Western New York’s Most Infamous Trials
By Elizabeth Licata
All photographs in this article © Jim Bush.
In 1995, Austin Fox wrote about the trial of Leon Czolgosz, the McKinley assassin, for Buffalo Spree. He pondered the criteria necessary for a trial to deserve the term “trial of the century.” He wondered if the effects of the crime on the public as a whole should play a role. Certainly, the McKinley assassination had an immediate and dramatic effect on the entire American publicsuddenly, we had a new president. It also had an immediate, and rather negative effect on the Western New York community, dampening the enthusiasm generated by the Pan-American exposition, and marking the beginning of the end of Buffalo’s 19th century prosperity.
Over the years, many important cases have passed through the courts of Western New Yorkcases that helped to shape the nation’s views and feeling about controversial subjects. From Love Canal to the assassination of President McKinley, Spree looks at some of the more significant trials of the last century.
Looking back on an entire century of trials, one can easily see that Buffalo has had its share of lurid felonies, political scandals, and wacky community disputes that eventually wound up in our courtrooms. Many of themlike former Park Commissioner Robert Delano’s trial for corruptiondominated newspaper headlines for months at a time. In the end, though, how many of these will really be remembered? How many of them had a public impact that changed our community in both the short and the long term and/or stretched to national, even international boundaries?
There aren’t that many. I can only think of two court cases that had a lasting national impact, and a few criminal cases that have stayed in the Buffalo consciousness for various reasons. The first example is not just one trial, but many: all the court cases that make up the behemoth we’ve always referred to as Love Canal. There is no question that Love Canal continues to have a huge impact on environmental policy in the United States. The case is notorious throughout the world, not just for the facts of the environmental disaster, but also for how the state and federal governments and court systems dealt with it. The fact that many of the Love Canal lawsuits were settled out of court doesn’t alleviate their legal impact: the settlements were so complex, they took years longer than most trials!
Twenty Two Years and Still Going
Love Canal as an environmental catastrophe officially began in March, 1978, when the New York State Department of Health began collecting air, soil, and human health data from the area surrounding the 99th Street School, near the southern border of the city of Niagara Falls. The Niagara Falls Board of Education had purchased the fifteen acre site in 1953 from Hooker Chemical and Plastics Company, who had buried thousands of tons of toxic chemicals there from 1947 to 1952.
The state study was done after years of repeated complaints from area homeowners telling of odors and “substances” they observed oozing out of the ground. Soon after the study, in June, 1978, an area housewife, Lois Gibbs, formed a group of concerned parents (Love Canal Parents Movement) who wanted to know more about what their children were being exposed to at School 99. Much to their surprise, the NYSDH issued an order to close the school and the state offered to purchase 239 houses immediately surrounding it (the infamous first two “rings”) in August. These actions served to further unite the community of homeowners, and the Love Canal Homeowners Association was born. From then on, there were continual battles between the homeowners and New York State, as the state tried to define the problem as stopping at the first two rings of houses and the homeowner group contended that the scope of the disaster was far, far worse. Finallyafter visits to the site by Jane Fonda, Tom Hayden, Al Gore, and Jimmy Carter, among others, countless protests by the homeowners (including holding two EPA workers hostage), and more scientific research, a total evacuation was ordered in 1980. The research had determined, among other things, that 56% of children born in Love Canal between 1974-78 had birth defects, that miscarriages increased 300% upon relocation to Love Canal, that urinary tract infections increased by 300%, and that Love Canal residents had chromosonal damage, greatly increasing their risk for cancer (with odds as high as one in ten), reproductive problems, and genetic damage.
The lawsuits began in 1979. By October 31, 1979, there were over 800 lawsuits filed naming Hooker Chemical, the City of Niagara Falls, the County of Niagara, and the Board of Education for a total of 11 billion. By December, the federal government was also suing Hooker Chemical for 124 million. Hooker had inserted a disclaimer in their 1953 agreement with the Board of Education saying that they would not be responsible for any ill effects from the chemicals, but that wasn’t stopping anybody from going after both them and the Board. In the meantime, the state was trying to get back the 22 million they had spent relocating residents and cleaning up the site. Federal disaster funds were denied for this.
