Oysterman Joshua Leviness of City Island Accused of Stealing Oysters Near High Island in 1883
Pelham once was oyster capital of the world and supplied New York City with much of its massive daily oyster fare at a time when oysters were sold on nearly every street corner. In those days, City Island was part of the Town of Pelham before its annexation by New York City. City Island Oystermen were world famous for their harvests off the shores of the island and for their scientific approach to the renewal of the resource on which they relied. It was a serious business. Pitched battles were fought in Long Island Sound among oystermen, including City Island oystermen, protecting their right to harvest the tasty marine morsels.
Today's posting to the Historic Pelham Blog tells a rather bizarre story about an incident in 1884 that involved "Captain Josh" of City Island (i.e., Joshua Leviness, one of the earliest oystermen of City Island). The incident resulted in an arbitration, followed by an indictment of Joshua Leviness for grand larceny involving an oyster bed, followed by a criminal trial and a directed verdict in favor of Leviness. The story is told more fully below, followed by transcriptions of a number of news articles that referenced the event at the time.
I have written extensively on numerous occasions about Pelham's rich oystering history. At the end of this posting, I have included links to a large number of previous stories about Pelham and the City Island oystering industry.
In early November, 1883, City Island in the Town of Pelham was "thrown into a flutter of excitement." One of its most notable oystermen -- indeed, the dean of its oystermen -- had been caught under the cover of darkness at about 2:00 a.m. dredging oysters from beds to the north and west of High Island, just off the shores of City Island. The executors of the estate of a recently-deceased oysterman named Samuel P. Billar confronted Leviness and claimed that the beds had belonged to Billar and, thus, were part of his estate for which they were responsible. The executors threatened legal proceedings against Leviness.
According to one report, "in order to save litigation and expenses," Leviness made overtures to settle the matter before a referee. The men agreed and Justice Thomas Martin was chosen to serve as the referee.
The referee held a hearing during which both sides presented their respective positions. Leviness argued that he had staked out the oyster beds at issue more than 50 years before. The executors of Billar's estate presented evidence that the beds belonged to Billar and Billar's father. After a full hearing, the referee ruled in favor of the executors of Billar's estate.
Consequently, a warrant was issued to arrest Leviness for larceny. Leviness was arrested and, on November 27, 1883, a local justice set a bond of $1,000 to be paid by Leviness "to await the action of the grand jury." The following month, a local grand jury indicted Leviness for larceny in the second degree.
Leviness fought the charges. A criminal trial was held before the Court of Sessions in White Plains on Wednesday, May 21, 1884.
During the trial the District Attorney presented a "number of witnesses" who all testified that during the months of September and October, 1883, they had personally observed Leviness harvesting oysters from the oyster beds in question. The witnesses further testified that the oyster beds belonged to Samuel P. Billar and his father. Leviness, however, was able to establish that he had staked out the original lines and monuments of the oyster beds 50 years before and, thus, he owned them. On motion of his attorney, Cornelius E. Kene, the Court entered a directed verdict in favor of Leviness, dismissing the case.
Captain Josh was a tough old fellow who had been involved in several previous litigations, had lived through the infamous oyster wars, and was not about to be intimidated. He threatened a suit for false imprisonment against the executors of Billar's estate, saying that he planned to seek "heavy damages" for his arrest and detention.
Leviness continued to work as an oysterman until his death in his house on Main Street, City Island on November 26, 1892. Below are articles about his arrest and acquittal for larceny, followed by his obituary. Each is followed by a citation to its source.
"About the first of November, 1883, City Island was, one morning, thrown into a flutter of excitement, by the announcement that during the night previous, Capt. Joshua Leviness had been caught taking up oysters from grounds belonging to the Billar estate. He was confronted by the executors of the estate and flatly denied the ownership. The executors thereupon threatened legal proceedings, when Leviness made overtures and in order to save litigation and expense it was mutually agreed to have the matter settled before a referee. Justice Thomas Martin was chosen as the referee and after a full an impartial hearing of both sides decided against Leviness. Accordingly, a warrant was issued for larceny, he was arrested and an examination was held on the 27th of November when the justice decided to hold him in the sum of $1,000 to await the action of the grand jury. That body, at the December term, found an indictment for larceny in the second degree against Leviness, and his trial took place on Wednesday of last week [i.e., May 21, 1884], when he was acquitted, the Jury finding him not guilty."
