The Murder of Jim Hall

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

In the 1870s and 1880s it sometimes seemed like our village was something out of the wild, wild west.
From History, Reminiscences, Anecdotes and Legends by Walter Henry Green 1947
From earliest days, Sodus Point had an appeal for people who enjoy a walk on the wild side. Many early arrivals included renegades, smugglers, gamblers, card sharks, whiskey dealers, trap robbers and a few “all-around criminals.” There was no shortage of colorful characters.
In the 1870s’s and early 80’s there was at Sodus Point a colored gentleman named James Hall. Jim was the proprietor of a saloon on a flatboat which was anchored against the shore of Sand Point (editor’s note: the area we think of as downtown nowadays). Being on the water he thought that his saloon was not under the jurisdiction of the United States, so he thought that he should not, and he would not take out a license to sell intoxicants. Occasionally he would be hauled into court and fined two or three hundred dollars, then he would come to court with a market basket on his arm which was half full of greenbacks all in fat rolls with a rubber band around each roll. From one of the fat rolls he would peel off the amount, pay his fine, return to his shack and continue to sell liquid refreshments without a license. Thus he contributed much more to the United States treasury than he would have if he had done business in the regular way.
In the village there was a large family of colored folks, descendants of one of Peregrine Fitzhugh’s slaves whom he released and to whom he gave a parcel of land. In this family were several grown-up sons. On days when there were crowds enjoying themselves at Sodus Bay, business was so good at Jim’s shanty that one man could not hand out the goods fast enough for the thirsty crowd, so he employed one of the grown-up sons of that family to assist him at the bar and, Alas! he had perfect confidence in him.
This assistant owned an ex-racing horse whose purse-winning days were over, and she was known as Old Flora, but she was still a tough and speedy mare.
Early one Monday evening about November 1, 1884, several black boys, members of aforesaid colored family, were in the village of Sodus, going from barroom to barroom from saloon to saloon and to any other place where they would be permitted to perform and playing lively tunes on a banjo and mouth-organ, and a slim wiry Negro from Syracuse was doing some pretty good buck and wing dancing. Between eight and nine o’clock, several people who had heard that they were in the village and putting on a pretty good show, went the rounds of all the business places in the business district looking for them and they could not be found. Later it was proven that for awhile between eight and nine o’clock they were not there.
The following evening they were playing in Sodus again and this time they were there during the entire evening.
About 8:30 o’clock Monday evening there was a fire at Sodus Point. It was Jim’s saloon. Being only a shanty there was no excitement until the next morning, then people began to inquire: Where’s Jim? Has anyone seen Jim? When it was found that he had not been seen since the fire, the ashes of the shanty were raked over and they came upon a grisly thing. It was the torso of Jim, the head, legs and arms had burned off. There was no suspicion of murder, or robbery. It was supposed that he had been overcome by heat and smoke.
A few days later one of the brothers of the assistant bartender, while talking about the fire, gave such a vivid and realistic account of a killing that it aroused the suspicion that there had been a robbery and murder and that he had been present or else some one who was there had described it to him. An investigation was started and in a few days several Negroes were arrested. There was a trial in which the testimony was confusion worse confounded. It was eventually proven that the Negro minstrels who had been performing in Sodus on Monday and Tuesday evenings were concerned in the murder but there were so many who testified that they had seen them Monday evening between eight and nine o’clock that it was difficult to prove that any of them had been gone long enough to go to Sodus Point and back.
In the midst of the trial Raconteur (story telling) migrated to the far west, and at that time the following account of it, seemed to have been firmly established. In fact it was not materially changed during the trial. When at eight o’clock Monday evening the minstrels disappeared it was because all but one of them went to the house of a Negro on Rotterdam Road, north of the railroad and near the woods. The slim wiry Negro from Syracuse was a very fast runner and instead of going with the others, he ran down Maple Avenue at racing speed as far as the Granger schoolhouse. There the assistant bartender was waiting for him with Old Flora hitched to a buggy and they ran the old racehorse all the way to Sodus Point.
Luck was with them, for when they entered the shack Jim was alone and with his back toward the door he was bending over a bench washing his hands. When they came in he turned to see who it was, and seeing his assistant went on washing his hands. The wiry Negro had a pitchfork handle under his overcoat and stepping behind Jim he struck him a terrific blow on the back of the head. He dropped to the floor, quivered violently for a moment, and was still. The assistant knew precisely where the basket of bills was kept, so there was not an instant’s delay. As they were about to leave, the Syracuse Negro said: “Why here we don’t want to leave this lamp burning”, and with the fork handle he knocked it off the bar. That was what started the fire. In a very few minutes after they entered the shack, tough Old Flora was racing back to the schoolhouse.
Straining every nerve for speed the wiry Negro ran up the road to the village. The others were waiting for him at the corner of Maple Avenue and Smith Street and at nine o’clock they were again playing and dancing in the saloons and barrooms. Tuesday evening the same Negroes were playing and dancing again in Sodus. This time they did not disappear and they were very, very conspicuous during the entire evening, particularly between eight and nine o’clock. That was what caused the confusion in the testimony.
Some witnesses swore positively that they had seen them Monday evening between eight and nine o’clock. Others swore just as positively that they had looked for them in every business place in Sodus at that time, and could not find them. The family of the assistant bartender all had good reputations; there was not a bad one among them. It is more than likely that the Syracuse Negro influenced them to go into it. It undoubtedly was he that did the planning and it was shrewdly conceived. the alibi was an excellent one. Had not the brother of the assistant bartender described the killing so realistically, it might never have been suspected but that Jim had been overcome by the heat and smoke in an accidental fire. However, the reckless manner in which members of the family displayed huge rolls of bills, eventually might have betrayed them. Raconteur then was employed in a Sodus drug store and a day or two after the fire, one of the family came in and bought some fiddle strings. When he paid for them he pulled a wad of bills out of his pocket that made the clerk’s eyes stick out. That was before there was any suspicion that there had been a robbery and murder.