East Greenbush "Rent War"
July 1869

Jill Knapp contributed this article about an important event in Rensselaer County history.

The violence that occurred on the farm of 53-year-old William WITBECK in July of 1869 sent shockwaves through the capital region. "RIOT IN GREENBUSH, The Anti-Rent War Renewed, A Sheriff's Posse Resisted, Several Persons Seriously Wounded", proclaimed The Troy Daily Times on July 27, 1869.

Readers of The Albany Morning Express awoke to the headline "Serious Anti-Rent Troubles in Rensselaer County - A Sheriff's Posse Resisted - A Battle Between the Contending Forces - Guns, Pistols, Clubs, Pitchforks, &c, &c, Used - A Deputy Sheriff of Rensselaer County and several Albanians Shot - The Anti-Renters in Possession of the Battlefield".

Newspapers throughout Albany and Rensselaer counties, and even The New York Times, covered the disturbance, often with conflicting and exaggerated reports. After several years of quiet, this renewal of violence was shocking. By this time, most people considered the issue of anti-rent to have been long ago settled.

Anti-rent was a remnant of feudalism. During the 1600s, the Dutch and English governments gave large land grants in America to wealthy merchants, in exchange for their obligation to recruit and pay to transport settlers who would make the land profitable and therefore bring in tax revenues to the treasuries of the European colonial powers. The Dutch land-grant recipients were known as Patroons. One such Patroon was Amsterdam pearl merchant Kiliaen van Rensselaer (c1585-1643), who never himself visited his huge land grant, known as Rensselaerwyck, on both sides of the Hudson River in the New Netherlands colony.

In perpetuity, farmers on the land of the Patroon were required to pay an annual rent of wheat, fat fowls, and days of service for the privilege of using the land. Other restrictions were also attached. The settlers leased their land from the Patroon; they could sell their leases, but the freehold always remained with the Van Rensselaer Patroon of the day.

Stephen Van Rensselaer (1764-1839), a lineal descendant of Kiliaen van Rensselaer, inherited Rensselaerwyck and became the eighth Patroon when he was only five years old. He exercised little vigor in collecting rent during much of his lifetime. But after his death in 1839, Rensselaerwyck was split between his two eldest sons, Stephen Van Rensselaer (1789-1868) and William Paterson Van Rensselaer (1805-1872). It was William P. Van Rensselaer who inherited the part of Rensselaerwyck that lay in Rensselaer County, NY. These sons ramped up the pressure and attempted to collect back rents to pay the debts of the estate of their father.

Farmers, suddenly forced to pay arrears, resisted and attempted to resolve the issue in the legislature, in the courts, and, eventually, with armed resistance. Finally, as The Troy Daily Whig wrote on August 14, 1869:

"In 1852, a case was decided in the Court of Appeals ... which declared the conveyances to be not leases but instead deeds in fee simple.... Here, the controversy ought to have ended.... When it was decided that the Van Rensselaers had parted with their land and had no reversion, they had no further legal claim to rent, nor any claim upon the farmers.... But then, here came in third parties who were willing to buy the "damaged goods" [i. e., the then seemingly worthless freeholdings] from the landless landlords [Stephen Van Rensselaer and William P. Van Rensselaer] and force their collection...."
Colonel Walter S. Church was one of these third parties.

William Witbeck was expecting Deputy Sheriff Willard Griggs (c1811-1869) on the afternoon of July 26, 1869. Griggs had already been there earlier in the day. He had been sent by Col Church, and he was expected to return to take possession of the property for an old rent payment of approximately $144 on a farm valued at $15,000*. William Witbeck was prepared to defend his land.

As the Deputy Sheriff and his posse approached the farm, William Witbeck, his two sons, and a few others met them at the gate. According to witnesses, Deputy Sheriff Griggs stated that he was there to take possession. The Troy Daily Times of August 4, 1869 reported that William Witbeck replied that he "was willing to pay the rent, but that he would not give up possession of the farm, and if they took it, they would do so over his dead body...."

A shot then rang out, and a fight began. Deputy Sheriff Griggs was shot and beaten. William Witbeck went down with a wound to the scalp. The posse fled in confusion. In all, five people were injured.

Warrants were issued for the arrest of the farmers. "The officers who visited Greenbush made no arrests, but they notified the parties named in the warrants to appear to-morrow before the magistrate who issued them, for examination on the charges contained therein." (The Albany Morning Express, July 29, 1869)

At the hearing, bail was accepted, and those charged were released.