Source: Pelham And City Island, The Chronicle [Mount Vernon, NY], May 30, 1884, Vol. XV, Col. 767, p. 3, col. 4.
"An indictment for larceny in the second degree has been found against Joshua Leviness, of City Island. This is the result of a dispute as to the ownership of an oyster bed. Several weeks ago Leviness was caught about two o'clock in the morning tonging oysters from grounds claimed by the Billar estate, and when charged with theft he denied that the oysters belonged to the above estate. The case, by mutual agreement was heard before Justice Thomas Martin as referee, who decided against Leviness and he was held in $1,000 bonds."
Source: PELHAM AND CITY ISLAND, The Chronicle [Mount Vernon, NY], Jan. 11, 1884, Vol. XV, No. 747, p. 3, col. 4.
"VICINITY NOTES. . . .
An indictment for larceny in the second degree has been found against Joshua Leviness, of City Island. This is a result of a dispute as to the ownership of an oyster bed."
Source: VICINITY NOTES, Eastern State Journal [White Plains, NY], Jan. 11, 1884, Vol, XXXIX, No. 40, p. 3, col. 4.
"The People vs. Leviness.
The executors of the estate of S. P. Billar, late of City Island, deceased, made complaint to the Grand Jury that Joshua Leviness, a well-known oysterman of that place, had unlawfully taken oysters to the value of several hundred dollars from the oyster beds belonging to the estate. He was indicted for grand larceny in consequence. The trial of the indictment took place on Wednesday last before the Court of Sessions at White Plains. District Attorney Baker called a number of witnesses for the prosecution who testified that the defendant had gone twelve or fifteen times on the oyster beds, lying to the north and west of High Island and raked and tongued oysters in September and October 1883. They had all seen the defendant on the beds and claimed the beds were owned by Samuel P. Billar and his father. On the part of the defendant it was proven that the original lines and monuments of the beds had been staked out by Joshua Leviness 50 years ago. That after the oysters had been taken, the question of ownership was submitted to arbitration. On motion of Cornelius E. Kene the Court directed the jury to acquit the defendant, which they did."
Source: The People vs. Leviness, New Rochelle Pioneer, May 24, 1884, p.3, col. 5.
"CITY ISLAND. . . .
--In the case of Joshua Leviness, charged with stealing oysters from the lands of the late Samuel P. Billar, was tried before County Judge Mills and a jury, on Wednesday [May 21, 1884]. At the close of the case the Judge directed the jury to acquit the defendant. It is said that a suit for false imprisonment is to follow, and that heavy damages will be claimed for the arrest and detention of the Captain."
Source: City Island, New Rochelle Pioneer, May 24, 1884, p.3, col. 6.
"DIED--On Saturday evening, Nov. 26th, Joshua Leviness, in his 77th year. All the old inhabitants of this county were acquainted with Captain Josh, as he was familiarly called, and he was a life-long resident of this place. His many acts of charity were known to all the poor people here. In his death they have lost a good kind friend. Mr. Leviness was a large property owner and one of the early settlers of this town. He was actively engaged in the oyster planting business up to the time of his death. He was also largely interested in the steamboats and other craft. His funeral took place on Wednesday afternoon, Nov. 30th, from his late residence on Main street, and it was attended by a large number of his friends, many prominent men of this county being present. Mr. Leviness leaves a wife and three children to mourn his loss. Interment in the family plot on City Island."
Source: DIED, The Daily Argus [Mount Vernon, NY], Dec. 1, 1892, Vol. I, No. 204, p. 2, col. 2.
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Thu., Mar. 25, 2010: Discovery of "The Great Oyster Bed" in Long Island Sound in 1859.