July 23 marked the 100th anniversary of the Cleary/Newman Murder; one of Rockland’s most notorious crimes
BY CHERYL SLAVIN
It was a tragedy “so terrible, so melodramatic, so unreal, that it is hardly conceivable,” reported the Rockland County Times on July 25, 1914. Just two days earlier, William V. Cleary, Haverstraw town clerk and powerful leader of the local Democrats, had pumped four bullets into the heart of Eugene “Gene” Newman, the 18 year old son of Fredrick Newman, editor and part owner of the Rockland Messenger. Before it was over, the tale became the first true “sensational story” of the century, a lurid stew of romance, scandal and politics so salacious that it ended up on the front pages of the New York Times.
The story begins with the friendship between William Cleary and Fred Newman, born of their mutual political affiliation with the Democratic Party. Fourteen years earlier Cleary had become the party boss and Haverstraw Town Clerk and Newman’s paper was staunchly Democratic (it was common at that time for newspapers to have a declared political affiliation). Thus Newman’s son, Gene, and Cleary’s daughter, Anna, had known each other since childhood. For a long time no one had any objection to their friendship, even when at the tender age of about 13 they became “sweethearts.”
That began to change, however, after the Haverstraw landslide of 1906. More than 20 people died as a result of what many believed to be the negligence and greed of the brick-making companies. The Democrats, headed by William Cleary, backed the business owners. Fred Newman, however, sided with the workers and consequently changed his newspaper’s affiliation to Republican. The resulting rift between the two families culminated when Cleary moved to New York City some years later in part to get Anna away from her boyfriend. He no longer approved the growing romance.
But, like another famous pair of teenaged star-crossed lovers, Gene and Anna could not remain parted. They wrote letters, and saw each other when they could. It appears they managed to hoodwink Anna’s parents, but Fred Newman knew all about it and still approved. “Anna is a brilliant girl,” he later told the New York Times. “We would have been happy to welcome her into our family.”
Then, when Gene was 18, and Anna about 20 years old, she became pregnant. She hid the pregnancy at least until July 19 when they secretly married in Weehawken. But three days later, Anna “took ill.” Her parents, still ignorant, summoned a doctor, and learned the truth.
“Prepare yourselves for a shock,” he told the worried parents. “Your daughter needs to be married.” In the hysteria that followed, Anna did not reveal to her parents that she was, indeed, already married.
“Big Fellow” William Cleary proceeded to go on a monumental bender the likes of which have probably never been seen before or since. Cronies testified at trial that he caroused all night, eventually consuming over 50 whiskies. That he didn’t keel over from alcohol poisoning somewhat belies his claims later at trial that he was, among other things, too drunk to know what he was doing the next day. Not to mention that after a night and a day of drinking he went to work, where he was calmly handling paperwork when Gene finally came to see him, marriage certificate in hand.
But young Newman never got the chance to tell his new father-in-law that he had done right by Anna. Instead of hearing Gene out, Cleary began shouting about the dishonor to his family, grabbed a pistol, and fired four shots into the 18-year-old’s body. The fourth bullet entered through the back of Gene’s neck, apparently fired after he was already slumped over from the first three. Fred Newman recalled that when he went to identify his dead son, the marriage certificate was still in his pocket.
“We both might have been spared if (Cleary) had only let my boy speak,” he said. “Gene may have been foolish, but he was no worse than any other boys.” But Newman was also well aware from the start that bucking Cleary’s political pull to get a conviction would be difficult; he resolved, nonetheless, to see to it that his son’s killer be brought to justice.
Newman was right about the political protection. All of the major law enforcement personnel, from the District Attorney to the Police Chief to the County Sheriff were political cronies of Cleary. Cleary was never arrested; instead, he demanded to see his buddy, District Attorney Thomas Gagan, in order to insist that “unwritten law” had given him the right to shoot the boy who had defiled his daughter.
Eventually Cleary was formally charged by the acting police Justice Michael McCabe, another close friend and political ally, who also happened to be the editor at the time of the Rockland County Times. He remanded Cleary into the custody of another political ally, Bernard Fox, the Fire Chief. Once they made it to the jail in New City, Sheriff Larry Serven personally made the phone call to secure attorney Frank Comesky, a well-known criminal lawyer, for his prisoner.
Cleary’s prominence was such that almost from the start public opinion supported him more than the victim’s family. “This sad affair has created a profound sensation,” reported the Rockland County Times on July 25. “Greatest sympathy is extended to the bereaved family and the broadest charity is going out to Cleary in his predicament.”
Meanwhile, notoriety of the events grew to such an extent that by the time of trial it was being closely watched by newspapers from all over. A “touring car” was hired by the journalists so that they could quickly get their copy at every new development from the court house in New City to the telegraph office in Congers.
“The human interest element, as well as the woman in the case element and the greed of the reading public for the sordid details have forced newspapers to cover every detail with all possible embellishment,” the reporter states. “Women as well as men flock around the court house and eagerly listen for every word.”
The trial commenced on December 19 with jury selection before Judge Morschauser in Rockland Supreme Court. “Cleary fought hard to get a jury to his liking,” the New York Times reported. The Rockland County Times seems to have given Gagan the benefit of the doubt about his attempt to pick a neutral jury, but many later questioned his true allegiance; not only was every juror but one a married man, all were personal acquaintances of defense attorney Comesky. It was also odd that Morschauser seemed to be in a hurry to conclude the trial; he held night and weekend sessions in order to move it along.
