The “Watertown Trunk Murder”
Dismemberment - An
elaborate plan to criminally acquire the property of her neighbors
Number of victims: 1
Date of murder:
April 23, 1908
Date of arrest: 4 days after
Date of birth: 1880
Sarah Brennan (her
neighbor, friend and landlady)
Method of murder:
Hitting in the back of the head with an axe
Location: Jefferson County, New York, USA
at Auburn State Prison on March 29,
took an axe to her neighbor Sarah Brennan, stuffed her corpse into a
trunk, then assumed Sarah's identity and ordered the deed to Sarah's
house transferred into her own (Mary's) name.
then evicted Sarah's husband (who had no idea where his wife was) from
the house and moved into it herself, bringing with her the trunk
containing Sarah's corpse. When she was found out, Mary tried to pin
the murder on her own husband James.
Mary Farmer TOOK
By Kathie Barnes
- Waterton Daily Times
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
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
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
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
Seven other women had been
executed by hanging in New York before the electric chair was
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
Mary & James Farmer, Axe Murderers
Mary Farmer Pays Penalty For Her
Second Woman to Die in Electric Chair
Executed in Auburn Prison.
The Salt Lake Herald
Mar. 30, 1909
Auburn, N. Y., March 29.—Murmuring a
prayer for her soul, Mrs. Mary Farmer was quietly led to the
electric chair in Auburn prison shortly after 6 o’clock this morning
and executed for the killing of Mrs. Mary Brennan at Brownville last
The execution of Mrs. Farmer’s second
infliction of the death penalty on a woman by electricity in this
stale was effected without sensational incidents. Five women, two of
whom were prison attendants witnessed the death of Mrs. Farmer.
Father Hickey, spiritual adviser of the condemned woman, following
the execution gave out a statement signed by Mrs. Farmer, in which
she declared that her husband, James Farmer, was entirely innocent
and knew nothing of the crime until after it had been committed.
Procession to Death Chair
Led by Father Hickey and with Mrs.
Dunnigan and Mrs. Gorman the two women attendants who have been with
her constantly since she was brought to Auburn prison, Mrs. Farmer
waxed unfalteringly to the death chair, her eyes were half closed
and clasping a crucifix in her hands. As she was being strapped in
the chair Father Hickey stood at her side and offered prayers for
Dr. John Gerin, the prison physician,
said that the woman was dead after the first shock, but as there was
still a tremor of muscular reaction two succeeding contacts were
given. State Electrician Davis said 1,840 volts and 7 1/2 ampheres
was the strength of, the current that passed through the woman’s
After Warden Benham had announced
that the physicians had pronounced Mrs. Farmer dead. Dr. Edward
Spitzka of Philadelphia and Dr. Charles of the pathological
institute at Wards Island, N. Y., performed the autopsy.
Spent the Night in Prayer
All night long the wretched woman had
prayed within her cell on the second tier on the woman’s department
in the condemned row, after she had bade farewell to her husband.
Separated by steel bars and an
intervening screen, husband and wife spent their final hours
together in quiet conversation.
The final word was spoken, a last
good-bye, the weeping husband returned to his cell and the hapless
woman was led down the narrow corridor. In the pale ochre light of
the corridor the woman and priest prayed together, the last
sacrament was administered, and Mrs. Farmer said she was not afraid
Spectators Were Few
Mrs. Farmer was dressed in a plain
black waist and shirt. Her hair was brushed back from her forehead
and fell in two braids. Two or three locks were cut from the scalp
so that the electrode might be properly adjusted, and the woman
attendants slit the left side of the skirt as far as the knee and
cut the stocking. None except those having official invitations were
admitted to the execution. The three witnesses were Dr. H. M.
Westfall of Moravia, N. Y., Miss Agnes Baird of Troy, N.Y., and Miss
Margaret T. Byrne of Auburn. Miss Baird and Miss Byrne of Auburn.
Miss Baird and Miss Byrne are nurses. When all was in readiness the
witnesses were formed in line after being cautioned against any
demonstration and led into the death chamber.
State Electrician Davis tested the
dynamos and wires leading to the death chamber. Everything was found
to be in working order. Warden Benham nodded to Captain Patterson.
There was a low knock at the street door, the door was opened by
some one within, and the wretched woman was let in the priest led
the way, offering an almost inaudible prayer, while just behind him
came Mary Farmer. Her hands clasped a crucifix and she murmured
until the end came:
Last Murmur for Mercy
“Jesus, Mary and Joseph, Have mercy
on my soul”
It might have been only a few seconds
before the straps were adjusted, though it seemed an interminable
period. The two women attendants stood by the wall and the two
nurses and Dr. Westfall ranged themselves in front of the
black-gowned figure while Captain Patterson adjusted the leg
electrode. The rubber mask was adjusted over the eyes and the head
electrode was attached. A word from the state electrician, and the
attendants, nuses and Warden Benham stepped back from the thick
rubber mat upon which the death chair is placed.
The hand of State Electrician Davis
traced a slow arch with the switch behind the curtain. A half spoken
prayer was halted as the condemned woman convulsed in the leather
harness that bound her to the chair. A woman attendant covered her
face with her hands. Only the clicking of the tightening straps and
the murmur of dynamos in an adjusting room could be heard.
