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Published in the Southampton Press, 2013 Memorial Day Issue.

Horace Wells was not a gambling man by anyone’s definition, yet many who knew him were not surprised to learn, that on the evening of February 24th 1929, Horace took a risk that would end up costing him his life.

Horace Wells was enjoying a life of success. He was born in “Good Ground”, in April of 1886, his father Horace Wells Sr., ran his own farm on Springville Road and his mother Mary took care of their 7 children.

The Wells home bubbled with activity as each of the children flourished, built careers for themselves and went off to have families of their own. For Horace Wells Jr., it was obvious early on, that his life was going to  revolve around engines and cars.

The automobile industry enjoyed tremendous changes in production during the 1920s. Henry Ford developed a concept called the “assembly line”, and before long there would be an automobile parked outside of every home.  Considered a luxury item in the past and reserved for those with hefty incomes, automobiles soon became attainable to the average man and the entire country would want one. For every car, there was a reliable  mechanic to service it.

Twenty four year old Horace Wells had been working at the Southampton Buick Dealership as a mechanic, for nearly 4 years, by 1910. He was now married with 2 children of his own and his outgoing nature and knowledge of cars, landed him a sales position there. It wouldn’t be long before he and his wife Jessie would own a home. By the summer of 1928, Horace had worked his way up to manager of Southampton Buick. His children were attending college and he was a respected and successful member of the community.

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While 1910 was a good year for Horace Wells, six year old Harry McConardy’s circumstances were not so optimistic. Harry was growing up in Norfolk Massachusetts, under the management of his father, Peter McConardy. Peter was a 66 year old  milk man, who consistently struggled to pay the family’s bills. Peter had six children altogether and suffered from declining health himself.

Peter McConardy would not live to see 1920, and it was his wife Barbara, 26 years his junior, who would be left to provide for the family. It was a task that far exceeded Barbara’s abilities and her children would end up scattered across the country, leaving home and taking bad attitudes  with them.

In February of 1929, Horace Wells reportedly suffered from physical ailments and was prescribed rest and relaxation, by his physician. It was with his health in mind that Horace and his wife Jesse planned an escape to West Palm Beach, Florida. Their friends, Mr. and Mrs. Charles Raynor of Patchogue, would accompany them. The foursome planned to rent a home that was owned by another Southampton resident, Mrs. Vincent Hall. Laughter, and recreation would be their only agenda. Charles Raynor was not only a close friend of Horace Wells, but he was also the manager of the Buick Dealership in Patchogue.

And so it was that on Saturday February 23rd of 1929, a dinner party was in the works. The group was expecting Mrs Vincent Hall, the Southampton resident who had rented them the Palm Beach vacation home, along with a male friend. The women prepared a lovely meal and everyone enjoyed it. After dinner, all of the guests retired to the library. There, the energy was high and the lively conversation continued.

Suddenly, the door flew open and the group of friends froze, confused by what they saw. A strange man pointed a gun at them, his voice booming as he ordered the party to move towards the wall. The intruder forced the women to remove their jewelry and then proceeded to search the men individually, collecting money and credit cards from the now terrified dinner guests.

Exactly what happened next varies, depending on who is telling the story. Most news items claim that Horace Wells was a member of the volunteer police department in Hampton Bays at the time, and he made a move to grab the intruder’s weapon. This alarmed the burglar, who then shot Horace in the abdomen. Panicking, the gunman seized the male guest who had accompanied Mrs. Hall and forced him to drive to the “Pointsetta Hotel”, the gun pointed directly at him the entire time. The gunman changed his clothes at the hotel and continued to make his escape, with the frightened dinner guest in tow. To his credit, the robber would leave his hostage by the side of the road and spare his life.

The police later arrested a man who was calling himself “T Southworth”, in Stuart Florida, some 40 miles away from West Palm Beach. “T Southworth” would later be identified as Harry McConardy, Peter and Barbara McConardy’s wayward son. The newspapers described Harry as a “career crook” and claimed he had confessed to both the theft and the shooting. McConardy  plead guilty to 2 counts of robbery and was sentenced to 30 years in prison, however on March 1, 1929 all of that would change.

Horace Wells had been taken to the emergency room after the shooting and was doing quite well after his initial surgery. In fact, he received visitors the Thursday after the incident and was making plans to go back home. Hours after that visit, Horace’s condition would inexplicably take a turn for the worst. One week from the night of the robbery, Horace Wells would die hundreds of miles from home. The charges against Harry McConardy were upgraded to first degree murder.

