12 such murder cases in 70 years: Dec. 18, 1869 thru Dec. 9, 1939

Oliver R. Aldridge -- 1 of 12 Men Convicted of
Murder in Cattaraugus and Executed


Was Shotgunning of Retired Contractor, 86, Murder 1st ° or Reckless Manslaughter?

A moonshine still, a loaded shotgun and a last will-and-testament were the volatile ingredients which, when mixed together Dec. 9, 1939, resulted in
With the help of Google's map search engine, NYCHS captured the above image that illustrates the approximate location of Dominic Gregory's home on North 1st St., an even numbered house in the very low 600s, near Coleman St. The original 1898 site of what became Olean General Hospital was situated near that same intersection: Coleman and North 1st Streets. About 1912, the hospital moved to Main St at Boardmanville.
  • the death of retired contractor Dominic Gregory, 86, in his home at 604 North 1st St., Olean, and

  • the execution in Sing Sing's electric chair eight months later of his care-taker, Oliver R. Aldridge (aka Alridge), 47.

With their children, Oliver and his wife Willie Pearl, 33, had moved into the Gregory home as the aged man's care-givers. The idea was that they would take care of him and he would provide for them in his will.

But as is sometimes the case with the very elderly who in their prime were used to giving orders and having them carried out exactly, the former builder proved no easy charge.

Despite his difficult ways, the prospect of their inheriting his property stayed them from quitting him completely.

However, by November of 1939 Willie Pearl had enough of trying to cope with Gregory on a daily basis. She moved out, leaving Oliver in place on the premises to continue tending to the old man's needs. Occasionally she would visit but not stay.


The above two images -- the newspaper nameplate (reduced) and front page story (enlarged) -- are from the Dec. 11th, 1939 issue of the Plattsburg Daily Press on the Northern New York Historical Newspapers website of the Northern New York Library Network. Click either image to access the very excellent research resource site. Note that identifying the race or national origin of a crime victim or suspect was a common practice among newspapers of that era as was the failure to captalize the term "Negro."
During one such visit, Gregory reproached Mrs. Aldridge for having left the household.

He complained that her departure violated their agreement concerning his care.

He urged her to return but she replied that first "You would have to change."

Thereafter, Gregory contenderd that since, in his view, the Aldridges had not lived up to the agreement, he had the right to write them out of his will.

He made remarks indicating that he might just do that.

Without the comfort and support of Willie Pearl being there, Oliver --fretting over the old man's seeming threats to change the will -- sought comfort and support in the whisky mash produced by the large still at the home.

On that fateful Saturday, Oliver armed himself with a shotgun and approached where Gregory sat reading Holy Scripture printed in Italian.

Standing in the doorway of the room, Oliver exchanged words with the old man about the arrangements for his care and the promise of inheritance in payment.

At some point, the loaded shotgun discharged, leaving the Gregory mortally wounded.

The issue at trial was not whether Oliver had killed the victim but whether he had done so intentionally.

Introduced by the prosecution and admitted into evidence was a statement signed by Aldridge declaring

  • that he never intended to kill Gregory but merely wanted to scare him into not changing his will;
  • that the whisky mash Aldridge consumed had rendered him unsteady and threw off his aim and his grip on the shotgun;
  • that the gun discharged, mortally wounding Gregary, and
  • that it all happened because the old man was going to undo the promised will bequest which the Aldridges had earned by dint of their working for Gregory.

Aldridge was reported to have removed Gregory's wallet and, after taking $50 from it, thrown the wallet away en route to report Gregory's death to police, apparently in an attempt to suggest robbery by someone else. After Oliver's arrest, he surrended to police $50 from his left sock.

Oliver's legal defense team contended Aldridge had still been under the influence of the moonshine when interograted by police and when he signed the statement his questioners put together based on that interogation.

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During the trial. Aldridge -- a man of medium size, and with a heavy mustache -- gave the impression of bewilderment. Each day that he appeared in court, he was well dressed in a dark blue suit, blue shirt and tie of darker blue shade.

Aldridge took the stand to deny intentionally killing Gregory. He said that he intended only to shoot off the gun to freighten the old man into giving him and his wife their due as promised.

To counter the prosecution's contention that Oliver's purchase of the gun in advance of the killing proved premeditation, the defense put on the stand Aldridge's son Charles, who testified he had asked his dad to buy a "410 shotgun" as a Christmas present for him to hunt rabbits and squirrels.

Ten-year-old Frank Aldridge told of seeing his father on the afternoon of Dec. 9 several hours before the shooting. His father gave him money for the Saturday movies.

Dr. Norman P. Johnson tesified that the Aldridges apparently had been giving Gregory "good general care." The doctor noted the old man, who suffered from arthritis, had particular difficulty with a knee September through October. The physician had ocassion to examine Gregory a number of times throughout that period.

After less than two and one-half hours of deliberation, on Jan. 25, 1940, the 10-man two-woman jury -- one of whom was an African-American as was the defendant -- found Aldridge guilty of first degree murder.