Three Currents Applied
The first contact lasted a full
minute, the voltage starting at 1,840 and being gradually lowered to
200, then raised again to the full limit of 1,840 volts. The current
was applied at 6:05 o’clock. The current was shut off, and a strange
sound – half moan and half murmur – came from the woman’s lips. Dr.
Gerin and Dr. Spitzka applied the stethoscope to the heart while
Electrician Davis felt the artery in the neck. Muscular action was
noted by the physicians stepped forward and applied the test to
determine if life still remained in the limp figure in the chair.
For the third time the static electrician sent the current through
The woman was then pronounced dead,
and Dr. Gerin pronounced dead, and Dr. Gerin directed the prison
attendants to remove the body to the autopsy room.
Husband Prayed in His Cell
Locked in his cell in a far-away
corner of the prison, Jim Farmer, the husband, prayed during the
hour of his wife’s execution, she had told him she had to die at
dawn and that she had made a statement that he was innocent of the
crime. The man verged on collapse from grief, and he frequently gave
way to tears. The husband will not be taken back to the “death row”
until Wednesday morning.
The witness sheet was signed in the
warden’s office, a file of witnesses, unstrung and nervous, passed
out from the main prison gate, and the official proceedings of Mary
Farmer’s execution were over.
The physicians report that the
autopsy disclosed that Mrs. Farmer was normal in every respect and
that the brain shoed no lesions that would indicate a criminal
Story of the Crime
Mrs. Mary Farmer is the second woman
to meet death in the electric chair. The crime for which she was
executed and for which her husband, James B. Farmer, is also under
sentence of death, was the murder of Mrs. Sarah Brennan, a neighbor,
in the village of Brownville, Jefferson county, about four miles
from the city of Watertown, on Thursday, April 23, 1908. The body of
Mrs. Brennan was found on the following Monday in a trunk owned by
Mrs. Farmer and in her possession. Mrs. Farmer and her husband were
given separate trials, and although the evidence was circumstantial,
both were convicted and sentenced to be electrocuted. Mrs. Farmer’s
counsel attempted at the trial to establish that she was insane and
irresponsible for the crime, but the court of appeals declared that
it was “clearly a deliberate and intentional act,” and that there
were no circumstances that “mitigated against its heinousness.”
Came from Ireland
Mrs. Farmer came to this country from
Ireland in 1900, and worked tor a time as a domestic in Binghamton,
going from there to Buffalo where she married James D. Farmer in
1904. Early in 1905 they moved to Brownville where they remained for
a few months at one of Farmer’s relatives, after which they kept
boarders in an adjoining village. In May, 1907, they moved into a
portion of an old building formerly used as a hotel in a part of
Brownsville known as Paddy Hill.
Mrs. Brennan and her husband Patrick,
lived in a house nearby which they had occupied for twenty years,
and which was owned by Mrs. Brennan. Mrs. Farmer became a frequent
caller at the Brennan home, and Mrs. Brennan occasionally called on
the farmers. Mrs. Brennan kept the deed to her property, insurance
papers and a savings bank book in black pocketbook in a tin case in
Impersonated by Mrs. Brennan
Months before the homicide, in
October, 1907. Mrs. Farmer went in a lawyer’s office in Watertown,
produced a deed of the Brennan property and, impersonating Mrs.
Brennan had the deed transferred to James D. Farmer, signing the
name “Sarah Brennan.” The deed was returned from the clerk’s office
to James D. Farmer on Nov. 26, and on Jan. 7, 1908, Mrs. Farmer and
her husband went to another lawyer in Watertown and had the deed
drawn to Peter J. Farmer, a child, who had been born to them the
preceding Sept. 2
On the day of the crime Mrs.
Brennan’s husband left early for his work, his wife telling him she
was going to visit a dentist in Watertown. Between 9 and 10 o’clock
she was seen to leave her home and enter the Farmer house. She was
never seen alive again. Early the same day Mrs. Farmer took her baby
to the home of a neighbor and left it, saying she was going up town.
Between that time and this time Mrs. Brennan went to the Farmer
house Mrs. Farmer passed back and forth between the two houses
several times. Shortly after noon she went for her baby and arranged
for a young daughter of the neighbor to assist her in caring for the
The Papers Secured
The girl, upon her arrival, found
farmer and his wife at lunch and later he left for the home of his
sister, where he was laying a walk. Soon after Mrs. Farmer went into
the Brennan House, she returned and told the girl to go for her
husband, but Farmer refused to return home. Mrs. Farmer then went to
the sister’s home with a package, which proved to be the black
oilcloth pocketbook of Mrs. Brennan, containing the deeds, insurance
and other papers, and said she wanted to leave it for awhile.
Brennan upon his return from work
that afternoon was unable to get into his house. The keys which his
wife was in the habit of leaving were not in their accustomed place.
While he was trying to get in he saw Farmer standing nearby, who
remarked: “Brennan, don’t you know I bought this place?” Brennan
finally secured a ladder, entered ma second-story window and
occupied the house that night. The next morning he went to work as
Brennan Ordered From Home
Mrs. Farmer that same morning went to
the sister’s house, took Mrs. Brennan’s oilcloth pocketbook from
where it had been hidden in a chair, and with her husband went to
Watertown where they had an attorney prepare papers ordering Brennan
off the premises, which were served on him that night.
