A Forged Deed and a Bloody Trunk: Mary Farmer’s Plot to Steal Her Landlord’s Home

kordovsky/iStock via Getty Images
kordovsky/iStock via Getty Images

There was something in the trunk that Mary Farmer and her husband didn’t want the authorities in Hounsfield, New York, to see. When the officers asked whom the trunk belonged to that spring day of 1908, the couple started bickering. At first, Mary insisted it belonged to her husband, James.

“It’s a damn lie!” James retorted. Begrudgingly, Mary admitted that the trunk was actually hers. But when the authorities asked her for the key to open the iron lock, it was nowhere to be found.

When the officers finally broke open the trunk, they made a horrible discovery. The newspapers would go on to call Mary Farmer's case “one of the most fiendish in the criminal annals of northern New York”—and Mary Farmer would go on to become the second woman executed by electric chair in New York state.

Driven by Envy

Like many Irish immigrants in early 20th century America, Mary Farmer struggled. She and James lived in a predominantly Irish community in Jefferson County, New York, just south of the Canadian border. The house they leased, a story-and-a-half building across the river from the village of Brownville, was described as a “hovel” by one publication.

In the fall of 1907, when Mary was in her late twenties, two events happened that put even more pressure on the Farmers: James lost his job at a local paper mill and Mary gave birth to their son Peter—their first child since their daughter had died roughly seven years earlier.

Rural cottage.
Shawn Williams/iStock via Getty Images

If Mary desired something better for her family, she only needed to look outside to be reminded of it. Her landlord, Sarah Brennan, lived next door in a house she owned with her husband, Patrick “Patsy” Brennan. Their house was a full story taller, and unlike the Farmers, the Brennans didn’t have to worry about rent. In addition to the income they received from the Farmers renting out their second property, the couple also lived on Patsy's paychecks from the paper mill where he had worked as James Farmer's immediate supervisor before James lost his job.

Mary Farmer wanted that house, and in October 1907, she decided to take it [PDF]. She went down to the office of the county clerk in nearby Watertown seeking to transfer possession of the Brennan home, as well as her own residence, to her name. Posing as Sarah Brennan, she told the clerk that the Farmers had purchased the properties from her for $2100. She said that all she needed was a document declaring the Farmers the rightful owners.

If the clerk had any suspicions, he didn’t act on them. He notarized the deed and Mary made it official by forging Sarah’s signature. Now, the only thing stopping her from moving into the home were its current residents.

A Body in the Trunk

Sarah Brennan was last seen by a neighbor walking into the Farmers’ yard the morning of Thursday, April 23, 1908. When Patsy returned home from work that day, his wife was missing. What’s more, the spot behind the shutter where Sarah normally left a house key when she went out was empty.

Before Patsy had a chance to worry, James Farmer came over to inform him that the Brennan house and all the property in it now belonged to the Farmers. Sarah had sold it to them the previous October and she had been paying the Farmers $2 a week to continue living there, James claimed. But they were tired of collecting rent and intended to move onto the property as soon as possible.

Patsy didn’t take his neighbor too seriously. Rumors that Sarah had sold their home to the Farmers had been circulating around the community for a while, and when Patsy had brought them up with his wife, she'd dismissed them as fictitious gossip.

Patsy's doubts did little to stop the Farmers from enacting their plot. The next day, they served him an eviction notice along with the fraudulent documents detailing the sale of his home and possessions. He was forced to stay with friends while his former tenants moved into the space. Sarah, meanwhile, still hadn’t returned. According to the Farmers, she was visiting a friend in Watertown.

Not buying into the couple's story, Patsy consulted an attorney, who called Sheriff Bellinger and his team to investigate the old Brennan home that Monday. When they arrived, the already-suspicious situation started to look even shadier. In the house, they found a coat stained with what appeared to be blood hidden between a bed and a wall. An ax was discovered in the yard and collected for future analysis. And in the summer kitchen at the back of the main house, they were confronted with a locked, tied-up trunk emanating a stench that was unsettlingly close to spoiled meat.

Trunk in empty room.
BrAt_PiKaChU/iStock via Getty Images

After the sheriff broke open the lock and drew back the lid, it was impossible to immediately identify the body stuffed inside the trunk. A black skirt had been draped over it, but the stockinged feet poking out from the edges of the covering suggested it was a woman. The removal of the cloth dispelled any doubt of the victim’s fate. Already in the first stages of decay, the body was “mutilated until recognition was almost impossible,” according to one newspaper [PDF]. It lay contorted with the feet pointing upward and the face pressed down against the gore-smeared trunk floor. The head appeared to be the source of the blood; the back was caved in and an ear was missing.

