Getting Away with Murder
Mrs. Lee Church ran into the woods and up her road when she heard what sounded like two car crashes around 8:50 p.m. on March 26, 1932.
Nearly four miles north of Keeneyville, she lived off Locey Creek Road (then spelled Losey Creek), about 400 feet from a bridge and a sharp turn that, if taken too fast, could easily send a car down an eighteen-foot embankment. Locals called the spot “Lion’s Mouth.” About an hour earlier, Mrs. Church had heard a car speeding by, and she told her husband she feared it would fly off the road at the curve. Now, an hour later, a truck had done just that. Through the moonless night, she saw its lights shining up from the bed of Locey Creek.
Mrs. Church hurried back home, alerted her husband, then took a lantern to the side of the road where she flagged down a passing car. The driver, John Harding, met the Churches and a small group of neighbors—Ray Root, Ernest Owlett, and Burt Doane and his wife—at the scene. They didn’t know what exactly had happened, but each sensed foul play. A Coroner’s Jury would agree with them, leading Tioga County into a sensational murder trial that would feature a famous defense attorney, a brand new district attorney, and, over five weeks, the testimonies of more than 130 witnesses. Legal minds of the time would call it the longest homicide trial in Pennsylvania’s history. Lawyers today still speak of the defense attorney’s tactics, and locals who remember the trial say, to this day, they haven’t witnessed anything like it.
• • •
That night in 1932, John Harding, Ernest Owlett, and Burt Doane descended toward the truck, which was turned onto its left side. Water moved swiftly around a stake, which was securing dozens of folding chairs to the truck bed with the help of eight to ten feet of chain. Looking through the cab’s back window, Harding saw a man’s body twisted stomach down between the steering wheel and windshield. Doane climbed onto the cab’s roof and reached under its passenger-side edge to pry the door open. The truck, in second gear, had no key in the ignition. Blood stained the seat cushions, particularly on the passenger’s side. Doane and Owlett maneuvered the man out—by then they had recognized him as Henry Cooley, a forty-nine-year- old who worked for the local undertaker, a successful businessman named Ernest Davis. Dried blood covered Cooley’s hands and face but not his clothes. Mumbling from a bleeding mouth, he had dents above both ears and the back of his head. The men set Cooley on the bank before placing him in Harding’s car and taking him to the Church home, where a doctor and Ernest Davis joined them.
Davis called another of his employees, M.E. Moore, to take Cooley to the Blossburg Hospital in an ambulance owned by Davis Funeral Home. At 4 a.m. Cooley died. Hospital employees followed Davis’s direction on where to put Cooley’s belongings, how to contact his family, and where to send the body for embalming. Davis also told them to burn the dead man’s clothes.
The next morning, another neighbor noticed a trail of blood patches leading downhill from Locey Creek Road into the creek at Lion’s Mouth. Detective Roy Wilcox investigated the blood pools, which varied in diameter from three to twenty inches. Matted hair stuck to the largest patch, along a shoulder of the road where mud held tire track imprints. Two witnesses later testified that, at two di erent times within the half hour before the accident, they had seen the truck and heard its motor racing on the shoulder. As each had driven past, neither had seen anybody in the driver’s seat.
Upon first visiting the accident scene, Detective Wilcox assumed that Cooley was the victim of a hit and run. Cooley, he thought, had exited his vehicle for some reason, sustained a hit, and attempted to drive to medical help, crashing in the process. But then he heard the coroner say that the bones under Cooley’s scalp resembled a “crushed eggshell,” that his skull was fractured in eight places, and that his body held no other injuries.
“If Henry Cooley was fatally hurt 1,550 feet from the point where he was later found in the truck at the foot of a steep bank,” asked the Wellsboro Agitator, “how did the seriously injured man and the truck move from that point, down the hill, over the curve and down the bank is the question county officials are trying to solve.”
The morning after the crime, various locals curious about the accident milled around Lion’s Mouth, including Ernest Davis and his younger brother, Frank. Ernest Davis was with Wilcox when he examined the blood spots and Cooley’s truck. From it, Wilcox took a burlap bag, a pair of gloves, and a hat marked with blood only on the outside. Davis accompanied the detective to his house, where Wilcox put the items in a corner of his garage.
On April 1, the coroner’s jury at Keeneyville declared Henry Cooley’s death a murder, “caused by a fractured skull derived from a blow or blows inflicted by some blunt instrument in the hands of a person or persons unknown.”
On May 4, Detective Roy Wilcox and Sheriff Frank Chamberlain acted upon a month-long investigation of the Coroner’s Jury. They arrested Ernest Davis, Cooley’s forty-three-year-old employer, and his thirty-seven-year-old brother Frank, a farmer and a justice of the peace in Little Marsh, for manslaughter. The brothers, investigators found, had initiated several different life insurance applications for Henry Cooley. Each named Ernest Davis as benefactor.
