Remembering the Sisters May and Viola DeHart

By Patricia M. Salmon

The ancient clapboard two-story house at 3344 Richmond Terrace was isolated. It existed at a desolate Mariners Harbor location. As the paint peeled off the old manse it fell quietly like a soft winter snow. The dreary green shutters were permanently sealed. If this was a Hollywood movie set, it was the perfect location for what was about to unfold.

On February 16, 1946, firemen were in the midst of extinguishing a blaze in an empty lot when several children stumbled up to them crying hysterically. As best as the firemen could discern the youngsters had discovered two dead bodies in the old DeHart house. One of the children had gone to warn the elderly, spinster sisters that a brush fire was raging not far from their residence. When she looked into the house the girl saw a lifeless women splayed across the floor. She was surrounded by blood. The child alerted the firemen. They ran to the house and discovered two women tumbled upon each other in the pantry. Their heads had been viciously bashed.

They were twins. Viola and May DeHart, were, as in life, inseparable in death. The crime scene was fresh. Blood still flowed from their head wounds when they were pronounced dead. It had not been long since the double murder took place. The nameless killer had made a hasty departure.

While the ancient house had once been an imposing structure in a once fashionable neighborhood, that day was over. Like the house, this once bucolic neighborhood was no longer a prime Staten Island location. The sisters also owned the surrounding ten acres and a forty-two-acre tract that fronted on the Kill Van Kull. According to one bank book they safeguarded $10,000 at a local financial institution, but authorities believed they had as much as $62,000 in other depositories. Along with fifty dollars in gold coins, an abundance of silver was found in the dwelling by police. Robbery was not a motive.

May and Viola were eighty years old. Their father was Samuel DeHart a wealthy Staten Island coal merchant who also owned thriving oyster beds at Prince’s Bay. A fleet of oyster boats added to and assisted his prosperity. Once a lucrative operation for a schooner captain, oysters harvested off Staten Island were prized throughout the country and as far as Europe. Pollution eradicated the desire for these sought after bivalves, with the result that many boat owners and their hands were put out of work. But Samuel DeHart was diverse in his business enterprises as verified by the profitable ferryboat he ran from Staten Island to Elizabethport, New Jersey. DeHart was also a prominent Staten Island landowner with most of his acreage inherited by his offspring. The first recorded DeHart on Staten Island is believed to have been Daniel DeHart. Historic records document that his children were baptized in 1707. Prominent in their day a street in the Mariner’s Harbor community still bears the name of this once affluent Staten Island family.

May and Viola were born and raised in the very house in which they were killed. They had been living alone since the death of their brother around 1921. The sisters were seldom seen outside the residence, except when picking up stray pieces of wood to burn. Their home had neither electricity or gas, so they mainly occupied the kitchen and two other rooms. The rest of the ten room house was shuttered. Kerosene lamps lit their shadowy quarters, while a wood burning kitchen stove provided heat and a means for cooking. Upon investigation police discovered dollar bills stuffed in window sashes to keep the loose panes from rattling in the wind and to prevent cold air from invading the house. Frugal as they were the sisters were still known for their generosity, having given a generous $3,000 gift to the Mariner’s Harbor Reformed Church before their murder.

DEHART MH Ref Church PC cropped 2

The Reformed Church at Mariners Harbor still stands on Richmond Terrace.

Described as a “seedy scion” of a once prominent family, thirty-five-year-old Gordon DeHart readily admitted to police that he killed his elderly aunts by slamming their heads with a one-foot wooden wedge used to split firewood.[i] DeHart went to the home in an attempt to request money for liquor. Aunt May refused and a heated quarrel commenced in the garden. The ensuing fistfight moved into the house with Viola coming to her sister’s aid, but to no avail. Both twins were clobbered and overtaken by the younger, sturdier DeHart as he wielded the wedge into their heads. When the carnage was complete, DeHart threw Viola’s body on top of May’s and headed for a tavern. After tossing down a few tumblers he readily provided the bar owner with intimate details of killing his aged aunts. The authorities were notified. When DeHart was brought to the crime site he confessed to killing Aunt Viola and Aunt May. Police soon realized that DeHart was still drunk from his pre-and-post homicidal benders.

