Who Murdered William Cooper?

Alan Taylor (Boston University)

Published in New York History, Vol. LXXII, No. 3 (July 1991), pp. 261-283.

[Originally presented at the 8ᵗʰ Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 1991. Subsequently reprinted (with the permission of New York History) in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art (No. 8), Papers from the 1991 Conference, State University of New York College — Oneonta and Cooperstown. George A. Test, editor. (pp. 9-24)].

Copyright © 1991, New York State Historical Association, and placed online with its kind permission .

[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]

Literary critics and historians have been strongly influenced by the belief that James Fenimore Cooper’s father died a violent death. Assuming the role of historical detective, Alan Taylor of the Department of History at Boston University presents a convincing analysis of that belief and its origins.

In this century every historical account of Judge William Cooper (1754-1809) of Cooperstown and every biography of his son, the novelist James Fenimore Cooper, reports that the Judge was killed in Albany in December 1809 by a blow to the head delivered by a political opponent after a heated public meeting. But none of those accounts identify the murderer. This murder mystery has a special piquancy, in part because the Judge was a powerful and wealthy man — one of the leading land speculators and frontier developers in the country, the founder of Cooperstown, and a prominent Federalist politician who served two terms in Congress and had been, until 1799, the chief judge of the Otsego County courts. The Judge’s death is also of special importance because literary scholars make much of James Fenimore Cooper’s lifelong efforts to cope with the memory of his formidable father. Charles Hansford Adams observes, “To the boy James Cooper, the judge must have seemed like a god. But growing up with a god typically prompts a deep and lasting psychic conflict; the father is established as the central figure in the child’s consciousness, so that whether worshipping or abusing it, the son’s identity is largely defined by the father’s.” Similarly, Stephen Railton considers William Cooper “the most important influence in the novelist’s mental life.” 1

[262] Indeed, some leading Cooper scholars insist that William Cooper’s violent death had a powerful impact on his son’s social attitudes and literary choices. Warren Motley observes, “His father had been murdered by a blow from behind delivered without warning, and Cooper never lost his sense of how swiftly the vestments of civilization could fall to reveal the naked natural brute. ... Like one of the islands in The Crater, society always seemed to him a habitable volcano — dormant, but not extinct.” Motley adds, “The veneer of civilization cracked for a moment, and the patriarch of Cooperstown was struck down.” Stephen Railton repeatedly returns to the Judge’s death as a critical event in shaping James Fenimore Cooper’s identity and imagination. He believes that a scene in the twelfth chapter of The Last of the Mohicans offers the most intimate insight into the novelist’s fundamental psychic conflict: “his ambivalent unconscious attitude toward the figure of his father.” Uncas stands over the wrestling, rolling bodies of his father, Chingachgook, and his enemy Magua, but the son cannot strike for fear of hitting his father. Railton equates Chingachgook with William Cooper who “was in fact murdered by an enemy” and Uncas with James Fenimore Cooper who “was variously compelled to perceive his father as friend and as foe.” Similarly, Railton analyzes the tavern scene in chapter 14 of The Pioneers where drink arouses the rage that the dispossessed Chingachgook nurtures toward Judge Marmaduke Temple for seizing control of the land around Lake Otsego. Chingachgook reaches for his tomahawk but [263] is too inebriated to strike the Judge. Railton remarks, “Judge Cooper was not so fortunate: as he was leaving an Albany tavern in December 1809, he was fatally wounded by a blow on the head.” Referring to the novelist, Railton adds, “Guilt would have been part of his psychic reaction to his father’s murder; guilt prompted his haste to marry and to emulate his father’s role.” 2

Given the apparent power of historical experience, in general, and of his father’s life and death, in particular, in shaping James Fenimore Cooper’s mind and writings, it would be of some moment to identify the Judge’s killer. What if, for instance, he was a lawless squatter like Aaron Thousandacres of The Chainbearer, or a crafty Yankee demagogue rather like Steadfast Dodge of Home As Found, or perhaps an embittered Tuscarora Indian very much like Saucy Nick in Wyandotté? Think of the speculative possibilities — all of the new essays, dissertations, and monographs reinterpreting Cooper’s attitudes as shaped by his father’s death. But perish the thought if it turns out that the Judge was killed by a garrulous old hunter alarmed at the “wasty ways” of the Otsego settlers.

In fact William Cooper’s killer was none of the above, because, I will argue, no one murdered the Judge. There is no contemporary evidence to suggest a murder, and the existing evidence gives every reason to believe that the Judge died of natural causes. Given William Cooper’s roughhewn, boisterous, and partisan personality, the legend that he fell victim to political violence is all too tempting. But this is one story that is too good to be true. If, as some literary critics insist, James Fenimore Cooper rushed into marriage or nurtured a dread of social collapse into anarchy, it was not because his father was murdered.

What is the source of the confidence by this generation’s Cooper scholars that the Judge was murdered by a political opponent as [264] he left an Albany tavern one evening in December 1809? The scriptures for Cooper scholars are The Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper, edited for publication by the late James Franklin Beard. In an editorial note Beard records the family tradition that William Cooper “contracted pneumonia after an opponent struck him on the head from behind as he left a heated political discussion.” The legend of the murdered Judge also appears in the biographies of James Fenimore Cooper written earlier in this century by Mary E. Phillips (1913), Robert E. Spiller (1931), Henry W. Boynton (1931), and James Grossman (1949). 3

The most historicist-minded literary scholars can also seek and find confirmation for the tradition in the works of respected historians. In The Revolution of American Conservatism David Hackett Fischer describes the Judge’s vigorous partisanship for the Federalist party and concludes that he “met an appropriate end in a tavern brawl, struck down by a democrat.” Fischer based his account primarily on two essays published in 1949 and 1954 in New York History by Lyman H. Butterfield, a scrupulous scholar best known for his work as editor of the papers of John Adams and Benjamin Rush. Butterfield insisted, “Judge Cooper was to meet his death in consequence of a later scuffle, which took place outside Lewis’ Tavern in Albany after a political meeting late in 1809.” Given the prestige of Beard, Spiller, Boynton, Grossman, Fischer, and Butterfield, it is small wonder that literary critics have felt that it is safe to read James Fenimore Cooper’s texts for signs of the influence of his father’s violent death. 4