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Harry McConardy had evolved into a fellow with many bees residing inside of  his bonnet. As he sat in jail awaiting his trial his mind must have raced. At one point McConardy confided in a fellow inmate, that they would not need to execute him because he was planning to kill himself. When the guard was informed of this, he searched Harry’s cell and found a razor blade concealed inside of some folded clothing. In addition, a note was discovered, addressed to his mother. The letter stated in part:

“…Dear Mother, I should have done this job on myself long ago…”

Not insignificant, was the fact that Harry wanted the letter published in newspapers around the Boston area where he grew up. Perhaps being on death row was more rewarding for Harry McConardy then he would care to admit, since it was the only time in his life that he would feel important? For a man who lived a life, void of any positive contributions and with no real accomplishments, it would be his last chance to shine. In December of 1930, when  McConardy issued a statement to the press, demanding that the state execute him and that all efforts to save his life be disregarded, it didn’t surprise anyone who had come to know him.

On February 12 1931, 27 year old Harry McConardy got his wish. His death warrant was signed and when given the news McConardy reportedly replied:

“Well ain’t that swell.”

Harry McConardy was electrocuted at the state prison in Railford, Florida. He was reportedly “relaxed and very calm” as he walked from his death cell, down the hallway and towards the electric chair. As the story was reported, Harry glanced up at the 20 witnesses and just as the metal head piece was adjusted, he uttered but one word:

“Goodbye.”

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Title Graphic Victor Downs

Article published in the 2013 Columbus Day edition of the Southampton / East Hampton Press

There is little doubt that Victor Downs would have relished the fact that 81 years after his picture first appeared on the front pages of newspapers across the country, there would be yet another article written about him in the Southampton Press. To look at Victor you might think he was a movie star or a wealthy, society playboy, instead of the suspect in a terrible murder. Handsome, far beyond the norm, Victor Downs did his best to present the image of a swashbuckling romantic, who was simply misunderstood. “Vic”, as he would be affectionately dubbed by the press, was one of those elusive creatures who’s first name became immediately recognizable in a headline. No last name necessary. By 1943, it was just “Vic” and everyone on the East End knew who he was.

You could say that the saga of Victor Downs is intermingled with the story of another well known character around the East End, known as the “Corn Doctor”, but that would not be entirely true. The story of Victor Downs  began long before the Corn Doctor came into the picture. Once a police officer, Victor had also been a member of the “Bill Dwyer Liquor Mob.” Disgraced, and discharged from the force, Victor continued to live a questionable life, staying on the wrong side of the law and eventually meeting a young woman, who would become the love of his life.

Her name was Mitzi and she too would enjoy the distinction of making headlines, on a “first name only” basis. Platinum blonde hair and almost 20 years Vic’s junior, Mitzie was Vic’s feminine match.

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The summer of 1932 saw the Great Depression and money was scarce. People lost faith in banks and those who had money, usually kept it close at hand. It was this atmosphere that shaped another local character named Frank Tuthill, affectionately known as “The walking bank from Quogue”, or more commonly referred to as “The Corn Doctor.” One of the most picturesque figures in Long Island history, Doc. Tuthill would gather his supplies and travel around the Island, treating people for their foot ailments and collecting cash for his services. It became Mr. Tuthill’s habit to carry thousands of dollars in bills, in the pockets of his overcoats,  mostly in envelopes and between sheets of paper. Doc Tuthill was often spotted, walking through the Village wearing not one, but two overcoats. Perhaps the Corn Doctor’s biggest flaw, was his delight in exhibiting his wealth to others, in public places.  Doc Tuthill often boasted that he was not afraid of being robbed because he was a “crack shot with a revolver” and was “too quick on his trigger finger” but neither fact would prove of any assistance on the night of August 6, 1932.

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The 68 year old Corn Doctor was renting a room in Quogue, from Mr. and Mrs. Filmore Dayton at the time. The Daytons became alarmed when Mr. Tuthill addressed them before leaving the house that night. The Corn Doctor told them that he was carrying $10,000.00 in cash on his person and before walking out the door, he turned and said:

“If I’m not back by tomorrow, call the police.”

The next morning, when Frank Tuthill had not returned home, that’s exactly what the Daytons did. Two weeks later, Tuthill was found crumpled on the floor of his dilapidated car, with every pocket of his two worn and tattered coats, turned inside out. He had been brutally beaten and then shot.

