a shotgun blast as he and his partner, Game Protector Joseph Allen, attempted to arrest songbird hunters in the woods along the shores of Jamaica Bay, near present day JFK Airport. His assailants were brought to justice however, and sentenced to prison in Ossining.
Today, John Woodruff’s murder remains a mystery. His sacrifice, as well as that of Game Protector Sam Taylor and Game Protector William Cramer have not been forgotten, however. Current members of NYSDEC’s Division of Law Enforcement ensured that their names were added to the Police Memorial in Albany, and they have commemorated their memories at gravesite ceremonies in recent years. The Samuel Taylor award for bravery has been established by the Division, and two of the Division’s K9s, “Woody” and “Cramer” have been named after the men who gave so much in their devotion to duty and the protection of New York’s vital natural resources.
Tim Huss was a NYS Environmental Conservation Officer for nearly 40 years, retiring as a Major in 2017. His articles have appeared in newspapers and magazines including The Conservationist. He is currently employed by the Central Pine Barrens Commission on Long Island. This article first appeared in the Fall 2021 New York Archives. It’s presented here courtesy the Schenectady County Historical Society. Become a member online at schenectadyhistorical.org
Photo: Undated photograph of men hunting courtesy Grems-Doolittle Library collection.