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

Peter Harris -- 1 of 12 Men Executed
for Cattaraugus Murders

Unlike 'Peter Luckey,' this Peter's saga not in Elmira Reformatory's Hand Book

Wearing his state-issued suit and holding his state-issued suitcase, 22-year-old Peter Harris stood with other Elmira Reformatory inmates about to be released that Sunday, Feb. 28, 1932.

The above image was the concluding photo of "Peter Luckey (A Success)," a narrative in the Elmira Reformatory Hand Book telling of “the imaginary experiences of a New York City lad, from the time of his reception at the reformatory, until the day of his release by parole.” The book's caption for the photo noted Luckey had "passed the barred door."
Then the last of the main building’s barred doors opened. He and they stepped through, passed the lobby’s huge 24-hour clock mechanism, and strode outside into the chilly Chemung County morning air.

One by one, they seated themselves on benches in the back of the same rickety truck that had delivered them to the reformatory months, or in some cases years earlier.

Peter remembered arriving the preceding July, the outcome of his involvement in a jewelry store robbery.

For him, “Hellmira” (as its inmates used to call the place) became just another institution in a long list of such establishments where he had been incarcerated for varying periods since age 10 when he was caught breaking into a schoolhouse.

The groans of the motor as it started up and of the gears as they shifted intruded upon Peter Harris' rare moment of retrospection.

Above is the opening photo of "Peter Luckey (A Success)," a narrative in the Elmira Reformatory Hand Book telling of “the imaginary experiences of a New York City lad, from the time of his reception at the reformatory, until the day of his release by parole.”
Then he and his fellow new parolees – boys in their late teens and young men in their 20s -- bounced along as the vehicle rattled and rumbled over the rough roads that traversed the hundreds of acres constituting the institutional grounds.

Were any of the passengers struck by the thought that the bumpy character of their ride in the creaky truck, on departure as on arrival, would never get even a mention in the highly idealized version of the reformatory experience found within the Hand Book?

All on board the shaky truck were familiar with the Hand Book of the New York State Reformatory at Elmira.

Cover of NYCHS' copy of the 1927 Hand Book of the New York State Reformatory at Elmira.
Some had set type for it, or arranged its type in page forms, or printed its pages from the forms, or bound its printed pages into copies of the book, or wrapped the copies to ship to libraries, lawmakers, law enforcers, prisons, courts, newspapers and magazines.

The volumes were a major part of the reformatory’s self-promotion to acquaint the public – especially decision-makers -- with its mission and methods.

From title page of NYCHS' copy of the 1927 Hand Book of the New York State Reformatory at Elmira.
The Handbook title page listed its publisher as The Summary Press. But that was just another name for the reformatory print shop where the institution’s newspaper, The Summary was produced, as it had been since 1883.

The first issue of the weekly came off the press seven years after the first inmates were received.

They arrived seven years after the state legislature authorized establishment of the country’s first reformatory for male first-time felons, 15 to 30. It helped launch a national reformatory movement

Others among the departing parolees had encountered the Hand Book in the Institutional Library when they were assigned there to shelve returned books and retrieve from the “stacks” requested books not found on the shelves.

The library’s practice was to allow each inmate to select one non-fiction book a week from an approved list provided him by the academics director. The list’s content reflected the director’s evaluation of the youth’s grade level and status as a student.

Above based on small section of Institutional Library photo in NYCHS' copy of the 1927 Hand Book of the New York State Reformatory at Elmira.
All the books listed were non-fiction works on subjects covered by or related to the subjects taught in the reformatory’s “school in letters” or its “school of trades.”

An inmate would be provided one fiction book a week, the selection being made by the academics director.

Every other week the inmate was given a magazine picked for him because it related to his chosen trade subject.

Every fourth week an inmate could choose to substitute a magazine for a book. Those in highest “letters” grade received extra library privileges.

Given that the library had only about 6,000 volumes and 50 weekly and monthly periodicals to share among about 1,500 inmates, its highly regimented way of circulating the reading material was dictated somewhat by necessity arising from those numbers.

But the tightly ordered aspect of the library’s book and magazine distribution schedule was also consistent with the general regimentation that characterized the institution’s entire program, an approach perhaps also somewhat dictated by necessity arising from its numbers.

