Wash Loomis was a man of incredible promise, and “those who liked him called him affable, generous, a good story-teller, a man of his word; in short he was the Robin Hood” (Thompson 81). A detective, Officer Wilkins, is quoted as saying “that in ten minutes of conversation, he could turn an enemy into a friend” (Cummings 3). Another described Wash as the:
Brightest of the Loomis boys, and, according to an old schoolmaster, was an apt scholar. He had keen perceptive faculties and was a good judge of men… he was a general favorite, generous to a fault, told a good story, and always kept his word. He was a born diplomat and never resorted to physical force unless absolutely necessary. He had dark blue eyes, black curly hair, regular features, full black beard and moustache… in ten minutes he could turn an enemy into a friend. (Dapson 271)
His brothers and sisters looked up to him, and under his leadership, the gang had little opposition up until 1848 when Wash had a run-in with the law and spent time in jail for the first time. As a result, the gang’s criminal actions started to get more attention from the local Waterville and Sangerfield authorities. To help things settle down, Wash skipped bail and ran off to California to test his luck in the Gold Rush.
While Wash was away, his brother Grove managed the operations of the gang. Like Wash, Grove was a dominant figure. He was almost six feet tall, more aggressive than the other brothers, and in some ways, he was more daring but lacked the forward-thinking and strategy that Wash possessed. He was an excellent horseman, owned the sire of the famous Flora Temple, and his horse was the impressive Black Hawk stallion named Flying Cloud. Not only was he skilled at breeding and riding horses, but he could also steal them like no other and then quickly change their appearance so no one would recognize them. There are stories of Grove stealing a horse, changing how it looked, and then selling the same horse to the same person he had stolen. However, while Wash was away, things quieted down for the Loomis gang. They were biding their time until his return.
Wash was away for several years in California, and locals rumored that he was killed in a gunfight, but at the age of twenty-seven, he returned home to his family, and a few months after his father died. From this point on, Wash would be the undisputed leader of the gang. He and his brother Grove were successful in stealing horses, but the crimes did not stop there, and almost any type of theft you could think of during that time the Loomis gang were doing it. By 1860, Wash had modernized the gang’s operation, significantly added a multi-state network, had at least two hundred members under his control and spent a considerable amount of time in Albany bribing government officials and the police for immunity. However, Wash was not wholly autonomous because his mother, Rhoda, still had considerable influence on the decision making of the family. In addition, she was extremely harsh on the women of her sons’ relationships. Dr. Torrey explains the tension between Wash and Rhoda:
The issues dividing the Loomises were many. The one most openly discussed involved the organization and activities of the gang. Rhoda wanted things to remain as they had been when George was alive – as a family unite involving a few friends… Wash and Grove, on the other hand, envisioned a gang which would control criminal activities throughout New York State an across its borders. No scheme was too dangerous, no activity too brazen to command their attention. They had been raised to believe that everything was potential plunder… the only difference between aristocrats and outlaws, they argued, was that the latter got caught. (Torrey 45)
However, for the most part, Wash and Grove would win over their mother, and under Wash’s leadership, the gang’s operation flourished during the 1850s, which increased their number of run-ins with the law. The gang’s audacity earned them heightened attention from a particular constable, James L. Filkins. He was a local blacksmith that turned sheriff and would prove himself as someone that could not be bribed or beaten. Filkins would eventually cause the downfall of the Loomis gang.
Tragedy struck for Wash during 1861 at the height of the gang’s power. Wash had fallen in love with Hannah Wright, a “beautiful girl of German descent” (Cummings 12), and by 1859, she had moved into the Loomis homestead. Unfortunately, Rhoda did not take well to the new lady in the house. Wash was thirty-five, and his relationship with Hannah appears to be his first serious love interest. Torrey explains, “from the beginning, Rhoda Loomis opposed Hannah, treating her as a servant and doing everything she could to drive her away” (113). Sadly, while Wash was away from town, it is believed that Rhoda had her two youngest sons Denio and Plumb plan Hannah’s murder:
She was shot and killed by one Mott, a member of the gang. A coroner’s inquest proved that Mott was near the mantel cleaning the barrel of a gun. The stock had been removed, and the barrels were capped and loaded. As Hannah was passing he dropped them in the fireplace… the shot entered the girl’s thigh, severing one of the arteries… She lingered several days, and then died before he made it home. (Cummings 12)
Constable Filkins later reported that “Mott entered the army soon afterward, and told a comrade that Plumb and Denio promised him fifty dollars to kill the girl, as they were jealous of her influence with Wash” (Cummings 12). Before her death, Hannah and Wash had a son together. They named him Grove Loomis Jr. after his father’s brother. When Wash returned home and found out what had happened to Hannah, it is said that “he never mentioned Hannah or the ‘accident,’ but immediately took young Grove Jr. to the North Brookfield home of Richard Gorton and his wife, who were related to Hannah” (Torrey 114). The Gorton’s raised the child as their own and told him little about his parentage. Perhaps Wash carried some guilt about the wrongdoings of his family and wanted to shield his son from future harm and spare him the hurt that might come by knowing his father’s family killed his mother.
