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Democrat Photo by Ted Waddell

A skull was among the old crime evidence items found in the county courthouse

Quite the Find At
County Courthouse

By Ted Waddell
HURLEYVILLE — July 21, 2000 – Sullivan County has some skeletons in its closet.
In fact, about three weeks ago, the chief clerk of the county court called up the local historical society and asked them to accept a fascinating array of old evidence – including a partial human skeleton and several sets of “bones” (a common term for dice used in illegal gambling operations).
According to Bill Burns of Bethel, an archivist/curator and member of the board of directors of the Sullivan County Historical Society, Chief Clerk of the Sullivan County Court Earl Lilley recently called the society and offered them a look at the “dark side” of the county’s past.
“All of the people in the courthouse were very enthusiastic about giving us the material,” said Burns. “It’s a method of saving some of the history of the county.”
For years, evidence seized as a result of crimes dating from the 1930s-40s had been stored in a third-floor room at the old courthouse. About three weeks ago, the chief clerk (with the support of District Attorney Stephen F. Lungen) decided it was time to clean house. Rather than toss these relics of the county’s past into a trash bin, they contacted the historical society so they could preserve the long “dead” evidence for the enlightenment of future generations.
After a few inmates helped carry the dusty box of bones and piles of other old evidence down three flights of stairs, it was transported over to the historical society for preliminary sorting and evaluation.
According to Burns, some of the material will be incorporated into the museum’s collection. He added that the board of directors envisions a temporary exhibit to give folks a peek at it all.
The cache of historical artifacts includes a crumbling cardboard box containing part of a dirt-encrusted human skeleton, piles of gambling paraphernalia seized by New York State Police and Sullivan County Sheriff’s Department raids during the 1930s, evidence recovered at arson scenes, old shotguns, knives, bludgeons and an old trunk filled with silverware purloined from local hotels.
“The historical society is very much aware of the sanctity of history,” noted Burns. “The [human] bones will be properly interred.”
In one box, a black and white police photo shows a woman apparently standing in a room during an old-fashioned booking procedure. In the same box, there is a set of blood-stained men’s longjohns, with what appear to be knife cuts in “vital” spots.
Other boxes contain evidence seized during police raids of illegal gambling operations set up during the late 1930s-early ‘40s in bungalows and hotel rooms. Jury-rigged antennae hooked up to old wireless radios allowed betting parlors to get a jump on local newspapers’ reporting of track results, stacks of slips show the daily action and coded books list area hotels and runners.
The cracked glass globe of a Western Union Telegraph tickertape machine mirrors the betting action of 50 years ago.
The August 8, 1940 edition of the National Racing Programs’ “Scratch Sheet of Quality and Reputation” advertised “a superior phone service for all tracks: jockeys, scratches, post positions, field horses, phone specials and expert handicapping.”
“There used to be a lot of illegal betting going on,” said Burns. “The State Police and Sheriff’s Department were very active in collecting evidence of the crimes.”
Arson evidence includes several five-gallon metal kerosene cans wrapped in burlap, and a candle stub in a paper-filled cardboard box.
“A lot of hotels had a bad reputation of burning down right after Labor Day during the 1930s,” said Burns.
In 1937, somebody obviously had a grudge or a deep thirst for whiskey, as they tossed a rock through the plate glass window of Abe Taylor’s Liquor Store. The time-weathered state police evidence tag records the incident but whets the imagination for more details.
On July 6, 1949, NYS Police Trooper T.A. Catalano filled out an evidence tag listing William Zhan and Thomas Finnegan as suspects in ripping off “one metal cash money box . . . contents approx. $500” from the Terrace Room Bar at Grossinger’s Hotel.
Other items in this treasure trove of history include a pair of antique porcelain chamber pots, a beat-up violin and a radio swiped from an old Packard.
“This material is a very important acquisition for us because it certainly shows the ‘other side’ of Sullivan County,” said Burns.

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