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Copied from SYRACUSE
OnLine - Central New York News (11 June 2000)
A Death in the Family
By Hart Seely, Staff Writer
Disemboweled lawn mowers leaned against sunbaked tires, smooth as cue balls. A solitary black work boot stood atop a pile of rusty, unidentifiable things that once belonged to larger rusty, unidentifiable things.
Ten years ago, the Ward brothers played starring roles in a mystery that was born long ago in the hills of Madison County. For nearly 12 months, the continuing saga of Adelbert Daniel Ward unraveled. Adelbert - Delbert, to those who knew him - the youngest brother in a reclusive family, was charged with murdering his brother Bill in the bed where they always slept, in the house they built.
Only two brothers remain, Roscoe and Lyman, who is perched this day in the yard that is really more an outdoor attic. It took him 20 minutes to quell the shakes. Now a smile flickered, and Lyman G. Ward chuckled at the notion of visitors. "Stop by all th' time, yuep," he said, gumming a wad of tobacco roughly the size of a baby's fist. "Stopped by th' other day, yuep. Stop by all th' time."
Hours after William J. Ward's death June 6, 1990, New York state troopers took from Delbert what they claimed was an unsolicited four-page murder confession. In it, Delbert, a lifelong dairy farmer, described the act of suffocating his ill brother, as if to put down a suffering animal. At age 59, he faced 15 years to life in state prison.
But the town of Stockbridge rallied around Delbert, who friends said couldn't hurt a suffering animal, much less his brother. Citizens raised money for his legal fight. The town defended him. The jury acquitted him.
Ten years after Bill's death - and nearly two since Delbert died abruptly in a Cooperstown hospital - Lyman and Roscoe R. Ward still keep cows on Hogsback Ridge, the steep knoll that overlooks their ramshackle house. Their farm, once 100 acres, has shrunk to the size of a Little League ball field, though the place in many ways appears frozen in time as the decade has passed.
Inside the house, two rooms remain closed. One has gone idle since their mother, May, died there in 1965. The other, sealed with a chain lock, is the room where Bill died. Pungent odors of dried sweat, rotted food and cow manure permeate the dwelling. Outside, cats roam freely; cousin Harold "Ike" Ward still lives in his remodeled school bus; and the boys' clothes remain just as likely to greet the inside of a burn barrel before they ever see a washing machine.
But the view from Johnson Road - a dead-end, gravel obstacle course - increasingly takes in satellite dishes instead of silos. And even if they remain boys at heart, Roscoe is 80 and Lyman 76; when they trudge across their yard, they do not move like boys.
Ten years ago, their story began. How did Lyman feel about it now?
He pondered the question, deftly squirted tobacco juice to the ground, then flashed an answer.
Harry Thurston salts his conversations with cuss words and overstatements, seeking the shocked reaction. The crinkle of his blue eyes usually gives him away. A dairy farmer, Thurston lives about two miles from the Wards. He has all his life, and that's a long time. He's 74.
"Around here, nothing changes," he says, as cigarette smoke unwinds over his kitchen table. "And if it does, it just gets more like it was."
Long ago in the military, "Hoss" Thurston got into a brawl with another grunt, bursting lips and blackening eyes until the company blasted them with a fire hose, and they forgot to keep fighting. Thurston remembers the guy's name: Marciano - "Rocky" to his buddies.
Forty-two years ago, a hay-bailer snared Thurston's boot. He yanked himself free and drove the tractor home with his right foot dangling from a tendon. A doctor removed it. Seven days later, he was back in the fields, working on one foot.
Today, he wears a nitroglycerin patch and periodically drives to the Veterans Administration Hospital in Syracuse to get lectured about the evils of smoking. He's survived cancer, two heart attacks, a broken neck, a stroke and a lifetime supply of crushed vertebrae. Ask how he's doing, and he'll say, "Oh, sittin' here, dyin'." Two hours later, he'll be out installing a water pump.
Thurston, the Ward boys' life-long friend and, in many respects, protector, serves as unofficial teller of the tale. The brothers, though amicable and open, don't get carried away with words. In 1992, when TV talk-show host Maury Povich asked about the murder trial, Roscoe pleaded what could be the Ward boys' Fifth Amendment: "Ask Harry."
A former Smithfield town justice, Thurston handles Roscoe and Lyman's paperwork. He pays the boys' bills after they give him money, most of which comes from Social Security. Sometimes, he must wash the cash before a creditor will accept it because the money reeks of cow manure and tobacco.
"Some people just don't want to see them," Thurston said, sadly. "They were all for them back then. Now, they don't want them around."
Growing up with seven brothers and sisters, Thurston milked cows each morning before boarding the school bus. There, he recalls the Wards - with their long hair, dirty clothes and cow-barn odor - receiving their first lessons about social status in America.
"The meaner kids wouldn't let them sit on the bus," he said. "They said they smelled too bad. But it was all because they were poor. Back then, if you were poor, you were nothing. And I can't see where that's changed."