The defense strategy soon became apparent: Cleary claimed first, that he was operating under temporary insanity in a “twilight state;” second, that he was drunk; third, that he didn’t know that Gene had already married Anna, because if he had, he wouldn’t have shot him; and fourth, that Gene was a terrible person and Cleary was within his rights to shoot him under “unwritten law.” The defense dragged the murder victim’s through the mud: they called his father insane, his mother a slut, and introduced testimony—possibly supplied by Gagan himself—that Gene associated with “negresses.” Not only did Gagan not object to this vilification, he even took the stand as a defense witness.
The crowning event of the trial, however, was the appearance of Anna Cleary Newman, ostensibly to testify that her father did not know at the time he killed Gene that the two were married. The true reason the defense attorneys called her, however, soon became apparent.
Upon her arrival, “the most spectacular, pathetic and dramatic presentation ever seen in a Hudson Valley Courthouse, without parallel in history,” unfolded. As she walked past her father en route to the witness stand, he jumped up from the defense table, grabbed her in a tight bear hug, and showered her with kisses. Anna pulled back and struggled to free herself, but ultimately it took the combined efforts of her uncle as well as the attorneys to pull her father away. Cleary then sank down into his chair with bowed head, and wept. Two jurors also start crying. Anna, on the other hand, refused to look at him.
Later on, defense attorney Comesky ratcheted up the drama, referring to the scene in his summation to the jury. After confessing to being moved to tears, he stopped and demanded, “I must have air! Open all the windows,” before thundering in conclusion, “Any man here would have done the same for his family! Acquit him for the love of your homes! Acquit him for the love of your daughters! Acquit him for the memory of your mothers!” Contrast this with District Attorney Gagan’s summation, in which he actually argued against a verdict of capital murder.
It is inconceivable that such outbursts would be permitted in a courtroom today (temporary insanity isn’t even a real defense), but this was a different era and Cleary was the Boss. Given a jury stacked with his supporters, it’s a wonder that they deliberated even the six hours they did before acquitting the “Big Fellow.” News of the verdict was greeted by cheers and hats thrown in the air in the courtroom. Cleary personally shook the hand of every juror, and was practically carried out on the shoulders of his admirers. One juror summed it up succinctly: “The girl did it. We could not resist her.” Meanwhile, Fred Newman remained at home, too ill to attend the denouement.
Despite his milquetoast summation, Gagan immediately decried the acquittal. Judge Morschauser was even clearer in his disgust: “There may have been a reasonable doubt as to the degree of crime of defendant’s guilt, but murder is murder, call it by whatever name you will.”
Before long, Newman was gathering signatures to petition the governor for an investigation into possible misconduct or dereliction of duty on the part of any public officers, ie; the District Attorney. Eventually, Governor Charles Whitman convened a commission to investigate the circumstances surrounding Cleary’s arrest and trial, focusing particularly on the actions of Gagan and several of Cleary’s cronies who may have hidden the murder weapon.
The commission uncovered a whole host of improprieties and inconsistencies: the overall inept prosecution including the failure of Gagan to call potentially damning prosecution witnesses while at the same time permitting the defense to excoriate the victim’s character; the allegation that Gagan actually gave the defense evidence with which to attack Gene Newman; the failure to secure the murder weapon on the night of the incident, establish a chain of custody and prevent Cleary’s friends from possibly hiding the gun, among other findings.
In the end, though, one could almost hear the grinding of the party machinery when the governor abruptly exonerated Gagan a few months later. After hundreds of pages of findings, only a few lackeys were charged with perjury and illegal weapons possession.
Meanwhile, Cleary had disappeared. After a short return to his post as Town Clerk, he apparently skipped town when the investigation into Gagan also turned up evidence implicating Cleary in a scheme of forgery and embezzlement. This time the Party wasn’t going to protect him.
A three month chase through Bermuda, Cuba, and California finally resulted in Cleary’s apprehension in Washington, D.C. Eventually, he was convicted of the forgery, as well as charged with grand larceny of $10,000 from the Haverstraw poorhouse funds, and a violation of the Sullivan gun law. Apparently, like Al Capone or O.J. Simpson, Cleary got away with murder only to be undone by his greed. Thus, almost a year to the date of the acquittal, he stood in the dock once more, waiting to hear his fate. Only this time he was alone, without the crowd of supporters, without his cronies, stripped at last of his prestige and his power, branded a “coward” by the press.
Eugene Newman was laid to rest in Mt. Repose Cemetery, his high school friends as his pall bearers. Fred Newman packed his bags and moved to New York City where he died, broken-hearted, about ten years later. After serving his time for the forgery conviction, William Cleary spent the rest of his days toiling as a tailor, his political career in tatters. As for Anna and the unborn child, the media of the day remained silent, a vestige, perhaps, of post-Victorian discretion.
A hundred years have gone by and the story has mostly faded from the collective memory of Haverstraw folk. Interestingly, present day Haverstraw Town Clerk Karen Bulley is one of the few who have actually heard of her predecessor’s sordid tale which, from the safety of a century’s distance, she regards with equal parts amusement and horror. Perhaps present day residents, elected officials or not, would rather not remember a time when Haverstraw became the center of media attention for all the wrong reasons.
Several local officials, declined to comment on the case, for reasons unknown.
Are you a descendent of any of the characters in this tragic story? The Rockland County Times wants to hear from you! Please contact the editor at [email protected]