The Skeleton That Came to Life

By James F. Mooney Chief of Police, Hoosick Falls, New York, as Told to John S. Thorp

Rick Brownell as Police Chief Mooney at Murder in the Valley of the Owl (October 24, 2020).

The ghost of Hoosick Falls rose from its grave that stormy, windy night in April [1926].

The ghost occupied the old Ezra Tiffany house on High Street and nights when the wind moaned and shrieked it could be seen flitting from window to window. Many people swore that they had seen it, that it was the specter of a once prominent Hoosick Falls man who had been murdered in that very house and whose skeleton lay buried in the cellar.

In the police department we had heard of it, of course, but we didn’t pay much attention. As long as the ghost did no one harm and served the excellent purpose of keeping prowlers and tramps from the empty house we didn’t worry about it. We had plenty to do trying to trace a vicious gang of arsonists and dynamiters who had been victimizing our little town in upper New York State.

Then came that stormy night in April when Walter Springer braved the horrors of the empty Tiffany mansion and went into the basement with a lantern and a spade.

Springer told us later that he had been looking for fishing-worms in the rich, litter-covered soil of the basement, which never had been cemented. His spade turned the earth easily at first. Then it struck a hard, unyielding object.

Springer thought of the stories of murder – of the skeleton that supposedly was buried in that basement. Unsteadily he forced the spade into the ground, dug deeper. Finally, his brow wet, his mouth dry, he turned up the object.

It was a bone, large, glistening, stripped bare of flesh. Springer turned it over with the spade. The bone was too large to belong to any dog or cat that might have crawled into the cellar to die. It could be, in Springer’s vivid and heightened imagination, only the bone of a man – the bone of the man who had been murdered in that basement and whose ghost, even then, might be peering over his shoulder.

Springer left the bone on the ground and backed out of the door. From a neighbor’s house he telephoned to Deputy Sheriff Theodore Wruck. Wruck called Chief of Police Byron Willis and he and I went to the haunted house on High Street to look at that bone.

The ghost of Hoosick Falls had risen. Here, we thought, was confirmation of the wild stories we had heard. Here was evidence, perhaps, that a person had been murdered in that house and his body buried in the cellar. Who would it be? What story of hatred or passion lay behind that one large bone from the basement of the haunted house?

It was the bone of a human being, all right, bleached white, originally the hip-bone of someone who had been alive and happy and vital. Was there more of the skeleton under the rubbish in that cellar?

The lack of light prevented any extensive digging operations that night, but Wruck and I, using borrowed shovels, were able to unearth what seemed to be several sections of a skeleton. Chief Willis sent for Doctor Frank J. Cahill, who lived nearby. Doctor Cahill identified our finds as hip, shoulder and pelvic bones of a man who had been buried two or more years before.

Somehow the story of the bones spread through town fast. A large crowd assembled at the scene, blocking the doorway and hampering our work.

The High Street house had been built on the side of a hill, so that the floor of the cellar, a room about ten by ten feet, sloped. At one point the ceiling was a good ten feet from the floor, at another only three. It was in this three-foot section that the bones were found.

Chief Willis assigned me to the task of guarding the entrance to the cellar the rest of the night to keep the people away from the grave. Then he and the others left to arrange for a more extensive search the next day.

During my lonely all-night vigil I mused over the possibility that the body in the cellar pit might have been Joseph Leo. Leo and his wife and children had been the last occupants of the High Street house. And Leo had disappeared three years before, abandoning his family. I hadn’t heard of him since.

I wondered what had happened to him. Had he been slain and buried there in the basement? Or had he just walked out on an unpleasant family situation? Or did he know about this skeleton in the basement and was he fleeing from the law?

If the victim actually was Leo I believed I might be able to identify the skeleton provided enough of it was found. I had been very friendly with Leo during the many years he lived in Hoosick Falls. 

However, that was plain conjecture. It seemed impossible that a man could be murdered in his own home without having his wife or his children query the police on his whereabouts. I decided that the Leo family should be investigated but that the man we had found undoubtedly was someone else.

On the following morning District Attorney Timothy J. Quillinan, Detectives John Lorenson and Cordell Blackwood, Deputy Sheriff Walter Morris and Coroner C.H. Sproat came to the haunted house.

Under lights hastily rigged up in the basement gloom we uncovered a grave about five feet deep and four feet long. Out of this pit we dug up the remainder of the victim’s bones. Parts of a decayed burlap bag were found, indicating that the victim had been stuffed into the bag before burial. 

