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

William Gilbert -- 1 of 12 Men Convicted of
Murder in Cattaraugus and Executed

Small Game Hunting Foray Ends in Murder

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.

Green underlines for emphasis in this presentation have been inserted beneath the names Buffalo, Little Valley, Allegany and Olean in the above digital image of a detail section from a vintage railroad map of northwestern NY. The dotted line at the bottom of the image represents the NY-Pa. border. Click the image to access the full map uncropped (and without green emphasis line inserts) on the web site of the Pennsylvania Railroad Technical & Historical Society.
Hunting was far less regulated during the early 20th Century. Today would-be hunters need to obtain the appropriate permits to hunt certain game (but not others) during specific time periods in designated areas.

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
in her middle years was portrayed by Kathryn Leigh-Kenney from 2000 to 2003 during performances in celebration of Black History Month at the Fannie E. Bartlett Historical House where Kathryn has also served as a volunteer.

A native of Olean, Kathryn graduated cum laude from Virginia Union University and earned an M.A. in history from Howard University.

Returning to Olean in 1952, she was hired by the Cattaraugus County Department of Social Welfare, thus credited as the first African American social worker in Cattaraugus County.

After she married Lucien Kenney, Kathryn left social work to be a full-time home maker and mother to her two sons.

She returned to work in 1966 as the director of Oleanís Head Start Program.

In 1968, Kathryn joined the Olean City Public Schools, thus credited as the first African American to hold a teaching position in the school system.

In 1969, she was honored as the Teacher of the Year.

Kathryn has been the Superintendent of the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church Sunday School and a member of the Volunteer Interfaith Caregivers.

In 2001, she joined Oleanís First Baptist Church where she has served as Worship Leader.

Click her image for the web page on the site of Uncrowned Queens Institute for Research and Education on Women, Inc., source of the image and caption information.

An example of the latter is Sarah Johnson, a Hometown Heroine," a 2002 winning entry in a contest sponsored by Victory Press of Monterey, Ca. Penned by then 12 year-old Kelsie Norek of neighboring Portville, southeast of Olean, the essay tells how

"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 Convicted of
Murder in Cattaraugus and Executed.

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 sign on the 1881 home where the play about the life of Dr. Andrew Mead's house keeper Sarah Johnson was preformed reads "Fannie E. Bartlett Historical House, Olean Historical and Preservation Society." Click to access more information.
As the drama unfolded, the audience moved through the Queen Anne-style Fannie E. Bartlett Historical House, originally built in 1881.

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.

DeHart H. Ames
Sheriff 1907 - 1909
Stanley Wheaton
Sheriff 1910 - 1912
The Cattaraugus sheriff when William Gilbert was arrested in the killing of Viola Hughes (August 1909) was DeHart H. Ames.

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.

What above appears as a single image of a postcard showing the 1904 Cattaraugus County Jail and Sheriff's Residence are actually three tightly positioned image sections from that postcard.

Click on the jail image section left to access a larger version of that section. Use your browser's "back" to return to this page.

Click the Sheriff's Residence section right to access a close-up view of the three ladies on the porch. Use your browser's "back" etc.

Click the caption section to access a larger version of the whole postcard (un-sectioned). It can be widened to the width of your screen. Use your browser's "back" etc.

The whole image and its sections were scanned from a period postcard sent by the Cattaraugus County Historical Museum and Research Center to help the New York Correctional History Society with this project.

Such rights that the Cattaraugus County Historical Museum and Research Center has with respect to that postcard and images derived from that postcard are reserved to and retained by the Cattaraugus County Historical Museum and Research Center.

Both Ames and Wheaton were among the 16 sheriffs who lived in the Sheriff's Residence connected to the 1904 Cattaraugus County Jail (right).

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.

Allegany State Park (above) was created as the result of a bill sponsored in 1921 by State Senator DeHart H. Ames, who was sheriff in 1909 when William Gilbert was arrested on the charge of murder in the hunting party death of Viola Hughes. Hunting, in season, is among the activities permitted in the park subject to various license and permit regulations.
He also served on legislative committees concerned with agricultural matters and on a NYS commission that conferred with Congress concerning issues involving Native Americans.

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.


-- The case of William Gilbert points up the value of
Click the above book cover image to access more information about Daniel Allen Hearn's excellent Legal Executions in New York State.
Daniel Allen Hearn's excellent Legal Executions in New York State. His book cites an Auburn Daily Advertiser July 27, 1910 story concerning Gilbert's electrocution that day. A web search came up with no details other than the condemned man's name, his victim's name, the county of the murder, date and place of execution.

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.

Thomas McCarthy,
General Secretary/webmaster
NY Correction History Society
Home Page
To Timeline of
murderers executed