12 such murder cases in 70 years: Dec. 18, 1869 thru Dec. 9, 1939
Of the 12 men who have been executed for Cattaraugus County murders, the story of Giovanni Ferraro (aka Giovanbatista Ferraro and Vittorio Rosso) is the one most filled with acts of violence. They began about 1 p.m., July 12, 1917 at a crossing -- described variously as Napier's Crossing and as Le Pere Crossing -- a mile north of Franklinville. They continued in Philadelphia and still later on Sing Sing's Death Row, finally ending March 20, 1919 in the prison's electric chair. There is even a question whether the trail of murder and assault may have begun years earlier near Pittsburgh.
At the crossing in Cattaraugus, Ferraro killed track boss William E. Dunbar, 35, of East Aurora, after the supervisor had demoted Giovanni from track crew foreman back to common laborer. Dunbar had been supervising the double tracking of the Pennsylvania Railroad route between Buffalo and Olean. He was dissatisfied with Ferraro's performance as crew foreman and served him formal notice of demotion by letter.
According to witnesses, Ferraro persisted in disputing the matter, using language that seemed to indicate he was vowing to stop working immediately and not wait until for the date set for ending his foreman's role. At least, Dunbar appeared to take Giovanni's remarks in that vein and terminated the foreman's employment with railroad completely.
As Dunbar walked away, Ferraro sent his 14-year-old son back to the work camp by the handcar, the father first removing his own coat and jacket from it. Taking a gun from a coat pocket, Giovanni came up behind Dunbar, pointed the weapon at him, and fired three shots, two hitting the boss, one of them in the man's back.
Giovanni fled the scene. First, he went south of Franklinville to Cadiz, then southeast to Olean where he stayed the night. From there, he made his way further south and east out of the county and out of the state to Galeton, Pa., where he found work in a sawmill. After about a week, he left that area and continued moving in a southeasterly direction until finding work at a Scranton mine. After about a month there, he again moved on, this time more southerly than easterly, landing in Philadelphia.
Pursuing him were railroad detectives determined to capture the fired rail crew foreman who had murdered the track supervisor on the railroad's right-of-way. Clearly, the Pennsylvania Railroad was not about to let the suspect slip through the law enforcement cracks created by jurisdictional limits imposed on state and county police by borders and boundary lines.
The most famous among such agencies retained by the railroads was founded by Allan Pinkerton in 1850. His agents became known as Pinkertons. His logo icon, the all-seeing eye, forever made "private eye" the synonym for "private investigator."
Some rail companies created their own police forces rather than continue contracting that job to outside agencies.
The railroads obtained from state legislatures various police powers for their hired and/or their in-company security agents.
In 1865, the Pennsylvania legislature passed the Railroad Police Act that is considered the first such statutory sanctioning of railroad police activity not just on railway land, but statewide. The law became the model adopted and adapted by other states.
As the hunt for Giovanni proceeded elsewhere, Pennsylvania Railroad Detective Captain Ralph Mullen kept watch in the Philadelphia area on the brother of Ferraro's wife, Edna.
The veteran railway detective considered as a strong possibility that the fugitive would eventually contact his in-laws to ask their help. The hunch paid off but at a high cost for Captain Mullen.
Giovanni had written to his brother-in-law to meet him at a certain saloon on 8th Street in Philadelphia. The tavern was frequented by an Italian-speaking clientele.
Capt. Mullen learned of that arrangement and, accompanied by a railroad detective of Italian descent who also spoke the language, went to the saloon where they spotted Ferraro, and engaged him in conversation.
When Mullen reached for his own gun to arrest Ferraro, Giovanni detected the movement and ran from the saloon into a nearby alley, pursued by the two rail agents firing their weapons at him. One of their bullets wounded their prey slightly but not enough to stop him.
When Mullen followed him over the hospital fence, Giovanni attacked him with a stiletto, stabbing him repeatedly in the abdomen and neck.
Then the fugitive climbed through a basement window of the hospital.
When a uniformed officer who had joined the pursuit encountered Ferraro in the hospital basement, Giovanni attempted to use the stiletto on him too but the policeman knocked the knife away with his night stick and subdued him.
Word of the fugitive's capture in Philadelphia Sept. 10, 1917, prompted Sheriff Charles B. Nicholas to seek Ferraro's immediate return to Cattaraugus to stand trial for the Dunbar murder. But Pennsylvania authorities declined to turn him over to the New York justice system until he was first adjudicated for the Mullen homicide. In that case, Giovanni claimed he thought the two railway detectives in civilian clothes were gunmen set to rob him, so he fled and fought in self-defense.
