The county's first unsolved murder took center stage at the Fenton History Center on Wednesday, more than a century after it took place.
Wednesday marked the beginning of the Fenton History Center's "Brown Bag Lunchtime" lecture series. The first lecture, which will conclude next Wednesday, was entitled "Chautauqua County's Unsolved Murder," and was presented by Norman Carlson, Fenton collections manager and area historian.
"The month of December of 1894 was the most tragic in Busti to that date," said Carlson. "A young couple was killed in a railroad accident in Lakewood, described in gruesome detail in Jamestown papers, then, on Dec. 15, a mother and adult daughter of the same family as the accident victims were murdered in broad daylight. It was the first murder in Busti history and the first unsolved murder in Chautauqua County."
Shock, fear and suspicion spread throughout the town, according to Carlson, who compared it to other high-profile cases of that time period, including Lizzy Borden and Jack the Ripper. On the day that many area residents were attending a funeral for Myron and Frances Shearman, both of whom were involved in the railroad accident, 69-year-old Laura Shearman and 46-year-old Cynthia Davis were killed in a double axe murder.
The case drew the attention of area newspapers and national agencies, including the famous Pinkerton Detective Agency, and over the course of the investigation, as many as 50 suspects were named. The suspects included close relatives, such as one victim's 14-year-old son, disgruntled former employees, envious neighbors and even an area prostitute who tried to commit suicide at one point during the investigation. The case was also noted by the media for some of the methods with which they attempted to solve the murder, including attempts that were made to recover the image of the last scene that the victims witnessed, which detectives at the time believed was burned into the retina of the victim when they passed away.
Carlson ended his lecture on Wednesday shortly after discussing how the coroner's jury had met for the seventh time, in mid-March of 1895. Next week's lecture will cover the slew of arrests which followed those meetings, as well as the renewed interest in the case after a local murder in 1940, ending with Carlson's investigation into the case, which began more than 25 years ago.
The lecture series, which is held in the education room of the Fenton History Center, is free to the public, although donations are encouraged. With the exception of this month, the series will take place on the second Wednesday of each month through October. Upcoming lectures will cover: Aaron Hall, a Jamestown architect, on May 8; Jamestown's trolleys on June 12; the Walnut Grove archaeology project on July 10; Jamestown Public School history on Aug. 14; dairies in Jamestown on Sept. 11; and auto manufacturers in Jamestown on Oct. 9. For more information about the lecture series, contact Joni Blackman at 664-6256 or firstname.lastname@example.org.