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Helen Ray FOWLER





Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Robbery? - She was the only black female executed in the State of New York during the 20th century
Number of victims: 1
Date of murder: October 30, 1943
Date of arrest: December 1943
Date of birth: 1907
Victim profile: George William Fowler, 63
Method of murder: Hitting with a hammer
Location: Niagara Falls, New York, USA
Status: Sentenced to death on February 19, 1944. Executed by electrocution in the Sing Sing electric chair in New York on November 16, 1944

Helen Ray Fowler was electrocuted in the Sing Sing electric chair on November 16, 1944. She was the only black female executed in the State of New York during the 20th century.

A Nice Fat Crackling

Helen Fowler was condemned of murder and electrocuted in the Sing Sing electric chair in New York on November 16, 1944.

On the day of execution Helen made a last desparate attempt to save herself from the waiting chair: She accused her daughter Ruth of the murder and claimed that she wanted to get rid of her dominant mother. Helen claimed that Ruth had said she'd "make a nice fat crackling in the chair".

Helen was a large woman, 5'7'' and 227 lbs. She was 37 years old.

She was crying silently, but seemed to be composed as she sat down for the last time. At 11:04 p.m. the current was coursing through her body. She was not declaired dead until 11:17 p.m.

Helen did quite some crackling before her body gave up!

"It's A Shame!"

Helen Ray Fowler was an historic figure. But it’s the kind of notoriety no one would want. She was the only black female executed in the State of New York during the 20th century.

Helen was the mother of five children and lived in the village of Niagara Falls in upstate New York. She ran a boarding house, in addition to caring for her children, to make ends meet. Helen was a large woman, 5’7” and 227 lbs. according to her prison records. During the summer of 1943, she took in a boarder named George Knight at her home on Memorial Parkway.

Knight, 27, was a drinker and often drank too much. At times, he became violent and had been arrested before by local police. On the night of October 30, 1943, George Knight and another woman were drinking in a local tavern in Niagara Falls. At the same time, Helen Fowler walked in the bar unexpectedly and saw them together. Words were exchanged by the three and soon, fists were flying. The fight spilled out into the street along with some of the other customers. Also drinking in the same bar was a gas station owner from nearby Ransomville named George William Fowler, 63, a white man and no relation to Helen. He watched the brawl and later decided to follow Helen home. When she arrived at her home on Memorial Parkway, William went inside with her, perhaps to make romantic advances. Another fight soon developed which ended with William on the floor. In the meantime, George Knight arrived and immediately broke a large vase over William’s head. He suffered a severely fractured skull and died on the floor of Helen’s home. George and Helen dumped the body in a trunk.

Correctly surmising that a dead body in the house would tend to implicate them in the crime, Knight and Fowler placed the trunk in a car and drove it down to the North Grand Island Bridge, which spans the upper Niagara River. There, under cover of nightfall and within sight of Canada to the west, they dumped the trunk into the river. When the body washed up on shore, the crime shocked the residents of Ransomville who were unaccustomed to murder. After a brief investigation, police arrested the suspects.

During an interrogation by the local sheriff’s office, both Knight and Fowler admitted to the crime. Their trial was held during the week of February 12, 1944 at the Niagara County Court in Lockport, about 20 miles east of Niagara Falls. In the middle of deliberations, the jury asked for clarification on one issue. They wanted to know if a person who didn’t actually kill anyone could be found guilty of murder. Judge William Munson assured them that two persons could be found guilty of the same murder even if only one of them actually committed the offense. It was called “felony murder” under the Penal Law of the State of New York.

After a five-day trial, during which there were no defense witnesses called to the stand, both were found guilty of 1st Degree Murder. Helen, who had cried throughout the trial, burst into hysterics when she heard the verdict. Knight remained passive in his seat as he had for the entire proceedings. It was the first murder trial in the county since 1938. Ironically, it was also the very first time that women had been allowed to serve as jurors in Niagara County.

On February 19, 1944, in the same county courtroom, Judge Munson sentenced both defendants to death in the electric chair at Sing Sing. Helen sobbed loudly from behind the defense table as the sentence was read. Her attorneys requested a new trial, which was immediately denied by the Judge. The prisoners were taken back to the Niagara County jail to await transfer to Ossining.

