As Sword and Scale’s regular readers know, I like to find crimes with an unusual twist and criminals with a singular distinction in the history of crime. The murder committed by Eva Coo was nothing exceptional in and of itself, but it does have its own unique twist. Her crime was reconstructed which is nothing unusual, but no other murder case I’ve ever seen saw the victim’s corpse used in the reconstruction. So, let’s go back to upstate New York in the early 1930’s and the quiet town of Cooperstown to look at the strange case of Eva Coo, Harry Wright and the murder on Crumhorn Mountain.
On June 13, 1934 Max Baer defeated Primo ‘The Ambling Alp‘ Carnera for the world heavyweight title. It was the same night as local police received a worried phone call from Eva Coo, owner of the rather shady Woodbine Inn– a nearby roadhouse with a dubious reputation. Coo’s handyman, an aging drunkard named Harry Wright, had been due to arrive at the inn that evening. For some reason he hadn’t arrived and was well overdue. According to Eva Coo she was worried and had called the local police to see if he’d been arrested or been in an accident. He hadn’t, but police didn’t yet know that. Eva Coo already did.
On visiting the inn, State Police Trooper Cadwell spoke briefly with Eva Coo, trying to get some idea of where he might be. All Coo could offer was a suggestion that Wright, true to form, had possibly been on a bender and passed out drunk somewhere. Cadwell agreed to go looking for Wright and it wasn’t long before he found him. Wright’s body was discovered only a few hundred yards from the inn looking as though he’d been struck by a car, which he had. Just not by accident.
On examining Harry Wright’s body, the doctor and Cadwell confirmed he was dead and that he’d been hit by a vehicle. They also ascertained that he’d died some time around 8:30pm and had been laid there for around three hours. A gray cap was discovered at the scene, identified by one of Wright’s acquaintances as definitely not being his. What wasn’t found at the apparent hit-and-run was far more interesting than what was. There were no physical traces of the vehicle whatsoever. No skid marks on the road, no broken glass, no small pieces of bodywork. Nothing at all could be found to identify the vehicle that had supposedly killed him where he was found. Curiosity began to harden into suspicion.
On further medical examination Wright’s injuries were very extensive. Too extensive, in fact. Both his shoulder blades were fractured in several places. Nearly all his ribs were fractured or broken. His chest cavity had been crushed almost to pulp. Dr. Winsor’s opinion was unambiguous:
“In my opinion the car that killed Wright passed over him not once, but twice.”
There was also the small matter of another unrelated injury to Harry Wright’s head, an injury that looked like he’d been struck over the head by a heavy, blunt object that wasn’t part of the car that killed him. Winsor and the local police also couldn’t figure out how, on the stretch of road where his body was found, exactly how he could have fallen under a passing car in any way that would explain his injuries. Winsor and Cadwell consulted with State Police officers and, once an autopsy had also revealed that Wright was, unusually, not holding enough alcohol to be severely intoxicating, their suspicions hardened still further. There was seemingly no rational, legitimate explanation for Wright’s injuries, but there was a definite suggestion of foul play. That suggestion would only grow stronger as time passed and investigators dug deeper into Harry Wright and his erstwhile employer Eva Coo.
Further inconsistencies soon surfaced. Coo claimed that Wright had left the inn to visit a prospective employer. As the walk was no longer than twenty minutes and Wright had died ninety minutes after he left the inn, where had he been? And with whom? His body was also found on the side of the road indicating he’d walked with the flow of traffic, not against it. To be found on the other side of the road, which he was, he’d have to have been hit so hard that his body had been knocked clear from one side of the road to the other. So why, if he had been hit that hard, were there no physical traces of the car itself?
Their suspicions by now firmly aroused, police began to look more closely at Wright’s personal history and those of the people around him. It transpired that a local stonemason had, on Eva Coo’s orders, altered the dates on the Wright family gravestone only three weeks before Harry Wright’s death. Like many people, Harry already had his birth year carved on the family monument. A police officer attending his funeral noticed the freshly-cut numeral making Wright five years younger than he actually was. Why? Further inquiries soon found the reason. Harry Wright had recently been insured for a large sum and his age had been altered in order to persuade the insurance company to insure him at a lower premium. Presumably, the insurers weren’t told of his chronic alcoholism and medical history, either. The big question was who had taken out the policy and who was the beneficiary? The answer to both was alarmingly and suspiciously simple.
State police then turned up a significant lead. Cadwell had suggested that officers tour local garages and gas stations, asking around to see whether anybody had stopped by with either a damaged car or who seemed to be flustered and stressed. Apparently, according to a mechanic at a nearby garage, somebody had. Her name was Martha Clift and she’d rented a large Willys-Knight car for the evening. It further transpired that Martha Clift was a ‘entertainer’ working at the Woodbine Inn, which made her an employee of a certain Eva Coo.
