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Mary O'Brien FARMER






The “Watertown Trunk Murder”
Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Dismemberment - An elaborate plan to criminally acquire the property of her neighbors
Number of victims: 1
Date of murder: April 23, 1908
Date of arrest: 4 days after
Date of birth: 1880
Victim profile: Sarah Brennan (her neighbor, friend and landlady)
Method of murder: Hitting in the back of the head with an axe
Location: Jefferson County, New York, USA
Status: Executed by electrocution at Auburn State Prison on March 29, 1909
photo gallery

Mary Farmer took an axe to her neighbor Sarah Brennan, stuffed her corpse into a trunk, then assumed Sarah's identity and ordered the deed to Sarah's house transferred into her own (Mary's) name.

She then evicted Sarah's husband (who had no idea where his wife was) from the house and moved into it herself, bringing with her the trunk containing Sarah's corpse.  When she was found out, Mary tried to pin the murder on her own husband James.


Mary Farmer TOOK An AX.........

By Kathie Barnes - Waterton Daily Times

Twenty-seven year old Mary Farmer, a slight woman with partial facial paralysis, bears the rather dubious distinction of being the only woman from Jefferson County ever executed and the second woman in New York to be electrocuted.

Mary was convicted of what The Times called in 1908 “one of the most fiendish murders ever.”

In 1908, Mary lived with her husband, James, in a rather run-down house known as Barton Tavern on Paddy Hill near Brownville.

Sarah Brennan was her neighbor, friend and landlady. Sarah’s mutilated and decaying body was found in a trunk belonging to Mary Farmer on April 27, 1908.

What was revealed in subsequent investigation was a plot by Mary to take Sarah’s house and to murder her friend.

On Oct. 31, 1907, Irish-born Mary O’Brien Farmer went to the Watertown offices of Atty. Francis P.

Burns and told him she was Sarah Brennan and that she had a deed she wanted transferred to Mary Farmer. The unsuspecting attorney obliged, Mary forged Sarah’s signature, and the deed was filed with the county clerk.

Mary told her husband, James, a mill worker who was overly fond of his ale, that she had purchased the Brennan house for $1,200 and that Sarah Brennan was paying her $2.50 per week rent.

Mary said she got the money for the house from an uncle in Buffalo.

James never questioned Mary, although a rumor around Paddy Hill and Brownville that the Brennans had sold their house to the Farmers was vehemently denied by Sarah and Patrick (Patsy) Brennan.

No more was heard of the so-called purchase until April 23, 1908, when Mary told Patsy Brennan he must vacate his house and that Sarah had gone away and would never return. She showed Patsy the deed made out to Mary Farmer.

Mary told Patsy several stories about the fate of his wife, all leading up to Sarah’s refusal to continue to live with her husband of 25 years. She was said to be at several places in Watertown and in Duluth, Minn. and Chicago.

Sarah’s body actually was in a trunk in Mary’s back room, a trunk later moved to the Brennan house after Mary got an eviction notice against Patsy and he moved to the nearby Riverside Hotel.*

On April 27, a distraught Patsy and Sheriff Ezra D. Bellinger and Attorney Floyd L. Carlisle knocked on the door of the Brennan house, where the Farmers had since moved.

After a thorough search of the house, the law enforcement officials came to a back shed or summer kitchen which contained several boxes and two trunks not yet unpacked since the move.

The larger of the two trunks belonged to Mary Farmer. Since it was locked and no key could be produced, the sheriff broke the lock with a hammer.

When the trunk lid was opened, the Times reported on April 28: “The sickening odor of decaying flesh pervaded the room. A black cloth covered the contents of the trunk, which was little more than two-thirds filled. But when the cloth was pulled back a trifle, the stockinged outlines of a human foot and leg protruded. The cloth was the black skirt of a woman. The body was resting upon the face, the legs bent at the knees and the feet sticking upwards nearly to the top of the trunk. One end of the trunk was smeared with blood and here the horrified officers disclosed the head, blood-clotted, the back crushed in as with a blunt instrument. There was considerable blood in the bottom of the trunk and some of it had oozed through upon the floor in the corner.”

The Times account continued, “Mr. and Mrs. Farmer disclaimed all knowledge of the body. They knew nothing about it, they said.”

Mary and James were arrested and Mary first told police James had murdered Sarah, but later changed her story and said she had done it herself, hitting Sarah in the back of the head with an axe.

Mary and James were taken to the county jail, Mary carrying the couple’s infant son, Peter, to whom the Brennan property was deeded Jan. 7, 1908.

Mary went to trial June 16, 1908, in the Jefferson County Courthouse before Justice Watson M. Rogers. She was prosecuted by Dist. Atty. F. B. Pitcher, who was assisted by Carlisle. Mary’s defense was conducted by Attys. John B. Coughlin and Robert Willcox.

The defense attempted to show that Mary was insane or that Sarah’s murder came about as a result of a fight between the two women, with Mary striking Sarah in self-defense.

After deliberating only three hours, the 12-member, all male jury returned a guilty verdict.

Mary’s reaction to the conviction and immediate sentencing to death by electrocution was one of “stoical indifference which had characterized her manner throughout the trial,” The Times reported.

The conviction was appealed to no avail.

On March 29, 1909, Mary Farmer was electrocuted at Auburn State Prison. According to her priest, she died “a good Catholic.”

In a note written the night before her execution, Mary said that her husband, James, was not involved in Sarah Brennan’s murder in any way.

Mary Farmer was the second woman to die in the electric chair in New York. The first was Mrs. Martha M. Place, who was executed in 1899 for the Brooklyn murder of her step-daughter.

Seven other women had been executed by hanging in New York before the electric chair was instituted.