In a matter of days, Victor Downs and his wife Mitzi were taken into custody and charged with first degree murder. The case made national news and the trial was sensational, largely due to the antics of the defendants. Even by today’s standards, it would have been one of those stories worthy of  “gavel to gavel coverage.” It didn’t take long for the police to get a confession out of Mitzi, who claimed that after meeting Frank Tuthill in an isolated location, she lured him back to their home with complaints of a foot ailment. It was there, Mitzi told them, that Mr. Tuthill was murdered and then robbed. Mitzi was offered a deal, if she agreed to testify against Victor, but when Mitzi took the stand during the trial, she did something that shocked everyone. To the astonishment of the prosecutors, she began screaming in open court, that they had tricked her into signing a false statement.

“You tricked me! You made me lie!” she shrieked.

The prosecutor was forced to admit that, other than Mitzi’s testimony, he had no other evidence against Victor Downs and the charges were reluctantly dropped. Try as he might, Prosecutor L Barron Hill was not able to “get” Victor Downs for first degree murder, but that didn’t stop him from trying. He used several tactics to snare the elusive Vic, starting with charging both husband and wife with first degree murder. In short order, Victor Downs claimed double jeopardy and was released, while Mitzi remained in jail. Prosecutor Hill announced that he would use Mitzi’s confession against her and all the while, newspapers were selling like hotcakes.

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On November 18, of 1932, Victor arrived at the jail house with a box of chocolates under his arm, requesting to see his wife and was denied the visit. This caused Victor Downs to fly into rage and challenge Sheriff Ory Young to a “duel by fists or by guns.” After some name calling and advice from the Sheriff to go home, Victor left the jail in a huff.

Prosecutor Hill was certainly not finished with Victor Downs. Victor was again arrested, this time charged with grand theft, for stealing the Corn Doctor’s money. As the case was awaiting trial, Vic was released on bond, while his wife Mitzi, who was still incarcerated, had dyed her hair and was now a brunette.

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It was while out on bond, that Vic visited Mr. Mike Gallo, at his home in Mattituck. During the course of the evening an argument broke out and Victor attacked Gallo, stabbing him and cutting his throat. Once again, Vic was promptly arrested and charged with second degree assault. By now Victor was familiar with the system and manipulated it quite effectively. Victor Downs plead guilty to a first degree assault charge in the case of Mike Gallo and was sentenced to ten years at Sing Sing, a condition being that his wife Mitzi would be set free.

As the years passed by, Victor spent his time at Sing Sing Prison studying law and becoming somewhat of a self-styled attorney. In 1937, when Vic came up for parole, he began a bid for his freedom. The case was herd in the Brooklyn Supreme Court where Vic claimed he had been “persecuted” by the authorities in Suffolk Co. “for political reasons.” He went on to tell the court that he had been “made the goat”, following his acquittal in the Corn Doctor’s murder. The request was denied and Victor filed a second request, this time in the Supreme Court at White Plains, in Westchester County. This time he won. In late August of 1937, after serving three years in prison, it looked like Victor Downs was again going to be released.

While Victor and Mitzie were planning their reunion, their old adversary, Prosecutor Barron Hill, was busy at work opposing the ruling. No doubt  the circumstances of the Corn Doctor’s murder and the assault on Mike Gallo, helped Hill to make his points. The writ was subsequently denied and Victor Downs was sent back to prison, once again.

On February 4, 1943, Vic was finally released, having served the full 10 year sentence.

Time did nothing to diminish Mitzie’s love for Vic, but it did have an effect on 54 year old, Victor’s Downs. The rage inside of Vic had festered and eight days after leaving prison, Victor Downs would be making headlines once again.

Immediately following his release, Victor Downs sent threatening letters to former Prosecutor Hill, who was now an acting Judge. Other Suffolk County officials involved in Vic’s case over the years, received letters as well.  Judge Hill immediately informed the FBI and they were soon, hot on the trail of Victor Downs. Vic was charged with extortion and escorted back to the Riverhead jail.

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At the arraignment Vic plead not guilty and insisted on acting as his own counsel. The judge refused to allow it and in turn, Vic refused to accept the court appointed lawyer. Again, Vic’s move was effective and the trial was postponed indefinitely, until the matter could be resolved. Vic’s bail was set at $50,000 and he was sent back to Riverhead. Victor would publicly refuse to work with any Suffolk County attorneys, making headlines at every turn. Eventually Vic did work with a lawyer from Westhampton and together they asked for a change of venue, sighting the notorious Corn Doctor case. Vic could not get a fair trial in Suffolk County. The change of venue was granted and Vic’s trial would finally take place in Nassau County.

The Nassau County jury dismissed one blackmail charge and remained undecided on another. Eventually all of the charges would be dismissed, but Judge Hill would have Vic Downs arrested and re-tried in Suffolk Co, one more time, for the remaining charge. Again, Victor Downs asked for a change of venue and got it. Eventually Victor Downs was allowed to plead to a lesser charge of “sending an annoying letter” and would receive a suspended sentence, after much ado.

