Patrick Morrissey and the Sheriff

By Brad Dison

Patrick Morrissey was born in Ireland on Saint Patrick’s Day, March 17, 1844. In reverence of the patron saint of Ireland, and his being born on the traditional death date of Saint Patrick, his parents named him Patrick. The Morrissey family crossed the Pacific Ocean and settled in Buffalo, New York. His father died shortly after their arrival. To earn money, Patrick’s mother kept boarders in a poor area known as the “infected district.” Patrick had little education and “was a wild boy.” Patrick occasionally got into legal trouble. In November, 1865, police arrested him on a charge of larceny. A jury convicted him of the crime and sentenced him to three-and-a-half years in the Auburn prison. Patrick’s mother begged Governor Fenton to pardon Patrick. After only seven or eight months in prison, Governor Fenton conceded and pardoned Patrick.

Patrick’s mother was fifty-five-year-old Ann Morrissey. Newspapers describe Ann as being associated with low people, which matched her character. She was a hardworking woman and was able to save a small amount money. Ann had a terrible temper and newspapers reported that she “often abused her children,” Patrick and his three younger sisters.

Patrick worked as a sailor. When he was in between jobs, Patrick stayed with his mother. He spent the majority of his time in a drunken condition. During his binges, he often requested the little money his mother had saved and claimed that he had a right to it because he was the oldest child. On June 22, 1872, a Saturday night, Patrick returned to his mother’s house from a long night of drinking. About 10 a.m. the next morning, Patrick left the house and returned at about 2 p.m. in a drunken stupor. Several boarders at Ann’s boarding house saw Patrick return and said he had a “wild look about him.”

Shortly after Patrick’s return, the boarders heard Patrick arguing with a woman in an adjoining room. The woman yelled, “Go away, you ——-, or I’ll call the watch on you!” Patrick replied, “Do you call me that you d—-d old thing?” Patrick picked up a carving-knife with his right hand. He grabbed the woman’s right shoulder with his left hand, which spun her around, and he stabbed her in the chest. She ran into the next room and collapsed. Stunned boarders carried her to a bed where she died about ten minutes later.

Patrick made no attempt to escape. He sat on a bed in the kitchen and waited for the police to arrive. Policemen arrested Patrick and took him to the police station for questioning. Patrick, still drunk, continually contradicted his own statements. He denied that he had any part in the stabbing, then confessed to the crime, then denied it again.

At Patrick’s trial, his defense attorneys did not deny that Patrick had killed the woman, but claimed he was temporarily insane “caused by liquor and a disposition to light-headedness, resulting from a blow received on his head.” The jury retired after closing arguments and, after a brief absence, returned with a guilty verdict for first degree murder. Four days later, the judge sentenced Patrick to be “hanged by the neck until you are dead.”

Patrick’s attorneys pleaded with the governor for a reprieve, but he would not interfere with the jury’s verdict. Patrick’s attorneys argued that the trial had followed the murder too rapidly, the murder occurred on June 23 and the trial began two days later. They also argued that the trial was too short. It took only twenty-one days from the beginning of Patrick’s trial until the judge sentenced him to death. The attorneys filed a motion for a new trial before the Supreme Court but the motion was denied. The legal process in 1872 was swift.

On September 6, 1872, the sheriff of Erie County, New York, led the condemned man from his jail cell to a holding room. A crowd gathered in the yard of the courthouse in anticipation of a public hanging. Members of the crowd requested to be allowed to watch the hanging, but the sheriff refused. A hush fell over the crowd when the undertaker delivered a black-walnut casket to the courthouse. The sheriff and three of his deputies dressed Patrick in a black robe and placed the noose around his neck. The sheriff ordered twenty-five of his deputies to clear the courthouse yard of everyone except twelve witnesses who had passes to watch the hanging, the number required by law. The sheriff led Patrick into the yard of the courthouse and to the scaffolding, which was shielded from public view by temporary canvas walls. Two deputies led Patrick up the steps to the hanging platform. The sheriff positioned himself on the ground next to the handle which would release the trap door. One of the deputies read the death warrant aloud, attached the noose to the hook on the hanging platform, and pulled a black hood over Patrick’s face. The sheriff pulled the lever, and the condemned man fell to his death.

The woman Patrick murdered was Ann Morrissey, his own mother. The sheriff, who had the grim role as executioner, became the only person to serve two non-consecutive terms as president of the United States, Grover Cleveland.

Buffalo Morning Express and Illustrated Buffalo Express, September 4, 1872, p.1.
Buffalo Evening Post, September 7, 1872, p.3.
Buffalo Weekly Courier, September 11, 1872, p.4.