James Farmer had a happier life.

He came to trial for Sarah Brennan’s murder in October, 1908. He was convicted Oct. 30, but the conviction was reversed by the Court of Appeals after James had spent 53 weeks on death row at Auburn prison. In fact, James was in a cell only a few feet away from the death chamber when Mary was executed.

James was later brought back to Jefferson County and tried for forgery of the Brennan deed. He was acquitted in 1910 and spent the rest of his life quietly as a mill worker in Brownville.

*Riverside Hotel????? Does anyone know if this is the building bought by the J. P. Lewis Paper Company in the late 1940’s or 1950’s? The huge, red brick building which was built along the Black River and known to the locals as “The Red Onion?”



Mary & James Farmer, Axe Murderers - 1909

Mary Farmer Pays Penalty For Her Crime

Second Woman to Die in Electric Chair Executed in Auburn Prison.

The Salt Lake Herald

Mar. 30, 1909

Auburn, N. Y., March 29.—Murmuring a prayer for her soul, Mrs. Mary Farmer was quietly led to the electric chair in Auburn prison shortly after 6 o’clock this morning and executed for the killing of Mrs. Mary Brennan at Brownville last April.

The execution of Mrs. Farmer’s second infliction of the death penalty on a woman by electricity in this stale was effected without sensational incidents. Five women, two of whom were prison attendants witnessed the death of Mrs. Farmer. Father Hickey, spiritual adviser of the condemned woman, following the execution gave out a statement signed by Mrs. Farmer, in which she declared that her husband, James Farmer, was entirely innocent and knew nothing of the crime until after it had been committed.

Procession to Death Chair

Led by Father Hickey and with Mrs. Dunnigan and Mrs. Gorman the two women attendants who have been with her constantly since she was brought to Auburn prison, Mrs. Farmer waxed unfalteringly to the death chair, her eyes were half closed and clasping a crucifix in her hands. As she was being strapped in the chair Father Hickey stood at her side and offered prayers for the dying.

Dr. John Gerin, the prison physician, said that the woman was dead after the first shock, but as there was still a tremor of muscular reaction two succeeding contacts were given. State Electrician Davis said 1,840 volts and 7 1/2 ampheres was the strength of, the current that passed through the woman’s body.

After Warden Benham had announced that the physicians had pronounced Mrs. Farmer dead. Dr. Edward Spitzka of Philadelphia and Dr. Charles of the pathological institute at Wards Island, N. Y., performed the autopsy.

Spent the Night in Prayer

All night long the wretched woman had prayed within her cell on the second tier on the woman’s department in the condemned row, after she had bade farewell to her husband.

Separated by steel bars and an intervening screen, husband and wife spent their final hours together in quiet conversation.

The final word was spoken, a last good-bye, the weeping husband returned to his cell and the hapless woman was led down the narrow corridor. In the pale ochre light of the corridor the woman and priest prayed together, the last sacrament was administered, and Mrs. Farmer said she was not afraid to die.

Spectators Were Few

Mrs. Farmer was dressed in a plain black waist and shirt. Her hair was brushed back from her forehead and fell in two braids. Two or three locks were cut from the scalp so that the electrode might be properly adjusted, and the woman attendants slit the left side of the skirt as far as the knee and cut the stocking. None except those having official invitations were admitted to the execution. The three witnesses were Dr. H. M. Westfall of Moravia, N. Y., Miss Agnes Baird of Troy, N.Y., and Miss Margaret T. Byrne of Auburn. Miss Baird and Miss Byrne of Auburn. Miss Baird and Miss Byrne are nurses. When all was in readiness the witnesses were formed in line after being cautioned against any demonstration and led into the death chamber.

State Electrician Davis tested the dynamos and wires leading to the death chamber. Everything was found to be in working order. Warden Benham nodded to Captain Patterson. There was a low knock at the street door, the door was opened by some one within, and the wretched woman was let in the priest led the way, offering an almost inaudible prayer, while just behind him came Mary Farmer. Her hands clasped a crucifix and she murmured until the end came:

Last Murmur for Mercy

“Jesus, Mary and Joseph, Have mercy on my soul”

It might have been only a few seconds before the straps were adjusted, though it seemed an interminable period. The two women attendants stood by the wall and the two nurses and Dr. Westfall ranged themselves in front of the black-gowned figure while Captain Patterson adjusted the leg electrode. The rubber mask was adjusted over the eyes and the head electrode was attached. A word from the state electrician, and the attendants, nuses and Warden Benham stepped back from the thick rubber mat upon which the death chair is placed.

The hand of State Electrician Davis traced a slow arch with the switch behind the curtain. A half spoken prayer was halted as the condemned woman convulsed in the leather harness that bound her to the chair. A woman attendant covered her face with her hands. Only the clicking of the tightening straps and the murmur of dynamos in an adjusting room could be heard.

Three Currents Applied

The first contact lasted a full minute, the voltage starting at 1,840 and being gradually lowered to 200, then raised again to the full limit of 1,840 volts. The current was applied at 6:05 o’clock. The current was shut off, and a strange sound – half moan and half murmur – came from the woman’s lips. Dr. Gerin and Dr. Spitzka applied the stethoscope to the heart while Electrician Davis felt the artery in the neck. Muscular action was noted by the physicians stepped forward and applied the test to determine if life still remained in the limp figure in the chair. For the third time the static electrician sent the current through the body.

The woman was then pronounced dead, and Dr. Gerin pronounced dead, and Dr. Gerin directed the prison attendants to remove the body to the autopsy room.