The thorax was almost entirely devoid of skin, but patches clung to portions of the skull. On one of these, directly under the nose, remnants of a large mustache were evident. Two perfect rows of teeth smiled up at us from a chalk-white skull which had only deep, hollow eye-pits. 

Coroner Sproat had been examining the skull closely.

“Look here!” he called to the District Attorney. “The skull is fractured just above the right temple. I think this indicates and plain case of murder.”

From the character of the wound, Coroner Sproat said, the victim had been struck a crushing blow with some sharp instrument.

“Any ideas about this man’s identity?” asked Quillinan, looking around.

I gave the Prosecuter my opinion. 

“Who would want to kill Leo, if this is he?” the District Attorney demanded.

I had no ideas on this subject, but I told Quillinan the circumstances of Leo’s disappearance and the facts of his stormy home life just prior to his sudden departure from the High Street house.

I could speak with authority on this subject, for I had arrested Leo once on his wife’s complaint of assault and battery, and subsequently I investigated their marital affairs. These I found to be anything but harmonious.

Since Joseph Leo had left the High Street home three whole years had elapsed. This, according to Sproat, was the approximate time the victim’s body had lain in the grave. However, Sproat said, it was entirely possible that his estimate of time was wrong by as much as half a year.

That was the only tentative identification we had. So, under orders from Quillinan, Deputy Sheriff Wruck and I went to see Mrs. Leo. She still was living in Hoosick Falls, in a house on Water Street, where she took in boarders. Two years before this – about a year after her husband had left her – a fire had broken out in the High Street house. Considerable damage was done to the building and to Mrs. Leo’s possessions. She and the children moved after that.

Mrs. Leo laughed at us when we told her we thought that we’d found her husband’s skeleton. She said that her husband was in Italy, although she couldn’t tell us just where in Italy. She had received letters from him, she said. But she hadn’t been able to write back to him because his letters were destroyed in the fire and she had lost his address.

She called in a boarder, Adam Nappi, who also had known Leo, to verify this. She also told us to see Attorney Ezra Tiffany, the owner of the property on High Street, who, she said, had heard from Joseph Leo.

Coroner Sproat held an autopsy the next day, assisted by three doctors. They found that death had resulted from a blow over the right temple, delivered with sufficient force to shatter the skull. Then, because we still hadn’t proved the man’s identity, the Coroner placed the skeleton on exhibition in the morgue.

Hundreds of people viewed it. We were watching them as they went by, hoping that some of them would know who this was. Several persons thought that it might be Joseph Leo. Others were equally positive it was not he.

Wruck and I then visited Attorney Tiffany and he removed our last doubts.

Tiffany revealed that he had heard from Leo in the past two years. Tiffany said that Leo had not left his wife until after the fire. Then Mrs. Leo visited the lawyer to obtain an adjustment on her furniture.

Statements handed to Tiffany were in Joseph Leo’s handwriting, bearing his signature. In addition the insurance company invovled checked with the Suffolk County Court in Massachusetts and shorted after that tendered a check for $400, payable jointly to Joseph and Marie Leo. Mrs. Leo endorsed the check and sent it to Boston; in a few days it came back with Joseph Leo’s endorsement.

We had the word of Mr. Tiffany that the signature on the check was genuine. We also had the fact that the insurance company had investigated and satisfied itself that Joseph Leo still was alive. 

And, inasmuch as this fire had occurred almost a year after the time when a murdered man had been buried in the basement of the High Street house, obviously this murdered man could not have been Joseph Leo.

Who was he? How could we ever identify him, with nothing more than a skeleton as a clew?

Coroner Sproat held an inquest in spite of the lack of identification. At the inquest Springer admitted that he had entered the basement of the haunted house to search for liquor, not worms. He had heard that bootleggers were using the cellar as a cache.

This immediately raised the question of whether the skeleton in the High Street pit could have been the victim of bootleggers’ warfare. As members of the police force who knew of the liquor situation in the neighborhood we realized that two opposing factions were constantly at odds. Was it really a gang killing?

During the inquest, Coroner Sproat did his best to settle the Leo matter definitely. 

Adam Nappi swore that on the night Joseph Leo disappeared from his home in a huff Mrs. Leo sent for him, as a friend of the family, to protect her and the children against Leo’s return.

“I didn’t want to do it,” testified the man, “because of what Leo might think of the situation when he came home, but Marie persuaded me that she needed my help. After several nights, when Leo failed to come back, I took a room at her house as a boarder. I’ve bee there ever since.”