Throughout it all, Mitzi waited faithfully for Vic’s release and together they left the Riverhead jailhouse, one final time, with newspapers reporters in tow, wishing them luck. Sadly, no one would ever be effectively prosecuted, for the murder of Frank Tuthill, known affectionately to everyone on the East End, as the Corn Doctor.

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It was midnight on a Wednesday night in July of 1932, when four young people left Sunset Beach in Sag Harbor and headed home. The foursome, two males and two females, chatted excitedly about the upcoming weekend and made plans to get together. They were 19 year old Bernard Ernest and his buddy Earl Stevens from East Hampton and Lucille Deckert and Emma Willer from Bridgehampton. They headed down Noyac Rd, towards Sunrise Parkway and approach the intersection of Stony Hill Rd. They approached the intersection and the teens saw a figure standing in the center of the road. The man, described as “clad in all white” was holding a shotgun.  The gun was aimed directly at them.

As they passed the mysterious figure in white, there was a huge explosion and young Mr. Ernest can be heard to exclaim:

“I’ve been shot. I can’t find the brakes!”

With that, the car crashed into a tree stump and the “figure in white” disappeared into the night.

The bullets had entered Bernard Ernest’s back and torn through his lungs. He died at the scene. The other passengers were cut and bruised but released from Southampton Hospital later that morning. He was only 19 years old when the “Phantom  of Noyac Rd.” had murdered him.

Ernest was born in 1912 to Thomas and Julia Ernest and appeared to be a very upstanding kid. Thomas Ernest was a Carpenter and young Bernard had a job at the “East Hampton Mechanical Repair Shop.” His boss, E.J. Dominy, would have nothing but good things to say about young Mr. Ernest after the shooting.

This is a case that revolves around a cast of characters, worthy of any Hollywood Film. To tell the story of the bizarre sequence of events that ended in the murder of an innocent young man, one must go back and acquaint themselves with the participants in this tragic saga.

We start with the nexus of this sordid affair, 26 year old Katherine Gray.

Katherine Gray was of Scotch descent and described as a “very pretty brunette.” She was born in 1906 to JB and Irma Gray.  She grew up in Texas and her father, JB, is listed as the head of the household on the census forms. His occupation however is a bit sketchy. Under this category it simply states “income.” No other information is available. Very unusual for a census report.

The household consisted of JB Gray, his wife, Irma and their four children. No one in the home was employed with the exception of JB Gray.

Whatever the source of the “income”, it provided enough funds for Katherine to graduate in 1923 from a prep school located in Birmingham PA. Sometime after that Katherine married Harold Chapman, a manager for a local paper factory and the couple moved to Noyac Rd. near Sag Harbor.

The marriage lasted until July of 1931 when, for reasons that are unknown, the couple was divorced. A clue, however, might be found in the fact that shortly after her divorce and just months before the murder of Bernard Ernest, Katherine Gray’s name would be splashed across newspapers in yet another sensational story.

Friday, December 18th, 1931.

Katherine Gray was sound asleep in her bed. After her divorce, she remained in the bungalow on Noyac and Spring Hill Rd. and was now renting the upper portion to  boarders, Steven O’Neil and William Shultz. She was suddenly awakened by loud banging and the sound of voices coming from the front room. She threw on her bathrobe and ran out into the hall to find  prohibition officers and  United States marshals in her home.

The sensational headlines were splashed across the front page of newspapers all over Long Island:

“Radio Plant at Sag Harbor Was Shore Link to Rum Row”

“Find Rum Hoard and Wireless”

“Woman and Two Men Arrested in Raid On Bungalow After Five Month Search”

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At the time of her arrest, Katherine Gray swore that she had no idea that O’Neil and Shultz were using their shortwave radio for illicit purposes. She claimed that she thought the two men were just “experimenting.” At the same time Shultz was claiming to be a “garage man” and know nothing of the operation.

The Federal Government had different information.

That was when it began. In early November of that same year, 5 weeks before the raid on Katherine Gray’s home and only 5 months after Katherine and Harold Chapman were divorced. The first indication that there was a bootleg operation on the East End of Long Island came when Federal authorities intercepted a coded message, apparently intended for rum boats lying off the Long Island Shore. A search began in order to uncover the source of the message. It was discovered that the station was located on Long Island and after a gradual “narrowing down” process was implemented, the agents determine the exact spot. Tests of wireless impulses indicated that the set was in the Sag Harbor area.

