Good morning, good evening, good afternoon, whenever you are listening, welcome to the show. Today, we will uncover a shocking story that took place roughly 112 years ago in Brownsville, New York. The criminal justice system was a lot less complicated back then. This was not always a good thing. As this story unfolds, you may start to learn why there are so many checks and balances in the system today. Our current Criminal Justice methods are far from perfect, which is why there is so much room for reform, but we must also look to the past and see where things didn’t always work or go to plan.
So to our story.
On April 23rd, 1908, Patrick Brennan was headed home from a long day of working at the Remington Mill. He was sore, tired, and ready to be home. As he walked up to his home, he reached above the front door for where they kept a spare key. But it was missing. This was not totally unexpected. You see, Patrick and his wife Sarah had been fighting for quite some time now. This was not the first time he found it hard to get into his own home.
Luckily, he kept another spare key in the shed outback. If Sarah had forgotten that one, he would be able to get in the house. As he walked out back, Partick noticed his neighbor James Farmer watching him. Patrick waved, but James didn’t return the wave. Not really caring, Patrick entered the shed and lifted the old box to hide his key. It, too, was missing.
Patrick just shook his head and again returned to the front door. He knocked and knocked, but no one would answer. Now, having gone through this before. Patrick decided that he would get into the house the one way that he knew would work. They had a window upstairs with a broken latch, and there was no way to secure it. So, Patrick again returned to his shed and then pulled out his ladder. As he did so, he again noticed his neighbor James. This time, James was walking up the walkway and was just a few feet away.
This was also not wholly unexpected. The Farmers were good friends of Patrick and Sarah’s. They had become close since the Farmed moved into the run-down house next door. If there was trouble at the home, Sarah probably told the Farmers about it.
The two greeted one another, and James told Patrick that Sarah had left town to stay with relatives. Patrick knew that things were terrible between them, but not this bad. Then James told Patrick something that it looked like he was almost afraid to say to him. He said that some months back, Sarah and his wife Mary Farmer had worked out a deal on the sale of the house. The deed had been transferred, and the agreement was now complete. Patrick was now homeless.
After recovering from the shock of being told that not only has your wife left you, but she also sold the house from out of under you, Patrick then started to question things. He asked why did everyone wait to tell him this? Why didn’t his wife or even James himself talk to him about this? He started to question if any of this was even real. James told Patrick that everything was on the up and up, and if he wanted to review the deed transfer, he could see it at the county office.
Patrick was then asked to leave the property. Grudgingly, he did so. Patrick decided to stay at the local Inn while he cleared his head and figured out what to do next. The first thing he started doing was writing to all of Sarah’s relatives who might know where she was staying. Over the next few days, he returned to his old home to ask the Farmers if they knew where his wife might have gone. Each time he returned, James and Mary would give him a slightly different story. Each time, it made it sound harder and harder to find his wife. They finally told him that Sarah had told them that she was moving to Canada and that Patrick would never see her again.
The next day Patrick was served with an eviction notice that required him to stay away from home. It was clear that the Farmers were done with all of Patrick’s questioning. So at the advice of a friend, Patrick sought out a lawyer in town who might help him with his troubles. He spoke with Attorney Floyd Carlisle. Now, one of the areas that Mr. Carlisle’s specialized in was home and property law. So the first thing he did was get an accurate description of Sarah Brennan, and then he went down to the county records office and looked at the deed transfer of the property. Everything was in order. It looked like Sarah had used another attorney in town, Mr. Burns, and they had transferred the deed into the Farmer’s names. Back then, when a deed was transferred, they would note down the description of the person who came in to do so. Very little was put down about Sarah, but what was written down didn’t resemble Sarah at all.
So at once, Attorney Carlisle went to the Inn where Patrick had been staying. He showed Patrick a copy of the transfer and asked about the description, and Patrick said that it wasn’t his wife, but it sounded more like it resembled Mrs. Farmer. Then, they both started to put together some of the pieces that fit together. Although Patrick and his wife had been fighting, this was nothing new, and they would have moved on from their problems. They loved one another, and after 25 years of marriage, they had no secrets. This is why it was hard to believe that Sarah could or would keep the idea of selling the home a secret, just to take the money and run. They loved their home and planned on staying there for the rest of their days. None of the stories that the Farmers had told him so far made any sense, and it seemed like they were hiding something.