The biographers of William and James Cooper all rest their ease for the Judge’s murder on the same source: a family tradition first recorded in print by James Fenimore Cooper (1858-1938), a grandson of the novelist and a great-grandson of the Judge. This James Fenimore Cooper was a successful lawyer and a zealous caretaker of the family reputation and history. He first published the family tradition in 1897 in a new introduction to the republication of William Cooper’s A Guide in the Wilderness, originally published in 1810. He repeated that tradition in two eclectic collections of family papers and antiquarian observations: The Legends and Traditions of a Northern County (1921) and Reminiscences of Mid-Victorian Cooperstown (1936). In the latter, he prints the fullest statement of the legend:

William Cooper ... died with his political boots on and in the Federalist cause. He was killed by a blow on the head struck from behind as he was leaving a political meeting in Albany where he had made a speech in a heated debate. In those days, murder and death in the cause of one’s political party, were looked upon as among the fortunes of political warfare. No punishment followed such assaults and no legal investigations were made. His assailant was known to all. 5

James Fenimore Cooper, the younger, had shared this tradition with Mary E. Phillips, Henry W. Boynton, and Robert E. Spiller to record in their biographies of the novelist. In a letter to Phillips, Cooper insisted, “I feel as you have received more assistance from the family than anyone who has ever undertaken the life of Cooper, that the book in these details should be made as nearly satisfactory to me as possible.” One of those details concerned William Cooper’s death. On the galley proofs, the younger J. F. Cooper wrote that the Judge “was killed while leaving a political meeting in the City of Albany as the result of a blow on the head struck [266] by a political opponent from behind. He died the next day.” Phillips dutifully accommodated him on this point. 6

James Fenimore Cooper, the younger, provided no source, no documentation for his account of the Judge’s death. He relied on a nebulous family tradition, and an entire century separated him from his great-grandfather’s death — sufficient time for a recollected event to evolve into myth. It is striking that Susan Fenimore Cooper does not assert a violent death for her grandfather in her family reminiscences. Nor does her father, the novelist, ever state that the Judge was murdered. In the Chronicles of Cooperstown the novelist reports his father’s death without any reference to violence: “On the 22d December, 1809, died William Cooper, Esquire, the original proprietor, after whom the village was named. Judge Cooper was in his fifty-sixth year at the time of his death, and his connection with the place had continued near twenty-four years. For nineteen he had been a regular inhabitant of the village. He died in Albany, and was interred in the burying ground of his family, in Christ Church Yard.” Nor did the novelist mention violence when he referred to his father’s death in a fond letter of remembrance that he wrote in 1831 about his family’s ties to and experiences in Albany:

To me Albany has always been a place of agreeable and friendly recollection. It was the only outlet we had, in my childhood, to the world, and many a merry week have I passed there with boys of my own age, while my father has waited for the opening of the river to go south. ... My father died in Albany, at the inn of Stewart Lewis, in 1808 (sic), and my eldest brother Richard Fenimore Cooper, in his own house. So you see, dear Sir, that Albany is a name I love for a multitude of associations that are connected with my earliest years.

Would James Fenimore Cooper have nurtured such a fond and [267] unalloyed memory of Albany if it had been the scene of his father’s sudden murder? 7

I began to doubt the legend as I read the voluminous papers of William Cooper and his executors, his sons Isaac and Richard Fenimore Cooper. During the early months of 1810 the brothers received and saved several letters of condolence from family friends. The correspondents expressed a moving sense of loss. Anna Hay remarked, “Universal Philanthropy and Benevolence of Heart, in continual exercize for the welfare of his Fellow Creatures, were the leading Characteristics of your now Sainted Father. ... And had I been deprived of a brother, I cou’d not have felt it more [keenly].” But none of these letters express the shock and anger that they would have conveyed to the sons of a murdered man. There is also a surviving copy of a letter written by Isaac and Richard to inform a family friend of their father’s death. It says simply, “We presume that ere this you have been informed that our much lamented Father, William Cooper, was consigned to the silent tomb on last Christmas day.” Finally, the family papers include the handwritten funeral sermon pronounced by the Reverend Daniel Nash over William Cooper’s grave on that Christmas day. Like the letters of condolence, Nash’s sermon expresses sorrow at the loss, but none of the outrage at human barbarity that a minister would have inevitably expressed over a murdered corpse. It seems to be a funeral sermon for a man who had died of natural causes. 8

[268] Moreover, the traditional story of Cooper’s death is implausible for three reasons. First, the timing is all wrong for a political meeting in New York State in 1809. During the first decade of the nineteenth century, state and congressional elections in New York were held in the last week of April. Partisan publications and political meetings proliferated during the preceding month. In an especially important race, particularly the triennial gubernatorial elections, nominating meetings and partisan rhetoric could appear as early as January. But a public political meeting in December was unheard of. Neither of the two extant newspapers published in Albany in 1809 announce or report a political meeting for either political party in December. The first public meeting in Albany during that election season was held on the night of January 5, 1810 two weeks after William Cooper died. Second, no one was indicted or prosecuted for Cooper’s murder, which is especially odd given that, according to the tradition, the assault occurred in a public place, after a crowded meeting, and the “assailant was known to all.” Third, the Albany and Cooperstown newspapers from December 1809 do not report any violent assault on William Cooper. His obituaries report a matter-of-fact death, apparently (but not specifically) of natural causes. 9

James Fenimore Cooper, the younger, insisted that there was neither any prosecution nor any published comment because [269] political violence was so routine in the early republic. It is true that partisan politics were contentious and that violent public confrontations were frequent during election seasons. But deaths were uncommon and it is not true that political violence escaped either commentary or prosecution. On the contrary, the relentless search for partisan advantage led the two rival parties and their newspapers to capitalize on any episode that would discredit the opposition as violent brutes. 10

