Saturday, August 15, 2009

Tales Told by AGH, Installment #3: Rat Tales and Dan Kelly

Editor's note:
These reminiscences by my grandfather, Arthur George Harrington, were transcribed by his daughter Mary when he was an old man. See the sidebar pictures for birth and death years of each.

Prelude by Mary:

We got started on rat stories because there had been an article in the
Saturday Evening Post
about a new system of rat control. Dad told about an encounter he had with a rat in Uncle Henry's house in Troy.

He had brought home some meat for Aunt ________, and as he came into the kitchen with it, he saw a rat scurry into the dining room. He put down the meat, picked up a stove poker, and followed the rat. It was not in sight in the dining room, from which a bedroom, living room, and pantry opened. He tried the bedroom first. He couldn't see any rat, even when he got down and looked under the bed. Then he lifted a corner of the mattress, and there on the bedsprings was Mr. Rat.

The rat dashed back to the dining room. Dad quickly slammed bedroom, living room, and pantry doors shut, and the rat got to the kitchen. Dad followed, closing the dining room door behind him. He said the rat circled, then headed for the outside door -- also closed. Dad started after him. He must have been at least 6 or 8 feet away, when the rat whirled and leaped at him. Dad said he was really scared. "The rat was about here" (holding his hand level, palm down, about even with his breastbone) when he slapped it down, kicking at it, at the same time.

The rat landed, a gory mess, at the top of the door frame. End of tale.


He told of a story he read in the S.E.P. during the War, about some men in London who had been trained to do something about bombs that had landed but had not yet gone off. One day a bomb landed in a big shell hole made by a previous bomb. One of these men volunteered to go down in and see if he could render it harmless before it went off. They let him down with a rope -- but he had hardly reached the bomb when he signalled frantically to be hauled up. They worked in desperate haste, and when they got him to the top, asked him if the bomb was about to go off.

"I don't know," he said, "but there's a bloody rat down there!"


(Now Let Dad Tell 'em.)


When I was a kid, Old Dan Kelly had a brickyard out on Rowland Street. Dan had a horse. In those days, they used to give them a mixed feed. They'd cut hay all up fine. One kind of chopper had blades something like a lawn mower. Another kind had a straight blade you'd work up and down. They'd put feed with it and mix it with water. Dan had a box about this big, filled with the feed, near the horse stall. One day as he stepped in, he could just make out that there were 5 or 6 rats in that feed box, eating away. He went quiet and got a shovel, and was just ready to bring it down on the rats, when his horse lifted his hind leg, caught him about here, and tossed him into the box with the rats.


Dan was a terrible man. [Note:- "Terrible", in this case, doesn't mean "bad." -MEH] He was death on booze. His father and mother and two brothers were drunkards, and he said he'd seen enough of it. I can remember more than once seeing his mother going down the street with a suit of clothes. In a few minutes one of the girls would take after her. She had stolen clothes from the boys while they slept, and was trying to sell them to get liquor.

One icy day in November, I was down on Shonnard St. with Dan and the team. A milk man came along. He was having a bad time. His horse's shoes were smooth and the horse was slipping and sliding. Dan yelled, "Spend less for beer and whiskey and use your money to shoe your horse, and he'll not be slippin' all over the road!"

Another time I was with him, when a man I knew but Dan didn't came along with his arm in a sling and bandages. I asked him what was the matter, and he said it was blood poisoning. Dan yells "Keep the beer and whiskey out of your belly and you'll not get blood poisoning!"

Not long after that, we were raising a house. [Note:- The spelling is correct. Some houses, they raised, and others, they razed. -MEH] A lot of trash had been dumped out behind it and we had to clear that away to get at it. There were rusty tin cans, etc. Dan cut his hands a few times, and the cuts got infected. One day he came to work complaining about how his hand hurt and I told him he ought to go to a doctor. He did, that night. The next day he came with his arm in a sling. I asked him "What's the matter?"

"The doctor says it's blood poisoning," he said.

"Keep the beer and whiskey out of your belly, and you'll not get blood poisoning," I mocked.

"I didn't think a man could get it," he said, "if he never took a drink!"

Once a couple kids came to the house and said Dan sent them to ask me to come up to the barn where he was. I went. He said he was pretty sick and asked me if I'd go to Doc Forman's with him. We got started. I asked him if he wanted to take a street car. He said no, he'd walk.

While the doc was working on him, he looked bad. Doc asked him if he felt faint. He said he felt funny, but didn't know what it was. Doc went out of the room and came back with a glass with a little something in it, and said "Here, drink that."

Dan says "What is it, whiskey?"

Doc says "No, it's brandy."

"Give it to Art," says Dan, "I'd rather die than drink the damn stuff!"


Once the whole gang was near the corner of Geddes and Gifford, across from Carney's saloon. Carney himself came along and started in, but turned as he reached the door, and called "Hello, Dan!" Dan said hello, and Carney went in.

