Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Last Stop

'It's a Shame!'

Helen Ray Fowler
Helen Ray Fowler
Helen Ray Fowler was an historic figure. But it's the kind of notoriety no one would want. She was the only black female executed in the State of New York during the 20th century. Helen was the mother of five children and lived in the village of Niagara Falls in upstate New York. She ran a boarding house, in addition to caring for her children, to make ends meet. Helen was a large woman, 5'7" and 227 lbs. according to her prison records. During the summer of 1943, she took in a boarder named George Knight at her home on Memorial Parkway.

Knight, 27, was a drinker and often drank too much. At times, he became violent and had been arrested before by local police. On the night of October 30, 1943, George Knight and another woman were drinking in a local tavern in Niagara Falls. At the same time, Helen Fowler walked in the bar unexpectedly and saw them together. Words were exchanged by the three and soon, fists were flying. The fight spilled out into the street along with some of the other customers. Also drinking in the same bar was a gas station owner from nearby Ransomville named George William Fowler, 63, a white man and no relation to Helen. He watched the brawl and later decided to follow Helen home. When she arrived at her home on Memorial Parkway, William went inside with her, perhaps to make romantic advances. Another fight soon developed which ended with William on the floor. In the meantime, George Knight arrived and immediately broke a large vase over William's head. He suffered a severely fractured skull and died on the floor of Helen's home. George and Helen dumped the body in a trunk. Correctly surmising that a dead body in the house would tend to implicate them in the crime, Knight and Fowler placed the trunk in a car and drove it down to the North Grand Island Bridge, which spans the upper Niagara River. There, under cover of nightfall and within sight of Canada to the west, they dumped the trunk into the river. When the body washed up on shore, the crime shocked the residents of Ransomville who were unaccustomed to murder. After a brief investigation, police arrested the suspects.

During an interrogation by the local sheriff's office, both Knight and Fowler admitted to the crime. Their trial was held during the week of February 12, 1944 at the Niagara County Court in Lockport, about 20 miles east of Niagara Falls. In the middle of deliberations, the jury asked for clarification on one issue. They wanted to know if a person who didn't actually kill anyone could be found guilty of murder. Judge William Munson assured them that two persons could be found guilty of the same murder even if only one of them actually committed the offense. It was called "felony murder" under the Penal Law of the State of New York. After a five-day trial, during which there were no defense witnesses called to the stand, both were found guilty of 1st Degree Murder. Helen, who had cried throughout the trial, burst into hysterics when she heard the verdict. Knight remained passive in his seat as he had for the entire proceedings. It was the first murder trial in the county since 1938. Ironically, it was also the very first time that women had been allowed to serve as jurors in Niagara County.

On February 19, 1944, in the same county courtroom, Judge Munson sentenced both defendants to death in the electric chair at Sing Sing. Helen sobbed loudly from behind the defense table as the sentence was read. Her attorneys requested a new trial, which was immediately denied by the Judge. The prisoners were taken back to the Niagara County jail to await transfer to Ossining. On February 21, Fowler and Knight were taken by train to Sing Sing where they were sent to Death Row. The execution was set for September 4, 1944. Luckily, they received two delays and the date was eventually fixed for November 16, 1944. But for the first time this century, Robert G. Elliott, Sing Sing's legendary executioner, wouldn't be the one to pull the switch on a female. He died in 1939 of heart disease in Queens, N.Y. During his time in the death chamber, which spanned 13 years, he turned the dial on many notorious individuals, including Bruno Hauptmann, Sacco and Vanzetti, Ruth Snyder and Anna Antonio. It was a gruesome job. But prison officials had no trouble finding a replacement. After Elliot's death, the prison received over 400 applications for his job.

On the night she was to sit in the electric chair, Helen was allowed to dictate a letter to Lt. Governor Hanley. In her final plea for mercy, just two hours before the scheduled execution, Helen told a tragic story. She began by saying: "I had these things on my mind at the time of the trial. I hate the disgrace of bringing these things out." She went on to say that her daughter Ruth plotted against her. She said "Ruth was going with my husband. I have proof by Niagara Falls Police Department because of his arrest. I have a letter here to prove my husband went with one daughter." But there was more, much more. She accused her daughter of murder. She told the Lt. Governor: "Her (her daughter's friend) and Ruth both poisoned my husband and I to get rid of me." Helen painted an ugly picture of a rebellious and cruel daughter who would stop at nothing to get free of a domineering mother. She said that when she was put in jail, her daughter Ruth was glad. "She said she was free for the first time in her life and intended to stay free. She also said I'd make a nice fat crackling in the chair," Helen said. As for the murder of George Fowler, Helen claimed she was innocent and only helped move the body. "I fought hard all the time to keep my children under a roof with me. Please give me a chance to prove these things. I've said I'm not guilty of any murder or robbery but I did help to get the man out of the house or he'd have left him there in the trunk because he was drunk for over a week after and a couple of days before. Please have mercy on me. Please spare my life!" (Christianson, p. 84, Helen Fowler's statement of November 16, 1944). But there was no word from the Governor's mansion. She was doomed. Just two hours later, a despondent Helen Fowler was led into the death chamber at Sing Sing. Accompanying her through the hallway was Catholic Chaplain Bernard Martin, who prayed for her soul. She was crying uncontrollably as she sat down in the chair. At 11:04 p.m., the killer current was sent coursing through her body. Several minutes later, she was declared dead.

George Knight went next. Before he sat down for the last time, he asked the Warden to speak. "Can I talk?" he said. The warden replied that it was customary to allow the condemned to say a few last words. "I want to thank you all for being so nice to me," Knight said simply. After his death, the guards cleaned up the chamber and shut the lights. There were no other executions scheduled for the same night. For the first time since 1906, there would be none for a full calendar year.

Before she left this world on the night of November 16, 1944, Helen wrote: "It's a mother's love and it's been so much disgrace but this is the truth of why I am here. Please, I'll live for God from now on if spared, for when children try to have your life taken just to be free, it's a shame!" (Christianson, p. 85). Helen Fowler and George Knight were the 19th and 20th prisoners to die in Sing Sing's electric chair that year.

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