12 such murder cases in 70 years: Dec. 18, 1869 thru Dec. 9, 1939
In 1914 the execution of a Cattaraugus man (George Coyer) for killing his wife was overshadowed by the state's veteran executioner (Edwin F. Davis ) not performing it and by the case of a Cattaraugus woman (Cynthia Buffum) ultimately not executed for killing her husband.
George Coyer's death August 31, 1914, in Auburn Prison's electric chair for the July 4th, 1913, murder of his wife, Elizabeth, in Little Valley was noteworthy, not because of the condemned man's identity nor his crime, but because of the executioner's identity . . . or lack thereof.
The end of Davis' career as the man who made the electric chairs at Auburn, Clinton and Sing Sing prisons perform their deadly assignments was announced after the executions of George Coyer of Cattaraugus and Giuseppi DeGoia of Buffalo for their convictions in unrelated murder cases.
In reporting their deaths The Essex County Republican noted:
"The executions marked the end of 23 years of service as state electrician of E. F. Davis of Corning.
"A statement was issued at the prison that Mr. Davis did not officiate because of ill health but added that he would not officiate in the future.
"His assistant, E. B. Currier was not on hand and an unknown had charge of the execution. . . .
"The prison officers declined to give the name of the new executioner."
The Sept. 4, 1914, Page 1 story in The Essex County Republican mentioned:
It was known there had been friction, the prison officials cutting down the fee of $250 per execution to $150."
The New York Times August 30th, 1914, story about the fee dispute had anticipated that Davis' assistant, Currier would perform the Coyer and DeGoia executions for the old rate of $250 each but that Thomas F. Mannion, described as "a Yonkers politician," had agreed to do the executions thereafter for $150 each.
However, from time to time, fee references in newspaper stories about one or another of the identified Davis successors -- John Hulbert, Robert Elliott, Joseph Francel, Dow Hover -- indicates that "$150 per" remained the fixed rate into the early 1960s when state electrocutions ceased due to court decisions.
Sad to say, the facts of the 1913/14 Coyer murder case have an all too familiar ring, even in 2008:
An abusive husband is arrested for assaulting his wife.
Indicted, he pleads guilty but receives a suspended sentence after promising to leave the state and leave his wife alone.
After a period of seeming to abide by those conditions, he hunts her down where she has begun to establish a new life for herself and her two children.
There he first chokes her with his bare hands and finally kills her with a shotgun blast.
Such a story could as easily appear in today's newspapers, or in tomorrow's, as it appeared in a July 1913 issue of Chateaugay Record.
The newspaper, in reporting that Justice of the Peace Ten Eyck ordered Coyer held in the Little Valley jail to await action by the next Grand Jury (scheduled to convene in mid-September), noted:
"In May 1912, when living in Killbuck, Mrs. Coyer had her husband arrested on a charge of assault in the second degree.
"The grand jury indicated him the next month.
"He pleaded guilty and was released on suspended sentence upon promising to leave the State and not to molest his wife.
"Meanwhile, Mrs. Coyer [had] been supporting herself and two children, . . . keeping house for Jesse Smith of Cattaraugus."
The newspaper reported that George Coy had not been seen in the vicinity until shortly before the fatal attack.
One might speculate whether he had indulged in some pre-Independence Day celebrating that ironically served to inflame even more his resentment at his wife's own "declaration of independence" -- from him.
"That Coyer does not stand charged with the murder of two people is probably due to the fact that his gun missed fire, for he attempted to shoot Philip Reinhart of Cattaraugus, who tried to overpower him.""
That spouse killer was Mrs. Cynthia Buffum, 39, jailed on the charge of fatally poisoning her husband, Willis, 52, a Mansfield tenant farmer.
She also was suspected of poisoning five of their children, two of whom died. Cynthia had married Willis when she was 15 and he was 28.
Cynthia Buffum's jailing in Little Valley didn't take place until December 1913.
But the circumstances surrounding the August 24th death of Willis Buffum, the death the previous May of their 4-year-old son Norris Buffum, the impending death of their 10-year-old daughter Laura Buffum (Feb. 2, 1914), and the illnesses which the other Buffum children survived -- all these developments -- had aroused suspicions in the community well before mid-September..
Prompted by concern for the fate of the children at the hands of their mother, local citizens called the situation to the attention of county authorities during the first week of September.
Needing evidence to establish that she had administered the arsenic to him, authorities were able to place a female detective, posing as a nurse, in the Buffum household to become the suspect's confidant.
Admissions by Mrs. Buffum to the nurse/detective, to another detective posing as the nurse's friend, and thereafter to D.A. Cole led to Cynthia's indictment and arrest.
The prosecution contended her infatuation with a young farmer Ernest Frahm had been the motive behind her poisonous activity with horse liniment that had been left behind at the Buffum house by Cynthia's brother James.
The Watertown Herald, in a story about Mrs. Buffum's first week in the Little Valley jail, reported:
"Most of the time she stares at the farmhouse a half-mile up the hillside where she is said to have murdered her husband and 5-year-old son and attempted to kill four others."
The defense mounted on Cynthia's behalf at trial by her counsel Patrick S. Collins suggested husband Willis may have been the poisoner -- of himself and his children -- out of depression over his rising debts and declining ability to keep up with them.
Each day of the trial drew a long line of citizens who, seeking to assure themselves of good seats to hear the words coming from the witness stand, arrived early in the morning before the courthouse doors were opened.