On February 21, Fowler and Knight were taken by train to Sing Sing where they were sent to Death Row. The execution was set for September 4, 1944. Luckily, they received two delays and the date was eventually fixed for November 16, 1944. But for the first time this century, Robert G. Elliott, Sing Sing’s legendary executioner, wouldn’t be the one to pull the switch on a female. He died in 1939 of heart disease in Queens, N.Y. During his time in the death chamber, which spanned 13 years, he turned the dial on many notorious individuals, including Bruno Hauptmann, Sacco and Vanzetti, Ruth Snyder and Anna Antonio. It was a gruesome job. But prison officials had no trouble finding a replacement. After Elliot’s death, the prison received over 400 applications for his job.

On the night she was to sit in the electric chair, Helen was allowed to dictate a letter to Lt. Governor Hanley. In her final plea for mercy, just two hours before the scheduled execution, Helen told a tragic story. She began by saying: “I had these things on my mind at the time of the trial. I hate the disgrace of bringing these things out.” She went on to say that her daughter Ruth plotted against her. She said “Ruth was going with my husband. I have proof by Niagara Falls Police Department because of his arrest. I have a letter here to prove my husband went with one daughter.” But there was more, much more. She accused her daughter of murder. She told the Lt. Governor: “Her (her daughter’s friend) and Ruth both poisoned my husband and I to get rid of me.” Helen painted an ugly picture of a rebellious and cruel daughter who would stop at nothing to get free of a domineering mother. She said that when she was put in jail, her daughter Ruth was glad. “She said she was free for the first time in her life and intended to stay free. She also said I’d make a nice fat crackling in the chair,” Helen said. As for the murder of George Fowler, Helen claimed she was innocent and only helped move the body. “I fought hard all the time to keep my children under a roof with me. Please give me a chance to prove these things. I’ve said I’m not guilty of any murder or robbery but I did help to get the man out of the house or he’d have left him there in the trunk because he was drunk for over a week after and a couple of days before. Please have mercy on me. Please spare my life!” (Christianson, p. 84, Helen Fowler’s statement of November 16, 1944). But there was no word from the Governor’s mansion. She was doomed. Just two hours later, a despondent Helen Fowler was led into the death chamber at Sing Sing. Accompanying her through the hallway was Catholic Chaplain Bernard Martin, who prayed for her soul. She was crying uncontrollably as she sat down in the chair. At 11:04 p.m., the killer current was sent coursing through her body. Several minutes later, she was declared dead.

George Knight went next. Before he sat down for the last time, he asked the Warden to speak. “Can I talk?” he said. The warden replied that it was customary to allow the condemned to say a few last words. “I want to thank you all for being so nice to me,” Knight said simply. After his death, the guards cleaned up the chamber and shut the lights. There were no other executions scheduled for the same night. For the first time since 1906, there would be none for a full calendar year.

Before she left this world on the night of November 16, 1944, Helen wrote: “It’s a mother’s love and it’s been so much disgrace but this is the truth of why I am here. Please, I’ll live for God from now on if spared, for when children try to have your life taken just to be free, it’s a shame!” (Christianson, p. 85). Helen Fowler and George Knight were the 19th and 20th prisoners to die in Sing Sing’s electric chair that year.

Mark Gado –

Falls murder case presents contrast to Northrup verdict

By David Staba

Last week, after three trials that lasted a total of 23 weeks, an Erie County jury found Michael Northrup not guilty in the murder of John Montstream.

Six decades ago, after a trial that included just three days of testimony, a Niagara County panel sent Helen Ray Fowler of Niagara Falls to the electric chair for a murder that not even the prosecutor contended that she committed.

Northrup's acquittal came despite evidence that included a gun spattered with the victim's blood and the testimony of Annette Montstream, who testified that she urged her would-be paramour to kill her husband, then helped him drive the body from Monroe County to a downtown Niagara Falls parking ramp, where it was left in the family mini-van.

Fowler's conviction resulted from conflicting testimony, none of which depicted her as responsible for the death of a Ransomville gas station owner at her Memorial Parkway apartment. Each witness at her trial described George Knight, Fowler's live-in boyfriend, as the culprit. Even Knight himself recanted his initial story portraying Fowler as the murderer.