The town of Smithfield's 1934 school census, kept at Fryer Memorial Museum in Munnsville, shows that of 83 children registered in the district that year, five - the four brothers and sister Emma - came from the family of George and May E. Ward of RD #3.
Actually, May Ward had Roscoe with another man, George Hubbard, before marrying George Ward. A farmer, George Ward succumbed to cancer when the boys were young.
"He died over there, near the milk house," Roscoe remembered, nodding toward the cinderblock barn. "My stepfather, George Ward."
What caused the death?
Roscoe pondered the question.
Delbert Ward, the youngest of the brothers, grew up poor: no indoor plumbing, no modern appliances, no phone, no Christmas tree, no birthday parties.
From early childhood, he slept in his clothes and shared a bed with his older brother Bill to stay warm. The boys worked the farm. With their father dead, they had no choice.
They kept a handful of sheep on 35 acres of grassy, roller-coaster hills. The boys were pushed through the system and dropped out of Stockbridge Valley Schools around age 16. Delbert twice was promoted on age. In his final year, he missed 135 days. As an adult, Delbert's education level would be diagnosed to be third grade. If asked to read, he'd say he misplaced his glasses.
Roscoe, the oldest, was known to see women and go out drinking. Lyman, four years younger, grew up shy in the presence of outsiders; he wouldn't even enter some restaurants or stores, staying outside while his brothers ate or shopped. He also went through alcoholic periods. Delbert generally walked in the shadow of Bill, who ran the family farm and, for the most part, the family.
The boys rode into town often for supplies. They bought day-old bread and margarine for "bread sandwiches," a staple of their diets. They never used food stamps, never took welfare. They worked long, hard hours, and they lived in poverty.
Munnsville residents viewed them as oddities, but harmless oddities. Mothers might scold dirty children that they looked like one of the Wards. And if the Wards sat in a restaurant, someone might blast the chair with Lysol before the next customer arrived. The boys lived on their own terms, by old-fashioned codes of conduct. If you treated them nicely, they responded in kind. In business, they stood by their word. And they never forgot a kindness.
Munnsville grocer Charles E. Young, who later became town of Stockbridge supervisor, saw them often. They'd stop by his store, Stockbridge Valley Foods, to buy chewing tobacco and whatever was on sale. When possible, Young gave them deli leftovers. Over the years, they ran up $800 in debts. Friends told Young he might as well have pitched the money over Stockbridge Falls. But long after he sold his store and told them to forget it, the boys paid back every penny.
"They wouldn't have it any other way," said Young, 78, who lives in Munnsville.
Young said the Wards keenly understood the derisive looks some people gave them. They knew they carried an otherworldly smell. To avoid a confrontation, they'd let a customer ahead of them in the check-out line or wander outside. You didn't ask them to leave. Nobody would be so cruel, Young said. The boys just stepped aside on their own - a lesson perhaps learned long ago from the school bus.
Though they lived in squalor, they ran a clean milk operation. They washed and milked cows by hand. They passed inspections - getting one of the best ratings for low bacteria counts in the area - and the farm remained solvent to the day Bill died. They lacked spending money, health insurance, modern appliances and any sense of hygiene, but they functioned as a unit.
Bill ran the business. Delbert did the bulk of the work, but everybody helped. With Cousin Ike Ward, who moved into the school bus about 12 years ago, the men lived by their own rules.
They barely survived. Then again, survival was all they knew.
In spring 1990, Bill Ward believed he was dying.
Twelve years earlier, a bee sting had led to blood poisoning. It left Bill wary of hospitals and needles and massive medical bills.
A few years earlier, a chain saw jumped and bit Bill along the ear and jawline. Though hair covered the scar, he was never the same. The previous winter, a cow had stepped on his foot. Though it seemed broken, he refused to see a doctor. He couldn't hold his water, and he sucked on cough drops all day, telling people he thought he had a tumor in his throat. He'd wake up in the night shouting, "It's time to do the chores!"
At age 64, the family's leader was losing weight and describing pains that felt - Delbert would say later - as if someone were "putting a knife though his stomach and head." They'd find Bill doubled-over, groaning, clenched in agony. To get by, he'd swallow handfuls of generic aspirin tablets. And when the symptoms converged, he feared the scourge of the family: cancer.
The brothers believed it had claimed their mother, father and sister. They believed it ran in their bloodlines. And they believed it now had come for Bill.
In late May, Bill Ward called his brothers out to the huge maple tree that shades their front yard. As they sat on the grass, he described a recent dream, which he believed was a premonition.
"He said one day, one of us was going to wake up dead and the other would be arrested," Delbert would later say.
Bill told them his pain had become unbearable.
"He said he'd like to take a gun and kill himself so he wouldn't be in misery," Delbert testified in 1991. "I said I would take the guns and hide them."
Word of Bill's vision soon made its way around the hills. Harry Thurston shucked it off. People had dreams all the time, he said. What's the fuss?
Then the dream came true.