New York State Funeral Directors Association

He was known as a friendly, cheerful man, and Samuel J. Abbott’s actions showed a dedication to nation, state and community.

Though the Civil War veteran died on the job working for New York, it took more than a century for his home state to formally recognize him.

Abbott was serving as night watchman at the Capitol in Albany. At an age most people today spend in retirement, he became the sole victim of a massive fire in the New York State Capitol in March of 1911.Samuel Abbott

People were bustling about during the end of the 2018 budget season in Albany as a small group gathered to witness the unveiling of a tiny plaque bearing his name that will adorn the halls of the building he gave his life in.

The Upstate-New Yorker grew up working in his father’s barrel factory. He and his wife Jennie had at least five children.

Life expectancy wasn’t very high during the 1800s – three of those lived to adulthood, according to historians.


A state Education Department web page features images of the fire that devastated the State Capitol building in 1911.

There are pictures displaying mangled steel, plumes of smoke and documents that survived the blaze - believed to have been caused by either faulty wiring or a tossed cigar.

An exhibit set up 100 years after the fire included pictures of the blaze, memoirs from library staff and materials depicting recovery efforts.

Though he wasn’t mentioned on the web page, Abbott, who was 78 when he died, wasn’t completely ignored in Albany in the century that followed his death.

He was a feature of the Capitol’s annual tour highlighting “ghosts.”

It’s an annual Halloween season attraction that draws guests to the historic site.

This longstanding oversight was finally addressed, 107 years later, as people gathered to recognize this Civil War Veteran who never left his post at the Capitol on March 29, 1911.

The concept to establish a memorial for Abbott came to New York State Assemblywoman Patricia A. Fahy in 2016 when she noticed a large group of strangers standing outside her 4th floor office at the Capitol.

They weren’t protesters or lobbyists – they were tourists.

Fahy said people were attending a Halloween tour at the Capitol in which Abbott, the night watchman, was among the subjects.

He was found, two days after the fire started, in the hallway outside her office.

“And that started me thinking … what a travesty. Because as you walk around these beautiful halls, you do not see any kind of memorial or commemoration of his life or his service or his sacrifice,” Fahy said.

Fahy said she was told one of the orderlies working the night of the 1911 fire saw Abbott opening windows on the building’s fourth floor. It is surmised, she said, that he was trying to save as many archives as he could.

"Duty, dedication, service, selflessness. These were the driving forces of Samuel Abbott's life and his final hours," Fahy said.New York State Assemblywoman Patricia A. Fahy, left, and Samuel Abbott Plaque

The fire at the New York State Capitol took place just four days after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in New York City which claimed the lives of 146 workers, mostly young, immigrant women.

These fires were instrumental in the creation of standards for workplace safety we take for granted today.


According to the National Park Service, Abbott served in the 12th Regiment of the New York Infantry, representing the state that supplied more troops than any other during the Civil War.

Enlisted as Ensign, he left the service as a First Lieutenant.

This regiment lost 124 men during the Civil War; more than 60 to battle injuries and the rest by disease.

The 12th Regiment served in the defense of Washington, DC and battled at Bull Run, Yorktown, Antietam, Fredericksburg and other critical engagements in the war that, among other things, ended the country’s barbaric acceptance of slavery.

Abbott was among those first Americans to witness death as never before seen in America through the Civil War, an event that changed the way Americans respond to death – especially on the battlefield.

So many died, so far from home, that this war is considered the start of today’s funerary practice of embalming.

This made it possible for families to see their loved ones one last time before burial, even though they’d died days before and hundreds of miles away.

This war also sparked the creation of dedicated efforts to honor and bury Americans who sacrifice their lives serving their country.

A National Park Service Civil War webpage describes the battle’s impact on death in America:

The somber aftermath of Civil War battles introduced Americans to death on an unprecedented scale. Neither individuals, nor institutions, nor governments were prepared to deal with such devastating loss of human life, for never before or since have we killed so many of our own. The Civil War revolutionized the American military's approach to caring for the dead, leading to our modern culture of reverence for military death, including the National Cemetery system.

Abbott was a member of the Grand Army of the Republic, a fraternal organization of Civil War veterans who advocated for African-American veterans’ right to vote for and helped create Decoration Day that’s known today as Memorial Day.

Abbott’s community service continued after the war. He was elected Assistant Overseer of Poor in 1887, and served as Postmaster in Salina, NY.

His wife had died in January of 1911 – three months before the deadly fire in Albany.

Abbott took a job as Night Watchman at the Capitol, working from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m.

He’d moved to Albany to stay with lifelong friends on Washington Avenue, a stone’s throw from the Capitol.


His demeanor was described as “genial” in an 1879 article in the Cortland Standard that told of the veteran’s gift to his home county’s Representative in the New York State Legislature.

New York Assembly Speaker Thomas G. Alvord – a former Lt. Governor from Onondaga County – apparently made plenty of use of the gavel to bring the legislative body to order.Abbott's gift of a gavel, noted in the April 10, 1879 issue of the Cortland Standard

The gavel in use was apparently from Jerusalem, and the head of it apparently flew off the handle often.

Preferring something stronger and locally-made, Abbott crafted a new one for Alvord using of a piece of hickory he bought from the local Indian Reservation.

Abbott told the newspaper it wasn't appropriate to use imported instruments in the NY Legislature - and an object from the Holy Land didn't belong in such a place, anyways.

So he gave Alvord the new gavel, inscribed, according to the newspaper, with the following words:

To Hon. T.G. Alvord, Speaker of the Assembly, 1879. From wood grown in your native county. Made and presented by Samuel J. Abbott.

Born on the 18th of September in 1833, Abbott is buried at Oakwood Cemetery in Syracuse – Section 60, lot 197, according to the Find-A-Grave website.

Now, with a plaque bearing his name recognizing his death at the New York State Capital, he is remembered at the site where he died.

"Far more than just a ghost story, Samuel Abbott was a hero and an extraordinary New Yorker. He deserves to be remembered. And from this day forward, he will be," Fahy said. 

EdsPhotoEdward Munger Jr.
Communications & Social Media Specialist
NYS Funeral Directors Association