One episode is especially relevant because it was so close in the, place, and circumstances to Cooper’s alleged murder, On April 17, 1807 a Republican meeting in Albany passed a resolution questioning the honesty of General Solomon Van Rensselaer, a leading Federalist in that city. On April 21, armed with a heavy cane, Van Rensselaer stalked the streets, looking for Elisha Jenkins, the author of the offending resolution. Finding his man, Van Rensselaer assaulted Jenkins in State Street. The respective friends of Jenkins and Van Rensselaer joined the fray, turning State Street into, in the words of one spectator, “a tumultuous sea of heads, over which clattered a forest of canes; the vast body, now surging this way, now that, as the tide of combat ebbed or flowed.” In the middle of the pack, and at the peak of the battle, a Republican partisan, Dr. Francis Bloodgood, “with the thick end of a heavy cane, which he held with both his hands, struck Van Rensselaer from behind a blow that felled him.” His friends hauled the groggy and bloodied Van Rensselaer to safety, while the governor, the mayor, and other magistrates belatedly restored order to the streets. It is significant that the Federalists seized upon the episode for political advantage, printing and circulating an election-eve handbill that described the affray in vivid detail. At least one newspaper reprinted the handbill. Meanwhile private correspondents spread the story through the state in letters to their political allies. It is also revealing that the recuperating Solomon Van Rensselaer prosecuted Bloodgood [270] and two other assailants while Elisha Jenkins sued Van Rensselaer. The General collected $4500 in damages, but had to pay out $2500 to his victim. The newspapers published accounts of the prosecution and the verdicts. Given the prominent play that the Federalists and the courts gave to the assault on Solomon Van Rensselaer — who had initiated the battle and who survived his wounds — it is beyond belief that an unprovoked and fatal assault on another Federalist leader in the same city thirty-two months later would have passed unnoticed by the courts and the press! 11

Because none of the contemporary documents specify what William Cooper did die of, the evidence cited above does not prove that William Cooper was not murdered. But, given that death by murder was exceptional and shocking in upstate New York during the early nineteenth century, the burden of proof rests with anyone who asserts the unlikely — that William Cooper was murdered in 1809, although no one is known to have commented upon that event prior to 1897. 12

Still we are left with a family tradition. What can account for the development of such an elaborate and improbable tradition in the Cooper family? Indeed, there is an important germ of documented fact within the murder story. William Cooper did receive a severe wound to the head in a public street from a political opponent. But that blow did not occur in Albany; it did not occur in December 1809; and it did not kill him. It did lead to a prosecution, a conviction, and notoriety in at least one Federalist newspaper. According to an indictment filed on June 2, 1807 by the grand jury of the Otsego County Court of Oyer and Terminer, on May 21 a “gentleman” named Farrand Stranahan committed assault and battery on William Cooper in the public highway of Cooperstown [271] village. “With a large Cane or Club,” Stranahan “did beat, bruise, wound & ill treat, and strike upon the head & body [William Cooper], so that his life was greatly despaired of.” Stranahan pled guilty and was fined $30. A writer for the Hudson Balance, a Federalist newspaper, seized upon the episode for partisan advantage.

The judge was walking with a small cane in his hand, could make no resistance, and indeed had no opportunity of making any; for he was knocked down unawares. For this outrage of a young man upon an old one, of one civil officer upon another, a fine has been imposed of only thirty dollars. ... How much are the violence and cruelty of democracy to be lamented!

That this assault on Cooper was prosecuted and attracted partisan comment is further evidence of the utter implausibility that his (alleged) political murder in 1809 could have escaped public notice. 13

The indictment’s phrase that Cooper’s “life was greatly despaired of” is common legalese in indictments for assault and battery, but there is reason to believe that in this case the phrase was meaningful. For it is intriguing that in May 1807 the Otsego County clerk of probate began to enter a last will and testament for William Cooper. The clerk did not complete the entry and crossed out what he had begun. The entry suggests that, for a time in May 1807, the family thought that the patriarch’s life hung in the balance. 14

Stranahan was a leading lawyer in Otsego County. Born in Canaan, Columbia County, New York in 1778, he was the son of a prosperous farmer who had emigrated from Connecticut. As a young man of twenty-three years, Stranahan came to Cooperstown in June 1801 and established his office in the front chamber of a house belonging to Elihu Phinney, then a political ally of Judge [272] Cooper and the publisher of the county’s lone newspaper. The location — one door east of the courthouse on the village’s main street — was ideal for an aspiring young lawyer. Stranahan developed an important and potentially lucrative alliance with the wealthiest family in town, the Coopers. On December 30, 1803 he formed a partnership with the Judge’s eldest son, Richard Fenimore Cooper. The terms stipulated that Cooper would entrust all of his legal business as a leading landlord in the county — all of his suits to collect from debtors and to foreclose mortgages — to their partnership. Stranahan was to perform all of the legal services and bear all of the office expenses. He was to keep four-fifths of all the legal fees collected, while Cooper received one-fifth. In effect, this was a commission to Richard Fenimore Cooper for business he entrusted to Stranahan, rather than a regular partnership. 15

By early 1807 the understanding between Stranahan and the Coopers had broken down. On January 10, Richard Fenimore Cooper served notice, and Stranahan acceded, that their partnership was dissolved. The solvent seems to have been political differences. Richard, his brothers, and his father were Federalists and they were used to dominating the politics of Cooperstown village. In anticipation of the gubernatorial election of April 1807, the Coopers and many other Federalists throughout the state had entered a tacit alliance with the incumbent governor, Morgan Lewis. Elected in 1804 as a Republican, Lewis had alienated many of his erstwhile supporters, most notably the faction led by De Witt Clinton and his uncle, former governor George Clinton. Lewis needed the covert assistance of Federalist leaders like Judge Cooper, while those Federalists hoped to become the critical component of a new majority in a political realignment. Meanwhile, the editor of the Otsego Herald, Elihu Phinney, had grown uncomfortable with his dwindling circulation, profits, and influence in an increasingly Republican county. And he was determined to assert his independence from his long-time mentor, Judge William Cooper. Phinney for[273]sook his old political friends and committed himself and his paper to the Clintonian challenger, Daniel D. Tompkins. Stranahan followed his landlord into the Clintonian camp. 16