Above based on a section of a larger Military Dress Parade photo in NYCHS' copy of the 1927 Hand Book of the New York State Reformatory at Elmira.
Inmates would be awakened at 6 a.m., have breakfast at 7, and do their assigned facility clean-up and repair chores to about 9:30, engage in the reformatory’s military cadet training exercises until about 11, and then start their academic school classes.

At noon, they would return to their cell-like “rooms” – 7 feet wide, 8 feet long, 9 feet high -- to read, study, or chat until 12:45 when they would go for the mid-day meal.

Wednesdays included drawing classes in the morning and dress parade exercises for the military cadet units in the afternoon. Saturdays included baths in the morning and recreation in the afternoon.

Sundays included religious services in the morning and motion pictures in the afternoon. But Sundays also included some school time devoted to current events at the reformatory and outside it, to discussions of “ethics,” and to answering submissions found in the institutional “question box,” at least those not factitious or frivolous.

Above based on a section of larger "Inmates Print the Hand Book" photo in NYCHS' copy of the 1927 Hand Book of the New York State Reformatory at Elmira.
If a question related to the reformatory’s operation or history, the answer might include quote from the Hand Book or a referral to it.

The book had at least three editions, the second and third coming about a decade each after its predecessor: 1906, 1916 and 1927.

The 1906 version noted it had been “compiled by Fred C. Allen, of the Administrative Staff.”

The 1927 edition dropped the “compiled” reference and simply declared “by F. C. Allen” but added a title “Private Secretary to the Board of Managers.”

In both 1906 and 1927 his portrait photo was the first in the book, but not the same photo.

In the 1927 the thick mustache of 1906 was gone, making him look younger than two decades earlier.

1906 Hand Book photo of its mustached "Compiler" Frederick Chester Allen.
1927 Hand Book photo minus mustache..
Peter Harris and each of the other youths in the back of the reformatory truck heading to the Elmira train station had seen Frederick Chester Allen in person, not just on the opening page of the Hand Book.

Whether or not, they had any direct interaction with Mr. Allen, he would have been pointed out to them when they were newcomers.

“F.C.” was considered a “VIP” because of his special relationship with the board managers who met monthly on reformatory matters. They decided on parole applications every third meeting.

Besides the "Peter Luckey" story with its own set of photos, the Hand Book also featured a series of 15 photos entitled "The Routine." Photo 14 (sepia version above) shows a Reformatory Manager, probably Dr. George M. Cady, patiently listening, but with a wary eye, to an inmate's earnest plea for parole. It was granted, according to the book's caption.
An inmate could request meeting with a manager concerning his application, a request processed by Mr. Allen. Usually the meeting request was granted, but not necessarily the parole.

The reformatory operated, for the most part, on an indeterminate sentence system whereby an inmate could “earn” earlier release by his good behavior, his steady work performance and progress in his studies.

Elmira’s earning-early-release program involved grades and marks. New arrivals began in Second Grade. They advanced to First Grade by racking up a sufficient quantity of monthly marks (that is, credits or merits) through good behavior, scholastic progress, and satisfactory performance of assigned tasks. Bad conduct, poor showing in school, and slipshod work performance would result in marks being deducted (that is, demerits). Enough such demerits could result in demotion to Third Grade.

First Graders who slacked off could find they had slid back to Second Grade. Third Graders who showed improvement could climb back to Second Grade with hopes of eventually ascending to First. Earlier release was open only to First Graders. Those not paroled had to serve the maximum terms of their sentences.

The photo, on which this sepia image is based, accompanies Hand Book text in the "Peter Luckey" story that describes how the orphaned "lad" tells the "kindly-faced gentleman" (Reformatory Superintendent Dr. Frank L. Christian) about his arrest leading to his being sent to Elmira. A Chief Guard, probably Herman Stoddard, also is shown listening to Luckey.
Peter Harris had an additional and very personal reason to remember Mr. Allen. Since 1906 the Hand Book had featured a narrative – composed by F. C. Allen -- about “the imaginary experiences of a New York City lad, from the time of his reception at the reformatory, until the day of his release by parole.”

It was intended as a “success story” to show that inmates who availed themselves of the many opportunities offered at Elmira could learn an honest trade and earn early release.

