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How the Internet cleared up my grandpa’s sordid past

My grandfather was a murderer.

At least, that’s the story we heard from my father, especially during the last years of his life when creeping dementia began shifting his focus from the present to the past. Dad repeated the story often: My grandfather, Ralph Perkins Hawley, had killed somebody and spent 10 years in prison for it.

But thanks to the Internet, we now know this isn’t entirely true. There’s little doubt that Grandpa Hawley killed somebody — it was, in fact, a violent slaying in front of a crowd of witnesses — but it also appears that he got away with it.

The Internet can be a great research tool, though you sometimes have to dig around to find reliable sources. In the case of my grandfather’s bloody misstep, lots of details became available when the New York Times began allowing free access to some of its online archives. That’s where we found several accounts of what my grandfather did back in 1899.

The version of the story my father told us repeatedly was this:

My grandfather was a telegraph operator in the Buffalo, N.Y., office of the Buffalo, Rochester and Pittsburgh Railroad during a trainman strike sometime around the turn of the 20th century. He and other non-union men were forced to scab, which involved trying to move freight trains through mobs of striking workers.

During the fatal incident, the train was boarded by strikers who attacked the crew. My grandfather picked up a wrench or some other heavy tool to defend himself and whacked a striker over the head with it, killing the man. Grandpa Hawley was convicted of murder and spent a decade in prison. When he was released, the only person who would have anything to do with him was his older brother, Oscar, who lived across the street from a Presbyterian church in Hartwell, a little river town near Cincinnati, Ohio.

Salvation and a sweetheart
It was there, according to family lore, where Grandpa Hawley, then 40, spent his summer Sunday mornings sitting on the porch listening to the voice of the soloist — a paid singer, as it turned out — performing in the church across the street. She was my grandmother, Adah Johnson, a 38-year-old spinster. The two eventually met and married, and my father, their only child, was born a year or so later, in 1915.

My father sometimes concluded this story by noting that if Ralph P. Hawley hadn’t murdered somebody, his parents and my grandparents might never have met.

Ralph P. Hawley died in 1940, six years before I was born and several years before my parents met. My grandmother, who lived with us during my childhood, died when I was in high school, but she never spoke of her husband’s dark past. For his part, dad went to the grave with that story intact.

Then the Internet came along. Last year, one of my brothers was surfing around the Web when he fell upon the New York Times archives for 1899. In it he found an account of Ralph P. Hawley’s murderous act in a story titled “A Battle in Cleveland.”

The devil is in the details
In broad outlines — very broad outlines — the story my dad related was true. But the devil, as they say, is in the details.

There was a strike, but it was in Cleveland, Ohio, not Buffalo, N.Y. And it involved streetcar conductors, not railroad engineers. And my grandfather, then 26, wasn’t forced to work as a scab; he traveled from his home near Buffalo to Cleveland specifically to get a job as a non-union strikebreaker.

On July 24, 1899, he killed a 19-year-old man named Henry Cornweit (or Kornzweit, as the name was spelled in a different story). One Times story related the grisly details:

“Shortly before noon Hawley’s car approached Orange Street and was beset by a crowd of men and boys. Cornweit, the 19-year-old son of a butcher, was astride a horse, and rode to the side of the car, keeping pace with it for some distance. Various stories are told as to what passed between the conductor and the boy, but the mob was suddenly called to its senses by the sight of Hawley, who jumped to the street and started in pursuit of Cornweit.

“The latter, closely followed by his pursuer, turned up Perry Street. At Woodland Avenue, Hawley pulled his revolver and fired. His victim fell, fatally wounded with a ghastly wound in the left temple and died soon after being moved to the hospital.

“The crowd, which before the incident had been so violent, was awed by the seriousness of the affair, and permitted the conductor to walk back to his car. He was arrested and taken to the station, where a charge of murder was entered against him.”

Not exactly self-defense, it seems to me. But there’s more.

An exoneration of sorts
Curious about follow-up stories, I accessed the Times’ archives for 1900. There I found a short item published on March 17 — seven months after the murder — that reported the outcome of Grandpa Hawley’s trial.

He was acquitted for the following reasons, according to the Times report:

“The defense showed that Hawley’s car was attacked by a mob, and that Kornzweit was one of those who threw bricks at it; also that Hawley, when he shot his revolver, was surrounded by an angry crowd and in great personal danger.”

I suppose I could echo my father and say that the acquittal made my existence possible. But history is really just a flow of coincidences, great and small and mostly unnoticed.

Ralph P. Hawley started suffering strokes when my dad was just a teenager. When he died in 1940, the church in Fairmont, W. Va., which my grandmother attended and my grandfather avoided, donated the plot where he was buried in an unmarked grave. Again, the Internet helped me find it.

It was easy to find an online list of cemeteries in Fairmont. Most had websites and the others I contacted by mail. None had a grave registered to Ralph P. Hawley. But one had a Hawley name in its registry: That grave, as it turned out, had been registered in the name of my father, not my grandfather.

My four siblings and I ordered a marker carrying the names of both of my grandparents and had it installed on the grave. A photograph of the stone was emailed to me. I have never seen the grave — perhaps I never will — but at least it’s named.

Readers: Found a skeleton or two in the family closet? Feel free to share, if you dare, in our comments section below.

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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Gary Peterson on 01/02/2009 - 12:28 pm.

    Thanks for this tale.

  2. Submitted by Kevin Slator on 01/02/2009 - 05:00 pm.


    Using the Web wonder that is Google, I found a story about the mayhem in Cleveland and the sad incident involving your grandfather that ran in the July 29, 1899, edition of a weekly Utica, NY, newspaper called “Saturday Globe.” Very bad copy quality, however, and no byline. But the story is reported substantially the same way as in the Grey Lady a few days earlier. Here’s the link (it’s really long!):

  3. Submitted by Kevin Slator on 01/02/2009 - 05:53 pm.

    One more thing — your piece didn’t mention two other pieces that are available in the NYT historical stories database, so maybe you haven’t seen them.

    One is a short item that appeared on July 25, 1899. It mentions that your grandfather was a native of Springville, New York, where his father, H.L. Hawley, was a pension agent. It said he went to Cleveland “for the purpose of taking the place of a striker,” which almost makes it sound like he went to help out and carry a picket sign…

    The second item appeared on July 26, 1899. It referred to your grandfather as “the non-union conductor who yesterday killed Henry Cornweit, a boy…” No “allegedlies” in sight.

    Different journalistic standards and libel laws back then, I guess.

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