Lois Gibbs with her daughter Melissa during the early days of organizing the Love Canal protests.
In June, 1979, the initial 1.63 billion Superfund legislation had been conceived in order to address hazardous waste clean-up throughout America. It was finally passed in December, 1980, but for clean-up only, not compensation to victims. In fact, New York State was unable to collect for the 22 million it had spent because of a technical error in the wording of the bill. It could only collect for work done after the bill was passed. In April, 1980, New York State filed its $635 million lawsuit against Occidental Petroleum and two of its subsidiaries, the Hooker Chemical and Hooker Chemicals and Plastics Corporations.
All these millions and billions in lawsuits were providing employment for countless Western New York lawyers. The conflicts between New York State and Hooker were settled through a series of agreements over how the clean-up would be handled and paid for. In the end, most of the suits were settled out of court, including a 20 million settlement to 1,328 Love Canal residents in 1983but other related suits and settlements took many years to come to resolution, and dragged on well into the 90s. In the meantime, the controversy over the resettlement of Love Canal continues.
The second big trial that comes to mind is the 1974-76 Buffalo school desegregation case, which was controversial in its time and had an aftermath that not only forever changed Buffalo but also got the attention of many other American cities.
There wasn’t nearly as much money at stake in the 1974 Buffalo desegregation case as in the Love Canal lawsuits but what was at stake wassociopolitically speakingfar more valuable than a multi-billion dollar settlement. Just as Love Canal had endangered the physical health of an entire community, Buffalo’s racially segregated schools had endangered the social health of a community. In the desegregation case, the issues under discussion were social justice, racial harmony, and educational opportunity.
By the end of the 1960s, the word “bussing” had become as politically charged as “abortion” is now. Buffalo parents, teachers, administrators, and politicians were very nervous, and with good reason.
In Boston, a state-created desegregation plan was prompting five thousand demonstrators to march through the streets of South Boston. Rocks were being thrown at both white and black students as they made their way to their newly mandated schools. In spite of the violence that enforced integration was causing in other cities, many citizens in Buffalo felt it was high time the extreme racial imbalance in the city’s school system was addressed. Buffalo civil rights activists Norman Goldfarb, Frank Mesiah, and Raphael DuBard were the plaintiffs in the Buffalo desegregation case; their trial lawyer was Richard Griffin. Goldfarb had been active in the civil rights movementworking for integrated workplaces and social clubs as well as schoolssince the 1950s.
The defendants were the Buffalo Board of Education, the State Board of Regents, and the City of Buffalo, who had already refused to comply with a previous 1972 desegregation order by State Commissioner of Education Ewald Nyquist. Their lawyer’s (Leslie Foschio) argument was that school segregation in Buffalo had happened naturally, as a result of population shifts, and that the defendants could not be held liable. Recent precedent weighed heavily against them, however, and the plaintiffs were able to show that segregated schools could be the result of less overt state actions and policies than actual laws, and that demographic shifts could come about through subtler acts like redistricting and housing discrimination.
James Colby, Love Canal 1, 1979-80 (from the exhibition Tainted Prospects: Photographers and the Compromised Environment, organized by the Castellani Art Museum of Niagara University.
In 1976, Judge John Curtin ruled that the defendants had violated the plaintiffs’ 14th amendment rights to equal protection under the law. The Buffalo Board of Education had been so sure that he would find against them that they had been busily working out a solution they called the Buffalo Plan. This solution was to be fine tunedunder the guidance and authority of Curtinover the next three years before it eventually became Buffalo’s Magnet school system, specialty schools designed to attract students across racial boundaries. It was a grand attempt to integrate schools without forced bussing and to improve the Buffalo school system. For many years, this system, maintained in part by federal integration funds, was considered one of the best in the country. School planners from all over America, Europe, and Japan, visited Buffalo to see nationally commended newly integrated schools such as City Honors and Futures Academy.
There are many that have garnered publicity in the area, but I chose three, two for their horror, one for its absurdity.