The hero of the make-believe tale was a “lad” named “Peter Luckey” who -- quite independent of, and contrary to the author's intention -- also served as a made-to-order target for ridicule by those non-fictional inmates least likely to succeed. One can well imagine how the failing inmates would taunt as “Peter Lackeys” the inmates trying to advance themselves within the rules. Since Harris already had “Peter” as his first name, he was particularly apt to hear such “Peter Lackey” snide remarks from perpetual Third Graders.

As the truck bumped along to the rail station, Harris could take satisfaction from the fact that he was a real “Peter” about to board a train for home while the taunting Third Graders were still back at the reformatory serving out their maximum terms.

Whereas most of his fellow parolees were headed back to the New York City area, Peter had his train ticket made out for a connection that would take him to Cattaraugus County in the state’s northwestern region.

The photo, on which the above sepia image is based, accompanies Hand Book text in the imaginary inmate "Peter Luckey" story that describes how the bricklaying instructor, "Mr. Wagner," in the reformatory trades school explained the difference between a stack of bricks being "straight" and it being "plumb." The 1927 Hand Book did not list glaziery (real inmate Peter Harris' trade) among the separate instruction courses taught in the trades school.
Harris had a young wife in Olean with whom he sought to be reunited. His focus on returning to her helped motivate him to accelerate through Hellmira’s grades and marks system to early release. It helped him ignore the “Peter Lackey” taunts.

But left destitute after his incarceration for the jewelry store robbery, young Mrs. Harris had moved in with her brother who lived on Whitney Avenue. In that era, it wasn't the most affluent section of Olean. It was right near railroad tracks.

Whereas he longed to see and be with her, she wanted nothing more to do with him.

She apparently had enough of his errant ways: his drinking, his inability or unwillingness to hold a job, his getting into trouble with the law.

He may have planned to plead with her for another chance and to promise her that he would stick to his trade as a glazier.

Peter had learned the glasswork craft during one of his various incarcerations. He occasionally employed himself at it to earn honest income.

Had his wife visited him at Elmira, he might have already made such pledges to her in person. Every other month an inmate could receive a visit from immediate family members: "mother, father, brother, sister, wife, children." But there is little reason to believe she ever visited him there and every reason to believe she did not.

Besides the "Peter Luckey" story with its own set of photos, the Hand Book also featured a series of 15 photos entitled "The Routine." Photo 3 (sepia version above) shows inmates seated at a table, apparently in the library, all writing letters to their families.
Peter may have vowed such self-reformation resolve in letters to his wife.

The reformatory encouraged inmates to write their families on a regular basis and to receive family letters in return, albeit all letters were screened first by the institution's "correspondence censor."

But new parolee Harris never got a chance to voice, face to face with young Mrs. Harris, any such vows that he had "turned over a new leaf in life."

The door at his brother-in-law’s home remained locked to him. No one would open it. When he began banging on it, threatening to knock it down and to carry her off by force, police were called.

Upon their arrival, gunfire erupted. Evidentially, Peter had acquired a handgun some time during the five days between his leaving Elmira and his showing up on his estranged wife’s doorsteps in Olean March 3, 1932. So much for any resolve he may have had to “go straight.”

Likely he had a few drinks under his belt before marching up to 207 Whitney Avenue. Already enraged at being denied entry to see his wife, Peter’s seeing Olean PD officers showing up triggered in him a fury at the prospect of returning to yet another stint behind bars.

With the help of Google's map search engine, NYCHS captured the above image that illustrates the approximate 1932 locations on Whitney Ave, where Peter Harris was refused entry, the railroad tracks where he jumped aboard a freight train as he fled police, the crossing at Union St. where he jumped off, and East Sullivan St. where the deadly encounter with Michael Vessil took place.
The alcohol and adrenalin, a powerful but dangerous combination, helped fuel his wild flight from the scene. After firing on the responding officers, Peter ran to the nearby railroad tracks and leaped aboard a passing freight train. The police continued their pursuit, exchanging gunfire with Peter as he moved between box cars. He jumped off where the tracks crossed Union Street and ran to East Sullivan Street, even as police bullets whizzed past him.

Just then, Michael Vessil, also known as Albania Mike, 29, a former workmate of Peter, happened to be walking on East Sullivan.