Then Dan said to the gang, "Did you see that? Did you see that? I'm the only one who never spent a nickel in his place, and I'm the only one he spoke to!"


Dan worked and got some money. In fact, for all their drinking, his father and mother left quite a piece of property. It was some land they couldn't sell easy. Dan and his brothers -- and sisters, too, I suppose -- got together and marked it off into building lots and divided it. Dennis and John drank up their shares, and Dan lost his in the brickyard. He didn't do very well with that brickyard on Rowland Street, and he went out to Camillus and started one there. That time he lost it all.

He came back to Syracuse. Somehow he got the idea he could build cellars. Fifty or sixty years ago [circa 1900 -SH] most of the houses up in the Second Ward were set on posts, with no cellar or regular foundation, and there was quite a spell a few years later when builders were busy raising the houses and putting in cellars.

Dan wanted a hundred dollars for mason's supplies, etc., to start business. But nobody'd lend it to him. They didn't have any confidence in him.

Finally he went to Frank Dolan, the real estate man, and explained to him what he wanted to do. Frank listened, then counted out a hundred dollars and handed it to him.

Dan says, "All right -- make out your note and I'll sign it."

Frank says "No need of any note. If you make good, you'll pay me. And if you don't, a note wouldn't be any good anyway."

Dan made good, all right, and paid.


Crouse Klock asked Dan if he'd take down the old Crouse place, on Genesee St. between University and Crouse Avenuse, about across from the old orphan asylum. [Note:- Next to University Ave. church, where the armory is now. -MEH] There were two buildings on the place, the house and barn (carriage house). He wanted Dan to do it for the material in the buildings. Dan said he would. Then he asked me if I'd go up and look at it with him. When we looked it over, I told him I thought he ought to get a hundred dollars besides the material. So he went back and told Crouse Klock, who agreed.

There was some beautiful hand-carved woodwork around a couple doors. A woman walked in one day while we were working, and asked what we'd take for it. I told her I wasn't boss, but I'd ask Mr. Kelly. I told Dan about it, but it must have slipped his mind or something. For the next thing I knew, a couple Irish laborere he had hired were ripping the stuff out with crowbars. He could easily have got another hundred for it.

The old lath they ripped off the walls and piled out in back. The pile was as big as a haystack. Dan touched a match to it to be rid of it. Maybe that didn't make some blaze! The sparks were flying all over the neighborhood. Some of the neighbors got excited and called the fire department. I didn't blame them.

Number Seven came, from Fayette St. just below University. The chief asked who was in charge of the job. I told him Kelly was. He said, "Tell him we want to see him."

But Dan stayed in the house. He knew better than to come out -- he knew they'd turn the hose on him. But the chief gave him a good talking to later.


Working for McNeill, on a job on Cortland Ave., Dan came along with the wagon one day, and asked me if I'd go with him up near the university to get something. I asked what street.

He said, "I can't think of the name, but we'll find it." We went along till we got up on S. Crouse Ave., where Marshall comes in, and coming down the hill was a well-dressed couple. The man looked as if he was a professional man of some sort. Dan suddenly recalled, and let out a yell, "Say! Where in hell is Useless Avenue?" [Note:- He was looking for Euclid. -MEH]


The brick Dan got from razing the old Crouse place, he used for the inside course of bricks, to build a couple of houses near the corner of Elliott and Geddes Streets. A fellow who lived near there asked me one day, "Doesn't Dan Kelly ever sleep?" He said he woke up at two that morning and heard some pounding. He looked out, and there was old Dan with a lantern, busy cleaning bricks.


Dan said once that if he thought there was a man anywhere in the world that he'd done any harm to, he couldn't rest until he'd found him and squared it with him.


When we were raising a house for an Irishman one time, an old woman came out. She said to Dan, "I'll bet I came from Ireland before you did."

"I'll bet you did, too," said Dan. "I never was there."


Dan was an awful man to holler. Once on a job, Young Dan did something he didn't like, and how he yelled! He bawled him out for fair, and called him down fifty ways.

When he got through, Young Dan says, "Was you talkin' to me?"

Old Dan says, "Yes! I was!"

Then Young Dan says "Oh-- well, what did you say?"


Finale (by AGH)





  1. Wow, that must've been one hell of an athletic rat. From your description, Big Art's breastbone must've been close to 5 feet.

    I think this is my favorite entry so far. Dan was quite a character huh? I can see Billy Bob playing him in the bio-pic. Ever try to google him?

    Terrible Dan. Death On Booze. Useless Street. They could all be Greenday song titles.

    Is it wrong that Doug's image instantly popped into my head when I read the words "Irish laborere ripping the stuff out"?

    You are transcribing a LOT of hand-written text here. How are the ol' eyes holding out?

  2. Oh yeah, what's with the "Aunt ________,"?

  3. "Aunt ______________" was your great-aunt Mary's way of admitting that she didn't remember the woman's name.

    Your observations are absolutely dead-on, Adam! I think we should send your suggestions on to Billy Bob and Billy Joe.