• • •
So many people attended the preliminary hearing for the Davis brothers on May 6, 1932, that the Agitator said the Tioga County Courthouse was “jammed with humanity.”
“[The case] attracted a lot of attention,” remembers Bill Fish, ninety-six, of Middlebury Township. Fish was an eleven-year-old from Lawrenceville, Pennsylvania, when the Davises were arrested. He remembers people’s fascination with the trial, and his father’s friends stopping by the farm to talk about what they saw in court.
“There was no crime then,” Fish says. “You didn’t lock your doors. You could go into people’s houses and say who was who and hello to all of their visitors.”
Twenty-three witnesses were called to testify about the activities of the Davis brothers on that eventful Saturday in March. The defendants, who pled “not guilty,” responded stoically. Behind them sat Ernest’s wife, Nina, and their two teenagers, Dean and Dorothy, and Frank Davis’s daughters, thirteen-year-old Helen and fifteen-year-old Onolee. (For a short while, authorities held Frank’s wife, Florence, and her brother, Fay Taylor, in custody.) After a six-hour preliminary trial, the judge remanded the brothers to custody until a September court date. By then, the Davises had secured a rising star as their attorney: Charles Margiotti of Punxsutawney. The burden would be his to reconcile conflicting eyewitness testimonies with the brothers’ alibis, to answer for incriminating evidence found on Frank Davis, and to justify the brothers’ attempts to secure life insurance for the victim.
• • •
On the evening of Henry Cooley’s death, Ernest Davis said he had sent Cooley from Wellsboro to a private home north of Keeneyville, where they had left folding chairs for a funeral service three weeks before. Cooley had wanted to take the folding chairs back to Wellsboro after the service, but Davis had said no. Cooley was then to go a few miles to the home of Burt Doane for a gallon of maple syrup. Doane’s wife said Cooley left their home, a few minutes’ drive from the accident scene, around 8 p.m. It was about 8:30 p.m. that eyewitnesses saw and heard Cooley’s truck on the shoulder of Locey Creek Road before it crashed twenty minutes later.
Ernest Davis’s alibi involved a broken-down car and a party. He had at least two cars—a Nash and a Chevy. On the morning of March 26, Ernest said he drove the Nash to a garage in Little Marsh, where his Chevy awaited fixing. After dropping off the needed parts for repairs, he said he took his daughter to Mansfield, directed Cooley to get the funeral chairs, then invited people to a party at his house in Wellsboro, where he was until he got the accident call at 9:11 p.m.
Frank Davis had a more problematic alibi. Upon arrest, he told officers he had been away from home the night of March 26. Then, before the preliminary trial, he said, “You can’t change my story in a thousand years. I was at home.” Frank said that in the afternoon, he had driven his brother’s Chevy from the garage in Little Marsh to Wellsboro and hitchhiked home, where he spent the evening.
Fay Taylor, Frank Davis’s brother-in-law, and an eighteen-year old mail carrier friend named Llewellyn Close, were at Frank’s home that Saturday night. Brought in for questioning, they told police they had arrived after 9:30 p.m., but Frank didn’t come home until after 10 p.m. When police asked Frank why he had lied twice—once to say he wasn’t home, and again to say he was— Frank said he was embarrassed because he had been hiding in his barn from 8:30-9:30, awaiting the arrival of a black man whom he wanted to catch sleeping with his wife. Both Frank and Ernest Davis swore they were not together on March 26.
Stewart Wattles, owner of the garage where Ernest Davis’s Chevy was being fixed, said that Frank Davis worked on it with him until 1:30 p.m.
“He kept telling me to ‘step on it,’” testified Wattles, “as he wanted to use the car that night to go and see his girl.”
James Short, a neighbor and employee of Ernest Davis, said he was walking outside at 5 p.m. when Ernest drove by and asked to give him a ride into town. While Ernest bought a long chain at the hardware store, James Short went on other errands. Later, he saw Ernest’s car parked and Frank Davis standing by it. Short asked where Ernest had gone, and Frank said he had just left “in the truck with Cooley.” Around dinnertime, Mrs. M.E. Moore said she saw the brothers drive to the gas station near Ernest Davis’s home and ll it with nine gallons.
On March 27, the morning after the accident, both brothers appeared at the scene of the crime. While Ernest accompanied Detective Wilcox to the detective’s home, Frank spent three hours walking around the crash site. One week after Ernest Davis saw Detective Wilcox put the clothes and gloves he had taken from Cooley’s truck in his garage, they disappeared. Later that day, before a snowstorm hit, a neighbor of Frank’s saw him washing a heavy brown overcoat in the creek, where it subsequently soaked for a few days. Police found the bloodstained coat at the home of Frank’s friend.
