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’ great-grandchildren.
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 membership.