Battle of the District Attorneys

Isaac Samuel Johnson

The attorneys who tried the case of the People vs. Robert Brunt a/k/a Robert Van Brunt were no legal lightweights. The prosecutor was Eugene Myron Bartlett, Wyoming County’s young district attorney. He’d taken office around March 1886. For the defense, former Wyoming County DA, Isaac Samuel Johnson received the assignment to represent the defendant, Robert Van Brunt. General Linus W. Thayer served as co-counsel to the defense, and we’ll tell his story in another post.

I. Sam Johnson was born October 28, 1840 in Centerfield, Ontario County, New York. He was a son of Hiram and Jane Slade Johnson.  Sam received his education at Warsaw Academy and the Genesee Wesleyan Seminary. He studied law with General Thayer, Wyoming County judges, H. L. Comstock and Byron Healy.

Johnson joined the Grand Army of the Republic on the 20th of August 1862 at Warsaw. He mustered in as a first sergeant in September and served for three years until his discharge for disability because of illness on January 5, 1864. Sam rose to the rank of first lieutenant during his time of service. In May 1864, he was admitted to the New York State Bar, and the following year he married Mary McFarland of Ohio.

A partnership with Myron Bartlett started his practice of law, then in 1866 he moved to Arcade, New York, to partner with A. J. Knight, who would become one of the county’s district attorneys later on. In 1876, Sam returned to Warsaw for good.  Johnson was a skilled lawyer, elected as Wyoming County District Attorney in 1877. He served in that position through 1885. Johnson was a popular speaker at events and took the podium at many local celebrations, especially for veterans. Politically, Sam was savvy, and many looked to him for advice in that difficult arena. Johnson successfully ran and served as a NYS Assemblyman for Wyoming County for two terms and was an outspoken advocate for tax reform. Johnson continued his successful law practice until his untimely death attributed to “heart neuralgia” September 25, 1906. He is buried in the Warsaw Cemetery.

Eugene M. Bartlett was born March 19, 1855 to Myron and Cordelia McFarland Bartlett of Warsaw. He was educated at Geneseo Academy and Cornell University. Admitted to the NYS Bar in 1880, he immediately went into partnership with his father, who was an esteemed attorney. The partnership continued until 1896. Eugene became the district attorney in 1886, when I. Sam Johnson left the position. His first capital case was prosecuting Robert Van Brunt for the murder of Will Roy of Castile, New York in February 1887.

Myron often was second chair for his son in more complex trials, as was the case for Van Brunt. This created conflict with the board of supervisors and the county leaders complained loudly about Myron’s exorbitant fees charged to the county. He billed the county $500 for the Van Brunt matter, but it did include two appeals. Bartlett’s conviction rate was also in dispute—Van Brunt being his only felony conviction. The supervisors didn’t feel they were getting their money’s worth from the DA’s office. This may have been a factor in Eugene’s decision not to run for the office again in 1889.

Van Brunt’s conviction of first-degree murder in 1887 took both Johnson and Bartlett before the state’s highest courts twice–the NYS Supreme Court and the NYS Court of Appeals. The men battled from the onset of the trial in February 1887 to March 1888. The case tested the mettle of the lawyers, but in the end Bartlett prevailed and Van Brunt was executed for his crime.

In May 1892, Bartlett and Johnson faced off over a utility dispute in the Village of Warsaw. The electric company, represented by Bartlett, attempted to obtain exclusive rights over the gas company for lighting. Johnson represented the village in the matter. The messy dilemma ended with Johnson defeating the electric company’s bid to take over. This was after the discovery that some electric company executives were lining their pockets in the scheme.

In 1895 Eugene married Grace Sheldon of Hornell and they had one daughter Margaret. In 1896 the family moved to Buffalo, where Eugene formed the law practice of Bartlett and Roberts.  E. M. Bartlett had a distinguished career in Buffalo and he would have another notorious capital case. 

He represented Guiseppe and Rosina Barone in 1898a, a husband and wife accused of murdering and dismembering, Fillipe Forestino. The unfortunate Forestino was stuffed in a trunk and tossed in the Blackwell Canal, which is now City Ship Canal in Buffalo. The Barones, already clients of Bartlett, retained him to defend them at the lengthy trial. It was revealed that Mrs. Barone and Forestino were enjoying extra-curricular activities. Guiseppe took exception to the affair, his fiery jealousy leading to Forestino’s demise. Rosina was a willing participant in the crime and was sent to prison, while Guiseppe was condemned to die in the electric chair. Bartlett successfully argued before the Appeals Court for a new trial for Guiseppe because of procedural errors in the first. Barone was convicted of manslaughter the second time around, serving eight years in Auburn. His wife served nine. The couple had nothing to do with one another after their respective releases from prison. They were also estranged from their children. 

Bartlett was a skilled orator in the courtroom, making frequent appearances in the appellate court. He was a member of the Sons of the American Revolution, active in the Republican Party, the Masons, and the Buffalo Historical Society. Eugene was especially proud of his heritage, tracing his ancestry back to one of the drafters and signers of the Declaration of Independence.

The Bartlett’s daughter, Margaret, passed away in 1920, leaving a husband and young son. At the time of Margaret’s death, Eugene suffered several health issues. Poor health followed him until his death in March 1922.  His funeral was held in Buffalo, and he was buried in Warsaw Cemetery.

Wyoming County Historian
Civil War Muster Record for Johnson
Obituary for Johnson, Democrat & Chronicle, September 26, 1906
Obituary for Bartlett, Western New Yorker, March 1922
Jury May Disagree, The Buffalo Express, May 13, 1900
Barone Tells How He Slew Forestino, Buffalo Evening News, October 15, 1898 

Eugene M. Bartlett, Photo Warsaw Historical Society

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