Bumbling villain hangs again


ALBANY, N.Y. -- A legendary scoundrel who went to the gallows before thousands of cheering New Yorkers for shooting the husband of a rich heiress will hang again -- on a stage built where he swung the first time.

Jesse Strang, a villain out of Albany's raucous past, is being resurrected and put to death again in 'Possession: The Murder at Cherry Hill,' a new play with Broadway ambitions written to celebrate the state capital's 300th birthday.


'This was big news. It was a lusty, bloody affair involving some of the wealthiest people around and it made headlines in newspapers across the country,' playwright Sidney Michaels said in a recent interview.

Michaels, 59, a veteran author whose Broadway credits include, 'Dylan' starring Alec Guinness and the comedy 'Tchin Tchin' with Anthony Quinn, was recruited to write the script.

The show, produced by the Empire State Institute for the Performing Arts, plays through Oct. 31.


The theater, coincidentally, is built above what was known as the Ruttenkill Ravine. When Strang was executed, the ravine was filled by an estimated 40,000 people -- three times Albany's population at the time - to witness the hanging.

'We're going to hang him for 16 performances on the same spot they came to watch him die more than 150 years ago,' Michaels said.

Historians say the carnival atmosphere of the hanging, during which Strang's relatives made their way through the crowd hawking his purported memoirs, so repelled lawmakers that they forbade public execution in Albany afterward.

The story focuses on the 1827 murder of John Whipple, plotted by his child bride, Elsie Lansing Whipple, and her amorous handyman, Strang.

After failing twice to kill her husband with arsenic, Elsie persuaded her lover to do the deed with a rifle, and dressed him in Whipple's heavy woolen socks so Strang could sneak up behind his victim.

'What gets me is how they committed murder in the most bungling way. This was an extremely serious incident but they handled it like two innocent kids,' Michaels said.

A daughter of the Dutch aristocracy, Elsie was exonerated, but the city fathers closed ranks to see her accomplice was hanged.


Elsie, after all, was a descendant of Albany's first mayor, Peter Schuyler, niece to the wealthy Van Rensselaer landowners and even a cousin to the judge who tried the case.

Michaels says his petulant lead character is both an overpampered child and an early martyr for women's liberation.

'She was a rare creature in those days, a rich, spoiled kid at a time when life was difficult for most people,' he said.

'Then she got married at 14 and was completely under the thumb of her husband, who doled out her inheritance. She struck back.'

A cutaway of all three floors of Cherry Hill, the mansion that still stands on the South Side of Albany where the murder took place, has been reconstructed on stage for the play.

'It's sort of a nine-ring circus. The house comes alive with the people in each room. It's a living dollhouse,' Michaels said.

Writing a play about an historic event required Michaels to adapt the speech of the time to the audience's understanding of language today, a kind of translation from 19th century lingo for a 20th century audience.

Director John Going, who has worked in regional theaters as far away as Alaska, collaborated closely with Michaels through the five weeks of rehearsal, clipping scenes aewriting lines as the play took final shape.


Patricia Snyder, ESPIA's producing director, said the play stands a good chance of going to Broadway or touring nationally, and she has invited agents and producers from New York to see the play during its second week.

'The work was commissioned for Albany because the story took place here, but it deals with themes so universal and funny it could be a success anywhere,' she said.

'Possession: The Murder at Cherry Hill' will play at the Empire State Institute for the Performing Arts from Oct. 18 to Oct. 31.

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