After that, a “special apparatus” was brought in and disclosed that the transmitter was concealed in a bungalow near Peconic Bay. Katherine Gray;s bungalow.

Around the same time agents were raiding the home of Katherine Gray, they were also searching a farm located in Cutchogue. There, they discovered “a hoard of 200 cases of Scotch liquor”, in a secret compartment that was located in the barn. The farm was owned by Frank Zewenski.

Not far from the Zewenski farm, the agents discovered a well built staircase heading from the bluff, down to the Sound shore.  They believed the liquor landed there in small boats and was carried up to the top of the bluff where it was then trucked to Zewenski’s farm and stored until needed.

Zewenski tried to concoct a story of a broken down truck, who’s driver asked to store the load in his barn for a few days but the agents had been investigating this case for weeks now and were well aware of the source of the liquor and everyone’s involvement in the Rum Running operation…and that included Katherine Gray.

Perhaps Katherine Gray, future rum-runner and Harold Chapman, hard working plant manager, were simply traveling in two different directions at the time of their divorce?

The charges against Katherine Gray were eventually dropped and by July of 1932 she had met a handsome, 29 year old man from Southampton named Leslie Loomis.

Leslie Loomis was born in New York and was a garage mechanic and a foreman for a Repair Shop in Riverhead. The home he lived in was owned by 67 year old Emily Fritz and her 40 year old daughter, Elizabeth. There were only two young men renting rooms in the household and Loomis was one of them. The house was located on Hill Street in Southampton. One can imagine that a young man of Loomis’s age would much prefer to spend his evenings with Katherine Gray in her bungalow, as opposed to spending his time alone in his room in the Fritz household.

According to Loomis, the couple lived together for a year and a half and had recently split up when the shooting occurred..

It is safe to say that Loomis was far more infatuated with Katherine Gray then she was with him.

Meanwhile, Katherine had somehow, through her daily activities, come into contact with 40 year old Matteo Di Gregorio. Di Gregorio (spelled Di Gregaria on some documents) was born on July 6, 1894 in Sicily. He immigrated to America on the ship the  S.S. Sant’ Anna in 1914. His records indicate that he was traveling with his brother Antonino Di Gregorio and their friend, Domenico Bananno.

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Between 1914 and 1932 Matteo Di Gregorio was Americanized enough to go by the name of “Marty.”  He was living in Sag Harbor and owned “Marty’s Bathing Pavilion” on Noyac Road.

Di Gregorio must have found Katherine Gray as enchanting as Leslie Loomis had because in short order Di Gregorio was at Katherine’s home as much as Loomis had been and it was a fact that caused a feud to develop between the two men.

Leslie Loomis was  going nowhere and he made a point to harass the couple whenever possible. On the night of the shooting, he drove to Katherine Gray’s home and crept up to an open bedroom window. He punched through the screen and seized some of Di Gregorio’s clothing, which was laying across the back of a chair, then ran to his automobile and drove away.

It would seem that Matteo Di Gregorio, fed up with Leslie Loomis and his jealous pranks, had brought a shotgun to Katherine Gray’s house three days before the shooting. On that night he grabbed his shotgun and ran out into Noyac road in a rage. Matteo Di Gregorio was wearing his pajama top and his white boxer shorts when he stood in the center of Noyac road waiting for Leslie Loomis to drive by. It was at this time that the Bernard Ernest and his 3 young companions were innocently traveling down Noyac Road, on their way home from Sunset Beach in Sag Harbor.

Who knows what went through Di Gregorio’s mind after shooting Bernard Ernest. Did he realize all too late that he had shot the wrong person?  Did he believe he had hit his target and become overwhelmed with guilt?

Whatever his thoughts at the time, Di Gregorio threw the shotgun down and ran back to Katherine Gray’s bungalow, eluding even her. He donned what clothes he had left and set out through the woods, stopping only once to sleep.

Matteo Di Gregorio eventually found shelter at the home of Mr. Robert W. Lee on Noyac Road. He emerged from the woods behind Robert Lee’s house wearing a coat, vest and shoes but no pants. He explained to Lee that someone had stolen his trousers while he was swimming.

When Di Gregorio was arrested he was upstairs in the bedroom of Lee’s home, borrowing a pair of trousers. He was promptly arrested and taken to the police station.

Perhaps one of the most flamboyant characters to enter this sad drama is defense attorney Samuel Leibowitz. Di Gregorio hired Leibowitz immediately after the shooting and with good references.

Samuel Leibowitz was an extremely well known attorney at this time and he remained in the public eye for decades afterwards. He became the darling of the news media, beginning in 1922 when he was accused of blackmailing Maryland Governor Albert C. Ritchie, in an attempt to get charges against a corrupt prison official dropped.