This was also what Attorney Carlisle believed as well. But he also feared that something awful had happened to Sarah, something that Patrick had not yet come to consider.
They both decided to speak to the county attorney, Mr. Pitcher, to see what they could do. After reciting what had happened so far, they set a meeting that soon involved the police as well. They all decided that on the next day, they would all meet at the Farmers residence, formally Patrick’s home, and then the police would conduct a search to see if there was anything out of place that might explain the disappearance of Sarah Brennan.
The next day, everyone arrived at the same time at the Farmer’s new home. The police knocked on the door to find both James and Mary in the house, moving in. The police let them know that they were there to make a search of the home. James didn’t seem to mind, but Mary seemed nervous. Room by room, each area was searched. The one thing that they noted down that was odd was that all of Sarah’s belongings were still in the home. Her dresses, clothing, and luggage were all where she kept them. If she were leaving, she would have taken them with her.
Besides that, they didn’t find anything else. Upstairs one of the officers asked for help. He had found a trunk in one of the back rooms that was used for storage. It had an odd smell and was locked. When asked for the key, the Farmers stated that they had lost it long ago. The officer then went out and retrieved an ax. When he returned, he immediately began breaking into the trunk. As he did so, a horrible smell filled the room. When the lid was opened, they found Mrs. Sarah Brennan, chopped up and squeezed into the trunk.
Right away, James Brennan denied knowing what was in the trunk. He then looked to Mary, who looked panicked stricken, and she began to blame James for the murder, but almost as soon as she said it, she regretted it and then confessed that she had been plotting this all along and that her husband didn’t know of the murder.
Both Mary and James were arrested on the spot and brought to jail. James kept quiet and refused to answer any questions. He acted as if he didn’t know what had happened, and he was afraid to say anything. However, Mary had a lot to say. She immediately confessed to what had happened and why she killed Sarah. Mary told the officers that they had lived next to one another for years and that over the last few months, she started coming up with a plan on how to steal their neighbor’s house. One day when both of the Brennan’s were out of their home, Mary and creped into their home by using one of the extra keys that she knew they hid. She rummaged through the house and found the deed within minutes. She then pretended to be Sarah and went to an attorney who didn’t know either of them to make the transfer.
Then she waited several months to make sure that the transfer wasn’t contested. But this is where her plan went a little sideways. How do you evict someone who thinks that they own their own home? Once they find out that the deed was transferred, they could just as easily report her and have her arrested. So, When Mary saw that Mr. and Mrs. Brennan were fighting, she decided to hatch another plan. If she could get rid of Sarah, she could claim that the house was bought and Sarah left her husband. She then went to the Brennan home, killed Sarah, cut her up, and placed her in the trunk.
The body of Mrs. Sarah Brennan was sent to the county coroner, and they immediately began to assemble a coroner jury to see what had happened to Sarah.
Now, if you are a first-time listener and you don’t know what a Corners Jury is, don’t worry. We got you on that one. This is a special Jury of medical professionals that served their local area with these types of cases. They would all help with the autopsy, and they would each come to their own conclusion on what happened and how the person died. This was a way to make sure that not one doctor was siding with either side in this case and that their findings would be 100% unbiased. Much like a regular jury, sometimes the corners jury would go as far as to come to a verdict that not only listed how the person died but who was responsible. They had access to all of the evidence and knew of the facts in the case. So, in this case, they found that Mary Farmer had struck Sarah Brennan on the head with an ax. This instantly killed Sarah, and she likely didn’t feel much pain.
They handed this information over to the authorities to decide if they would indict the Farmers for murder or not. Taking this information, the County Attorney had no trouble indicting both James and Mary for the murder of Sarah Brennan.
As with many of the cases at the time, the trial for Mary Farmer began quickly. On June 10th, 1908, Mary Farmer’s defense was that she was insane. The state had her examined, and they found her fit to stand trial, but that didn’t stop them from bringing in several people from Mary’s past to talk about how she was and how the person they knew wouldn’t have killed anyone. A former employer provided unhelpful testimony. They thought that they would state that Mary was an average person and would also say that they couldn’t believe that she would have killed someone, but instead, they just said that they were a good employee, and that was about it. They didn’t know her personally.
