Sunday, September 13, 2015

The Disappearance of Robert Harper

This lovely monument with a heavy, tasseled pall draped over a marble shaft and a wreath of flowers encircling an urn with flames is located on the slope of the Middle Ridge just across from the Cemetery's chapel.

The monument marks the grave of Robert Harper and the inscription notes that he died January 22, 1870.  He was buried on April 24 of the same year.

Born in Ireland around 1811, Robert Harper is listed in Albany city directories as a vegetable merchant, first at the city's central market and, later, at 90 State Street.  His home was on Lydius Street (now Madison Avenue) near Partridge Street.  City directories also show as John Harper at the same house and give his occupation as a gardener.  Robert and John appear to have been brothers.  Robert also served as an alderman in the city's 10th Ward.

According to an article which ran in The Albany Evening Times, Robert Harper had "risen from obscurity to affluence and an honorable position among our citizens."  Property maps shows that his property covered about twelve square blocks from old Lydius Street south to Gansevoort Street between Partridge Street and Main Avenue

Late on night of January 22, 1870, he was seen leaving the Watkins House, a restaurant at 100 State Street, but he never arrived at home.  There were rumors that he was kidnapped, robbed, and murdered.  There were even several arrests made in connection his disappearance, but no one was charged.

The following April, after a period of spring rains, a body was found in the Hudson River at Coeymans by John Hounstein, an "old gentleman" who had charge of the lights on the Coeymans dyke.  Described as "poor, honest, and hardworking" by the newspapers, Hounstein spotted the body near the dyke, fastened it to his little boat, and towed it to land.  It was April 19, a little over four months after Robert Harper walked out of the Watkins House for the last time.

A doctor was summoned to examine the body.  The doctor detected no signs of violence and it was decided that no foul play was involved in the death;  it was presumed that Harper fell into the river basin at the foot of State Street and his body was held in place over the winter by boats, only to be washed downstream in the spring.  An examination of his pockets found a copy of Harper's Magazine, a gold watch on a chain, keys, a pocketknife, a corkscrew, a pocket ruler, and a packet of personal and business papers. 

Justice McNamara, identified in the newspapers as a relative of Robert Harper, rushed to Coeymans by tugboat in the company of the coroner and two detectives who had been investigating Harper's disappearance.   They identified the body as Robert Harper.  A further search of the deceased reveal several packets of money totaling $829.

Robert Harper's remains were returned to Albany and brought to the Morange undertaking rooms, then located at 39 North Pearl Street.

 The Morange Undertaking Ware Rooms ca. 1871 - photo from the Albany Public Library and the Albany...The Way It Was group archive on Flickr.

Robert Harper was buried in Lot 3, Section 62.  The burial records note that his second wife, Susan, instructed them to bury him beside his first wife, Sarah E., whose date of death is not listed in the records.  His first wife must have died at some point after the 1860 census.

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