According to the pursuing officers, the gunfire that killed Vessil came from Harris’ gun and that Peter had a long-standing grudge against Mike.

Whatever the source of the fatal gunfire, Peter kept running and eluded capture at that time. But after hiding four days in nearby woods, without food or shelter, he surrendered to authorities. They promptly charged him with first degree murder in the death of Vessil.

Evidentially, the jury accepted the police account that the fleeing Harris, in the midst of exchanging gunfire with the pursuing officers, took time out to deliberately shoot and kill Vessil against whom he allegedly had long harbored animus.

But even if one has a nagging question of whether Vessil simply happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and got fatally caught in the lethal crossfire, the legal consequences for Harris might well have been the same under a felony murder prosecution.

Under such a prosecution theory, Harris’ continuing to fire on police officers while in flight from the initial crime scene, where he and they first exchanged gun shots, made him criminally culpable for the subsequent death of Vessil, regardless of whether the fatal gunfire came from the officers, from Peter or from both.

Sepia version of photo facing opening page of text in NYCHS' copy of the 1927 Hand Book of the New York State Reformatory at Elmira.
Fine points of law aside, the end result was execution Jan. 12, 1933, in Sing Sing’s electric chair.

The tale of Peter Harris, unlike that of "Peter Luckey" in the Hand Book of the New York State Reformatory at Elmira, was no success story.

While that venerable institution, a pioneer in prison reform, surely had its successes, this case was not one of them.


Click the above book cover image to access more information about Daniel Allen Hearn's excellent Legal Executions in New York State.
-- This New York Correction History Society web presentation, undertaken in observance of the Cattaraugus Bicentennial, considers the cases of the 12 men in the county's history convicted and executed for murder.

Their cases are explored, each in turn, in their own terms and, as this page gives ample evidence, also are explored as the means for connecting to other personages, events, developments and currents in the histories of the county, state and country.

-- The case of Peter Harris points up the value of Daniel Allen Hearn's excellent Legal Executions in New York State.

His book's entry for the Harris case provided the only specific details available as NYCHS prepared this web page. Fortunately, NYCHS' copy of the 1927 Hand Book provided excellent photos and texts about life at Elmira Reformatory, albeit highly sanitized. Since the fatal shooting of Michael Vessil happened five days after Peter's release, the reformatory stands as an important part of the Harris case's immediate background. Thus, it is heavily woven into this web rendition.

-- Obviously, the narration in the main text above these notes weaves together

  • (a) the reported facts contained in the Daniel Allen Hearn book's Peter Harris case entry with
  • (b) the account of reformatory life in the Elmira Hand Book, plus
  • (c) some speculative material consistent with information from both those sources. While admittedly speculative, these additions are all arguably reasonable inferences and extrapolations from the material on record.

For example: We don't know with absolute certainty the truck was rickety but anyone who has ever ridden in the back of a truck over rural roads knows the trip can be rocky.

Another example: We don't know, for certain, that the reformatory inmates called their institution "Hellmira." But we do know that Confederate POWs applied that play-on-words to their prison camp at Elmira. It strains reason to preclude the youths at the reformatory from thinking up the same derisive term for their place of captivity.

Another example: It is quite likely many, perhaps most of the reformatory inmates would find the "Peter Luckey" story to be cloying. Therefore, it would be surprising if that character's name had NOT become a pejorative aimed by rule-breakers against rule observers. Surely, some inmate would have figured that by changing "Peter Luckey" to "Peter Lackey" the point being made could be underscored. Likewise, any inmate with "Peter" as a first name already had a head start on being called "Peter Luckey" or "Peter Lackey," if his sticking to the rules annoyed some of his fellow inmates.

-- The web page narrative does raise the hint of a doubt that Harris, fleeing for his life from the gunfire of pursuing police, would have diverted from his escape efforts precious seconds and bullets to deliberately kill Vessil. The Hearn entry reflects the authorities' version of events as reported in the Olean Times Herald and Jamestown Post. Without directly contradicting that official version, the web narrative above alludes briefly to the possibility of an alternate explanation: that Vessil simply got caught in the crossfire.

The unidentified Reformatory Manager in "The Routine -- Authorized for Parole" image in the main web text above these notes was probably Dr. George M. Cady appointed to the Board in 1921. A board member's term was seven years. His 1927 Hand Book photo immediately above shows a strong resemblance to the unidentified Manager in the Routine photo.

