Albany’s Crime of the Century – the Kidnapping of Little Johnny Conway

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One morning on a hot August day in 1897 5-year-old Johnny Conway went to play outside his home on Colonie St. (between North Swan and Lark, in Arbor Hill). Mr. Conway was a dispatcher for the NYCRR railroad; Mrs. Conway a homemaker. Little Johnny was the youngest of three children. Mrs. Conway was in the house while she thought Johnny was playing with his friends.

Several hours later a note was delivered to her by a “street urchin”. It said that Johnny had been kidnapped. If a $3,000 ransom was not placed in the hollow of the old tree close to the toll-gate on the Troy Road that evening they would never see their child again. The parents were warned not to contact the police. A frantic Mr. Conway immediately went to the 3rd Precinct on N. Pearl St. between Livingston Ave. and Colonie St.

3After consultation with the police Mr. Conway left a dummy package near the tollgate in what is now Menands (just beyond the city boundaries), while police staked out the area. No one appeared to retrieve it.

Word of the kidnapping spread; extra editions were published by the local newspapers and the story was picked up by papers across the nation. Fear metastasized through the city. The only other known kidnapping for ransom had occurred about 25 years before in Pennsylvania – the child was never found. Terror struck the parents of Albany. Who were these fiends? Could it happen to their children?

conway 1897 - 5860 1A reward was announced by Mayor Thacher and the “Albany Argus” newspaper; additional police were called up and search parties dispatched. They scoured the area around Tivoli Lake, the woods to the north in Tivoli Hollow, the old Dudley Observatory grounds and beyond, and to the west of the city on the Schenectady Rd. and the Pine Barrens. The street in the vicinity of the Conway home (a tidy, but unpretentious house) was filled constantly with an excited throng who grasped at each new rumor. Hundreds filed through the desolate home, offering sympathy, financial aid and personal services.

From the day the Conways received the ransom note, the story of the kidnapping gripped the nation, from Boston to Topeka to San Francisco. Readers across America awaited word of Johnny’s fate.

The next day another message was received by the Conways from the evil-doers. It reiterated the demand for the ransom and said the kidnappers were willing to keep the boy alive for a couple more days if the parents were willing to negotiate through advertisements in a local newspaper.

Meanwhile the police and reporters from the “Albany Argus” searched for clues about the kidnappers’ identities. Who would kidnap the son of a railroad dispatcher who made a modest wage for ransom when there were plenty of rich men in the city? A relative who had some knowledge of family finances? The note instructed Conway to withdraw the money from the bank. Who knew Mr. Conway had a bank account? The boy’s uncle, Joseph Hardy, who had previously asked Mr. Conway for money, was a prime suspect and taken into custody.

Soon a confederate of Hardy, Henry Blake, was located and escorted by newspaper staff to the office of the Argus. In what became a daring cat and mouse game an Argus reporter convinced Blake to reveal the location of the boy in exchange for $2,000 and a promise that there would be no police retribution. John Farrell, the reporter, went ran throughout downtown, raising the money from local merchants who emptied their safes to save the child.

Blake set out with Farrell, two disguised policemen and a private detective in a surrey. He lead them to a location in the country on the Schenectady Rd. (today, it’s about a half mile beyond Wolf Rd. on Central Ave). Blake went into the woods accompanied by Farrell. They went round in circles for a while, and then all heck broke loose. Blake disappeared deeper in the wood and Farrell heard angry voices. Johnny managed to crawl away and was scooped up by one of the policemen. Farrell, Blake and the other kidnapper argued about getting the money and escaping without police interference. Finally Farrell, the boy and the others made a dash to the surrey. Shots rang out, directed at the surrey, and Farrell applied the whip the horses.. urging them away from danger.

They drove down State Street at 9 am – “thousands of people were on the streets,” and the rescuers called out they had the boy. “Men, women and children followed the wagon with shouts of joy to the Argus office on Broadway, where Little Johnny Conway was held up to the window for the benefit of the admiring and joyous crowd.” The Conway’s local parish priest from St. Joseph’s was waiting at the Argus offices; he was dispatched to tell Mrs. Conway the news. Johnnie was dirty, shaken, scared and suffering from exposure, yet had not been physically harmed by the kidnappers. Although faily legend  has it that his nights in the woods  permamently damaged his lungs and he spent the next years of his life in frail health.

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But the kidnappers, save Hardy, were still at large. So there was more sleuthing by the reporters. In the camp in the cluster of woods where Johnnie had been held were food remnants and horse-blankets which had been taken from the rented carriages used to abduct the boy. The blankets were traced to the Eiliff livery stable on Union St. (about where Liberty Park is today); a carriage had been rented about 8:30 on the morning of the kidnapping. The candy used to lure Johnny into kidnapper’s clutches was traced through wrappers from Anderson’s confectionary on South Pearl St. While these clues didn’t help find the other kidnappers, they solidified the case.

Working on a hunch, Farrell found Blake at the Schenectady train depot. Once again, Farrell managed to manipulate Blake and induced him to return to Albany, where he was turned over to the police.

The third kidnapper, a NYC attorney named Albert Warner, mastermind of the evil plot, was tracked to the Schenectady train station somewhat later, but eluded capture. He was ultimately found in Kansas. All three men were convicted and sentenced to 14 years and change in Dannemora. The judge condemned the three men for their “fiendish, diabolical and nefarious” deed.

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The people of Albany hugged their children tighter for many months thereafter.

Little Johnny grew up to be an auditor for the State of New York in the Comptroller’s Office.

Epilogue: Smalbany – 1 Degree of Separation

I learned the story of Little Johnny’s kidnapping from my grandmother when I was about 6, after I wandered away from home. Upon my return Gram was beside herself and told me the Conway story. My great grandparents lived in Arbor Hill and my great grandfather was Michael Conway’s barber. When Little Johnny was kidnapped apparently my great grandmother, like most other parents in Albany, went nuts and almost put her kids under lock and key. The story was sort of terrifying (deliberately so – on several levels). I may have changed my wandering ways for a while before I backslid into my normal free range behavior, but the story stuck with me forever.

Flash forward a number of decades. In a discussion with my husband I made a flip remark, “Did you think I was Little Johnny Conway and was kidnapped?” And he replied, “No, no one would pay ransom for you. By the way, Johnny Conway was my great uncle.” Yowser! Turns out my husband’s Grandma Rhea was Little Johnny’s sister. So Smalbany!

Julie O’Connor

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Labor Day 2017 – the Faces of Albany Labor; We Built This City

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