An Adirondack Love of Mystery and Intrigue in the 1880’s

One mystery remains which my research has never fully solved. Why did the last two generations of our family have no knowledge of the original Thacher cabin? And why are there no photos or drawings of the cabin? Most importantly, why did the cabin disappear? Here is one surprising theory that could shed light on these questions.

The Thacher and FitzPatrick families are proud of our Irish heritage thanks to the courage of our grandfather Kenelm R. Thacher (KRT) choosing to marry Catherine Callahan.   Family lore is that this act labeled KRT as the black sheep of the family given the unfortunate bigotry toward Irish Catholics by blue blood Protestants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.   My Aunt Ellen spoke of certain Thacher family members crossing the street in downtown Albany, rather than conversing with her parents.  It turns out that my grandfather was not the first Thacher to marry an Irish Catholic, nor was the resentment toward him the result of societal bigotry alone but rather a reflection of personal experiences.

After the death of our great-grandfather George Hornell Thacher 2nd (GHT2), his properties (including Thacher Island at Blue Mountain Lake, his summer residence in Manchester, VT, the mansion in Albany, NY, and the family business) were divided among his five sons. Our grandfather was given the least valuable undeveloped lands at Raquette Lake with its one room cabin and lean-to. We have often believed that our present day enjoyment of the beauty of Indian Point is the result of this bigotry.

Given this family lore, it was most surprising when my research discovered three facts completely contrary to a perceived bias against Irish Catholics.

  • Reverend Henry Gabriels, President of St. Josephs’ Catholic Seminary in Troy, NY served Catholic mass at the Thacher Camp on Indian Point on July 11-14 in 1878.
  • Mayor George Hornell Thacher Sr. (GHT1) secretly donated $100 dollars (about $3,000 today) each year for the construction of a new St. Mary’s Catholic Cathedral in Albany from 1866 to 1869.
  • In July 1887, after GHT’s death in February, Mrs. George Hornell Thacher hosted Reverend Henry Gabriels at Thacher Island in Blue Mountain.

Why would GHT1 have a strong personal connection to Reverend Henry Gabriels and so generously support the construction of St. Mary’s? GHT1 had attended the Princeton Seminary and served as a Presbyterian Minister from 1843 to 1847.   Hardly a non-religious man, he was even less likely to find friendship with a Catholic.

The mystery began to unravel as I was researching another line of investigation regarding John Boyd Thacher 1st .   Look at the last paragraph of this newspaper article regarding his funeral in 1909:

funeral png

Our family never knew about and none of the official biographies of the Thacher family in Albany ever mentioned half-siblings. However, this gave me another epiphany.   Ursula Jane Boyd Thacher, mother of JHT1 and GHT2, died in 1874.   Clearly, the Mrs. George Hornell Thacher who hosted Rev. Gabriels in 1887 was GHT1’s second wife (incidentally also omitted from all official biographies).

Using the names of William A. Thacher and Mrs. J. W. Morris, I began searching for more information and came upon this startling information.

Eliza obit png

So GHT1 had remarried after his first wife’s death and started a second family with an Irish Catholic woman. Who was this Elizabeth Thacher from Ireland?   What was her maiden name? The first clue came from an in memoriam to Mrs. J. W. Morris’ late husband which identified his wife as Mary Agnes Thacher.

Dr. Morris in memoriam

GHT1’s daughter’s name led to a reference in the St. Peter’s Catholic Church of Troy’s online listing of church donations and gifts. Dr. J.W. Morris and Mrs. J. W. Morris had donated a church bell chime in memory of their daughter Gabrielle Mary Thacher Morris.   In the same online listing, an “Eliza Thacher” had donated a stained glass window in memory of her father Matthew Toomey.

Based on the hunch that Elizabeth Thacher was originally Eliza Toomey, I pursued that name. As the 1860 US Census shows, Eliza Toomey, age 24, was a servant in George Hornell Thacher Sr.’s home in 1860.

1860 census png

So did GHT1 fall in love and marry Eliza Toomey after his first wife’s death?   No, not as simple as that. Mary Agnes was born in 1866, a full eight years before Ursula Jane Boyd’s death in 1874. William was born in 1868.

It appears that Eliza moved away to birth the children out of the prying eyes of Albany society. Mary Agnes supposedly was born in Pittsfield, MA and William in nearby Canaan, NY.   I have not yet found birth certificates nor baptismal papers for the children, nor a marriage certificate for GHT1 and Eliza. My suspicion is that the Rev. Henry Gabriels played a role in both aspects. While I have no proof, the strong, decades long personal friendship between Gabriels and Eliza Thacher leads me to believe that he secretly married the two sometime after GHT1’s first wife died. I find the timing of GHT1’s secret donations to the construction of St. Mary’s Catholic Cathedral an interesting coincidence. Might that have been compensation for private, off-the-record baptisms for the children in 1866 and 1868?