James’s sister testified that she was given the deed to file with the county. She knew that it was Mary’s signature on the form and not Sarah’s when she looked at it. But she decided not to say anything about it at the time. On the day of the murder, her Brother James was helping her at her home, and that’s when Mary came over and told James that he had to tell Patrick today that he was no longer the owner of his home and that his wife had left him.
After 10 days of trial, the Jury received the case. They spent three hours deliberating and came back with a verdict. Guilty. They affixed death as the sentence.
At this point in history, Mary Farmer was scheduled to be the second woman to be put to death by an electric chair in the state of New York.
Now, James Farmer’s trial was a little different. He claimed he knew nothing about the murder, he believed his wife had done it, but he had no hand in it. He wasn’t going to claim that he was insane or anything like that. Instead, he would try and prove that he wasn’t present at the time of the murder.
Ont the day of the murder, James went to a friend’s house who lived on the other side of them. His name was Doran. Doran and James planned on working on a cement walkway that morning. Doran testified that James arrived 20 minutes before 9. Its thought that the murder was committed around 9:30 that morning. So, if James was with Dorian, there was no way he had an active hand in the murder.
The state, however, brought witnesses forward that directly contradicted Doran’s statements. Several witnesses claimed that they saw James return home several times that day. They also questioned how James could not have known at all that something was up? Even if Mary came up with a reasonable excuse on how she got the money to buy the home, how did he not think it odd that Mary would up and leave a 25-year marriage with no prior warning?
Just like in Mary’s case, the Jury received the case and deliberated for three hours. James was found guilty of murder and was given the death sentence.
Mary immediately appealed her case and also asked the governor to step in and reduce her sentence to life in prison. But each time, her pleas fell on deaf ears. She had to be given a special cell on death row. She had to be out of ear and eyeshot of the male prisoners. She was attended to by special female staff, and James was housed at a separate prison so they could not see one another.
Mary’s execution date was set for March 29th, 1909. Her attorney made a special appointment with the governor to reaccess the case and perhaps give Mary life in prison instead. When he arrived at the meeting, the attorney had brought several people who knew Mrs. Farmer was a good person, and they all tried to convince him to give her this. He told them he would think about it, but as the Marth 29th date grew near, he announced that he would not step in.
On March 29th, The day of the execution, Mary was permitted some time she could spend with her husband. It was said by the priest who attended the meeting that the two were at first standoffish at first, but they soon were able to talk to one another and give their goodbyes. It was there that Mary Farmer gave the priest a note which was a full confession to the crime.
Mary Farmer walked into the death chamber, head shaved and ready for the end. She gave her last words to the crowd to the thoughts to her husband, and how it made her sad to see him on death row because he had nothing to do with the murder, it was all her.
She then sat in the chair, and they began strapping her down and attaching the electrodes. At 6:05PM, they flipped the switch for one minute. 1840 volts of electricity were applied. When they stopped, Mary let out a small whimper and a moan. The doctors found her to still be alive. They then began the electrocute her again for a few seconds and promptly stopped. The doctors checked and again found her to be alive. They again flipped the switch and electrocuted her. This time, she died.
After the execution, the prison doctor told the crowd that Mary was dead after the first shock, but many didn’t believe this, having seen the actions first hand.
Remember, James had been moved to the same Death Row as his wife. He knew the exact moment they were killing her. During this time, it was said that James spent the entire time praying for his wife and her soul.
Even though Mary was seen as a killer and someone who was not to be trusted, her last words carried a lot of weight. James successfully appealed his sentence and was awarded a new trial. This time around, things seemed a little different, and they were able to use the confession of Mary as proof that James had nothing to do with the actual murder.
The Jury responded to this new evidence and found James Not guilty of Sarah’s murder.
It’s hard for me to say one way or the other what I believe happened for real in this case. The biggest question is, did James have a hand in Sarah’s murder? I have to believe that he had to suspect something was going on. When the deed was transferred, how could he just accept that his wife made a purchase of that size with magical money from a long-lost relative? Or the disappearance of Sarah? It’s just hard for me to believe that he had nothing to do with any of it. It must have been hard for Patrick to see James walk out a free man.