The charges changed with the death of Deputy Sheriff Griggs on August 2, 1869. William Witbeck's two sons, 26-year-old John B. Witbeck and 18-year-old Benjamin Witbeck, were taken into custody, charged with murder. The cause of death was "a serious fracture of the skull from a club in the hands of one of the anti-renters...." None of the seven pistol-ball wounds he suffered was "necessarily fatal", according to the autopsy. (The Albany Morning Express, August 4, 1869)

Coroner Hurley immediately empanelled a jury to hold an inquest into the death of Griggs. The testimony, not surprisingly, gave conflicting reports of the incident. The Troy Daily Whig wrote on August 7, 1869: "Coroner Hurley continued the inquest in the Griggs case.... Nearly a dozen witnesses who were present at the Greenbush affray were examined at considerable length. The evidence was quite contradictory and, in several cases, was given very unwillingly...."

On August 12, the verdict was rendered: "We find the said Willard Griggs came to his death ... from the result of wounds and blows inflicted on his person on the 26th day of July, 1869, on the premises of William Witbeck in the town of East Greenbush ... by Wm. Witbeck, John B. Witbeck and Benj. Witbeck, in resisting an attempt made by said Griggs, a Deputy Sheriff of Rensselaer County, to execute a legal process directed against said Wm. Witbeck...." (The Troy Daily Whig, August 13, 1869)

With the verdict, and with the report of improvement in William Witbeck's condition, Coroner Hurley issued a warrant for his arrest.

The Witbecks were not to remain in jail long. A request for bail was made by their lawyer, Mr. Fursman, on August 17. He stated "that previous to Griggs's death, the District Attorney and Mr. Jennyss both assented to bailing the Witbeck boys, and the case was not different now from what it was then, except that Griggs had died...." Mr Jennyss replied that "there was a very great difference in the status of the case. Then, the charge against the prisoners was one of simple assault with intent to kill. Now, it was willful and deliberate murder...." (The Troy Daily Times, August 18, 1869)

Arguments continued the following day when the Co-Counsel for the Defense, R. A. Parmenter, argued "that the prisoners were held not for murder but for a lesser crime, and that His Honor had a right to admit them to bail." (The Troy Daily Times, August 19, 1869)

"Mr Parmenter then laid down the law in regard to murder in the first degree and said that if the Assistant District Attorney could spell murder in the first degree as defined by the law, then he is a better speller than we take him to be...." (The Troy Daily Times, August 19, 1869)

On August 20, bail was set at $10,000 each and was promptly paid by friends and relatives. The prisoners were released. Their release did not sit well with some. The Albany Argus editorial of August 25 had a headline "Only a Murder - Let Him Go!".

But The Troy Daily Whig published this response: "There was no need, except as a matter of legal formality, of holding the Witbecks to bail. They could not be hired to run away."

Legal maneuvers continued for months. A grand jury empanelled in October 1869 came back with a charge of riot. The Troy Daily Times predicted that this change of charge would be the end of the case.

Prosecutors, however, were not willing to rest. A third grand jury in January 1870 came back with a charge of murder. "The Witbecks, father and sons, and Zadock L. Bass, son-in-law of the senior Witbeck, were arrested on Saturday upon a bench warrant charging them with murder and, upon being arraigned before Judge Romeyn, were admitted to bail in the sum of $10,000 each. It is said the prisoners intend to press the trial at the next session of the Oyer and Terminer." (The Troy Daily Times, January 17, 1870)

The prosecution, in a surprise move in February 1870, requested a change of venue. A hearing on the motion was held on February 22. "The attendance was very large.... Each side was represented by the best available legal talent, and - an argument upon a motion of this nature being very rare - the members of the bar were present en masse...." (The Troy Daily Times, February 22, 1870)

District Attorney Banker read an affidavit from Mr Jennyss which "alleged that previous to the indictment of these parties, he had made ... attempts to procure indictments before two previous grand juries. These attempts were thwarted, as he believes, through the agency of the accused or their friends, by improper and unjustifiable appliances. The affidavits further claimed that a widespread publicity had been given the affray ... and that this publicity would interfere to prevent a fair and impartial trial.... These and other alleged facts which were set forth in the affidavit were given as reason for changing the place of trial." (The Troy Daily Times, February 22, 1870)

