The Capture and Death of Charles Parker

Our family has two large metal boxes filled with George Hornell Thacher’s handwritten letters.   We are fortunate to have three letters written from the Thacher “Camp” on Indian Point.

GHT’s correspondence to his son George Jr. dated August 7, 1881 is a unique piece of history. He references a tragic affair which became the talk of the major NY newspapers.


                                                                                                Camp, Aug. 7th, 1881

Dear George,

My health is about as usual. Nothing new here of importance except the recapture of Parker yesterday, the desperado, the man who outraged a lady on the carry between Forked and Long Lakes. He was arrested at Lowville while fleeing to Canada and taken back to Long Lake where he got away from the constable. Yesterday the same officer overhauled him on Forked Lake near the outlet, shot and broke his arm and recaptured him. The lady was a sister of the wife of U.S. Senator Platt of Connecticut. Parker was a newcomer here and took up the business of guiding. He was guiding her to Long Lake and perpetrated the deed near Butter Milk Falls.


P.S. Parker was shot through the arm and breast. The Doctor says he will die probably before night. The way of the transgressor is hard. 10 A.M.

The Troy Press said, “Probably no event occurring in the Adirondack region has caused as much comment and excitement as the crime that is attributed to Charles Parker.”

On July 23, 1881, Charles Parker was guiding Mrs. George Bull, the wife of a prominent Philadelphia politician, from Blue Mountain Lake to Long Lake via Raquette and Forked lakes. Upon arriving at Senator Platt’s Camp on Long Lake, Mrs. Bull became hysterical and fainted. In the confusion and before she was able to accuse him of sexual assault, Parker fled. He quickly returned to his cabin on Forked Lake, sold his boat and used the proceeds to flee north through Lowville to Kingston, Canada.

Owing to the prominence of the Bull and Platt families, the manhunt for Parker was extensive and rapid. Canadian authorities captured him and returned him to Long Lake’s Constable Cole in Watertown. Cole and the son of Senator Pratt transported Parker to Long Lake, arriving on Tuesday August 2nd. Parker was lodged at Helms Hotel in the physical custody of Constable Cole.

Parker was handcuffed to Cole’s wrist as they lay down to sleep that night in their hotel room’s one bed. In the morning, Cole awoke to find Parker gone with the handcuff still attached to Cole’s wrist. Cole alleged that Parker must have had accomplices for his escape.

The events of the next few days and Parker’s eventual death vary depending on the news source that reported it. What is not in dispute is that Charles Parker was shot near the outlet of Forked Lake on Friday August 5th.

Today we expect our news to travel the world in the blink of an eye as our twitter feed updates. News sometimes took days to reach our ancestors’ ears in the 19th century, and in a rush to put out the news of a rapidly changing story, the facts seemed to change.

The earliest report of the escape, which occurred in the night of Tuesday August 2nd, was in The Syracuse Daily Courier on Monday August 8th. The article makes no mention of his recapture.

On Tuesday August 9th, the Albany Evening Times finally published the news of Parker’s wounding and recapture on the previous Friday. In this account,

At eleven o’clock this morning [Aug 5th], the constable with another man went to the foot of the [Forked] lake, where an interview had been arranged to be held between him and Parker, the constable promising to not arrest or detain the latter when he wished to leave. Parker came to the place of the meeting at the head of the outlet, accompanied by his wife, Cole and his deputy being on the opposite bank. Parker advanced to the center of the river in his boat to speak with the constable. After some conversation, Parker began to pull back to the far shore. Cole called to him, ordering him to surrender or he would shoot. Parker increased the speed of his boat and swung it around so that his wife came between him and the constable. As the boat struck shore, Parker jumped out, and as he was reaching down in the boat for his gun, Cole fired one shot at him…[which] struck Parker’s left arm, about an inch below the shoulder, badly shattering the bone and completely disabling him. It seems that the ball, after striking the arm, entered the breast near the nipple and took a downward course. Dr. Woodruff, who is summering at Raquette Lake, attended the wounded man as quickly as he possibly could, and he states that Parker has but a bare possibility of recovery.

This early account of a negotiation for Parker’s surrender was quickly replaced by a different narrative in subsequent days. The Utica Observer published a letter on August 11th written by James Platt, the senator’s son [who was not a witness] describing Parker’s recapture. Platt claimed,

News was soon had of him as having been seen on his way to Forked Lake. Justice Shaw, Mr. Bull, Cole and others at once started for Forked Lake. After reaching there it became evident that Parker was hidden in the woods and fed by some of his old cronies who live in that vicinity. Friday evening Cole, who had been on watch, discovered Parker in a boat with his wife near the foot of Forked Lake. Cole stepped upon a rock near the shore and called upon Parker to stop and surrender. Parker pulled rapidly toward the opposite shore; Cole repeated his command several times, saying that he would shoot if Parker did not stop…Parker lifted up his rifle from the bottom of the boat. As soon as Cole saw the rifle he fired at Parker’s shoulder, which was the only portion of his body not covered by his wife

Not surprisingly, the Philadelphia Times account published on August 16th embellishes the prominent Philadelphian’s role.

Mr. Bull, who returned to Philadelphia Friday night, brought the first intelligence of the miscreant’s death. He says he would not have left the place with Parker alive, but seeing his lifeless body before him and the coroner’s jury in the act of holding an inquest, he departed satisfied. It was Mr. Bull who tracked Parker to his lair on Friday. During the three days, Mr. Bull had officers and guides scouring the lake, but Parker, from his hiding place on shore, could see their every movement. Mr. Bull finally located him near the foot of Long Lake and stationed Cole and another constable, both armed, at the only point where he could pass in getting away.

The official coroner’s inquest accepted witness testimony which agrees with James Platt’s account while making no mention of Mr. Bull’s direct involvement. It concluded “That he, the said Charles Parker, came to his death on the 9th day of August, 1881, caused by a gun-shot wound fired from a gun in the hands of Warren W. Cole while in discharge of his duties as constable in and for the Town of Long Lake in the County of Hamilton.”

The news of Parker’s recapture reached GHT sometime on August 6th as he wrote about it on August 7th and then I believe added his postscript on the morning of August 8th (hence the 10 AM notation). The Doctor in the letter surely was the Dr. Woodruff mentioned in the newspaper article and perhaps the direct source of GHT’s information.

While the news took days to reach the reading public outside the region, my great great grandfather’s letter shows that local news travelled quite quickly among the guides and summer residents of the region. Word of mouth was almost as rapid as today’s social media but limited to face to face rather than Facebook communication.

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