- Cape May NJ Travel Guide and Vacation Planner Blog

Month: November 2002

Review: Cape May Court House: A Death in the Night

courthouse-bookIf one lives down here, one is prepared to not like anything written by outsiders about our little world. Why, you landlubbers may ask? Because they never get it right, that’s why. It’s like Hollywood trying to make a movie about the working class. The world of the working stiff is either over-romanticized or downright insulting. Lawrence Schiller does not make that mistake in his recently published book,  Cape May Court House – A Death In The Night.

The book details events surrounding the death of the wife of a prominent Cape May Court House dentist, Dr. Eric Thomas, in a car accident late one winter night in 1997. Thomas, who was also in the car along with their young daughter, sues the Ford Motor Co. for the wrongful death of his pregnant wife Tracy who was driving the Ford Explorer at the time. Ford turns the tables on Thomas alleging Tracy Thomas did not die from a defective air bag but rather from strangulation.

The town itself is really not a focal point in the book, except to portray how small a community Cape May Court House is and how important one’s stature in that community can be when one’s reputation is disparaged. One reason the town is basically AWOL is because no one who lives in Cape May Court House would talk on the record and very few spoke at all about the man or his family.

Just how small a town Cape May Court House is becomes an issue as the case proceeds. At one point according to the book, attorneys for the dentist plead with the judge to seal the records regarding Ford’s accusations of “wrongdoing, misdeeds, or foul deeds” against their client. In making his case, Tom Mellon of Mellon, Webster & Mellon, Doylestown, Pa. asserts that Cape May Court House “is a very small community. It’s a very tight-knit community. Everybody knows everybody. This man is a minority in a very small community. If you don’t seal those expert documents for those who are in and out of this courtroom … somebody is going to get them.” The motion is denied.

What is most fascinating about the book is the intimate look it provides the reader inside the heads of Ford’s legal team, who were obviously far more forthcoming than attorneys for the plaintiff, therefore making the book list a bit. But Ford won, so naturally they would be a bit more “chatty.” Bill Conroy, at that time representing the Philadelphia firm of White & Williams, led Ford’s legal battle. The games begin when Conroy notices certain inconsistencies with Thomas’ original deposition. When he calls on experts regarding airbag deployment, he receives an opinion from one particular expert that he is not expecting — Tracy’s death was caused not by airbag deployment but by strangulation. As a result, Conroy decides to take on criminal lawyer Glen Zeitz to assist him in investigating the Thomas suit. Among Zeitz’s clients: Philadelphia mob boss Ralph Natale; a high school principal convicted of murdering a teacher and her two children; and Robert Marshall, convicted of murdering his wife in an insurance scam — the subject of the book Blind Faith.

In answer to their move, Mellon comes back with a criminal attorney of their own, Carl Poplar, with 30 years of experience in the criminal defense area.

The most likable character and the one the reader most likely to identify with is Judge Joel B. Rosen, a federal magistrate in Camden County who heard all motions and pretrial matters in the case. The poor man starts out thinking he’s dealing with just another Fortune 500 company liability case and is anxious to get matters dispatched as efficiently and expeditiously as possible without too many courtroom ploys. Boy, is he in for a surprise!

No criminal charges were ever brought against Dr. Thomas. He dropped his suit against Ford in July of 2001.

The back and forth between attorneys, as well the doggedly determined work of investigation are well detailed making Cape May Court House a good read — especially on a chilly winter evening.

The Town Named after a Building

cmcourthouse“Where’s the courthouse?”

New to the Jersey Shore, Terri and Ted came to Cape May to test a dream of owning and running a retail store. They go to the bank to open an account. The bank manager tells them they must secure a certain document from the court before they can open a commercial account. The couple asks the banker where the courthouse is. “Cape May Court House,” he says.

Too embarrassed to ask passers-by, Terri and Ted spend the rest of the afternoon walking up and down Washington Street in Cape May  looking for the courthouse.  They find City Hall and the police station with no problem, but the courthouse eludes them. Finally, they determine that the banker must mean the Magistrate’s court in the basement of City Hall. They go inside and ask the City Clerk where they can pick up the needed document. “Oh, you have to go Cape May Court House for that,” she replies. “We can’t do that here.”

“You mean the Magistrate’s offices downstairs?” asks Terri.

“No. You have to go up to Cape May Court House.” Seeing their befuddled look, she takes pity on them, although not much. “The town,” she says with exasperation. “The town of Cape May Court House. North on Route 9, about 10 miles.”

Not the first time those unfamiliar with the area have made that mistake. A recently published book, Cape May Court House -A Death In The Night, by best-selling author Lawrence Schiller was touted on a  network Morning Show where the hostess made the very same gaff as the couple, only to be corrected by the author. The book and the subsequent media attention its publication is commanding has put the tiny town of Cape May Court House in the spotlight, probably more so than the events which precipitated its writing.