Brennan went to Watertown and made
inquiries for his wife but failed to and her and Saturday morning
left for his work as usual, after spending the night in the house.
He returned home, however, later and found Mrs. Farmer and her
husband occupying the house. Mrs. Farmer told him that so long as he
used the Farmers well he could stay, Brennan then reported the
matter to the district attorney’s office and engaged a constable to
search for his wife.
Moved Into the Brennan House
The Farmers, in the meantime, with
others who were induced to help by free access to ale which was
furnished, commenced moving their goods to the Brennan house. In one
of the back rooms was a large black trunk which Mrs. Farmer asked
one or the men to tie with a rope. Mrs. Farmer lifted the ends of
the trunk while a clothes line was wrapped around it and tied
securely. Mrs. Farmer said “she had stuff in there she didn’t want
broken” and had two men carry it to the Brennan house while she
walked along and directed where it should be placed in a back room
where other things were piled upon it. She then proceeded to do some
When the constable who bad been
employed by Brennan went to the house, and asked where Mrs. Brennan
was Mrs. Farmer told him she had “gone to Watertown to get her teeth
fixed.” She sent for the parish priest, told him a similar story and
had him bless the home.
Body of Mrs. Brennan Found
On the following Monday the sheriff
with several others again visited the Farmers and asked Mrs. Farmer
to produce the deeds, and after some delay she pulled the black
oilcloth envelope from a cradle and showed the papers. Then a search
of the house was begun. Inquiry was made in regard to the trunk tied
with a clothes line, whereupon Mrs. Farmer denied that she owned it,
saying it belonged to her husband, and he with an oath said it did
not belong to him. The rope was removed, the lock broken, and in the
trunk the sheriff found the body of Mrs. Brennan fully dressed. The
head and face were horribly mutilated by many blows from a, blunt
instrument, but the body was not injured. The turban hat which the
woman wore was missing, but the burned wire framework of a hat
similar to the one she wore was found in Mrs. Farmer’s stove.
Murderous Pair Arrested
Mrs. Farmer and her husband were
arrested charged with the crime which the woman at first stoutly
defied. Then she stated that Mrs. Brennan was in her house and stood
by the door looking out of the window and that she stepped up behind
her and hit her with an axe. Subsequently she said it to the sheriff
that she had not told the truth; that “Jim” did it. She said Mrs.
Brennan had been with her uptown and that when they came back “Jim”
was angry because she had left her baby at a neighbor’s. She said
she then went for the baby and on her return “Jim” was just putting
the body in the trunk.
At the jail Mrs. Farmer made another
statement in which she said that Mrs. Brennan came to her house and
said she was not feeling well. She said that Mrs. Brennan said “she
would give anything if she would take that old axe that laid there
and knock her brains out and I said all right, here she goes. A
takes [sic] the ax and kills her.”
Killed as She Sat in Chair
She said then she put the body in the
trunk, washed up things that were bloody and burned up the things
from which she could not remove the blood. She said Mrs. Brennan was
sitting down in a chair by the window when she killed her.
The cases of Mrs. Farmer and her
husband were appealed to the court of appeals which has yet to
determine the husband’s case. Mrs. Farmer’s conviction was affirmed
and E. R. Wilcox, her counsel, asked the governor to appoint a
commission to examine into the woman’s mental condition, expressing
the belief that the woman was insane.
Woman Tries To Save Husband
New Castle News
March 29, 1909
Mary Farmer's confession was as
"My husband, James D. Farmer, never
had any hand in Sarah Brenan's death nor never knew anything about
it till the trunk was opened. I never told him anything what
happened. I feel he has been terribly wronged. James D. Farmer was
not at home the day the affair happened; neither did James D. Farmer
ever put a hand on Sarah Brenan after her death. Again I wish to say
as strongly as I can that my husband, James D. Farmer, is entirely
innocent of the death of Sarah Brenan, that he knowingly had no part
in any plans that led to it, and that he knew nothing whatever about
(Signed) "MARY H. FARMER."
"Subscrbed and sworn to before me this 25th day of March, 1909.
"B. F. WINEGAR.
"Notary public, Cayuga county."
The “Watertown Trunk Murder”
– Hounsfield, 1908
Cheri Farnsworth -
Murder & Mayhem in Jefferson County - (History
Jammed within the narrow confines of a
trunk, with her head mashed to jelly, one ear gone and her body
mutilated until recognition was almost impossible, the body of Mrs.
Sarah Brennan, wife of Patrick Brennan, of Brownville, was found
Monday afternoon in a back kitchen at the home of Mr. and Mrs. James
Farmer of that village. ~ Watertown Re-Union, 29 Apr. 1908
In October of 1907, Mary Farmer hatched
an elaborate plan to criminally acquire the property of her neighbors
so that her young babe, Peter, would one day have something of value
that she believed she and James Farmer could never provide otherwise.
