I meant to submit this article during Black History Month in February, but an unexpected health scare resulting in a four-day visit to St. Joseph’s Hospital after a surprise heart attack canceled my best intentions. I am glad to be back home and recovered and look forward to writing for The Citizen again. This March story coincides with the 100th anniversary of Harriet Tubman’s death.

It is a history account well-published in October of 1873 concerning Tubman and comes from the records of Jim Moore, of Koenig’s Point. I thank him for sharing it with me. His great great-grandmother was the sister of Anthony Shimer, Auburn’s eccentric millionaire and real estate tycoon who was also a victim in the trunk of gold scheme. Tubman and Shimer joined a long list of 15 other people who were swindled, stretching from St. Catherine’s, Ontario, Canada, to Geneva, Seneca Falls, Syracuse and Auburn. They all were duped by a cunning con man with a fantastic tale of a buried trunk of Confederate gold bars secreted up North to be exchanged for good greenbacks. A black man, he went by several aliases depending on the area where he was working. He frequently used the names Stevenson, Johnson and Harris, but his M.O. was the same. He would enlist the aid of a person known to be a local trusted person to go about with him and approach citizens with his tale of a buried trunk of gold bars. The story came with a promise of a fast return for a small investment — from $500 to $2,000. The rest of the gold bars, according to him, were valued at $25,000, which the investors could keep.

In 1871, two years prior at St. Catherine’s, Frank Madden, Charles Brown and Charles Gordon were swindled out of $500 by the same ruse. When they saw the locked trunk, supposedly buried at the foot of the suspension bridge in an upstairs rooming house, Stevenson, then going by the name of Harris, told the three men he had left the key downstairs to the trunk. He already had their money and when he did not return, the men broke the trunk open to find rocks wrapped in cotton cloth.

By 1873, Stevenson was in Geneva playing the same game, and approached a barber named Brown. Brown could not raise the funds the con man required. He next went into Seneca Falls, where he enlisted the help of trustworthy John Thomas. They called on William Hamlin and William Freeman in Seneca Falls, who knew Thomas, and because they only could raise $400, they went to Syracuse. A J.W. Wright was next visited, and he, too, was interested, but failed to raise the money. The men came to Auburn and called on Zadoc Bell, who also knew Thomas. Bell thought the whole story foolishness, and wanted no part of it.

He insisted on some security if he would participate in the transaction. Besides, he had heard of the scheme in St. Catherine’s, and was suspicious. Zadoc Bell questioned the men, and found that a bank cashier was able to make arrangements when a local Auburn banker (Seward Bank?) demanded to see the gold before issuing any funds, and the deal fell through. Bell felt Thomas was innocent and duped by Stevenson, who could not look him in the eye. The two men then called on John Stewart, the brother of Harriet Tubman. John was a teamster for D.M. Osborne and furnished his own wagon and horses to make deliveries. He could not raise the funds, but thought his sister Harriet Tubman knew many people about Auburn who might be interested. The new story, Stevenson told Stewart, was the trunk now contained gold in $5, $10 and $20 gold pieces amounting to $5,000. Stevenson said he would take $2,000 for the trunk of gold. John Stewart went to an Auburn bank, but they required the gold before paying, and this final application failed.

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Tubman met the men who told her they had approached the pastor of the local black church, but he could only raise $100. Could she raise the $2,000 Stevenson needed? The two men stayed at Tubman’s house on South Street, while she called on various bankers and capitalists. Ex-sheriff James Mead even advised her to beware of the men. Undaunted, she saw E.P.K. Smith and C.A. Myers, esq. of the Exchange Bank in Auburn. These two even drove out to meet the agents with $500 in currency, and Stevenson refused their offer, saying it was not enough!

Harriet then called on her friend Anthony Shimer, who gave her the $2,000 required when she met him at the local tavern. After he heard that the bankers did not have the money, he was quick to furnish the amount Stevenson demanded, thinking he was going to be the victor in a great gold venture. Harriet now had his money and met with Stevenson and another man Stevenson had picked up on the way in the evening. They all drove out South Street road to Fleming. It was dark when they arrived, and they had to walk over plowed fields and climb two fences to reach the small woods in the back of the property. They went to a marked spot in the woods and the three dug up the trunk. Harriet refused to give them the money until she saw the contents of the box/trunk. The excuse was given Stevenson would need to go get the key. Alone in the dark, Harriet was dismayed to see that it was a common box, with no keyhole. She got a rail from the post nearby and tried to beat open the box. The noise attracted Stevenson and the other man, and they returned and roughed her up. They bound her hands behind her back, gagged her and forcibly took the money, leaving her beaten unconscious.

When Harriet came to, she managed to climb over the fence (although restricted by her bound hands) by pushing her body up over the rails. She staggered toward the road, fearful of the dark and ghosts. She was spooked by a white cow in a clearing, which caused a stampede with the other cattle adding to her distress and confusion.

Harriet was found disheveled, dirty, speechless and bound up. She was taken to her friend Slocum Howland’s home in Sherwood to recover. The truth came out later that the box was purchased at Sidney Mosher’s store in Seneca Falls. John Stewart, her brother, made restitution to Anthony Shimer by giving him his valued team of horses and wagon. And the headlines proclaimed the swindle and listed the names of everyone who was taken in by the con man.

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Laurel Auchampaugh is the Owasco historian and can be reached at the Owasco Town Hall from 1 to 4 p.m. Tuesday afternoons or at owascohistorian@centralny.twcbc.com.


I'm the features editor for The Citizen and auburnpub.com, and have been here since 2006. I also cover local arts and culture, business, food and drink, and more.