Monday, August 23, 2010

Death at the Bridge: A Genealogical Detective Story


Over the years, the starkly beautiful Bear Mountain Bridge, like the Eiffel Tower, has gained grudging acceptance from former critics. In its striking mountainous setting, it has become a favorite of artists and photographers. Hikers and campers are familiar with the bridge; the Appalachian Trail between Maine and Georgia crosses the Hudson on it. It also became a magnet for suicides.

What may have been the bridge’s first suicide took place on Sunday, April 6, 1930, and was reported in the next morning's edition of The New York Times under the headline, “Youth Dies in Leap Off Bear Mt. Bridge.” About 6:20 p.m., a roadster crossing the bridge came to a stop in the middle. The driver of the automobile sat for a moment arranging papers. Then he left the car, climbed the four-foot guardrail and jumped.

On the driver’s seat was an operator’s license issued to Gifford Kellogg of 31 Bayley Ave., in the Ludlow section of Yonkers, N.Y., a son of Royal S. Kellogg, secretary of the Newsprint Service Bureau of New York and chairman of the National Forestry Program Committee. With the license was an unsigned and unaddressed note that read:

“Put this story on the front page of The New York Times where my father will read it and come and get the car. Also telegraph Harry Beach of Lime Rock, Conn.”According to the Times account, folded in the note was a year-old newspaper clipping that told of Mrs. Royal S. Kellogg’s winning a prize for landscape gardening work. Neighbors said that the Kelloggs had two sons and that the present Mrs. Kellogg was their stepmother. Efforts to recover the body were hampered by the swift current in the river at this point.

The New York Times had carried the story--not on the front page but on page 22. According to the Times account, Yonkers neighbors reported that the elder Mr. Kellogg had two sons, one about 25 years old and a younger son of about 19, and that the present Mrs. Kellogg was their stepmother.

The Times also reported that two persons, Joseph Dentofamti and Frances Massutti, both of Tarrytown, were standing on the footwalk of the bridge and witnessed the sequence of events, which they related to the police.

On its Monday front page, the Peekskill Evening Star also reported essentially the same story under the headline, “Youth Jumps From Bridge At Bear Mt.” Thanks to a later press deadline, a few changes and corrections were added by the reporter who had also written the Times story.
The prize Mrs. Kellogg had won was for a landscape painting. And the jumper was the 19-year-old son, Six years before, young Gifford Kellogg had found his mother dying in her room of a gunshot wound to the head.

“Mr. Kellogg had remarried about three years ago,” according to the Peekskill Evening Star. It also reported that police from Bear Mountain Park and from Peekskill were called and took possession of the automobile. They were unsuccessful in notifying Mr. Kellogg of his son’s death. “Mr. Kellogg spends much of his time in travelling in connection with his duties and could not b reached last night. Nor was Mrs. Kellogg at home when the police went to inform her of her step-son’s death.”

Mr. Kellogg was described as “an expert as an authority on newsprint and forestry problems, and former chairman of the national forestry program committee. He also is a former president of the Kansas Society of New York. Mr. Kellogg appears frequently as a speaker in the United States and Canada on topics relating to forestry and the manufacture of paper. The Kelloggs have lived at the Yonkers address for seven years.”

The fact that the suicide of 80 years ago was witnessed by two Westchester residents was tantalizing. Were they--or any descendants--still living? One problem immediately presented itself to an investigationalong these lines. The witnesses' names had an Italian look to them, yet something about them did not ring true. The Social Security Death Index showed no record for anyone by the name of Dentofamti and only two entries for Massutti, one in Illinois and the other in Washington.

Reporters often gather details of a story by phoning the local police department. I wondered: Could the spelling of the names have been mangled in this process? What if the “D” of Dentofamti was actually a “C” and the “m” was actually an “n”? That would yield the more usual Italian name of Centofanti. And what if the “ss” of Massutti was actually “ff” and the “tt” was actually “cc,” to yield the more common Italian name of Maffucci? Another genealogical detective story was about to unfold.