Gordon DeHart had also brought along a friend (also known as an eyewitness) when he arrived at the DeHart house. Walter Dugan, age 52, was a resident of Brooklyn. Arrested as a material witness, Dugan attested to and signed a statement declaring that Gordon DeHart had brandished the wooden bludgeon that killed May and Viola. Dugan acknowledged that both he and DeHart had been drinking heavily prior to the double homicide. Both men asserted that Dugan took no part in the slaughter.

Separated from his wife a few years previous, Gordon DeHart lived with his parents in their Richmond Terrace house. He was the father of two children. Detectives soon learned that DeHart had been confined on at least two occasions to mental asylums, one being the Pilgrim State Hospital in Brentwood, Long Island. DeHart was released from his most recent hospitalization around 1941.

Even though he signed a statement declaring his guilt, DeHart pled not guilty in the Saint George criminal court on February 27, 1946. It was soon rumored that DeHart would make a declaration of insanity that would be verified by his psychiatric confinements, and the fact that overall he had been treated in six different hospitals for mental disabilities.

The murder trial of Gordon DeHart came before Judge Thomas J. Walsh in the Richmond County Court House in Saint George on May 20, 1946. At trial, Fred H. Wilshere testified. He was the proprietor of the Brooklyn tavern on Third Avenue and Fortieth Street that DeHart retreated to after the carnage. A former resident of Mariners Harbor, Wilshere was well acquainted with the DeHart family of that community. According to the barkeep DeHart entered his saloon and called the owner over to a secluded end of the bar where he said “You know May and Viola DeHart don’t you?” Wilshere replied “yes” with DeHart stating “Well I knocked them off today.” To which Wilshere responded “Well you better stop drinking or change your brand.” DeHart ignored him and said “I killed them. You’ll find their bodies laying [sic] on the kitchen floor.”[ii]

The trial turned into one of the longest and costliest cases in Staten Island history. The jury returned with a verdict after deliberating for ten hours and fifteen minutes. They found DeHart guilty of manslaughter in the first degree for the death of May DeHart. The trial had only focused on May. In case he was found not guilty prosecutors planned a second separate trial for Viola’s murder.

On June 28, 1946, Gordon DeHart was sentenced to an indeterminate term of not less than ten years and not more than twenty at the infamous Sing Sing Prison.

Sing Sing c1900

Aerial view of Sing Sing Prison in Ossining, NY, circa 1900.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Works Cited

Brooklyn Eagle. “Elderly Twin Sisters Bludgeoned to Death.” February 17, 1946.

Brooklyn Eagle. “Pleads Innocent in Twin’s Slaying.” February 27, 1946.

Niagara Falls Gazette. “Charge Man Beat His Twin Spinster Cousins to Death at Their Home.” February 18, 1946.

  1. PM. “Cousin Admits Killing Spinsters, Police Say.” February 18, 1946.

The Sun. “DeHart Convicted of Manslaughter.” June 21, 1946.

The Sun. “DeHart Gets 10 to 20 Years.” June 28, 1946.

The Sun. “DeHart Murder Case Up to Jury.” June 20, 1946

The Sun. “Seized As Killer of Cousins.” February 18, 1946.

The Sun. “Told In Bar of Killing Aunts.” June 5, 1946.

[i] PM, “Cousin Admits Killing Spinsters, Police Say,” February 18, 1946.

[ii] The Sun, “Told in Bar of Killing Aunts,” June 5, 1946.

Special thanks to Gina Sacco.

Copyright 2016 by Patricia M. Salmon.

 

23 Comments

  1. Richard Simpson
    Feb 10, 2016

    Pat, where are the sisters buried and who got their money?

    • Patricia Salmon
      Feb 11, 2016

      Hello Richard. Thank you for writing. I will look into where they are buried and get back to you. I doubt I will be able to find out who got their money. That is a tricky one. It is an awful story. I am glad we can remember these unfortunate women.

      On a positive note congratulations on your new book. I can’t wait to read “A Walk Through Moravian Cemetery.” If anyone would like further information on Richard’s book you can write to him at cemeteryguy@earthlink.net All the best. – Pat

  2. Annamay
    Feb 11, 2016

    Hi Pat, I enjoyed reading this so well written story — but I’m left with feeeling the punishment didn’t quite fit the crime and wondering how much time this murderer did serve — if he died in prison or was he freed and what then happened in his life — did he ever get sober.

