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A haunting mystery rests in the Watertown Daily Times basement


The plot thickens!

Nobody knows how long two cemetery monuments, well over a century old, have been resting in the basement of the Watertown Daily Times building at 260 Washington St.

Could they have been moved here sometime in 1962 when the newspaper abandoned its old plant on Arcade Street? John B. Johnson Jr., editor and co-publisher, doesn’t think so, but he can’t be sure.

And from what cemetery did they come? Why are they here? Were they stolen? Who is to say?

In our basement are the grave markers for Aaron Thomas and his wife, Betsey. The monuments helpfully inform us that Aaron died on June 4, 1869, and that his widow survived him by nearly five years, dying on April 11, 1874.

During the past week, we decided to do some investigative digging, so that we could return the markers to their rightful place. Our findings just added one more startling question: why would we have possession of gravestones in Watertown that originally must have been placed in a cemetery at Malone?

That’s a question mark with an exclamation.

Our initial inquiry fell into the capable hands of Times librarian Lisa Carr, who searched old newspaper death notices on microfilm and the Internet, with the natural assumption being these folks must have been in Jefferson County. Nothing found.

We went to Jefferson County Surrogate Court and to the Watertown city clerk’s office. Again, nothing. No death records.

Next, we searched the Thomas album in the genealogy department at Roswell P. Flower Memorial Library. There, we thought we had a discovery: Betsy Thomas. But no, a different spelling, and she died early in the 1900s.

Finally, a volunteer in the genealogy department hit pay dirt for us. Going to the Internet, he found Aaron and Betsey were a farming couple who owned a considerable amount of property in Franklin County, somewhere in or near Malone. His source: the 1860 census for Franklin County, displayed on HeritageQuest Online.

Back to Lisa Carr we went. Now searching historic Franklin County newspapers, she found nothing for Aaron, but there in the May 7, 1874, issue of the Malone Palladium was a death notice: “THOMAS — In Malone, April 11, 1874, Mrs. Betsey Thomas, wife of Aaron Thomas, aged 75 years.”

Ms. Carr found something else, a mortgage sale announcement, dated April 17, 1873: “ ... including in said fourteen acres of land heretofore conveyed to said Charles Thomas by Aaron Thomas, deceased. The premises above described comprise and embrace all the land lying east of said highway owned by said Aaron Thomas, deceased, in his lifetime.”

Our quest then moved to the Franklin County records management office, hoping that it could determine in what cemetery these monuments belong. There, a very interested civil servant picked up the trail, but to a dead end. Recorded death records do not go back that far, she found, and old cemetery records are based on the charting of monuments. Since Aaron and Betsey’s monuments were in a Watertown newspaper’s basement rather than in a cemetery, there is no Franklin County cemetery showing a burial place for the long-forgotten couple.

Mr. Johnson said Friday his goal is to return the monuments to Franklin County. But where?

Perhaps the next step is for all the Thomas families in Franklin County to search their genealogy.

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