(Heaven forbid that they should have to work for their material
possessions like the rest of us.) The fact that a cold-blooded murder
might become necessary for her to meet her objective was but a trivial
detail the soon-to-be murderess would worry about when the time came.
That time was the morning of April 23 when Sarah Brennan paid a visit
to Mary Farmer. Neighbors heard the women arguing, and it was the last
anyone ever heard from, or saw, Mrs. Brennan alive. One can only
surmise that the victim had finally learned of the plot to steal her
house and home right out from under them. For that, she had to be
While some later said that 24-year-old
Mary “had never fully recovered her mentality” after the birth of her
only child, countless others testified that her bizarre behavior
spanned years, culminating in the singular unspeakable act—when she
raised the hatchet over the skull of Sarah Brennan—that sealed her
fate. Though there was never any doubt about Mary Farmer’s guilt, her
mental state at the time of the gruesome murder would ultimately
determine whether the young mother should live or became the second
woman sent to the electric chair in New York State. Hence, much time
at the inquest and later trials would be devoted to determining if
Mary Farmer was sane when she slaughtered her so-called friend and
neighbor. And even more time would be spent determining what role, if
any, her husband had played in the whole affair.
It began when Mary Farmer forged a deed
to the Brennan residence that was recorded in the county clerk’s
office. Somehow, she had managed to steal the deed from the Brennan
house on one of her many visits to call on Sarah Brennan. The
property, located on Paddy Hill on the Hounsfield side of the river in
Brownville, was adjacent to the Farmer property, and Mary visited
Sarah often. Although the Brennans were not wealthy, by any standards,
they enjoyed life’s simple pleasures and seemed content. For Mary
Farmer, living right next door must have become increasingly difficult
to swallow, because she was reminded daily of what others had that she
wanted. The Farmers had lost the previous home they owned near Ontario
Mill when they were unable to make payments, and Mr. Farmer had not
held a job for some time. Thus, with a false sense of entitlement,
Mary Farmer made a conscious decision to turn her growing irritation
into an opportunity for herself and her family. On October 31, 1907,
she went before Attorney Francis Burns at the Jefferson County clerk’s
office impersonating Sarah Brennan. There, she transferred the deed to
the Brennan home to the Farmers for the sum of $2,100 (roughly $50,000
in today’s dollar) and forged 55-year-old Sarah Brennan’s signature.
This first step accomplished, Mary Farmer foolishly started telling
locals that she had purchased the property from the Brennans; and,
while the Brennans heard occasional rumors in the village that they
had sold their property, they denied them and couldn’t imagine how
they had started. On January 7, 1908, the Farmers deeded the property
they had acquired illegally over to their son, who was then ten months
old; and they transferred the insurance on the house from the Brennans
to themselves. The plan was nearly complete. All that was left was to
remove the oblivious couple from the premises; but for reasons
unknown, Sarah Farmer waited four months to complete her plan. Some
speculated that the delay was due to “timidity to commit the deed and
the presence of relatives.”
Thursday, April 23, started out like a
normal day for the Brennans, other than the fact that Sarah had
dressed in black in memory of a daughter who had died some time
before. But she was fine when she paid a visit to the Brennans’ home
that morning. Pat Brennan went to work at the mill where he ran a
boiler. Neither could have ever imagined the events that were about to
transpire when they set out in their respective ways that day.
According to the Watertown Re-Union of April 29, 1908, Mr.
Brennan came home to find the door locked and the key missing from its
agreed-upon hiding spot:
All was happy when Mrs. Brennan left
him for his work at the C. R. Remington mill that morning. When he
returned that afternoon, he found the front door locked. He felt
behind the blind for the key; and, not finding it, went to the barn,
which was also locked. With a hammer, he pulled the hasp, secured a
ladder and entered a window. He thought that perhaps his wife was
out calling, but wondered that she failed to leave the key.
Ten minutes later, Brennan was at
work tearing down the stormhouse. He had almost finished when
Farmer, who had not been working for some time past, came to the
“Don’t you know that I own that place
now,” said Farmer. Brennan turned in amazement and replied that he
did not. “Yes, the place is mine, all right [sic],” continued
Farmer. “I bought it last October, and you can see the deed at the
county clerk’s office. I paid $2,100 for it.”
“That’s funny,” commented Brennan.
“My wife never said anything about it, and you neither have said
anything about it all these months.” Farmer replied that he didn’t
think there was need of it, inasmuch as Mrs. Brennan had been paying
him $2 a week rent for it, but that now he had decided that he would
move in and enjoy his own.
Over the next few, surreal days,
Brennan could not get a straight answer from the Farmers on the
whereabouts of his wife, which made him wonder if they were somehow
involved in her disappearance. The day after she went missing, the
Farmers went to Watertown to obtain the following notice from Field &
Swan to be served on Brennan, telling him to vacate his property and
informing him that they had a bill of sale for all the
personal property in the house.