Northrup's defense attorney, John Parinello of Rochester, got his client's confession thrown out on the grounds that it was given between the time Northrup asked for a lawyer and the time his counsel arrived. Parinello's legal fees eventually added to up to more than $500,000.

Fowler's statement to police, the basis of the case against her, was made without an attorney present. An indigent defendant, her attorney was later assigned by the court.

On Nov. 27, after two mistrials and an acquittal, Northrup walked out of court a free man.

On Nov. 16, 1944, Fowler became the only African-American woman ever executed in New York's electric chair.

A look at Fowler's forgotten case shows just how much times, and New York's legal system, have changed.

The Defendant

Helen Ray Fowler was, by any estimation, one tough woman.

She stood 5-foot-7 and weighed 227 pounds, according to prison records. At 36, she'd been married several times. At the time of her arrest in 1943, she had five children ranging in age from five to 20, as well as a grandchild.

Niagara Falls Police Capt. Robert Fitzsimmons, the lead investigator in her case, called her "the hardest person I've ever questioned."

In the summer of 1943, George Knight, 25, moved into Fowler's crowded rooms at 144 Memorial Parkway. For decades, the neighborhood rated as one of the nation's most notorious red-light districts. In an effort to change that image, city officials renamed the south end of 11th Street as Memorial Parkway.

It didn't work.

The Victim

William Fowler (no relation to Helen) owned a service station in Ransomville. With his wife in Cleveland for medical tests, the 63-year-old decided to spend Oct. 30, 1943 out on the town.

His cousin, Lee Clark of Niagara Falls, picked Fowler up at his business that Friday morning. The two made their way to Niagara Falls, making several stops at gin mills along the way. Clark, who later reported Fowler missing, told police his cousin was still wearing the pants from his work uniform. In one pocket was a wad of cash and checks that added up to at least $1,000.

At each stop, Clark said, Fowler would boast of his bankroll, flash it to fellow patrons and buy a round for the house.

The pair reached the corner of Buffalo Avenue and Memorial Parkway shortly after noon. The neighborhood, long since razed to make room for the Nabisco shipping and receiving facility, still looked a lot like the old 11th Street, despite the name change.

Clark and Fowler soon separated. They briefly ran into each other later in the afternoon at Sugar's, an establishment at 138 Memorial Parkway. Clark testified that he was entering a room with one woman as Fowler left with another.

Fowler, dressed like Goober of Mayberry and proudly carrying a roll worth more than $10,000 today, wandered back out to Memorial Parkway in search of more adventure. His cousin never saw him alive again. At some point, William Fowler wound up a few doors down at the home of Helen Fowler and George Knight, described in newspaper accounts as her "boarder."

No one else saw the gas station owner, period, after Oct. 30 until his bloated, badly decomposed body washed up Dec. 8 behind the Adams Plant of the Niagara Falls Power Company. His wife was able to identify his body only because of a stiffened elbow that resulted from an old injury.

The Investigation

An autopsy revealed a fractured skull, so Niagara Falls police immediately started investigating Fowler's death as a murder. Within in a few days, a car seen near the North Grand Island Bridge on Oct. 31 was traced to its owner, a serviceman home on leave at the time of the murder. He directed police to Helen Ray Fowler and George Knight, who had borrowed the car

The two were questioned by police Capt. Robert Fitzsimmons. Each made a statement implicating the other.

Then they asked for attorneys.

Twenty-three years before the U.S. Supreme Court made the Miranda Warning a required element of every interrogation and cop show, Knight first told Fitzsimmons that Helen Fowler killed the old man in the course of robbing him. Then he changed his story, saying he beat the man after robbing him, then finished him with a hammer blow to the back of the skull at the urging of Helen Fowler.

She said William Fowler arrived at her apartment late in the afternoon, followed shortly by Knight. A brawl ensued, according to her statement, and Knight killed the unconscious man despite her pleas to stop.

One common thread in their stories -- the pair hid William Fowler's body in the back of the house until the next night. They borrowed a car, loaded the corpse into it, drove to the Grand Island Bridge (which had been completed eight years earlier), and tossed it in the upper Niagara River.