• • •
The prosecution of the Davis brothers, predicted the Agitator, would be the longest and most sensational homicide trial in the county. “The rarity of murder cases in Tioga County and the fact that the defendants are well known throughout this and neighboring counties, with many relatives in this vicinity, lends sensationalism to the trial which is believed will take the greater part of two weeks.”
“Everyone knew the Davises,” says Lowell Coolidge, a Wellsboro attorney and Tioga County historian. People had known “Franky” and “Ernie Davis” all of their lives. Ernest had walked them through the funeral services of their loved ones. He had run for county sheriff; he also worked as a cattle dealer and owned a gas station. Frank was a farmer, a justice of the peace in Little Marsh, and involved in land leasing. That these local boys were alleged “slayers” dumbfounded people. Bill Fish remembers locals betting on the verdict, and some writing “murderer” on Frank Davis’s ticket when he ran for re-election (he was booted from office due to the Cooley allegations).
District Attorney Charles Webb prepared for the trial, which was set for September 26, 1932. At thirty-three, he was a Wellsboro native, a graduate of Princeton University and the University of Pennsylvania Law School. District Attorney Webb would become Judge Webb, and upon retiring from the bench, a partner in the largest law firm in the county. Bill Hebe has practiced law in Wellsboro since 1972. He remembers Judge Webb speaking many times about the trial of the Davis brothers. “Webb was convinced that the Davis brothers were as guilty as could be,” says Hebe. At the time of the case, Webb had been D.A. for just three months. And he was intimidated, says Hebe, by the person and reputation of the lead defense attorney, Charles Margiotti. Margiotti, Webb told him, “was the best trial lawyer you have ever seen.”
• • •
Charles Margiotti, forty-one, had built a private practice in Punxsutawney, his childhood home, after emigrating from Italy. A high-school dropout, Margiotti had been working as a salesman when a lawyer hired him as an Italian interpreter. The experience inspired Margiotti to go back to school. He later graduated from the University of Pennsylvania Law School, and at the exact time the Davis trial began, was making a name on the national stage by defending a senator from federal embezzlement charges. A balding, heavyset man with glasses and an impeccable wardrobe, Margiotti had tried 115 murder cases by the time he took the Davis case. Only one of his clients had received a life sentence, and none the death penalty. Entering the Tioga County Courthouse, he held a record of twenty-five acquittals in a row. And he was angry.
In mid-September, Margiotti was in Manhattan, representing Pennsylvania Senator James Davis (no relation to the Davis brothers) against charges that he personally profited from a charity-run lottery. His team asked Tioga County Judge Howard Marsh for a postponement for the September 26 trial. The Commonwealth balked, knowing that a delay could send the trial into a much later court session. Plus, Webb wanted to try as much of the case as he could with Margiotti out of town. Judge Marsh granted a two-day postponement.
“Delay the trial in any way you can,” Margiotti told an associate. “Make one motion after another. Argue for separate trials for the defendants. Make objection after objection. Take your time picking a jury. If you can, take a week or a month to pick a jury.”
Judge Marsh approved the motion to separate the cases but said the trial had to start by Friday, September 30. Webb chose to try Frank Davis first. Between his faulty alibi and bloody coat, Webb figured he would get a faster conviction on the younger brother.
For one week, Margiotti lead the defense by phone from a Manhattan hotel. He succeeded in stretching out jury selection. “Take all kinds of women,” he said, “unless you run across the hatchet-faced type. They are always bad for the defense.” After nearly a week of juror selections, one woman and ten men stood ready to hear Commonwealth v. Frank Davis.
When Charles Margiotti did arrive in Wellsboro, he stayed at the Penn Wells Hotel—the same lodging that hosted the jurors and reporters. In a biography of Margiotti entitled Tiger at the Bar, one reporter told the author, “It was Prohibition and Margiotti had the best supply of liquor in town. There were four doctors for the defense, and I sometimes suspected that their primary duty was to write out prescriptions for whisky.”
Bill Hebe says Judge Webb would time and again “rail against Mr. Margiotti and his alleged ‘sleazy’ tactics.” Allegations of jury tampering did follow Charles Margiotti’s legal career, as did political advancements. A future three-time attorney general of Pennsylvania, Margiotti may have found ways to influence the Davis jurors, but there is no concrete record of his having done so. What ultimately infuriated Webb was the seasoned criminal lawyer’s ability to create reasonable doubt by crafting narratives that manipulated facts, twisted testimonies, and turned damning evidence into circumstantial evidence.
