The Trial of Worthy Tolley
On the afternoon of Monday, September 14, 1914 Worthy Tolley, an Athens farmer, took his shotgun into a field across the road from his house where Roy Hallenbeck was working and shot Hallenbeck. Hallenbeck died the next day from his wounds.
On November 13, 1914 Tolley was indicted by a grand jury and arraigned that same day before Greene Supreme Court Justice Cochrane. The court assigned William Thorpe of Catskill to defend Tolley, who would be prosecuted by District Attorney Howard Wilbur of Catskill and Assistant District Attorney John Fray of Catskill.
Tolley, 49, was tried for the murder of Hallenbeck, 27, before Greene County Supreme Judge Alden Chester and a jury. Chester, 66, a juror of great renown and a legal historian, was a member of the Appellate Division who had returned to the trial bench to help clear a backlog of cases. Jury selection commenced February 23, 1915, and lasted all or parts of four days. Opening remarks were made February 26, 1915 by Fray, and testimony began with the witness Edward Guthrie.
Guthrie owned the farm where Hallenbeck worked as a hired man, on the west side of what Guthrie called Spoorenberg Road and what is now called Farm-to-Market Road. (The Guthrie farm is now the Wais farm.)
Guthrie told the court and the jury that he and Hallenbeck were packing pears on Thursday before the shooting when Tolley came over to Guthrie’s farm. Tolley lived on the east side of Spoorenberg Road on the next farm directly to the south. Tolley said his son Garrett (Garry) had run away the day before. Some conversation was had about the possibility that Garrett had gone into the Navy. On Sunday Tolley returned, having learned in the meantime that Hallenbeck had received a letter from Garrett. Guthrie related to Tolley that Hallenbeck had told him about receiving the letter. Guthrie told Tolley that Garrett had asked Hallenbeck not to tell Tolley where Garrett had run away to. Hallenbeck was not present at this conversation between Tolley and Guthrie.
In court Guthrie told about a conversation he had with Hallenbeck.
When he spoke to Guthrie about receiving the letter, Hallenbeck was clearly troubled by the position his friend Garrett had put him in. “What would you do, Mr. Guthrie,” Hallenbeck asked. “Well, I can’t decide that for you, Roy. That is a thing you will have to decide for yourself,” Guthrie told him. Roy said “he would give $5 if the boy hadn’t written him,” according to Guthrie.
At about 2 o’clock PM Monday, Guthrie now testified, Tolley came into Guthrie’s barnyard on foot and driving Guthrie’s grey team that Hallenbeck had taken out earlier to do some harrowing. Tolley had horse reins in one hand, and a double barrel shotgun in the other.
“Mr. Tolley what have you done,” Guthrie asked. “Well, Roy wouldn’t tell me where my boy was and I shot him.” I said “Have you killed him.” He said “I am afraid so.” I said, “You will go to the chair for this.” He said, “Maybe I will. They know where to get me. I will be over to the house when they want me.”
Tolley put the horses in Guthrie’s barn, and Guthrie went to find Hallenbeck. Guthrie and the other hired hands attended to Hallenbeck as best as they could. He had been shot with a single blast at about 50 feet. Most of the shot penetrated his chest and face. Hallenbeck never regained consciousness before expiring.
On cross examination, Guthrie repeated the details of his conversations with Tolley, including one earlier Monday when Guthrie met Tolley on the road in a carriage with Orin Flint, an Athens attorney. Flint had apparently been enlisted by Tolley to try to persuade Hallenbeck to give up the desired information. Guthrie told defense attorney Thorpe that Tolley appeared to have been drinking when he saw him in Flint’s company.
William (Will) Bush, a second hired man on the Guthrie farm testified next. On the fateful Monday, Bush and Hallenbeck came out of the fields together to take dinner at the noon hour. Tolley was at the barn, waiting for Hallenbeck. “Did you tell Flint where Garry is?” Tolley said. When Hallenbeck said no, Tolley said “then I will get you before the day is over,” according to Bush.
