The timing simply couldn’t have been worse. Thousands of visitors were making plans for their summer vacations to Richfield Springs in 1888 when a bombshell of a newspaper article hit the newsstands of New York City. The article appeared in The New York Sun that stated typhoid fever and diphtheria had a “heavy presence” in the resort village, known and respected worldwide for its cleanliness and good health.
The problem was, the news of the diseases was false. It was all a blackmail scheme by a Richfield Springs resident, Menzo F. Clapsaddle, who apparently had a score to settle with the village and took it to a major city newspaper to try to carry it out. Sadly, the newspaper took the bait for a potentially scandalous story without doing any investigation.
A few visitors to Richfield Springs started arriving around Memorial Day each year, but those numbers skyrocketed around the Fourth of July. The damaging article appeared in the Sun on Tuesday, May 22, 1888, but other New York newspapers didn’t follow suit in publishing similar articles.
The Sun article certainly riled up the village residents, as notices were circulated the day after the article appeared for a citizens’ meeting at Union Hall in the late afternoon.
The Hon. James S. Davenport, a former state Assemblyman and then owner of the Davenport House, called the heavily attended meeting to order, making a strong denunciation of the newspaper article, stating that Mr. Clapsaddle had threatened him that, unless the village trustees purchase Clapsaddle’s property for a ridiculously high figure, the business of the village would suffer.
“H. DeWight Luce, Esq., who brought the action for Mr. Clapsaddle, was present and called out,” it was reported in the May 24 edition of The Richfield Springs Mercury. “As soon as Mr. Luce became cognizant of the method pursued in the publication of that slanderous article, he notified his client of his withdrawal of the case, and last night delivered over all the papers in his possession. Mr. Luce in strong terms condemned the making of the untrue statements in regard to the condition of health here and his action in severing his connections with such outrageous proceedings is greatly to his credit.”