In 1926 Leibowitz represented Al Capone in a triple murder charge. He was able to get the charges dismissed because of  “insufficient Evidence” and Capone was released the very next day.

In January of 1930 he made the news again when he represented gangster Max Becker, who was a prisoner in Auburn Prison and killed a guard during a hostage situation.

Long after Bernard Ernest’s young life ended in July of 1932, Samual Leibowitz continued to make the news and garner fame.

In 1936 Leibowitz defended 31 year old Vera Stretz in another sensational trial. Stretz was accused of killing her married lover Dr. Fritz Gebhardt who was the President of a German importing firm. Forty three year old Dr. Gebhardt was married and his wife was in Germany. Vera Stretz and Dr. Gebhardt both lived in the “Tower Apartment”, in New York City.

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That same year he was commended for winning 114 acquittals and not losing a case in 7 years.

Samuel Leibowitz created much controversy that same year by interviewing Bruno Hauptman, who was on death row for the Lindbergh kidnapping. Leibowitz  was granted permission to interrogate Hauptman for hours in an attempt to get him to confess.

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Perhaps acting more as a PR man than an attorney, Leibowitz continued to insert himself into the Lindbergh kidnapping case in 1936,  by representing Martin Schlossman.

Schlossman was a player in a bizarre side story associated with the Lindbergh kidnapping involving an abduction plot, designed to extract a confession from a disbarred New Jersey Attorney, Mr. Wendel.

In 1937 Leibowitz defended Robert Irwin in a triple murder charge and saved him from the electric chair. Leibowitz successfully argued that Irwin was insane at the time of the killings.

Robert Irwin beat and strangled 3 people as the result of being romantically rebuffed.

In 1940 Samuel Leibowitz became a judge and he continued to make the news and preside over important cases. He died in 1978 at 84 years old of a stroke.

Matteo Di Gregario hired himself one heck of an attorney when he went on trial for Bernard Ernest’s murder. Even as far back as 1932, it was clear that Samuel Leibowitz was an extremely persuasive man.

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The trial lasted two days and the jury was out for 4 hours.

The entire defense was based on the fact that Di Gregorio was entitled to use force, if necessary, to regain his possessions. Leibowitz stated that the death was the result of an accident occurring during the pursuit of Leslie Loomis.

Samuel Leibowitz continually stressed the point to the jury, that they were obligated to come back with a verdict of not guilty, if he was able to prove the accidental discharge of the weapon.

Amazingly, and to the dismay of most of the community, the jury acquitted Di Gregorio of all charges causing a great controversy. Most people felt that Di Gregorio should have at least been found guilty of manslaughter considering it was a tragic end to a sordid affair, for a person who was completely innocent of anything.

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The Murder of Mrs. Jones

Posted: December 11, 2013 in Uncategorized

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In September of 1908, local newspapers buzzed with reports of murder and mayhem on Long Island. It had been only forty years, since slavery was abolished in this country, and a diverse nation set upon on a new journey. African Americans, along with other cultures and ethnicities, worked hard to build lives and prosper together.

It seems crime is one of those subjects that crosses all boundaries, and as was customary in 1908, articles written on the subject specify the ethnicity of the people involved. Today, unless it is part of a description used to inform or enlist the help of the public, the race or ethnicity of the victim or the perpetrator, is not a major part of the story.

It was this atmosphere, that produced the headlines of September 19th, detailing crimes in the news that day. The headlines and by-lines read: “Two Poles Indicted for Extortion” and “Filipinos Kill Three.” Another item told the story of an “Italian Detective” who was on a mission to apprehend “Polish Blackmailers.”

Nestled among the accounts, was the announcement that a “Riverhead Negro” had been arrested for the murder of his wife. The newspaper article spoke in glowing terms of the defendant, James Jones, describing him in print as “an outstanding negro.” What might seem glaringly inappropriate at first glance, when taken in context, becomes quite extraordinary.

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James Jones must have been an outstanding individual indeed, judging from the descriptions provided by reporters. What happened on the afternoon of September 15th, 1908, was tragic for everyone involved,  but the press was clearly sympathetic to James Jones.  Later, the system would prove less compassionate.

There would never be a first name provided in any newspaper report, for “Mrs. Jones”, the victim in this case. She is described in one article as “…a strikingly handsome mulatto…” who was “…prepared to leave her husband and family…”, and “…had her belongings packed…” on September 15th.

