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By David Staba

Last week, after three trials that lasted a total of 23 weeks, an Erie County jury found Michael Northrup not guilty in the murder of John Montstream.

Six decades ago, after a trial that included just three days of testimony, a Niagara County panel sent Helen Ray Fowler of Niagara Falls to the electric chair for a murder that not even the prosecutor contended that she committed.

Northrup's acquittal came despite evidence that included a gun spattered with the victim's blood and the testimony of Annette Montstream, who testified that she urged her would-be paramour to kill her husband, then helped him drive the body from Monroe County to a downtown Niagara Falls parking ramp, where it was left in the family mini-van.

Fowler's conviction resulted from conflicting testimony, none of which depicted her as responsible for the death of a Ransomville gas station owner at her Memorial Parkway apartment. Each witness at her trial described George Knight, Fowler's live-in boyfriend, as the culprit. Even Knight himself recanted his initial story portraying Fowler as the murderer.

Northrup's defense attorney, John Parinello of Rochester, got his client's confession thrown out on the grounds that it was given between the time Northrup asked for a lawyer and the time his counsel arrived. Parinello's legal fees eventually added to up to more than $500,000.

Fowler's statement to police, the basis of the case against her, was made without an attorney present. An indigent defendant, her attorney was later assigned by the court.

On Nov. 27, after two mistrials and an acquittal, Northrup walked out of court a free man.

On Nov. 16, 1944, Fowler became the only African-American woman ever executed in New York's electric chair.

A look at Fowler's forgotten case shows just how much times, and New York's legal system, have changed.


Helen Ray Fowler was, by any estimation, one tough woman.

She stood 5-foot-7 and weighed 227 pounds, according to prison records. At 36, she'd been married several times. At the time of her arrest in 1943, she had five children ranging in age from five to 20, as well as a grandchild.

Niagara Falls Police Capt. Robert Fitzsimmons, the lead investigator in her case, called her "the hardest person I've ever questioned."

In the summer of 1943, George Knight, 25, moved into Fowler's crowded rooms at 144 Memorial Parkway. For decades, the neighborhood rated as one of the nation's most notorious red-light districts. In an effort to change that image, city officials renamed the south end of 11th Street as Memorial Parkway.

It didn't work.


William Fowler (no relation to Helen) owned a service station in Ransomville. With his wife in Cleveland for medical tests, the 63-year-old decided to spend Oct. 30, 1943 out on the town.

His cousin, Lee Clark of Niagara Falls, picked Fowler up at his business that Friday morning. The two made their way to Niagara Falls, making several stops at gin mills along the way. Clark, who later reported Fowler missing, told police his cousin was still wearing the pants from his work uniform. In one pocket was a wad of cash and checks that added up to at least $1,000.

At each stop, Clark said, Fowler would boast of his bankroll, flash it to fellow patrons and buy a round for the house.

The pair reached the corner of Buffalo Avenue and Memorial Parkway shortly after noon. The neighborhood, long since razed to make room for the Nabisco shipping and receiving facility, still looked a lot like the old 11th Street, despite the name change.

Clark and Fowler soon separated. They briefly ran into each other later in the afternoon at Sugar's, an establishment at 138 Memorial Parkway. Clark testified that he was entering a room with one woman as Fowler left with another.

Fowler, dressed like Goober of Mayberry and proudly carrying a roll worth more than $10,000 today, wandered back out to Memorial Parkway in search of more adventure. His cousin never saw him alive again. At some point, William Fowler wound up a few doors down at the home of Helen Fowler and George Knight, described in newspaper accounts as her "boarder."

No one else saw the gas station owner, period, after Oct. 30 until his bloated, badly decomposed body washed up Dec. 8 behind the Adams Plant of the Niagara Falls Power Company. His wife was able to identify his body only because of a stiffened elbow that resulted from an old injury.


An autopsy revealed a fractured skull, so Niagara Falls police immediately started investigating Fowler's death as a murder. Within in a few days, a car seen near the North Grand Island Bridge on Oct. 31 was traced to its owner, a serviceman home on leave at the time of the murder. He directed police to Helen Ray Fowler and George Knight, who had borrowed the car.

The two were questioned by police Capt. Robert Fitzsimmons. Each made a statement implicating the other.

Then they asked for attorneys.

Twenty-three years before the U.S. Supreme Court made the Miranda Warning a required element of every interrogation and cop show, Knight first told Fitzsimmons that Helen Fowler killed the old man in the course of robbing him. Then he changed his story, saying he beat the man after robbing him, then finished him with a hammer blow to the back of the skull at the urging of Helen Fowler.