Phinney’s sudden conversion to Republicanism seems to have been part of a political deal cut with the Clintonian majority in the state legislature (including the Otsego county delegation). As the election drew near, the legislature considered two rival petitions to incorporate the village at the foot of Lake Otsego, known as “Cooperstown” in honor of its founder, Judge William Cooper. Ostensibly the rival petitions disputed the name for the incorporated village: the petition promoted by the Judge and his Federalist friends sought to retain the name “Cooperstown,” while the rival petition, championed by Elihu Phinney, favored “Otsego Village.” But something more tangible and valuable was also at stake: water. Compact and wooden, Cooperstown was vulnerable to fire and in need of a steady supply of water. In 1794 William Cooper and ten associates formed the “Company of the Water Works in Cooperstown,” and laid a system of wooden pipes (hollowed out logs) that bore “pure water” to the village from a spring in the side of a hill to the west. To obtain some of that water, a villager had to buy a membership from the company (which imposed a £3 fine on any member who permitted a non-member to draw water). Phinney’s rival petition sought to undercut that monopoly by authorizing a competing company, “The Aqueduct Association in the Village of Otsego.” The Judge spent much of March in Albany haunting the assembly lobby to press for passage of his bill. But, on April 3, the day after Phinney openly endorsed Tompkins in the Otsego Herald, the state legislature passed a bill incorporating “Otsego Village” and empowering Elihu Phinney and four associates to establish their aqueduct company. One of those associates was Farrand Stranahan. 17

Infuriated at the slight, at the theft of his village, William Cooper [274] plunged into the campaign as a personal mission to punish Phinney and his allies by helping to defeat their candidate for governor. Energetic and enthusiastic in political battle, William Cooper could not resist the temptation to campaign vigorously for Lewis, not only in Otsego, but in other upstate counties as well. He also urged and pressured villagers to cancel their subscriptions to the Otsego Herald, and he set in motion preparations to bring another, soundly Federalist, newspaper to the village. 18

But, by plunging so vigorously and conspicuously into the campaign, Cooper helped to undercut Lewis’s chances of reelection. The governor needed Federalist votes but he also needed to downplay his reliance on them, for fear of alarming the Republicans who remained in his camp. Because the Federalists had become by 1807 an unpopular minority in New York State, they were supposed to keep a low profile during the campaign until election day, while Lewis’s Republican supporters presented the governor as an orthodox Republican beleaguered by Clintonian ingrates, Because Cooper’s name had become a byword in New York politics for unreconstructed Federalism, the Republican newspapers trumpeted the news of Cooper’s activities as proof that Lewis had betrayed the party, The Albany Register reported (erroneously) that the Federalists of Cooperstown had publicly celebrated their alliance with Lewis: “Great rejoicings took place. The celebrated Judge Cooper considered republicanism as on the anvil and under the federal hammer — cannon were fired by the federalists and a pole erected surmounted with a tomahawk, to intimate that the scalps of the democrats would now pay for the misdeeds of the owners.” Two weeks later, the Albany Register had to retract that story, but by late March the paper could safely report as fact that “Judge Cooper, the bell-weather of the Federalists in Otsego” was openly campaigning for the governor — proof positive that Lewis was a traitor to the Republican cause. Phinney picked up the theme and depicted the election as a crusade by Tompkins, “the son of a farmer” to frustrate “a combination of rich families,” including the Coopers, who were determined to subvert the republic.” 19

When the three days of polling began on Tuesday April 28, [276] William Cooper was confident that his efforts for Lewis had been successful. He predicted that the governor would carry Otsego and the state, restoring the Federalists to a measure of power. In fact, Elihu Phinney’s gamble was vindicated in the election returns, published in the Otsego Herald on May 14. In Otsego County, Tompkins garnered 1821 votes to Lewis’s 1170. In the state as a whole, Tompkins prevailed by over 4000 votes. A traveller who investigated the reasons for Tompkins’s victory in Otsego heard voters explain that they had “voted against Mr. Lewis” because the “Federalists were said to vote for him.” Staunch Republicans, the voters insisted that they would have voted for Lewis if the Federalists had rallied to Tompkins. Overt association with William Cooper and his compatriots had destroyed Lewis’s chances. 21

Flushed with victory, Phinney and his associates immediately moved to implement their new village government. The legislature had incorporated “Otsego Village” on April 3, but Phinney did not publish that act in its entirety until May 14 — the issue that contained the election returns. That issue also contained a formal notice by Elijah H, Metcalf, Phinney’s son-in-law and fellow aqueduct associator, summoning the villagers to meet at the courthouse on Tuesday May 19 to elect five trustees to govern the village. Five days was scandalously short notice for an election that had been authorized by the legislature on April 3. But Phinney and Metcalf underestimated the resiliency and the anger of the Federalists, who were still a solid majority in the village, if no longer in the county at large. On the nineteenth the Federalist majority packed the courthouse and elected five trustees handpicked by William Cooper. Four days later, the village Federalists reconvened at Major Joseph Griffin’s Red Lion Tavern. Offended by the “insulting and indecorus exultations of those who procured the law,” the meeting instructed the new trustees to refuse to act until the legis[277]lature amended the incorporation and restored the name “Cooperstown.” Frustrated at the check delivered to his plans to proceed with the aqueduct, Phinney jeered, “Oxen when accustomed to the yoke will haw or jee, as their master dictates.” He disdained the Federalist boycott of his paper as “the scoff and sneers of aristocrats” and he dismissed the meeting at the Red Lion as a feeble attempt “by Judge Cooper, and his few adherents, to retain a name which the easy compliance of the first settlers yielded to his vanity.” 21

In sum, Farrand Stranahan attacked William Cooper in the middle of a week of heated controversy over who would name and control the village (and its water). The May 21, 1807 assault occurred on a Thursday, mid-way between the courthouse meeting on Tuesday and the gathering at the Red Lion on Saturday. Stranahan was a leading Republican and one of the associators, with Elihu Phinney, of the new village and its aqueduct company. William Cooper led the opposition to “Otsego Village” and its aqueduct association. But the surviving documents do not indicate what led Stranahan to strike. In the political culture of the early republic, a public caning was a gentleman’s means of seeking redress for a public insult to his honor. So it was that Solomon Van Rensselaer had sought out and felled Elisha Jenkins in Albany’s State Street, a month earlier. Had William Cooper insulted Stranahan in public, perhaps before the courthouse crowd on May 19? Cooper certainly had cause to be agitated, as nothing could have hurt him more than to see his name obliterated from the village that he had labored to found and develop. And it would certainly have been in character for the voluble and excitable Judge to have blurted out a diatribe against a political foe. In 1793 William Cooper had been convicted of slandering Governor George Clinton during the gubernatorial campaign of 1792 (ironically, Morgan Lewis, then a state supreme court justice, had presided at that trial). In 1799 Cooper publicly insulted James Cochran, a political rival, provoking “a bruising [278] match” in Cooperstown’s main street. Two aspects of Stranahan’s trial for the assault suggest that he had been provoked. First, although he pled guilty, the brief court record indicates that Stranahan summoned eight witnesses including some leading village Federalists, who would have been at the meeting on the nineteenth. The only reason to summon witnesses after a guilty plea was to consider extenuating circumstances before sentencing. Second, the paltry fine of $30 indicates that the justices found some mitigating cause. 22