Angelo Restaino, with whom Nappi formerly lived, supported the man’s statement that Mrs. Leo hurriedly sent for Nappi that night two years before and that Nappi left his home a few nights afterward to board with Mrs. Leo.

Elizabeth Leo, one of the four children, testified that Joseph Leo quarreled with his wife the night he disappeared. He was forced to break the lock off the door in order to get out. Marie Leo tried to prevent him from leaving.

The inquest resulted in a decision that the identity of the cellar victim was unknown and he had been slain by a person or persons unknown.

One fact stood out as the result of that inquest. The person had been buried in the High Street home while the Leo family lived there. It hardly seemed possible that a murder could occur in this house without the occupants of the house knowing of it.

We questioned Mrs. Leo at length. She knew absolutely nothing about any person killed in the house, she said. When we intimated that Joseph Leo might have been the killer and that this was his real reason for fleeing she was voluble in her protests. Not Joseph. Not her Joseph. Maybe he was cruel to her and maybe he did strike her occasionally – but kill anyone? No, no, no.

Inasmuch as we had no idea who the victim actually was we had to let Mrs. Leo go.

A few days later the bones were buried in St. Mary’s Cemetery. And the murder case apparently rested there also. We wired authorities in Italy asking for information on Joseph Leo’s whereabouts, and were informed that Italy knew of no Joseph Leo who had come from the United States.

Shortly afterward Byron Willis died. I was appointed chief of the Hoosick Falls force. The High Street mystery always had intrigued me and I had a couple of pet theories that I determined to act upon.

The first had to do with the ghost stories. Long before we actually discovered the skeleton, these ghost stories had been circulating. Invariably they mentioned a man murdered and buried there.

How did it happen that these rumors were true? There was only one answer that I could see. The rumors had been started by someone who knew that they were true – by the actual killer or someone in his confidence. If we could trace those rumors back to the person who started them we had the killer.

My other theory concerned the possibility that bootleggers were involved, in consideration of Springer’s story. The victim could have been killed in a bootlegging war. If that was so, and it was true that Leo was the killer, then Leo was tied up with one gang and the victim with another. I had to discover what gang Leo was in, then what gang was its rival. In that rival gang I would find some trace of the victim. Those were two large orders. A rumor seldom can be traced; in this case the intervening two or three years would make the task almost impossible. And to delve into the secrets of rival bootlegging gangs – gangs we barely knew were in existence – was equally as difficult.

As a matter of fact I hadn’t the slightest idea where to begin on either of these two possible leads. Bootleg liquor long had been one of our chief problems, and bootlegging was responsible for most of the crime in Hoosick Falls.

That was another angle. The many incendiary fires and purposeless bombings that had occurred in Hoosick Falls for several years past never had been solved. Was it possible that the bootlegging gangs were responsible for these? And was it possible that somewhere in the records of fires and dynamitings I would find a clew to the victim of High Street?

During the three years before Leo disappeared more than a normal number of fires had sent fire-engines racing to the Park section, where the High Street home was located. Most of the blazes had been set down as incendiary, but the perpetrators never had been apprehended. These fires continued long after Joseph Leo’s disappearance, so I felt that he could not have been involved. 

Now I wondered whether the fire which partly destroyed the Ezra Tiffany house – and most of Marie Leo’s furniture with it – had not been touched off.

If this was so, then friends of the person Joseph Leo had killed could have set fire to the house at a later date to wreak vengeance upon Leo’s family. And Leo had fled not from the police but from rival gangsters.

Far-fetched as this sounded, I believed it constituted a starting-point in my investigation. So, instead of directly seeking the victim of the High Street killer I looked for the persons responsible for the neighborhood fires over a period of three years.

In going over the list of suspected incendiary blazes I came across one which excited my attention.

Trivial as this fire had seemed at the time it was set – it occurred before Leo’s disappearance – a discovery in the undamaged portion of the barn now took on considerable importance. We had found a large quantity of dynamite, caps and fuses. We decided at the time that the dynamite had been left there by road-builders. But now, as I recalled the numerous bomb outrages in our locality about that time, I realized that the barn might have been the cache of a band of terrorists. Either it had been fired accidentally by this gang or purposefully set afire by members of a rival faction.

During the Summer, while the High Street mystery was passing gradually into the background of Hoosick Falls life, I worked quietly in the Park neighborhood in an effort to find the owner of that dynamite.

I tried to excite as little suspicion as possible, so my work was necessarily slow. I found an unusual amount of reticence when I brought the subject up but I attributed this to a fear of the powerful gangs.