Mr Townsend, for the defense, argued that "a transfer would be a gross injustice to the accused, who have already expended much in time and money on account of the unfortunate occurrence.... Let them have a fair opportunity to defend themselves before a jury of their own fellow citizens...."(The Troy Daily Whig, February 22, 1870)

While the judge reserved decision on the motion to a later date, he revoked bail. "The Judge then said it must be a very remarkable case that shall entitle a man indicted for murder to be admitted to bail. He knew nothing about the case except that the accused are indicted for murder, and his rule without exception has been never to admit bail in murder cases.... At that time, their bail was revoked, and they were immediately taken into custody.... The Counsel for the Defense endeavored to have their clients released for the night, alleging that his [the Judge's] action was unexpected and that it would cause them great hardship....." (The Troy Daily Times, February 22, 1870)

The judge initially denied the motion for a change of venue but allowed the prosecution to renew the motion with amended affidavits. Arguments continued for several days. On March 2, 1870, the judge granted the prosecution's motion, and Saratoga County was settled upon as the place of the trial. Until then, the Witbecks were to remain in the Rensselaer County jail. Only Zadock Bass was eventually allowed bail. "Mr. Bass, one of the participants in the Witbeck affair at Greenbush, has been admitted to bail in the sum of $10,000. Mr. Bass was called yesterday to bury his only daughter." (The Troy Daily Whig, April 16, 1870)

The trial started on July 6, 1870. Large crowds attended to enjoy the legal arguments of the top lawyers of the Capital District. The papers reported on the trial at length. Detailed testimony of many witnesses was published. The defense did their best to portray the posse as an illegal mob who had been gathered from outside the jurisdiction of Rensselaer County to do Church's bidding. The cross-examination of posse member McManamee showed the character of the posse:

