|HE WAS "RESOLVED ON
|On October 4, 1824, John F. Van Patten
Became Rotterdam's First Murderer of Record
|John Frederick Van Patten
Part I: The Story of Life & Love
|* I am breaking this story into three parts because it is very lengthy and I wish
not to have my readers lose interest. Please read ALL three parts.
"The sentence of the court therefore is, that you John F. Van Patten be taken from
hence to the place from which you last came (in jail), and that you there remain
until Friday the 25th of February next, and that on that day, between the hours of
9 and 3 o'clock, you be taken to the place of execution, and hung by the neck till
you are dead. The Lord have mercy on your soul".
Thus, on January 12, 1825, concluded one of the most famous murder trials ever
held in Schenectady County.
On that fateful day the prisoner stood quietly before the bar, listening without any
outward sign of emotion to the sentence of his death being pronounced.
His name was John Frederick Van Patten, a resident of Rotterdam (Schenectady
Co.), NY and the first murderer recorded in the town's history.
Born in New York City, May 22, 1801, John and his parents moved (returned) to
(the Schenectady area of) Albany Co. NY in 1806. When his (John's) mother died
three years later in 1809, and his father had been declared "insane" (unknown
year), young Van Patten removed to Glenville, Schenectady Co. NY to live with
his grandparents. At the age of thirteen in 1814, he was again uprooted, this time
shuttled off to an aunt and uncle in Rotterdam, Schenectady Co., NY (across the
During these early years he received a normal (for the time) education, with a
generous sprinkling of religious instruction, perhaps over-zealously applied. Much
of his formative years was spent in prayer, Bible reading, and spiritual
As a young man he frequently suffered from feelings of religious guilt, sometimes
thinking himself "the greatest sinner that ever walked the Earth" and occasionally
he even had "temptations to destroy" himself. On these occasions these spells of
black despair brought him to the very brink of suicide. As he later said "I often
wished I had never been born."
As his mental condition worsened, the apparent unbalance of his mind became a
matter of concern to his neighbors and friends. A typical outburst occurred in
1819 when he attended a Fourth of July ball at Schermerhorn's Tavern. After
seemingly enjoying himself for a time in the company of other young townspeople,
he suddenly interrupted the festivities with an announcement that they were all
sinning and that they should all stop and go home.
In his own words, "I was arrested with strong conviction while on the floor, I
endeavored to persuade the company to break up, and after some entreaty
succeeded." No doubt this action aggrivated most of the celebrants, but he was
still generally considered to be only eccentric or "weakminded" by the majority of
In between these irrational outbursts and spells of melancholia, John was able to
live a rather normal life. He taught school in Glenville (Schenectady Co., NY) for
a period of two years and in the spring of 1824 he obtained the position of school
teacher in a one-room schoolhouse in the area of Rotterdam (Schenectady Co.,
NY) (across the Mohawk River) near the present Cobblestone Church (another
report states Fisher Methodist Church). He was active in the local young people's
religious and social groups and counted among his friends many of the areas
families - Schermerhorn's, Putman's, Schoonmaker's, Bond's, Smith's, Bradt's,
and Van Eps.
At a meeting of one of these youth groups, John met Miss Josenah Fonda - - a
fateful meeting that was destined to shatter the peaceful community to its very
Near the end of June, 1824 they (John & Josenah) vowed to each other their
eternal love and promised "that nothing but death should separate us" These
few months were the happiest that John had ever known - - many friends, a good
job, and a nice girl that really cared for him. He seemed to be free from his
"disagreeable feelings" of the past, "temptations to destroy himself", or "Satan
speaking to me - putting wicked ideas into my head." All was well with John Van
During September, 1824, Josenah was told by her parents that they were opposed
to the attentions being paid by John Van Patten. They also notified John of their
At about the same time, the disappointed young man thought he noticed a cooling
of their relationship and he questioned Josenah about it. In his own words "I
perceived that she did not appear as cheerful as usual; I asked her the cause, she
seemed reluctant to tell. However I urged her; she said she had heard something
about me that made her feel bad, and said Mrs. (John I.) Schermerhorn was the
person who said it."
He then urged Josenah to repeat to him the things Mrs. Schermerhorn had told
her. According to his later statement, "Mrs. Schermerhorn said that I was a sickly
young man, too lazy to work, too proud to speak to persons when I met them on
the street, a foolish young man and would be another as my father, meaning I
should be crazy" (John's father had gone insane years earlier).
John's "disagreeable feelings" returned with an intensity even more pronounced
than before. After receiving from Josenah assurances that she had no intention of
breaking their "agreement", he decided to pay a visit to the one person he felt
responsible for all his troubles. Mrs. Schermerhorn admitted talking to Josenah
about him and seemed sorry about it, but she had felt obligated to warn her..
Returning to Josenah, John "prevailed upon the girl to give up our agreement and
she at last consented." Even then John was convinced that she still loved him.
The distraught young man now reached such depths of despondency that he began
to search for a way to end all his troubles. On October 3, 1824, while attending
the North Rotterdam Church of Rev. S. Van Vechten, he heard the minister
preach, "Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do with all your might." His tortured
mind repeated this phrase over and over. As he later wrote, "I was then tempted
to destroy the person who had done me the greatest injury. After some reflection,
I thought Mrs. Schermerhorn was the person, and resolved on destroying her."
The next day, he dismissed school at noon and went to the house of Henry
Vrooman Putnam, one of his closest friends. On the pretext of going squirrel
hunting, he borrowed Mr. Putnam's blunderbuss (shotgun). Ramming in a double
charge of powder and shot, he cocked the weapon and headed for the
Schermerhorn residence. In his own words now:
"When I came near the house I saw Mrs. S. at the door by the wash tub, my
courage failed me, but I went on till I came to the house; she invited me in, I set
the gun down by the right hand side and went in, she came in and seemed to be
frightened and began to talk to me. I now was sorry I came and wished myself
away; I thought I could not go through with the deed but if I went away I should
be confined for life. I was much confused and rose up two or three times and
went to the door with a design either to do the deed or go away. She also seemed
to be much confused. I then went to the door, took up my gun, pointed the
muzzle a little upward, and stood rather sideways. I took no aim for the gun was
below my hip; fired and stept out of the house."
Source: Press of the Mohawk Sentinel, 1825.
Source: John F. Van Patten's cellblock confessions, 1825.
Source: Tales of Old Schenectady, by Larry Hart; 1975; pgs. 143-145.