Hannah Wright’s murder was a turning point for the Loomis gang. Wash’s relationships with his mother splintered, and there was conflict between Wash and his two youngest brothers Plumb and Denio. On top of the problems at home, the law was closing in on the Loomis family. In October 1864, the Madison County Court House was preparing for a trial against Wash and several of his brothers. However, before the trial began, the Court House was set on fire. Wash was there during the fire and assisting the firemen when it was realized that all the hoses had been cut. A local newspaper, the Route 20 Pulse in July 2004, recalled the historic event:
Although Wash Loomis was in the crowd of local citizens that fought the blaze, and he expressed indication that anyone would do such a dastardly thing as cut the hoses, it is believed by most that the Loomises had struck once again. It is very probable that they not only set the fire that destroyed the building but ensured that the firemen were hampered in their efforts to put the fire out.
The indictments against the Loomis family were destroyed, and they were free to go for the time being as a result. However, Constable Filkins was growing more irritated and determined than ever, and with the Loomis family in disarray, he had the opportune moment to strike.
After several failed attempts to put the Loomis gang behind bars, Filkins led a vigilante team of almost sixty men up to the farm on Halloween night, October 29th, 1865. In the middle of the night, Filkins and his group of men broke into the Loomis household. Wash was dragged out of bed, brought out behind the house, and beaten to death. His family found him bleeding profusely from his head, and later that night, he died from his wounds. His attacker (believed to have been Filkins) had beaten his head in with the back of a gun, and “the blows to Wash’s head had not only fractured his skull in several places but had also laid back his scalp. It was, some later commented, as if he had been scalped” (Torrey 159). The vigilantes also went after Grove, they beat him to the brink of death and set him on fire, he miraculously survived after one of the sisters put the fire out. Another son, Plumb, was strung up to a tree by his neck, but he was able to survive the hanging. After the death of Wash, the gang would never rise to the same power that they were once. Their leader was dead.
Filkins was brought to trial for the death of Wash but was not convicted despite the testimony from key witnesses. Rhoda’s testimony was of particular interest as she seemed to care more about the materials that were lost or set on fire during the event. Filkins was released, and the court gave the following statement:
Not only have these violent modes of diverting the course of justice become matters of public history, but so also have modes like those at which this motion is levelled. Bending and manipulating the forms, the proceedings, the instrumentalities of the law, were publicly reckoned even before this came arose among the secrets and appliances of a band of offenders who pillage, rob and burn within and without the county of Oneida. Common fame has long published that certain criminals not only escape conviction, not only protect their confederates, not only bring to punishment their betrayers, not only wreck barbarous vengeance upon those who dare to pursue them, or even to testify against them, not only break through all the meshes of the law, but that bail, bail bonds, bench warrants and search warrants, indictments and the civil process of the court, do their office or stand still at the beck and nod, not of innocence but of guilt. (Torrey 202)
An hour later, the judges set the indictments on Filkins and others aside. The constable and his crew got away with murder. So-called “frontier justice” had been survived. Since the Loomis gang had bribed most of the police, Filkins determined that the only way he could deal with the Loomis family once and for all was by breaking into the house while everyone was sleeping and then murdering Wash. He took justice in his own hands, and the courts upheld his decision to do so. After the murder of Wash, the police regularly raided the homestead and swamp for stolen goods, and for the most part, the family was disbursed around the northeast. Although, Plumb stuck around after being hung (he somehow survived and enjoyed showing off his scars to the locals afterward). However, the future of the immediate family after the death of Wash is a story of obscurity. They lost their power and influence, operations declined, and the homestead on Loomis hill was burned to the ground. Interestingly enough, the foundation is still there, and one can visit where the old home once stood tall upon the hill peering down on the nine-mile swamp below. Local myths claim that if you are lucky, you might glimpse the ghost of Wash walking the area.
Written by Allen Loomis (2019)