This article was excerpted from the book by Michael N. Vogel, Ed Patton, and Paul Redding titled: America's Crossroads, Buffalo's Canal Street/ Dante Place the Making of a City.

THE EXECUTION OF JOHN GAFFNEY AT BUFFALO, NY 1873

When John Gaffney finally dropped through the trap to swing at the end of a rope, he had some illustrius help.

"Big Steve," the hangman, was a future President of the United States.

Never one to delegate the less routine aspects of his office, Grover "Big Steve" Cleveland had campaigned for Erie County Sheriff - the first step of a progression that would take him to the City Hall as Mayor, Albany as Governor and eventually to the Oval Office - on a promise of cleaning out the Canal District.

It didn't work, of course. The District had gone out of control in the years following the Civil War, perhaps the worst period of its miserable existence; it would take more than a promise to clean it out. John Gaffney just had the misfortune of being one of the exceptions.

He had surfaced during the Civil War. A newspaper in 1862 reported that "three desperadoes, John Gleason, Bob Fitzgerald and John Gaffner (sic) were arrested by the night police, Sunday night, charged with robbing a man on one of our city streets."' In 1865, while still a teenagers he was arrested as a member of the "break-o'-day Johnnies," a gang of thieves and bullies. He had been fined $10, for stealing a silk hat from a man on Canal Street, and in 1866 he and Hank Vanderburg were charged with robbery; four years later still, Vanderburg was charged with stabbing Gaffney in the leg during a row in Hofne's Saloon at Canal and State Streets.'

There were rumors that he had shot at his first wife in an unsuccessful attempt to kill her, and later on her deathbed she was said to blame his brutal treatment for her demise. In 1867 he had wantonly knifed a black man in Fort Erie, but broke away from his captors; in the same year he fired a shot through a Canal Street window that hit Rosa Kilbride in the hip, but he escaped trial when she was too frightened to testify against him. The same thing happened in 1871, after he assaulted a man named Frank Haley.

There were charges of petit larceny in 1866, riot in 1869, eight arrests for assault and battery and several more for disorderly conduct from 1867 to 1872. He had fired a shot at a minstrel singer on a Buffalo street corner in 1870, and that same year had managed to shoot himself while trying to hit a man on the steamer IVANHOE as it chugged up the river. He had drawn a gun on a police officer attempting to serve him with legal papers, and had hit a Main Street saloon-keeper in the back of the head with a paving stone.

But his last and most serious brush with the law came on May 7, 1872, when he shot and killed Patrick Fahey.

Both men were well known in the District, and both were trouble. Gaffney was considered one of the toughest men in the neighborhood, small but strong. Fahey was a sailor, a loafer and a thief who lived with his aging parents in an upper apartment at the corner of State and Water Streets. He also apparently was not above starting a saloon brawl for amusement.

That, indeed, was the source of the words between the two men in Ted Sweeney's saloon, on the south side of Canal Street just two doors from Evans, shortly before 4 a.m. on that day in early May.

Gaffney, with three children from his first marriage and wed again to a pretty girl, had settled down enough to run the Metropolitan Concert Saloon on Washington between Seneca and Carroll Streets. Fahey had stopped in about a week before, and had started a brawl that wrecked the place and drove away a great deal of business.

Jack Gaffney, 29, had been born and raised in the infected district, the son of a "woman of the town" and a man he never knew. He was a "notorious character," who was not likely to let an injury pass. He was drinking and playing poker with his brother-in-law, "Red Jack" Farrell, and a few others in Sweeney's place that morning when Fahey walked in.

"Gaffney, on seeing Fahey, accused him in a loud voice of trying to make a rumpus in his (Gaffney's) saloon on Washington street," Police superintendent John Byrne told reporters.' "Fahey retorted by calling his accuser some insulting epithet, at which the latter drew a revolver and tried to strike Fahey with it, who retreated into a corner of the room.

"Gaffney then fired toward Fahey, who again retreated toward the door. Gaffney fired again, and by this time both parties were on the outside of the screen, which is always before saloon entrances. Fahey was probably in the street when Gaffney fired the third shot, and he walked but a few paces when he fell where he was found by the police. The first shot probably did not take effect, the second struck him in the left jaw, while the third took effect in his left side under the shoulder blade, and this last one was probably the fatal shot."

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Officers Patrick Shea and James M. Shepard of the First Precinct' broke into a run when they heard the shots, racing from Canal Street and Maiden Lane toward Evans Street. On the southeast corner of Evans and Canal, they found Fahey lying in the gutter, groaning and bleeding to death.

The police undoubtedly would have considered this no great loss. Fahey, 23, already had been arrested several times here, and only two months earlier had been released from a term in the Kingston prison in Canada for a knifing in Fort Erie. His reputation, as the newspapers noted, was not good and he even had been sent to state prison for robbing the Hospital of the Sisters of Charity; but the police still had a job to do.

The officers enlisted some of the bystanders, who of course maintained they had seen nothing at all of the crime itself, to carry Fahey into Ladd's tavern nearby. Within minutes, the young man had died. Shepard, on the pretense of going to get a doctor, high-tailed it back to the station-house to wake Capt. Edward Frawley and other officers; their sweep of the neighborhood netted several of the men from the taverns and the crowd of bystanders, including Gaffne.

