Wyoming County’s First Hanging
Note: Thanks to Nancy, one of Along the Genesee’s readers who suggested today’s post.
While contractors hired to construct the Portage Bridge were finalizing plans to begin the ambitious project in the spring of 1851, railroad gangs were already hard at work in Attica, building the rail beds for the Attica & Hornellsville Railroad. This new section connecting to the Erie Railroad at Attica would wind through the towns of Attica, Middlebury, Warsaw, Gainesville, Castile, and Genesee Falls before entering Livingston County. Thousands of immigrant Irishmen found employment with the railroads in the 1850s because of the potato famine in Ireland. The tragic famine (1845-1852) caused by a devastating potato fungus drove great numbers—a million by some estimates, from the verdant shores of Ireland to the United States in hopes of feeding their starving families. However, the influx of cheap labor for the railroads brought many problems, including violence. Strikes and riots were common, and a deadly one occurred during the construction of the Portage Bridge in July, 1851. (See The Portage Bridge)
A significant Irish community was in Attica, and the railroad was the leading employer for the immigrants. Whisky was considered a staple in those days of hard-working and hard-drinking men. There were many licensed bars and unlicensed “grog holes” that provided liquor in the area, which contributed to domestic violence, worker safety issues, and brawling. Shanties built along the tracks not only housed families but some sold whisky, and women plied their trade from these conveniently located businesses. Such was the case in Attica on the afternoon of March 31, 1851, when the intoxicated Edward Russell approached Robert McCann, an overseer for Lyford & Company. This contractor was building the railroad bed about two miles east of the village.
Edward Russell was a big man for the time period, around six feet tall, and he approached Robert McCann carrying a 4 ½ foot maple club about an inch and a half in diameter. He hailed McCann and asked him for work. McCann said he had nothing that day but to see him the next day, and he would put him to work. Russell then asked, “Are you afraid of me?” McCann made no reply and turned back to his own job. Without warning, the disappointed laborer swung the club and coshed the foreman on the right side of the head. McCann collapsed to the ground, and Russell hit the defenseless man two more times before running off. He was heard to say, “That’s how I serve such men,” as he threw away the club.
None of the other laborers made a move to help McCann or chase after Russell. However, one man did run back to the village to report the crime, and the village constable, John S. Chase, gathered a posse to look for the man. A wagon was found for the unconscious foreman, and he was taken to a nearby shanty where Dr. Gardner Dorrance was called to attend the mortally wounded man. His wife was also brought to stay with her husband. The head injuries were severe, and the doctor gave no hope to the distraught wife. His pulse was weak, and his breathing shallow—it was only a matter of time. The doctor stayed with the couple until around 11:00pm that night. A few minutes after the doctor left, McCann drew his last breath. The crime was now murder.
Russell fled northward and found another shanty where he demanded sanctuary and whisky from a girl watching the children there while the mother was out. He then snatched an overcoat and hat from a teenage boy who stopped by to visit the family. The fugitive went up into the house’s loft to hide, instructing the household to be quiet. Fearing he would soon be apprehended, Russell decided to tear a board out from the side of the house and jumped to the ground. Racing to the nearby woods, the felon crawled under a brush pile. The posse soon found him and carted the subdued Russell back to the village in a buggy, where the constable arrested him for assault. By morning, the constable amended the charge to murder, and the prisoner was transported to Warsaw and the Wyoming County Jail, into the custody of Sheriff Timothy H. Buxton on April 2, 1851.
Rumors flew around the county about an Irish conspiracy, and Russell was a hired killer. However, these were proved false when the trial began on Wednesday, October 22, 1851. The murder trial, initially set for September, was postponed due to the assigned judge’s death the day before the trial was set to begin. The Hon. Moses Taggart, 8th District Supreme Court Judge, now presided over the trial. The judge overruled the defense counsel, Ferdinand C. D. McKay and Linus Thayer, who attempted a delay tactic. Jury selection began, which took the better part of the day, but before the court was adjourned, 12 men sat in the jury box. Four were from Warsaw, two from Covington, one from Gainesville, two from Pike, two from Perry, and one from China (Arcade).