But during the trial very few in the audience likely realized that the turning point in the case would ultimately prove to have been words first uttered from the bench.
After 5 hours and 20 minutes of deliberations, the jury on Feb. 27, 1914, found Mrs. Buffum guilty of first degree murder in the death of her husband.
Conviction carried a mandatory death sentence, making her the first woman from Cattaraugus County to be so sentenced, according to the Watertown Herald.
The day after the verdict, Cattaraugus Sheriff John Dempsey and Matron Margaret Clancy of Little Valley escorted Cynthia to Auburn Prison to await execution in its electric chair during the week of April 6.
"The proximity of the death chair in the little gray stone building a few hundred yards from her cell caused Cynthia Buffum to break down after she entered Auburn Prison."
"Safe from the eyes of the world, she threw off the indifference that characterized her since she was first accused . . .
"[She] wept repeatedly as she lay on the cot in the cell once occupied by Mary Farmer, the Watertown murderess who was the first woman to die in the electric chair in Auburn."
Cynthia's collapse -- "she was inconsolable and refused to be comforted" -- came as the Cattaraugus sheriff and matron bade good-bye to her."
However, an appeal filed by attorney Collins on Mrs. Buffum's behalf postponed the execution.
Her conviction was overturned Feb. 5, 1915, by the state's highest judicial panel, the Court of Appeals, in a 5-to-2 decision citing two rulings by the trial judge, Justice Charles H. Brown, that
"A new trial was granted on the ground that the confession which the District Attorney obtained from Mrs. Buffum was induced by fraud and deception.
"The court also held that testimony regarding the alleged poisoning of Laura Buffum was not admissible."
On the contrary, a careful reading of Chief Justice Willard Bartlett's majority opinion makes clear that despite the detectives' deception and manipulations, in itself the confession would not necessarily have been ruled out on appeal, had not the Laura Buffum evidence been allowed in at trial.
Chief Justice Bartlett wrote:
". . . . to go into the circumstances of the poor little girl's illness and death in extenso . . . . thus [left] the jury at the very end of the case deeply impressed with the wickedness of any one responsible for the innocent child's death, and certainly [suggested] the idea that the defendant was that person.
"To my mind the possibility -- nay, the probability -- that the jury may have been influenced to take a different view of the confession from that which they would have taken if the evidence in regard to the daughter's death had not been laid before them with so much emphasis and particularity convinces me that we cannot disregard the error which I think was committed in receiving that evidence.
Bartlett's written opinion found that the Laura Buffum-related testimony did not fit any of the few narrow exceptions to the rule against allowing admission of evidence about crimes not charged in the indictment.
Since the December 1913 indictment on which Mrs. Buffum was tried related only to the death of her husband in August 1913, Justice Bartlett held that Judge Brown's allowing in evidence the testimony about Laura Buffum's illness and Feb. 2, 1914 death, was wrong legally in itself and additionally wrong in the prejudicial effect it had on jury evaluation of the questionable confession.
Had the majority opinion completely precluded admission of the confession into evidence, the court likely would not have ordered a new trial.
Justice William H. Cuddeback and Cardozo dissented on the ground that although the evidence of the illness and death of Laura Buffum was inadmissible when first offered, it became admissible and "the error was cured" as a result of the course taken at trial by the defense.
Since the indictment on which Mrs. Buffum had been tried could not have been brought forth without the alleged confession, a point widely recognized and tacitly acknowledged, a new trial under that indictment could not gone forward if the high court had foreclosed prosecution use of her alleged incriminating statements.
"Twenty years imprisonment or the chance of a jury disagreement and a third trial were the alternatives that Cynthia Buffum pondered through 17 sleepless hours, coming to a decision three minutes before court opened that she would plead guilty to second degree murder for feeding arsenic to her husband. . . .
"The statutory sentence of life imprisonment, with a minimum of 20 years, was imposed by Justice Pound.
"'Mrs. Buffum has never admitted that she had poisoned her husband, and does not admit it now,' said Roy C. Bauer, one of her attorney's at the jail.
"'Is that correct, Mrs. Buffum?' the prisoner was asked, and she said, 'Yes,' in reply, insisting that she did not commit the crime."
"The trial just ended was Mrs. Buffum's second. . . . "
Perhaps the writer of the article assumed the newspaper's readers would already be aware that Mrs. Buffum's retrial on the first degree murder charge carried the prospect of death for her in the electric chair if the second trial jurors returned a guilty verdict.
But surely that had to be among the "alternatives pondered," prompting her to plead to second degree murder, rather risk having the dubious distinction of becoming the first Cattaraugus County woman executed under a death sentence.
Thus the Cattaraugus woman convicted in the 1913 killing of her husband, but not executed for it, drew more newspaper interest than the Cattaraugus man convicted and executed for the 1913 killing of his wife; and what news interest attended his execution arose, not for his case itself, but from questions concerning the veteran executioner who wasn't there.
George Coyer does have one minor footnote distinction in Cattaraugus criminal history: he was the county's fourth and last convicted first-degree murderer executed in Auburn Prison's electric chair.
But his execution wasn't the last for that chair. Its final one took place May 1, 1916, when Charles Sprague of Yates County was electrocuted in it.
After Coyer, Sing Sing was the setting for the executions of Cattaraugus' convicted first-degree murderers, all six of them.