Richard LongA victim of police brutality
At about the same time that Judge Curtin was deliberating about the segregation case and mothers in Love Canal were beginning to ask questions about the safety of their neighborhood, one of Buffalo’s most horrifying cases of police brutality took place. Richard Long, an 18 year old from North Buffalo planning his first semester at Buffalo State College, was dragged from his brother’s car at 2:30 a.m. on June 25, 1977, beaten and stomped to death by two police officers (Philip Gramaglia and Gary Atti) and a Buffalo businessman (Jack Giammaresi). The three were charged with first degree manslaughter.
The beating was precipitated by a traffic incident, in which Long, driving home after a party, cut off Gramaglia and Atti (who had also been celebrating). The two policemen bragged to their friends about the beating afterwards, over drinks at Mulligans. They never attempted to deny their actions, as this chilling testimony from the trial transcript demonstrates:
from Images of America: Buffalo’s
Pan-American Exposition, by Thomas Leary and Elizabeth Sholes with the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society. (Arcadia, 1998)
“Q. He went down?
A [Gramaglia]. Yes, sir.
Q. What did you do?
A. When he was down, or when he was going down, or just about all the way down, I kicked him.
A [Atti]: ...Phil reached down and grabbed him by his shirt and tried to pull, lift him up, and the kid says ‘No,’ so then I started to holler ‘Get up, get up,’ and he wouldn’t get up, and I gave him a quick kick to what I believe is the top of the head.
Q. Then what happened?
A. Well, I believe we were still hollering to get up, and I kicked him again.”
(from Buffalo News, June 25, 1987)
Long drowned in his own blood. Most of the testimony in the trial revolved around whether other officers had been involved, and, although many people still believe there were more, in the end only Gramaglia, Atti, and Giammaresi were convicted. After a relatively painless 18 month stretch in a minimum security facility, the three resumed their lives in Buffalo. This relatively mild verdict was condemned by many.
The Long trial was front page news in Buffalo for months, and was instrumental in ending the mayoral career of Stanley Makowski, making room for then State Senator Jimmy Griffin. Makowski’s police chief, Thomas Blair, left with him.
The 22-caliber killer
Joseph G. Christopher, convicted in 1982 of the September, 1980 killings of three East Side African-American men, had a second trial in 1986 in the same courtroom where McKinley’s killer, Leon Czolgosz, was found guilty and sentenced to death. He would be convicted again of those killings, adding to his previous conviction of the stabbings of three Manhattan men (two African-American, one Hispanic). In addition, Christopher has always been suspected in the brutal 1980 slayings of two Buffalo taxicab drivers, whose hearts were cut out. Christopher’s trials marked a low point in Buffalo race relations, and prompted actions by area black and white clergy to heal racial tensions, brought to a head by these mindless slayings. The legal strategies used in Christopher’s defense centered around his mental competency.
Like Son of Sam, who terrorized New York City in the 70s, Christopher claimed to be operating under mysterious “orders” from an unspecified source. The killings were clearly the result of some kind of racist philosophy, but Christopher never openly stated it.
Last and Least
Although his crimes were real and serious, for many Buffalonians, the long state and federal investigation of city Parks Commissioner Robert E. Delanoheld during 1989-90had a bit of comic relief, if only for the relative absurdity of some of Delano’s actions. He was said to have ordered holes punched in the ice in Delaware Park Lake to foil the first planned Winterfest as well as ongoing skating activities. A 1988 motorcycle racing event, part of Winterfest, had to be held in Auburn instead, thanks to Delano’s alleged sabotage. It was also testified that Delano had stolen 10 tons of chlorine; gave free trash pickups, hydraulic lifts usage, park benches, and tennis nets to a private club; and basically treated the Parks Department as his own private corporation, the supplies and manpower of which were entirely at his command (not the city taxpayers’). In 1992, Delano was convicted of racketeering and four other criminal charges and eventually served over two years in prison. His racketeering charges were overturned but the theft and extortion convictions held. He was released on probation in 1996. Although this case might not deserve to be listed among the most infamous, it is an example of the type of political corruption that can keep cities like Buffalo on a downhill slide.
