The Last Stop
'A Rotten Deal, All Around Rotten!'
It could be said that up until 1935, Eva Coo was a survivor. She worked through the Great Depression, managed to buy property, ran a successful business (even if it was a brothel), fed herself and a large staff, and even paid for her employee's insurance policies. Of course, it was later determined that her motives for paying those premiums were other than charity. She was born Eva Currie in Haliburton, Ontario in 1894. While she was still in her teens, she moved to Toronto where she met a rail worker named William Coo. They ran away together to Canada's western frontier and got married. The marriage lasted only a few years and Eva Coo migrated to upstate New York in 1921.
As a result of Prohibition Age, which began with the Volstead Act at precisely midnight January 16, 1920, "speak easys" began to appear all over America. Eva opened her own bar in Oneonta, a small city midway between Albany and Binghamton in Otsego County, New York. During that era, Oneonta was a bustling railroad town through which many transients passed every day to points east and west. Eva's clientele consisted of truck drivers, railroad employees, college students and construction workers. Eva's Place, as it was called, was a popular stopover known throughout the region. Eva herself was a boisterous, outgoing woman with a quick sense of humor who could always be counted on for a good time. She was 5' 7" and weighed a muscular 170 pounds. Everyone knew Eva and she knew everyone else, including politicians and police.
Eva employed a staff that consisted of several local people who worked as bartenders and kept the bar, called Little Eva's Place, stocked with booze and supplies. One of the employees, Harry "Gimpy" Wright, 52, was a farmer whose mother had passed away in 1931. He was unable to care for himself and came to live with Eva that summer in exchange for $2,000 of his mother's inheritance money. Harry often drank at the bar to excess and took to walking down the highway, Route 7, in an inebriated state, sometimes falling alongside the road where he had to be rescued by other patrons.
In 1933, a girl named Martha Clift, originally from Pennsylvania, went to work at Little Eva's Place. She became a familiar sight at the bar and people noticed that she also became very friendly with Eva Coo. During the following summer, in June, 1934, Eva reported to the police that "Gimpy" was missing. He had wandered out of the bar after a bout with the bottle and hadn't been seen or heard from since.
The police conducted a search and quickly found the body of Harry Wright, smashed up in a bad way, laying in a roadside ditch off Route 7. He was less than a half-mile from Eva's place and it was immediately surmised that he was struck and killed by a hit and run driver who didn't see the unlucky victim until it was too late. A local coroner examined the remains and ruled that Wright was probably killed by a hit and run driver while strolling drunk along Route 7, something that he was known to do in the past. His body was dispatched over to a local funeral parlor and prepared for burial.
In the meantime, Eva, not known for her intelligence, showed up at a Met Life Insurance Company office in Oneonta with an insurance policy on "Gimpy's" life. The beneficiary named in the policy was Eva Coo. The claim was processed but the insurance company became suspicious and took their suspicions to the police. An autopsy was conducted on Wright and the coroner ruled the death suspicious. It was later discovered that on the night of Wright's death, Coo and Clift were reported to be trespassing on an old farm near Crumhorn Mountain. That was enough for the sheriff's office. Both women were arrested. While they were held at the local jail, sheriff's deputies went to Eva's home and, without a warrant, broke in and searched the place. Officers found dozens of insurance polices on Eva's friends, acquaintances and employees, all naming her as the beneficiary. When confronted with the evidence, both women soon confessed. Coo said they took Wright to an old farmhouse near Crumhorn Mountain outside Oneonta and smashed his head in with a hammer. They ran over his body using a friend's car and then threw Wright into a highway ditch where he was found. However, each woman named the other as the one who actually did the killing and would not relent.
The sheriff then took Eva and Martha to Crumhorn Mountain to clarify their statements and it was there that one of the most grotesque interrogations in the history of criminal justice began. The Sheriff exhumed the body of Harry Wright and brought it to the site where he removed it from the coffin. For the next few hours, while the women argued back and forth about who did what to whom, sheriff's deputies carted around Wright's corpse, placing it in various spots in front of the terrified suspects who nearly collapsed from the stench and the summer heat.
In August, 1934, the trial began in the baseball town of Cooperstown, New York. It attracted the usual media gang and entrepreneurs who sold souvenirs and memorabilia outside the county courthouse. Incredibly, Wright's body was again exhumed during proceedings so police could check on his wounds. The trial lasted almost three weeks and quickly turned into a circus. But in the end, it took just one hour for the jury to bring in a verdict. Eva Coo was found guilty of Murder 1st degree and sentenced to death at Sing Sing. Martha Clift was found guilty of Murder 2nd degree and sentenced to 20 years.
That same day, outside the Otsego County Courthouse, a caravan of cars carrying Eva Coo, Martha Clift and a platoon of police and state troopers left for Sing Sing, about 90 miles south. Later, at the doors to the prison, the two women were allowed to say goodbye to each other. Martha was then taken to Bedford Reformatory, about thirty miles away, where she would serve out her sentence. Meanwhile, at Sing Sing, Eva was processed in the front office. After being issued a prison uniform, Eva was ushered into the same cell where Anna Antonio had spent her last days, and before her, Ruth Snyder. Eva asked the guards about Sing Sing. The matrons said it was a fair place and the warden was a fine man.
One matron said, "Do you know what they did for Mrs. Antonio?"
"Yeah," said Eva, "burned her!" (Eggleston, p. 93). During her time on Death Row, few people visited her. Since her conviction, Eva fell out of favor with her old friends from Oneonta. Gone were the politicians, business people, judges and cops that once frequented her place. "I don't know why my friends can't get in to see me at Sing Sing," she said, "I had no problem getting in!"
On June 27, 1935, after half-hearted appeals were filed by her attorneys, who often fought with each other and tried to make money from her story, Eva Coo ate her last meal. A last-second request was made to Governor Herbert Lehman to spare her life, but he refused. At 11:00 p.m. that night, she was brought into the death chamber. Two matrons, one on each side of Eva, escorted her to the chair. Her posture was erect and her shoulders pushed back. She appeared resigned but with a trace of the old bravado. She sat unassisted, her white hands gripping the ends of the chair.
"Goodbye, darlings!" she said to the matrons. Several minutes later she was dead, the 3rd woman to die at Sing Sing in the 20th century. In his journal, executioner Robert G. Elliot wrote a simple notation: "New York June 27-1935-11 P.M. 9 Amp. Eva Coo #89508-42 years" (Elliot, p. 279).
There were many people though, who were upset at the way her defense was handled. Eva's journey through the criminal justice system was not one to be proud of according to some. Warden Lewis E. Lawes, always outspoken on death penalty issues, later said this to the press: "I don't know if she was innocent or guilty. But I do know that 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" (Nash, 1981, p. 96).
In Haliburton, Ontario, Eva's hometown, when her sister, Mrs. William Baker, was asked for a reaction to the execution, she told reporters that Eva "has been dead to her family for seventeen years" (New York Times, June 28, 1935). After her execution, Eva's body was not claimed. Accordingly, she was buried in a potter's field whose exact location is unknown and her grave has never been found.