To Patrick Brennan:
Dear Sir—Take notice, that by virtue
of a deed dated October 31, 1907, and recorded in the Jefferson
county clerk’s office November 9, 1907, in the book of deeds 325,
page 93, your wife, Sarah Brennan, sold and conveyed to me, the
undersigned, the house and premises in the town of Hounsfield,
Jefferson county, N.Y., near the village of Brownville, in which you
and she then resided and have since resided; and that I thereupon
became and now am the owner of said property; and that your wife has
recently delivered to me the keys and possession of said house and
property; that I am now in the sole and exclusive possession thereof
and of all the household furniture and personal property in the
house, which was sold to me by her by bill of sale and delivered to
me, for which personal property I paid her, and I am now in
possession thereof, in said house.
That I hereby notify and require you
to stay away, remain away, and keep out of this house and off said
premises from now on, except to come to said house and get and take
away your wearing apparel and personal belongings, which I hereby
require that you do before April 27, 1908, and in case of your
failure so to remove your wearing apparel and personal belongings, I
will leave them with Daniel Woodard at his residence in said town,
subject to your order, and I hereby forbid you to come on said
premises as and for the purpose stated above.
Dated April 24, 1908
(Signed) JAMES D. FARMER
FIELD & SWAN, Attorneys for J. D. Farmer
Not only would he soon learn that they
had killed his wife; but they booted him out of his own house and
stole all of his material belongings, except his clothing. This went
beyond coldblooded. But the property was the least of Brennan’s
concerns at the moment. All he really wanted to know was what happened
to his wife. The Re-Union said:
Worried almost to desperation,
Brennan came that night to the home of James Rattray in Griffin
Street, this city, and anxiously inquired if anything had been seen
of his wife. It is alleged that the Farmers had told Brennan many
stories of his wife’s absence, saying first that she had been
selling her property and buying expensive clothing and had left for
Duluth. Later, it is alleged, they said that she had gone to
Watertown and said she wanted her goods sent to Rattray’s.
Every story was followed by the
anxious husband. No one had seen her leave at the station, no trace
of her was obtainable at Rattray’s. She had an appointment at Dr.
Huntington’s for dental work and this she had failed to keep.
Brennan investigated and found all her clothing in the closets.
Two days after being kicked out of his
home and told that his wife had left him, Brennan consulted Attorney
Floyd Carlisle. The lawyer soon discovered that a woman resembling
Mrs. Farmer was the one who had transferred the property at Attorney
Burns’ office, not Mrs. Brennan. Things were beginning to look very
suspicious for the Farmers. Nevertheless, the scheming couple
proceeded unashamedly to take full possession of the Brennan property,
even as an investigation into their dealings was about to commence,
unbeknownst to them. Enter….the trunk, which was among the effects
carried from the Farmer house to the Brennan residence. That trunk
represented everything—Mrs. Farmer’s guilt; Mrs. Brennan’s untimely
demise; Mr. Farmer’s innocence; and Mr. Brennan’s worst fear.
After learning from Attorney Carlisle
that something wasn’t right in the handling of the real estate
transactions, Pat Brennan alerted District Attorney Pitcher; and, on
Monday, four days after the nightmare had begun, Sheriff Bellinger and
his assistants were dispatched to the Brennan residence to question
Mary Farmer. At first, Mrs. Farmer denied any knowledge of her
neighbor’s disappearance; although, she did turn pale at the start of
the questioning. Bellinger then proceeded to search the home. He
wasn’t leaving without some answers. According to the Re-Union,
it wasn’t long before he had them.
In the back kitchen, the sheriff
found the trunk. An odor came from it, and the sheriff suspected
that the body was within. When asked for the keys, the Farmers
claimed to have lost them, and with a hammer, the lock was forced. A
horrible sight met the officer’s eyes—a battered countenance, blood
and hair intermingling, the body forced and jammed until it filled
the space, skirts partly covering the limbs. When the discovery was
made, Brennan and Farmer sat together. “My God, did you do this?”
moaned Brennan. “As God is my witness, I did not,” replied Farmer.
A moment’s consultation and Mrs.
Farmer was given a chance to look upon the ghastly spectacle. It was
too much, and a moment more a confession was had from her. She said
that she had felled the woman with the axe and then washed the
instrument and the blood spots from the floor. Later she claimed
that, as Mrs. Brennan stepped to the parlor window, Farmer stepped
behind her and drove the ax against her head with the exclamation,
“There, damn you, I have done with you."
Beneath a mattress, a blood-stained
coat that appeared to have been recently washed was found; and,
although the floor had been freshly washed, the blotches from blood
stains were still apparent. In the trunk with the body was found a
button from a man’s coat, a comb, and a torn pocket. The murder
weapon, an axe, was found several days later tucked well-hidden from
view in a nook in the barn. The body was examined by Coroner Charles
E. Pierce, along with several physicians, and they found that the left
ear had been hacked off, there were three defense wounds on the left
wrist, both lips had been cut straight through, and a long gash was
made on the forehead over both eyes where the axe had broken through
the skull. The left jaw had been broken, and it appeared that the
victim had been struck from the side first and then “blows had been
rained upon the face to finish the job,” according to an article
called “Cruel Murder” in the Watertown Re-Union of April 29,
1908. This finding contradicted Mrs. Farmer’s version of having snuck
up behind the woman and struck her with the axe.