Fowler and Knight were both charged with first-degree murder. At the time, a conviction on that charge led to an automatic seat in Sing Sing's electric chair.

The Trial

Knight and Fowler were eventually assigned two of Niagara Falls' most prominent lawyers. Former city Corporation Counsel and Assistant District Attorney J. William O'Brien represented Knight. Earl W. Brydges, who went on to become a towering figure in local and state politics, handled Fowler's defense.

O'Brien and Knight moved to separate the trials, given the life-and-death implications of the outcome.

State Supreme Court Justice William Munson denied the motion and jury selection began on Monday, Feb. 7, 1944.

That jury made history, as it included five women -- the first to hear a murder case in the county.

For some reason, the Niagara Falls Gazette (then locally owned and bearing the city's full name) chose to name the jurors as they were selected, along with their hometown and occupation.

That was only one aspect of the newspaper's coverage that's mystifying by today's standards. Like many publications of the day, Gazette stories about this and other cases made a person's race part of their identity. William Fowler was just plain William Fowler, but George Knight was George Knight, Negro.

O'Brien and Brydges vigorously questioned potential jurors, using 18 of their 30 available challenges by Monday evening. While the Gazette described jury selection as "slow," the seven-man, five-woman panel was seated by Tuesday evening.

District Attorney John Marsh presented 30 witnesses. One said Helen Fowler had given him two Carborundum payroll checks to cash. The two employees to whom the checks were made out testified that they had cashed them at William Fowler's gas station in the week before his disappearance.

Marsh's star was 18-year-old Genevieve Persons, Helen Fowler's daughter by a prior marriage.

Persons said that on the afternoon of Oct. 30, Knight came into the apartment and told Fowler that there was a "white fellow" in the neighborhood with quite a lot of cash on him.

Knight urged Fowler to help him lure the man into the apartment in order to roll him, Persons said. Once the gas station owner was inside, Knight attacked.

"The man was hollering and begging Knight not to hit him anymore," said Persons, adding that her mother tried to stop the assault.

Knight said he might as well finish the job so William Fowler couldn't go to the police, then did just that with a hammer, Person said.

She testified that she watched her mother and Knight drag the body to the back of the apartment.

"Then I went to the movies," she said.

She then admitted that she told a friend, identified only as Norman, that Knight had come into a lot of money, and the two conspired to rob the killer. Their search of the apartment, though, yielded nothing.

Prior to the murder, Persons and her mother had been convicted of assault. The daughter was awaiting sentencing for that crime and was implicated, but not charged, in several others, a point O'Brien brought up on cross-examination. Then he offered an alternate theory of the crime.

"As a matter of fact, you beat this man with a hammer yourself, didn't you?" O'Brien asked.

"No, I didn't," Persons said.

That night, being held as a material witness at the County Jail in Lockport, Persons drank a cup of cleaning fluid in an apparent effort to commit suicide.

O'Brien and Brydges called only two defense witnesses -- two of Helen Fowler's younger children. June Tucker, 13, and 9-year-old George Tucker offered similar stories. Which were, of course, different than any previous version.

June Tucker said William Fowler visited the apartment early in the afternoon. After Helen Fowler left and returned with beer, he stayed for another half-hour. Later, while her mother argued with Knight about another woman, "the white man" came in again.

Knight asked, "What do you want here?" and accused Helen Fowler of having a man chasing her around while he couldn't look at another woman, June Tucker said.

Both children said they watched through a crack in the wall as Knight beat and kicked the older man into submission. When Knight grabbed a vase to use as a weapon, both testified that their mother grabbed it away from him.

In his closing statement on Friday afternoon, Marsh called William Fowler's murder "the most brutal and atrocious crime ever perpetrated in Niagara City," without bothering to establish how exactly it happened.

O'Brien closed by invoking the "a man's home is his castle" argument, saying that William Fowler walked in uninvited while his client quarreled with Helen Fowler. O'Brien maintained that Knight killed William Fowler in the ensuing brawl and that any robbery was not premeditated.

Brydges agreed with O'Brien's theory. The attorney conceded that Helen Fowler had helped dump William Fowler's body and had taken cash and checks from him after his death.

