Neither is likely to be familiar, especially murderer George Knight. Had Knight alone been condemned for the murder and robbery of William Fowler on 30 October 1943 neither would have been even a footnote in history. Helen Fowler would have disappeared into New York State’s penal system and obscurity. George Knight would probably have vanished into his grave, just one more name among New York’s 695 to have been electrocuted.
In the normal run of things Helen Fowler’s date with death should have been a media event, at least in the Empire State itself. Very few women ever sat in New York’s electric chair and Fowler was the only African-American woman executed by New York State in the 20th century. Both of those factors should have seen her become front-page news like her predecessors, but she didn’t.
Some of her better-known predecessors like Ruth Snyder (1928), Anna Antonio (1934), Eva Coo (1935) received pages of coverage. Even Martha Place, executed in 1899 and first woman ever to be electrocuted, is better remembered than Helen Fowler. Those who came after her, Martha Beck in 1951 and especially Ethel Rosenberg in 1953, were celebrities long before the switch was thrown. Until the case of Furman vs Georgia in 1972, in fact, Sing Sing was responsible for almost one-third of all America’s female executions.
Fowler’s case was different. Local papers reported her trial, but her execution went almost unreported. When she died on 16 November 1944 there was virtually no press coverage. Sing Sing’s Warden William Snyder had to make a special effort to round up enough witnesses to make the executions legal under state law. It was seen by many as a grubby, squalid crime committed by grubby, squalid people. With the war still raging and thousands dying every day, few had much interest in just another double execution at Sing Sing. They were common enough already.
The reason for public disinterest was a simple one. Not surprisingly, war news dominated the newspapers in 1944. The battleship Tirpitz, Hitler’s last major naval unit, had been destroyed by the Royal Air Force on 12 November only days before Fowler and Knight met their own fate. Despite meriting at least a footnote in the state’s history Helen Ray Fowler died almost unnoticed. Today, she remains almost unremembered.
The crime for which she died was certainly a squalid one. William Fowler, a gas station owner from nearby Ransomville, had turned up in the Memorial Parkway area of Niagara Falls with two cheques, a lot of cash and seemingly not too much common sense. The area was one of the country’s most notorious red-light districts and Fowler, who made a small living as a prostitute, one of its residents.
All told it wasn’t the safest place to be taking a few drinks and going from bar to bar flashing a large bankroll. Fowler and cousin Lee Clark did, Fowler paying for it with his life. The two cheques helped cost Helen Fowler her own.
So did her partner George Knight. Knight, a rather undesirable character well known to the police, murdered William Fowler and robbed him. He and Helen Fowler then hid his body in a trunk, later borrowing a car to dump his body off the North Grand Island Bridge. Fowler’s remains were found in the Upper Niagara River some time later and, in December 1943 the pair were arrested. The owner of the car had informed police who took little time to arrest the pair on suspicion. Once in custody Fowler and Knight would never leave it alive.
The pair provided police with statements, each blaming the other for the murder. Knight claimed Fowler urged him to kill the victim while Fowler blamed Knight entirely, claiming that she took no role in the killing itself and had begged Knight to stop. Unfortunately for both of them they’d given statements before asking for a lawyer, so none were present when the statements were given or during their initial interrogations. Today, courtesy of the Miranda case guaranteeing detainees be read their rights and offered legal assistance, this wouldn’t be tolerated. In 1944 it was perfectly normal.
A grand jury found both defendants had a case to answer. The charge was first-degree murder for the purpose of robbery, the penalty was death. If the jury found them both guilty and didn’t recommend mercy then only the courts or the Governor could save them. New York law was also explicit about individual murders committed by more than one person.
The felony murder rule was clear; If Fowler and Knight had both robbed William Fowler then they were equally responsible for his murder and both could die for it.
Public feeling was against the defendants as well. They were seen as disreputable characters who also happened to be African-Americans. Their alleged victim, on the other hand, was a respectable hard-working man just out for a little fun after work. He also happened to be white.
New York didn’t use its death penalty against African-Americans as freely as other states, those in the Deep South for instance. Nor was it as overtly racists about it as, say, Alabama or Mississippi. Of New York’s 695 electrocutions 146 were of African-Americans, but the racial issue did nothing to steer Knight and Fowler away from the electric chair. Racial prejudice existed as much in New York as anywhere else. People of colour couldn’t (and usually didn’t) expect the same justice as if they’d been white. Many still don’t.
Fowler’s lawyer didn’t exactly help matters. A respected local lawyer and later a State Senator, Earl Bridges had been appointed by the court to defend her, something he did with seemingly little enthusiasm and even less effect. Denied both a change of venue and a separate trial for Fowler, he could still have made more of an effort than he actually did. From the start of the trail on 9 February 1944 he could have done rather more for his client than he did.
