Murder & Mayhem – Death on the Tracks

Buffalo Times, Nov. 21, 1913

Two deaths in the village of Castile in the fall of 1913 were connected to the Erie Railroad. The first was a murder in September, and the other was ruled an accident a month later. Both incidents involved members of the track gang who maintained and repaired the railroad tracks running through the south end of the village. The crime and the accident were also alcohol related.  The tragic accidental death occurred late at night. One of the gang, after drinking heavily, wandered down the tracks in the dark and was hit by an oncoming train. His horrified coworkers found him the next day. The murder, however, spoke of the violence brewing under the surface of these railroad men.

Railroad crews were composed of men from disparate backgrounds, including many immigrants who needed an immediate job once they landed in the U. S. The crews were a transient lot, strangers thrown together to live for weeks in a railroad car set up as a bunkroom. Losing employment or seeking to supplement the family income often steered men to the railroad for a few weeks or months. The work was physically grueling as you can imagine–dealing with timbers, steel, and the tools to maintain railroad tracks. Drinking and fighting were commonplace in the rough groups that traveled the rails hoping to make a living.

In September of 1913, an Erie Railroad track gang was at the Castile Depot to perform repairs in the area. The bunkroom car was parked on a siding near the station. Several men, who weren’t working Saturday, September 20th, decided to visit Portageville to do some drinking. This included Daniel Reardon, a 50-year-old butcher from New York City and 37-year-old Maurets DeHaas, who was known as Morris Haas, along with several others. The men quickly spent their pay on whisky at the O’Donnell saloon, except for Reardon.

The group returned to Castile later in the afternoon, but DeHaas fumed over Reardon’s refusal to either lend him money or buy more whisky. DeHaas’ reasoning for such anger is unclear. Reardon went to his bunk to nap and DeHaas quickly followed him, evidently to do the same.  But DeHaas reappeared a few minutes later, hanging about the depot as the rest of the men filed in to sleep it off.

The railroad agent, James A. Cleveland, and Silas L. Strivings, a respected Castile resident, watched the man walk toward the depot. Once inside, DeHaas excitedly explained that one of the men had committed suicide in the bunk car. The smell of alcohol was evident on DeHaas, and the men were skeptical of his story at first. Finally, Cleveland asked Strivings to accompany him to investigate since the worker was so agitated. They stepped into the dimly lit car, proceeding to the bunk that DeHaas indicated. The scene wasn’t pretty.

Reardon was without a doubt quite dead, his skull split open by two massive wounds. Blood and brain matter was spattered on the wall and bed. Cleveland and Strivings must have been aghast at the gory scene, trying to understand what had happened.  It was clear no suicide had taken place, and Cleveland gave the alarm for the men to help him restrain DeHaas.

DeHaas resisted and shouted out that they’d receive the same treatment as Reardon.  With the man in custody and five others in the car rousted from their alcohol-induced slumbers, the station agent summoned Sheriff George P. Bauer, District Attorney Michael L. Coleman, and the coroner, L. Humphrey to the scene to investigate. Daniel Reardon’s empty purse was soon discovered outside the door of the boxcar. DeHaas was consequently searched and three dollars found in his pocket. His coworkers eagerly told the Law that the man had no money on the return trip from Portageville. The three dollars must belong to Reardon, who was the only one with any money left.

DeHaas cooled his heels in the Castile lockup, awaiting transport to the county jail while the body and the car were further examined. The bloody ax was located on a bench at the end of the boxcar opposite from the Reardon’s bunk. After the coroner sent the body along to the undertaker’s, the sheriff and district attorney took the other five men to jail on suspicion of murder until they sorted out the facts of the incident. After the post mortem, Daniel Reardon’s remains were transported back to his wife in New York City.

The grand jury took little time to provide an indictment the following week, charging the railroad worker with first-degree murder.  DeHaas pled not guilty at the arraignment, and M. S. Smallwood of Warsaw was the assigned defense counsel. The trial was set for November and Merlin Smallwood, Esq. scrambled to prepare a defense. Smallwood claimed he had a significant language barrier with his client, who said he was from Holland and spoke only Dutch. DeHaas’ English seemed rudimentary at best to the attorney. He also maintained his innocence and Smallwood believed his volatile client. Another member of the railroad crew was guilty, DeHaas assured his counsel, who mounted a vigorous defense for his client.

Rev. Imhof, a local pastor who spoke German, interpreted for DeHaas during the proceedings.  After a string of witnesses testified to DeHaas’ violent temper and his threats upon capture, the outcome looked bleak for the defense. The defendant took the stand at the end to tell his side of the story. DeHaas offered a long tale about coming to America and leaving two brothers in Europe. He testified that he’d been a good guy, serving in Holland’s army for three years, and afterwards was a cook on a ship that ran between Rotterdam and Hoboken for five years. His life story wasn’t corroborated by anyone, which didn’t help his case, plus every coworker testified the Dutchman was guilty of murder.

Folks in Castile knew of the man who’d showed up in the spring of 1913, claiming he’d walked from New York City to Castile in six days. DeHaas had called himself Haas, working briefly in the area before disappearing, only to return using a different name a few months later. His third appearance was as part of Erie Railroad gang. DeHaas was composed in his manner on the stand, speaking in broken English. He declared he hadn’t killed Daniel Reardon and was innocent of the charge.

After a weeklong trial, the jury convicted DeHaas of second-degree murder, and the judge sentenced him to serve 20 years to life at Auburn State Prison. The day after the trial, DeHaas finally broke down and confessed to Imhof in excellent English that he’d killed Reardon in a drunken rage. This startling information angered his long-suffering attorney when he learned of the confession. If he’d known the entire truth, Smallwood told reporters, he would have asked for the reduced charge of manslaughter. It was too late and Maurets DeHaas could expect to live out his days in prison.

There’s a bit of a twist in this seemingly predictable outcome, however. Here’s the rest of the story about Mr. DeHaas. On December 18, 1919, the state transferred the prisoner from Auburn to Sing Sing State Prison in Ossining, New York. Five years later, on December 12, 1924, Mauretts’ sentence was suddenly commuted. He was a free man. What caused this generosity? For some unknown reason the New York State Prison system was anxious to rid themselves of Maurets DeHaas. The governor was agreeable to the commutation if DeHaas was deported and on the next ship to Holland. He was to stay in prison until passage was arranged. Escorted to the dock, DeHaas boarded a ship for home and was never heard from again. One wonders how Maurets DeHaas fared back in his homeland and if he was restored to his family. That remains a mystery.

Wyoming County Times, 20 September 1913
Democrat & Chronicle, 22 November 1913
The Buffalo Times, 20, 21 & 25 November 1913
1920 Federal Census for Sing Sing Prison
Sing Sing Receiving Blotter for DeHaas, 18 December 1919
New York State Commutation of Sentence, 12 December 1924
Democrat & Chronicle, 21 December 1924

Sing Sing Prison Receiving Blotter for De Haas
De Haas’ Sentence Commutation 1924 NYS Executive Chamber

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