Husband Prayed in His Cell

Locked in his cell in a far-away corner of the prison, Jim Farmer, the husband, prayed during the hour of his wife’s execution, she had told him she had to die at dawn and that she had made a statement that he was innocent of the crime. The man verged on collapse from grief, and he frequently gave way to tears. The husband will not be taken back to the “death row” until Wednesday morning.

The witness sheet was signed in the warden’s office, a file of witnesses, unstrung and nervous, passed out from the main prison gate, and the official proceedings of Mary Farmer’s execution were over.

The physicians report that the autopsy disclosed that Mrs. Farmer was normal in every respect and that the brain shoed no lesions that would indicate a criminal tendency.

Story of the Crime

Mrs. Mary Farmer is the second woman to meet death in the electric chair. The crime for which she was executed and for which her husband, James B. Farmer, is also under sentence of death, was the murder of Mrs. Sarah Brennan, a neighbor, in the village of Brownville, Jefferson county, about four miles from the city of Watertown, on Thursday, April 23, 1908. The body of Mrs. Brennan was found on the following Monday in a trunk owned by Mrs. Farmer and in her possession. Mrs. Farmer and her husband were given separate trials, and although the evidence was circumstantial, both were convicted and sentenced to be electrocuted. Mrs. Farmer’s counsel attempted at the trial to establish that she was insane and irresponsible for the crime, but the court of appeals declared that it was “clearly a deliberate and intentional act,” and that there were no circumstances that “mitigated against its heinousness.”

Came from Ireland

Mrs. Farmer came to this country from Ireland in 1900, and worked tor a time as a domestic in Binghamton, going from there to Buffalo where she married James D. Farmer in 1904. Early in 1905 they moved to Brownville where they remained for a few months at one of Farmer’s relatives, after which they kept boarders in an adjoining village. In May, 1907, they moved into a portion of an old building formerly used as a hotel in a part of Brownsville known as Paddy Hill.

Mrs. Brennan and her husband Patrick, lived in a house nearby which they had occupied for twenty years, and which was owned by Mrs. Brennan. Mrs. Farmer became a frequent caller at the Brennan home, and Mrs. Brennan occasionally called on the farmers. Mrs. Brennan kept the deed to her property, insurance papers and a savings bank book in black pocketbook in a tin case in her bedroom.

Impersonated by Mrs. Brennan

Months before the homicide, in October, 1907. Mrs. Farmer went in a lawyer’s office in Watertown, produced a deed of the Brennan property and, impersonating Mrs. Brennan had the deed transferred to James D. Farmer, signing the name “Sarah Brennan.” The deed was returned from the clerk’s office to James D. Farmer on Nov. 26, and on Jan. 7, 1908, Mrs. Farmer and her husband went to another lawyer in Watertown and had the deed drawn to Peter J. Farmer, a child, who had been born to them the preceding Sept. 2

On the day of the crime Mrs. Brennan’s husband left early for his work, his wife telling him she was going to visit a dentist in Watertown. Between 9 and 10 o’clock she was seen to leave her home and enter the Farmer house. She was never seen alive again. Early the same day Mrs. Farmer took her baby to the home of a neighbor and left it, saying she was going up town. Between that time and this time Mrs. Brennan went to the Farmer house Mrs. Farmer passed back and forth between the two houses several times. Shortly after noon she went for her baby and arranged for a young daughter of the neighbor to assist her in caring for the child.

The Papers Secured

The girl, upon her arrival, found farmer and his wife at lunch and later he left for the home of his sister, where he was laying a walk. Soon after Mrs. Farmer went into the Brennan House, she returned and told the girl to go for her husband, but Farmer refused to return home. Mrs. Farmer then went to the sister’s home with a package, which proved to be the black oilcloth pocketbook of Mrs. Brennan, containing the deeds, insurance and other papers, and said she wanted to leave it for awhile.

Brennan upon his return from work that afternoon was unable to get into his house. The keys which his wife was in the habit of leaving were not in their accustomed place. While he was trying to get in he saw Farmer standing nearby, who remarked: “Brennan, don’t you know I bought this place?” Brennan finally secured a ladder, entered ma second-story window and occupied the house that night. The next morning he went to work as usual.

Brennan Ordered From Home

Mrs. Farmer that same morning went to the sister’s house, took Mrs. Brennan’s oilcloth pocketbook from where it had been hidden in a chair, and with her husband went to Watertown where they had an attorney prepare papers ordering Brennan off the premises, which were served on him that night.

Brennan went to Watertown and made inquiries for his wife but failed to and her and Saturday morning left for his work as usual, after spending the night in the house. He returned home, however, later and found Mrs. Farmer and her husband occupying the house. Mrs. Farmer told him that so long as he used the Farmers well he could stay, Brennan then reported the matter to the district attorney’s office and engaged a constable to search for his wife.

Moved Into the Brennan House

The Farmers, in the meantime, with others who were induced to help by free access to ale which was furnished, commenced moving their goods to the Brennan house. In one of the back rooms was a large black trunk which Mrs. Farmer asked one or the men to tie with a rope. Mrs. Farmer lifted the ends of the trunk while a clothes line was wrapped around it and tied securely. Mrs. Farmer said “she had stuff in there she didn’t want broken” and had two men carry it to the Brennan house while she walked along and directed where it should be placed in a back room where other things were piled upon it. She then proceeded to do some washing.

When the constable who bad been employed by Brennan went to the house, and asked where Mrs. Brennan was Mrs. Farmer told him she had “gone to Watertown to get her teeth fixed.” She sent for the parish priest, told him a similar story and had him bless the home.