Margiotti held that the speeding car Mrs. Church heard at 7:45 p.m. caused Cooley’s death. Nobody could prove, he said, that it didn’t hit Cooley, flee the scene, and leave the man to stumble for help, eventually crashing. The time didn’t match up with Mrs. Doane’s testifying Cooley left her home at 8 p.m., but he emphasized the fickleness of memories. Margiotti used this reasoning to create holes in eyewitness testimony—such as that of Mrs. Moore, who saw the brothers together at the gas station on Saturday, March 26. Friends of Ernest and Frank said they saw them there on Friday, not Saturday. Was Mrs. Moore lying, insinuated Margiotti, or had she simply forgotten what night a car had gotten gas months ago?
Margiotti insisted that the jury visit the crash site at Lion’s Mouth—what had already become known as “Cooley’s Curve.” Back in court, he immediately asked Mrs. Church what he knew the jury could now visualize: whether the road lacked appropriate signage, and whether its pavement may have jostled a driver in the dark. Margiotti asked John Harding, Ernest Owlett, and Burt Doane how they had extricated Cooley’s twisted body from a wrecked truck and in and out of a car and a house. Could they be sure they hadn’t banged his head a couple of times in their helpful efforts?
The defense lawyer also focused on Detective Wilcox’s handling of evidence and its disappearance from his garage. If the detective bungled this part of an investigation, he asked, what else might he have ruined?
The popularity of the Davis brothers aided the inconsistencies in Frank’s alibi. Llewellyn Close, whose testimony regarding Frank’s arrival home on March 26 had vacillated, admitted that Frank urged him to lie. Close and his mother said this was because the police had beaten a statement out of him. Police officers denied the charge.
“You know, this is not Russia!” Margiotti responded.
Margiotti pointed to the testimony of fifteen-year-old Onolee, Frank’s daughter, whom he said police had interrogated inappropriately. On the matter of Frank’s washing his bloodstained coat in the creek, Onolee said her father cleaned his clothes there because her mother refused to do his wash. More than one of Frank’s friends said he had frequent nosebleeds. Another friend said that he had personally vomited blood on Frank’s brown coat. Frank also butchered animals for his neighbors, said Margiotti. Because it was impossible (at the time) to tell the difference between human and animal blood, the jury could not be sure if the blood belonged to Henry Cooley, Frank Davis, the friend who vomited, or a cow.
“Has the Commonwealth,” asked Margiotti, “shown beyond a reasonable doubt that the blood on Davis’s clothes was Cooley’s?”
The Commonwealth’s most damning evidence was the insurance applications. According to the coroner’s jury, Frank had told more than one creditor before Cooley’s death, “Be patient for a few more days.”
Margiotti pointed to Ernest’s testimony on the policies. Ernest Davis had told insurance agents that he was the beneficiary because he had lent Cooley money to build a house. In case something happened to Cooley, the insurance would insure his expenses. Anything beyond his 800-dollar investment, Ernest had told Cooley, would go to his two sisters. Yes, he had applied for multiple policies amounting to over 44,000 dollars, said Margiotti, but he did so with Cooley’s approval, and he applied for them one at a time, sending one only when another was denied for various reasons. Of the three policies that Ernest obtained for Cooley, Farmer’s Insurance promised the largest payout. Initially, Cooley had applied for 1,000 dollars, but Ernest contacted the agent, changing it to 5,000 dollars. This policy included a double indemnity clause so in the case of an accident, the payout would double to 10,000 dollars.
Regardless of the jury’s thoughts on the applications, said Margiotti, it couldn’t entertain them until it had decided that Frank Davis was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. “Never in God’s world,” he closed, “can you convict Frank Davis on the evidence in this case and return to your home and families and tell them you have done your duty.” A day and a half after the lawyer’s eight-hour summation, the jury found Frank Davis not guilty. The Commonwealth dropped charges against Ernest.
Within weeks of the trial, public life returned to normal for the Davis brothers. Farmer’s Insurance denied paying the 10,000-dollar double indemnity policy, a decision that Ernest Davis unsuccessfully pursued in court for years. He died in 1958 at age seventy, owing in part to a fractured skull. In 1946, his son Dean died in a car accident at age twenty-eight.
Frank Davis, Jr. died in 1970. Bill Fish worked for Frank as a farmhand after the trial. Fish never asked him about the famous trial he had heard about from his father’s friends. “I talked to him often,” he remembers, “I was never afraid of him.” Every day at noon, Frank’s wife Florence cooked a meal that Fish ate with the family.
At ninety-six, Bill Fish has no problem recalling the trial of the Davis brothers amidst the many stories he has lived through.
“I never heard anything like it.”