Patsy Brennan told the officers the corpse belonged to his wife. The Farmers denied involvement at first, claiming they had never seen the body before and had no idea how it got in the trunk, but it didn’t take long for Mary to confess. She confirmed that she had murdered Sarah Brennan in a plot to seize her neighbor's property. But her motives weren't entirely self-serving: Before committing the crime, she deeded the Brennan home to her infant son, Peter, hoping to set him up financially should the worst happen to her.

The details of her story kept changing: According to one version, Mary struck the first blow to Sarah’s head and her husband finished the job. She later changed her account to transfer all the blame to James. Despite the inconsistencies, both Farmers were charged with murder.

A Last-Minute Confession

By the end of 1908, both Mary and James Farmer were found guilty of the murder of Sarah Brennan in the first degree. Mary was sentenced to death by electric chair at Auburn State Prison, making her just the second woman from New York to be executed that way. James was also sentenced to capital punishment. Their son was sent to live with an uncle in Watertown as his parents awaited their fate.

Mary Farmer was scheduled to be executed first. The complete facts surrounding Sarah Brennan’s murder didn’t come out until she was on death row. In the days leading up to her electrocution, Mary spoke with a priest who told her that if she had any information that could prove her husband’s innocence, now was the time to share it. She sent a written statement to her spiritual adviser the day before her death. It read: "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 wish to say as strongly as I can that my husband, James D. Farmer, is entirely innocent." Indeed, while James was involved in the property transactions, it seems possible that Mary duped him by claiming to have saved up the money for the Brennan house from his paychecks.

On March 29, 1909, Mary Farmer was sent to the electric chair at Auburn State Prison. She accepted death “bravely, murmuring a prayer for her soul,” according to The New York Times. Thanks to Mary’s last-minute confession, her husband was spared the same end. After he was acquitted in a second trial in 1910, he lived out the remainder of his days in Jefferson County—the same place where his wife took Sarah Brennan's life and nearly cost him his own.

Turn Your LEGO Bricks Into a Drone With the Flybrix Drone Kit

Flyxbrix/FatBrain
Flyxbrix/FatBrain

Now more than ever, it’s important to have a good hobby. Of course, a lot of people—maybe even you—have been obsessed with learning TikTok dances and baking sourdough bread for the last few months, but those hobbies can wear out their welcome pretty fast. So if you or someone you love is looking for something that’s a little more intellectually stimulating, you need to check out the Flybrix LEGO drone kit from Fat Brain Toys.

What is a Flybrix LEGO Drone Kit?

The Flybrix drone kit lets you build your own drones out of LEGO bricks and fly them around your house using your smartphone as a remote control (via Bluetooth). The kit itself comes with absolutely everything you need to start flying almost immediately, including a bag of 56-plus LEGO bricks, a LEGO figure pilot, eight quick-connect motors, eight propellers, a propeller wrench, a pre-programmed Flybrix flight board PCB, a USB data cord, a LiPo battery, and a USB LiPo battery charger. All you’ll have to do is download the Flybrix Configuration Software, the Bluetooth Flight Control App, and access online instructions and tutorials.

Experiment with your own designs.

The Flybrix LEGO drone kit is specifically designed to promote exploration and experimentation. All the components are tough and can totally withstand a few crash landings, so you can build and rebuild your own drones until you come up with the perfect design. Then you can do it all again. Try different motor arrangements, add your own LEGO bricks, experiment with different shapes—this kit is a wannabe engineer’s dream.

For the more advanced STEM learners out there, Flybrix lets you experiment with coding and block-based coding. It uses an arduino-based hackable circuit board, and the Flybrix app has advanced features that let you try your hand at software design.

Who is the Flybrix LEGO Drone Kit for?

Flybrix is a really fun way to introduce a number of core STEM concepts, which makes it ideal for kids—and technically, that’s who it was designed for. But because engineering and coding can get a little complicated, the recommended age for independent experimentation is 13 and up. However, kids younger than 13 can certainly work on Flybrix drones with the help of their parents. In fact, it actually makes a fantastic family hobby.

Ready to start building your own LEGO drones? Click here to order your Flybrix kit today for $198.

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When Al Capone Ran a Soup Kitchen During the Great Depression

Al Capone: Public Enemy #1, soup kitchen proprietor
Al Capone: Public Enemy #1, soup kitchen proprietor
The Paris Bureau of The New York Times, National Archives and Records Administration // Public Domain

Four years after gangster Al Capone took over Chicago’s leading crime syndicate, he had raked in over $40 million—around $550 million today. The money came from illegally selling booze during Prohibition; bottles were distributed to more than 10,000 speakeasies and brothels in a vast bootlegging network across the Midwest.