The village dispute dragged on for five years. On the one hand, the Federalist majority in the village refused to put the act of incorporation into operation until the legislature restored the name “Cooperstown.” On the other hand, the Republican-dominated state legislature refused to back down and alter the original act. Meanwhile, the village suffered severe fires for want of the fire code, fire company, and fire engine authorized by the act of incorporation but stymied by the deadlock.

The farce included apparent divine retribution in a pair of fires that erupted on March 30 and 31, 1809, almost two years after the act of incorporation. One fire erupted in the bookstore and printing shop of Elihu Phinney’s two sons, Henry and Elihu, Jr. The fire spread to the new and adjoining house of William Dowse, a young Federalist lawyer who had achieved notoriety for his vitriolic newspaper attacks on Phinney and other village Republicans. The fire destroyed both buildings. The second fire broke out in the Academy building, then used as a school by William Andrews, who doubled as the editor of The Impartial Observer, a Federalist newspaper established by William Cooper in the fall of 1808 to challenge Phinney’s press. Demonstrating the same even-handed sense of justice as the first fire, the second spread to the adjoining house of Elihu Phinney. The Academy was destroyed, but the villagers’ efforts minimized the damage to Phinney’s home. Led by the magnanimous Judge Cooper, villagers of both parties joined in a [279] subscription to compensate the victims. Andrews’s published account stressed, “The worthy and philanthropic founder of this Village, which bears his name, as has been his uniform practice on all public occasions, gave one more proof of his elevated mind in leading a subscription for the relief of the unfortunate sufferers by a contribution of 300 dollars.” In contrast, Phinney’s account ignored the Judge’s particular generosity and blandly awarded equal credit for the subscription to all the villagers. 23

The stalemate (and the fires) persisted for another three years until the Federalists obtained a majority in the state assembly and, in June 1812, pushed through a bill reincorporating the village as “Cooperstown.” The new act made no provision for Phinney’s Aqueduct Association. The village majority promptly organized a government, established a fire code, recruited a fire company, and accepted a fire engine donated by the heirs of William Cooper. The Judge had not lived to see his name restored to the village, but his son Isaac Cooper emerged as the president of the new village board of trustees. Meanwhile, Elihu Phinney refused to accept defeat and stubbornly preserved “Otsego Village” on the masthead of his newspaper for as long as he lived. The Otsego Herald of July 17, 1813 bore a black border and included news of the funeral proceedings for the paper’s founder, publisher, and editor. And, for the first time in over six years, the paper’s masthead was rearranged by his less-politicized sons to list the place of publication as “Cooperstown.” 24

Over the generations, recollection of Stranahan’s attack in Cooperstown in May 1807 became confused in the Cooper family memory with the Judge’s death, apparently of natural causes, in [280] Albany two-and-a-half years later. Perhaps the Coopers of December 1809 believed that the Judge had never fully recovered and that his death had some connection to the serious injury he had suffered in May 1807. Perhaps in the retelling of that connection over the generations, the time between the assault and the death became foreshortened and the place of attack and death merged. But there are reasons to doubt that the assault left William Cooper permanently impaired. Within a few months of the assault Cooper had resumed the vigorous management of his far-flung business interests, travelling repeatedly to Albany, New York City, and to his lands in the St. Lawrence valley. In the winter of 1808-1809 he made two extended trips to his northern lands; no invalid could have made such a long journey in the dead of winter over horrendous roads to a rough frontier settlement. He returned to St. Lawrence County in June and October of 1809, just a few months before his death in Albany. There are also reasons to doubt that the Judge’s immediate heirs blamed Stranahan for their father’s death: in at least two cases, one in 1811 less than two years after William Cooper’s death, Isaac and Richard Fenimore Cooper employed Stranahan on behalf of the Judge’s estate. It is unlikely that they would have employed Stranahan if they believed him to be their father’s murderer. 25

A corollary to the family tradition insists that James Fenimore Cooper sought out his father’s killer and “damn near killed him.” This twist on the tradition also seems to be a distortion spun around a germ of truth. There is no evidence that the novelist ever attacked Farrand Stranahan, but in 1815 Cooper did assault Stranahan’s law partner, Ambrose Jordan. In 1815 Jordan was a lieutenant in Cooperstown’s militia company of light infantry and his captain was James Cooper (who had not yet added “Fenimore” to his name). In a letter dated June 22, Elihu Phinney’s son and namesake reported the Cooperstown news to his fiancee:

[282] We have had a little Square fighting here in consequence of some pieces published in the Watch Tower & C[ooperstown] Federalist. Jordan wrote a piece in the Watch Tower, which cast some reflection on the memory of Judge Cooper; this offended James Cooper so much, that ... he thought proper to give the Author a genteel Cow-Hiding. This affray happened so near Jordan’s House that Mrs. Jordan was very much alarmed &, it is said, Cried Murder. Jordan gave Cooper a pretty clever thump over the head with a loaded Cane & I believe they parted, So-So.

