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.

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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.

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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.

Get Into the Halloween Spirit With Harry Potter and Star Wars Costumes and Accessories From Hot Topic

Hot Topic
Hot Topic

Halloween is fast approaching, and that means it's time to start picking up those decorations, planning your costume, and settling down for a few monster movie marathons. Hot Topic is already way ahead of you, with a selection of costumes and accessories based on fan-favorite movies and TV shows like Harry Potter, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Stranger Things, and Hocus Pocus. We've picked out some of our favorites for you to check out below.

Harry Potter

1. Beauxbatons Hat and Cape Uniform; $60

Hot Topic

If Fleur Delacour is your favorite character from the Triwizard Tournament, then this look is for you. Beauxbatons baby blue hat and cape can now be yours to prance around in and pretend you're from the magical French academy for young witches.

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2. Hogwarts Zip-Up Hoodie Cloak; $55

Hot Topic

One of the most iconic parts of the Hogwarts uniform is the cloak. The sweeping black robes looked so official and mystical in the movies that it almost seems wrong not to wear one if you want to be a Hogwarts student for Halloween. These hoodie cloaks are available in all four house colors.

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3. Hogwarts Cardigan Sweater; $49

Hot Topic

Much like the cloak, the sweater vests and cardigans the students at Hogwarts got to wear are essential to any costume. You can choose from the four house crests and colors, so you can show your allegiance while also making a fashion statement.

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4. Hogwarts Plaid Skirtall; $45

Hot Topic

Though this isn't a look you'd recognize from the Harry Potter movies, these plaid skirtalls—skirt overalls, basically—feature the crest and colors of whichever house you represent.

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Star Wars

1. The Mandalorian Helmet; $17

Hot Topic

With the second season of The Mandalorian coming out right in time for Halloween, going as one of the show's main characters is a no-brainer. And since you probably can't pull off the Baby Yoda look, this simple Mando helmet is your best option.

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2. Yoda Pet Costume; $20

Hot Topic

Baby Yoda is easily the cutest thing to emerge from the new Disney+ series, and there's no shortage of merchandise with that little green face plastered across it. From Amazon Echo Dots to slippers to LEGO sets, the little rascal is everywhere. But if you're more a fan of classic Yoda, you can impose your love of the character on your dog with this costume, complete with floppy green ears and tiny Jedi robe.

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3. The Force Awakens Rey Costume; $48

Hot Topic

Rey represents a new generation of Star Wars hero, and her costume during her time on Jakku from The Force Awakens is still her most iconic look. It's also a costume that's simple enough to throw on for Halloween and still feel comfortable in.

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4. R2-D2 with Pumpkin Decoration; $50

Hot Topic

When trick-or-treaters stop to collect candy from your house, greet them with this inflatable R2-D2 decoration that's primed for Halloween. Standing around 3 feet tall, this will show off your love for a galaxy far, far away and your holiday spirit.

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The Nightmare Before Christmas

1. Sally Scrunchies Set; $10

Hot Topic

If you're looking to embrace your The Nightmare Before Christmas love in a more subtle way, opt for these Sally-approved scrunchies that embody the colors of the movie without going too far overboard.

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2. Jack Skellington Button-Up Shirt; $35

Hot Topic

If Jack Skellington is your ultimate fashion hero, then this button-up pinstriped shirt is the ticket for you. It mimics Jack's look right down to the unique bat-shaped collar.

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3. Jack and Sally 'Love is Eternal' Eyeshadow Palette; $17

Hot Topic

Makeup inspired by your favorite characters is the key to completing a Halloween look, and this palette will help you make a colorful, smokey eye featuring shades seen in The Nightmare Before Christmas. You can even use these colors long after Halloween is over once you've mastered your favorite style.

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4. Zero Dog Costume; $29

Hot Topic

The real star of The Nightmare Before Christmas has to be the dog, Zero, and now you can drape your own pooch in the ghostly visage for under $30.

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- Hocus Pocus
- The Craft

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200 Rare Books Were Stolen in a Thrilling Heist—Three Years Later, They’ve Been Found Buried in Romania

The books were wrapped a little better than these.
The books were wrapped a little better than these.
Alen Makota/iStock via Getty Images

In January 2017, a pair of agile bandits cut holes in the roof of a London warehouse, rappelled down shelves—steering clear of motion sensors—and absconded with 16 bags of rare books worth about $3.2 million. The mission took about 5 hours to complete, and by 2:15 a.m., the perpetrators had fled the scene in a getaway car, which they bleached clean before deserting. The stolen cache of tomes included first edition works by Sir Isaac Newton, Galileo, and Francisco Goya, and an international coalition of investigators from the UK, Italy, and Romania (plus additional help from European Union forces) has spent more than three years trying to recover it. Now, they finally have.

As The Guardian reports, Romanian police officers located around 200 missing volumes all carefully wrapped and buried in an underground cement pit inside a house in Neamț County, Romania. The crime wasn’t an isolated incident; the thieves are members of a Romanian organized crime gang linked to a number of similar warehouse heists. According to a statement from London’s Metropolitan Police, they’ve managed to elude capture for so long partly because they pilfer abroad, but also because they don’t keep evidence on them for very long (the warehouse operatives pass their spoils on to cohorts and quickly leave the country).

For this particular crime, however, they were sloppy. Investigators discovered DNA on one of the vehicle’s headrests, which helped lead to the arrest of 13 people involved in the book burglary and related crimes. That was in June 2019; it took another 15 months to track down the books themselves.

“This recovery is a perfect end to this operation,” London detective inspector Andy Durham said in a statement. “These books are extremely valuable, but more importantly they are irreplaceable and are of great importance to international cultural heritage.”

[h/t The Guardian]