"Am 25; not married; live with my father and mother at Albany; am a native of Albany; have never been in prison but was in jail, once for fighting, once for burglary; tried and discharged before Judge Clute; tried for stealing butter last fal and discharged before Judge Clute; was arrested last Saturday for assault and battery; paid fine and got out of it.... Was not doing anything the 26th of July...." ( The Troy Daily Whig, July 13, 1870)
The cross-examination of Patrick McGrath, another posse member, amused the crowd:
"I went for the axe after the conversation between Griggs and Witbeck; it was a good-sized chopping-axe; I used it; meant to do all I could to take the farm; I threw the axe; looked out for myself; did not act in self-defense except when I hit the man down; I saw him getting the pistol, and I knocked him down with a brick; I was afraid he might get up and hurt me; I went to enforce the law; L Witbeck [note: Leonard Witbeck, no relation to William Witbeck, was a Deputy Sheriff in Albany County and a member of the posse.] asked me to go; he said there would be no trouble; believed it; there were about 15 men who went; our party picked up sticks; they carried them around and hit anyone they could; I hit any head that came in the way of my club (laughter in Court); I was to receive $3 per day; a man went to Col. Church's and represented me and got the money; I have got to get my pay yet; there were no extra charges for using the axe; I work at the Eagle Foundry, where we make the best stoves in the world (laughter). (The Troy Daily Times, July 9, 1870)
A more reputable witness, Thomas Olcott, Vice-President of the Mechanics' and Farmers' Bank, was on his East Greenbush farm at the time of the affair and gave this testimony:
"On the 26th of July, after the parties went into the yard, Mr. Witbeck backed up toward the barn. As he backed up, he fell, and then a general fight commenced. I saw no weapons in the hands of persons when the fight commenced. The firing lasted about five minutes. After the firing ceased, the sheriff's party ran, and Mr. Griggs fell on the lawn. Two persons, John [Witbeck] and Benjamin [Witbeck], came up and struck him [Griggs] on the leg, one with his fist and the other with a club; William Witbeck had been shot; I saw blood on his head; I saw John [Witbeck] point a pistol at Griggs; before Mr. Witbeck fell, I could not distinguish what was done; they were apparently trying to put shackles on Mr. Witbeck; I had an opera glass and was looking through it; I could not tell how many shots were fired; they were all together; when I saw Griggs lying on the lawn, all his party had gone; I saw these men go to the barn and reload their guns; they did not fire after reloading; I knew some of these men with the guns; Witbeck receded 50 feet toward the milk pans; they took out the shackles; he fell soon after their approach to him; I cannot say that the firing did not commence before he fell; I know the Witbeck boys and could distinguish them; when I saw him fall, I saw blood; Mr. Witbeck was the first man I saw fall...." (The Troy Daily Whig, July 9, 1870)
After seven days of testimony and passionate summations from attorneys on both sides, a verdict was reached.
"Amid the very stillness of death, they entered the courtroom this morning at precisely 8:30 o'clock, having come to an agreement upon a verdict just two hours previous. The prisoners took their seats at the bar, trembling with expectation concerning the decision, all unknown to them as yet, which should consign them to the gallows, to prison, or to their freedom. The roll was called, and the Clerk said, "The jury will look upon the prisoners, and the prisoners upon the jury." He then addressed the foreman [Warren Drake of Greenfield, Saratoga County, NY]: "Do you find the prisoners guilty or not guilty?"
"NOT GUILTY" was the reply. The verdict was received with applause and amid the greatest excitement. This is the decision which has been almost universally expected by the people of this vicinity. The Court directed the prisoners to step forward, and he charged them most earnestly against any further resistance of the law, for whether they were right or wrong, it was against them; he also advised them to withdraw from any anti-rent organization with which they might be connected, and to buy out the manorial leases on their property on the best terms possible, so as to prevent any further disturbances. All the prisoners - Mr. Bass; William, John and Benjamin Witbeck; and William Woods, previously discharged - returned by the 8:45 train to their homes, and thus the trial has ended." (The Troy Daily Times, July 15, 1870)
The outcome was as many expected. While the defendants had been charged with murder, many saw their actions as self-defense. Who delivered the fatal blow to Griggs was not clear.
"All the testimony in the case showed that Witbeck's sons never raised a hand until their father was shot down and lay bleeding upon the ground. A singular circumstance appeared from the testimony: Griggs was killed from a blow on the side of the head, two inches long and about an inch wide. Patrick McGrath, one of Church's witnesses, swore that he threw an axe at a man in the crowd whom he did not know, and the Counsel for the Defense contended that McGrath's axe gave the blow which caused Griggs's death." (The Troy Daily Times, July 15, 1870)
Although the trial ended, William Witbeck's legal problems did not. Over the next six years, he filed numerous suits to reclaim his property. The courts repeatedly upheld the legality of Church's claim. In June 1872, Church took possession of the farm.
"The Witbeck farm in East Greenbush ... was yesterday delivered ... to Col. Walter S. Church, who put a tenant of his own in possession. There was no resistance. Mr. Witbeck, now an old man, is thus thrown out upon what to him is really the cold charity of the world. A few years ago, he was a wealthy man, the owner of two large farms, only slightly encumbered with manorial rents. A few hundred dollars would have satisfied the claims of Col. Church and released his lands from the clutches of the Patroon. Rather than pay it, he chose to go to law, and now, after long litigation, he finds himself dispossessed of his property and little or no sympathy entertained for him by anybody." (The Troy Daily Times, June 19, 1872)
The Troy Daily Press on June 19, 1872 published this report:
"The Sheriff and his deputies had no trouble, as the Witbeck boys are living on another farm. Squire [William] Witbeck is at present in Illinois, having been there since last fall."
Described as "old", William Witbeck was 56 in 1872.

William Witbeck's personal life also disintegrated. By 1875, he and his wife, Sarah, were divorced. In January 1876, the New York State Court of Appeals found in favor of Church (64 N.Y. 27; 1876 N.Y), ending his last hope of regaining his farm. In June of 1876, two of his daughters died: 30-year-old Jennie, Zadock Bass's wife, and 28-year-old Eudora.

What became of William Witbeck after 1872 is a mystery. In spite of their divorce, his wife's headstone reads "Sarah Denison Witbeck Wife of William, January 4, 1896". John Witbeck died in 1892, at the age of 49, and Benjamin died in 1890, at 39. Both are buried near their wives and mother in the Blooming Grove Rural Cemetery in North Greenbush.

In May 2006, the Rensselaer County Sheriff's Department held a memorial service for Willard Griggs at his Sand Lake gravesite, which had recently been restored.

* NOTE from Lin Van Buren: William Whitbeck's entry in the 1870 US Census reports the value of his real estate as $30,000 and the value of his personal property as $6,000.

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