A Humble Man of the Cloth Rests at Poughkeepsie
Rural, But He Almost Did Not
Assembled by Steven Mann for the Friends of the Poughkeepsie Rural
In section number one of the historic Poughkeepsie Rural Cemetery,
not far from the beautiful fountain, sundial, and office, rests a young
minister and his wife. While this may not seem unusual, the depth of the
information that exists on this man of the cloth and his short life is.
His name was Joseph Paige Davis. He was born in Guilderland, Albany
County, New York on November 9, 1859, to Reverend William Paige Davis
and the former Elizabeth Bullock. Rev. Davis, Sr. was a Dutch Reformed
minister in the Guilderland/Schenectady area.
Rev. Joseph Paige Davis graduated in 1881 from prestigious Union
College in Schenectady, New York. He then studied for three years at the
Theological Seminary at New Brunswick, New Jersey. During that time he
supplied the pulpit of the Freedom Plains Presbyterian Church in
LaGrange, Dutchess County, New York. This is likely where he met his
bride to be, the former Louise Van Benschoten, daughter of Henry E. Van
Benschoten and Mary Jane Ver Valin. Her parents were both from
influential families in the town of LaGrange who worshiped at Freedom
Plains. He wed his bride on August 27, 1884.
The young couple lived first in Becker's Corners as surviving
correspondence shows. This is a small four corners area still marked as
such as one drives north on Route 9-W in the area of Selkirk in Albany
County. There, he served the pulpit of the First Reformed Church of
Bethlehem at Selkirk, a parish still very much active. A couple of years
later he answered the call to serve as pastor of the Third Reformed
Church of Albany, then located in the proximity of what is today
Albany's South Mall built by Governor Nelson Rockefeller in the 1960s
and early 1970s as part of Albany's urban renewal and the State's
growing bureaucracy during his administration. Much of that neighborhood
surrounding the Governor's Mansion and the Cathedral of the Immaculate
Conception was torn down as was the site of that church. The
neighborhood would have been in his day primarily Italian, Irish and
German. Today, Third Reformed is now located off Delaware Avenue in
Albany on Ten Eyck Street, named for one of the city's founding Dutch
families, in a modern structure.
While living in Albany the young couple resided at 202 Elm Street.
This house would have been right near the Governor's Mansion, likely on
part of the site of the existing New York State Museum, Library and
Archives. What is left today of that neighboring part of Elm Street is a
series of row houses, mostly painted brick, with very tall ceilings and
now rented basement apartments for housing State workers at the nearby
South Mall or inside the Empire State Plaza, some of which runs
underground. In his papers, which are being properly archived and
preserved by his four great-grandchildren, are numerous receipts showing
improvements to the house on Elm Street.
The young minister died of the fever during a time when medicine did
not allow for quick cures, leaving his young wife and baby son. His
widow was left to plan his funeral and burial in the Davis family plot
at the Prospect Hill Cemetery in Guilderland. This cemetery is located
on a high hill with an extremely steep drive about one mile west of
Crossgates Mall on Western Avenue (Route 20). The hill is so steep that
the cemetery, which is not a small cemetery, even today is closed in the
winter as one cannot easily access the site. It is the resting place for
the parts of the old Blessing, Bradt, Dutcher, LaGrange, Van Bramer,
Vedder, and Westervelt families of the Guilderland/Albany area.
A traditional Church funeral had been planned by the young widow for
the afternoon of April 19, 1887, in the city of Albany. However, a
two-page letter must have arrived the day before, as it is dated April
18, 1887. It was from the City of Albany's Board of Health stating that
the plans were in violation of Section 39 of the Sanitary Code of the
City of Albany, "There shall not be a public or church funeral of
any person who has died of small-pox, Diptheria, scarlet fever, yellow
fever, or Asiatic cholera, and the family of the deceased is required to
limit the attendance to as few as possible, and to prevent the presence,
so far as possible, of those liable to contract the disease of which the
deceased person died". It was the writer's "duty to direct
that the funeral be private, as few people being present as may be, and
that the body be taken direct from the house to the cemetery. To violate
the provisions of the sanitary code is a misdemeanor, and for the
protection of the public health it is necessary that every precaution
against the spread of contagion be taken".
"It had been stated that Mr. Davis died of pneumonia, but he
having scarlet fever as the same time, the pneumonia becomes but a
complication of the primary disease, and the same sanitary precautions
must be observed as if death was directly caused by the contagious
disease". The letter is signed, "Very respectfully, your
dedicated servant, Lewis Balchy, Health Officer". So, what was the
young widow who was left with a very young son to raise, do? The story
now returns to Dutchess County.