Bush recalled hearing that afternoon “a report from a gun,” seeing Tolley with the team, and going to Hallenbeck’s aid.
Court opened Saturday morning February 27 with the testimony of Charley Bush, Will’s brother. Charley Bush was picking pears on the neighboring Gonnerman farm, when he heard a shot, turned and saw Tolley in the field “take the gun from his shoulder.” Bush also attended to Hallenbeck.
Charles van Orden, surveyor, testified to the making of a map of the field and of the location of the shooting, which Wilbur offered in evidence, and which was received without objection.
Charles Hitchcock, Athens policeman testified he went to the Tolley house after the shooting.
Q. And what was said between you, if anything?
A. I walked down the roadway and Mr. Tolley says to me, “You came after me once when you had no right, but this time you have a perfect right.” I says, “Well, Worthy, you have to go to Athens with me.”
Q. And was there any further conversation between you at that time?
A. I started to search him and he says to me, or I says, “Where is the gun?” and he says “I have no gun.” I says, “What did you shoot that man with?” He says “A shotgun.” And I says, “I will have to have that gun.” I says, “Where is it?” He says, “Downstairs, I will go and get it.” He and I walked downstairs and he procured a gun from the top of a cupboard or closet in the basement of the house and I took the gun and came on out.
Hitchcock took Tolley into custody, they drove to Athens in “Abram Post’s machine (automobile),” and Tolley was brought to jail that night in Catskill
The shotgun Tolley surrendered to Hitchcock went into evidence through Sheriff Mackey, who had taken custody of it from Hitchcock.
Before Wilbur rested, several prosecution witnesses said they were in Athens Village Sunday morning and heard Tolley say he was going to “get” Hallenbeck.
Dr. George Branch, who performed the autopsy on Hallenbeck, also testified.
Court reconvened Monday at 11 AM following Judge Chester’s arrival in Catskill on the train down from Albany.
Defense attorney Thorpe now made his opening remarks. His defense would consist of three major points: (a) there was a history of mental illness in Tolley’s family, on his mother’s side; (b) Tolley was distraught and not in his right mind after his son disappeared; (c) the prosecution presented no evidence regarding what took place out in the field between Tolley and Hallenbeck in the moments before Hallenbeck was shot.
The first four defense witnesses testified to the suicides of two of Tolley’s mother’s brothers and Tolley’s brother William. There were strenuous protestations and objections made by Wilbur, the first time in the trial when what should or should not be allowed as testimony was disputed between the attorneys. Since none of the witnesses personally observed the acts of suicide, the testimony evolved into what the uncles looked like in death, one with a gash to his throat, observed in the coffin, and the other with the mark of a rope and brown discoloration on the neck, again in the coffin. The town clerk of Athens testified that the death certificate of Worthy’s brother William Tolley indicated cause of death “hanging by neck.” Judge Chester received the certificate into evidence “for whatever it is worth.”
Thorpe’s main witness was Allie Tolley, the defendant’s wife. In the days following Garrett’s disappearance, Tolley didn’t sleep, didn’t eat, and was consumed with worry. On Saturday, Worthy and Allie were in the village near the river, when they met a man with grappling hooks, who said he had been “dragging the river.” Mrs. Tolley said her husband understood that some people felt Garrett had fallen into the river, which upset Tolley greatly.
Mrs. Tolley next explained that Roy Hallenbeck had been a close friend of the Tolley family, and that Roy “kept company” with the oldest Tolley daughter for the last two years.
That Monday afternoon Tolley took his shotgun “and stated to me that he was going to shoot a hawk out in the orchard,” said Mrs. Tolley. Sometime later, when she saw him next, “he related to me what he had done.”
I said, “Why did you do such a thing?” and he said “I asked him four times and he didn’t tell me.”
Q. Asked him what four times?
A. Where his boy was, four times, and he didn’t tell him, and his gun went off and he didn’t know how it was, but his gun went off.
Mrs. Tolley, and later on her daughter, Maude, testified that in recent years Tolley was sometimes intoxicated when coming home from the village at night, and at times he was physically abusive. Maude told the court and jury that she and Roy had been engaged to marry.