Finally, working my way gradually in the direction of the ruined barn, I found a farmer who volunteered information after I had promised to keep it secret.

Joseph Leo, the farmer told me, was the man who owned that dynamite. He often had seen Leo entering or leaving that barn. Furthermore, the farmer gave me the name of another man he had seen there with Leo on at least one occasion. This man was Louis Russo.

I called upon Russo. He didn’t want to talk but finally I prevailed upon him. He said:

“Yes, I took Joseph Leo to the barn one day in April after meeting him on the road. He was carrying a heavy package and he asked me for a ride.

“I didn’t ask him what was in the package, but Leo told me. ‘I’ve got dynamite in here,’ he said. ‘Enough to blow this whole town up. They’ve found out where I hid it, so I’ve got to put it someplace else.’”

This information verified my theory. Leo was a gangster and he had been doing, or planning, some terrorism. Without question the persons he referred to as knowing his secret were members of a rival gang. There was little doubt that they had fought him back. Hadn’t his house burned after his disappearance?

The trail, I felt, was hot. All it seemed necessary for me to do was to delve into the records and uncover the names of victims against whom fires and bombs had been directed. Among the list of innocent victims also would be the names of members of the rival gangs. 

I went over these cautiously, tabulating some names, discarding others. One whose name stuck in my crop was Angelo Restaino, the former landlord of Adam Nappi, who had supported Nappi’s story at the inquest. He had been victimized several times.

Why? What did he know about the case? I decided it would be foolish to question him so I placed him under surveillance. I asked all sorts of guarded questions about him, too, and received a variety of answers.

One answer I heard more often than others laid at Restaino’s door a good share of responsibility for the rumors that a body had been buried at the High Street house. We couldn’t prove it, but neither could we trace the rumor beyond Restaino.

I stopped Restaino on the street one day and put the question of spreading rumors up to him.

“That was just something I heard around town,” the man said, plainly taken aback.

I did not like his explanation, but I made no mention of my feelings to him.

A few days later, however, when I could see no other way out of it I met Restaino on his way home from work and took him to Headquarters. The sight of the inside of a police station had a weakening effect on the man’s spirits. Apparently he thought I had arrested him.

“Look,” he said pleadingly, “I’d like to tell you what I know about the body they found, but I’d be killed if I did.”

“Who’d kill you?” I snapped.

The man refused to answer.

When confronted by Detectives Blackwood and Jones, however, Restaino cracked wide open.

“Who is this man you’re afraid of?” Blackwood demanded. “What do you know about this killing?”

“Nappi,” Restaino whispered hoarsely. “Adam Nappi.”

“Okay! Let’s have it all!” I said.

Restaino knew that his hour for talking had come. He poured out a torrent of words.

“It was on June ninth,” he said, “when Mrs. Leo sent for Adam Nappi. He was boarding at my house then. Nappi said to me, ‘There’s trouble over at the Leo’s. I’ve got to run over there.’

“He didn’t come back that night and I wondered what happened. Two days later, when I went past the place on my way to work, Nappi came out.

“‘Listen,’ he said, ‘I had to bump him off. I want you to help me bury him in the cellar.’

“I didn’t want to do it, for I knew he meant old Joe Leo, who was my friend. I told Nappi so. He pulled out a gun and threatened to kill me if I didn’t help. Then I agreed.

“I went upstairs and they had him tied up in a bag in a closet off the sitting-room. Adam and I carried him into the cellar, where a long pit had been dug. When we laid him down, Nappi began shoveling dirt over him.”

Nappi, Restaino said, threatened his life if he ever told of the crime.

“Where did Nappi get that gun?” I asked him.

Restaino promptly replied, “He told me he stole it the time the Boston and Albany depot was robbed.”

Restaino’s story was fantastic. We couldn’t believe it. In the first place we had pretty conclusive evidence that the murdered man was not Joseph Leo. Restaino, we knew, had been victim of several incendiary fires. Did he suspect Nappi of setting those fires? Were we to believe that he was telling us merely to get Nappi into a jam?

It seemed so. We couldn’t indict or even arrest Nappi for murder of a man we didn’t know had been murdered – a man who, to the best of our knowledge, still was in Italy.

We told Restaino this. He shook his head sadly and said:

“Go see Joe Rendi. Tell him you know about Nappi killing Leo. See what Rendi says.”

Rendi, another truck farmer in the district, spat contemptuously when we revealed to him the information Restaino had given us. 

“Sure,” he said, “I knew it would all come out someday but I didn’t want to be the one to tell about it.

