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The Truxton Tragedy

Location: Truxton Historical Society at 3543 NY-91, Truxton, NY
(42.747570, -76.030230)

“Our usual quiet county has been the past week, the scene of the most brutal murder ever committed in the country, and shows a cruelty and total want of human feeling on the part of the criminal that has no parallel.” Cortland County Wig. Sept. 1852

In public, Patrick O’Donohue was perceived to be a well-read, intelligent, and polite man. He worked a small farm just outside of Truxton with his eight children and wife, Geneva. But, behind closed doors, he was another man altogether, possessing a violent temper and a jealous disposition. He drove his family mercilessly, forcing them to do hard labor in the bitter cold and sizzling heat. The Cortland County Wig declared the running of his household “…a case of slavery more revolting that can even be found in ‘Uncle Tom” or “The Life of Soloman Northrup.”

It was a scorching day, August 3, 1852. Patrick, Geneva, and three of his children, Patrick Jr (18), Margaret (13), and Johanna (15), had been splitting logs in the woods through the already sticky morning heat. At 10 am, Patrick sent Margaret and Johanna to check on the three youngest children left alone back at the house, Elizebeth (10), Ellen (6), and Martha (4). The sisters arrived home and quickly discovered that Elizabeth, defying her father’s orders, had snuck out to play at Kinney’s house, a sympathetic neighbor. Panicking, the girls devised a wild plan in hopes of saving Elizabeth from her father’s fury. Margret then broke a window and ran back to the woods, telling her father that Elizabeth had been kidnapped by a man.

Enraged, Patrick gathered up the broken window glass as evidence, his musket, bayonet, and his son, and marched towards Truxton to procure a warrant. Not long after Elizabeth returned to her home. Her mother and sisters, terrified that the lie would come to light, told Elizabeth to hide in the cave by Westcott Creek. They prayed this would give Patrick time to calm and perhaps create a sense of relief when she was found.

When Patrick found no immediate justice in town, he and his son made their way over to the neighboring Kinney’s farm. Mrs. Jane Kinney was all too familiar with Patrick’s tyranny over his family. Often, she heard the O’Donohue family’s cries as he beat them and would intervene. This infuriated Patrick, and he forbid his family contact with Jane or her kin. So, when she discovered him at her gate that fateful day, she met him with defiance.

”Where is my child, have you seen her?” bellowed Patrick.

”Yes, damn you, find her if you can,” retorted Jane Kinney, as she approached the gate, her daughter Amanda Jane (12) by her side.

Throwing open the gate Patrick growled, “That will not do. You are devling with me…”

At that Jane lifted her chin, squared her shoulders, and walked brazenly past. In this moment Patrick lifted his musket without aim and fired! The shot fanned out hitting both Jane and her daughter, the smoldering wadding from the gun catching Jane’s dress on fire and burning her chest and face. Patrick then lunged at Jane, striking her twice with the butt of his musket, until she fell at his feet. Striking her again, he broke his weapon, but not before breaking her neck and fracturing her skull.

As Jane lay dying Patrick turned his attention to her wounded daughter. Grabbing the bayonet “like a demon hot from the infernal pit, he flew at the daughter, who in the meantime had fallen from fright, and plunged the bayonet into her body.” Amanda fought valiantly, but Patrick wrestled the bayonet away from her grasp and again plunged it into her, breaking the handle of his bayonet, leaving her to bleed out and die.

A nearby neighbor, Charles McKnight, took notice of Patrick’s frantic son and came by to inspect the commotion. There stood a wild-eyed Patrick, in the throes of madness, where it is then reported “The heartless wretch still thirsted for more blood and called his wife to bring him some more caps that he might assassinate another of his presupposed enemies and add still another blot to his soul already crimsoned with the darkest hues of crime.”

A terrified, but quick-thinking Charles immediately began working to talk Patrick down. Pleading to Patrick’s intellect, Charles suggested that “people suffering from diseased minds we not always held responsible for their actions and that O’Donohue might escape the death penalty.”

Heeding Charles’s advice, Patrick, accompanied by his wife and son, made his way into Truxton to turn himself. “But, before leaving, under the fresh impulse of Satan, and as if to make his work of assassination more doubly certain, he returned to the bleeding, ghastly, and death struggling victim (Amanda), and plunged the crimsoned steel into her breast.”

Thus lay the mother and daughter, brutally and senselessly slain.

Source: Pioneer History, Cortland County Written by H.C. Goodwin 1854

Location #2: Cortland Courthouse Park at 32 Church Street, Cortland, NY
(42.599690, -76.178240)

The Cortland County Courthouse once stood where the Cortland Free Library now stands. Within its walls took place the gruesome trial and subsequently the only execution ever recorded in Cortland County.

Late July, nearly a year after the horrific murders of Jane and Amanda Kinney, Patrick O’Donohue stood trial for his grizzly crimes. The trial is believed to have lasted over several days, during which his own mother publicly scorned him. Patrick, it was reported, “…was a hostile defendant throughout the proceedings and did little for his own case, with the frequent outburst, swearing and threatening the judge.” After only 40 minutes of deliberation, the jury had their verdict – guilty!

Patrick O’Donohue was sentenced to be executed by hanging on Friday, September 2, 1853. The gallows were erected in the courtroom, and despite it being unlawful to witness the hanging, the courthouse overflowed with voyeurs.

On hearing his coffin had been completed, Patrick requested that it be brought to him in jail to climb in it and “ascertain whether it was the proper size.” It was at this time he asked the sheriff to “conceal the print which the rope would make upon his neck, by drawing his collar closely around it” according to the Cortland County Whig (September 8, 1853).

As Patrick was escorted to the gallows, excited spectators began pushing and shoving in hopes of catching a better view. Patrick was reported to have muttered, “No need of ye boys being in such a hurry, ye can’t start ’til I get there!” After his confession, as the noose was placed around his neck, Patrick declared, “I forgive the whole world, I hope the priests will pray for me.”

Thus were the last words of Patrick O’Donohue.

Cortland Democrat, April 27, 1894