    • Patricia Salmon
      Feb 11, 2016

      I know what you mean Annamay. It is difficult to find information on certain prisoners from certain time periods. In trying to locate information on Gordon DeHart I did discover the Electrocution Record for Sing Sing, but it was from a different time period and of course he was not sentenced to death. Even so I mention this because it is interesting what is located on the internet. I did find out from Social Security records that Gordon DeHart passed away when he was 69 and that he was a resident of Staten Island before his death. So to me this means that he was not in prison at the time of his death which occurred during December 1980. That is what I have so far. Lynn Rogers discovered that the sisters were buried at Moravian Cemetery. Another source has located additional information about the sisters which I will share in an upcoming post. So as always these “events” go on… I will keep you posted as to what is found in the future Annamay. Thank you so much for visiting the website and responding to the blog! – Pat

  3. Lynn Rogers
    Feb 11, 2016

    They are buried at Moravian

    • Patricia Salmon
      Feb 11, 2016

      Thank you Lynn!

  4. Georgianna
    Feb 12, 2016

    Hi, Pat. I’d be interested in knowing how the Estate was settled. Perhaps there’s archived information at Surrogate’s Court. There was land, business, money and the property. Is the house still standing? And are there any photos of these lovely ladies who were such unfortunate victims? It’s incredible…and sad. Thank you for sharing. I’ve always enjoyed your writings.

    • Patricia Salmon
      Feb 13, 2016

      Thanks so much for your kind words Georgianna and thank you for writing. I have not located any images of the sisters. I have come across images of Gordon DeHart. They are newspaper photocopies. I will dig them up and see if they are worth sharing. According to streetview.com the house is gone. No surprise there. I also have received information on the distribution of their estate. I have to go through it. After I do I will post what I can. I am glad the blog is getting read. These women need to be remembered. Thank you again. – Pat

  5. Patricia Salmon
    Feb 16, 2016

    Blog Update. A reliable source, who wishes to remain anonymous, has provided additional information about the lives and deaths of Viola and May DeHart. The sisters were born on May 23, 1864. Both were interred at Moravian Cemetery on February 21, 1946. Their burial site lacks a headstone. Both Viola and May made identical wills on June 20, 1939. Lawyer John M. Braisted drew them up. In the event that one sister died, the surviving sister was to be made executor. When the second sister died, the wills stipulated that Braisted be made executor. Their wills also instructed Braisted to buy a gravesite at Moravian Cemetery, which he did. It is in Section X, Sub. D, Lot 4. They left no instructions about erecting a gravestone. Each will stipulated that $1,000 be given to the Foreign Missions of the Reformed Church. Another $1,000 went to the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, while four family members were to receive $1,000 each. Since the wills were identical all amounts were doubled. The remainder of their estate, including property, household effects, etc., was divided among nine other people. No mention of nephew Gordon DeHart, who was charged with their murder, was found in either will. R.I.P.

  6. Richard Simpson
    Feb 16, 2016

    I wish there were an organization, or a few individuals who could erect a headstone for Viola and May. Most monument companies have a few stones that for whatever reason were rejected by a family, and are willing to sell these stones at a reduced price. Of course the stone would have to be properly inscribed with the two sisters names.

    • Patricia Salmon
      Feb 16, 2016

      Any idea what a rejected stone would cost Rich?

      • Richard Simpson
        Feb 16, 2016

        I don’t have any idea about prices. But i’m sure the monument company would work out a good price.

  7. Georgianna
    Feb 16, 2016

    Thank you so much for the update, Pat. How fascinating. Since they both, May & Viola, were interred on the same date, did they die on the same day? I would be interested to know who the nine people were and how they were linked to May & Viola. Of course, I’m still interested in finding answers to my previous questions, if possible. And I’d love to contribute a little money to the headstone. Perhaps, we could start a collection among your readers. I’d be honored to help.

    • Patricia Salmon
      Feb 16, 2016

      Thank you for writing Georgianna. The majority of the individuals who received money from the estate were relatives. Yes, they were killed on the same date. Certainly a headstone would be a wonderful tribute. I am not sure how much they go for but I will look into it. Thanks so much for writing.