Even after GHT1’s death, Eliza continued to be a generous patron of the Catholic Church, such that her funeral was attended by several bishops and officials from different dioceses from across the State. Conjecture to be sure, but is it surprising that the Rev. Gabriels, possessing knowledge of a damning personal secret of one of the wealthiest political families in New York State, became the Bishop of Ogdensburg in 1892?

It appears that GHT1 continued his affair for over a decade. While we do not know exactly when they married, it must have been after his first wife’s death in 1874. We do know that the 1875 NYS Census shows GHT1 maintaining two households, one on Washington Avenue in Albany accompanied by his late wife’s sister, and one at 65 Grand Division Street in Troy where he resided with Eliza and the children.

Although they appear in the census, I believe GHT1 was attempting to keep this second family a secret from the Albany society. Nothing was published in the press actually naming Elizabeth Thacher nor identifying the children as being the son and daughter of GHT1 until after his death in 1887.

GHT1’s last will and testament makes no mention of nor bequeaths anything to Eliza or the children. In addition, his sons John Boyd and George Hornell, Jr., prepared a legal document by which Eliza signed away any rights she had to her late husband’s estate. A cruel act, I thought, until I learned that prior to his death GHT1 had provided for Eliza and the children’s future by giving her a sizable fortune in railroad company stock. It is unknown how much of the family wealth went to Eliza, but it could easily explain the apparent resentment that George Hornell Jr. displayed toward the second family and his future disdain for his son’s (my grandfather’s) wife Catherine Callahan.

Which brings us back to the Adirondacks. According to the History of Hamilton County, John Boyd Thacher “built a cabin for the use of his father,” in 1867 on Thacher Island on Blue Mountain Lake. An interesting choice of words by the authors Aber and King? Could it be that the island was purchased specifically for GHT1 to have a place to spend time with his secret second family, one year after Mary Agnes’ birth?

Although the deed to Thacher Island is in John Boyd Thacher’s name, there is little evidence of his using the lodge there until after 1876, when he also purchased Indian Point on Raquette Lake. John Boyd appears to be the owner of Indian Point in name only. I have not found any evidence that he ever spent time there.

Conversely, the evidence shows that his father, Eliza, Mary Agnes and William regularly stayed at the Thacher Camp on Indian Point. According to the historian Larry Miller, it was common for the camp owners on Raquette to end their long day of travel by train, stage coach and steamer at Ike Kenwell’s Raquette Lake House on Tioga Point for the night and then move to their private camps the next morning.

Entries for GHT1 and his second family appear at least two times in Ike Kenwell’s guest registry, July 8, 1882 is shown below.

kenwill

We also have letters written by GHT1 to his son George Jr. from the Thacher Camp on Indian Point referencing the children’s nicknames Willie and Mamie.

willie letter

mamie ltr

I believe that GHT1’s move from Blue Mt. Lake to Raquette Lake in 1876 may indicate that was the year that he revealed his second family to his sons. Perhaps the sons’ less than charitable response required GHT1 to build a new cabin at Raquette while John Boyd and George Jr. continued to use Thacher Island on Blue Mt. Lake.

While he may have come out to his sons, I believe GHT1 still wanted Albany society to be in the dark about his new family. This could explain why the land on Indian Point was put in John Boyd’s name. While most of the other private camps on Raquette Lake at the time appeared on maps and in the photos of Seneca Ray Stoddard, the Thacher Camp was notably absent.

The property on Indian Point appears to have been abandoned between 1886 and 1910, and the original Thacher Camp cabin disappeared without a trace.   At the time of their father’s death in 1887, John Boyd established a summer residence in Altamont, NY and George Jr. began to summer in Manchester, Vt. I suspect that they associated the Adirondack camps with Eliza and her family.

We may never know the truth but fortunately, all trace of the second family was not lost. Last summer I hosted Nancy Morris Tuthill, the great-great-granddaughter of George and Eliza, at our cabin on Indian Point. It is fitting that this descendent of Eliza, who brought the Thachers to the Adirondacks, is a resident of Lake Placid.

While I feel that our story has come full circle and our history on Indian Point is now understood, I will forever be searching for just one photo of the original Thacher Camp on Indian Point.

The End

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