During the Aldridge case, John C. ("Jack") Dempsey was Chief of Olean Police, as he had been for at least two decades. The above two images -- Olean POlice Chief John C. Dempsey checking teletypes and a Westchester police teletypist at the keyboard transmitting a countywide alarm -- are from a feature piece in a 1939 issue of the Canton Commerical Advertiser on the Northern New York Historical Newspapers website of the Northern New York Library Network. The feature described the workings and uses of an 8-state teletype police communication network. Neither Olean or Westchester were mentioned in the story but the photos were used to illustrate it. Images above reflect deterioration in quality that sometimes happens with faded newsprint half-tones. Click either image to access the very excellent research resource site.
On May 21, 1940, the state's highest judicial panel, the Court of Appeals, affirmed the verdict and death sentence. The unanimous decision noted, but obviously did not find persuasive as to the issue of intent, the defendant's written statement admitted into evidence at trial that he had only wanted to frighten Gregory by pointing the shotgun in the old man's direction. But, according to the Aldridge statement, the moonshine had rendered him unable to steady the gun properly and it fired, killing Gregory.

The top court didn't opine on the credibility of the Aldridge statement's claims that the death was a drunken accident. But by noting that the written statement had been admitted into evidence at trial, the jurists seemed to indicate that the trier of the facts -- the jury -- had it available for consideration and had evidentially found in it more motivation for intent than explanation of an accident.

Representing Aldridge in the case were attorneys Jesse M. Seymour of Salamanca and Frank L. Bowen of Little Valley. The prosecutor was Cattaraugus County District Attorney A. Edward Krieger. The trial judge was Justice Bertram E. Harcourt.

On July 1, 1940, Governor Herbert Lehman received clemency pleas from three convicted murderers, including Aldridge, on Sing Sing's death row. He rejected all three. On July 11th, Oliver's sentence was carried out.

Aldridge had been in the death house since Jan 26, 1940 and had received no visitors. His remains were taken to Halwig Funeral Home. The Halwig Funeral Home first opened business in Olean in 1919 and continued under Halwig family ownership until 1977.

Oliver's funeral was held on Monday, July 15, with services conducted by the pastor of the Bethel A. M. E. Church and burial was in the Pleasant Valley Cemetery.

Dominic Gregory, born in Italy on Sept. 21, 1852, had been a resident of Olean for 55 years at the time of his death. His funeral was held at St. John's Church and he was buried in St. Bonaventure Cemetery.


WEBMASTER NOTES

-- Given the proximity of Dominic Gregory's home to the original site of Olean General Hospital, North 1st St.and Coleman St., and given his trade as contractor, one wonders whether he ever worked on construction of the first or later hospital buildings

According to the hospital's history web page, the New York Board of Charities incorporated Olean General Hospital on July 13, 1898. Through fund raising efforts initiated by a women's group, the St. Margaretís Chapter of St. Stephenís Episcopal Church, a building and property for the hospital were purchased in 1902 for $6,000. Through a gift of $65,000 from Mrs. Clara A. H. Smith in memory of her brother, Governor Frank W. Higgins in 1912, the first building at the current Hospital site was made possible.

Gov. Higgins had been a vestryman at the same St. Stephenís Episcopal Church. Interestingly, he had championed advancing womam suffrage in local governmental matters. In his first annual message to the Legislature (1905), he advocated no limitations as to gender be placed on property-owning citizens voting on local tax issues.

Higgins, who represented the Olean region in the State Senate several years before becoming first the lieutenant governor and then governor, owned a chain of grocery stores in the community and helped found the Olean Golf Club, A businessman with varied holdings in several states, he avoided ostentation and fancy airs, had an open and approachable manner and lived a low key lifestyle that seemed to belie his actual wealth.

Born Aug. 18, 1856 in Rushford, Allegany County, Higgins died: Feb. 12, 1907 in Olean, having completed his two-year term as governor the previous year. Burial took place in Mt. View Cemetery, Olean, Cattaraugus County, New York

-- Precisely what in the old man Gregory's reputed conduct supposedly prompted Willie Pearl to move out of his house (if indeed it was his beheavior and not that of her moonshine-imbibing husband), remains unclear. Perhaps the very vagueness of the assertion better served a legal defense tactic of "putting the victim on trial."

Alternately, Mrs. Aldridge may very well had taken personal offense at something the 86-year-old said or did or was in the habit of saying or doing, and which she refused to disregard or discount because of his age.

Whatever the facts on that aspect of the case, any attempt by the defense lawyers to suggest Oliver acted in anger over an alleged disrespect of his wife would have undercut their claim that the killing had been unintentional.

-- Frank J. "Bud" Aldridge, born in Olean to Oliver and Pearl Strickland Aldridge on May 22, 1929, was about 10 years about the time of the case. When he came of age, he married. His wife's name: Jean G. He saw military service during the Korean War. He died May 3, 2003. Burial took place in the Veterans Field of Honor section of Chestnut Hill Cemetery, Portville, N.Y.

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