After Ferraro's conviction in Philadelphia Jan. 25, 1918, for "involuntary manslaughter," Giovanni was brought back to Cattaraugus. For the Dunbar killing as well, Ferraro claimed self-defense.
The defendant's account differed markedly from the version that District Attorney Archibald M. Laidlaw of Ellicottville sought to establish through prosecution witnesses.
Under direct examination by defense attorney, J. J. Inman of Salamanca, Ferraro said that. after being fired, he demanded back pay from Dunbar, but the track boss refused and knocked him down with a fist blow.
The defendant testified that then, armed with a rock in each hand, Dunbar came at him as he struggled to his feet. Giovanni said that as he got up, he drew from a pocket in a coat he was carrying a gun in self-protection. Ferraro maintained that was when and why he shot the advancing Dunbar.
The self-defense claim clashed with medical testimony that the mortal wound had been caused by a shot in the back.
Rail workers testified that, from a distance, they saw Dunbar walking away from Ferraro, saw Giovanni raise and extend his arm, heard gunfire saw pistol smoke puffs, saw Dunbar turn and fall, and Ferraro flee into the woods.
Under the DA's cross-examination, the defendant denied he had changed his name because he had killed a man in Pittsburgh and denied he had stabbed Captain Mullen to death in Philadelphia, even while acknowledging his manslaughter conviction for railway detective's death.
Ferraro said that Dunbar cited as one reason for firing him a report the foreman had filed concerning the handcar death of a railroad laborer. The defendant said Dunbar accused him of lying in the report about that death.
When the trial judge State Supreme Court Justice George W. Cole asked whether there was any reason why sentence for the first degree murder conviction should not be imposed, Ferraro exclaimed, "I do not understand."
After explaining to the Italian immigrant that the judge's question was part of standard American court procedure, lawyer Inman, made the pro forma motion that the verdict be set aside as against the weight of the evidence and that a new trial be ordered.
Justice Cole denied the motion and set the date of Ferraro's execution at Sing Sing for the week of May 13th that same year.
However, the appeal process pushed the execution date into the following year.
On Jan. 28, 1919, the state's highest court, the Court of Appeals in Albany, affirmed without a written opinion the trial court's March 29, 1918 first degree murder guilty verdict and death sentence.
Joining Chief Judge Hiscock in the per curiam decision were Justices Collin, Cuddleback, Cardozo, Pound, Crane, and Andrews. Representing Ferraro on the appeal was Edward J. Riley of Brooklyn. Representing Cattaraugus County was District Attorney Laidlaw.
As a result of the Court of Appeals' affirmation of the trial court's judgment, the Ferraro execution that had been stayed pending the appeal was rescheduled for March 20, 1919.
Apparently, that news triggered the attack made by Giovanni upon death row guards. The New York Times framed Ferraro's violent outburst as "a daring but unsuccessful bolt for freedom."
But since the inmate lacked any means to get over or through or under the prison walls to the streets or railroad tracks outside, the assault seems to have been more an attempt to commit what today is called "suicide-by-cop" and, in the process, take with him as many guards as he could.
The Times saw in his possessing a crude weapon the basis for declaring his attack had been pre-planned:
"He made his plans beforehand. Out of a strip of heavy metal plate, which it is thought he either ripped off death house plumbing or some one smuggled into the death house for him, he fashioned a knife.
"He made a handle by tearing strips of cloth from his clothing and binding these tightly around one end of the improvised knife. This left a blade about four inches long. This he ground down to a very sharp edge, presumably by filing it on the steel bars of his cell or on the stone floor. . . .
"Every day condemned prisoners are led out of their cells, in pairs, for a few minutes exercise. This is necessary to prevent their muscles stiffening in the cells. There were three guards in the death house: Edward O’Toole, on the ground tier; Michael McCarthy. on the upper tier, and H. P. Thacker was just inside the entrance door.
"As O'Toole, solidly built, tried to grab Ferraro, he struck out again with his weapon. This time the knife penetrated the guard’s cheek, and opened an ugly wound from which blood spurted profusely.">
Fellow death row inmate Alessandro Vallero, a Brooklyn murderer, shouted to the other guards to come to O'Toole's aid, and advised Ferraro against killing O' Toole, for whom many of the inmates had high regard. Nevertheless, Ferraro made another attempt on O'Toole who was able to deflect the blade thrust sufficiently that it cut only into the back of his neck, not into the jugular where it had been aimed.
