When the deputy postmaster left no address

As the Leader Republican’s headline suggested, when they and their pretty companions left town abruptly, neither Deputy Postmaster Turnbull and Postal Clerk Stichel filled it forwarding address forms. (Photo courtesy of Peter Betz)

On Monday, Jan. 14, 1907, startling news made headlines from one end of the Mohawk Valley to the other when newspapers revealed that St. Johnsville Deputy Postmaster Alexander Turnbull and postal clerk Harry F. Stichel had suddenly disappeared from their jobs and families, and more shocking yet, both left St. Johnsville with two attractive young ladies.

That night’s Amsterdam Evening Recorder gave the known details.

“The town has been jarred as never before from stem to stern over the simultaneous disappearance from the village of two of its most prominent young men and two young women, one a school teacher and the other a stenographer. The missing young ladies are Miss Lizzie McGee who taught in a district school a mile from town and Miss May Doyle, who came here about a year ago from Utica and is employed as stenographer at the knitting mill office of the Lyon Manufacturing Company.”

Rumors began circulating around St. Johnsville during Sunday afternoon after Henry Stichel’s daughter received a note from him “bidding her good-bye and stating he wouldn’t be seen in St. Johnsville again.”

Most listeners, however, didn’t believe it. “He’ll be at his desk Monday as usual,” they probably told each other. But when Monday arrived, neither he nor Alexander Turnbull could be found.

It was probably then when some friends of Turnbull’s recalled a moment during the previous Saturday afternoon, when Turnbull had remarked to them, “the next they would hear of him, he would be out in the Dakotas.”

At the time, Turnbull’s remark wasn’t taken seriously because, as the account explained, “his friends believed it to be one of Mr. Turnbull’s jokes, he being of a particularly jovial disposition.”

Later Sunday afternoon, the two soon to be ex-post office employees boarded a westbound train, conscientiously leaving everything neat and tidy behind them at the post office.

“Postmaster James Fox found in the box at the entrance to the Post Office the keys of both Turnbull and Stichel, addressed to him.”

Their accounts were soon audited, but not a penny was missing.

Lizzie and May had already left St. Johnsville inconspicuously on an earlier train.

It was later discovered they’d told Lizzie’s mother — May roomed at their house — they were going to visit May’s married sister in Utica.

On Monday morning when Lizzie’s students gathered at their one room school house, they’d discover the stove cold and no teacher there to greet them, while over at the Lyon factory office, May’s Remington typewriter would remain silent.

From Utica west, where had they all gone?

“As to their destination, nothing is known. Both families are so completely prostrated over the turn of events they haven’t yet given thought to turning loose the hounds of the law after their errant ones.” It soon came to be known that the travelers were very well financed.

“On Saturday, Miss McGee withdrew from the St. Johnsville Bank $3,500, funds received from a brother.”

Both Turnbull and Stichel were family men, nor were either rumored to be on bad terms with their wives. “Why did they do it?” must have been the primary question asked by many villagers.

Perhaps it was less a matter of being ‘disgruntled’ with postal employment or home life than the fact that in those old times, finding two young ladies willing to cast away their own positions and reputations to traipse off on a lark with two older, married men wasn’t easy, and the fact that both were reputed to be particularly attractive must have sealed the deal.

The St. Johnsville Enterprise observed, “Miss Doyle is described as a particularly stunning girl and Miss McGee is also very comely. Stichel’s companion is said to be Miss Doyle and that of Turnbull is Miss McGee.”

Another newspaper, the Otsego Farmer, gave a more humorous slant on the mess. “A four-handed elopement is the latest romantic game. The stake is happiness. How much of it each side will win, others have their doubts about.”

Then one day months later, half of the disappearing quartet returned.

On Dec. 17, 1907, almost a year to the day of their departure, Harry Stichel and May Doyle quietly reappeared in the Mohawk Valley. The Amsterdam Recorder reported, “Harry Stichel has returned home again. He went directly to the home he left and where his wife and two daughters have since lived. It is understood he was cordially received and that everything was fixed up previous to his return so that he was assured of a welcome before he stepped upon the threshold. Miss Doyle has also returned and is living somewhere south of Utica. Nothing has been heard of from Turnbull.”

Lizzie McGee shortly returned without him.

The Feb.16 Leader-Herald reported Harry F. Stichel’s death at age 88 on Valentine’s Day, 1958.

Over the ensuing decades, he’d apparently redeemed himself in the eyes of both St. Johnsville and Montgomery County, somehow transitioning from postal clerk to St. Johnsville Fire Chief, becoming president of the NY State Fireman’s Association and also serving as Montgomery County Republican Chairman. It seems he’d become as good at putting fires out as he’d once been at starting one.

For Alexander Turnbull, there was no returning. The Nov. 23, 1946 Morning Herald reported his death in Detroit. Like the elephant in Groucho Marx’s pajamas, how Turnbull got to Detroit we’ll never know.


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