After the initial shock of being found
out wore off and a smidgeon of reasoning (disturbed as it was)
returned, Mrs. Farmer attempted to lay blame for the murder on her
husband. Then, she quickly recanted that version and again admitted
that it was she who was responsible. Nevertheless, both husband and
wife were taken to the county jail as suspects in the murder of Sarah
Brennan. Mr. Farmer, perhaps still absorbing the shock of the grim
discovery and the ramifications of such, wisely said nothing on the
way to the county jail. However, Mrs. Farmer, baby at her breast,
smiled when asked by the deputy if her dreams were disturbed, sleeping
in the same house as a corpse. She replied smugly that her dreams were
no worse than usual—proof of a mind with no conscience…and an
impending insanity defense. On Friday, May 1, warrants were issued for
the arrest of James and Mary Farmer.
A disheveled, weary James Farmer
arrived at the arraignment in shackles, led by Undersheriff Charles
Hosmer; and Mary Farmer, wearing a blue skirt, heavy plush coat, and a
shawl over her head, was accompanied into the courtroom by Sheriff
Ezra D. Bellinger. The Re-Union said, “As far as expression
goes, she was as immobile as a statue and looked straight ahead, never
shifting her glance. During the time she sat there, not a muscle
moved, and she was motionless. Her face was neither flushed nor pale,
but it was easily seen that a terrific struggle was going on in her
mind.” After the charges of murder were read to them by City Judge
Reeves, Brayton A. Field entered a plea of not guilty for Mr. Farmer.
Attorney E. Robert Wilcox was assigned to Mrs. Farmer, and the date
for examinations of the couple was set for May 6, with Mr. Farmer
being questioned first at 9 a.m. and Mrs. Farmer at 2 p.m. As a result
of the damning evidence produced at that examination, the couple was
brought before the Grand Jury and indicted on charges of first-degree
murder. It was initially thought that perhaps James Farmer was unaware
of his wife’s plan, especially after she accepted full blame, but
evidence produced during the May 6 examination raised considerable
doubt that could not be ignored. According to the Re-Union:
Damaging evidence implicating James
Farmer more strongly as being at least an accessory to the deed
developed at Wednesday morning’s examination of Farmer before Judge
Reeves, when the district attorney produced in court and read the
paper signed by Farmer which…became a notice to dispossess Patrick
Brennan of the home in which he and his wife had resided for many
years, and which even that day sheltered [a] mutilated body…The
dispossession notice, signed the day after the murder had been
committed, states that Farmer bought the property, had the keys, and
warned Brennan to get off and stay away from the home of which
forgery had robbed him and which cost the life of his wife.
Farmer had to be aware of his
wife’s plot. He enforced it by having the notice drawn up and asking
Constable Sherman to serve it upon Brennan at once! He had bragged to
others about having bought the property long before that fateful day.
But had Mary Farmer convinced him that she had truly bought the
property with money she had saved from what little he made and turned
over to her? Had she convinced him that Sarah Brennan was aware of the
property transaction and had left town? Did she leave out the part
where the brutally murdered the poor woman in cold blood? James Farmer
seemed genuine enough when he asked Brennan, three days after the
murder, if he had heard anything on where his wife went. And when the
trunk containing the body was found by the sheriff, it was James
Farmer who had suggested breaking the lock to open it when the key
couldn’t be found. Would a guilty man who knew what the trunk held
have made such a recommendation? Was he truly unaware that his own
wife had murdered Sarah Brennan? Perhaps his only role was enforcing
the property transaction to take possession of what he believed was
rightfully his. Perhaps he had no knowledge whatsoever of the
full-scope of the crime. He would have his day in court; but first
Mary Farmer, the mastermind of one of Jefferson County’s most shocking
murders, had to be dealt with.
Mary Farmer’s sister-in-law, Mrs.
Michael Doran, had a hunch something wasn’t right from the time she
arrived at the Farmer residence at the behest of her brother, James,
to pick up a deed that he asked her to take to Watertown to have
recorded. Mary came to the door and handed her the deed, and Mrs.
Doran took one look at it and recognized the signature as that of Mary
Farmer, not Sarah Brennan. She asked Mary how much she had paid for
the property and was told $1,200. “The woman must have been crazy [to
ask for so little],” said Mrs. Doran, according to the Watertown
Re-Union of May 9, 1908. “Crazy or not, I have the property,” was
Mary Farmer’s response. Mrs. Doran also told the court that Mrs.
Farmer appeared at her home on the day of the murder, around 2 p.m.,
to speak with James, who was helping out there that day. Doran
testified that Mary Farmer handed her husband a bunch of keys and
said, “There are your keys. Go and see Patsy Brennan and tell him his
wife has gone and he has no home.” She said her brother’s obvious
apprehension over his wife’s demand was very upsetting to her.
Many individuals living nearby
testified as to the comings and goings of Mary Farmer and Sarah
Brennan on the day of the murder. All agreed that they had seen Mrs.
Brennan enter the Farmer home around nine-ish that morning but never
saw her leave; although, they did see Mary Farmer buzzing around all
day. Mrs. Charles Baker, for example, swore that she saw Mrs. Farmer
“running back and forth from her house to the Brennan’s a dozen
times,” beginning around 9:20 a.m. Nothing, however, was more
incriminating than the testimony of a young girl named Edith Blake and
that of Philip Smith, a man who helped carry the trunk from one house
to the next. The Watertown Re-Union best summed up Edith’s testimony
in its June 17, 1908 paper:
Little 12-year-old Edith Blake told
how she had gone to the Farmers’ and cared for the baby Thursday.
