Louis Fenn Wadsworth: Litchfield’s Baseball Pioneer

The grave of Amos Wadsworth, father of Louis Fenn Wadsworth, in Litchfield's East Cemetery.

The grave of Amos Wadsworth, father of Louis Fenn Wadsworth, in Litchfield’s East Cemetery.

The man responsible for baseball as we know it today was a Litchfield native.

Louis Fenn Wadsworth was born to Amos and Amanda (Mann) Wadsworth in 1825. Amos and Amanda were both Farmington natives. It seems likely that the extended Wadsworth family (including Amos’s brother James and his family) lived at 94 North Street, property they bought in 1819 after taking out a loan with the Phoenix Bank.  Amos and his brother ran a business, J.C. & A. Wadsworth, located “one door west of the court house,” which sold clocks they manufactured in a factory on South Street (where Route 63 intersects with Camp Dutton Road. In fact, one of the few extant references to Amos Wadsworth is a complaint filed against him with the Litchfield Nuisance Committee for putting a fence across what is now Camp Dutton Road). Louis graduated from Hartford’s Washington College (now Trinity College) in 1844, moved to Michigan where his father had land interests (and where Amanda moved after Amos’s 1850 death), and returned to the east coast to practice law in New York City in 1848. Louis is listed as living there in probate records from 1850, when Amos died insolvent in Litchfield, his fortunes fading after a fire destroyed the factory around 1833. While Louis would go on to a career as a judge in New Jersey, it was baseball that was his great passion.

The New York Knickerbockers and Excelsiors, 1859.

The New York Knickerbockers and Excelsiors, 1859.

In a playing career that lasted from approximately 1850 to 1862, Louis was the first baseman for the New York Gothams, and later the famed New York Knickerbockers. Why he switched playing allegiances remains a mystery, but there is speculation that Wadsworth was paid to do so by the Knickerbockers, an allegation that if true would make Wadsworth one of – if not the – first professional baseball player. Regardless, after four seasons with the Knickerbockers, Wadsworth returned to the Gothams, whom he represented in the Fashion Race Course Games. These were three games played in 1858, pitting the best players from Manhattan against the best of Brooklyn. These games featured many of baseball’s “firsts”: first All-Star game, first games with paid admission, first game played in an enclosed park, and the first time a batter was called out for looking at strike three. (Wadsworth apparently played in the first and third games of the series, which his Manhattan team won, 2 games to 1.)

A baseball player, c. 1860.

A baseball player, c. 1860.

A Knickerbocker teammate remembered Wadsworth this way:

I had almost forgotten the most most important man on the team and that is Lew             Wadsworth. He was the life of the club. Part of his club suit consisted of a white shirt on the back of which was stamped a black devil. It makes me laugh still when I recall how he used to go after a ball. His hands were very large and when he went for a ball they looked like the tongs of an oyster rake. He got there all the same and but few balls passed him.

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The game that Wadsworth played in 1850 bore only slight resemblance to today’s National Pastime. The distance between the bases had not yet been set to 90 feet, nor was there an officially established distance from the pitcher’s mound to home plate. A rules committee meeting was held on February 25, 1857 to decide these and other provisions for the game. Popular opinion held that games should be seven innings, with teams’ fielding seven players. Wadsworth was something of a lone wolf, arguing that both the number of innings and players be set at nine.

Abner Doubleday

Abner Doubleday

In 1905, a commission was established nominally to establish the origins of the game of baseball, but with the unstated goal of demonstrating that baseball was a uniquely American invention, not a descendant of the English games of cricket or rounders. The commission, the brainchild of sporting goods magnate Albert G. Spalding, was chaired by Abraham G. Mills, a Civil War veteran, attorney, and president of the National League. In 1907, Mills (who was pressured by Spalding into naming Abner Doubleday the inventor of the game), wrote that a Knickerbocker player by the name of Curry made a statement that “a diagram, showing the ball field laid out substantially as it is today, was brought to the field one day by a Mr. Wadsworth.” (There is a discrepancy here, for the Mills Commission states that Wadsworth did this in 1845, a time when Wadsworth was likely living in Michigan.  Did they mean 1854?)

The 1908 Spalding Guide, which contained the report of the Mills Commission on the origins of baseball.

The 1908 Spalding Guide, which contained the report of the Mills Commission on the origins of baseball.

The Mills Commission’s conclusions were first published in Spalding’s Official Base Ball Guide, on March 20, 1908. Wadsworth died eight days later. His last years were unhappy ones. Alcohol led to his professional life falling into disarray, and he squandered a $300,000 fortune (the equivalent of roughly $8,000,000 in today’s money). Wadsworth ultimately committed himself to a New Jersey poorhouse. His obituary in the Hartford Times stated that “in the summer he was particularly interested in following the scores of the ballgames of the big leagues, and of later years, the game was of great object interest to him.”

