by Susan Zehnder, Education Director
This is a story about two brothers who made a name for themselves. One became a well-regarded member of the local community, while the other went on to make national headlines for fraud, larceny, and deception.
J. Bernard and J. Francis Toomey were born three years apart
and grew up in Elmira around the turn of the 20th century. Their
parents were Margaret and John Toomey and their father worked as a trainman for
the railroad. The family lived at East Fifth Street in Elmira. In 1906, another
brother, J. Florence, was born.
The oldest son, Bernard, was full of ambition. When he graduated from Elmira Free Academy in 1915 his senior yearbook declared him to be one of the school’s most popular boys. In addition to his studies, he participated in class entertainments also known as school productions;
managed the baseball team for three years; and dated many girls one of whom was Marjorie Shaffer.
Bernard attended the University of Buffalo to study dentistry. It was World War I and when the United States joined the war effort, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy. After the war, he returned to Elmira and opened his own dental practice at 243 Lake Street. A year later, Bernard married Marjorie Shaffer and the couple had a daughter, Judith.
For the next 38 years, Bernard was an active member of the
community. He was president of the City Club, founding member of the Elmira
Area University of Buffalo Alumni Association, a member of the Chemung County
Dental Society and of the Torch Club, and director of the Chemung Valley
Savings and Loan Association. Bernard promoted conservation through his work
with Fur, Fin, and Feathers, Inc. He belonged to the Elmira Elks Lodge, the
Harry B. Bentley Post of the American Legion. He was also an active congregant of
Our Lady of Lourdes Church. In addition to his private dental practice, he was
a dental consultant for the County Welfare Department.
In 1959, when he was 64, Bernard suffered an acute heart
attack and died. Newspaper obituaries listed among the survivors his mother, his
wife, his daughter, and only one brother, Florence.
Why wasn’t his middle brother mentioned? Apparently, Francis had
been leading a very different life. The earliest mentions of him in local newspapers
are positive, citing various elementary school achievements, like good
attendance, or moving on to next grade. A few years later, his name appears as a
participant in a public discussion “The Social Club as an Agency of Moral
Uplift.” But soon after, Francis’s name started showing up in less flattering
Apparently one evening, he and a couple of buddies broke into George
Ells’ Machine and Bicycle Repair Shop on Lake Street, not far from where he
lived. The boys ransacked the shop and took a number of electric flashlights,
cigar packet lighters and other small items. Their identity must have been
known --a year later, the police revealed their names when Francis was caught
for another crime. This time he and a buddy had broken into Dr. F.B. Greene’s
garage. After rifling through the garage, they stole a motorcar and went on a
joyride. When it got stuck on West Church Street, they abandoned it, leaving $50
worth of damage--over $1,500 in today’s dollars. The boys were told to make
That same year, 1912, Francis disappeared for three months. He
had been involved in an accidental shooting and feared being arrested. According
to the paper, the victim, only identified as an Armenian, “was not seriously
hurt.” Regardless, Francis made his way to New York City and took a job with
the railroad. He was injured on the job and in order to receive full pay, he
was required to get his parents’ signature. Instead he listed J.P. Sullivan in
Elmira as his guardian and misaddressed the envelope hoping it would never be
delivered. A postal worker caught the “mistake” and the letter made its way to
his folks. His father went and collected him.
A year later, he was working at Sullivan’s furniture store on
East Water Street in Elmira, when a suspicious fire broke out. The fire was
contained on the third floor of the Grand Theater Block and a larger crisis was
averted. Damage to the building was estimated to be $15,000. While he was questioned,
Francis was never charged.
In 1917, his name showed up more dramatically. Trying to follow in his brother’s footsteps and join the war effort, Francis headed to Fort Niagara Training School to enlist. He was denied because he was underage. Undaunted, he returned to Elmira wearing a military uniform and was greeted like a hero. But when people start to question details of his enlistment, he took off for Cleveland. For a while he passed as a lieutenant and was treated well. He was wined and dined and made himself popular with the ladies. He also cashed fraudulent checks. Again, before he was discovered, he left for Chicago and repeated his impersonation. This time it didn’t end well. When he was caught, nineteen-year-old Francis received a sentence of two-years and eleven months to be served at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. This was eventually reduced to 13 months when a judge felt the sentence was too harsh.
A few years later, he was connected to larcenies committed in Princeton,
New Haven, and New York City. Then in 1923, Francis tried to pass himself off
as the son of E. M. Statler, a man who had made millions in the hotel business.
For a while he was living in luxury until once again he was caught this time in
Boston. When arrested, he was wearing a tuxedo, and pennants from various
colleges were found in his room. He was fined $25 and sentenced to a year.
|J. Francis Toomey Photo courtesy of National Archives of Kansas City
Little is known of his whereabouts between 1935 and 1960. In 1960, the newspaper published a notice in the newspaper that he had violated parole and was being held without
bail, but no indication of what parole he had violated.
Francis outlived his younger and older brothers by more than a
decade. On November 15, 1970, the Star-Gazette printed a death notice for him.
He had died in New York City four days earlier. A High Mass was held for him at
St. Cecelia’s and he was buried at St. Peter and Paul’s Cemetery. No survivors