The plans apparently changed quickly. An undated and unheadlined
article from a Dutchess County newspaper, signed by James B. Boldane,
stated that, "The funeral service will be held in the Third
Reformed Church, Albany, Tuesday afternoon at three o'clock, and in the
Freedom Plains church, this county, on Wednesday at 11:30 a.m."
This likely was printed before the letter arrived on Monday, April 18,
1887, a mere 24 hours before the planned service. It was extremely
important to Louise that her husband, as a man of God, should have a
proper church service and burial.
Likely Louise either had family members from Dutchess County at the
house, namely her parents or one of three siblings (Anna, Elias, or
John), or she telegrammed home to Dutchess County inquiring what to do.
Whatever the situation may have been, the family archives contains a few
original copies of the black-bordered invitation to Rev. Joseph Paige
Davis' memorial service and answers some questions. There was a memorial
service held at the Third Reformed Church of Albany, then at the corner
of S. Ferry and Green Sts., Sunday, May 1, at 3:00 PM. Eulogies were
provided by Revs. Wesley R. Davis, D.D., J. W. Chapman, Edwin F. See,
and John McC. Holmes, D.D.
So, did Dutchess County have more lenient health codes, or did the
family appeal to the local authorities to allow a full funeral service
to take place regardless of the code? No correspondence survives to
answer that question and as of writing time did not allow for research
of the old health codes. However, if this had occurred today, we can
imagine one phone call could do the trick. In any event, Rev. Joseph
Paige Davis was buried in Section One of Poughkeepsie Rural Cemetery.
His wife Louise lived many years and was buried there. Interestingly,
Rev. Davis is buried right near two other Van Benschoten allied families
- the Cronkhites and the Hookers. All three families are related, and
work continues on their extensive family genealogy by Rev. Davis'
The family has indicated that Louise returned to Dutchess County and
raised her son here. She later lived with her widowed brother Elias,
whose young wife, the former Helen Lossing Titus of the Titusville
Tituses, had died without issue, and kept house for him. They also
indicate that the young boy, Joseph P. Davis born April 4, 1886, was
raised with Elias Van Benschoten as his male role model, or father
figure. Elias owned Van Benschoten Hardware on Main Street in
Poughkeepsie. Joseph P. Davis married the former Virginia Duncan of
Pleasant Valley and went on to run the business for Elias. They had a
son Joseph Paige Davis who died at age six as a result of an infection
from a knee wound, and a daughter Hazel Jane Davis. Joe Davis then took
his son in law, Lawrence A. Heaton, into the business. So the young son
of the late Rev. Joseph P. Davis was a success. He became very
influential in local affairs and served as trusted executor to numerous
estates. Also of interest, soon to be born is a little girl who will be
Rev. Joseph P. Davis and his wife Louise Van Benschoten's
great-great-great granddaughter, and she will have Louise in her name.
In remembering Rev. Davis, the writer wishes to quote from a letter
dated Pleasant Valley, May 7, 1887, to Mrs. Louise Davis, 202 Elm
Street, Albany, NY and postmarked curiously May 6, 1887: "Dear
friend Louise: I have been trying for the past three weeks to find time
to write you. Louise, I hardly know how or what to write you in this
time of trouble and sorrow. Oh how often I have thought of you and how
deeply I sympathize with you, but we must look to a higher power for
consolation and through his grace we can be comforted. Only trust him!
We owe an apology to you for not attending the services at Freedom
Plains, we were misinformed otherwise we would have been with you".
The letter goes on with a little local news and then closes, "I
must close now, take care of yourself and try to become reconciled to
the loss of your Dear one. Hoping to see you before long I am your
friend Annie F. Card". Many other letters exist and carry the same
message, hope and solace. Interestingly, a few letters are written to
Mrs. Davis around the same time and are addressed to her at Freedom
Plains. Many times minister's widows and families were asked to vacate
the "parsonage" immediately after the death of a minister so
that a new one could move right in. This was likely the case with Louise
and her son. Fortunately, she had much family she could rely on at home
in Dutchess County.
It is of note that in the family archive are also numerous sermons
written by the young minister as well as some of his college papers
written at Union. There are also several boxes of books from his
personal library which the family has to accompany these letters. A very
special document is Rev. Davis' record book which contains the baptisms,
marriages, and funerals he presided over during his ministry. How
fortunate that for over almost 125 years these records have survived to
tell this story.
The Friends of the Poughkeepsie Rural Cemetery are indebted to the
Heaton children: Joyce, Virginia, Hooker and Joanne, and to their
children, Rev. Davis' great-grandchildren, for allowing us access to
their private family papers. They are indeed thanked by our entire