The girl’s answers were clear and concise, sticking to the same in
spite of any cross-examination. The witness told how Farmer swore
and took some keys from his pocket and passed them to his wife,
saying he did not want them. Witness said Mrs. Farmer said, “To
hell. You won’t get a d--- [sic] cent of money.” The testimony gave
the impression that the Farmers quarreled at the noon hour.
The girl told how Mrs. Farmer had
gone to Doran’s and returned, getting some paper from a drawer and
again returning to Doran’s, where her husband was at work. Once at
home again, Mrs. Farmer told the witness to tend the baby while she
cleaned the back room, taking some clothes from the bedroom. The
witness said that Mrs. Farmer had sent her to a store for some
It developed during the questioning
that Mrs. Farmer was very careful to shut the door to the room which
she was cleaning, so that witness was unable to see what was going
on. The cross-examination tended to show that about the noon hour,
Mr. and Mrs. Farmer had many talks, occasionally going into one of
the rooms and closing the door, leaving the child minding the baby.
Philip Smith’s testimony regarding the
black trunk sealed the deal. The Re-Union said the that
Smith, who lived one house to the east of the Brennan house, agreed to
help the Farmers move their belongings into the Brennan house on the
morning of April 25.
Witness told of getting a clothesline
to tie the trunk, at the request of Mrs. Farmer, and with her
assistance of tying the trunk around twice with the rope, and…tying
the trunk around the third time. Witness also testified to getting a
gallon jug replenished with ale three times while the moving was
going on, the defendant furnishing the money for the beverage. All
partook of the ale, but witness could not say that defendant drank
any. [Author’s note: The old
get-‘em-drunk-until-they’re-oblivious-trick.] The defendant told the
witness that she would ask Mr. Tierney to help him carry the trunk,
because her husband and Mr. Callahan were drunk, and there was
something in the trunk she wanted to be very careful with.
The trunk was heavy enough to require
two men to carry it, and while it was being moved from one house to
the other, the defendant followed close after it. No discoloration
was noticed under the trunk, and a smaller one was placed on its
top…It also developed that Mrs. Farmer was in the Barton house [the
Farmer’s rented property] most of the time before the trunk was
moved, but after it was moved, she spent most of her time in the
In other words, Mary Farmer didn’t take
her eyes off the trunk and made sure that it wasn’t unduly disturbed
for fear of someone opening it. William Tierney corroborated Smith’s
testimony “of how the trunk was carried and followed in close
succession by Mrs. Farmer.” Tierney said Mary Farmer told him there
was something breakable in the trunk and to be careful while carrying
it. The testimony affected the jury as much as seeing a photograph of
Sarah Brennan’s post-mortem head which was brought in as evidence.
There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that the signatures of Sarah
Brennan had been forged on the deed and bill of sale, for the real
Sarah Brennan was not the woman who had gone before the attorney and
notary public the year before; and there was now no doubt that Mary
Farmer was well aware of the contents of the black trunk—contents that
Mr. Farmer seemed oblivious of when he suggested that the authorities
break the trunk open. Mary Farmer was thus found guilty of murdering
Sarah Brennan and sentenced to die at Auburn the first week of August.
With that, Patrick Brennan commenced
legal action to have the forged deeds declared null and void, so he
could regain possession of his property. The Farmers’ infant son was
put in the care of John Conboy, a member of the Farmer family; and
ultimately, he was sent to the Ogdensburg orphanage in St. Lawrence
County. The trial of James Farmer, who had been in the Jefferson
County lockup since April, was the next item on the agenda. Six months
of incarceration-induced sobriety had done much to improve his
appearance. The Watertown Herald said, “In court, dressed neatly and
soberly, clean and sober, and much lighter in weight after six months
imprisonment,” he looked nothing like the man dressed in working
clothes the day of his arrest. But as ‘clean’ as he now appeared,
there was nothing clean about the crime for which he was being tried.
District Attorney Pitcher said, “Never in the history of Jefferson
County has there been a crime which could measure to this in cold
deliberation and in a cruel and relentless pursuit of a criminal
purpose.” Still, the defense insisted that their client knew nothing
of the murder until the trunk was opened, and the sheriff said, “I
have found her.”