She said William Fowler arrived at her apartment late in the afternoon, followed shortly by Knight. A brawl ensued, according to her statement, and Knight killed the unconscious man despite her pleas to stop.

One common thread in their stories -- the pair hid William Fowler's body in the back of the house until the next night. They borrowed a car, loaded the corpse into it, drove to the Grand Island Bridge (which had been completed eight years earlier), and tossed it in the upper Niagara River.

Fowler and Knight were both charged with first-degree murder. At the time, a conviction on that charge led to an automatic seat in Sing Sing's electric chair.


Knight and Fowler were eventually assigned two of Niagara Falls' most prominent lawyers. Former city Corporation Counsel and Assistant District Attorney J. William O'Brien represented Knight. Earl W. Brydges, who went on to become a towering figure in local and state politics, handled Fowler's defense.

O'Brien and Knight moved to separate the trials, given the life-and-death implications of the outcome.

State Supreme Court Justice William Munson denied the motion and jury selection began on Monday, Feb. 7, 1944.

That jury made history, as it included five women -- the first to hear a murder case in the county.

For some reason, the Niagara Falls Gazette (then locally owned and bearing the city's full name) chose to name the jurors as they were selected, along with their hometown and occupation.

That was only one aspect of the newspaper's coverage that's mystifying by today's standards. Like many publications of the day, Gazette stories about this and other cases made a person's race part of their identity. William Fowler was just plain William Fowler, but George Knight was George Knight, Negro.

O'Brien and Brydges vigorously questioned potential jurors, using 18 of their 30 available challenges by Monday evening. While the Gazette described jury selection as "slow," the seven-man, five-woman panel was seated by Tuesday evening.

District Attorney John Marsh presented 30 witnesses. One said Helen Fowler had given him two Carborundum payroll checks to cash. The two employees to whom the checks were made out testified that they had cashed them at William Fowler's gas station in the week before his disappearance.

Marsh's star was 18-year-old Genevieve Persons, Helen Fowler's daughter by a prior marriage.

Persons said that on the afternoon of Oct. 30, Knight came into the apartment and told Fowler that there was a "white fellow" in the neighborhood with quite a lot of cash on him.

Knight urged Fowler to help him lure the man into the apartment in order to roll him, Persons said. Once the gas station owner was inside, Knight attacked.

"The man was hollering and begging Knight not to hit him anymore," said Persons, adding that her mother tried to stop the assault.

Knight said he might as well finish the job so William Fowler couldn't go to the police, then did just that with a hammer, Person said.

She testified that she watched her mother and Knight drag the body to the back of the apartment.

"Then I went to the movies," she said.

She then admitted that she told a friend, identified only as Norman, that Knight had come into a lot of money, and the two conspired to rob the killer. Their search of the apartment, though, yielded nothing.

Prior to the murder, Persons and her mother had been convicted of assault. The daughter was awaiting sentencing for that crime and was implicated, but not charged, in several others, a point O'Brien brought up on cross-examination. Then he offered an alternate theory of the crime.

"As a matter of fact, you beat this man with a hammer yourself, didn't you?" O'Brien asked.

"No, I didn't," Persons said.

That night, being held as a material witness at the County Jail in Lockport, Persons drank a cup of cleaning fluid in an apparent effort to commit suicide.

O'Brien and Brydges called only two defense witnesses -- two of Helen Fowler's younger children. June Tucker, 13, and 9-year-old George Tucker offered similar stories. Which were, of course, different than any previous version.

June Tucker said William Fowler visited the apartment early in the afternoon. After Helen Fowler left and returned with beer, he stayed for another half-hour. Later, while her mother argued with Knight about another woman, "the white man" came in again.

Knight asked, "What do you want here?" and accused Helen Fowler of having a man chasing her around while he couldn't look at another woman, June Tucker said.

Both children said they watched through a crack in the wall as Knight beat and kicked the older man into submission. When Knight grabbed a vase to use as a weapon, both testified that their mother grabbed it away from him.

In his closing statement on Friday afternoon, Marsh called William Fowler's murder "the most brutal and atrocious crime ever perpetrated in Niagara City," without bothering to establish how exactly it happened.

O'Brien closed by invoking the "a man's home is his castle" argument, saying that William Fowler walked in uninvited while his client quarreled with Helen Fowler. O'Brien maintained that Knight killed William Fowler in the ensuing brawl and that any robbery was not premeditated.