Many thanks to my friend and colleague Mike DeMazza for his contributions to the research for this post. For more information on Wadsworth and early baseball, see John Thorn, Baseball in the Garden of Eden, (Simon & Schuster, 2012)

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Litchfield Then and Now: The 150th Anniversary of the End of the Civil War

archarchmodernApril 9th, the anniversary of the Lee’s surrender to Grant, marks the culmination of the Civil War sesquicentennial. Litchfield County soldiers served with the 29th Connecticut Infantry, an African American unit that was the first Union regiment to enter the Confederate capital of Richmond, and the 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery that pursued Lee’s army to the surrender at Appomattox Court House. While the war ended in the early spring, it was not until August 1865 that many of Litchfield County’s veterans returned home.  That month a great celebration in Litchfield honored returning veterans from the county. The village was decorated with enormous national flags while the smaller flags of a dozen army corps flew from the giant pole on the Green. A triumphal arch, made of papier-mâché, was erected on East Street, near where the Litchfield Historical Society now stands. It had the Sixth Corps flag in the center and two divisional flags on the side, commemorating the army units to which Litchfield’s soldiers belonged.  Below those flags were the names of the battles in which the 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery fought.

The returning veterans – 300 to 400 strong – arrived in East Litchfield by rail, marched to the town, and paraded through the arch – soldiers on one side, civilians once again on the other.

Colonel Elisha Kellogg of the 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery

Colonel Elisha Kellogg of the 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery

The local newspaper reported that “The reception of the 19th in this town on Tuesday was a most gratifying success.”  Residents of neighboring towns began arriving in the early morning.  Reverend Richards gave a benediction, and Lieutenant Colonel Nathaniel Smith of Woodbury gave a welcoming speech:

I will not recount the list of your battles – they are known to all present – from that               first bloody day to the last unparalleled march of over 100 miles in 22 marching                   hours – ending in Lee’s surrender.  These things – memories to you – are glorious             wonders to us!  We look upon you with emotion!  With joy and gratitude, and bid                 you welcome!

Congressman Hubbard, who lived on South Street and was a favorite of Lincoln’s who referred to the representative as “Old Connecticut, also spoke:

Your hard fare, your toilsome marches and constant exposure to wounds                            and death have been crowned by the highest reward ever gained by men at                        arms.  The conspirators against a people’s government are in the dust and                          freedom is triumphant.

Major General John Sedgwick

Major General John Sedgwick

Thousands of people attended the festivities, which consisted of bands, food and drink, and performances.  An exhibit hall was set up with relics from the war, including the coat with the bullet hole that killed General John Sedgwick of Cornwall, captured swords, battlefield artifacts, paintings and photos of Henry Dutton (killed at Cedar Mountain, John Hubbard (the Congressman’s son), the three Wadhams brothers (killed at Fort Darling, the North Anna, and Cold Harbor), and Colonel Elisha Kellogg (killed at Cold Harbor).

At dark, an illumination allowed the festivities to continue until the lights went out at 10 p.m., when the crowd dispersed.

East Cemetery: Floral Symbolism

Photojournalist Douglas Keister has written that “Plants, especially flowers, remind us of the beauty and brevity of life.” As such, they have been used to remember the dead since the time of the Egyptians. Aristotle even went so far as to state that plants had a soul. The use of the language of flowers as symbolism on gravestones peaked during the Victorian Era, which also marked the heyday of the use of cemeteries as gardens. Vestiges of this era of floral symbolism are common in Litchfield’s East Cemetery.

Rose

Elizabeth Phelps died at only twelve years of age in 1859.  Her gravestone included a rose, a flower rich in symbolism to the Victorians.  Since Elizabeth was so young, we are led to believe that this depicts a white rose, a symbol of purity. The fragrance and beauty of a rose was a reminder to visitors to the cemetery of the Paradise that awaited good Christians.

Palm

Zebulon Colmer, who lived to be 90, had his gravestone marked with a palm tree.  The story of Christ’s procession into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday is, of course, well known to Christians.  In the Roman era, the palm was a symbol of victory, and Christians adapted this imagery to symbolize Christ’s victory over death, and thus, by extension, the afterlife achieved by good Christians.

Lily

Julia Henrietta Jones, who died in 1851 at the age of 46, was commemorated with a lily.  Lilies were symbols of chastity, but were also strongly associated with funerals, as their strong scent covered the foul smells associated with death.