Despite his wounds, O'Toole had been able, by some well-placed blow, to hold off his knife-wielding assailant long en ought for McCarthy and Thacker to arrive. They subdued Ferraro but not before the inmate fastened his teeth on one of McCarthy's fingers, completely biting it off.
Before rushing to O'Toole's rescue, Thacker had hit a button sounding an alarm in the Principal Keeper Martin Deeley's Office to signal a disturbance in the Death House. But by the time the main building's guards arrived in force, O'Toole, McCarthy and Thacker had Ferraro under full control.
Interestingly, the next night the same Dr. Squire attended Ferraro after electricity had been applied to Giovanni in the chair. The doctor had to determine whether the condemned man's heart had been stopped. He certified the murderer's death. Before Dr. Squire died Feb 11, 1949 in his home, 36 South Highland Ave., Ossining, NY, at age 72, the number of Sing Sing execution deaths he had certified numbered 138 and the number of death certificates in all other kinds of cases that carried his signature as Coroner or Medical Examiner surely ran into the thousands, if not tens of thousands..
One of Westchester's coroners from 1907 to 1912 inclusive, Amos Osborne Squire, M.D., had been chief physician at the prison since the 1890s and continued in the capacity until 1925. That's when he became Westchester County Medical Examiner, a post he would hold nearly a quarter century. Even so, he still maintained a relationship with the penitentiary as a consulting physician.
After Ferraro had been subdued by the three Death House guards and before the doctor certified Ferraro's death by electricity the next evening, Warden William Moyer took extraordinary measures to make sure the inmate didn't cheat the Electric Chair.
Prior to his December 1916 appointment at Sing Sing, Moyer had been warden of the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary for 16 years that included supervising its construction by its inmates.
He focused on Ferraro the kind of attention to detail that likely served him well in construction the federal prison.
Because in remarks after his attack on O'Toole, Giovanni had vowed not to die in the Electric Chair, Moyer had the condemned man placed in the old Death House, kept in handcuffs even in his cell, assigned a two-guard around-the-clock watch, and fed only water and liquid foods, no solids lest he attempt to choke himself on them.
For his last steps on earth, from his death cell to the death chamber, he was handcuffed to a guard until securely strapped into the Electric Chair.
At least one account (Daniel Allen Hearn's Legal Executions in New York State) described Ferraro being "carried to the chair, more dead than alive," from having been "been beaten into unconsciousness" during the previous day's attack and its immediate aftermath.
He undoubtedly performed many positive services while in office in Cattaraugus as well as before and after holding office there.
But his misdeeds in office are what surface quickest in researching his checkered career.
In early 1920, the former sheriff served a 60-day sentence in the Erie County penitentiary on a conviction for grand larceny to which he had pled guilty in October 1919 and for which he had made full financial restitution.
Accusations of malfeasance in office were raised against Sheriff Nichols during the 1918 re-election campaign, resulting in an official investigation being undertaken by the County Comptroller Travis.
That, in turn, resulted in a grand jury investigation and an indictment formally charging the by-then former sheriff with first degree grand larceny.
Specifically, the indictment alleged he had kept for himself
About five years after ex-Sheriff served his 60-day sentence in Erie prison, Nichols began serving as Police Chief of Anaheim, California. Prior to that Feb. 18, 1925 appointment, he had worked for Los Angeles County as a deputy marshal, according the Anaheim PD's official history.
In what now in retrospect appears to have been the first blow of a one-two punch promoting the local KKK's effort to regain some of the power it previously had exercised in city affairs, the Rev. Myers in a May 10, 1925 "sermon" quoted from the newspaper clipping.
Soon thereafter a suit was filed to oust the city council, alleging that its members knowingly hired an ex-convict as sheriff.
To spare the council "embarrassment" Chief Nichols submitted his resignation. The lawsuit against the council was later dismissed by the court for lack of evidence.
According to the official Anaheim PD history,
"Nichols did not remain unemployed for long.
"Offers of employment besieged the former Chief.
"In one offer, a telegram was sent to Anaheim requesting that Nichols accept the job of Police Chief in his old hometown of Olean, New York at a salary of five thousand dollars a year.
"Two days before the trial [on the suit against the city council] began, Charles Nichols left California to begin his new job as Police Chief in a Massachusetts town."