A number of witnesses were called during the inquest held by Coroner Vaughan, the first step in the criminal case against Gaffney.' Most of them - including Farrell, a red-headed Irish tough who may have handed Gaffney the revolver said they had heard shots, but hadn't seen anyone fire them. Patrick Sweene the bartender said he'd been sitting behind the bar asleep when the shots were fired outside the tavern; John Grandison, a drover, had been playing cards with Gaffney, Farrell and others but was in another tavern when the murder occurred; Edward Gaynor, another card player and a boatman, thought the shots were outside; Samuel McElrath, a lakes steward, was drunk and didn't even hear the gunshots. Nobody, it seemed, knew anything of a quarrel between Gaffney and Fahey.

Nobody, that is, except Alexander McQuinnay, a minstrel who used the stage name of James Quinn. He was an outsider, an itinerant variety actor at Shelby's Comique on the Terrace. He wasn't part of Gaffney's normal crowd but who had ne to the saloon that night with Gaffney for some drinks and a poker game. After an inL,2rrogation session with the police, he told all - and the coroner's jury unanimously decided that Gaffney was guilty.

The jury in the criminal trial before Judge Isaac A. Verplanck reached much the same conclusion, with little waste of time, and Gaffney was sentenced to be hanged. So far, it was just another murder in the Infected District, but now it took a bizarre turn.

Legal appeals had failed. The condemned man's wife and friends had campaigned strenuously for commutation of the death sentence, but the governor had turned them down despite petitions signed by every member of the jury, most of the Common Council, and nearly 100 members of the Board of Supervisors and Board of Trade. Bishop Ryan, head of the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo, had visited Gaffney in the jail office with another priest and two nuns, and had administered what was described as the sacrament of confirmation, but may have been the last rites. Another Gaffney brother-in-law stopped by the prison, for a visit cleared by Sheriff Cleveland - and Gaffney promptly went "crazy."

He didn't do it very well, apparently. His bouts of raving insanity and rambling comments on "chicken disputes," as the cock-fights of the time were called, were interspersed, whenever it might do him some good, with lucid pleas that his execution should be stayed because the murder was done without "premeditation." The newspapers, which had been debating whether or not he should be hung, now began a lively debate over whether or not his insanity was real or feigned, and Cleveland was forced to call in medical experts.' The experts couldn't agree, and Gaffney was given a one-week reprieve.

A twelve-member jury of inquiry ended any hope Gaffney may have had, with a verdict that the murderer was sane. Informed of the verdict, Gaffney abandoned the ruse and admitted to his confessor that he had been faking insanity in hopes of avoiding execution. His hanging was set for three days later February 14, 1873.

There were meetings with officials, and friends. His wife and two of the children came to the jail, and Gaffney reportedly told his small son "Johnny, Papa's going to die, and I want you to promise me these things; that you will not drink any spiritous liquors, that you will never play cards, that you will never swear, and never break the Sabbath, that you will go to church and Sunday School, that you will not be out nights and keep bad company, as Papa has done."'

After a long meal and a sleepless night, Gaffney had a breakfast of poached eggs, toast and coffee. His wife and the children came to visit, with other relatives and bartender Sweeney. And then it was time for a last meeting with the priests and nuns sent to confess and console him.

Police cleared a crowd from the streets surrounding the jail and its yard where the gallows had been erected.' About a hundred witnesses, including police and reporters, were marched to the yard and waited nearly half an hour until, at a few minutes past noon, Cleveland and Undersheriff William Smith emerged from the jail, followed by the priests and the prisoner.

Gaffney, clad in a black gown and black cap, and carrying a small crucifix, walked steadily up the stairs to the platform. The noose was fastened around his neck, and his death warrant was read.

Gaffney, despite the protests of the priests, then spoke to the crowd, repeating his confession but repeating his claim that he had been drunk and that Farrell was to blame for giving him the gun. "I hope and pray to God that you will believe me and forgive me," he concluded. "I beg pardon for all the crime I have done, and I forgive all who have injured me."

The cap was drawn down over his eyes, and his arms and legs were pinioned. At two minutes to noon a signal was given and, out of sight, a future President pulled a lever. Gaffney dropped through the trap and his neck snapped; he continued to grip the crucifix, and in just over 23 minutes the doctors announced that his heart had stopped beating. Sheriff Cleveland cleared the yard, and John Gaffney was cut down and delivered to the undertaker.

This article was excerpted from the book by Michael N. Vogel, Ed Patton, and Paul Redding titled: America's Crossroads, Buffalo's Canal Street/ Dante Place the Making of a City. New York: Western New York Heritage Institute, Canisius College, 1993 which paints an exceptionally vivid picture of Buffalo's old waterfront district...

All material © 2001 bybuffalonian.com and Western New York Heritage Press, Inc. all rights reserved.

 

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This text is Copyright 2001 all rights reserved by Stephen Powell and buffalonian.com. This electronic text may not be dupicated or used in any manner without written consent of Stephen R. Powell or buffalonian.com