Broken willow

The gravestone of Luna Norton depicts a broken willow tree, incorporating two Victorian symbols of death.  Weeping willows are symbolic of grief, but also of immortality, as the tree will continue to live despite having its branches cut off.  This was an exceedingly popular cemetery image in the early 1800s, and several willow trees can be found on graves in the East Cemetery.  Norton’s grave, however, depicts a broken willow, which seems to counteract the notion of immortality.  Broken trees symbolized lives that were cut short.

For more information on the symbolism of gravestones, see Stories in Stone by Douglas Keister.

For additional posts on the East Cemetery, see here, here and here.

The Blizzard of 1888

With Litchfield stuck in a weather pattern that seems to bring more snow every day, perhaps a look back at the great Blizzard of 1888 is in order.

Drifted snow at Dr. Buel's house on North Street, Litchfield, 1888.  Courtesy of Litchfield Historical Society.

Drifted snow at Dr. Buel’s house on North Street, Litchfield, 1888. Courtesy of Litchfield Historical Society.

With little in the way of accurate meteorological predictions, the blizzard came as a surprise to the Northeast on Sunday, March 11, 1888.  It had been an unusually warm winter, and that day dawned with rain.  It soon turned to hail, then sleet, then ultimately snow.  Bitter cold and high winds set in, and the snow continued for three days.  When it all stopped, between 20 and 50 inches of snow had fallen in Connecticut, with drifts of 12 feet not uncommon.  (One drift in New Haven reached 40 feet high!)  The storm resulted in more than 400 deaths and an estimated $20 million worth of damage.

Dr. Buel's house after the snow had melted.  One source says the snow was melted within ten days; another says the last of the drifts didn't melt until June! Courtesy of Litchfield Historical Society.

Dr. Buel’s house after the snow had melted. One source says the snow was melted within ten days; another says the last of the drifts didn’t melt until June! Courtesy of Litchfield Historical Society.

The following are excerpts about the blizzard from the Litchfield Enquirer:

March 12th – “The wind blew a perfect blizzard all day and the drifting and falling snow made even main streets almost impassable Monday night the storm continued with increasing fury and buildings rocked as though in a storm at sea.”

A modern view of Dr. Buel's house.

A modern view of Dr. Buel’s house.

March 13th – “On Tuesday morning the wind had lessened though still blowing a gale with the thermometer at or near zero. The most remarkable drifts are at Dr. [H. W.] Buel‘s. One, a little west of the house, about 20 feet, to a level with the eaves. There is an addition on the west of Dr. Buel‘s house, reaching- about to the eaves, which is almost completely covered by the snow, so that our reporter, walking- along the top of the drift, passed completely over the roof of this part of the house, and down on the northern side. There is a drift on the east which is even higher, shutting up one of the library windows completely, and reaching nearly to the top of one of the large firs which form a hedge on that side of the house.

March 14th – “The wind is northeast and considerable snow is still falling. People are about on snow shoes skees (sic) and snow shoes extemporized out of boards some carrying groceries to those in great want. Little business is doing. Most of the stores are closed. A few are open with people standing about comparing notes about tunneling to their woodsheds drifts over second story windows and other marvels of the great storm.”

The Lake Station, Bantam.  Courtesy of White Memorial Foundation.

The Lake Station, Bantam. Courtesy of White Memorial Foundation.

The Shepaug Railroad was out of service until March 16th. A railroad cut near the Lake Station (today the Cove in Bantam) was filled with a drift 22 feet deep!

And all this snow needed to be removed from the transportation network without the benefit of modern plows!

East Cemetery: The Death’s Head Tombstone

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Prior to the sixteenth century’s Protestant Reformation there were few formal burying grounds for those who were not nobles.  The remains of royalty, nobility, and high-ranking clergy members were often entombed in the walls of churches and cathedrals, with the areas closest to the altar being reserved for the most important members of society.

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The social changes spurred on by the Reformation – and the necessity of finding new spaces with the walls of churches nearing their capacity – led to the dead being interred in burial grounds, often known as God’s Acres. The emergence of these cemeteries opened up the possibility of a tombstone for members of the middle class, which meant an opportunity to be remembered.

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Much of New England’s tombstone art followed the lead of the Puritans, who were particularly macabre in their engravings.  Puritan theology held that only the “Elect” would make it to heaven; the rest of mankind just died, were buried, and rotted in the ground. These beliefs are reflected in Puritan gravestone art, with the classic words, “Here lies of the body of …” engraved below a skull or skull and crossbones.