Eight years and one month after Farrand Stranahan cracked William Cooper’s skull with a loaded cane in Cooperstown’s main street, Stranahan’s law partner did the same to the Judge’s son James. Jordan was a handsome young lawyer who had come to Cooperstown in 1812 and had prospered through a business and political partnership with Stranahan, who had become the Republican political boss in Otsego County. Ambrose Jordan had not killed, or even known William Cooper, but he was closely associated with the man who had severely wounded the Judge in 1807. So, here too, it seems that retelling over the generations simplified and confused events, conflating Jordan with Stranahan, transforming James Cooper from loser to victor, and transmuting his motive from recompense for an insulting newspaper essay into revenge for a murder. 26

Unraveling the myth of the Judge’s political murder reveals how readily unwary historians and biographers can transform a suspect tradition into an asserted fact which trusting literary scholars can employ as the foundation for elaborate interpretations. Literary historicism is only as good as the history that informs it, and in the case of the Cooper family the published sources are incomplete and the biographical accounts are replete with dubious traditions. My attempt to reconcile tradition and records indicates just how provisional any historical account must be, given the historian’s dependence on documents that are inevitably incomplete. Because [283] of the remaining gaps in the historical record, I cannot claim to have discovered the full and authentic story of William Cooper’s death; the preceding is simply what I believe is the best possible reconstruction of the relevant events from the existing documents (and their silences). Further discoveries could set my own account to naught and perhaps support a reconstitution that is closer to (or farther from) the traditional version of the Judge’s death. For example, a copy of the missing issue of The Watch Tower that so offended James Cooper in 1815 may come to light and indicate new connections between Stranahan’s assault, William Cooper’s death, and James Cooper’s revenge. 27


My research for this essay benefited from the financial support I received from a National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship in residence at the American Antiquarian Society and a summer research fellowship at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and the Library Company of Philadelphia. I am also grateful for the generous assistance I have received in the course of my research from Joanne D. Chaisen, Marie Lamoureux, Tom Knowles, John Hench, and Joyce Tracy of the American Antiquarian Society, from Amy Barnum, Eileen O’Brien, and Gib Vincent of the New York State Historical Association, from Marion Brophy and Charlotte Koniuto of the Otsego County Clerk’s Office, from Henry Cooper, Babbie Cooper, and the late Paul Fenimore Cooper II, Paul and Anna D’Ambrosio, and, especially, Shelley Wallace, the archivist at Hartwick College.


1 Charles Hansford Adams, “The Guardian of the Law”: Authority and Identity in James Fenimore Cooper (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1990), 16; Stephen Railton, Fenimore Cooper: A Study of His Life and Imagination (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978), 36. See also Robert Clark, History and Myth in American Fiction, 1823-1852 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1984), 61-64; Andrew Nelson, “James Cooper and George Croghan,” Philological Quarterly 20 (Jan. 1941), 69-73; Brook Thomas, Cross-Examination of Law and Literature: Cooper, Hawthorne, Stowe, and Melville (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 29-30; William P Kelly, Plotting America’s Past: Fenimore Cooper and the Leatherstocking Tales (Evansville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1983), 35-37; George Dekker, James Fenimore Cooper, The Novelist (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1967), 2-8.

2 Warren Motley, The American Abraham: James Fenimore Cooper and the Frontier Patriarch (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 13, 33; Railton, Fenimore Cooper, 35-36, 101-2, 120, see also 49. For other references by literary scholars to William Cooper’s murder see Dekker, James Fenimore Cooper, 7; John Towner Frederick, The Darkened Sky: Nineteenth-Century American Novelists (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press. 1969), 5; Hugh Cooke MacDougall, Cooper’s Otsego County (Cooperstown: New York State Historical Association, 1989), 33; Wayne Franklin, The New World of James Fenimore Cooper (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), 16; Robert Emmet Long, James Fenimore Cooper (New York: Continuum Publishing Co., 1990), 16.

3 James Franklin Beard, ed., The Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper, 6 vols. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1960), 1: 16n1; Beard does not cite his source for the tradition. Mary E. Phillips, James Fenimore Cooper (New York: John Lane Co., 1913), 62; Robert E. Spiller, Fenimore Cooper, Critic of His Times, (New York: Russell & Russell, 1931), 25; Henry Walcott Boynton, James Fenimore Cooper (New York: The Century Co., 1931), 52; James Grossman, James Fenimore Cooper (New York: William Sloane Associates, 1949), 15. Phillips and Boynton are on their own in locating the murder on the Capitol steps. Boynton commits an anachronism in calling the assailant a Whig, a party name from the Age of Jackson, not the Age of Jefferson. He seems to have assumed that the son’s political foes were also the father’s.

4 David Hackett Fischer, The Revolution of American Conservatism: The Federalist party in the Era of Jeffersonian Democracy (New York: Harper & Row, 1965), 14-16, 26 (quotation); Lyman H. Butterfield, “Judge William Cooper (1754-1809): A Sketch of His Character and Accomplishment,” New York History 20 (October 1949), 385-408, quotation 402; Lyman H. Butterfield, “Cooper’s Inheritance: The Otsego Country and its Founders,” New York History 25 (October 1954), 374-411.

5 William Cooper, A Guide in the Wilderness; or the History of the First settlements in the Western Counties of New York with Useful instructions to Future Settlers , introduced by James Fenimore Cooper (b. 1858)(Rochester, N.Y.: George P. Humphery, 1897), first published in Dublin, 1810. v; J. F. Cooper (b. 1858), The Legends and Traditions of a Northern County (Cooperstown, N.Y, 1921); J. F. Cooper (b. 1858), Reminiscences of Mid-Victorian Cooperstown and a Sketch of William Cooper (Cooperstown, N.Y: Otsego County Historical Society, 1936), 56.

6 J. F. Cooper (b. 1858) to Mary E. Phillips, February 12, 1912, and Mary Phillips’ galley proofs as amended by J. F. Cooper, Mary E. Phillips Papers, Rare Book and Manuscript Room, Boston Public Library. For Cooper’s assistance to the other biographers, see Beard, ed., Letters and Journals, 1: xxxviii-xxxix. Because Thomas R. Lounsbury did not receive any assistance from the Cooper family, his biography of the novelist, first published in 1882, did not subscribe to the legend but simply observed, “His father had died in 1809, and his mother in 1817.” Thomas R. Lounsbury, James Fenimore Cooper (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin & Co., 1897), 15.

7 Susan Fenimore Cooper, ed., Pages and Pictures, From the Writings of James Fenimore Cooper (New York: W.A. Townsend & Co., 1861); Susan Fenimore Cooper, “Small Family Memories,” in Correspondence of James Fenimore Cooper, James Fenimore Cooper (b. 1858), ed., 2 vols. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1922), 1:7-72; James Fenimore Cooper, The Chronicles of Cooperstown (Cooperstown, 1838), 63; James Fenimore Cooper to William Buell Sprague, Nov. 15, 1831, in Beard, ed., Letters and Journals, 2:155.