James Jones had taken on two roomers that fall, Charles Johnson and G. F. Edwards. The pair traveled to Riverhead from Brooklyn, to conduct a shooting gallery at a popular local fair. Mr. Jones returned from work the afternoon of the 15th, and found Charles Johnson in the house with Mrs. Jones, who was  “dressed for the street” with suitcases ready. When Jones discovered the affair, he became “insane with jealousy” and slit his wife’s throat with a pen knife.

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Only forty years earlier, slavery was alive and well in America and yet, at the time of his arrest, James Jones had owned and operated a large ice business in Riverhead for years. It was reported that he did the work of three or four men, was frugal, industrious and both mentally and physically “exceptional.”

In spite of the evidence against him, Mr. Jones would deny his guilt and change his story over time. The father of seven children, his eleven year old daughter Virginia, would be a strong witness for the prosecution. Virginia testified that she heard her mother holler from the basement, that her father was cutting her throat. The prosecution claimed that James Jones used a pen knife to kill his wife, cut himself in the neck, and then he threw the blade into a cook stove to burn, where it was later recovered.

James Jones took the stand in his own defense and claimed that he came home and found Mr. Johnson in his house. He testified that Mr. Johnson went downstairs with his wife, and he heard Mrs. Jones tell Johnson that she would not go with him.  He then described hearing a scuffle and a shout, before he ran downstairs to find his wife dead.

A parade of prominent witnesses testified in James Jones’ defense and attested to his excellent reputation, however Mr. Jones was still found guilty of second degree murder.

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Mr. Jones later secreted a blade from a pencil sharpener, inside of his mouth, while being transported to his cell, and attempted suicide in jail. In a second suicide attempt, jailers confiscated a bottle of poison hidden in a pie, that was sent to James Jones by his sister.

After arriving at Sing Sing prison, Mr. Jones threatened a hunger strike and eventually came up with one last story, telling the guards that he was finally ready to confess.

Referring to Mrs. Jones as “the woman”, Mr. Jones told authorities that they had quarreled that evening because his wife was going to leave him. When he told her how much this hurt him, James Jones stated that she laid down on the floor and said “cut my throat”, so he did. That would be the final word on the subject from James Jones.

Everyone has a name in this story except the victim, something that would never happen today, unless the victim was unknown. The story of Mrs. Jones, besides being one that is as old as time, is also a fascinating look at change, and how that change has manifested itself, in print, throughout the years.

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The Southampton Goodnight Kiss Murder

Officer Harold Winters had finished his coffee, and was ready to get back into his patrol car and continue policing the streets of Southampton. Officer Winters was working the night shift and it was his habit to enjoy his dinner break in the company of his girlfriend, Mary.  He pushed the last bit of his sandwich into his mouth, washing it back with his coffee, gathering any loose items he needed before turning to say goodnight to his girl. Harold  took Mary in his arms and held her tight. As they embraced and kissed each other goodnight, Mary heard a loud explosion and felt Harold Winters go limp in her arms.  He dropped to the floor,  red liquid spilling from a wound in the back of his head. Mary screamed as he fell, taking in the terrible scene. Even as she  ran to the phone calling for help, she knew exactly what had happened. It was Frank. She had been afraid of this for months.

The shot that killed Harold Winters was fired at approximately 10pm on a Friday night, August 5,1949.

Earlier that evening, Frank Zieman crouched in the darkness and watched through the back window as the couple inside stood up, their arms encircling each other. As their lips met, it was more than he could bear. Everything that had happened in the past few months crashed in on him at that moment, so he aimed his rifle at the back of Harold Winter’s head and pulled the trigger. Seconds later, Frank ran towards his parked car while his heart, no doubt, pumped wildly in his chest. Once inside the car, he started the engine and took off towards Sunrise Highway, racing towards Bridgehampton, checking his rear view mirror the entire way.

Frank Zieman had one more thing to do before he was finished.

Southampton Goodnight Kiss Murder window

THE WINDOW  FRANK ZEIMAN LOOKED INTO, WHEN HE SAW HIS EX-WIFE KISSING OFFICER HAROLD WINTERS

Frank  was born in 1904 in Southampton, NY.  His father, Leo Zieman, was born in Poland and his mother Marian was from Germany. Frank Zieman was Leo and Marian’s 6th child.

Leo Zieman made his living as a driver for a coal company and could not read or write at the time of Frank’s birth.  As the years went on Leo and Marian Zieman continued having children, ending up with a grand total of eleven by 1920.

At that time, four of the Zieman children were gainfully employed and presumably helping with expenses while 15 year old Frank Zieman and the others attended school. The Zieman family spoke Polish, German and English and by 1920 Leo Zieman had learned to read and write.