“Nappi came to me and said ‘I had to kill Leo. I want to bury him on your farm. What do you say?’

“Imagine the nerve of that rat. I told him, ‘Get the Hell off my farm and bury him on your own place.’ He went away cursing me.”

Another witness swearing that the killer was Nappi, the victim Leo. Why? Was it possible that we were wrong – that the victim really was Joseph Leo?

But what of the contradictory testimony at the inquest? What about Joseph Leo’s signature on the insurance document and the check a year after his supposed murder?

Detectives Blackwood and Lorenson and I called upon Attorney Tiffany. 

“I described only what I saw and was led to believe was true,” said the lawyer. “What purported to be Joseph Leo’s signature certainly appeared on the proof of loss and check. Of course, both could have been forgeries, but they were undoubtedly written by the same man.”

More and more, it seemed to us, we were finding evidence that Joseph Leo was the real victim. So we asked Restaino again, particularly, if he could offer more proof.

“I can only tell you,” he said, “that Nappi and Mrs. Leo went to Albany to see a lawyer several times after the fire. They finally took the case to Mr. Tiffany.”

Blackwood and Lorenson contacted the Albany attorney.

“Mrs. Leo and two men came here in November after their fire,” the lawyer said. “They wanted me to act for them in an insurance claim. One of the men represented himself to be Joseph Leo, but he acted so suspiciously that I questioned him closely. Finally he admitted he wasn’t Leo.

“The other man spoke up and said, ‘What’s the difference? Leo’s dead. This fellow will sign his name.’

“I told them I would have nothing to do with the case and they went away, saying they’d get another lawyer.”

There could be no doubt Joseph Leo was the victim, then. But why? What was the motive?

I didn’t need a second guess. Adam Nappi had been living with Mrs. Leo, ostensibly as a boarder, since Leo’s disappearance.

Our evidence was presented to Prosecutor Frederick Filley, who had succeeded Quillinan. He ordered the immediate arrests of Adam Nappi and Mrs. Marie Leo. They were taken into custody by Blackwood, Lorenson and me almost a year to the day from the date of the discovery of the skeleton on High Street. 

The woman’s children were turned over to local officials of the Humane Society. Elizabeth, the oldest girl, signified that she had important information for us.

“Now that my mother’s arrested,” she said, “I want to tell you what happened to my father.

“Adam Nappi came over that night and there was a big fight. I was sleeping in a room off the parlor and I heard a lot of angry words. Then I heard a blow and something heavy hit the floor.

“The next day my father wasn’t around. Later I learned that Nappi and my mother tied him up in a burlap bag and hid him in the living room closet for two days.

“When my mother found out I knew what happened she told me to keep my mouth shut or I would be done away with like Father.”

District Attorney Filley ordered exhumation of the skeleton from St. Mary’s Cemetery. Coroner Sproat conducted a new inquest at which Dominic Cruchitti, a cousin who had been out of town, positively identified the head as that of Joseph Leo.

Restaino told us an ax had been the murder weapon, but we were unable to find it. Nor could we find the pistol used by Nappi to intimidate his former landlord. But records showed a robbery of the Boston and Albany railway in which a pistol was stolen.

Nappi and Mrs. Leo were held for the grand jury and indicted for first-degree murder, arson and other charges.

Nappi went to trial on the murder charge after Mrs. Leo, turning State’s evidence, admitted that her relations with him had been the cause of the crime.

Her husband had come home unexpectedly on the fatal night, she said, and found Nappi and her together. Nappi picked up an ax and struck Leo a blow on the side of the head, killing him instantly.

The jury found Nappi guilty as charged. Judge James F. Brearton immediately sentenced him to death in Sing Sing’s electric chair.

Mrs. Leo, because of her service to the State, was permitted to plead guilty to a charge of manslaughter. She drew a term of from two to ten years in Auburn Prison.

An appeal for Nappi was made but the Court of Appeals, by a split decision, denied him a new trial. Because of their divided action Governor Alfred Smith commuted the sentence to life imprisonment. Nappi is in Sing Sing today.

Mrs. Leo, after serving four years of her term, was paroled. Since then she has been released from parole, her debt to Society paid in full.

And that just about cleared up the ghost of High Street. The murder of Joseph Leo is solved. The bootlegging gangs have gone; so have the arsonists and dynamiters.

But still, on a stormy night when the wind howls and the moon is obscured, people tell me that they can see the ghost flitting from window to window in the High Street house. I’ve never seen it yet, and unless they can prove that it’s committing a crime I guess I’ll just leave it alone.

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