Research assistance (for criminal trials) was provided for this article by Catherine G. Licata. Assistance for Love Canal material was provided by Kathleen Delaney, project archivist, University at Buffalo Archives. She is currently completing the Love Canal web site: ublib.buffalo.edu/libraries/projects/lovecanal In addition, Mark Goldman's book, City on a Lake, was helpful in researching the Buffalo desegregation case.
Buffalo's Trial of the Century
(excerpted from Buffalo Spree Summer 1995)
by Austin M. Fox
Regarding Leon Czolgosz, the convicted assassin of President William McKinley in September 1901 at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, there were so many witnesses that there was never any question about his guilt. There was, however, an occasional peripheral thought about the possibility of insanity. This view was not held by many people, and when people did support an insanity theory, their rancor toward Czolgosz was so great, they were inclined to think, What difference does it make whether or not he was insane? He was a murderer, wasn’t he?
Leon Czolgosz, after the assassination. From Images of America: Buffalo’s Pan-American Exposition.
Today the American public thinks of McKinley as a rather mediocre president. He was loved and respected, however, during his day. He was a Civil War hero who had enlisted as a private in the Union Army and risen through several major battles to the rank of mayor. Further, he had served seven consecutive terms in the House of Representatives and two terms as governor of Ohio before becoming president. Also, he had lost two daughtershis only childrenin their infancy. Finally, he was very good to his epileptic, invalid wife.
Directly behind Czolgosz in the line waiting to shake hands with President McKinley stood a well-built African-American off-duty hotel waiter named James B. Parker. Just as former New York Giant football idol Rosie Grier overcame Sirhan Sirhan after the latter shot Bobby Kennedy, Parker was the first to help subdue Czolgosz, as Secret Service men, Army and Marine guards, and various onlookers swarmed around the fallen attacker. They would have beaten Czolgosz to death if the President still conscious, had not said, “Go easy on him, boys.”
Fearful of a lynching attempt by the angry, noisy, and vindictive crowd that had formed outside the Temple of Music, the Pan-American police, with the help of the tiny Army and Marine contingents, forced a passageway through the menacing mob and, commandeering a nearby official carriage which the seething crowd almost capsized twice, they cautiously moved Czolgosz across the Triumphal Bridge, down Lincoln Parkway, Chapin, and Delaware to Buffalo police headquarters. Here Czologsz was incarcerated under heavy guard without charges being brought against him, pending the outcome of the operation on McKinley. Outside thousands milled around police headquarters.
A little later a group of law-enforcement officials gathered in the office of Buffalo Police Superintendent William Bull to question Czolgosz. In charge of the questioning was the District Attorney: London-born, Yale College and Yale Law School educated Thomas Penney (He was to become the grandfather of the late, long-time West minister Presbyterian pastor Thomas Penney Stewart and of art collector and Burchfield-Penney Art Center benefactor Charles Rand Penney and of community benefactor Virginia Penney Lane.)
Also present and at readiness were Superintendent Bull, Assistant District Attorney Frederick Haller, Detectives Geary and Solomon, and County Court Stenographer Frand T. Haggerty.
With Haggerty taking down every word, a dazed, bruised, and disheveled Czolgosz slowly and almost inaudibly monotoned his confession. At first he gave his name as Fred Nieman (German for no man ). Then this information came out: He was twenty-six, unmarried, and he had acted alone. He had never had much luck. He had read books on socialism and met many socialists. Apparently, the doctrine of anarchy had offered some hope, not only for himself but for the whole American working class.
Czolgosz went on:
“Then he came, the Presidentthe rulerand I got in line and trembled till I got right up to him and then I shot twice through my white handkerchief. I would have fired more but I was stunned by a blow in the facea frightful blow that knocked me downand then everybody jumped on me. I thought I would be killed and was surprised the way they treated me.”
Apparently, Czolgosz felt that many ordinary people would regard him as a hero.
Despite the confession to which District Attorney Penney had just listened and which he had seen the court stenographer record, Penney demanded, rapping on the table to get the prisoner’s attention, “Did you really intend to kill the President?”
“Yes, I did,” replied Czolgosz.
“What was your motive?”
“I am an anarchista disciple of Emma Goldman. Her words set me on fire.”
