Demystifying Westchester's Flock of Faux History

Phil Reisman talks tall tales of wacky Westchester.


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Illustration by Brian Taylor

There is “fake news.” And then there is “fake history.”

Westchester County is chock full of fake history — wonderful little tales of local lore and legend that have hung around forever and are mistakenly embraced as the gospel truth. Somehow these myths never quite die, no matter how many times they’re derided and debunked.

Google the key words “Execution Rock” and “chained prisoners” and you are instantly rewarded with 361,000 results, many of which repeat an especially persistent yarn. The story goes that the tiny, seaweed-covered islet off New Rochelle got its name because criminals were lashed to the rock and drowned by the rising tide. A popular version has it that the “victims” of this cruel and unusual punishment were actually American soldiers captured by the British during the Revolutionary War.

I’m not sure how and when this myth got started.

What I do know is that George W. Blunt, a respected nautical author and editor, was among the first to point out that Execution Rock was given its scary moniker because it was a navigational hazard that ripped apart ship hulls and “so many vessels and lives were lost there.”

Blunt wrote those words 153 years ago. But it hardly matters. The myth simply won’t die.

Speaking of macabre executions, let us put to rest the hoary myth that the lights in Ossining ominously flickered, or dimmed, when the electric chair was in use at Sing Sing. “Old Sparky” required a lot of juice, for sure, but the fact is, a prison generator independently provided the power.

“The Big House” exudes fake history. Yes, Babe Ruth did a hit a homerun over the wall during an exhibition game in 1929. However, the popular notion that the ball was a record blast that traveled more than the length of two football fields is bunk. According to Ruth biographer Leigh Montvale, the distance was probably 100 feet closer. A side note: Six years ago it was reported that Ruth’s fabled Sing Sing bat sold at auction for $126,500 — and that, I can attest, is true.

Photograph by Stefan Radtke

Ruth, by the way, was a member of the Leewood Golf Club in Tuckahoe and by all accounts was a good golfer. Nevertheless, there is no evidence to support the oft-repeated story that a tunnel near a Bronx River Parkway exit, and a stone’s throw from the club entrance, was widened solely to accommodate the Great Bambino’s car.

Leewood’s own website admits the story is “perhaps apocryphal.”

It’s also apocryphal that Joyce Kilmer wrote his famous poem “Trees” in Larchmont, a village of uncontested arboreal splendor. He wrote the verse in Mahwah, NJ.

It’s apocryphal that the first Huguenots landed on some kind of Plymouth-type Rock in their quest to settle New Rochelle.

It’s apocryphal that the town of Harrison’s eccentric configuration can be explained by a 1695 deal in which an aboriginal chief agreed to sell land to John Harrison based on how much territory he, Harrison, could cover in a single day on horseback. The reason the town is landlocked is because Harrison didn’t want to get his horse’s feet wet.

Another version has it that the boundaries were determined by the wanderings of an intoxicated Indian.

This leads me to another bit of fake history — that the cocktail was invented in 1779 by an Elmsford bar mistress named Betsy Flannigan. Supposedly, she topped off every mixed drink with a rooster feather, hence the great word was born.

The cocktail myth is 100 proof, all right. But it can’t be proven.

History buffs who specialize in the field of piffle seem to take pleasure in torpedoing our most cherished myths. They are scholars, you might say. But in another sense, they are also bubble-bursting killjoys who take sadistic delight in challenging the existence of Chief Kisco, even though there is a statue of him in, where else? Mount Kisco.

My father was a self-styled expert on local Indian tribes and a practiced destroyer of fake history. Many years ago, he wrote a newspaper article that utterly trashed the belief that Mamaroneck was translated from Algonquin, for “Where the fresh water falls over the rocks and flows into the salt.”

“This fake etymology smacks more of Hiawatha than history,” wrote the Old Man.

But he often said that folk tales are fun. They deserve to be preserved but not believed. 

 

The opinions and beliefs expressed by Phil Reisman are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of Westchester Magazine’s editors and publishers. Tell us what you think: email edit@westchestermagazine.com

 

 

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