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"Mary Farmer Took An Ax" - follows my commentary:

Tonight, I dragged out a suitcase of newspapers, song sheets, and school papers. I was so surprised to find several newspaper from 1976 which The Watertown Daily Times, Watertown, N. Y. had done in honor of our nation’s independence. How thrilled I was to see this article concerning a matter I had heard much about as a child. We lived about one and one-half miles from a settlement called Paddy Hill, Jefferson County, N. Y. It was really a part of Brownville, but it was on the opposite side of the Black River from the main village. Apparently, it was settled by the Irish immigrants who may have come there to work in the paper mills, but I’m not sure of that. During my childhood, there was a little store where my parents bought their gas, newspaper, and an occasional ice cream cone for us kids -- and oh, it was a place where Dad used to hang out to hear all the local gossip. It was called LaPointe’s Store. It was snugged up quite close to a little white house which my mother told me was the place where a murder occurred earlier in the century. Our mother would tell us little tidbits about the circumstances of the murder and she’d try to point out in which part of the house the body had been stored. We were told that the perpetrator, a woman, was the first woman to be electrocuted in New York State. Of course, we believed that; but now, as I looked at the article I just found, I find this to have been incorrect -- the woman, our own Mary Farmer, was the second woman to be electrocuted in the State of New York.

Let’s read the story written by Kathie Barnes. There are some missing points I’d like to have answers on, so expect me to be back next summer with more on this murder.

Shirley Farone - February 16, 2001

Reprinted with Permission
of the
Watertown Daily Times


Mary Farmer TOOK An AX.........

By Kathie Barnes

Staff Writer of The Times.

(with Photo)

Twenty-seven year old Mary Farmer, a slight woman with partial facial paralysis, bears the rather dubious distinction of being the only woman from Jefferson County ever executed and the second woman in New York to be electrocuted.

Mary was convicted of what The Times called in 1908 “one of the most fiendish murders ever.”

In 1908, Mary lived with her husband, James, in a rather run-down house known as Barton Tavern on Paddy Hill near Brownville.

Sarah Brennan was her neighbor, friend and landlady. Sarah’s mutilated and decaying body was found in a trunk belonging to Mary Farmer on April 27, 1908.

What was revealed in subsequent investigation was a plot by Mary to take Sarah’s house and to murder her friend.

On Oct. 31, 1907, Irish-born Mary O’Brien Farmer went to the Watertown offices of Atty. Francis P. Burns and told him she was Sarah Brennan and that she had a deed she wanted transferred to Mary Farmer. The unsuspecting attorney obliged, Mary forged Sarah’s signature, and the deed was filed with the county clerk.

Mary told her husband, James, a mill worker who was overly fond of his ale, that she had purchased the Brennan house for $1,200 and that Sarah Brennan was paying her $2.50 per week rent.

Mary said she got the money for the house from an uncle in Buffalo.

James never questioned Mary, although a rumor around Paddy Hill and Brownville that the Brennans had sold their house to the Farmers was vehemently denied by Sarah and Patrick (Patsy) Brennan.

No more was heard of the so-called purchase until April 23, 1908, when Mary told Patsy Brennan he must vacate his house and that Sarah had gone away and would never return. She showed Patsy the deed made out to Mary Farmer.

Mary told Patsy several stories about the fate of his wife, all leading up to Sarah’s refusal to continue to live with her husband of 25 years. She was said to be at several places in Watertown and in Duluth, Minn. and Chicago.

Sarah’s body actually was in a trunk in Mary’s back room, a trunk later moved to the Brennan house after Mary got an eviction notice against Patsy and he moved to the nearby Riverside Hotel.*

On April 27, a distraught Patsy and Sheriff Ezra D. Bellinger and Attorney Floyd L. Carlisle knocked on the door of the Brennan house, where the Farmers had since moved.

After a thorough search of the house, the law enforcement officials came to a back shed or summer kitchen which contained several boxes and two trunks not yet unpacked since the move.

The larger of the two trunks belonged to Mary Farmer. Since it was locked and no key could be produced, the sheriff broke the lock with a hammer.

When the trunk lid was opened, the Times reported on April 28: “The sickening odor of decaying flesh pervaded the room. A black cloth covered the contents of the trunk, which was little more than two-thirds filled. But when the cloth was pulled back a trifle, the stockinged outlines of a human foot and leg protruded. The cloth was the black skirt of a woman. The body was resting upon the face, the legs bent at the knees and the feet sticking upwards nearly to the top of the trunk. One end of the trunk was smeared with blood and here the horrified officers disclosed the head, blood-clotted, the back crushed in as with a blunt instrument. There was considerable blood in the bottom of the trunk and some of it had oozed through upon the floor in the corner.”

The Times account continued, “Mr. and Mrs. Farmer disclaimed all knowledge of the body. They knew nothing about it, they said.”

Mary and James were arrested and Mary first told police James had murdered Sarah, but later changed her story and said she had done it herself, hitting Sarah in the back of the head with an axe.

Mary and James were taken to the county jail, Mary carrying the couple’s infant son, Peter, to whom the Brennan property was deeded Jan. 7, 1908.

Mary went to trial June 16, 1908, in the Jefferson County Courthouse before Justice Watson M. Rogers. She was prosecuted by Dist. Atty. F. B. Pitcher, who was assisted by Carlisle. Mary’s defense was conducted by Attys. John B. Coughlin and Robert Willcox.

The defense attempted to show that Mary was insane or that Sarah’s murder came about as a result of a fight between the two women, with Mary striking Sarah in self-defense.

After deliberating only three hours, the 12-member, all male jury returned a guilty verdict.

Mary’s reaction to the conviction and immediate sentencing to death by electrocution was one of “stoical indifference which had characterized her manner throughout the trial,” The Times reported.

The conviction was appealed to no avail.

On March 29, 1909, Mary Farmer was electrocuted at Auburn State Prison. According to her priest, she died “a good Catholic.”

In a note written the night before her execution, Mary said that her husband, James, was not involved in Sarah Brennan’s murder in any way.

Mary Farmer was the second woman to die in the electric chair in New York. The first was Mrs. Martha M. Place, who was executed in 1899 for the Brooklyn murder of her step-daughter.

Seven other women had been executed by hanging in New York before the electric chair was instituted.

James Farmer had a happier life.

He came to trial for Sarah Brennan’s murder in October, 1908. He was convicted Oct. 30, but the conviction was reversed by the Court of Appeals after James had spent 53 weeks on death row at Auburn prison. In fact, James was in a cell only a few feet away from the death chamber when Mary was executed.

James was later brought back to Jefferson County and tried for forgery of the Brennan deed. He was acquitted in 1910 and spent the rest of his life quietly as a mill worker in Brownville.

*Riverside Hotel????? Does anyone know if this is the building bought by the J. P. Lewis Paper Company in the late 1940’s or 1950’s? The huge, red brick building which was built along the Black River and known to the locals as “The Red Onion?”

May 2007: In answer to my question, Lisa Snyder wrote: "You asked if anyone knew if the Riverside Hotel was later bought and turned into the paper is true. My great grandfather used to talk about it. It is in Watertown along the Black River. Just thought I would let you know." Thank you, Lisa, for your contribution. You are fortunate to have listened tp and remembered the stories told by your great grandfather.

Note: The scores of articles regarding the Farmer Trial have not yet been researched and transcribed.

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