Around the corner from 20 Prospect, on the corner of Ellicott and Richmond Avenues, stands the stately Rowell Mansion. An impressive edifice of yellow brick, with large columns and an elegant portico, it commands the top of the hill looking out over centennial park and the NYS School for the Blind.
The mansion has undergone some significant restoration in the 1990’s, but back in the 1970’s it did not always look so nice. The yard was surrounded with overgrown shrubs, and the bricks had been discolored with age. At night, it was a dark and gloomy place. All children grow up telling stories of the local haunted house. To the kids in our neighborhood, this was the place. We used to tell each other stories about a murder that had occurred there, and about blood stains and screams that could be heard in the entryway. On Halloween night we would dare each other to walk up the front steps and ring the door bell. I never could muster the courage to, but those that did would say that when they stepped onto the porch they could hear a gunshot, and screams.
There really was a murder in the foyer. And the story was far more intriguing than our childhood imaginations could even concoct.
On the night of October 30th, 1883, Edward Newton Rowell shot and killed Johnson Lynch of Utica, after catching him in the act of adultery with his wife Jennie. The plot twists and turns are significantly convoluted, and deserving of a southern gothic novel. This is the stuff that Faulkner, O’Connor, Wolfe, Harper Lee and Capote would draw upon in the 20th century. The suffocating social mores of small town life in the Victorian era. The passion of gas lit evenings, and dark tree lined streets. A scent of powder and perfume, the scratch of corsets and high collars, the electricity of a forbidden touch. Rage and jealousy, a gunshot in the darkness, and screams piercing the quiet of an autumn evening.
When it all was over, Batavia had held the limelight of the national media for a sensational trial in the old courthouse. Shocking revelations of behavior of upstanding citizens had come to light, and the murderer came away from the ordeal as the most sympathetic character of the story. Rowell was acquitted, and later divorced his wife. He went on to raise their two daughters himself, and kept his mansion on the corner. He split from his treacherous business partner, and founded his own rival company. He built a business empire out of the Rowell Box Company, and overcame the scandal to achieve great wealth and status.
It is a story as epic as a Greek tragedy, and as American as “Gone with the Wind”. That it is little known in the town in which it occurred is astounding. I am tempted to try to write a novel of historical fiction around it, if only to give it the place that it deserves in our collective history.
UPDATE – 2013: I did write the novel!