12 such murder cases in 70 years: Dec. 18, 1869 thru Dec. 9, 1939
In August 1909, the woods around Olean, N.Y., offered ample opportunity for small game hunting. Rabbit, hare, and squirrel were plentiful. Even an occasional wild turkey would be reported from time to time.
So, when a small group of hunters from Olean's black community ventured forth on Sunday, Aug. 22th the outing was hardly considered unusual. That the hunting party included women also was not counted unusual. Who could cook a better rabbit stew, the man or the woman, might serve as a source of banter during the expedition in the woods.
For dealing with such matters, some Olean hunters find convenient to them the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation Sub-Office on the Saint Bonaventure University Campus in nearby Allegany.
Back nearly a century ago, no such restrictions inhibited small game hunting in most cases.
Before getting into the details of that fateful and fatal hunting trip by some members of Olean's small but vibrant black community nearly a century ago, let's look even further back in the town's history.
Slavery never played a prominent part of Olean development, although some wealthy families in the region kept slaves to handle household and/or field chores in mansions and on large estates.
The Times Herald of Olean noted in an April 1966 feature story that the historic big stone house Villa Belvedere, built during the early 19th Century in nearby Allegany County, "was looked after by Negro slaves and Indian servants."
But the struggle against slavery did play a note-worthy part in Olean history. Situated where Olean Creek flows into the Allegheny River, the village -- once known as Olean Point -- served as an important station in the Underground Railroad helping escaped slaves from the South make their way to Canada.
Its role of providing passage to fugitive slaves is viewed so significant that their stories have become part of local lore, to be re-enacted during Black History Month and written about in student essays.
"Sarah Johnson herself escaped slavery at a young age.
". . . When Sarah was about 15, . . . [she] ran away from [a] Chesapeake Bay plantation as darkness set in. Sarah followed the Susquehanna Trail north until she reached Southwestern New York. After the long journey the barefoot, fatigued, and famished girl stumbled into the settlement of Olean.
"Sarah decided to settle in this town. She became the first African American to live in Olean. She stayed with Dr. Andrew Mead and his family in exchange for keeping house. While she lived there, Sarah also began to study midwifery with Dr. Mead."
This was the same Doctor Mead who on Dec. 18, 1869, was slain by his 19-year-old nephew. That case is recounted in Theodore Nicklas -- 1 of 12 Men
Young Kelsie Norek's essay declared that,
"After marrying, Sarah Johnson and her husband became the first African American landowners in Olean by purchasing a house at 607 Irving Street. They bought not only a house, but the headquarters of the Underground Railroad in Olean as well. Many weary travelers seeking freedom found refuge in the basement of this house. Despite the great fine if caught, Sarah continued to help those in need until the end of slavery. . . .
"Although she had 10 children of her own, she brought many more into the world through her important job [mid-wife]. Sarah continued to mid-wife until her death in 1905.
"I chose to do my essay on Sarah Johnson as she is a local heroine who made a big difference in my community many years ago. In writing this essay I also learned a great deal about the role Olean played in the Underground Railroad. I admire and respect Sarah for not only settling in Olean but contributing to the community as well. She showed great courage by escaping slavery and helping others to do so."
An example of re-enactment is North to Freedom, a three-act play staged by the Olean Point Guild at Fannie E. Bartlett Center in Olean. Written by Kristin Chambers of Lakewood, N.Y., it was directed by Kristin's father, Glen Chambers, a high school English teacher who lives in the Olean area and has been active in Olean theatre groups for more than 50 years.
The play portrayed three stages in the life of Sarah Johnson, the runaway slave credited as becoming Olean's first African-American resident and homeowner. Clarissa Spiller, a student at Jamestown Community College, played young Sarah shortly after the fugitive's arrival in Olean on the freedom trail in the 1830s.
Kathryn Leigh-Kenney played middle age Sarah. Kathryn, a native of Olean, received a BA from Virginia Union University and her MA from Howard University. She is credited as the Olean school system's first African-American teacher.
The 85-year-old Sarah Johnson was played by Fontilla Timmons. Born in the Bronx, she came to Olean in 1973. She has appeared in numerous performances in the area.
The Olean Point Museum, located in the converted Carriage House on the Bartlett property, opened in 1998.
About four years after the death of Sarah Johnson, Olean's reputed first African-American resident/homeowner, the Sunday hunting party death of Viola Hughes took place.
Viola's boyfriend, William Gilbert, 29, claimed that the fatal shot was the result of his gun accidentally misfiring.
But others in the group disputed this. It was known Gilbert suspected, perhaps without cause, Miss Hughes of being unfaithful to him. The very brief entry on the case by Daniel Allen Hearn, in his Legal Executions in New York State: 1639 - 1963, was based on an Auburn Daily Advertiser July 27, 1910 story concerning Gilbert's electrocution that day.
Web searching turned up no description of the case.
He was also the sheriff during the Pacy Hill and Salvatore Randazzio cases.
The county's sheriff when Gilbert was executed at Auburn (July 1910) was Stanley Wheaton. Gilbert's stay in the Cattaraugus jail began during Ames' administration and could have continued during Wheaton's; that is, up to the condemned man's removal to Auburn Prison. The likelihood is that Wheaton, as the then current county sheriff, would have been among the select few invited to witness the execution.
Both sheriffs had distinguished careers: Wheaton on the more local scene, Ames on the wider regional and state level.
DeHart was born in Jan. 20, 1872 in Great Valley, Cattaraugus.
A Republican, he was elected to the state Assembly where he served from 1915 through 1920 and then was elected to the state Senate where he served from 1921 through 1924.
His State Senate District (the 51st) included Chautauqua. In 1922 he ran for re-election without Democratic opposition.
Among Ames' legislative accomplishments was sponsorship of the bill creating in 1921 the Allegany State Park, whose 65,000 forested acres make it the largest park in the system run by the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.
After leaving the State Legislature, Ames served as executive secretary of the Allegany State Park Commission.
Stanley Wheaton was born Dec. 1, 1857, son of Norman and Harriet Carver Wheaton of Little Valley. Norman was farmer who served as Supervisor and a Justice of the Peace. Harriet was a descendent of Roger Sherman, signer of the Declaration of Independence.
Stanley, who earned a living as a teacher, also took up the study of law beginning in 1877, working in law offices (as was the legal education process of that era). He was admitted to practice in 1881. The local offices that Wheaton, also a Republican, held during the next quarter century included deputy county clerk, justice of the peace, village trustee (Little Valley), school commissioner, WWI special IRS collector, and Little Valley Bank director.
Just as the murder of an immigrant laborer by his cousin, also an immigrant laborer, both members of a railroad repair crew, apparently generated little press coverage, so too the murder of a black woman by black man seemed to have generated little press coverage, if lack of any detectable presence on the web is any indication. What that apparent lack of interest may have reflected in terms of that period's prevailing attitudes (or ours) raises an intriguing issue for historical analysis, albeit beyond the scope of this web presentation
Research into the history of Olean's black community, undertaken in an effort to find something (indeed, anything) on the Viola Hughes murder case came across the heroic story of Sarah Johnson, the fugitive slave who became Olean's first African American resident and homeowner. Interestingly, her story connects tangentially to the Dr. Andrew Mead murder case, in that she was his housekeeper.
-- To help the New York Correction History Society 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 images above of Sheriffs DeHart H. Ames and Stanley Wheaton were created from B&W rectangular images on two of those copy machine sheets sent us by the Cattaraugus County Historical Museum and Research Center. The 1904 Jail and Sheriff's residence postcard image(s) caption acknowledges the museum center as the postcard source. NYCHS is appreciative the museum center's assistance.