"She is guilty of any number of crimes, but is not being tried for them," Brydges said. "She is not guilty of murder in the first degree."

After two hours of deliberation, the jury returned to ask the judge for clarification on the law -- could two people be guilty of first-degree murder when only one was responsible for the death in question?

"Both parties engaged in commission of a felony are equally guilty," Justice Munson told them.

Shortly thereafter, jury foreman William Wendt of Cambria announced that the panel had found both guilty.

Helen Fowler, who had cried periodically throughout the trial, again broke down sobbing.

The Executions

A week after their conviction, Munson carried out the formality of sentencing George Knight and Helen Fowler to die in the electric chair on Sept. 4, 1944.

The State Court of Appeals upheld the verdicts and sentences in June, but Brydges and O'Brien won a delay from Gov. Thomas Dewey so that the attorneys could apply for a new trial. That court denied that request, as well, and set a new execution date of Nov. 16.

District Attorney Marsh, who had failed to identify, much less produce, a murder weapon or a cohesive theory of the events that led to William Fowler's death, fought the pair's appeals at each step.

Hours before her scheduled trip to the chair, Helen Fowler composed a plea for mercy in which she accused her oldest daughter, Ruth, of "going with" one of her previous husbands and trying to poison the then-couple. Fowler went on to write that Ruth had gloated over her fate.

"She said she was free for the first time in her life and intended to stay free. She also said that I'd make a nice fat crackling in the fire." She also repeated her claim that she was only guilty of helping dump William Fowler in the Niagara River.

"I did help get the man out of the house or (Knight would) have left him there in a trunk, because he was drunk for a week after and a couple of days before. Please have mercy on me! Please spare my life!"

Given Gov. Dewey's record as the federal prosecutor who went after the New York City Mafia (as well as his higher political aspirations), she might as well have saved the paper.

Fowler and Knight declined special final meals. She remained silent and composed, according to witnesses, as guards strapped her into Sing Sing's electric chair. At 11:17 p.m., she was declared dead.

Knight followed eight minutes later, offering a few final words.

"Can I talk?" he asked after being secured. "I want to thank you all for being so nice to me."

The Aftermath

Brydges went on to win election to the New York State Senate in 1948, where he served until 1972. He finished his time in office as the Senate Majority Leader, one of the state's most important political posts. Both the Niagara Falls public library and Artpark bear his name.

Dewey ran against incumbent President Harry Truman in 1948, managing to blow a seemingly insurmountable lead in the final days before the election and winning only in the headlines of over-eager newspapers.

New York State abolished the death penalty less than 20 years after the executions of Fowler and Knight, using the electric chair for the final time in 1963. While the state legislature reinstated the death penalty in 1995, no executions have been carried out since.

Jon Getz, a civil and criminal attorney in Rochester, said there's little chance Helen Ray Fowler's case could be repeated today.

"For one thing, there have been great strides in appellate review of these types of cases over the last 20 or 30 years," he said. "That makes it harder for this type of case to take place."

Getz handled the successful appeal of Betty Tyson in 1998. Tyson had spent 25 years in prison (then the longest of any woman in New York's penal system) for the 1973 robbery and murder of a Philadelphia businessman. In that case, Getz was able to show that police had beaten Tyson, a former prostitute, into signing a confession and that a detective had put a gun to the head of a witness to coerce his testimony against her. After her conviction was overturned, the Monroe County district attorney decided against filing new charges.

Like Fowler, Tyson was an African-American woman accused of killing a white man, inflaming the community. That dynamic is inescapable in a murder case, particularly in the 1940s.

"I think race may have played a strong factor -- you've got two black people killing a white guy," Getz said.

Then there's the issue of how much justice a defendant can afford. Michael Northrup's acquittal sparked surprise among many and anger in some. But whatever you think of his case, you can't say he didn't get every legal benefit of the doubt.

And as unsympathetic as Helen Ray Fowler might have been, it's impossible to say the same for her.

"She was a disposable person in their mind," Getz said. "I think they threw her in for good measure, so to speak. She certainly didn't get her fair day in court, and so she died an early death. The system is supposed to be about fairness."



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