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.
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.
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.