Capone’s alcohol distribution was unlawful, but to many Americans, the man’s work was heroic. He claimed he was just a businessman giving the people what they wanted—and what the people wanted more than anything in the 1920s was liquor.

But Capone’s role as an Italian-American Robin Hood didn’t stop there. As he orchestrated criminal activities behind the scenes, Capone simultaneously launched a program to provide milk to Chicago school children and donated huge sums to local charities.

It was the stock market crash on October 29, 1929, however, that spurred Capone to his greatest work of philanthropy. Almost overnight, the American economy collapsed into the Great Depression. Banks failed, businesses shuttered, and millions were suddenly unemployed and hungry. Hundreds of soup kitchens popped up around the country. One of them belonged to Al Capone.

No Questions Asked

Men line up at Al Capone's soup kitchen during the Great Depression
Men line up at Al Capone's soup kitchen during the Great Depression.
The Paris Bureau of The New York Times, National Archives and Records Administration // Public Domain

When Al Capone’s soup kitchen opened at 935 South State Street, in Chicago’s South Loop neighborhood, in mid-November 1930, hundreds of thousands of Chicagoans were out of work. By the following year, 624,000 people—or 50 percent of the Chicago workforce—were out of a job.

Capone’s charity had no name, just a sign over the door that advertised “Free Soup, Coffee & Doughnuts for the Unemployed.” Inside, women in white aprons served an average of 2200 people a day with a smile and no questions asked. Breakfast was hot coffee and sweet rolls. Both lunch and dinner consisted of soup and bread. Every 24 hours, diners devoured 350 loaves of bread and 100 dozen rolls. They washed down their meals with 30 pounds of coffee sweetened with 50 pounds of sugar. The whole operation cost $300 per day.

The soup kitchen didn’t advertise its connection to Capone, but the mobster-benefactor’s name was connected to it in stories printed in local newspapers like the Chicago Tribune and The Rock Island Argus. Those who were down on their luck, though, apparently had few qualms about eating from the hand of Chicago’s worst crime boss. Often the line to get in to the kitchen was so long that it wound past the door of the city’s police headquarters, where Capone was considered Public Enemy #1, according to Harper’s Magazine. The line was particularly lengthy when Capone’s soup kitchen hosted a Thanksgiving meal of cranberry sauce and beef stew for 5000 hungry Chicagoans. (Why beef and not turkey? After 1000 turkeys were stolen from a nearby department store, Capone feared he’d be blamed for the theft and made a last-minute menu change.)

Capone's Ulterior Motives

Capone’s efforts to feed Chicago during the darkest days of the Great Depression weren’t entirely altruistic. It wasn’t even originally his idea, but that of his friend and political ally Daniel Serritella, who was elected to the Illinois state senate in 1930. Nor did Capone invest much of his own money into the operation. Instead, Deirdre Bair writes in Capone: His Life, Legacy and Legend, he bribed and extorted other businesses to stock the pantry. In just one example, during Seritella's 1932 trial for conspiring with grocers to cheat customers [PDF], the court discovered that a load of ducks that had been donated to Christmas baskets for the poor ended up in Capone’s soup kitchen instead.

Perhaps more than anything, Capone opened his soup kitchen to get the public back on his side after he was implicated in the 1929 Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre. In that murder spree, Capone's associates were believed to have assassinated seven men, five of whom hailed from the rival North Side Gang, inside a Chicago parking garage—though no one was ever prosecuted. Harper’s writer Mary Borden distilled Capone's double-dealing when she described him as “an ambidextrous giant who kills with one hand and feeds with the other.”

Capone’s soup kitchen closed abruptly in April 1932. The proprietors claimed that the kitchen was no longer needed because the economy was picking up, even though the number of unemployed across the country had increased by 4 million between 1931 and 1932. The diners who had attended the kitchen daily were forced to move on to another one.

Two months later, Capone was indicted on 22 counts of income tax evasion; the charges that eventually landed him in San Francisco’s Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary. Though Capone vowed to reopen his soup kitchen during his trial, its doors stayed shut. By the time he was released from prison in 1939, a raging case of syphilis had rendered Capone mentally and physically incapable of managing his own life, let alone that of Chicago’s once-dominant crime syndicate and the soup kitchen that softened his gangster image.

Capone died in 1947, but his larger-than-life legacy lives on. His soup kitchen wasn’t so lucky. The building became a flophouse, and in 1955, Chicago authorities deemed it a fire hazard and shut it down permanently. Today, only a parking lot remains at the site of Chicago’s most notorious food pantry.