The Loomis Gang by George W. Walter. Utica: North Country Books Inc., 1985. 271 pp., $18.95.
While spending some time with my family in Richfield Springs, NY this summer, I came upon this book on my grandfather's bookshelf. Chronicling the history of a notorious band of horse thieves in the 19th century, the book had the perfect mix of intrigue, history, and local pertinence to be a fun read while relaxing on the hammock. I thoroughly enjoyed the book and am impressed by the author's ability to track down primary sources in order to add flesh to local legends.
The Loomis family arrived in Sangerfield, NY in 1806 and would leave an indelible impression on the region throughout the 19th century. Settling a sizable farm in what is known as the Nine-Mile swamp, the family quickly established a thriving trade in stolen horses, merchandise, and counterfeit money. The family frequently escaped the consequences of their actions thanks to their considerable resources, knowledge of the law, and many friends in high places. Indeed, until the arrival of a constable Filkins to the area, the family escaped virtually unscathed. Constable Filkins however made it his personal vendetta to bring the family to justice, using whatever means necessary. Ultimately, public opposition to the family's illegal businesses was too great and lynchings, arrests, and murder ultimately brought the family's empire down.
The book provides a remarkable insight into life in the 19th century in upstate New York. Lawlessness, mercantilism, violence, and poverty marked the time. I forget how much our country has developed in such a relatively short period of time. The economic cycle of upstate New York--from backwards rural frontierland to prosperous agricultural district to booming manufacturing region to stagnating manufacturing and moderate service provider--has taken only 175 years. The story of the Loomis gang embodies the remarkably fusion of entrepreneurial spirit and recklessness that underpins our nation's history. The Loomis' found a niche in society and exploited it to the fullest. Ultimately, the people, loosely defined, also found a means wherewith to remove the Loomis' from that niche. This was certainly a do-it-yourself kind of America. That spirit remains alive and well in the US, though I would like to believe the rule of law plays a much larger role these days.
The novel's narrative is all the more effective because I have personally lived in the area in which the Loomis' roamed. It was fun hearing about Hamilton, Sangerfield, Utica, Waterville, and elsewhere. Upstate New York has few claims to historical prominence, yet Walter has done an excellent job of detailing fascinating local history. Some of the stories are a little disjointed and the author does not hesitate to include details of uncorroborated rumors. Some chapters include too few details while others include too much; this is largely a consequence of chasing down 19th century history from small-town newspapers, neighbors, and official records. The overall narrative is engaging and the book proceeds at a healthy pace. Upstate New Yorkers should try to track down this relatively rare book and see if they envision their community as it once was two centuries ago.