8 Isaac and Richard Fenimore Cooper to Lady Anna Hay, February 22, 1810, Isaac Cooper’s letterbook, William Cooper Papers, microfilm roll 2, Hartwick College (HC, hereafter); Anna Hay to Isaac and Richard Fenimore Cooper, March 17, 1810, Wm. Cooper Papers, Correspondence Box for 1810-1816, HC; Reverend Daniel Nash’s funeral sermon for William Cooper, Dec. 25, 1809, Wm. Cooper Papers, Business Papers Box 1, HC. An inaccurate transcription of Hay’s letter appears in J. E Cooper, Legends and Traditions, 184. The other letters of condolence are Maria Banyar to R.F.C., Jan. 17, 1810, Richard R. Smith to R.F.C., Jan. 22, 1810, J.H. Imlay to R.F.C., Feb. 12, 1810, and Miers Fisher to I.C., June 13, 1810, all Wm. Cooper Papers, Correspondence Box 9 (1810-1816), HC. A letter by another Cooper son, William Cooper, Jr., informing an old friend of the Judge’s death, also makes no mention of any violence; William Cooper, Jr., to Miers Fisher, Jan. 27, 1809 [sic], Fisher Family Papers, Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

9 The best political history for the period remains Jabez D. Hammond, The History of Political Parties in the Stare of New York, 2 vols. (Albany: C. Van Benthuysen, 1842). See also Dixon Ryan Fox, The Decline of Aristocracy in the Politics of New York (New York: Columbia University Press, 1919); and Alvin Kass, Politics in New York State, ]800-1830 (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1965). There were three newspapers published in Albany in late 1809 and early 1810: The Albany Balance (Federalist), The Albany Gazette (Federalist), and The Albany Register (Republican). No issues survive from the Albany Gazette for the months Nov. 1809-Feb. 1810; a check of the other two Albany papers and the two Cooperstown papers for those months revealed neither a reference to a political meeting in Albany in December nor any mention of an attack on William Cooper. For the January 5 meeting see [Albany] The Balance, Jan. 5, 1810. For the Albany newspapers see Clarence Brigham, History and Bibliography of American Newspapers, 1690-1820, 2 vols. (Worcester, Mass., 1947), 1:527-544. For obituaries see [Albany] The Balance, Dec. 26, 1809; [Cooperstown] Otsego Herald, Dec. 30, 1809; Cooperstown Federalist, Dec. 30, 1809; [Hudson, N.Y] Northern Whig, Jan. 18, 1810. The Otsego Herald is typical: “DIED, In Albany, on the 22d instant, WILLIAM COOPER, Esq. AEt. 55, and his remains, being removed to this place, were interred on Monday last, attended by a large concourse of citizens.” Butterfield observed of Cooper’s death, “The details are unrecorded, the Albany and Cooperstown newspapers providing only conventional notices of the death of an eminent citizen.” Still, he clung to the story. See Butterfield, “Judge William Cooper,” 402.

10 J.F Cooper, Reminiscences of Mid-Victorian Cooperstown, 56. See also Boynton, James Fenimore Cooper, 52; and Butterfield, “Judge William Cooper,” 402. A noteworthy example of partisan attempts to capitalize on political violence is the furor that Federalist orators and newspapers whipped up in the wake of the fatal duel of July 1804 when the Republican Aaron Burr shot the Federalist Alexander Hamilton. See Alexander Hamilton, The Papers of Alexander Hamilton, Harold Syrett, ed., 27 vols. (New York, 1979), 26:255-341.

11 Gorham A. Worth, Random Recollections of Albany From 1800 to 1808 (Albany, 1866), 78 (first quotation); “Affray in Albany,” Hampshire Federalist, May 14, 1807 (second quotation); William Pitt Beers to Major Augustine Prevost, April 22, 1807, Prevost Papers, Rare Book and Manuscript Room, Boston Public Library. For the prosecution see the reprint from the [Albany] Republican Crisis in the Otsego Herald, Sept. 10, 1808.

12 In reviewing sixteen years spent riding circuit in upstate New York as a state supreme court justice, James Kent calculated that he had tried 1755 cases but only eight were murder convictions. See John T. Horton, James Kent, a Study in Conservatism, 1763-1847 (New York, 1939), 135n43.

13 People v. Farrand Stranahan, Otsego County Court of Oyer & Terminer, Indictment filed June 2, 1807, and Record Book I, 2 June 1807 entry, both Otsego County Clerk’s Office, Cooperstown; “Extract from a Learned Traveller,” Hudson Balance, June 23, 1807. The newspaper writer mistakenly identified the assailant as the Otsego County Clerk (Dr. John Russell). “Corrector,” Hudson Balance, July 21, 1807 reaffirmed the nature of the assault but correctly identified the assailant as Stranahan.

14 Otsego County Wills, Book B, 116, Surrogate’s Office, Otsego County Office Building, Cooperstown.

15 [Anonymous], Genealogies of the Stranahan, Josselyn, Fitch and Dow Families in North America (Brooklyn: H.M. Gardner, Jr., 1868), 13, 19; Farrand Stranahan’s advertisement, Otsego Herald, Sept. lO, 1801. The notice was dated June 24 but it was not published in any previous edition of the Otsego Herald. Articles of Agreement between Farrand Stranahan and Richard Fenimore Cooper, Dec. 30, 1803, Wm. Cooper Papers, Business Papers Box 9 (1802-1804), HC.

16 The January 10, 1807 notice of dissolution was entered on the bottom of Articles of Agreement between Stranahan and Cooper, Dec. 30, 1803, Wm. Cooper Papers, Business Papers Box 9 (1802-1804), HC. Hammond, The History of Political Parties, 1:240-246; Ray W. Irwin, Daniel P. Tompkins: Governor of New York and Vice President of the United States (New York: New York Historical Society, 1968), 53-55; Otsego Herald, April 2, 1807. Lewis’s efforts to cultivate William Cooper (and Cooper’s efforts to cultivate the governor) dated at least to mid-1806. See Morgan Lewis to William Cooper, July 26, 1806, Wm. Cooper Papers, Correspondence Box 6 (1804-1806), HC.