The defendant’s wife sat next to him throughout the trial. He was stoic, and she was quite the opposite as witness after witness testified describing her husband’s unprovoked attack on McCann. That fateful day, the gang working in the pit knew Edward Russell, and many of the men had sailed with him from Ireland to New York. That connection was said to be why the men didn’t come to McCann’s aid. Four different physicians, including Dr. Dorrance, who treated the doomed Robert McCann, testified about the victim’s wounds, and they agreed that two of the three blows were fatal ones.
Defense attorney L. W. Thayer vigorously argued that the attack wasn’t malicious. However, the evidence was overwhelming to the contrary, and the jury returned a verdict of guilty of murder on Saturday, October 25, just 90 minutes after the case was handed to them for deliberation at 5:00pm. Mrs. Russell went into hysterics, moaning and shrieking in her husband’s arms. The sheriff finally had to take her away to a room below the courtroom, although the woman’s shrieking could still be heard above. It was then that Russell burst into tears.
On Monday, October 27, Judge Taggart pronounced sentence on Edward Russell:
“The sentence of the Court is that you, Edward Russell, be taken to the common jail of the county, and be there confined until the 19th day of December next, between the hours of 10 and 12 o’clock in the forenoon; and that on the 19th day of December next, between the hours of 10 and 12 o’clock in the forenoon of that day, you be taken by the Sheriff of the County of Wyoming to the place prepared by him for the execution of this sentence, with the yard or enclosure of said jail, there, between the hours of 10 and 12, that you be hanged by the neck until you shall be dead.”
Sheriff Buxton was now responsible for carrying out Wyoming County’s first hanging, an immense undertaking logistically. He had the gallows built in the southeast corner of the jail yard, out of the curious public’s view but very much visible from Russell’s cell window. Public executions were against the law, so the sheriff was mindful of those motivated voyeurs who might scramble atop a nearby building to glimpse the execution. Crowds were expected in the Village of Warsaw for the historic day, and because of the volatility of the railroad workers, Buxton needed to be prepared for the worst. The railroad riots between 1851 and 1853 were deadly, and the sheriff was a man determined to keep law and order in Wyoming County on his watch. He wasn’t going to allow any violent mobs on December 19.
The Wyoming Riflemen, a private organization of men from Genesee Falls and Pike were engaged to keep the peace and guard the entrance to the jail during the hanging. Two Catholic priests, Fr. Thomas Fitzgerald of Batavia and Fr. Daniel Dolan of Portage accompanied Russell, along with Sheriff Buxton and the undersheriff to the platform. Russell confessed to Sheriff Buxton just minutes before they left the jail that he didn’t even know McCann and had killed him in a drunken rage.
At 11:20am on December 19, 1851, the sheriff carried out his duty. A group of over 20 men witnessed the hanging per New York State law. Included in the group were the county clerk, district attorney, all of the sheriff’s deputies, four doctors, two judges, and others.
The doctors who were present examined the body and declared that life was extinguished after 20 minutes. The newspapers reported the drop was clean, and the condemned man never moved after the fall. Russell’s body was transported to Java, where his funeral was held on Sunday, December 21. He was buried in an unmarked grave in the Town of Java.
Hanging was highly uncommon in Wyoming County, and only one would follow on April 18, 1888. An ex-Salvation Army member, Robert Van Brunt was hanged for the murder of Will Roy from Castile. After 1888, the electric chair was introduced as the means of execution in New York State.
Historical Wyoming: Crime and Justice, Gephart-Ripstein
Beers 1880 Wyoming County History
Buffalo Daily Republic, April 10, 1851
1850 Federal Census for Attica, New York
Buffalo Courier, December 25, 1851
Western New Yorker, October 28, 1851
Daily Courier, Buffalo, NY, December 25, 1851