Brydges agreed with O'Brien's theory. The attorney conceded that Helen Fowler had helped dump William Fowler's body and had taken cash and checks from him after his death.

"She is guilty of any number of crimes, but is not being tried for them," Brydges said. "She is not guilty of murder in the first degree."

After two hours of deliberation, the jury returned to ask the judge for clarification on the law -- could two people be guilty of first-degree murder when only one was responsible for the death in question?

"Both parties engaged in commission of a felony are equally guilty," Justice Munson told them.

Shortly thereafter, jury foreman William Wendt of Cambria announced that the panel had found both guilty.

Helen Fowler, who had cried periodically throughout the trial, again broke down sobbing.


A week after their conviction, Munson carried out the formality of sentencing George Knight and Helen Fowler to die in the electric chair on Sept. 4, 1944.

The State Court of Appeals upheld the verdicts and sentences in June, but Brydges and O'Brien won a delay from Gov. Thomas Dewey so that the attorneys could apply for a new trial. That court denied that request, as well, and set a new execution date of Nov. 16.

District Attorney Marsh, who had failed to identify, much less produce, a murder weapon or a cohesive theory of the events that led to William Fowler's death, fought the pair's appeals at each step.

Hours before her scheduled trip to the chair, Helen Fowler composed a plea for mercy in which she accused her oldest daughter, Ruth, of "going with" one of her previous husbands and trying to poison the then-couple. Fowler went on to write that Ruth had gloated over her fate.

"She said she was free for the first time in her life and intended to stay free. She also said that I'd make a nice fat crackling in the fire." She also repeated her claim that she was only guilty of helping dump William Fowler in the Niagara River.

"I did help get the man out of the house or (Knight would) have left him there in a trunk, because he was drunk for a week after and a couple of days before. Please have mercy on me! Please spare my life!"

Given Gov. Dewey's record as the federal prosecutor who went after the New York City Mafia (as well as his higher political aspirations), she might as well have saved the paper.

Fowler and Knight declined special final meals. She remained silent and composed, according to witnesses, as guards strapped her into Sing Sing's electric chair. At 11:17 p.m., she was declared dead.

Knight followed eight minutes later, offering a few final words.

"Can I talk?" he asked after being secured. "I want to thank you all for being so nice to me."


Brydges went on to win election to the New York State Senate in 1948, where he served until 1972. He finished his time in office as the Senate Majority Leader, one of the state's most important political posts. Both the Niagara Falls public library and Artpark bear his name.

Dewey ran against incumbent President Harry Truman in 1948, managing to blow a seemingly insurmountable lead in the final days before the election and winning only in the headlines of over-eager newspapers.

New York State abolished the death penalty less than 20 years after the executions of Fowler and Knight, using the electric chair for the final time in 1963. While the state legislature reinstated the death penalty in 1995, no executions have been carried out since.

Jon Getz, a civil and criminal attorney in Rochester, said there's little chance Helen Ray Fowler's case could be repeated today.

"For one thing, there have been great strides in appellate review of these types of cases over the last 20 or 30 years," he said. "That makes it harder for this type of case to take place."

Getz handled the successful appeal of Betty Tyson in 1998. Tyson had spent 25 years in prison (then the longest of any woman in New York's penal system) for the 1973 robbery and murder of a Philadelphia businessman. In that case, Getz was able to show that police had beaten Tyson, a former prostitute, into signing a confession and that a detective had put a gun to the head of a witness to coerce his testimony against her. After her conviction was overturned, the Monroe County district attorney decided against filing new charges.

Like Fowler, Tyson was an African-American woman accused of killing a white man, inflaming the community. That dynamic is inescapable in a murder case, particularly in the 1940s.

"I think race may have played a strong factor -- you've got two black people killing a white guy," Getz said.

Then there's the issue of how much justice a defendant can afford. Michael Northrup's acquittal sparked surprise among many and anger in some. But whatever you think of his case, you can't say he didn't get every legal benefit of the doubt.

And as unsympathetic as Helen Ray Fowler might have been, it's impossible to say the same for her.

"She was a disposable person in their mind," Getz said. "I think they threw her in for good measure, so to speak. She certainly didn't get her fair day in court, and so she died an early death. The system is supposed to be about fairness."

David Staba is the sports editor of the Niagara Falls Reporter and the editor of the BuffaloPOST. He welcomes email at