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.

Driving With Ice or Snow on Your Car Could Get You Fined Up to $1000 in Some States

Guasor/iStock via Getty Images
Guasor/iStock via Getty Images

Ranking up there with high heating bills and 4 p.m. sunsets, scraping ice off your car is one of the most annoying parts of winter. But the alternative to clearing your roof, windows, and windshield before hitting the road is worse. According to Good Housekeeping, some states will fine you up to $1000 for driving with any snow or ice on your car.

There are 11 states that penalize drivers for operating a vehicle without properly cleaning it of snow and ice first. That means if you drive with a sheet of snow on the roof of your car—or a few patches of ice around the edges of your windshield—you're liable for an expensive ticket.

Even if you've scraped enough of the frost off the glass to see the road, driving with an ice-encrusted car is still dangerous. That ice will melt as your engine heats up and potentially fly off your car, creating hazards for the drivers around you. Motorists who are pulled over for having an icy car are often charged with distracted driving or for making the roads dangerous for others. Here are the states where you can be fined for driving with ice or snow on your vehicle:

  • Alaska
  • Connecticut
  • Georgia
  • Massachusetts
  • Michigan
  • New Hampshire
  • New Jersey
  • Pennsylvania
  • Rhode Island
  • Tennessee
  • Wisconsin

Letting your car warm up to melt any snow on the outside may seem like a safe shortcut to cleaning your vehicle, but this can also get you into legal trouble. In New Jersey, idling your car for an extended period of time—even if it's on private property—can earn you a fine up to $1000.

Fortunately, you don't have to choose between driving under dangerous and illegal conditions or getting frostbite scraping every inch of your car. To melt the ice off your car quickly, spray it with a solution of one part water and two parts rubbing alcohol. Alcohol won't freeze in normal winter temperatures, so you won't have to worry about adding more ice to your car in your attempts to clean it off.

[h/t Good Housekeeping]

The Story of Kate Warne, America's First Female Private Detective

The young woman smiled as she met her brother at a train station in Philadelphia on the evening of February 22, 1861. Her sibling was tall but stooped over and covered in a shawl, rendering his facial features difficult for passerby to discern. To anyone who asked, she explained that her brother had taken ill and needed some breathing room.

On the sleeper car of the passenger train, the woman slipped cash to the conductor, urging him to avoid placing anyone else at the rear of the car. Accompanied by three other men in addition to her sibling, she settled in for a long night’s train ride.

It was no ordinary trip, however. The woman had lied when she said the man was her brother. In fact, he was president-elect Abraham Lincoln, traveling through a hotbed of secessionist activity on his way to his inauguration in Washington, D.C. Her name was Kate Warne—and she was the first female private detective in America.

 

Given her status as a pioneer in law enforcement, surprisingly little is known about Warne’s past. No verified photos of her are known to exist, and she left behind no comprehensive chronicle of her landmark work. Then again, adopting various guises in the pursuit of intelligence meant that obscuring her true history was often a matter of professional obligation.

Warne was born in Erin, New York, in 1830 or 1833. Coming from a family of modest means, she had only a limited education. She was interested in becoming an actress, but her family opposed the idea and she soon abandoned that ambition. While she later described herself as a widow, there are no details about her marriage or the fate of a husband, who reportedly died in an accident. Warne’s life seemed to begin in 1856, when the 23-year-old walked into the Pinkerton National Detective Agency offices in Chicago and declared that she would like to become a detective.

Pinkerton was named for and run by Allan Pinkerton, a Scottish immigrant who worked as a deputy sheriff and for the Chicago police department. In the 1850s, he opened a private agency that soon had offices in several major cities. The Pinkerton name became renowned for its diligent approach to complicated matters that perplexed local law enforcement.

Pinkerton had high standards, but he was also prey to the gender biases of the era. Female police officers or detectives were virtually unheard of at the time, and Pinkerton assumed the young woman in front of him—whom he later described as “slender, graceful in her movements, and perfectly self-possessed in her manner” with “eyes filled with fire”—was looking for secretarial work.

A magnifying glass and papers are pictured

Warne corrected him. She pointed out that he had placed an ad looking for new hires and that she had come to Pinkerton for the express purpose of becoming a private detective. She explained that his force lacked a key component when it came to gathering intelligence—being able to assume the role of a woman’s confidante. By ingratiating herself, she said, she would be likely to discover information about crimes plotted by husbands, who tended to make their wives privy to schemes that involved enriching the family’s coffers. And she would also be able to take advantage of the fact that men tended to brag when women were around.

Pinkerton was not wholly convinced. It took several meetings with Warne before he decided to ignore convention and hire her. Later, Pinkerton would describe her as one of the five best agents he had ever employed.

A compelling dossier of cases followed. In 1858, Warne was tasked with obtaining a lead on a case involving the theft of $10,000 from the Adams Express Company railroad. The agency suspected a man named Nathan Maroney, the manager of the company’s Montgomery, Alabama, offices, since he was believed to be the last employee to see the money before it disappeared. Warne was dispatched to Montgomery, and when she arrived, she quickly charmed Mrs. Maroney. She soon divulged that her husband had not only taken the cash, but that she knew where to find it—hidden in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania. Nathan Maroney was convicted, and all but a few hundred dollars recovered.