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However, a loosening of the grip of conservative Puritanism led to more optimistic gravestones, with skulls being swapped for human faces, and crossbones giving way to angels’ wings.  Equally telling is a subtle change in the wording, with “Here lies the body of …” often giving way to “Here lies the mortal remains,” language that allowed for the possibility of a human soul.

For more information on cemetery art, see Douglas Keister’s excellent Stories in Stone.

The Grave of Willis Carter

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The grave of Jeph Africa, a Revolutionary War veteran, in the East Cemetery.

In the southeast corner of Litchfield’s East Cemetery is a section of graves of African Americans who lived in the 19th century.  Several government-issued graves mark the final resting places of men who served in the 29th Connecticut Infantry, the state’s African American regiment.

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Less noticeable is a simple white grave, half buried.  Was it originally installed like this, or has it slowly sunk into the ground over the decades?  When the leaves are removed, the words jump out at the explorer:

WILLIS CARTER

BORN A SLAVE IN

TENNESSEE

A Civil War veteran’s marker stands next to Carter’s grave but no other immediate information is available.  Does his gravestone contain information about what unit he served in, when he was born, or when he died?  To find out would require disturbing the soil containing his remains.

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Some information is available in Census reports.  The 1870 census identifies Willis Carter as a Torrington resident, born in Tennessee around 1847. The 1880 census provides slightly more information.  We learn that Carter was then living in Litchfield, and was married to Ellen.  His birth year was then estimated to be 1848; both his parents were born in Tennessee.

The 29th Connecticut Infantry

The 29th Connecticut Infantry

Willis Carter’s name does not appear on the roster of men in the 29th Connecticut Infantry.  The records of this unit, however, are hardly definitive.  Still, it is perhaps more likely that he joined a unit of the United States Colored Troops forming in his native Tennessee, and found his way north after the war.  Either way, Willis Carter’s sunken gravestone provides testimony to a remarkable period in American history, when one born a slave in Tennessee became personally involved in a war that secured his freedom, and who afterward found himself living and working in a small New England town.


East Cemetery’s Van Winkle Gateway

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An outstanding job of brush clearing along Rt. 202 between Litchfield and Torrington has recovered the Van Winkle Gate of the East Cemetery.

 

 

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East Cemetery, Litchfield’s largest, is, according to Alain White’s history of the town, the third oldest cemetery in town.  White identifies West Cemetery, established in 1723 as the oldest but does not state what is second.  In 1754 a committee consisting of Samuel Culver, Joshua Garritt, and Edward Phelps was formed to lay out a new cemetery closer to town.  Their work was finished in January 1755.  As is evident from the plaque above (which adorns the right side of the gateway), Edgar Van Winkle, Sr. served as president for the Litchfield Cemetery Association for 27 years.  Van Winkle was a Union College educated civil engineer and Union Army veteran who rose to be chief engineer of New York’s Department of Public Works.  He also worked for the Shepaug Railroad. 

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On the left side of the gate are biblical quotations.  The first is: “Then shall the Dust return to the Earth as it was and the Spirit to God who gave it” from Ecclesiastes.  The second is: “Blessed are the Dead which die in the LORD that they may rest from their labors & their works do follow them” from Revelation.

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Originally the area of the cemetery behind the gate was designated for use as a highway, but when the cemetery expanded in 1837, the town voted to give the highway land to the Litchfield Cemetery Association that still maintains the grounds.  The stonewalls alongside the Route 118 frontage of the cemetery were built by public subscription in 1850.  The southeast corner of the cemetery – along this road – contains unmarked graves of Revolutionary War soldiers.

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The entrance to the cemetery on Route 118 is dedicated to the memory of Edgar Van Winkle, Jr., who also served as president of the Litchfield Cemetery Association.  

Monuments to the Great War

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This summer marks the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I. The global conflagration, which resulted in nearly 20 million deaths, had an impact on the small towns of Litchfield County. The above photograph shows two red oaks in front of the Bridgewater town hall. They were planted in 1922 in memory of two town residents who lost their lives in the war, Joseph Wellwood and John Sheskey.

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Wellwood, 21 years old, enlisted in May 1917 and was assigned to an ambulance company. Sent to Kansas for training, he died there of scarlet fever in February 1918. Shesky was killed during an artillery barrage at the Battle of Vesle on September 3, 1918, a bit more than two months before the end of the war.

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Many of the towns in the county have monuments commemorating their dead from the Great War, or the World War; those who put up these monuments in the 1920s and 20s had no inkling that another world war was approaching. Typical of these monuments is the monument on the Litchfield green. Stars denote those who died in the war.

