The Sheriff of Grenell sounds like something out of Robin Hood, doesn’t it? But once upon a time, Grenell Island had a duly appointed “sheriff” authorized to carry a firearm, use force if necessary and make arrests.
Even fifty years ago, the need for a sheriff seemed laughable. In her July 1965 Thousand Islands Sun column, Grenell Island correspondent Gwen Smith extols Grenell Island as a safe haven: “Well, it’s wonderful to be back on the glorious St. Lawrence. Here one can sleep peacefully without worrying about burglars, murders or dope addicts.” Gwen lived in New York City, which made her feel very unsafe: “. . . one feels one’s life threatened constantly. Iron bars in front of windows, burglar-proof locks, and the most obvious sight the tremendous popularity of the police dogs are seen.”
Today, guests often compare our island to the fictional North Carolina town of Mayberry (from the 1960s sitcom The Andy Griffith Show), for its idyllic, close-knit community charm. Back at the turn of the century, that wasn’t always the case. While Sam and Lucy Grenell always fostered a family atmosphere on the island, crime sometimes reared its ugly head. From 1880 through 1920, cottages up and down the River were often burglarized and tiny Grenell Island wasn’t exempt from this crime spree. In 1913, the newly formed Grenell Island Improvement Association printed off “REWARD” signs for members to post on their property. We still have one in our boathouse.
The signs were not enough of a deterrent and the association went to the county sheriff for help. The appointment of the Grenell Island deputies was reported in a 1916 On the St. Lawrence newspaper article: “Sheriff Hosmer to appoint Raymond A. Coombs and Floyd Russell deputy sheriffs, with power of arrest and authority to carry and use firearms in the protection of property on Grenell Island as Messrs. Coombs and Russell reside on the island the entire year.”
Most burglaries occurred off-season. The most heinous break-in happened during the summer season of 1905 and made national and international news. It happened at Point Ida. This two-story cottage has a two-tier wrap-around porch and is perched high on the rocks on the channel side of Grenell. It was built in 1882 by Aime Harnois, a prominent contractor from Syracuse. Aime, his wife Fanny and daughter Ida Louise spent their summers on Grenell. Even after Aime died in December 1898, Fanny and Ida continued to summer on Grenell. The widow Harnois, her 18-year-old daughter Ida and family friend, Nettie Robinson, were at Point Ida when an intruder broke into the cottage.
Nettie told a Syracuse Herald reporter that: “Mrs. Harnois and I returned from the [Grenell Island] Post Office about 10:15 Saturday night. We found Ida asleep. At 11:30, after reading the evening paper, I fell asleep and at about 12:15, was awakened by a scream from Ida.”
Moments earlier, Ida woke to the sounds of an intruder. In the dim light, she could see the form of a man rummaging around her bureau where she kept her diamond jewelry. Before she could cry out, the man turned on her, striking her unconscious with a short, thick club. Fanny had been asleep in an adjoining room. Hearing the scuffle, she rushed to her daughter’s room and was met at the door by the robber who immediately struck her to the floor. Ida woke up and began to scream. Her assailant grabbed her by her hair, dragged her from the bed, and clubbed her until she was unconscious.
Ida’s scream woke Nettie, who struck a match and lit her lamp. When she opened her bedroom door, she saw a “blood-curdling sight.” Fanny, wearing a blood-stained white nightgown, was lying on the floor struggling to escape the blows of a “fiend,” who wore a mask that covered his eyes and nose. The robber leaned over her friend as he beat her with a club. Nettie reportedly cried out, “For God’s sake don’t kill her!” The man jumped over Franny’s body and lunged toward Nettie as she prepared to throw the lamp at him. Perhaps afraid that the kerosene lamp would set him afire, the intruder turned and disappeared down the stairs. Nettie ran to the window that opened on the front veranda and shouted, “Murder! Murder!”
After screaming for help, Nettie returned to Ida’s room, where she found both women unconscious and covered in blood. While attending to her friends, Nettie heard the crash of furniture and fixtures as neighbors entered the lower floor.
