Monday, August 11, 2014

Elmira's Most Wanted

by Rachel Dworkin, Archivist

On March 23, 1915, Elmira Police Chief John J. Finnell and Detective Sergeant Charles F. Gradwell went to Mrs. Mary Collins’ rooming house at 314 Baldwin Street to arrest Edward Westervelt and John Penny.  It did not go well. 

Edward Westervelt and John Penny were convicted felons who had served time together at the New Jersey State Penitentiary for burglary before being paroled in 1914.  They arrived in Elmira in early March, 1915, and quickly set to work robbing a number of homes in the area.  The pair ended up on the polices’ radar when Penny tried to spend a rare Columbian half-dollar acquired from one of the homes at a local restaurant.  On Monday, March 22, Detective Sergeant Gradwell chatted with the pair, but gave them no indication that they were suspects.  It’s safe to say the figured it out anyway because, when Gradwell and Finnell showed up the following afternoon to arrest them, the burglars were armed and ready.    
John Penny
Edward Westervelt

Going up against them were Detective Sergeant Charles Gradwell and Chief John Finnell of the Elmira Police Department.  Gradwell was a 20-year veteran of the police force and a natural detective who had a reputation as a friendly soul who always got his man.  Finnell, meanwhile, was a relative newcomer to the police force.  He had worked for a number of years as a detective for the Pennsylvania Railroad before taking over as police chief in December 1913. 
Detective Sergeant Gradwell
Police Chief Finnell
Gradwell and Finnell showed up at the rooming house shortly after 3pm and were escorted to Westervelt and Penny’s room by the landlady.  Once inside, Gradwell removed his coat, withdrew his handcuffs, and made clear that they would be arresting the two men.  Westervelt attempted to flee out the window and was grabbed by Finnell.  During the ensuing struggle, Finnell broke Westervelt’s leg and he, in turn, shot Finnell in the head at near point-blank range.  Gradwell, attempted to draw his own weapon and return fire, but was shot twice by Westervelt before he could. 

The result was a city-wide manhunt for the two men.  Everyone was looking for them: not only the local police and sheriff’s departments, but also the National Guard and police from neighboring Corning.  Westervelt was caught right away and had to be rescued from a lynch mob.  Penny, on the other hand, still remains at large to this day.  Since the case is still, technically, open, the guns used in the crime are still in the Elmira Police evidence lock-up.  On the other hand, Gradwell’s other possessions, including his personal gun, billy-club and patrol diaries, were recently donated to the museum by his descendants.    

The Gradwell collection

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