Monday, January 15, 2024

A Tale of Two Brothers: Catch Him if you Can

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 ways.

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 amends.

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.

In 1935, he was arrested when he tried to enroll in graduate school at the University of Tennessee using a bad check. Things quickly unraveled for him. Authorities discovered he had not received a degree from Tulane University, as he claimed. He admitted to using various aliases including Archie G. Glenn, Justin F. Toomey, Floyd Stranhan, Richard Forgan, Francis Sullivan, Jack Allen, Millard Jones, and F. J. Sullivan. He also admitted to committing felonies in California, Pennsylvania, and Georgia and to having spent time in jail in each of these states including San Quentin. He was sent off to prison again. He was thirty-two.
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 were listed.

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