Body of Mrs. Brennan Found

On the following Monday the sheriff with several others again visited the Farmers and asked Mrs. Farmer to produce the deeds, and after some delay she pulled the black oilcloth envelope from a cradle and showed the papers. Then a search of the house was begun. Inquiry was made in regard to the trunk tied with a clothes line, whereupon Mrs. Farmer denied that she owned it, saying it belonged to her husband, and he with an oath said it did not belong to him. The rope was removed, the lock broken, and in the trunk the sheriff found the body of Mrs. Brennan fully dressed. The head and face were horribly mutilated by many blows from a, blunt instrument, but the body was not injured. The turban hat which the woman wore was missing, but the burned wire framework of a hat similar to the one she wore was found in Mrs. Farmer’s stove.

Murderous Pair Arrested

Mrs. Farmer and her husband were arrested charged with the crime which the woman at first stoutly defied. Then she stated that Mrs. Brennan was in her house and stood by the door looking out of the window and that she stepped up behind her and hit her with an axe. Subsequently she said it to the sheriff that she had not told the truth; that “Jim” did it. She said Mrs. Brennan had been with her uptown and that when they came back “Jim” was angry because she had left her baby at a neighbor’s. She said she then went for the baby and on her return “Jim” was just putting the body in the trunk.

At the jail Mrs. Farmer made another statement in which she said that Mrs. Brennan came to her house and said she was not feeling well. She said that Mrs. Brennan said “she would give anything if she would take that old axe that laid there and knock her brains out and I said all right, here she goes. A takes [sic] the ax and kills her.”

Killed as She Sat in Chair

She said then she put the body in the trunk, washed up things that were bloody and burned up the things from which she could not remove the blood. She said Mrs. Brennan was sitting down in a chair by the window when she killed her.

The cases of Mrs. Farmer and her husband were appealed to the court of appeals which has yet to determine the husband’s case. Mrs. Farmer’s conviction was affirmed and E. R. Wilcox, her counsel, asked the governor to appoint a commission to examine into the woman’s mental condition, expressing the belief that the woman was insane.


Woman Tries To Save Husband

New Castle News

March 29, 1909

Mary Farmer's confession was as follows:

"My husband, James D. Farmer, never had any hand in Sarah Brenan's death nor never knew anything about it till the trunk was opened. I never told him anything what happened. I feel he has been terribly wronged. James D. Farmer was not at home the day the affair happened; neither did James D. Farmer ever put a hand on Sarah Brenan after her death. Again I wish to say as strongly as I can that my husband, James D. Farmer, is entirely innocent of the death of Sarah Brenan, that he knowingly had no part in any plans that led to it, and that he knew nothing whatever about it."

(Signed) "MARY H. FARMER."
"Subscrbed and sworn to before me this 25th day of March, 1909.
"Notary public, Cayuga county."


The “Watertown Trunk Murder” – Hounsfield, 1908

Cheri Farnsworth - Murder & Mayhem in Jefferson County - (History Press 2011)

Jammed within the narrow confines of a trunk, with her head mashed to jelly, one ear gone and her body mutilated until recognition was almost impossible, the body of Mrs. Sarah Brennan, wife of Patrick Brennan, of Brownville, was found Monday afternoon in a back kitchen at the home of Mr. and Mrs. James Farmer of that village. ~ Watertown Re-Union, 29 Apr. 1908

In October of 1907, Mary Farmer hatched an elaborate plan to criminally acquire the property of her neighbors so that her young babe, Peter, would one day have something of value that she believed she and James Farmer could never provide otherwise. (Heaven forbid that they should have to work for their material possessions like the rest of us.) The fact that a cold-blooded murder might become necessary for her to meet her objective was but a trivial detail the soon-to-be murderess would worry about when the time came. That time was the morning of April 23 when Sarah Brennan paid a visit to Mary Farmer. Neighbors heard the women arguing, and it was the last anyone ever heard from, or saw, Mrs. Brennan alive. One can only surmise that the victim had finally learned of the plot to steal her house and home right out from under them. For that, she had to be silenced…now.

While some later said that 24-year-old Mary “had never fully recovered her mentality” after the birth of her only child, countless others testified that her bizarre behavior spanned years, culminating in the singular unspeakable act—when she raised the hatchet over the skull of Sarah Brennan—that sealed her fate. Though there was never any doubt about Mary Farmer’s guilt, her mental state at the time of the gruesome murder would ultimately determine whether the young mother should live or became the second woman sent to the electric chair in New York State. Hence, much time at the inquest and later trials would be devoted to determining if Mary Farmer was sane when she slaughtered her so-called friend and neighbor. And even more time would be spent determining what role, if any, her husband had played in the whole affair.

It began when Mary Farmer forged a deed to the Brennan residence that was recorded in the county clerk’s office. Somehow, she had managed to steal the deed from the Brennan house on one of her many visits to call on Sarah Brennan. The property, located on Paddy Hill on the Hounsfield side of the river in Brownville, was adjacent to the Farmer property, and Mary visited Sarah often. Although the Brennans were not wealthy, by any standards, they enjoyed life’s simple pleasures and seemed content. For Mary Farmer, living right next door must have become increasingly difficult to swallow, because she was reminded daily of what others had that she wanted. The Farmers had lost the previous home they owned near Ontario Mill when they were unable to make payments, and Mr. Farmer had not held a job for some time. Thus, with a false sense of entitlement, Mary Farmer made a conscious decision to turn her growing irritation into an opportunity for herself and her family. On October 31, 1907, she went before Attorney Francis Burns at the Jefferson County clerk’s office impersonating Sarah Brennan. There, she transferred the deed to the Brennan home to the Farmers for the sum of $2,100 (roughly $50,000 in today’s dollar) and forged 55-year-old Sarah Brennan’s signature. This first step accomplished, Mary Farmer foolishly started telling locals that she had purchased the property from the Brennans; and, while the Brennans heard occasional rumors in the village that they had sold their property, they denied them and couldn’t imagine how they had started. On January 7, 1908, the Farmers deeded the property they had acquired illegally over to their son, who was then ten months old; and they transferred the insurance on the house from the Brennans to themselves. The plan was nearly complete. All that was left was to remove the oblivious couple from the premises; but for reasons unknown, Sarah Farmer waited four months to complete her plan. Some speculated that the delay was due to “timidity to commit the deed and the presence of relatives.”

