A Hamilton County Murder (Part 2)


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Though Ernest Duane had eventually admitted killing popular Lake Pleasant guide Eula Davis, there was no guarantee he would be found guilty in court. The defense focused on proving Duane’s supposed mental abnormalities, which they claimed had been exacerbated by the lonely life of a woodsman who often spent long months alone. It seemed a weak argument at best, but then came the kicker: Duane’s epilepsy, seized upon by his attorneys in a strategy described as the “dream defense.”

Medical experts and Ernest’s brother, Joe, testified about his condition, bolstering claims that he had committed the crime, but had done so “in a fit of insanity.” Supporting the argument was his dismissal from military service during World War I due to a mental disorder (again, epilepsy).

Contrary to what had been announced earlier, Ernest finally took the stand in his own defense. Despite his detailed confession and the note leading officers to the stolen money, Ernest now claimed a seizure had enveloped him as he entered the clearing near the cabin that day, and it subsequently erased all memories of the next several hours. If he had killed Davis and stolen the money, he had no recollection of having done so. (Forty-five years later, serial killer Robert F. Garrow would make the same claim in the same courtroom for the same crime of murder.)

But there was more to Ernest’s story. Later that night, he had suddenly awakened, believing he had shot and robbed Davis. Frantically, Duane jumped out of bed and searched his pockets for money. Finding nothing, he concluded it had been nothing more than a terrible nightmare and went back to sleep.

In the morning, Ernest went out to cut some firewood. Reaching into his jacket pocket for a match, he instead found a wad of bills. With an earnestness befitting his given name, he told the court, “Then I knew that what I had dreamed was true.” During final summation, his attorney cited “the murder dream which turned out to be reality.”

The jury struggled, and early on, one member promised that his vote for acquittal would never change (so much for an open-and-shut case.) Eventually, they found Duane guilty. Supreme Court Justice Christopher Heffernan was reluctant to pronounce sentence, but he had no choice.

Through a breaking voice, and with tears flowing, he said, “I have but one duty to perform. I have wished it would never come to me, but Mr. Duane, you stand convicted of murder in the first degree, for which the punishment is death.” Seated nearby, the judge’s wife wept openly.

At 3am, Ernest Duane was removed from his cell and sent off to Sing Sing to await execution. The odd hour was chosen to avoid an expected rescue attempt by Duane’s family and friends. The defense appealed the verdict, causing an immediate stay of execution. When the appeal was denied, a new trial was sought, but that too was disallowed. Ernest was scheduled to die the week of January 15, 1930. Only one hope remained—commutation by the governor.

Just 24 hours before the moment of execution, word arrived that Governor Franklin Roosevelt had commuted Duane’s sentence to life in prison. Among other things, the governor felt that a person denied military service due to a mental disorder should not be put to death for that same disorder. When the message was relayed by his keepers, Ernest’s comment was a flippant, “Then I guess I’ll lose my chicken dinner,” a reference to the last meal he had requested. He was removed from death watch and assigned to work in the prison shoe factory.

Was it really an out-of-character, spur-of-the-moment decision for Ernest Duane to shoot and rob Davis? Perhaps not, if the “apple-doesn’t-fall-far-from-the-tree” theory holds water. Duane’s father, with a wife and seven children at home, had once pursued and married the 15-year-old daughter of the man with whom he was boarding. That offense netted him five years in Dannemora Prison for bigamy. He later was convicted of game violations.

Following in Daddy’s footsteps, Ernest had been arrested for drunkenness, game violations, and had married a 14-year-old girl. His character witness and brother, Joseph Duane, had been arrested for car theft and fighting, and he and Ernest had been arrested together for operating a “disorderly house” (their hotel was used for prostitution).

The Duanes earned plenty of notoriety in their time. With this writing, perhaps Eula (Ulysses) Davis will escape relative anonymity, having suffered a terrible, undeserved fate.

Photo: Speculator today remains an outdoor playground.

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