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May 25, 2013

Blackmail scheme failed to hurt Richfield Springs resort season in 1888

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The Daily Star

---- — 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.”

Nevertheless, the damage had been done in New York City, where many Richfield Springs resort clientele came from, so the village then turned their efforts to get a retraction from The New York Sun. At first the Sun refused to budge, and asked for “particulars and enough evidence” to show that their article was untrue. Two Richfield Springs residents went to New York with evidence of the village’s good health records.

Apparently not convinced, and a lawsuit of libel brought against it, the Sun still didn’t immediately act. Meanwhile the competing New York Herald promised to send a representative to Richfield Springs and give their observations of health and cleanliness through its “widely-circulated” paper.

“The Herald expressed a willingness, if everything was found as represented to it, and of that we have no fear, to take hold of the matter and give our libelers a dressing down that would do them good,” according to the Mercury.

As expected, nothing threatening to health or cleanliness was observed by the Herald reporter. The Sun finally gave in and simply said in its Saturday, May 26 edition, “We are assured by those we have confidence that the report of a dangerous and fatal epidemic at Richfield Springs is untrue and unfounded, and that the place is as healthy as it had ever been.”

The competing New York World took a swing at the Sun, saying, “The certificate of the Board of Health and the physicians of Richfield Springs effectually stamp out the libel of that lovely and healthful summer resort has been invaded by contagious diseases. The motive for this particular falsehood can but be inferred from the refusal of its circulator to correct it.”

With the damage now growing under control, resort owners got busy preparing for a busy season of 1888, which was historic in several ways in the village. The throngs of guests would arrive around July 4, and closer to that date we’ll explore that summer season.

As The Daily Star will not publish on Monday, next weekend: Cherry Valley got a much deserved historic designation.

City Historian Mark Simonson’s column appears twice weekly. On Saturdays, his column focuses on the area during the Depression and before. His Monday columns address local history after the Depression. If you have feedback or ideas about the column, write to him at The Daily Star, or email him at simmark@stny.rr.com. His website is www.oneontahistorian.com. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/marksimonson.