Thursday, April 23, started out like a normal day for the Brennans, other than the fact that Sarah had dressed in black in memory of a daughter who had died some time before. But she was fine when she paid a visit to the Brennans’ home that morning. Pat Brennan went to work at the mill where he ran a boiler. Neither could have ever imagined the events that were about to transpire when they set out in their respective ways that day. According to the Watertown Re-Union of April 29, 1908, Mr. Brennan came home to find the door locked and the key missing from its agreed-upon hiding spot:

All was happy when Mrs. Brennan left him for his work at the C. R. Remington mill that morning. When he returned that afternoon, he found the front door locked. He felt behind the blind for the key; and, not finding it, went to the barn, which was also locked. With a hammer, he pulled the hasp, secured a ladder and entered a window. He thought that perhaps his wife was out calling, but wondered that she failed to leave the key.

Ten minutes later, Brennan was at work tearing down the stormhouse. He had almost finished when Farmer, who had not been working for some time past, came to the fence.

“Don’t you know that I own that place now,” said Farmer. Brennan turned in amazement and replied that he did not. “Yes, the place is mine, all right [sic],” continued Farmer. “I bought it last October, and you can see the deed at the county clerk’s office. I paid $2,100 for it.”

“That’s funny,” commented Brennan. “My wife never said anything about it, and you neither have said anything about it all these months.” Farmer replied that he didn’t think there was need of it, inasmuch as Mrs. Brennan had been paying him $2 a week rent for it, but that now he had decided that he would move in and enjoy his own.

Over the next few, surreal days, Brennan could not get a straight answer from the Farmers on the whereabouts of his wife, which made him wonder if they were somehow involved in her disappearance. The day after she went missing, the Farmers went to Watertown to obtain the following notice from Field & Swan to be served on Brennan, telling him to vacate his property and informing him that they had a bill of sale for all the personal property in the house.

To Patrick Brennan:

Dear Sir—Take notice, that by virtue of a deed dated October 31, 1907, and recorded in the Jefferson county clerk’s office November 9, 1907, in the book of deeds 325, page 93, your wife, Sarah Brennan, sold and conveyed to me, the undersigned, the house and premises in the town of Hounsfield, Jefferson county, N.Y., near the village of Brownville, in which you and she then resided and have since resided; and that I thereupon became and now am the owner of said property; and that your wife has recently delivered to me the keys and possession of said house and property; that I am now in the sole and exclusive possession thereof and of all the household furniture and personal property in the house, which was sold to me by her by bill of sale and delivered to me, for which personal property I paid her, and I am now in possession thereof, in said house.

That I hereby notify and require you to stay away, remain away, and keep out of this house and off said premises from now on, except to come to said house and get and take away your wearing apparel and personal belongings, which I hereby require that you do before April 27, 1908, and in case of your failure so to remove your wearing apparel and personal belongings, I will leave them with Daniel Woodard at his residence in said town, subject to your order, and I hereby forbid you to come on said premises as and for the purpose stated above.

Dated April 24, 1908
FIELD & SWAN, Attorneys for J. D. Farmer

Not only would he soon learn that they had killed his wife; but they booted him out of his own house and stole all of his material belongings, except his clothing. This went beyond coldblooded. But the property was the least of Brennan’s concerns at the moment. All he really wanted to know was what happened to his wife. The Re-Union said:

Worried almost to desperation, Brennan came that night to the home of James Rattray in Griffin Street, this city, and anxiously inquired if anything had been seen of his wife. It is alleged that the Farmers had told Brennan many stories of his wife’s absence, saying first that she had been selling her property and buying expensive clothing and had left for Duluth. Later, it is alleged, they said that she had gone to Watertown and said she wanted her goods sent to Rattray’s.

Every story was followed by the anxious husband. No one had seen her leave at the station, no trace of her was obtainable at Rattray’s. She had an appointment at Dr. Huntington’s for dental work and this she had failed to keep. Brennan investigated and found all her clothing in the closets.

Two days after being kicked out of his home and told that his wife had left him, Brennan consulted Attorney Floyd Carlisle. The lawyer soon discovered that a woman resembling Mrs. Farmer was the one who had transferred the property at Attorney Burns’ office, not Mrs. Brennan. Things were beginning to look very suspicious for the Farmers. Nevertheless, the scheming couple proceeded unashamedly to take full possession of the Brennan property, even as an investigation into their dealings was about to commence, unbeknownst to them. Enter….the trunk, which was among the effects carried from the Farmer house to the Brennan residence. That trunk represented everything—Mrs. Farmer’s guilt; Mrs. Brennan’s untimely demise; Mr. Farmer’s innocence; and Mr. Brennan’s worst fear.

After learning from Attorney Carlisle that something wasn’t right in the handling of the real estate transactions, Pat Brennan alerted District Attorney Pitcher; and, on Monday, four days after the nightmare had begun, Sheriff Bellinger and his assistants were dispatched to the Brennan residence to question Mary Farmer. At first, Mrs. Farmer denied any knowledge of her neighbor’s disappearance; although, she did turn pale at the start of the questioning. Bellinger then proceeded to search the home. He wasn’t leaving without some answers. According to the Re-Union, it wasn’t long before he had them.