Ten years later, Frank’s father, Leo, has a new job working at a “clubhouse” and the family has moved to West Prospect St.  At the same time Frank Zieman was still living at home, a single man, working as a plumber.

Between 1930 and 1935 Frank Zieman exchanged his plumbing career for a job in retail sales. It was while he was working behind the counter at a large “chain store” in Southampton, that he met a pretty red-headed young woman named Mary. Mary would eventually become Mary Zieman and in 1935 give birth to a son. For a man like Frank Zieman, this must have been the happiest time of his life.

Frank would later leave the retail sales business and take a lucrative position in the civilian branch of the Navy. The position would require Frank to work overseas for a while. With a wife and child to provide for, it was an opportunity to better himself and Frank Zieman took it.

Harold Winters graphic

THE SCENE IN THE KITCHEN AFTER OFFICER HAROLD WINTERS WAS SHOT BY FRANK ZEIMAN THROUGH THE WINDOW

It was when Frank returned, after being overseas for months, that he discovered his wife of 15 years had taken a trip to Palm Beach, Florida and gotten a divorce behind his back. To make things worse, Frank eventually discovered that Mary was deeply involved with another man, Officer Harold Winters.

The series of events that followed, would dispel any doubt that this discovery devastated Frank Zieman,

Frank Zieman Graphic

One wonders if Frank Zieman and Harold Winters might have even known each other in some capacity? Considering that they both grew up in Southampton Village, it’s not out of the question.

Even though Harold Winters was technically born on Grand St. in Brooklyn, he spent most of his life in Southampton. His father,  John Winters, worked as a machinist in a rope factory and his mother, Stella was a stay at home mom. Harold Winters had one brother growing up, 8 years his senior. His name was John Jr.

In 1920, for some unknown reason, the Winters family split apart. John Sr. and Stella Winters left Brooklyn to live in Jersey City, minus their 2 children. John Winters Jr. went off on his own and 15 year old Harold Winters moved to Southampton to live with his grandparents.

The Southampton household consisted of Cleveland Winters, his wife Eva and Eva’s mother Jane Wells, who was 90 years old at the time. Cleveland Winters was 64 and worked as a freelance farm laborer which is difficult work at any age.

Harold Winter’s grandparents had taken on the extra responsibility of raising their grandson, and they must have done a very good job. Harold made them all proud in 1929, when he became a motorcycle patrolman with the Southampton Police Department.

At the age of 25, the handsome police officer married a pretty 23 year old school teacher  named Marion. They lived on Wooley St. and were described  as the perfect family…

until Harold Winters met Mary Zieman, that is.

The Murder House

THE MURDER HOUSE STILL STANDS TODAY, AND THERE IS STILL A BLEMISH  ON THE KITCHEN WALL WHERE THE BULLET HIT.

After 3 children and almost 20 years of marriage, Marion Winters divorced her husband Harold right around the same time that Mary Zieman made her trip to Palm Beach Florida and divorced her absentee husband Frank.

No one really knows exactly how long Mary Zieman and Harold Winters had known each other, but It would seem  they became serious approximately  six months before Frank Zieman returned home from the Pacific.

Frank Zieman thought he was coming home to a loving wife and instead returned, only to discover that his wife had divorced him six months earlier and he didn’t even know it. For months after his return, Frank obsessed over his marriage, expressing outrage at the fact that his ex-wife and her new lover were spending time in the very same house that the Ziemans had lived as husband and wife. Even the telephone was still listed in Frank Zieman’s name.

Suicide Collage

After returning from overseas, where he was working hard to make a good living for his family, Frank  was forced to move out of his own house and accept the fact that his family was gone. He moved to an apartment in Islip, and was able to get a good job working for the Central Islip State Hospital, however he was never able to move on.

Zieman was spotted in Sag Harbor around 6:30 on the night of the murder, drinking with friends.

The evidence would later show that Frank Zieman arrived in Southampton around 10pm and waited in ambush outside of his house for Harold Winters to arrive. Then, as the couple embraced and gave each other a goodnight kiss, Frank Zieman shot Harold Winters in the back of the head. After the shooting Frank  got into his car and drove to a beach at the end of Ocean Avenue, in Bridgehampton. Shortly after arriving there he  took his own life.

His body was found, along with a suicide note, 9 hours after he murdered Harold Winters.

The beach  Frank Zieman drove to that night, was the same spot he had chosen to court his wife Mary and eventually the place where he had asked her to marry him.  Hw sad that a final act of desperation,  would make it the place he also chose to end his life.

Suicide site

SH Goodnight Kiss Murder sm