On another occasion, Warne thwarted a plot to poison a wealthy Captain Sumner by posing as a fortune teller. Pinkerton rented out a space for her to ply her trade—which she quickly learned from books on the subject—and hosted Sumner's sister, Annie Thayer. Thayer was impressed by Warne's knowledge of her life, which had been prepared by the Pinkterton agents. Trusting that Warne had a real gift for divination, she eventually disclosed that she was under the direction of a lover named Mr. Pattmore to assist in the murder of Pattmore's wife and her own brother, Captain Sumner, so they could enjoy his fortune. (Pattmore was convicted of his wife's murder and spent 10 years in prison; the pair were caught before they could murder Sumner.)

Warne’s success in these efforts was due in large part to her demeanor, which Pinkerton would later describe as being warm and affable. People seemed eager to share secrets with her, even if those secrets were incriminating. But part of it was also Warne’s unique place among law enforcement officials. Early on, no one could suspect her of being a detective because it was considered impossible that a woman would be occupying that role.

 

As successful as Warne was, it was her efforts on behalf of Abraham Lincoln that became the highlight of her career.

Shortly before Lincoln’s inauguration in March 1861, railroad magnate and Lincoln ally Samuel Morse Felton realized that the secessionists stirring against the new president were growing more dangerous by the minute. There were even rumors they might interfere with railroads to and from Washington to disrupt Lincoln's entry into office. In the absence of a Secret Service, which had yet to be conceived, Felton wrote to Pinkerton for assistance.

Though Felton didn’t yet know it, the secessionists planned on more than just blocking Lincoln’s travels from Springfield, Illinois: Lincoln was also receiving death threats involving everything from a knife to a spider-filled dumpling.

 A photo of Allan Pinkerton circa 1861
Allan Pinkerton
Brady's National Photographic Galleries, Wikimedia // Public Domain

Felton and Pinkerton met in Philadelphia. Pinkerton advised that any true threat against the president was likely to materialize in Baltimore, the only major slaveholding city on Lincoln's itinerary aside from Washington, as well as an inevitable stop—all potential routes to the inauguration involved a stop there. Worse, Lincoln planned to arrive at one train station and then depart from another one mile away. There would be ample opportunity for a person or persons to commit an assault.

Pinkerton dispatched several agents to investigate, including Warne, who posed as a southern ally complete with an accent and a cockade, or a knot of ribbons that signaled Southern sympathies. It was a routine she had already practiced during the train robbery investigation. Pinkerton himself also went to Baltimore to investigate, posing as a stockbroker.

Collectively, the Pinkerton agents assembled a portrait of conspirators who were planning to intercept Lincoln as he changed trains in the city. The plan had been concocted by one Cypriano Ferrandini, who transferred his love of Italian revolution to the Southern cause. The idea was that a mob would surround Lincoln while others created a distraction to draw police away from the scene. Beforehand, the secessionists would draw ballots to determine who would shoot Lincoln dead. (In fact, several men drew the fatal red ballot in a dark room, fulfilling Ferrandini’s desire to have several would-be assassins hunting for Lincoln during the stopover.)

Lincoln, when he was debriefed on the plot, was reticent to change his touring plans. Eventually, though, he relented. Pinkerton formulated a scheme, one that involved bringing Lincoln to Baltimore in advance of his expected arrival and cutting off telegram lines so his would-be assassins couldn’t be easily tipped off. Covering Lincoln in a shawl and declaring him frail, Warne, Pinkerton, and two others—Pinkerton lieutenant George Bangs and Lincoln's friend Ward Lamon—got him on board the train in Philadelphia without incident.

As they traveled through the night, Warne gripped a pistol she carried, wondering if Lincoln’s rivals would force her to use it.

When they got to Baltimore, Warne, no longer needed to pose as a sibling, departed. Thanks to a noise ordinance, the sleeper car had to be unhitched from the train and carried by horse through the city until it reached the station with the Washington-bound train. Once there, the men spent a few nervous hours inside their sleeper car waiting for the connecting train. But Lincoln stayed unnoticed. The president-elect went on to his eventual destination of Washington, safe for the moment.

The next day, Lincoln asked the agents to visit him so he could thank them, including Warne, for protecting him. “I am sensible, ma’am, of having put you in some inconvenience—not to speak of placing you in danger,” he told her.

Warne continued to work for Pinkerton through the Civil War, sometimes posing with Allan Pinkerton as a couple. Pinkerton himself was appointed head of the Union Intelligence Service, the forerunner of the Secret Service, and gathered information during the Civil War. Warne eventually became superintendent of the agency’s bureau for women, training a growing number of female detectives.

Unfortunately, she wouldn’t live to see the ranks continue to expand. Warne died in 1868 at the age of 35 (or perhaps 38) of pneumonia. It’s a testament to her mysterious background that she wasn't delivered back to family, if indeed Pinkerton knew of any. Instead, she was buried in Pinkerton’s family plot in Graceland Cemetery in Chicago. Today, her headstone is worn to the point that it reads “Kate Warn.” If time winds up taking more of her name from her final resting place, there’s little doubt that history will remember it in full.

Additional Sources: The Spy of the Rebellion.

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