In the back kitchen, the sheriff found the trunk. An odor came from it, and the sheriff suspected that the body was within. When asked for the keys, the Farmers claimed to have lost them, and with a hammer, the lock was forced. A horrible sight met the officer’s eyes—a battered countenance, blood and hair intermingling, the body forced and jammed until it filled the space, skirts partly covering the limbs. When the discovery was made, Brennan and Farmer sat together. “My God, did you do this?” moaned Brennan. “As God is my witness, I did not,” replied Farmer.

A moment’s consultation and Mrs. Farmer was given a chance to look upon the ghastly spectacle. It was too much, and a moment more a confession was had from her. She said that she had felled the woman with the axe and then washed the instrument and the blood spots from the floor. Later she claimed that, as Mrs. Brennan stepped to the parlor window, Farmer stepped behind her and drove the ax against her head with the exclamation, “There, damn you, I have done with you."

Beneath a mattress, a blood-stained coat that appeared to have been recently washed was found; and, although the floor had been freshly washed, the blotches from blood stains were still apparent. In the trunk with the body was found a button from a man’s coat, a comb, and a torn pocket. The murder weapon, an axe, was found several days later tucked well-hidden from view in a nook in the barn. The body was examined by Coroner Charles E. Pierce, along with several physicians, and they found that the left ear had been hacked off, there were three defense wounds on the left wrist, both lips had been cut straight through, and a long gash was made on the forehead over both eyes where the axe had broken through the skull. The left jaw had been broken, and it appeared that the victim had been struck from the side first and then “blows had been rained upon the face to finish the job,” according to an article called “Cruel Murder” in the Watertown Re-Union of April 29, 1908. This finding contradicted Mrs. Farmer’s version of having snuck up behind the woman and struck her with the axe.

After the initial shock of being found out wore off and a smidgeon of reasoning (disturbed as it was) returned, Mrs. Farmer attempted to lay blame for the murder on her husband. Then, she quickly recanted that version and again admitted that it was she who was responsible. Nevertheless, both husband and wife were taken to the county jail as suspects in the murder of Sarah Brennan. Mr. Farmer, perhaps still absorbing the shock of the grim discovery and the ramifications of such, wisely said nothing on the way to the county jail. However, Mrs. Farmer, baby at her breast, smiled when asked by the deputy if her dreams were disturbed, sleeping in the same house as a corpse. She replied smugly that her dreams were no worse than usual—proof of a mind with no conscience…and an impending insanity defense. On Friday, May 1, warrants were issued for the arrest of James and Mary Farmer.

A disheveled, weary James Farmer arrived at the arraignment in shackles, led by Undersheriff Charles Hosmer; and Mary Farmer, wearing a blue skirt, heavy plush coat, and a shawl over her head, was accompanied into the courtroom by Sheriff Ezra D. Bellinger. The Re-Union said, “As far as expression goes, she was as immobile as a statue and looked straight ahead, never shifting her glance. During the time she sat there, not a muscle moved, and she was motionless. Her face was neither flushed nor pale, but it was easily seen that a terrific struggle was going on in her mind.” After the charges of murder were read to them by City Judge Reeves, Brayton A. Field entered a plea of not guilty for Mr. Farmer. Attorney E. Robert Wilcox was assigned to Mrs. Farmer, and the date for examinations of the couple was set for May 6, with Mr. Farmer being questioned first at 9 a.m. and Mrs. Farmer at 2 p.m. As a result of the damning evidence produced at that examination, the couple was brought before the Grand Jury and indicted on charges of first-degree murder. It was initially thought that perhaps James Farmer was unaware of his wife’s plan, especially after she accepted full blame, but evidence produced during the May 6 examination raised considerable doubt that could not be ignored. According to the Re-Union:

Damaging evidence implicating James Farmer more strongly as being at least an accessory to the deed developed at Wednesday morning’s examination of Farmer before Judge Reeves, when the district attorney produced in court and read the paper signed by Farmer which…became a notice to dispossess Patrick Brennan of the home in which he and his wife had resided for many years, and which even that day sheltered [a] mutilated body…The dispossession notice, signed the day after the murder had been committed, states that Farmer bought the property, had the keys, and warned Brennan to get off and stay away from the home of which forgery had robbed him and which cost the life of his wife.

Farmer had to be aware of his wife’s plot. He enforced it by having the notice drawn up and asking Constable Sherman to serve it upon Brennan at once! He had bragged to others about having bought the property long before that fateful day. But had Mary Farmer convinced him that she had truly bought the property with money she had saved from what little he made and turned over to her? Had she convinced him that Sarah Brennan was aware of the property transaction and had left town? Did she leave out the part where the brutally murdered the poor woman in cold blood? James Farmer seemed genuine enough when he asked Brennan, three days after the murder, if he had heard anything on where his wife went. And when the trunk containing the body was found by the sheriff, it was James Farmer who had suggested breaking the lock to open it when the key couldn’t be found. Would a guilty man who knew what the trunk held have made such a recommendation? Was he truly unaware that his own wife had murdered Sarah Brennan? Perhaps his only role was enforcing the property transaction to take possession of what he believed was rightfully his. Perhaps he had no knowledge whatsoever of the full-scope of the crime. He would have his day in court; but first Mary Farmer, the mastermind of one of Jefferson County’s most shocking murders, had to be dealt with.