A Brief History of Cape May Court House

In Colonial times, the village was called Romney Marsh. Later it became Middle Town, as it lies in the middle of Cape May County. By the early part of the 19th century, the county seat became known as Cape May Court House. According to an article written back in the 1940s by Edward M. Post, custodian of the Cape May County Historical Museum, the name started with Captain Mey, a Dutch explorer who landed at the southern tip of the state, hence the name Cape May. Cape May then became the name of the county and, according to a Post article, “when the courthouse was built, it followed the old southern custom and the site of the courthouse of Cape May County became known as Cape May Court House.”

So, that takes care of the name. But what about the town itself?  It was first settled over 300 years ago by Shamgar Hand in 1694. He was a whaler by trade in Sagg Harbor, Long Island, when he and his friend, Christopher Leaming, moved to Town Bank on the Delaware River bank just north of Cape May. Hand purchased 408 acres of land, situated on both sides of Crooked Creek from the West Jersey Society. He later bought 700 more acres, according to the Post article “comprising the present location of the town [of Cape May Court House] extending from Holmes’ run to the southern border of the high school grounds. The eastern boundary was the sounds and the western boundary was White Oak swamp.” cmcourthouse2After the first survey in 1703 by Shamgar’s nephew, Jeremiah Hand, the property acquired the name “Romney Marsh” from the “fertile fields of Kent county, England, the homeland of the Hands.”

The first actual court house was originally the first Baptist Church in Cape May County.  It was built in 1715 and became the courthouse when the Baptists erected a new church in 1744.  A second court house was built in 1774 by master builder Daniel Hand, Jr. (Shamgar’s grandson) on an acre of land donated to the county by his father for use as a courthouse and jail.

It was a small town, even in 1929.

Recollections of publisher, Alfred Cooper, who launched the Cape May County Gazette in 1880, appeared in the paper in March of 1929. Cooper recalled that in 1880 “there were no sidewalks here — merely paths by the side of the road. There was no building line on the main streets and houses were located where and as the owner’s whims dictated.” So far as the writer could recall, the only buildings then that lined Mechanic Street (more generally known as ‘the lane‘) were ten homes, a store, a house owned by Hannah Hand, a store owned by Mrs. Harry Stites, a barber shop, and a harness shop. “From this point to Main Street, on the north side, all the ground was occupied by William Ross’s lumber yard and store.”

Cooper refers to two major fires, one on the Centennial of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1876, which broke out in the Wheaton Hotel and another on Washington’s Birthday in 1905.

The publisher concludes that “until the building up of the seashore resorts brought into the county many people from other States, ninety-five percent of the population of Cape May County was ‘native born,’ and ‘class’ was almost unknown — maptocourthousewhen deciding to have a surprise party no invitations were issued — a simple announcement of the party was made, and everybody in the community was welcome to attend. The same was true of the prevalent beach parties — the participants often numbered a hundred or more.”


Still an essentially quiet small town, but with no town government of its own (it’s part of Middle Township which has its own Mayor and Council), the outskirts of Cape May Court House today are peppered with commercial shopping centers. The remnants of the old “mechanics shops” from two centuries ago, echo in today’s Cape May Court House. As it was through the 18th and 19th centuries, the town is still the place to find what you can’t find elsewhere in Cape May County.

The current courthouse was built in 1927; the old courthouse and many Victorian and Colonial houses still line the main streets. And of course, they still hold court here — and this is where certain documents must be sought if an entrepreneur wants to get loans and start a business in far-away Cape May.

27th Annual Hawk Watch

hwkheaderhawkwatch6Some sit patiently waiting. Some stand — their bodies pivot, arms upraised, binoculars in hand. They speak in quiet tones like people waiting for a golfer to hit a crucial shot. It’s easy to tell the serious hawk watchers from the everyday tourist or curious spectator. For one, they have equipment. Serious equipment. Binoculars are slung around their necks. High-powered binoculars rest on adjustable tripods with high-powered names like Swarovski, the official sponsor of the Hawk Watch, Nikon and Leica.

Chris Vogel

Chris Vogel

The official bird counter, on this day Chris Vogel, whom colleagues described as an “ornithological gypsy,” stands at the top of the observation deck calling out the names of birds he spots: “Sharpie (Sharp-shinned Hawk) swooping down next to a Cooper’s Hawk over by the lake.” “Where are the Balds?” Eagles, that is — Bald Eagles.

It is a good day for Hawk watching. A cold front has moved in along with strong northwesterly winds providing optimum conditions for the migrating raptors.

This is the 27th Hawk Watch. Cape May Point, is a funnel for hawks, Monarch butterflies, and other migratory birds. From September 1st through November, Cape May Point is their stop-off  before they cross the 14-mile stretch of the Delaware Bay to land, then continue to points further south on the other side.

hawkwatchplat2As Mark Garland, senior naturalist at the Cape May Bird Observatory and author of Watching Nature, puts it “They come here to stop, rest and refuel. I equate it with telling a someone, ‘you have a 14 -mile run and if you stop before the 14 miles have elapsed you’re dead.’  These are not water fowl. They cannot land on water. If they do, they die.”