Cady Library located on River Road in the Town of Nichols, Tioga County, is a significant architectural treasure that has been transformed from a turn-of-the-century residential mansion to a first-class library facility.
-- Among the several Greek Revival houses in the Finger Lakes area is the home built in 1828 by Nehemiah Platt, an early settler of Tioga County's Nichols area. Dr. George P. Cady moved to there from Massachusetts about 1855 and a year later married Platt's daughter, Susan. Platt having died in 1851, Doctor and Mrs. Cady made the Platt house their home.

George Marvin Cady, who also became a doctor, was born in Sept. 23, 1865. About then the Cady Mansion was structurally enhanced. Added was a porch with Greek Revival columns and a frame extension was built to the rear of the original building.

After attending Nichols public schools, he continued his studies at Binghamton and Owego. At 17 years old, he entered the University of New York, from which he graduated March 7, 1887.

For about eighteen months thereafter, he attended lectures and clinics at Bellevue Hospital and others in New York City, and then returned to Nichols in 1887 and married Miss Fronie Harris, daughter of Nathaniel and Elizabeth (Corsey) Harris. He joined his father's medical practice and continued after his father's death May 19, 1891.

George and Fronie had one child, Junia, born July 27, 1890. She died June 21, 1891.

A Republican, Dr. G. M. Cady was postmaster under President Harrison, a GOP county committeeman, and president of the Tioga county medical society in 1894 and 1895. In 1894 and 1895 he served as a school trustee.

In 1921, he was appointed to a seven-year term as one of the Elmira Reformatory Managers. So he would have been a board member at the time photos were being taken to use with the "Peter Luckey" story in the 1927 Hand Book. Evidentially while that story's text remained the same, from edition to edition, newer photos would be taken to use in the later editions.

The doctor lived at Cady Mansion until his death in 1935. Then it was left to the Town of Nichols to be used as a public library.

Elmira Reformatory Chief Guard Herman Stoddard.
The Mansion and its coach house were added to the list of the National and State Register of Historic Places Oct. 13, 1976. In 1988, the New York State Office of Parks and Historic Preservation helped fund significant restoration. The nearby coach house became the Town of Nichols offices.

Ray Brown's interesting web site www.rays-place.com includes short bio entries on men of Nichols, NY, (the Doctors Cady among them) found in Leroy W. Kingman's 1897 history of Tioga County.

-- The doorkeeper seen in the first image on this web page was Fred A. Bowman. In the 1927 edition of the Hand Book a separate photo of him alone at the main door way notes his "Thirty-Five Years in the Service" of the reformatory.

Click above image of Elmira Reformatory Superintendent Dr. Frank L. Christian from 1927 Hand Book to access this website's presentation of NYCHS co-founder Austin Clarke's A History of Elmira CF
The probability that Chief Guard Herman Stoddard was the officer in the "Peter Luckey" story photo showing the "lad" telling the "kindly-faced" reformatory superintendent (Dr. Frank L. Christian) about his arrest is based on a visual close-up comparison of that photo with one showing seven chief guards.

The identity of the superintendent in the photo with the Chief Guard and "Luckey" also is established by a comparison with other Dr. Christian photos in the 1927 Hand Book plus the logic of the situation. Dr. Christian was the superintendent in 1927.

-- Dr. Frank L. Christian, who was the reformatory's superintendent during Peter Harris' 8-month stay in 1931-32, started there in 1901 as its institutional physician ("medical superintendent") and became its superintendent

"In 1939, two prisoners followed Dr. Christian to his car and demanded he drive them out of the prison. Despite a knife held to his throat, the 63-year-old Dr. Christian fought off his assailants until help arrived; he received three stab wounds, narrowly escaping death. He retired three months later after 39 years at Elmira."

The quote above is taken from the History of Elmira CF by Austin Clarke, one of NYCHS founding members. For this NYCHS website's presentation of Austin Clarke's Elmira Correctional Facility profile that originally appeared in the New York State Department of Correctional Services magazine DOCS Today October 1998, click the image of Dr. Christian (above right).

Thomas McCarthy,
General Secretary/webmaster
NY Correction History Society
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