Garrett Tolley testified he did not get along with his father, and he was scared of his father, drunk or sober. Tolley was often critical of his son – his dumps of hay when raking were too small, he didn’t get the cows into their stantions quick enough and so on. His father had never struck him, however. On Wednesday the 9th, Garrett bicycled west of Coxsackie Village, stopping at different places looking for work until he was referred to Seney Green’s farm in New Baltimore. He was at Seney Green’s over the weekend and until Tuesday when his mother came for him.
On cross-examination by Wilbur, Garrett offered that his father didn’t like Hallenbeck, the man who might be his son-in-law some day.
This testimony was followed by doctors for both sides with opinions about Tolley’s sanity, and the various recalling of witnesses to offer further testimony on certain matters in question.
We learn a lot about the ubiquity, and the diversity, of farm life in and around Athens, New York the second week of September, 1914. When Garrett Tolley was bicycling that Wednesday afternoon, he found men at one farm pressing hay. Seney Green employed Garrett for three days “setting up buckwheat.” Attorney Wilbur asked him about that.
Q. Tolley, what kind of work is that?
A. Why, raking it up after it is cradled in small bundles, then set it up.
Q. And tie it?
A. And then tying it.
Q. Setting the buckwheat up?
A. Yes, sir.
Q. That buckwheat is pretty well full with brambles and thistles?
A. Yes, sir.
Q. Pretty stiff good work you did there; good hard work you did there?
A. Well, I don’t know that it was hard.
Q. Disagreeable work?
A. Part of it was.
On Saturday, Allie and Worthy talked to Irving Hotaling, who was threshing. On Monday Charlie Bush was picking pears, while his brother Will Bush was cutting corn stalks and tying them up in shocks to dry. Roy Hallenbeck spent that day seated on a wheeled machine, pulled by a team of horses, with parallel rows of circular discs to the rear, “working up” ground earlier turned by a plow and then seeded with oats. Their day time activities, for most or all of these men, followed their early morning chores of milking cows and feeding livestock.
Attorney Thorpe gave an impassioned defense summation which took up 29 pages of trial transcript. He quoted Longfellow and the story of Cain from the Bible. He told the men of the jury that nothing they could do would bring Roy Hallenbeck back. He told them that when Tolley went to the field that afternoon to see Hallenbeck “if his patience became so aroused that he was unable to premeditate, unable to deliberate, and there in a fit of passion without intent to kill Roy Hallenbeck, did kill him, he is not guilty of murder in the first degree.” He told them “the defense here, gentlemen, are not coming to you with the proposition to take this defendant and set him at liberty.”
A win for Thorpe, and his client, would be to escape the death penalty.
Thorpe finished: “Gentlemen, my work so far has ceased. I have done my duty and perhaps I might say I have fought a good fight and I have finished the course, and pass up to you the future custody and welfare, and as I do it the burden rolls away, and you now become the custodians of the future welfare and of the soul of Worthy Tolley.”
John Fray summed up for the people. He told the men of the jury the rule for insanity: “if at the time of the commission of this homicide the defendant knew he was doing wrong, realized the nature of his act, and that it was wrong, then he is responsible.”
He reminded the jury of the 108 shots in Hallenbeck’s body, of the threats Tolley had made to numerous persons about “getting” Hallenbeck, of the oath they took – “I trust under your oaths here you will perform your duty manfully; that you won’t shrink from it because it involves a disagreeable duty.”
After Judge Chester’s charge, the jury began deliberation at 1:10 PM. At 7:50 that night they returned to court and announced the verdict of guilty in the first degree.
The next morning, Saturday, March 6, 1915, Judge Chester sentenced Tolley to death. On October 26, 1915, the Court of Appeals affirmed, without an opinion, Tolley’s conviction. Worthy Tolley was executed on December 17, 1915 at Sing Sing Prison.
Drafted for the Greene County Bar Association Website by Attorney Ted Hilscher on May 17, 2019.