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 fence.
“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.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.
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.
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.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.
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.”
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.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.
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 camphorated oil.
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.
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.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.
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 Brennan house.
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 conviction.
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: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:
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.
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.