Mary Farmer’s sister-in-law, Mrs. Michael Doran, had a hunch something wasn’t right from the time she arrived at the Farmer residence at the behest of her brother, James, to pick up a deed that he asked her to take to Watertown to have recorded. Mary came to the door and handed her the deed, and Mrs. Doran took one look at it and recognized the signature as that of Mary Farmer, not Sarah Brennan. She asked Mary how much she had paid for the property and was told $1,200. “The woman must have been crazy [to ask for so little],” said Mrs. Doran, according to the Watertown Re-Union of May 9, 1908. “Crazy or not, I have the property,” was Mary Farmer’s response. Mrs. Doran also told the court that Mrs. Farmer appeared at her home on the day of the murder, around 2 p.m., to speak with James, who was helping out there that day. Doran testified that Mary Farmer handed her husband a bunch of keys and said, “There are your keys. Go and see Patsy Brennan and tell him his wife has gone and he has no home.” She said her brother’s obvious apprehension over his wife’s demand was very upsetting to her.

Many individuals living nearby testified as to the comings and goings of Mary Farmer and Sarah Brennan on the day of the murder. All agreed that they had seen Mrs. Brennan enter the Farmer home around nine-ish that morning but never saw her leave; although, they did see Mary Farmer buzzing around all day. Mrs. Charles Baker, for example, swore that she saw Mrs. Farmer “running back and forth from her house to the Brennan’s a dozen times,” beginning around 9:20 a.m. Nothing, however, was more incriminating than the testimony of a young girl named Edith Blake and that of Philip Smith, a man who helped carry the trunk from one house to the next. The Watertown Re-Union best summed up Edith’s testimony in its June 17, 1908 paper:

Little 12-year-old Edith Blake told how she had gone to the Farmers’ and cared for the baby Thursday. The girl’s answers were clear and concise, sticking to the same in spite of any cross-examination. The witness told how Farmer swore and took some keys from his pocket and passed them to his wife, saying he did not want them. Witness said Mrs. Farmer said, “To hell. You won’t get a d--- [sic] cent of money.” The testimony gave the impression that the Farmers quarreled at the noon hour.

The girl told how Mrs. Farmer had gone to Doran’s and returned, getting some paper from a drawer and again returning to Doran’s, where her husband was at work. Once at home again, Mrs. Farmer told the witness to tend the baby while she cleaned the back room, taking some clothes from the bedroom. The witness said that Mrs. Farmer had sent her to a store for some camphorated oil.

It developed during the questioning that Mrs. Farmer was very careful to shut the door to the room which she was cleaning, so that witness was unable to see what was going on. The cross-examination tended to show that about the noon hour, Mr. and Mrs. Farmer had many talks, occasionally going into one of the rooms and closing the door, leaving the child minding the baby.

Philip Smith’s testimony regarding the black trunk sealed the deal. The Re-Union said the that Smith, who lived one house to the east of the Brennan house, agreed to help the Farmers move their belongings into the Brennan house on the morning of April 25.

Witness told of getting a clothesline to tie the trunk, at the request of Mrs. Farmer, and with her assistance of tying the trunk around twice with the rope, and…tying the trunk around the third time. Witness also testified to getting a gallon jug replenished with ale three times while the moving was going on, the defendant furnishing the money for the beverage. All partook of the ale, but witness could not say that defendant drank any. [Author’s note: The old get-‘em-drunk-until-they’re-oblivious-trick.] The defendant told the witness that she would ask Mr. Tierney to help him carry the trunk, because her husband and Mr. Callahan were drunk, and there was something in the trunk she wanted to be very careful with.

The trunk was heavy enough to require two men to carry it, and while it was being moved from one house to the other, the defendant followed close after it. No discoloration was noticed under the trunk, and a smaller one was placed on its top…It also developed that Mrs. Farmer was in the Barton house [the Farmer’s rented property] most of the time before the trunk was moved, but after it was moved, she spent most of her time in the Brennan house.

In other words, Mary Farmer didn’t take her eyes off the trunk and made sure that it wasn’t unduly disturbed for fear of someone opening it. William Tierney corroborated Smith’s testimony “of how the trunk was carried and followed in close succession by Mrs. Farmer.” Tierney said Mary Farmer told him there was something breakable in the trunk and to be careful while carrying it. The testimony affected the jury as much as seeing a photograph of Sarah Brennan’s post-mortem head which was brought in as evidence. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that the signatures of Sarah Brennan had been forged on the deed and bill of sale, for the real Sarah Brennan was not the woman who had gone before the attorney and notary public the year before; and there was now no doubt that Mary Farmer was well aware of the contents of the black trunk—contents that Mr. Farmer seemed oblivious of when he suggested that the authorities break the trunk open. Mary Farmer was thus found guilty of murdering Sarah Brennan and sentenced to die at Auburn the first week of August.

With that, Patrick Brennan commenced legal action to have the forged deeds declared null and void, so he could regain possession of his property. The Farmers’ infant son was put in the care of John Conboy, a member of the Farmer family; and ultimately, he was sent to the Ogdensburg orphanage in St. Lawrence County. The trial of James Farmer, who had been in the Jefferson County lockup since April, was the next item on the agenda. Six months of incarceration-induced sobriety had done much to improve his appearance. The Watertown Herald said, “In court, dressed neatly and soberly, clean and sober, and much lighter in weight after six months imprisonment,” he looked nothing like the man dressed in working clothes the day of his arrest. But as ‘clean’ as he now appeared, there was nothing clean about the crime for which he was being tried. District Attorney Pitcher said, “Never in the history of Jefferson County has there been a crime which could measure to this in cold deliberation and in a cruel and relentless pursuit of a criminal purpose.” Still, the defense insisted that their client knew nothing of the murder until the trunk was opened, and the sheriff said, “I have found her.”

