The Story of
Steuben County's Most Famous Crook
Each year since 1976 worthy men and women have been elected to the Steuben County Hall of Fame. Many individuals have been honored for their contributions to their community, county, state, or nation. However, some people become well known not for their good deeds, but for their bad deeds. The word for them is "notorious," not "famous"; they belong in a "hall of shame," rather than a "hall of fame." Steuben County has always had less crime than the big cities, but it has had a number of well-known crooks. During the 1820s a gang of thieves and counterfeiters led by Thomas Mayberry and Robert Douglass had its headquarters at Mayberry's tavern in the Canisteo River gorge above Addison. During the early 1920s Bert Parry and others robbed Lackawanna trains in the northern part of the county. But probably the most notorious criminal in Steuben County's history was Joe Rosenkrans.
Joe Rosenkrans' career in crime lasted over a quarter of a century, including four prison terms. He was reputed to be the head of a gang of thieves and counterfeiters active in several counties, with underworld connections as far east as New York City and as far west as Chicago. Joe Rosenkrans and his gang stole anything that was not nailed down, and passed phony bank notes without batting an eye. Joe was a crook, but he was never charged with a violent crime (as far as I have been able to learn). Even law-abiding folk admitted that Joe had some good qualities: he was a good neighbor and family man, and certainly a clever son of a gun. One couldn't trust him, but in a way one couldn't help liking him. In this article I shall trace Joe Rosenkrans' criminal career from his first arrest in 1840 to his final release from prison in 1870. I shall also try to place Joe's career in the context of other organized criminal activity in Steuben County in the mid-nineteenth century.
Joseph Rosenkrans Jr. was born near Elmira on October 14, 1808.1 He was the son of Joseph Rosenkrans Sr. and Jemima Emmons, and was the youngest of eight children. The Rosenkrans family came from New Jersey and was of Dutch ancestry. About 1811 the Rosenkrans family settled on Bully Hill near Keuka Lake. In the late 1820s or early '30s Joseph Rosenkrans Sr. moved again, this time to the town of Cohocton. He bought a farm near where Twelve Mile Creek joins the Conhocton River. After Joseph Rosenkrans Sr. died in 1837 the farm passed to his son, Joseph Jr. The farm was located just north of what is now Wallace. When the town of Avoca was formed in 1843, the Rosenkrans property fell within the new town, though it lay close to the Cohocton line.
If poverty causes crime, then Joe Rosenkrans should not have been a criminal. The Rosenkrans family was never rich, but it was far from poor. In 1835 the New York State Census found that the Rosenkrans farm contained 40 acres of improved land. The U.S. Census of 1850 reveals that the farm had grown to 140 acres of improved land; its cash value was listed as $5000. The value of the Rosenkrans farm doubled over the next decade, mainly because of the general rise of land values brought by the coming of the railroad to the valley in 1852. The 1850 Census states that Joe Rosenkrans had eight milk cows, a yoke of oxen, four other cattle, six horses, and a dozen hogs. He grew 300 bushels of wheat, 100 bushels of corn, fifty tons of hay, and 800 bushels of oats (to feed his stable of fine horses). The 1860 Census shows that Joe Rosenkrans had added a new line of farming: he grew 2000 pounds of tobacco. Rosenkrans was practically the only farmer in the upper Conhocton Valley to grow that crop. The farm buildings included a tobacco barn for drying and curing the leaf. Like every other farmer of any means, Joe Rosenkrans had hired hands to help with the work. His two sons certainly worked too, once they were old enough. But we can conclude that Joe Rosenkrans was at least part of the time a working farmer. He certainly did not have to turn to crime to make ends meet.
Joe Rosenkrans came from a big family, and he had a family of his own. His brother Levi settled at what is now the village of Wayland, and some of his descendants still live there. Two of Joe's brothers died as young men. Three other brothers went west to Michigan or Ohio. Their only sister, Cynthia Rosenkrans, was born in 1802, She never married, lived with her parents and later with her brother Joe, and died in 1876. Cynthia seems to have been a strong, determined woman, loyal o her errant brother. Her name will come up again. Joe Rosenkrans married late, at age 35, to a woman named Mary Austin. They had four children: two sons, Aubert D. and George Byron; a daughter Mary Helen, who married LeRoy Jones and lived in Savona; and a daughter, Josephine, who died as a little girl. Aubert D. Rosenkrans married three times and lived out his life on the family farm. He was a justice of the peace for the town of Avoca and a freemason, in short a worthy citizen. His brother Byron Rosenkrans never married and lived in the family homestead.
It is hard to say exactly when and why Joe Rosenkrans went bad. He was already involved with the law as a young man, during the 1830s. In 1832 Joseph Rosenkrans Sr. and Jr. were sued by the widow of Elijah Rosenkrans of the town of Urbana (Hammondsport), who had died the previous year. (Elijah was Joe Jr.'s brother.) The two Joes had taken possession of $800 worth of horses, oxen, harness, clothing, and crops belonging to Elijah's estate. Nancy Rosenkrans wanted it all back, and the county court found in her favor. The details behind this case are not known, but it seems clear that the two Joes, father and son, both had their eyes out for property that did not belong to them. A couple of years later, in 1834, Joe Jr. was himself the victim of a crime. A man named John Beebe stole from Joe a horse, saddle, and bridle, also some clothing, boots, and "two pocket books of the value of forty dollars."2 Beebe was convicted of grand larceny and sentenced to two years in Auburn Prison. That is all the court records say, but one might ask, was this a quarrel among thieves?"
© 1993, James D. Folts, Jr.
1. No photograph of Joseph Rosenkrans is known to exist, but an Auburn Prison register states that he had a dark complexion and stood five feet six inches tall.
2. A man's "pocket book" was a leather roll with pouches for money and promissory notes. It was the predecessor to the wallet.