Nichols' successor as Cattaraugus sheriff was Raymond T. Mallery who had been a deputy sheriff. One of the most notable events during Mallery's term took place in August of 1919. The workers of the Western New York and Pennsylvania Traction Co. (WNY&PTC), which operated a financially-troubled trolley line between Olean, N. Y., and Bradford, Pa., had gone on strike for union recognition, more money and fewer hours.
Management of the line, that had previously experienced receivership, attempted to break the strike by bringing in non-union workers from outside the area.
A riot ensued in Olean where the strikebreakers took refuge in the company's huge trolley barn.
Shots were fired as well as rocks and heavy metal objects thrown. Hundreds of men were involved.
About two dozen suffered gunshot wounds, including Lawrence Page, son of the company president, Wilson H. Page, or were otherwise injured and required hospitalization or medical attention.
They were taken to the Olean jail then being used as a kind of temporary "fort/sanctuary" in what had become a labor war zone.
Citizens were deputized.
These special deputies, the sheriff's regular deputies, and local police managed to hold off and "move along" the bands of angry strikers and sympathizers milling about near the jail, keeping the crowds from forming into a mass too large to disburse.
Finally, late in the evening of August 19th, a detail of the state police arrived and cordoned off the jail.
Later, in the very early morning hours of August 20th, Sheriff Mallery organized a caravan of automobiles with the non-union men as passengers, escorted by a convoy of law agency vehicles, that sped out of Olean and deposited the strikers' targets in the safer and more secure county jail in Little Valley.
Then he had them sent, singly or a few at a time, back from when they came. For some, that was as far away as New York City.
One old timer, Del Nutt, recalled for an interviewer many years later that period in Olean trolley history:
“Finally, the trolley company conceded. The Union got a raise of 26 cents per hour and the work day was shortened from 13 hours to 8 hours. That’s what ruined the company. They didn’t have the money to carry on and those were the days before subsidies.”
In 1921, WNY&PTC's creditors foreclosed and its properties were sold off. Although reorganized as the Olean Bradford Salamanca Railway Company, the trolley line never really recovered sufficiently to become viable again and in a few years began replacing the trolley cars with buses.
In August of 1916, Erwin King who originally been reported seen in the vicinity of the Phelps home around the time of the crime and therefore had been regarded as someone who might be able to shed light on it, was arrested in Little Valley for the assault and robbery of Randolph shopkeeper A. H. Brown.
While in Cattaraugus County custody, King disclosed that he and Clarence F. O'Connell, his accomplice in the Brown robbery, had committed the Orleans County murders in a robbery at the Phelps home. O'Connell was already serving time in Auburn prison for the Brown robbery and assault.
With respect to Stielow supporters' efforts to save him from the electric chair, to prove his innocence and to have his conviction set aside, Sheriff Nichols's role seems to have been mixed.
On Aug. 21, 1916, Nichols was reported as rejecting their request he demand that the Orleans County sheriff return King to Cattaraugus custody. Nichols was quoted as also saying, "Nor will I do anything else to embarrass Orleans County authorities."
While in Orleans County custody and under questioning by Orleans investigators (whom Stielow supporters viewed as protecting the Stielow conviction), King had recanted his Cattaraugus confession.
Nevertheless, King eventually was returned to the Little Valley jail where the Stielow camp was able to plant an undercover agent who, posing as an inmate, secured from King some incriminating letters. These led ultimately to Stielow regaining his freedom.
Whether Sheriff Nichols cooperated in the Cattaraugus jail placement of the undercover operative is not clear.
If you don't mind that the wrongly convicted condemned man's last name is spelled two different ways (the "ei" in "Stielow" keeps getting switched around), a web version of an article written by Rob Warden, executive director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions, provides an excellent summary of the complex and convoluted case of Charles Stielow. It appears on Northwestern University School of Law Bluhm Legal Clinic web site. (Click highlighted underlined phrase to access it.)
NYCHS is additionally indebted to Sharon Fellows of the Cattaraugus County Historical Museum and Research Center for providing photocopies of The Republican Press of Salamanca stories of the crime, hunt, capture, trial and execution. These contained information amplifying and expanding that contained in the Ferraro entry in Daniel Allen Hearn's Legal Executions in New York State: 1639 - 1963 and in the New York Times reports of Ferraro's execution eve violence and the execution itself.