The mechanic was also open about her manner when she returned the car. Small-town folk often like to make a little light conversation with storekeepers, tradesmen and so on when doing business. Martha Clift didn’t. According to the mechanic she simply avoided any idle chatter, paid in full, and left as quickly as possible while looking remarkably nervous. So nervous, in fact, that the mechanic carefully checked over the car she’d hired to make sure she hadn’t damaged it and was skipping out on the additional expense.
Further inquiries revealed something unusual. Martha Clift had indeed hired the big-heavy Willys-Knight. But she wouldn’t have driven it as she didn’t have a driver’s license. Which meant that somebody who could drive, licensed or otherwise, must have driven it for her. Examination of the car further revealed a very disturbing set of stains on the rear seats.
Stains bearing a close resemblance to dried blood.
Sheriff Mitchell, pursuing his own lines of inquiry,soon found some more suspicious information and a possible witness in the form of Ernie Tatum, another Woodbine Inn regular. Tatum, not himself overly given to perpetual sobriety, was pressed until he revealed some very interesting information. Not only was Eva Coo the sole beneficiary of Harry Wright’s insurance policy, he also revealed that on the night of the murder he’d been drinking with him at the Woodbine. Wright had indicated that he’d be going up to an abandoned house high on nearby Crumhorn Mountain to steal some shrubs and flowers.
Tatum remembered the conversation fairly clearly as, according to Wright, Eva Coo had promised she’d get him home in time to listen to the Baer-Carnera heavyweight title fight on the radio. On returning to the subject of the insurance, it also transpired that Harry Wright didn’t even know he was insured as Eva Coo had persuaded Tatum to handle all the correspondence and forge Wright’s signature where needed. It also became clear that Coo had several policies on Wright with herself as sole beneficiary, that his age had been altered to lower the premiums and that the policies had a ‘double indemnity’ clause doubling the payouts if Harry Wright should happen to die in an accident.
A hit-and-run accident on a secluded, dark country road, for example.
Investigators were now convinced both that Harry Wright had been murdered and that Eva Coo was responsible. The questions were where had he been murdered and exactly how. It wasn’t long before they found their answers and from an unlikely source. The abandoned Scott house on Crumhorn Mountain might have been abandoned, but it was owned by a Mrs Fink who was heartily fed up of the place being raided, vandalised and robbed. On the night of the murder Mrs Fink had been told that, not for the first time, a car and two people had been seen at the house. She went up to see what was going on and found two women.
The two women she later identified as Eva Coo and Martha Clift. There was no sign of Harry Wright. Eva Coo, unusually for someone known locally as hard-nosed, tough-minded and generally easily-provoked, was polite, courteous and seemed curiously diplomatic. She had informed Mrs Fink, politely and reasonably, that they had taken nothing from the property and that they were now leaving. The time, suspiciously given that Coo herself had reported Harry Wright missing at around 10pm and his time of death was around 8:30, was near 9pm. This also blew Eva Coo’s story that Harry Wright had left the Woodbine Inn at around 7pm and simply vanished.
Further incriminating evidence followed. Trooper Cadwell had spoken with Eva Coo’s nearest neighbour, a Mrs Wagner, and Wagner had a story to tell. A most incriminating one, as it turned out. She disclosed that Coo had expressed concern about being subject of any suspicion involving the death of Harry Wright. She had also asked Wagner if she’d mind telling anyone who asked that Coo had never left the Woodbine Inn that night, either. If anyone asked her about Eva Coo, Coo told her, she was to say she’d been at the inn using the telephone that evening and that Coo had been there all evening.
Of course, Eva Coo had left the Woodbine and police had a witness who placed her as trespassing halfway up Crumhorn Mountain at the time. Equally incriminating, Martha Clift seemed to have disappeared of the face of the earth. Two hostesses at the inn, Lottie James and Olive Brooks, were picked up for routine questioning and Brooks further added to the case against their employer. She admitted that Coo had asked her to alter the date in Harry Wright’s family Bible to 1890, the same year as the alteration on the gravestone. She also intimated that Coo, far from being overly indulgent of Wright, could be very cruel to him and, on more than one occasion, had threatened him with a wooden mallet. A wooden mallet that could easily have delivered the additional head injury that Wright obviously hadn’t got from a passing vehicle. A wooden mallet that, like Martha Clift, had also vanished.
Digging into Harry Wright’s past also provided a few interesting nuggets. He’d previously received $2000 when his mother died three years earlier. That had disappeared into the pockets of a certain Eva Coo. He’d owned a small house that had mysteriously burnt to the ground and received insurance money for that as well. It also disappeared in the form of a loan to one Eva Coo, as had the profits from selling the land on which the burnt-out building had stood. But, while Harry had come into some money, Eva was late paying her taxes and was being pressed to settle the bill.
Police had means, motive and looked at Crumhorn Mountain as a potential opportunity. They were proved right when they arrested Eva Coo and, after no small amount of searching, found and detained Martha Clift. It would be Martha Clift who saved herself and, in doing so, hammered the remaining nails into Eva Coo’s coffin. On arresting Eva police had also secured a warrant to search her properties and they found several highly-incriminating items. They discovered the edited Bible mentioned by Olive Brooks.They also found a stained and well-used wooden mallet wrapped inside a crushed and shabby felt hat.