The Social Security Death Index (SSDI) shows 229 Maffucci entries (47 originally issued in N.Y.) and 272 Centofanti entries (57 originally issued in N.Y.)--including one for Frances M. Centofanti, who died on May 25, 2003.

A search of the Journal News obituary archive after that date revealed Frances M. Centofanti’s detailed obituary, published on June 1, 2003. It contained a wealth of information, including the fact that her husband, Joseph (Josie) Centofanti had predeceased her. They had been married in North Tarrytown on May 19, 1930--little more than a month after witnessing the suicide. She was to be buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. A call to the cemetery confirmed that she is buried there alongside her husband, who died in 1954.

According to the obituary, Frances M. Centofanti died at the Bon Secours Venice Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, Venice, Fla., at the age of 92. She was born on October 14, 1910, on the Rockefeller estate in Pocantico Hills, N.Y. to Frank and Flavia Maffucci. Mrs. Centofanti lived in the Tarrytowns until 1996, and subsequently lived with her son and daughter-in-law in Vienna, Va., moving with them to Florida in 1998.

A single mother who never remarried after her husband’s death, she worked as a bookkeeper for a company in Tarrytown until she retired. She was also predeceased by her brothers Thomas and Dominick, and sisters Mary and Rose, and survived by her son, Joseph J. Centofanti, Col. USAF (Ret), of Venice, Fla., daughter-in-law Faith, three grandchildren, Joseph III (Prague, Czech Republic), Christin Commons (Reston, Va.), and Stephen (Aspen, Col.); and one great-grandson Jonathon (Vienna, Austria) and two nieces; Marie Callahan (Pocantico Hills) and Flavia White (Ossining).

Internet research soon gave me the address and phone number of her son, the retired Air Force colonel. After putting photocopies of the newspaper articles in the mail, I telephoned Col. Centofanti, who had never seen the newspaper pieces. It turned out that the youth’s suicide had indeed been a subject of family conversation and reminiscence in later years. We had a long and pleasant conversation about the lower Hudson Valley and our respective lives. Making new friends is one of the pleasures of genealogical research.

Finding information about Royal S. Kellogg was more difficult, although he was a prolific author of works on paper making and forestry. The SSDI shows four persons named “Royal Kellogg,” including one born in 1874. In 1963, Mr. Kellogg was given the honorary title of “Fellow of the Forest” by the Forest Historical Society in Durham, N.C. A search of the Society’s site revealed that it owns a manuscript titled “The Dawn of Private Forestry in America,” by Carl Alwin Schenck, a pioneer American forester. Royal S. Kellogg appears in a photograph in this manuscript with famous naturalist and writer Ernest Thompson Seton. The caption to the photo reveals Mr. Kellogg’s birth year as 1874.

This Royal Kellogg seemed like the person I was seeking. His SSDI entry shows that he was born on Oct. 19, 1874. and registered for Social Security in New York. He died in Florida in February of 1965 at the age of 90. But where in Florida? Social Security records did not show this information, but I eventually found a letter written by him to Time magazine that appeared in the issue of Feb. 2, 1962, three years before his death. He gave his address then as Palmetto, Florida.

Other suicides--and even a staged non-suicide--have occurred over the years. The most notable of the latter was perpetrated by Samuel Israel III, who swindled investors out of $450 million in the collapse of his Bayou Group hedge fund. Instead of reporting to prison on June 9, 2008, to begin his 20-year sentence, the convicted swindler drove his SUV to the Bear Mountain Bridge.

After parking near the bridge, he wrote the words, “Suicide Is Painless” (the theme song of the M*A*S*H TV series) in the accumulated dust on the hood and got into a car driven by his girlfriend, Debra Ryan. Mr. Israel headed north in his RV to a campground and RV park near Granville, Mass., where he hid out for almost a month. When he finally decided to turn himself in, because the local police department in Granville only works part-time, Mr. Israel was forced to ride his motor scooter to the police department in the nearby town of Southwick, Mass., seven miles away.

His short, 26-day escapade was just one more bad decision in his life as a white-collar criminal. It earned him an extra two years added to his 20-year sentence, or about one month of prison time for each day spent as a fugitive.
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