By Peter Betz
On May 31st 1887, referring to a major Little Falls fire, the Utica Weekly Herald noted, “There has been no similar excitement in that village since the death of Mark Mendel, the Amsterdam fireman, accidentally shot during a target practice on the flats at a fireman’s tournament.” My curiosity was naturally aroused by this casual observation.
Just who was Mark (Marcus) Mendel and what were the circumstances of his untimely demise? Consulting the 1870 U.S. Census, one finds “Markis Mendell, fourteen years old, occupation store clerk.” The 1875-76 Amsterdam-Schenectady City Directory identifies the Mendel family as living at 53 Grove Street, and the store Marcus and his older brothers Louis and Moses clerked in was no doubt their father Samuel Mendel’s clothing emporium, “The Ladies Bazar,” described as “a fancy goods store.” There’s also an 1873 Amsterdam Property Tax Receipt Book recording the family’s annual bill as being paid by Bertha Mandel, probably Marcus’s mother. Marcus isn’t listed in this 1875-76 Directory since he’d already died. His accidental death occurred on Thursday, August 27th 1874 when he was eighteen. The tragedy brought a sad end to an otherwise festive occasion.
The most complete account of Marcus Mendel’s death appeared Utica’s Weekly Herald, published the same evening, headlined Little Falls. “A fatal accident occurred at this place about noon today. The James D. Serviss Engine Company of Amsterdam, accompanied by the City of Gloversville Brass Band, came to our village on an excursion on the 9:57 train and was escorted to the “Round House Flats” by Little Falls Engine Company Number One, for the purpose of indulging in target practice and baseball. Mark Mendel, a young man residing in Amsterdam, but not a member of the Serviss Company, accompanied the excursion and was assigned the duty of caring for the rifles after they were loaded and of keeping them in readiness for the persons shooting. While he was extricating a gun from several others resting against his arm, the gun in some unaccountable manner exploded, and the ball penetrated Mr. Mendel’s brain, killing him instantly. The festivities were immediately discontinued, and the procession, which a short time earlier passed through our streets very happy in the prospect of a pleasant holiday, returned marching to the music of a funeral dirge. An inquest was held at 2 o’clock and a verdict was given according to the facts. Mr. Mendel was about twenty years old and is spoken of as a young man of much promise. The excursionists returned to Amsterdam with his remains on the six o’clock train.”
The September 2nd Albany Evening Journal related, “The funeral of Marcus Mendell, the young man killed at Little Falls last Thursday, took place at Amsterdam on Sunday afternoon and was largely attended. Rev. Dr. Schlessinger officiated. This is the first Jewish burial taken place in Amsterdam, and the service at the grave included the setting apart of a plot of ground as a future resting place for the Sons of Abraham.” The Fort Plain Register described the funeral as, “One of the most largely attended ever held in that village” and it also stated Mandel’s burial was the first in the new Jewish cemetery.
Amsterdam’s Temple of Israel Congregation to which young Mendel belonged was organized only a year earlier in 1873. The Albany Journal’s reference to “the setting apart of a plot” most likely referred to consecrating the congregation’s cemetery, located not in Amsterdam but at Cranesville, readily observed by today’s motorists traveling east of Amsterdam on route 5.
One naturally wonders how the fatal accident occurred. Was Mendel not familiar with rifles? Was the action of the rifle faulty? A more likely explanation appeared in the August 29 Albany Morning Express, which probably copied the Coroner’s conclusions. “The discharge of the gun was caused by the gun having been reloaded before cooling off, the barrel of which had become heated by repeated firing.” This conclusion is very likely correct: rifle propellant in Mendel’s time was “black powder” which explodes, unlike modern powders that burn progressively. The shooters at Little Falls in 1872 were no doubt using muzzle loading single shot target rifles, in which black powder would certainly be ignited by any sparks, bits of unburned powder or smoldering cotton patch residue remaining within a hot barrel, plus an overheated barrel in itself could cause premature firing. Today’s muzzleloader shooters address these potential dangers or use modern black powder substitutes, but the unfortunate Marcus Mendel, who either knew little about firearms or became careless through the excitement of the occasion, failed to address these issues, a fatal mistake.
On a pleasant fall afternoon, I visited the Temple of Israel Cemetery. The gate was locked, but one can observe the manicured lawn and impressive, modern grave markers without entering. Many substantial granite monuments are present, yet I suspected Marcus Mendel’s wasn’t among those. Why? Many earlier 19th century stones, unless belonging to wealthy families, are sandstone. Gazing in at the gate, I noticed a back corner where several badly worn sandstone markers were visible and yes, the camera’s telephoto lens revealed Marcus Mendel’s marker among them, badly pitted by 145 years of weathering, but with enough letters readable to identify it. Marcus died too soon: Amsterdam’s Jewish community founders were just beginning to make their significant contributions to the city’s great industrial age.
An earlier version of this article appeared in the Leader-Herald.