The screams had attracted help from their neighbors on Grenell who arrived barefoot and breathless to help. Three gentlemen from Thousand Island Park, J. Rothschild and two others, rowed over when they heard the cries for help. Thirty-one-year-old John C. Kerr was the first on the scene. John was visiting his parents at their cottage, Kirmess. His parents had been called away to New York City to attend the funeral of a friend. On hearing the screams of the women from nearby Point Ida, John rushed to the scene with a pair of oars as his only defense. He entered the house and found a man lying on his back, groaning. Upstairs, he found the horrific scene of the unconscious, bludgeoned women. John sent the Clark B. Tooly, and the Kerr boatman, to fetch Dr. James Wood of New York City, a guest on the island.
After Dr. Wood examined the women, he came back to the man writhing in pain on the first floor. The man claimed that his left leg was paralyzed. Every time the doctor probed him, the man recoiled in pain but the doctor could find no sign of injury. The man, who identified himself as Albert Nulty, said he was rowing by Grenell about midnight when he heard women screaming. He rowed ashore, rushed to the cottage, went inside and found the women covered in blood. He rushed downstairs and found a burly man. While tussling with this large man, another man hit him from behind and he lay there on the floor unconscious until the doctor roused him.
By now, a crowd of Grenell Island residents had assembled at Point Ida. Suspecting that Nulty’s story was false, the crowd detained him and called for the sheriff. Nettie insisted that this was, in fact, the man who attacked Franny. Nulty turned to her and said, “Well, that’s a pretty damn cool thing to do to a fellow. When he tries to rescue you, you accuse him of being a thief. When I came in here, there were three men here . . . I fought with them and they knocked me senseless.”
Sheriff Jay Alexander from Clayton arrived around 3 a.m. Alexander immediately recognized Nulty as someone he had arrested six years ago for burglary in Clayton. Nulty had served two years at the New York State Prison in Auburn for that crime. When the sheriff searched Nulty’s pockets he found three diamond rings and a purse that belonged to Mrs. Harnois. Sheriff Alexander charged Nulty with burglary and assault. Nulty never wavered from his initial statement. He maintained the “It wasn’t me! It was the burly man!” claim of innocence throughout the grand jury and subsequent trial. He was ultimately sentenced to life imprisonment at Auburn.
The attack and trial were headline news from coast-to-coast and even made the international news in England, France, and Germany. The case made headlines again when Nulty tried to escape from jail and three months later when Ida Harnois married G. Russel Churchill.
In an article about the wedding was this passage: “On the morning after the attack, Mr. Churchill said to have had a presentment that some trouble threatened the lady of his love, and almost before daybreak he called her up on the long-distance telephone to assure himself of her safety, only to find his premonition verified.”
I found that information most interesting for—as far as I know—there was no telephone service on Grenell Island in 1905. Perhaps the call had been relayed from Thousand Island Park.
One has to wonder if this incident prompted the newly formed Grenell Island Improvement Association to request that a sheriff be appointed to the island. Olivia Pratt writes in 1945 in The Story of Grenell: “It was in 1916 that the winter protection of cottages by a deputy sheriff was inaugurated, and this patrol has been continued to the present time, with Mr. William McFadden being the caretaker in recent years.”
I’m not sure when Grenell stopped having a sheriff. Perhaps sometimes in the 1950s. If we had a sheriff today I’d like to think it would be someone like Mayberry’s Sheriff Andy Taylor who would sort out disputes between residents like Floyd, the barber; Flora, the Mayberry dinner waitress; Goober, the auto mechanic; or Sarah, the eavesdropping telephone operator. While Grenell Island does have an interesting cast of characters who occasionally get into wacky disputes, I think I can safely say that we’re doing just fine on our own without the aid from the Sheriff of Grenell.
By Lynn E. McElfresh
This is Lynn McElfresh’s 120th article for TI Life. This editor waits with anticipation each month to see what Lynn will give to our River community. This month, I opened my email early in the morning… then rather than getting up, I was glued to my iPad to find out “who done it.” What a great way to start the day…
Lynn came to Grenell Island for the first time to meet her fiancé’s family, in 1975. She became part of the family, and the island became part of her life. Lynn and her husband, Gary, spend their summers in the Thousand Islands and their winters in Dunedin, Florida. To see all of Lynn’s island experiences, search TI Life under Lynn McElfresh.