The Sheriff of Grenell

By: Lynn E. McElfresh

Volume 13, Issue 12, December 2018

Even fifty years ago, the need for a sheriff seemed laughable. In her July 1965 Thousand Islands Sun column, Grenell Island correspondent Gwen Smith extols Grenell Island  as a safe haven: “Well, it’s wonderful to be back on the glorious St.  Lawrence. Here one can sleep peacefully without worrying about burglars,  murders or dope addicts.” Gwen lived in New York City, which made her  feel very unsafe: “. . . one feels one’s life threatened constantly.  Iron bars in front of windows, burglar-proof locks, and the most obvious  sight the tremendous popularity of the police dogs are seen.”

Watertown Reunion 1886

Today, guests often compare our island to the fictional North Carolina town of Mayberry (from the 1960s sitcom The Andy Griffith Show), for  its idyllic, close-knit community charm. Back at the turn of the  century, that wasn’t always the case. While Sam and Lucy Grenell always  fostered a family atmosphere on the island, crime sometimes reared its  ugly head. From 1880 through 1920, cottages up and down the River were  often burglarized and tiny Grenell Island wasn’t exempt from this crime  spree. In 1913, the newly formed Grenell Island Improvement Association  printed off “REWARD” signs for members to post on their property. We  still have one in our boathouse.

RR_Poster Grenell

The  signs were not enough of a deterrent and the association went to the  county sheriff for help. The appointment of the Grenell Island deputies  was reported in a 1916 On the St. Lawrence newspaper  article: “Sheriff Hosmer to appoint Raymond A. Coombs and Floyd Russell  deputy sheriffs, with power of arrest and authority to carry and use  firearms in the protection of property on Grenell Island as Messrs.  Coombs and Russell reside on the island the entire year.”

Postcard Point Ida

Nettie told a Syracuse Herald reporter that: “Mrs.  Harnois and I returned from the [Grenell Island] Post Office about 10:15  Saturday night. We found Ida asleep. At 11:30, after reading the  evening paper, I fell asleep and at about 12:15, was awakened by a  scream from Ida.”

Moments earlier, Ida woke to the sounds of an  intruder. In the dim light, she could see the form of a man rummaging  around her bureau where she kept her diamond jewelry. Before she could  cry out, the man turned on her, striking her unconscious with a short,  thick club. Fanny had been asleep in an adjoining room. Hearing the  scuffle, she rushed to her daughter’s room and was met at the door by  the robber who immediately struck her to the floor. Ida woke up and  began to scream. Her assailant grabbed her by her hair, dragged her from  the bed, and clubbed her until she was unconscious.

Fannie Harnois

After screaming for help, Nettie returned  to Ida’s room, where she found both women unconscious and covered in  blood. While attending to her friends, Nettie heard the crash of  furniture and fixtures as neighbors entered the lower floor.

Point Ida Advert 1902

After Dr. Wood examined the  women, he came back to the man writhing in pain on the first floor. The  man claimed that his left leg was paralyzed. Every time the doctor  probed him, the man recoiled in pain but the doctor could find no sign  of injury. The man, who identified himself as Albert Nulty, said he was  rowing by Grenell about midnight when he heard women screaming. He rowed  ashore, rushed to the cottage, went inside and found the women covered  in blood. He rushed downstairs and found a burly man. While tussling  with this large man, another man hit him from behind and he lay there on  the floor unconscious until the doctor roused him.

By now, a crowd of Grenell  Island residents had assembled at Point Ida. Suspecting that Nulty’s  story was false, the crowd detained him and called for the sheriff.  Nettie insisted that this was, in fact, the man who attacked Franny.  Nulty turned to her and said, “Well, that’s a pretty damn cool thing to  do to a fellow. When he tries to rescue you, you accuse him of being a  thief.  When I came in here, there were three men here . . . I fought  with them and they knocked me senseless.”

Sheriff Jay Alexander  from Clayton arrived around 3 a.m. Alexander immediately recognized  Nulty as someone he had arrested six years ago for burglary in Clayton.  Nulty had served two years at the New York State Prison in Auburn for  that crime. When the sheriff searched Nulty’s pockets he found three  diamond rings and a purse that belonged to Mrs. Harnois. Sheriff  Alexander charged Nulty with burglary and assault. Nulty never wavered  from his initial statement. He maintained the “It wasn’t me! It was the  burly man!” claim of innocence throughout the grand jury and subsequent  trial. He was ultimately sentenced to life imprisonment at Auburn.

Point Ida Grenell Island

In an article  about the wedding was this passage: “On the morning after the attack,  Mr. Churchill said to have had a presentment that some trouble  threatened the lady of his love, and almost before daybreak he called  her up on the long-distance telephone to assure himself of her safety,  only to find his premonition verified.”

I found that  information most interesting for—as far as I know—there was no telephone  service on Grenell Island in 1905. Perhaps the call had been relayed  from Thousand Island Park.

One has  to wonder if this incident prompted the newly formed Grenell Island  Improvement Association to request that a sheriff be appointed to the  island. Olivia Pratt writes in 1945 in The Story of Grenell:  “It was in 1916 that the winter protection of cottages by a deputy  sheriff was inaugurated, and this patrol has been continued to the  present time, with Mr. William McFadden being the caretaker in recent  years.”

I’m  not sure when Grenell stopped having a sheriff. Perhaps sometimes in the  1950s. If we had a sheriff today I’d like to think it would be someone  like Mayberry’s Sheriff Andy Taylor who would sort out disputes between  residents like Floyd, the barber; Flora, the Mayberry dinner waitress;  Goober, the auto mechanic; or Sarah, the eavesdropping telephone  operator. While Grenell Island does have an interesting cast of  characters who occasionally get into wacky disputes, I think I can  safely say that we’re doing just fine on our own without the aid from  the Sheriff of Grenell.


By Lynn E. McElfresh

This  is Lynn McElfresh’s 120th article for TI Life. This editor waits with  anticipation each month to see what Lynn will give to our River  community. This month, I opened my email early in the morning… then  rather than getting up, I was glued to my iPad to find out “who done  it.”  What a great way to start the day…

Lynn  came to Grenell Island for the first time to meet her fiancé’s family,  in 1975. She became part of the family, and the island became part of  her life. Lynn and her husband, Gary, spend their summers in the  Thousand Islands and their winters in Dunedin, Florida. To see all of  Lynn’s island experiences, search TI Life under Lynn McElfresh.  

Posted in: Volume 13, Issue 12, December 2018, History, People, Places



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