-- To help the New York Correction History Society (NYCHS) with this project, the Cattaraugus County Historical Museum and Research Center very generously provided copies of jail-related and sheriff-related materials from its vertical files as well as four relevant vintage postcards. The oval sepia-tinted image above of Sheriff Charles B. Nichols (in civilian clothes) was created from a B&W rectangular image on one of those copy machine sheets sent us by the Cattaraugus County Historical Museum and Research Center.
The same sheet containing the B&W image of Sheriff Nichols also included a note that he was the sheriff "when the change to cars was made, from horse & buggy." Below that note on the sheet was county board resolution wording related to authorizing purchase of an automobile for the sheriff's department "not to exceed $2,000."
It included phrasing "that action of this Board duly passed December 1918, providing for the upkeep of the Sheriff's private automobile is hereby rescinded to take effect upon the purchase of such automobile by the Committee on Sheriff's Reports." In other words, the county would stop paying upkeep on the sheriff's own car once the county bought a car for his office use. Apparently an earlier county board resolution (adopted in 1916) explained that "Upkeep [was] to mean gasoline, oil, tires, and garage charges for incidental repair but not to mean any repairs by reason of accidents or smash-ups."
One might wonder whether Sheriff Nichols' keeping of state monies for transporting prisoners may have stemmed from his feeling insufficiently compensated by the county for his using his own car. Alternately, one might wonder whether discussion of what would constitute fair transportation compensation triggered interest in looking more closely at the sheriff official financial records, thus triggering Nichols' downfall.
-- The October 23, 1919 Cattaraugus Star story about former Sheriff Nichols pleading guilty identifies his attorney only by last name" "Quigley." A Pennsylvania newspaper story (McKean County Democrat August 14, 1919) about the trolley strike identified "James P. Quigley of Salamanca" as one of the attorneys for the Western New York and Pennsylvania Traction Co., quite likely one and the same lawyer.
-- On March 18, 1919, Gov. Al Smith commuted to life imprisonment the sentence of Antonio Verrino who, along with Giovanni Ferraro, was to be electrocuted at Sing Sing the next day. Verrino had been convicted of first degree murder in the death of Gaetano Turano in Rochester on Christmas Day 1917. Verrino was the suitor of Turano's daughter and was invited to the house to celebrate Christmas Eve into Christmas Day. The celebration lasted into Christmas evening and included some drinking. Just before the killing a dispute arose that grew into an altercation during which Verrino shot and killed Turano with a revolver. The trial court conviction was affirmed by the state's highest court but with two judges dissenting.
-- Without in any way suggesting that Giovanni Ferraro was not criminally responsible for killing at least two men (the track supervisor and a railway detective) and wounding two Sing Sing guards, one might pause to ponder what role did the killer's small stature and perhaps language difficulties play in his repeated resort to violence.
The murderer, in his mid-30s, was described as about 5 foot 3 1/2 inches tall and weighing about 150 pounds. Newspapers frequently referred to him as an Italian. Reports of his testimony quoted him as saying he visited "an Italian saloon" on Union St. in Olean after fleeing the Franklinville vicinity and that in Galeton, Pa. he lodged for a week at "an Italian house." Accounts of the capture in Philadelphia noted that Railway Detective Captain Mullen brought with him to the 8th St. saloon another rail detective, "an Italian."
When Ferraro confronted Dunbar, Giovanni demanded to know the meaning of the demotion notice. When the trial judge asked whether there was any reason sentence could not be pronounced, Ferraro exclaimed, "I do not understand."
While the general practice of newspapers in that era identifying people by their country of origin or national heritage would, in most circumstances, certainly be disapproved of today, those ethnic allusions in this particular case, taken together, may constitute a clue useful in coming to some sort of understanding (not justification) about Ferraro's ferocity.
They seem to suggest that English and the American culture of the early 20th Century were not native to him, and that he blended better in places where his native language and cultural ways prevailed.
A man so short and slight of build might attempt to compensate by becoming tougher and more dangerous than those physically bigger and stronger. Perhaps, in childhood, he discovered that, by using a weapon to injure seriously anyone giving him the least provocation, he instilled fear in those who otherwise might be tempted to pick on him.
Place such a man in situations where his mother tongue is not the prevailing language, where misunderstood communications could easily be perceived as slights, and then the circumstances are primed for easy ignition of that man's short fuse, triggering in him the violence he regards as self-defense; not merely as a tactic for that moment, but as part of his life-long "self-defense" strategy -- a personal policy of "massive retaliation" out of all proportion to the perceived provocation.