Patrick Brennan testified at James Farmer’s trial, much as he had at the trial of Mary Farmer, repeating as he had so many times the story of how he came home from work to find his wife missing, of the surreal experience of being kicked out of his own house by his neighbor who claimed he had bought it, and of the search and discovery of his wife’s body in the trunk. Alice Doran, Farmer’s sister, again testified that she was asked by Mary Farmer to take the deed to Watertown and have it recorded. After calling the office where attorney Francis P. Burns had drawn and executed the deed for someone proclaiming to be Sarah Brennan, Mrs. Doran became very concerned that something shady was going on. She said she asked her brother several times if he had ever spoken to Sarah Brennan about transferring the deed, and he admitted he hadn’t—he had only spoken to Patrick about it when he evicted the man from his own property. Many of the witnesses called to the stand in Mary Farmer’s trial returned to the stand in the James Farmer murder trial. And when all was said and done, when attorneys for the people and attorneys for the defendant had pulled out all the stops and put the best spin they possibly could on the now-familiar testimony, the jury reached a verdict of guilty. Then, just as Justice DeAngelis was about to pronounce the sentence, a motion for a new trial was made, when Attorney Kellogg announced his belief that a sermon preached at the All Souls Church the previous Sunday had prejudiced some members of the jury who were in attendance at that mass. The pastor was brought in and asked to read the entire text of his sermon to see if it was, in fact, something that might sway the jury; but the judge saw nothing in it that he thought should delay his pronouncement of sentencing. Thus, a full year after the deed that started the whole mess was forged, James Farmer was sentenced to die in the electric chair, like his wife, between eight weeks and four months of the date of his conviction.

While Farmer’s defense attorneys set to work on his appeal, Farmer was placed in a cell in death row at Auburn Prison. Mary Farmer was nearby, in the Auburn women’s prison, her execution having been temporarily stayed by a futile appeal. The couple was permitted to see each other twice, briefly, before Mary Farmer’s execution on March 31, 1909; but they were not allowed to touch or to speak in private. And James Farmer was moved to another part of the prison on execution day to spare him from hearing his wife being led to the execution chamber. She would only be accompanied by Father Hickey, her spiritual advisor who had prayed with her in the days leading up to this final one, and the two female attendants who had remained constantly at her side since she first arrived at Auburn. The Watertown Re-Union of March 31, 1909, said, “…the Farmer woman walked unfalteringly to the death chair. Her eyes were half closed, and she saw nothing of the death chair and rows of witnesses. In her hands, she clasped a crucifix, and as she was being strapped in the chair, Father Hickey stood at her side and offered prayers for the dying.” The prison physician acknowledged that Farmer was dead with the first shock, but to quell the residual muscle tremors quickly, two more contacts were made—each with 1,840 volts of electricity shooting through her body. After the physicians pronounced her dead, her body was removed for autopsy and then, as directed by her husband, it was laid to rest in St. Joseph’s Cemetery near Watertown.

Previously, Father Hickey had said, “Mrs. Farmer will die a good Catholic and will go to her death bravely. It may be, though I cannot say positively, that some statement may be made by Mrs. Farmer to the public. If so it will not be given out until after the execution.” The time had now come to release the statement Mrs. Farmer wrote and addressed to Father Hickey the Sunday before. It was in response to telling her that, if she could truthfully exonerate her husband, she should before it was too late. This, she had done, and she signed her hand-written statement before a notary on March 28. It said:

To Rev. J. J. Hickey:

My husband, James D. Farmer, never had any hand in Sarah Brennan’s death, nor never knew anything about it till the trunk was opened. I never told him anything what had happened. I feel he has been terribly wronged. James D. Farmer was not at home the day the affair happened, neither did James D. Farmer ever put a hand on Sarah Brennan after her death. Again, I wish to say as strongly as I can that my husband, James D. Farmer, is entirely innocent of the death of Sarah Brennan, that he knowingly had no part in any plans that led to it and that he knew nothing whatever about it.

(Signed) MARY H. FARMER.
Subscribed and sworn to before me this 28th day of March, 1909.
Notary Public, Cayuga County.

James Farmer’s second trial began on February 22, 1910. The same witnesses who had been called for Mary Farmer’s trial and James Farmer’s first trial were brought in again. And the same attorneys who had represented him at his first trial would represent him at the second, along with E. R. Wilcox, who had defended Farmer’s wife. District Attorney Fred B. Pitcher, assisted by Floyd S. Carlisle, tried the case for the people. As the Watertown Herald said, “The evidence was about the same as in his first trial. The prosecution tried to show his presence in the house at the time the killing took place and tried to s how that he knew of it then or immediately afterwards. The defense offered evidence to show that he was not at the house at the time, and that his actions afterwards showed a man free from any guilty knowledge.” (That evidence included his suggestion that the sheriff should break the trunk open when the keys couldn’t be found.) With the first vote of the jury at 7:15 p.m., all twelve men voted, “Not guilty.” Farmer would leave the courthouse that day a free man. The Herald said:

Shortly after 9 o’clock, Judge Emerson put in an appearance. The jury filed in a moment later. The courtroom was in absolute silence, but no sooner had the foreman uttered the words, “not guilty,” than the courtroom resounded with hand clapping. One woman jumped up and shouted, “Good, good, good.” Judge Emerson rapped loudly for order, commanding the court attendants to bring anyone forward that had been seen taking part in the demonstration. As the jurymen left the enclosure, Farmer shook hands and thanked each. Later on, men and women pressed forward and shook Farmer’s hand. Farmer was visibly affected by his good fortune.

Cheri Farnsworth - Murder & Mayhem in Jefferson County - (History Press 2011)



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