P.J. Foley is the man suspected of having framed Robert Lewis as
part of a blackmail scheme he was using against Lena McMahon, the
white woman Lewis
allegedly "assaulted." Sent to the Orange County jail in Goshen
on the blackmail charge, Foley made bail, disappeared, and
was never tried. Two years later Lena McMahon was committed to a mental institution
after a pasteboard box containing the remains of a mummified
baby were found
in her New York City boarding room. There is no reason to
believe that gruesome detail and the Port Jervis scandal were
For those who talk
about it at all it's almost always done in hushed tones.
And though many dark stories telling of the night that made
Port Jervis infamous have been told, few people alive today
have ever read the actual newspaper accounts from that awful
While the horror of that disgraceful tragedy is what
most often first comes to mind it does so at the expense of forgetting
those who struggled in vain to stop the rumor and racism crazed
mob from lynching Robert Lewis to a tree near the corner of
East Main Street and Ferguson Avenue. Among several others that reportedly attempted
to rescue the powerless victim were two police officers, a doctor, and the pastor of the
First Presbyterian Church. Also trying to help was lawyer
William Crane, brother of famed author Stephen Crane, and whose
home within shouting distance of the lynching site still stands
where it did on that fateful June 1892 day. Yet despite
the noble parts there is no denying it's a sordid bit of
history made all the more unjustly cruel by not a
single person being charged with Lewis's death.
Now, with its ongoing arrival of optimists and
well-heeled newcomers eager to put a bright fresh face on a worn
and tired one, Port Jervis has come a long way from when a
segregated community of color was found where today's splendid woodland trails near
Reservoir #1 have opened to increasing use. Known by more than
one name, but especially that which used the n-word
in front of "Hollow," this
settlement on the far outskirts of town had been there from at
least the last years of the Civil War. When it was relocated by
the water works company in 1883 to other land it owned at the
end of North Orange Street, over 150 lived there. This again isolated setting would remain home to people like
Robert Lewis well into the 20th century.
But just as the history of the courageous efforts
upstanding citizens made to save the life of a doomed man have
been forgotten, also lost is the triumph of how a place once
filled with poverty and hardship
has evolved into a beautiful recreation area free to be enjoyed by
recognize that historic progress and respectfully remember those
who lived there, a historical marker was until recently in the
process of being arranged for placement in "The Hollow."
Unfortunately, a controversy arose about using the word
"segregated" that caused the marker project to be
suddenly and unexpectedly abandoned.
Although over 200 markers from the Deep South to the
Rochester, New York, home of gifted abolitionist, Frederick Douglass,
use the word "segregated," recalling the truth about a historic
reality was apparently more than some in the Port Jervis area
who became involved with the project could bear.
Wantonly censoring a harmless word describing the
sometimes troubling past is nothing like what happened to Robert
Lewis 125 years ago today but it does just the same smother and bury the
history of a place that deserves far better and a genuine
measure of redemptive justice.
the deep scar it is, the shame of Robert Lewis's death will to
some extent always remain but bringing the cleansing light of a
new day to shine upon such a wound can serve to help heal and
act as a mindful cautionary tale for the ages. A marker
remembering an otherwise forgotten refuge set in a place that
has now become so much more remains a good place to start.
A segregated community of color settled c. 1863.
When moved by water co. to North Orange St.
in 1883, more than 150 people lived here.
Above historical marker text is that which was
deemed inappropriate and censored