Patrick Brennan testified at James
Farmer’s trial, much as he had at the trial of Mary Farmer, repeating
as he had so many times the story of how he came home from work to
find his wife missing, of the surreal experience of being kicked out
of his own house by his neighbor who claimed he had bought it, and of
the search and discovery of his wife’s body in the trunk. Alice Doran,
Farmer’s sister, again testified that she was asked by Mary Farmer to
take the deed to Watertown and have it recorded. After calling the
office where attorney Francis P. Burns had drawn and executed the deed
for someone proclaiming to be Sarah Brennan, Mrs. Doran became very
concerned that something shady was going on. She said she asked her
brother several times if he had ever spoken to Sarah Brennan about
transferring the deed, and he admitted he hadn’t—he had only spoken to
Patrick about it when he evicted the man from his own property. Many
of the witnesses called to the stand in Mary Farmer’s trial returned
to the stand in the James Farmer murder trial. And when all was said
and done, when attorneys for the people and attorneys for the
defendant had pulled out all the stops and put the best spin they
possibly could on the now-familiar testimony, the jury reached a
verdict of guilty. Then, just as Justice DeAngelis was about to
pronounce the sentence, a motion for a new trial was made, when
Attorney Kellogg announced his belief that a sermon preached at the
All Souls Church the previous Sunday had prejudiced some members of
the jury who were in attendance at that mass. The pastor was brought
in and asked to read the entire text of his sermon to see if it was,
in fact, something that might sway the jury; but the judge saw nothing
in it that he thought should delay his pronouncement of sentencing.
Thus, a full year after the deed that started the whole mess was
forged, James Farmer was sentenced to die in the electric chair, like
his wife, between eight weeks and four months of the date of his
While Farmer’s defense attorneys set to
work on his appeal, Farmer was placed in a cell in death row at Auburn
Prison. Mary Farmer was nearby, in the Auburn women’s prison, her
execution having been temporarily stayed by a futile appeal. The
couple was permitted to see each other twice, briefly, before Mary
Farmer’s execution on March 31, 1909; but they were not allowed to
touch or to speak in private. And James Farmer was moved to another
part of the prison on execution day to spare him from hearing his wife
being led to the execution chamber. She would only be accompanied by
Father Hickey, her spiritual advisor who had prayed with her in the
days leading up to this final one, and the two female attendants who
had remained constantly at her side since she first arrived at Auburn.
The Watertown Re-Union of March 31, 1909, said, “…the Farmer woman
walked unfalteringly to the death chair. Her eyes were half closed,
and she saw nothing of the death chair and rows of witnesses. In her
hands, she clasped a crucifix, and as she was being strapped in the
chair, Father Hickey stood at her side and offered prayers for the
dying.” The prison physician acknowledged that Farmer was dead with
the first shock, but to quell the residual muscle tremors quickly, two
more contacts were made—each with 1,840 volts of electricity shooting
through her body. After the physicians pronounced her dead, her body
was removed for autopsy and then, as directed by her husband, it was
laid to rest in St. Joseph’s Cemetery near Watertown.
Previously, Father Hickey had said,
“Mrs. Farmer will die a good Catholic and will go to her death
bravely. It may be, though I cannot say positively, that some
statement may be made by Mrs. Farmer to the public. If so it will not
be given out until after the execution.” The time had now come to
release the statement Mrs. Farmer wrote and addressed to Father Hickey
the Sunday before. It was in response to telling her that, if she
could truthfully exonerate her husband, she should before it was too
late. This, she had done, and she signed her hand-written statement
before a notary on March 28. It said:
To Rev. J. J. Hickey:
My husband, James D. Farmer, never
had any hand in Sarah Brennan’s death, nor never knew anything about
it till the trunk was opened. I never told him anything what had
happened. I feel he has been terribly wronged. James D. Farmer was
not at home the day the affair happened, neither did James D. Farmer
ever put a hand on Sarah Brennan after her death. Again, I wish to
say as strongly as I can that my husband, James D. Farmer, is
entirely innocent of the death of Sarah Brennan, that he knowingly
had no part in any plans that led to it and that he knew nothing
whatever about it.
(Signed) MARY H. FARMER.
Subscribed and sworn to before me this 28th day of March, 1909.
B. F. WINEGAR
Notary Public, Cayuga County.
James Farmer’s second trial began on
February 22, 1910. The same witnesses who had been called for Mary
Farmer’s trial and James Farmer’s first trial were brought in again.
And the same attorneys who had represented him at his first trial
would represent him at the second, along with E. R. Wilcox, who had
defended Farmer’s wife. District Attorney Fred B. Pitcher, assisted by
Floyd S. Carlisle, tried the case for the people. As the Watertown
Herald said, “The evidence was about the same as in his first trial.
The prosecution tried to show his presence in the house at the time
the killing took place and tried to s how that he knew of it then or
immediately afterwards. The defense offered evidence to show that he
was not at the house at the time, and that his actions afterwards
showed a man free from any guilty knowledge.” (That evidence included
his suggestion that the sheriff should break the trunk open when the
keys couldn’t be found.) With the first vote of the jury at 7:15 p.m.,
all twelve men voted, “Not guilty.” Farmer would leave the courthouse
that day a free man. The Herald said:
Shortly after 9 o’clock, Judge Emerson
put in an appearance. The jury filed in a moment later. The courtroom
was in absolute silence, but no sooner had the foreman uttered the
words, “not guilty,” than the courtroom resounded with hand clapping.
One woman jumped up and shouted, “Good, good, good.” Judge Emerson
rapped loudly for order, commanding the court attendants to bring
anyone forward that had been seen taking part in the demonstration. As
the jurymen left the enclosure, Farmer shook hands and thanked each.
Later on, men and women pressed forward and shook Farmer’s hand.
Farmer was visibly affected by his good fortune.
Cheri Farnsworth -
Murder & Mayhem in Jefferson County - (History