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However, a close examination of the Litchfield monument reveals that these stars were perhaps added to the monument later, with holes being drilled into the bronze and the stars inserted like a pin. Clayton Devines died of influenza (which killed 50 to 100 million people worldwide between 1918 and 1920) at training camp in Jacksonville, Florida. Joseph Donohue served in Company D of the 102nd Infantry. Killed in France, he had lived at the Junior Republic in Litchfield. His adopted hometown honored him by placing his name on the town monument and recognizing his sacrifice with a star still visible today.

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Henry Cattey was from Northfield, living on Marsh Road. He was also killed in action in France. While his name is on the memorial, next to it is only a small hole. Was there once a star that perhaps fell out over time? Cattey is not the only casualty of the Great War to have lost his star. Three names have stars next to them; six others have only the hole. It is fitting during this centennial that these stars be replaced and the proper tribute paid to these made who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country.

Sandy Beach Memorial

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An earlier post examined the memorial to Alain and May White that stands near the Plunge Pool.  That monument, an inscribed boulder in the woods, was erected in 1980.  An earlier monument to these great conservationists stands at the entrance to Sandy Beach.

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In 1953, the White Memorial Foundation dedicated this monument.  It was designed by James Kip Finch, who served on the Foundation’s board of trustees from 1925 to 1966.

Sandy Beach, c. 1930.  (Courtesy Litchfield Historical Society)

Sandy Beach, c. 1930. (Courtesy Litchfield Historical Society)

 

Sandy Beach is an appropriate place for such a memorial, as one of the goals of the Whites was to make Bantam Lake’s shoreline available to local residents.  The Whites purchased the land in the 1920s from the Wadhams family, who farmed the area.  By 1929 Sandy Beach sported 30 bathhouses as well as a concession stand and a float in the lake.  Sandy Beach was widely popular from its inception.  It hosted nearly 650 visitors on a single day in 1929, and 30,000 people utilized the beach in 1930.  The beach offered cheap entertainment to a region facing the Great Depression.

Photo courtesy of litchfield.bz

Photo courtesy of litchfield.bz

The Whites established the Sandy Beach commission in 1928, which worked with the  Foundation to manage the site.  In 1976 stewardship of the beach passed to the towns of Litchfield and Morris.  After more than 80 years, however, Sandy Beach continues to serve its original purposes of offering local residents a refuge from the summer heat.

The Sign-Post Elm

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This is among the most hidden in plain sight of Litchfield markers.

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Today, Litchfield residents who wish to spread news of an event hang flyers at Stop and Shop, the Oliver Wolcott Library, or the Post Office, or information posted on Litchfield.bz. In an earlier day, Litchfield’s residents hung notices on the Sign-Post Elm.

 

The Whipping Post Elm (White, The History of the Town of Litchfield)

The Whipping Post Elm (White, The History of the Town of Litchfield)

Litchfield had many distinguished elm trees. Brothers Oliver Wolcott Jr. and Frederick Wolcott planted many elms along North and South Streets. John C. Calhoun planted elms at the corner of West Street and Spencer Street and also on Prospect Street when he was a student at the Litchfield Law School. The ominously-named Whipping Post Elm stood in front of the jail at the corner of West and North Streets.; at 150 inches he reportedly had the greatest diameter of any elm in town. Second was the Beecher Elm at 146 ½ inches, at the site of the family home on the corner of North and Prospect Streets.

The Sign Post Elm, with notices visible, at left.  (White, The History of Litchfield)

The Sign Post Elm, with notices visible, at left. (White, The History of Litchfield)

 

The Sign-Post Elm was not as big, but was, perhaps, of greater importance. For many years it stood at the corner of South and East Streets, in front of what is now the Litchfield Historical Society. It displayed the legal notices of the town, informed residents of town meetings, and hosted, under its branches, auctions and sheriff sales.

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The marker for the sign-post elm is visible as the small stone-like object to the left of the telephone pole in this photograph.

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Henry Ward Beecher

While Dutch Elm Disease, which was first discovered in the 1920s, has devastated the mature elm trees of North America, the value which Americans of an earlier ascribed to the elm is indisputable. Litchfield native Henry Ward Beecher, in an 1856 account about returning to his hometown, wrote: “There were the old trees, but looking not so large as to our young eyes. The stately road had, however, been bereaved of the buttonball trees, which had been crippled by disease. But the old elms retained a habit particular to Litchfield. There seemed to be a current of wind which at times passes high up in the air over the town, and which moves the tops of the trees, while on the ground there is no movement of wind period. How vividly did that sound from above bring back early days, when for hours we lay upon the windless grass and watched the top leaves flutter and marked how still were the under leaves of the same tree!”