Monday, December 26, 2011

A Death at the Bear Mountain Bridge


Historical research is sometimes characterized disparagingly as rummaging around in the dustbin of history. But historical researchers are actually more like detectives, seeking evidence, uncovering clues, relying on hunches or educated guesses and sometimes solving mysteries.
While researching the building of the Bear Mountain Bridge for an article published recently in these pages, I stumbled on an account of what may have been its first suicide.
The story begins on April 6, 1930, an almost balmy Sunday that attracted throngs of winter-weary visitors to Bear Mountain Park. About 6:20 p.m., a roadster traveling across the bridge stopped in the middle of the span.
The driver sat for a moment arranging papers. Then, as a horrified young couple standing on the bridge watched, he exited the car, climbed the four-foot guardrail and jumped.
On the driver’s seat he left a driver’s license issued to Gifford Kellogg of 31Bayley 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, Connecticut.”

The New York Times Story
The Times carried the story of the suicide the next morning under the headline, “Youth Dies in Leap Off Bear Mt. Bridge”--not on the front page but on page 22. According to the Times, folded in the suicide note was a year-old newspaper clipping reporting that Mrs. Royal S. Kellogg had won a prize for landscape gardening.
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. Efforts to recover the body were hampered by the swift current in the river.
The Times also named the two persons who were standing on the foot walk of the bridge and witnessed the sequence of events, which they related to the police. They were identified as Joseph Dentofamti and Frances Massutti, both of Tarrytown.

The Peekskill Star Story
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, the reporter was able to make a few additions and corrections.
The prize Mrs. Kellogg had won was for a landscape painting. And the jumper was confirmed to have been the Kellogg’s 19-year-old son. The Kelloggs had lived at the Yonkers address for seven years. The Evening Star story added the news that six years before, young Gifford Kellogg had found his mother in her room dying of a gunshot wound to the head.
“Mr. Kellogg remarried about three years ago,” according to the Peekskill Evening Star. It also reported that police from Bear Mountain Park and Peekskill had been called and took possession of the automobile.
The police were unsuccessful in notifying Mr. Kellogg of his son’s death.  “Mr. Kellogg spends much of his time in traveling in connection with his duties and could not be reached last night. Nor was Mrs. Kellogg at home when the police went to inform her of her step-son’s death.”
The fact that the suicide 81 years ago was witnessed by two Westchester residents was tantalizing. I wondered whether they--or any descendants--were still living.

Tracing the Names
The witnesses' names had an Italian ring to them, yet something about them did not seem right. The Social Security Death Index (SSDI), a useful tool for researchers, showed no record for anyone by the name of Dentofamti and only two entries for Massutti, one who had  registered for a Social Security account in Illinois and the other in Washington.
Reporters often gather details of a story by phoning the local police department. 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 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.

Searching the Death Index
The Social Security Death Index (SSDI) shows 229 Maffucci entries (47 of them originally issued in N.Y.) and 282 Centofanti entries (58 originally issued in N.Y.)--including one for Frances M. Centofanti who died in Venice, Fla., on May 25, 2003, at the age of 92.
A search of the local Gannett Journal News obituary archive revealed Frances M. Centofanti’s detailed obituary. 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 tragic suicide. She was to be buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. A call to the cemetery confirmed that she is buried alongside her husband who died in 1954.
According to the obituary, she was born on October 14, 1910, to Frank and Flavia Maffucci on the Rockefeller estate in Pocantico Hills, N.Y. 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, of Venice, Fla., a retired Air Force colonel, daughter-in-law Faith, three grandchildren, one great-grandson and two nieces.
Internet research gave me the address and phone number of her son, the retired Air Force colonel. 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.

Closing the Circle
Finding information about Royal S. Kellogg was more difficult, although he was a prolific author of books on paper making and forestry. 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 an unpublished 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 revealed Mr. Kellogg’s birth year as 1874.  
The SSDI shows four persons named Royal Kellogg. One of the four seemed like the one I was seeking. 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. I eventually found a letter written by him to Time magazine and published in the issue of Feb. 2, 1962, three years before his death. In it, he gave his address as Palmetto, Florida. The circle was closed.
Rummaging in the dustbin of history? I call it tying up loose ends and setting the historical record straight.


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