Cape May Point State Park is the spot they pick for their hiatus, and the hawk count begins just as they take flight over the bay. Official tallies have range from over 88,000 hawks to as few as 22,000 hawks per year, with an average of 55,000. Some watches are more spectacular than others. Garland noted that in a recent Hawk Watch, “we counted 19,000 hawks in one day.” Last year, however, the count plummeted to 28,849 total sightings. Unusually warm weather the past two years has been blamed for the decrease in numbers.

hawkwatch5In warmer weather, Garland explained, the winds are generally unfavorable coming not from the west or northwest, which also ushers in a cold front, but rather from a more southerly direction.

“We don’t know if this weather pattern is going to be a trend or not, but that is the point of the Hawk Watch to collect data in a consistent way in this and other Hawk watches so that it serves as a good census for long term trends of what’s happening. It’s difficult when the wildlife is dispersed to tell what the trends are.” That’s the importance, he said, of the Hawk Watch particularly in Cape May where so many birds congregate in such a small area.

hawkwatch1Data collected serves as a barometer for what is happening in the whole of nature and in mankind. Garland cites as an example the noted decrease in population of the American Bald Eagle and the Peregrine Falcon back in the 50s. The decline was attributed to the use of DDT as a pesticide. Later, similar negative findings were found in the breast milk of women, also attributed to the use of DDT.

The possible extinction of the two species, as well as the problems the human species faces as a result of pesticide use, found a voice in Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring, which triggered the environmental movement of the 60s. “The research,” Garland said, “that made those discoveries possible started with bird watchers.”

Conversely, the banning of the use of DDT has brought about a surge in population of the Bald Eagle, the Peregrine and the Osprey.

An observation deck in Cape May Point State Park has been built with the Hawk Watch in mind. It is very unlike the first observation deck. When Pete Dunne, author of The Feather Quest and Tales of A Low Rent Birder, climbed up on a lifeguard stand 27 years ago and became Cape May Point’s first official Hawk Watch counter, he was completely unprepared for what lie ahead.

Pete Dunne

Pete Dunne

Hired by  Bill Clark, a member of the New Jersey Audubon Society to make the fall count for the newly formed Cape May Bird Observatory, Dunne said, “Up to that point, I counted for mostly for myself. I’d participated in a spring bird count but that amounted to maybe 3,000 birds.” In fact, he counted 21,800 birds of prey that first day.

The official count for fall, 1976 was 48,245. “And I missed two of the best days,” he said. “I couldn’t come in. Those were the best days of the watch. I’m sure I would have counted 80,000 total for that year had I not missed them.”

birders2Dunne describes the observation site in 1976 not as a pristine wilderness waiting to be cultivated but a wasteland filled with discarded concrete, old utility lines, and debris from years of military construction. There was no parking lot and no roof over the pavilion. In fact, he says there wasn’t even any vegetation. The Cedars and greenery which currently surround the site have all been planted since that first Hawk Watch.

What Dunne nor any of the founding members of the Cape May Bird Observatory could predict 27 years ago was the explosion in popularity birding watching would take and the growing importance the Cape May Hawk Watch would assume. Its reputation has made it a Mecca for bird watchers.

hawkwatch2“People don’t have to turn to Antarctica or the Equator to see a great spectacle of nature,” said Dunne. “It’s right here in their own back yard. As we become more estranged from nature, there is more and more a need to integrate with nature. Here, on this observation deck, we can provide the mechanisms to bring people and nature together without the not-so-serious birder becoming intimidated.”

Dunne scanned the observation deck and pointed out those people who were seasoned birders (again that equipment thing) and those there for possibly the first time. “Everyone can enjoy this and maybe someone coming here for the first time will go back and buy a book on birding and become a little more curious.”

That is why, according to Mark Garland, the Observatory makes sure they always have two staff people in addition to the counter on hand to answer any questions.

As an example of what can await the patient observer, October 5th brought birders the chance to see 298 Peregrine Falcons cross the Delaware Bay. The Peregrine is the darling of bird watchers. Its species numbered between 30 and 40 back in the 60s because of the use of DDT.

birdboardAnd the Peregrine for thousands of years was considered the “sport of kings.” It is a powerful bird and one of the fastest in world. When stalking prey, it folds itself up like a bullet and swoops down on a flock of birds to attack traveling 150-miles an hour. The Peregrines threatened extinction became the symbol for environmentalists, not only as a sign of the environmental problems which caused its decline but also a sign that solutions are possible.

“Long term consistent data is so crucial,” said Garland. “Decision-makers need data.  In order to collect that data, we need  to save the habitat so the birds have a place to rest and refuel. Development is inevitable and we need to understand which areas are more critical for wildlife and keep those areas safe and protected. We need advocates  and that’s our purpose. We identify the problem and act a solution.”

As morning slips into the noon hour, Chris Vogel jumps off his observation perch moving swiftly across the deck. “Look. To the right of the cedars — a Red Shouldered Hawk.” Like an event out of synchronized birding, 150 bodies, arms upraised with binoculars in perfect eye-gazing position, simultaneously swing in the direction he is pointing to view the raptor. Almost apologetically, he looks back at the non-binocular people, “This is a good day.”