Historic Pelham

Presenting the rich history of Pelham, NY in Westchester County: current historical research, descriptions of how to research Pelham history online and genealogy discussions of Pelham families.

Monday, May 16, 2005

The Discovery of a Gold and Silver Treasure in the Backyard of a Pelham Home in 1889

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Every youngster dreams about it: the discovery of a hidden treasure of gold and silver in the backyard. Many Pelham youngsters have searched their backyards with dreams of riches buried beneath the soil, hidden under a rock or squirreled away in the hollow of a crooked old tree. This is a story about a real treasure of gold and silver discovered in the back yard of a Pelham resident in 1889.

In about 1879, a man named W. W. Bissell who was President of the New-Rochelle Bank, bought a home in Pelham Manor from Robert C. Black of Black, Starr & Frost. When Mr. Bissell purchased the house, there was "an old-fashioned and very rusty iron safe" lying in the backyard which Mr. Black agreed to remove.

Years passed, but Mr. Black failed to cart the heavy safe away. According to one account, Mrs. Bissell "particularly objected to it as an eyesore". Mr. and Mrs. Bissell repeatedly asked Mr. Black to remove the safe for a number of years, "but the matter was delayed from year to year".

Early in 1889 Mr. Black finally relented and arranged the removal of the heavy safe. He arranged for a contractor named Peter Berger to remove the safe and do with it what he wished.

On Tuesday, April 16, 1889, Peter Berger appeared at Mr. Bissell's home with a pair of oxen and a stoneboat. He wrestled the safe onto the stoneboat and used the oxen to drag it away. As he dragged it down the road, he met a junk dealer who "offered to buy the safe for old iron" for two dollars. The two men could not fit the safe onto the junk man's vehicle, so the transaction failed and Berger dragged the safe to his home. At his home he sold the safe to his son for one dollar.

On Saturday, April 20, 1889, Mr. Berger's son decided to demolish the safe with a sledge hammer to ease its cartage for scrap iron. What happened next is the stuff of legend in Pelham. According to an account that appeared the next day in The New York Times:

"The old iron gave way easily, and through an aperture there was soon seen metal inside which looked valuable. Young Berger then worked more carefully, and when he removed the safe's contents he found he had on hand several pieces of old silver, lined with gold and handsomely chased. He took them to a jeweler at New-Rochelle, who found they were of solid silver, several of the pieces being part of a tea set and marked 'C. Stevens.'

Mr. Black said that he had no claim on the silver, as it was left on the premises when he sold the place to Mr. Bissell. To his memory the safe had been where it lay for fifteen years.

Mr. Stevens lived in Pelham Manor in 1870 and 1871, and is said to have done business at that time as a real estate dealer in lower Broadway. No one in Pelham Manor now can give any definite information regarding him or his family. Stories were retailed to the effect that some of the silver found bore the name 'Napoleon III' and the initial 'E.' which suggestes Eugenie, but gentlemen who examed the pieces were not able to say that they made any such discovery. Some old residents called to mind the robbery by masked burglars of the Emmett mansion on the Pelham road in 1874 [sic], and suggested that the safe might have been made the receptacle of some of the plunder."

Source: Treasure in an Old Safe, N.Y. Times, Apr. 21, 1889, p. 20.

Tomorrow, this blog will discuss the infamous masked burglar robberies of 1873 that included the robbery of J. P. Emmett of Pelham.

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