Monday, February 25, 2013

Cat Swamp and silk: big crime in Byram reveals a mystery

If I were to teach kids anything about history, it's that we should never make assumptions. Take historic markers, for example. Admittedly, they're often pretty dry, and usually they're really predictable. But then there are those like the Hunterdon County sign for the birthplace of Liver Eating Johnson, which are the catnip that keep you checking in the hopes of finding something unexpected.

Case in point: the marker for the Cat Swamp Hijacking and Murder. Blink and you'll miss the sign as you travel south on Route 206 in Byram. It's on the shoulder of the highway, next to a narrow road that leads into the woods. Ivan and I had driven past it a bunch of times without stopping, but this time, I kept an eye out for it when I was traveling north, just so I could slow down and pull over to read it on my return trip. I'm glad I did, too, because it raised a new question that has nothing to do with the crime itself.

Before I get ahead of myself, here's the sign:



A couple of things here: first off, the name Cat Swamp is pretty atmospheric and cool, especially when you consider how hydrophobic cats usually are. Second, it's not often you see a sign announcing a crime. I'd say that given the remoteness of the area and the size of the take, this was probably huge news in Sussex County in 1921.

The sign itself is pretty self-explanatory, but a little extra digging revealed that six masked hijackers came upon the silk truck so quickly that the drivers didn't have a chance to pull out the guns they carried. Apparently silk transport was a dangerous business. While the drivers were merely marched into the woods, tied up, robbed of their money and the truck, unfortunate motorcyclist Albert Koster was killed for simply riding by the scene. He might have been mistaken for a police officer since it seems that at the time, the majority of people who rode motorcycles were law enforcement. However, the state police hadn't yet been organized or trained at the time of the incident. Either way, the hijackers took Koster as a threat. After shooting him, the criminals threw him into the swamp face down, to ensure he would die before being found.

The sign also somewhat minimizes the police work done to bring the killer hijackers to justice. Not only were they captured, but Franklin Police Chief Herbert Irons engaged in a dramatic gunfight with one of them before the criminal's capture. And besides the two who were executed for murder, the four other hijackers were sentenced to life imprisonment, later commuted to twenty to thirty years of hard labor.

All in all, the story would make a good movie plot, but I was left wondering about the origin of the hijacked vehicle and its owner, Sussex Print Silk. Why was it so far from Paterson, the much better known Silk City?

It seems that Sussex Print Silk had its roots in Paterson, having been started by English immigrant Thomas Bentley. He and his parents settled in the city on their arrival to the United States, and by the time young Bentley was 25, he'd gotten sufficient training to go into business for himself. His eponymously named company grew over the years and changed names as he took on different partners.

For reasons that aren't clear, Bentley moved the company to the newly built Sterling Silk Mill in Newton in 1895. His manufacturing had previously been housed in a Paterson mill destroyed by fire in 1891, but the loss still doesn't explain why he'd rebuild a sizable distance away from a large city and skilled workforce. The Sussex County seat was already home to manufacturers of shoes, forks and boxes, but unlike Paterson, there was no reliable source of hydropower for cheap energy. Instead, coal was brought in by railroad to power steam engines.

Perhaps Bentley moved his operations to avoid the perpetual labor unrest in Paterson, but he brought several of his skilled employees up to Newton to train workers at the newly built mill. And as it turned out, the 45 miles between Paterson and Newton weren't enough to render Bentley immune from labor action: weavers at the Sterling Mill went on strike for close to a month in early 1900.

Bentley himself moved to a newly-built mansion at 93 Main Street in Newton in 1899 and was actively involved in the community. By 1923, however, he was living in New York to be closer to business interests, and at retirement he moved back to Paterson, living there until his death in 1932.

As for the silk mill, it continued under various owners until about 1950, with periodic work stoppages caused by labor unrest. The building itself was demolished in 1993. The only overt sign of Bentley still in Newton appears to be his mansion, which has been converted to offices after having served as an Elks Lodge.

So... we're left with yet another mystery: what made Newton so attractive to Bentley that he moved his silk business there? Or perhaps the question is what made Paterson so unattractive to him? The answer could be somewhere in another Hidden New Jersey adventure... or perhaps you might know?

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