The hat was Harry Wright’s. The mallet was Eva Coo’s. Both were heavily bloodstained.
Martha broke quickly under questioning, especially when she was told she faced a stark, life-or-death choice. She could choose between a charge of second-degree murder with maybe twenty years to life or a charge of first-degree murder and a then-mandatory sentence of death in Sing Sing Prison’s legendary electric chair ‘Old Sparky. Not realising that police were bluffing her in the hope that she would crack and spill the beans, Clift did exactly that.
She confessed everything. On the night of the murder she, Eva Coo and Harry Wright had indeed secretly visited Crumhorn Mountain. Just not for stealing shrubbery, although Harry Wright still thought so. He was rather rudely disabused of this idea when Martha Clift, ably proving herself able to drive without a license, promptly steered the rental car straight at him. She almost missed him as, realising something was very wrong, he’d tried to jump aside as the car rushed toward him. Unfortunately he jumped towards Eva Coo who just happened to have brought her favourite wooden mallet in case of need.
A sharp crack over the head put Wright squarely back in the path of the Willys-Knight which promptly steamrollered over him. Just to make sure, Martha then backed up and reversed over him, finally putting him beyond survival. They were briefly interrupted by the unscheduled arrival of Mrs Fink, who Eva Coo had been unusually polite to. She was being unusually polite because neither Clift or Coo wanted Mrs Fink staying long enough to notice the corpse of Harry Wright, still lying under the car while Coo and Mrs Fink exchanged pleasantries
With Mrs Fink out of the way they put his body in the back of the car, drove down to where his body was later found and then Martha dropped the rental car back at the local garage where she’d originally hired it. Then Eva placed a brief and worried-sounding phone call to report Harry Wright missing, knowing all the time that she had murdered him and left his body where it would be both easily found and hopefully written off as just another rural road accident.
With witness testimony about Eva Coo’s false alibis, her cruelty towards Wright, the forensic evidence and exhibits and, most of all, Martha Clift turning State’s Evidence in return for no death penalty, the trial was practically a foregone conclusion. It was, however, the first murder trial in Cooperstown for thirteen years. Martha Clift played a starring role in Eva’s conviction, despite Eva having retained eminent and presumably very expensive defense counsel. Martha and Eva played starring roles in the trial. So, from beyond the grave, did their victim.
As I said, reconstructing crimes for the benefit of the jury is regular in trials. What isn’t quite as regular is taking the victim’s corpse, dressing it in clothes from a thrift store and then taking it and the jury to the secluded, dark, sinister Scott house on Crumhorn Mountain. Prosecutors seldom then position and reposition the body according to the testimony of one of its murderers who turned State’s Evidence in order to avoid the electric chair. But they did.
Eva Coo was convicted which, under the then-mandatory sentencing for New York State, she was condemned to die for first-degree murder. Martha Clift later pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and received a sentence of twenty years to life. She served her time and then disappeared into obscurity.
Eva Coo has largely been forgotten today but, in 1934, her fame was to last just a little bit longer. She was lodged at Sing Sing Prison’s infamous ‘Death House’ and placed in the same cell once occupied by New York’s ‘Double Indemnity’ murderer Ruth Snyder. Appeals were quickly filed and just as quickly denied and her date with Old Sparky was set for 11pm on June 27, 1935. That was only one year and 13 days since Harry Wright’s murder.
At the appointed time she walked her last mile, although she didn’t walk alone. Gangster Leonard Scarnici was scheduled to die immediately after her. She spent much of her last day pitying herself and crying, although she held herself together when the time came. At 11pm she walked the twenty-six steps from her cell in the ‘Dance Hall’ to Old Sparky, was seated and quickly strapped down. As the female guards escorting her left the death chamber she called out to them:
‘State Electrician’ Robert G. Elliott, not known to like executing women, checked things over and awaited a signal from Warden Lewis Lawes, himself a noted opponent of capital punishment. The signal came. Her end was mercifully brief.
Only minutes after her death and with smoke still hanging in the air, cop killer Leonard Scarnici, who’d spent his final day cursing cops, lawyers and particularly New York Governor Herbert Lehman for not granting him yet another reprieve, walked in. He was seated, strapped, capped and then Warden Lawes gave the signal. With Lawes dropping his hand Elliott completed the second part of that night’s ‘double hitter.’ With both bodies removed to the adjoining morgue, staff simply locked up the death chamber before returning to Coo and Scarnici’s ‘Dance Hall’ cells. There, they removed the personal effects to be packaged and sent on later while the cell beds were made and the nametags removed from the cell doors.
Warden Lawes was deeply critical of Eva Coo’s legal team and the way in which they handled her case. As he later put it:
“I don’t know if she was innocent or guilty. But I do know she got a rotten deal all around, rotten. And I’m not defending her – she may be guilty as well, but she got a raw deal. Her trial attorneys – do you know what they did to help her lately? Know what? One of them wrote to me, saying he’d like four invitations to her execution. That’s the kind of defense she had.”