  8. Annamay
    Feb 17, 2016

    Just to thank you Pat for all this additional information — and the thought about a headstone!

    • Patricia Salmon
      Feb 17, 2016

      My pleasure Annamay!

  9. William Hogarth
    Mar 5, 2017

    Ms. Salmon,
    I was 10 years old at the time of the DeHart sisters murders and we lived on Fancher Place, a short walk to the house where the murders occured. I am a retired NY Police officer and met the murderer after he was released from Sing Sing around 1962 or 1963 and he denied that he committed the murders . He stated that a person , who’s name he did not know, actually killed the sisters.
    The house was purchased by a man named Gavrity who’s family lived on Arlington Ave.
    I am 80 years old and still remember some of the facts…Deloris Shoppman found the bodies.

    • Patricia Salmon
      Mar 7, 2017

      Thank you for writing William and thank you for providing additional information. This is a disturbing murder. They all are but this one pulls at my heartstrings more than most. Did DeHart go on to live anything akin to a productive life? I know that he lived for a number of years after release. What is your gut feeling–did he kill the sisters?

      • William Hogarth
        Mar 7, 2017

        Ms. Salmon,
        I met Gordon DeHart only one time around 1962 or ’63 as I mentioned. I went to a local Bar located at South Ave and Arlington Place to purchase a Pizza. While waiting for it I ordered a Beer and the owner told me that a man sitting at the end of the bar was Gordon DeHart. I told the owner to bring my beer next to where DeHart was sitting.
        This was the first and only time I had met the man. I was about 25 or 26 years old at the time. I introduced myself and asked him if he would mind if I asked him about what had happened the day of the murders of the De Hart sisters as I was only 10 years old at the time. He appeared very docile and did not make eye contact. Staring at the beer in front of him, he related this story:
        He had been out drinking and struck up a conversation with a man from New Jersey he claims that he did not know and did not remember his name. After drinking for a period of time they both ran out of money and he told the man that if he drove him to his Aunts house he could get them some money for drinking. He told me that when they arrived at the house, on Richmond Terrace, that his Aunts refused to give him any money. He claims that his companion picked up a hammer that was on the kitchen table and beat the two woman to death and he walked home to his parents house a few blocks away. He claims he had nothing to do with their deaths and that the Police framed him. The story appeared possible but I have no access to the evidence and would not venture a “gut feeling” as to his guilt or innocence. I can only say that he sounded sincere when telling the story. I was told that a local girl, Deloris Shoppman who was around my age at the time, would go to the local grocery store at South Ave and Richmond Terrace and shop for the sisters who rarely left the house. Deloris was said to have discovered the bodies the next day. That was the story around the neighborhood and I cannot verify if it is true or not.
        Please remove my phone number from my previous post…that was for your use, not for publication. Thank you.

        • Patricia Salmon
          Mar 7, 2017

          Thank you William. I removed the phone number. Would you like me to remove both comments? I can certainly do that. I do not want to publish anything that should not be made public. I was surprised that the number was there since blog comments are public. In any event I should have removed it. Sorry.

          Thank you for the additional information. It is interesting that he was willing to discuss it. I have written about a number of murders that occurred on Staten Island and I always appreciate first person details.

  10. William Hogarth
    Mar 7, 2017

    Thank you Patricia.
    It is not necessary to remove the comments but do as you wish.
    It was interesting to re-visit a murder that happened so long ago and will remain in my memory forever.
    God rest their souls.

  11. Kathleen
    Dec 28, 2018

    Hi Pat I am the granddaughter of Gordon Dehart and I’ve been doing research on him and came across your article I do know that before the murders my grandmother told us that he was in a horrible explosion in Elizabeth N.J and he was never the same since that she shortly divorced him I do know that he told my grandmother he was innocent biut was taking the rap since he lost his family anyway not sure how truthful he was being but I remember him as a sweet old man the few times I meet him any other information you have would be greatly appreciated I would hope he didn’t do something so horrible my grandmother and my mom his youngest daughter have passed on

    • Patricia Salmon
      Dec 29, 2018

      Thank you for writing Kathleen. I will certainly let you know if I find additional information about the murders. