Chasing a Wartime Mystery

By Steve Rideout

    The pictures created the questions, and perseverance revealed the story. A family photograph much like one in possession of the East Hampton Village office shows Jud Banister, who would go on to become village mayor, in military uniform, captain’s bars on his epaulets plainly visible in the village’s photo. The family also has Jud’s framed commission certificate, signed by Gov. Charles S. Whitman and Adjutant General Charles H. Sherrill, from when he became captain of one of the two New York Guard units in East Hampton formed in late 1917.

    How did he become a commissioned captain in the State Guard, the volunteer corps established in support of the New York National Guard? Early research into Jud’s life in East Hampton surfaced an East Hampton Star article when he was elected Fire Department chief in 1930. The article implied that he had been captain of the department’s Hook and Ladder Company for the previous 15 years. It seemed obvious that many of the same men who were in the East Hampton Rifle Club, soon to be the Home Defense League and ultimately the New York Guard, had been in the department, and some with his company knew his leadership skills and bestowed one of the two captaincies on him.

    This theory lasted a while, but succumbed to more research. The problem? Jud didn’t join the Fire Department until 1919, after the war and the disbanding of the State Guard in East Hampton. What did the Star archives cover during World War I?

    Patriotism and preparedness rapidly became the town’s watchwords when the United States declared war on Germany in April of 1917. By early May, spurred on by actions in Southampton, the men of East Hampton decided to form a rifle club. In mid-May The Star reported the creation of the new organization. A preparedness committee overseen by a general committee, with work divided among several subcommittees, enthusiastically accepted the challenge to advance East Hampton’s capability to do her part in the war.

    Felix Dominy, coincidentally the chief of the Fire Department, led a military subcommittee that included John Gilmartin, Jud Banister, I.Y. Halsey, and Raymond A. Smith. Dominy reported the subcommittee’s results to nearly 260 men hastily called to East Hampton High School on April 15. Prominent members of the summer colony and D.J. Gardiner were prepared to pay for rifles and uniforms and make land available for training. The Star reported that the club “will be directly affiliated with the National Rifle Association of America, and will adopt the by-laws of that Association, but in addition will adopt by-laws applying to this particular association.”

    A different age and time, for sure. Jud was elected executive officer of the new rifle club.

    The new 134-member organization was profiled in a front-page column titled “East Hampton Rifle Club.” Agreeing to drill every Tuesday and Thursday evening, the members elected their officers. Lorenzo Dyer, who served as captain of a New Jersey regiment during the Spanish-American War, was elected captain. Jud Banister was elected first lieutenant and John Gilmartin second lieutenant — militia democracy in action.

    This was the founding organization that became East Hampton’s two companies of the New York Guard. The Star made clear that each man was well qualified for his position, “having had considerable training before the organization of the East Hampton Home Defense.”

    This was the phrase that perplexed our family. Jud was a great-uncle of my wife, Carol, but we were unaware of his “considerable training,” and for a time had few clues to pursue. That is, until my brother-in-law discovered a double picture of Jud in his attic.

    The 5-by-7-inch matte frame held two oval pictures of Jud. On the right, a handsome young man, he is wearing a suit and vest with bowtie, looking as if prepared for the most important job interview of his life. But the picture in the left oval shows him seeming much younger, hair parted in the middle, but wearing a uniform, the number 27 clearly stitched on each side of his stiff collar. Barely visible is a portion of the coat’s waist belt, but the little that shows supports the appearance of a uniform.

    But what kind of uniform, what type of outfit? No supporting information was discovered. The words “considerable training” and the picture must be related, but how? The answer, pursued intermittently over three years, did not come easy, but when it did it all came into focus.

    Jud looked so young in the picture that the idea of its showing a military uniform seemed implausible. Perhaps a Boy Scout or other youth group uniform? That didn’t work, as the Boy Scouts and similar organizations were begun after Jud moved to East Hampton. Dry holes. Then a process breakthrough.

    After photocopying hundreds of pages of Star archives with news about Jud, his family or friends, and peers during his life in East Hampton, I came to realize that other items on the photocopy page also had relevance and provided interesting contextual information. Archives of Potsdam and Malone, N.Y., newspapers, from when Jud and his parents lived there, helped round out his and his sister Ede’s life before East Hampton. Could those newspaper pages have other useful information? They did.

    By sheer luck, one of the Malone newspapers included a brief mention of recent activities of the 27th Separate Company of the New York National Guard unit of Malone. Oh my. More searching produced several articles about the 27th Separate Company, also known as Company E. A Nov. 11, 1903, issue of The Malone Farmer even mentioned a Private Bannister, misspelled name and all, who was appointed to the recruitment committee. But he looked so young in our photograph, could he really have been in Company E?

    The Malone Armory closed many years ago, but its records are archived in the New York State Military Museum in Saratoga Springs. The museum’s website listed several boxes containing documents from the time Jud could have been with the unit, primarily 1901 to 1903. Carol and I submitted a request to the museum to see several record books and arranged a visit in September 2011. Our visit was rewarded!

    Property records, drill attendance records, company lists — but the most important document, titled “Descriptive Book, Form 3,” held all the key information. Neatly recorded in very legible handwriting (can anyone write legibly nowadays?) were the enlistment records of Company E, 27th Separate Company, from Oct. 31, 1900, to Jan. 31, 1907. At the bottom of page 98 of the 81/2-by-14-inch ledger-style book listing four December 1901 enrollments was the name Banister, Judson Lewis, Private.

    Jud enlisted on Dec. 10, 1901, giving his age as 18, the minimum allowed. He was described as 5 feet 11 inches tall, with gray eyes and light brown hair, living at 67 Academy Street, Malone, and working as a laundryman. His place of birth was Potsdam, N.Y., and the final entry, under “Remarks,” revealed that he was dropped from the rolls on Feb. 9, 1904, because of a change of address.

    The other books recorded Jud’s drill attendance, his summer camp duties, and his property records. One described company orders for specific drills, including rifle practice and the demonstration of “considerable training” over the two-plus years before he moved to East Hampton.

    Teddy Roosevelt was president, having succeeded the assassinated President McKinley on Sept. 14, 1901. Roosevelt already had a high profile, involving, among other things, his leadership of the Rough Riders up Cuba’s San Juan Hill during the Spanish-American War of 1898. His impact on young men of Jud’s age was significant, and many at the time wanted to join military organizations, especially the state’s National Guard, such as the 27th Separate Company of Malone.

    They could embrace the solidarity of comradeship as members of a military organization and still hold a job and support their families. The motivation and emotion of the times likely led a young man to enlist on Dec. 10, 1901, and claim to be 18 when he had only turned 17 three months earlier.

    When Jud moved to East Hampton in the spring of 1904, he had served 26 months of his five-year National Guard commitment. Finally, both the picture and his considerable training made sense.

    Steve Rideout frequently visits East Hampton to research family history. He lives in Shutesbury, Mass.