Against District Attorney Marsh’s 17 witnesses Bridges produced only two. Marsh could produce no murder weapon or establish precisely why William Fowler was in Knight’s home when he was murdered. Had he followed her there, a few doors down from the dive bar he’d met her in? Had she invited him there as a friendly gesture or to do business? Marsh never provided a clear explanation of why the victim was at the scene or if he really had been lured there to be robbed and killed. Bridges failed to take advantage of that.
Marsh’s star witness Genevieve Persons (also Fowler’s daughter) later recanted her eyewitness testimony that her mother had been actively involved in the murder. She admitted that she had made a deal after being caught trying to cash the two cheques William Fowler had been carrying when he died and had exchanged testimony for being left out of the case. Bridges could have taken better advantage of that, he didn’t.
Bridges’ witnesses consisted only of Fowler’s daughter Judy (aged only 15) and son George (aged only 9). George was too young even to be sworn in. They both claimed Knight was entirely responsible for the murder, June corroborating her mother’s claim that she’d begged Knight to stop and had only helped hide the body, not commit the murder. Bridges could have pressed that issue harder along with Knight’s having recanted his initial statement. Knight’s later statement, that he had killed alone and Fowler had only helped hide the body, might still have saved her if Bridges had pressed the matter harder at her trial, he didn’t.
Worst of all was Bridges’ closing statement before the jury retired:
“It is hard to make a case for Helen Fowler. She is guilty of any number of crimes… she has been handed from man to man; has had children by them all. She has lied, she has cheated, she has sold herself. Perhaps it would be better for her children if she were put out of the way.”
Bridges’ remarks were almost the last thing the jury heard before Judge William Munson sent them to consider their verdict. If they voted to convict without recommending mercy Fowler and Knight would very likely die. Bridges’ final remarks virtually invited them to do so. After asking Munson to clarify the felony murder rule on convicting more than one defendant for the same murder (Munson told them they could) it wasn’t long before they reached a verdict on both defendants;
Guilty as charged. No recommendation for mercy.
Days later Judge Munson passed sentence. On 19 February 1944 he sentenced them both to die. On 21 February the pair arrived at Sing Sing’s death house, the purpose-built block reserved solely for the condemned. They had come to die and after two delays their date was set, 16 November 1944 would see them become Sing Sing’s 19th and 20th executions for that year. The courts denied their appeals without comment.
Lieutenant Governor Hanley, temporarily filling in for State Governor Thomas Dewey, ignored Fowler’s desperate, last-minute handwritten plea for clemency. Even if Dewey himself had considered the matter clemency would have been unlikely. A former prosecutor himself, Dewey had made his name partly on a tough law-and-order platform. That included a number of high-profile executions including members and customers of infamous underworld death squad Murder Incorporated, some in 1944 itself.
Neither ordered the traditional last meal, something Sing Sing was always very generous about. What the condemned wanted (within reason) they usually got. Knight and Fowler got nothing, their appetites had probably died before they did. According to tradition the most emotional prisoner, Fowler, would go first. It was a long-established rule that when executing more than one prisoner the most upset were deemed most likely to pose a problem. Sobbing uncontrollably even before her final walk, Fowler continued sobbing even as she was strapped down just after 11pm. Minutes later she was dead.
A few minutes after she was unstrapped and wheeled away for her autopsy George Knight entered the death chamber. Calm to the end, he allowed himself to be seated and strapped before asking to speak. It was the last thing he ever said:
“Can I talk..? I want to thank you all for being so nice to me.”
The switch was thrown. Minutes later Knight too was wheeled away. Staff and witnesses, so few that Warden Snyder had had to round up enough to make the affair legal, filed out in silence. The press barely noticed the event, let alone reported it much. George Knight had received far better treatment from them than he’d granted Helen Ray Fowler. Or, for that matter, William Fowler himself.
With Fowler and Knight safely in their graves they were swiftly forgotten. A month later the Battle of the Bulge dominated the headlines. So too did Governor Dewey’s failed run for President. Bridges, though, had rather better luck politically speaking. A Republican, Bridges served on the Board of Education and was elected to the State Senate in 1949.
He served until 1972, the year the US Supreme Court’s ruling in Furman vs Georgia temporarily halted the death penalty across the country. Ironically, given his lackadaisical approach to Helen Fowler’s case, Bridges was ardently ‘pro-life,’ spending much of his career fighting the legalising of abortion in New York. He retired in 1972 and died in 1975 at the relatively young age of 69.
He remains rather better remembered than his former client.
The story of Helen Fowler isn’t covered in my forthcoming book ‘Murders, Mysteries and Misdemeanors in New York’, but those of Martha Place and Murder Incorporated are. Released in bookstores on November 25. it can be pre-ordered now.