Updated 12/09/2012 09:50 AM
Your Hometown: Broome's past features a cast of colorful characters
A colorful cast is key to any good story. Heroes, villains and even some comic relief. But a great story is filled with characters who have a little bit of each of these traits. In this edition of Your Hometown, YNN's Chris Whalen introduces us to two of Broome County's more infamous residents whose legends live on to this day.
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BINGHAMTON, N.Y. -- In a metropolitan area of more than 200,000 people, there's bound to be a few characters mixed in.
"There's all sorts of names we could call them, but they're the people who've made life interesting in our community who may not always have been on the up and up or there's some deep human interest story that they sort of get lost in and people should know about them, but don't always," said Broome County Historian Gerry Smith.
They're part of what Smith calls the 'Seamy Side of Binghamton' and they've been around as long as our community has.
Take, for example, Sherman Phelps. You may know his name, you may have been to his house on Court Street. You may know about his successful business ventures and even his stint as mayor of Binghamton. But what you may not know is how he almost lost the seat at City Hall and who almost took it.
"Old Bay Tom, whose real name was Thomas Crocker, was actually born a slave. He was set free and stayed the rest of his life around this area, had various odd jobs: He was a wrestler, he would ring a bell at the auction house calling everyone in for the auction," Smith said.
But Crocker's infamy comes in 1872 when Phelps was running unopposed for the city's top lawmaker.
"Some of his businessmen colleagues thought it would be really funny if on the ballot in the 'write-in' spot, they would write somebody else's name in. So, they spread the word to write 'Thomas Crocker,'" Smith said.
But it wasn't so funny, at least not for Phelps, when the results came in.
"Old Bay Tom had more votes than Sherman Phelps. They had just elected a former slave who couldn't read or write, the first black mayor north of the Mason-Dixon Line," Smith said.
But after a convenient 'recount,' enough ballots were thrown out on technicality to give the mayor's seat back to Phelps.
Of all the characters in Broome County's past, for many, there's one that stands out above all the others. Notorious? Maybe. Infamous? Perhaps. Legendary? Absolutely. It was on Clinton Street his lore was born. He'd often go from bar to bar seeking out a free drink or maybe even a meal. If you grew up in the First Ward or ever visited a bar from Binghamton to Endicott, you've probably heard of Masty Huba.
"He was a coal miner who was used and abused, lost an eye in his work and of course the owners of that time didn't believe in worker's comp and so he was thrown away like so much garbage," said storyteller Lonna Pierce.
Vowing to never work another day in his life, Masty made his way north to Broome County during the first half of the 20th century where he became the most infamous street dweller the area has seen.
"He would always try to get a drink out of you at the bar and he would wink his one remaining eye and say 'cupish?' you know, 'you buy insurance from me?' and if you do, he would buy booze with it," said Pierce.
Sleeping wherever he could find a warm place sometimes landed him in some bizarre spots, whether it be over the grates on the street outside the bakery, or even in a freshly dug grave in Spring Forest Cemetery.
"One morning, the milkman was out, it was very foggy and it was very, very early and he happened to look because he saw some movement through the fog and the mist in the cemetery and it looked like a ghost was rising up out of the grave and he screamed like a girl and he dropped his milk and ran back to the truck and took off like a bat out of Hell. And, it wasn't a ghost, it wasn't a spirit, it wasn't an apparition, it was Masty," Pierce said.
It's stories like these that, even decades after their deaths, help characters like Masty Huba and Old Bay Tom live forever.