When discussing our respective columns with my colleague in Fulton County, Historian Peter Betz relates that everyone is intrigued about murders that have taken place long ago. He set me upon one that occurred over a century ago in the hamlet of Cranesville outside of the City of Amsterdam.
On July 23, 1907, William E. McLachlan, a former Justice of the Peace, was found murdered in his Cranes’ Hollow home. The victim, a 62-year old recluse with only two brothers as surviving relatives, died resulting from eight stab wounds. Two men stopping by to pick up a repaired clock found the mutilated body.
A clear motive for the murder was not forthcoming as McLachlan, although known to have had disputes with neighbors and lacking in close friendships, did not have any relationships of considerable animosity that would warrant his murder. Arrests were not made in the case until almost one month later.
McLachlan’s estate was allegedly valued at around $75,000. Today that amount would be equivalent to almost $2 million. Therefore, detectives working on the case, Superintendent J. William F. Neef of the Central Detective Corp. of Albany, Montgomery County Sheriff Brice, and Amsterdam’s Chief Joseph Bartlett, identified money as the motive for the murder.
Amsterdam saloon owner, Frank Denatto and vegetable peddler John Cincotta, both owed money to McLachlan. Coupled with that fact plus that they both had less than stellar reputations, Denatto and Cincotta were arrested, charged with McLachlan’s murder and sent to the County jail in Fonda.
Despite the $1,000 reward for information on the murder, detectives had a difficult time gathering details that led to the arrests of the suspects. There were no reported witnesses to the crime and no one would reveal any information for fear of the “Black Hand.”
With origins tracing back to Sicily and the Kingdom of Naples as early as the 1750s, the “Black Hand Society” became so known in the late 19th century United States as a group organized specifically of immigrants from the southern regions of Italy. The “Black Hand” operated as an extortion ring targeting other Italians and threatening them with bodily harm, kidnapping, arson and murder if their demands of money were not met.
Just about everyone has either watched The Godfather movies or at least is familiar with the storyline. The Academy Award winning crime drama focused on the Sicilian Corleone mob family and their business rivalries in New York City and Las Vegas. Although not a major American city, occurrences in Amsterdam in the early years of the 20th century were certainly representative of events on which movies and books such as The Godfather were based.
According to reports in the Albany Evening Journal, Cincotta admitted being in the area of McLachlan’s home on the night of the murder. His testimony stated that he drove past the home with his six-year old son, spoke with the victim, and continued on his way to buy cherries. On the return drive past the McLachlan home, Cincotta said he saw two Italians crouched near a barn and who motioned for him to remain quiet. Later that night, Cincotta said he was approached by another Italian who confessed to murdering McLachlan and only making away with the $1.10 that lay on the table. Because they were frightened away by two women approaching the house, the murderers had no time to search out more money or valuables. Cincotta, then testified, that he was “encouraged” by the murderer to keep quiet or he should find himself in the same condition as McLachlan. Cincotta, then implicated another Italian named Legona who was killed in Amsterdam in the weeks following McLachlan’s murder.
Denatto, on the other hand, denied allegations that he was at McLachlan’s house at all. He told detectives he was at home on the night in question and retired to bed at 11 o’clock. A witness willing to come forward, however, saw Denatto return home at approximately 1 o’clock in the morning. Denatto had an established relationship with McLachlan, occasionally borrowing money from the victim. During Denatto’s trial, District Attorney Charles E. Hardies and Assistant D.A. W. Arthur Kline argued that he, along with Cincotta, murdered McLachlan with the intent to get out of paying back the money they owed him.
Testimony implicated a group of five Italians who were responsible for murdering McLachlan. Only four stood trial in the Supreme Court in Fonda. Cincotta was convicted of manslaughter in the first degree and sentenced to a maximum of nineteen years at Dannemora Prison by Supreme Court Justice Henry W. Kellogg. Giuseppe Gervasio, another accomplice, was convicted of murder in the second degree and sentenced to a minimum of twenty years at Dannemora. Legona, Piccolo Salvatore, and Carmello Reppepo were other Italians named by Gervasio involved in the murder according to his testimony. He also indicated that the entire crime was planned and orchestrated by Frank Denatto. Reppepo, like Cincotta, was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to Dannemora prison.
Denatto’s trial fared differently from his accomplices. The trial lasted four weeks and the verdict came back after fifteen hours. His acquittal resulted from what the jurors concluded was a lack of sufficient evidence for a conviction. They declared that the evidence was circumstantial and while they believe he was guilty, could not actually convict him. During the reading of the verdict, the courtroom audience booed and jeered at the jury. Angry at the outcome, the judge declared that the names of all the jurors should be struck from the jury list as they were “unfit for service.”
John Cincotta served nine and half years of his sentence for complicity in McLachlan’s murder. His release from Dannemora and return to his home in Amsterdam was reported in the November 23, 1917 issue of the Otsego Farmer newspaper.
The fate of the rest of the involved parties remains unknown at this point, except the murder weapon.
Witnesses during Cincotta’s trial testified to finding the murder weapon spotted with blood near the scene of the crime. However, in 1936, almost thirty years after the murder, a six-inch stiletto knife was found in the creek bed approximately two miles north of the former McLachlan farm in Cranesville. Montgomery County Investigator Edward J. Sheehan assured residents that this weapon in 1936 was indeed the McLachlan murder weapon. But in the days before DNA evidence how can anyone be certain which of those located was, in fact, the knife that ended William E. McLachlan’s life so many years ago….?