Archive for July, 2015

MIPB Title Graphic

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.

Buick Ad

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.

WELLS GRAPHIC 1

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.

quogue sign tint

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.

Mitzie

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.

eccentric slain

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.

saga of downs