After McKinley’s death on September 14, Czolgosz was stealthily moved from his cell at the downtown police headquarters, to the now gone Erie County Penitentiary on the West Side (Trenton Avenue), where responsibility for the prisoner was passed to Sheriff Caldwell.
In the present County Hall on Delaware Avenue between West Eagle and Church Streets (then the City Hall), the Erie County Grand Jury convened at 10:15 Monday morning, September 16, 1901, with Judge Emery presiding. In court the procession of twenty-eight testifiers included doctors, police officers, Exposition officials and various other key witnesses. Nevertheless, the proceedings were concluded in just four hours and twenty-eight minutes. The District Attorney had prepared an indictment, and the grand jury of twenty-one members returned in five minutes with their report, accusing Leon F. Czolgosz, alias Fred Nieman, of the crime of murder in the first degree.
After Czolgosz made no reply to Penney’s repeated questions as to whether Czolgosz had a lawyer, Judge Emery addressed the prisoner:
Czolgosz, you have appeared for arraignment in this court without counsel. The law makes it the duty of the court to assign counsel to you. The Bar Association of our country has considered the matter and has suggested the names of certain men of high character for such assignment. The court has seriously considered the question and after much consideration has concluded to follow the suggestions made by the association. The court, therefore, assigns the Hon. Loran S. Lewis and the Hon. Robert C. Titus as your counsel.
The prisoner showed no emotion and stood silent.
The guards then re-handcuffed Czolgosz and hurried him back through the Tunnel of Sobs. He had been in court not more than ten minutes.
Emery had named former Supreme Court Justices Titus and Lewis at the suggestion of Erie County Bar Association President Adelbert Moot, who felt that it was incumbent on the Association to see that the accused got competent counsel for his defense. Neither Titus nor ºLewis was pleased with the unpopular role but, persuaded by Moot’s concern, at length agreed. (Moot was to become the grandfather of two prominent Buffalonians, Welles V. Moot, Jr., director of the Western New York Foundation, and Richard E. (Rit) Moot, well-known lawyer and World War II naval air squadron commander.)
Penney then advised the court that he was moving to transfer the indictment to the Supreme Court and intended to serve notice of trial on the ensuing Monday.
Lewis was present in court, though Titus was out of town. Lewis agrees to the change of venue to the Supreme Court, with the understanding that he and Titus might want to consult several alienists (as psychiatrists were then called), some of whom had already interviewed Czolgosz. Penney readily agreed to this proviso, and Judge Emery felt the trial court would certainly consent.
The alienists who had interviewed the prisoner were Dr. Floyd S. Crego, Professor of Insanity and Brain Disease at the University of Buffalo; Dr. James W. Putnam, Professor of Nervous Diseases at the same university; and Dr. Joseph Fowler, police surgeon. Although the Buffalo News, Police Superintendent Bull, and other law-enforcement officials pronounced Czolgosz sane beyond a doubt, the Buffalo Comercial reported that there was a growing uncertainty among the three doctors.
At the instigation of Adelbert Moot, another alienist was brought in just before the trial. He was Dr. Carlos F. MacDonald, Professor of Mental Diseases and Mental Jurisprudence in the University-Bellevue Medical College in New York. As with the three local alienists, he was never called upon to testify either, but there were indications that he had formed an insanity opinion. The law-at least at this time- stated that the burden of proof for insanity rests on the person or side that claims insanity. In this case, the defense did not claim it. The premeditated factor in the crime was stressed by the prosecution.
Thus, in the state’s haste for justice, no mental experts were brought into court. Czolgosz’s recurring periods of depression and his strange reclusiveness point to a certain mental instability. After a swift Supreme Court trial, Czolgosz died in the electric chair in Auburn prison on October 29, 1901.
A supreme irony of the Pan-American Exposition is that although it was to usher in the triumphal benefits of the Age of Electricity, it also helped to establish, with the new age, electrocution in capital punishment.
The above article by Austin Fox was originally published in Buffalo Spree, Summer, 1995. A respected educator, writer, and preservationist, Austin Fox wrote about history and architecture for Buffalo Spree for fifteen years and was the author of Symbol and Show: The Pan-American Exposition of 1901 (Western New York Wares, 1990).
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