17 “A Number of the Freeholders of the Village of Otsego,” Otsego Herald, June 11, 1807; “A Learned Traveller,” Hudson Balance, July 28, 1807; “An Act to Vest Certain Powers in the Freeholders and Inhabitants of the Village of Otsego, in the County of Otsego,” Chapter CXXI (April 3, 1807), New York (State), Laws of the Stare of New-York ... [30ᵗʰ-32ⁿᵈ Sessions; 1807-1809] (Albany: Websters & Skinner, 1809, Shaw-Shoemaker #18237), 138-140. For the waterworks company see Otsego County Conveyances, Book A, 257 (March 7, 1794), Otsego County Clerk’s Office, Cooperstown. In a letter to William Cooper [June 10, 1800, Wm. Cooper papers, Correspondence Box 4 (1799-1801)], HC, Robert Troup remarked that he had often heard the Judge boast of the “pure water ... brought to your door in logs.” In “One of You,” Otsego Herald, March 13, 1806, Phinney had urged the incorporation of the village and identified the high cost of water as a prime consideration.

18 Subscription list for a Federalist newspaper, March 10, 1807, Wm. Cooper papers, Business Box 10 (1805-1808), HC; Otsego Herald, May 28, 1807.

19 William P. Beers to Richard Fenimore Cooper, April 17, 1807, Wm. Cooper Papers, Correspondence Box 7 (1807-1809), HC; “Communication: The Federalists Exulting,” Albany Register, Feb. 19, 1807; Albany Register, March 2, 1807: “We are informed by Judge Cooper that the report published in the Register of the 19ᵗʰ ult. concerning the rejoicings said to have taken place at Cooperstown ... has no foundation in truth,” Albany Register, March 26, 1807; “A Dialogue,” and “Election,” Otsego Herald, April 16, 23, 1807.

20 T.L. Ogden to William Cooper, April 24, 1807, and Cooper to Mr. Leroy, May 9, 1807, Wm. Cooper Papers, Correspondence Box 7 (1807-1809), HC; Otsego Herald, May 14, 21, 1807; “A Learned Traveller,” Hudson Balance, June 23, 1807.

21 “Otsego Charter Election,” Otsego Herald, May 14, 1807; James Fenimore Cooper, Chronicles of Cooperstown, 32; “Otsego Village,” Otsego Herald, May 28 18M; Cooperstown Meeting, May 23, 1807, [Albany] Republican Crisis, June 2, 1807; “A Number of the Freeholders of the Village of Otsego,” Otsego Herald, June 11, 1807. According to the election returns, the town of Otsego (including the village) cast 201 votes for Lewis to 135 for Tompkins, one of only three towns among Otsego’s sixteen towns to have a majority for Lewis. See Otsego Herald, May 14, 1807.

22 George Clinton v. William Cooper, November 15, 1793. Supreme Court of Judicature, Nisi Prius Court Record Book, 1784-1796, p. 351, Hall of Records, New York City; Ralph Birdsall, The Story of Cooperstown, (Cooperstown: Auger’s Book Store, 1948), 99-100; People v. Stranahan, Otsego County Court of Oyer & Terminer, Record Book I, 2 June 1807 entry, Otsego County Clerk’s Office, Cooperstown.

23 Impartial Observer, April 1, 1809 (quotation); “Fires,” Otsego Herald, April 1, 1809; “A Villager,” Impartial Observer, May 13, 1809; “A Looker On,” Otsego Herald, May 13, 1809. One village historian recorded the tradition that the Phinneys rejected the subscription money and instead rebuilt with $1000 borrowed from Dr. John Russell, a political ally. See Shaw T. Livermore, A Condensed History of Cooperstown (Albany: J. Munsell, 1862), 161.

24 “An Act to Vest Certain Powers in the Freeholders and Inhabitants of the Village of Cooperstown, in the County of Otsego,” Chapter CL (June 12, 1812), in New York (State), Laws of the State of New York, Passed at the Thirty-Fifth Session of the Legislature. ... (Albany: S. Southwick, 1812, Shaw-Shoemaker WL6279), 266-271; Otsego Herald, July 17, 1813; Cooper, Chronicles of Cooperstown, 32.

25 For William Cooper’s vigorous travelling in his last years see Thomas B. Benedict to Cooper, Mar. 16, 1808, and Anna Hay to Cooper, Dec. 18, 1809, Wm. Cooper Papers, Correspondence Box 7 (1807-1809), HC; Cooper to Frederick De Peyster, March 27, 1809, Wm. Cooper Papers, New York State Historical Association; Cooper to De Peyster May 29, 1809, De Peyster Papers, II, 66, New-York Historical Society; Stranahan was employed as the plaintiffs’ lawyer in the following two cases: Executors of William Cooper v. Joseph Griffin, Oct. 31, 1811 and Executors of William Cooper v Uriah Luce, June 11, 1813, Otsego County Court of Common Pleas, Docket Book of Judgments, 1809-1817, Otsego County Clerk’s Office, Cooperstown.

26 For the corollary tradition see Boynton, James Fenimore Cooper, 52 (quotation); Beard, ed., Letters and Journals, 1:16nl. Elihu Phinney, Jr., to Nancy Whiting Tiffany, June 22, 1815, Phinney Family Papers, New York State Historical Association; Richard H. Levet, Ambrose L. (Aqua Fortis) Jordan, Lawyer (New York: Vantage Press, 1973), 13-49. Recently established as Cooperstown’s third newspaper, the Watch Tower was even more partisanly Republican than the old Otsego Herald, which had lost a lot of its bite after Elihu Phinney’s death in 1813. Unfortunately, no issues of the Watch Tower survive from June 1815 so it is impossible to know what Jordan wrote about Judge Cooper.

27 The situation should improve with the new availability of the papers of James Fenimore Cooper and William Cooper as a result of the generous and thoughtful bequest of the late Paul Fenimore Cooper II. The William Cooper Papers are now housed in the College Archives at Hartwick College in Oneonta, New York. The James Fenimore Cooper Papers can be consulted at the American Antiquarian Society. On the basis of those papers, I am completing the writing of “William Cooper’s Town: Power and Persuasion on the Early American Frontier” which will be published by Alfred A. Knopf.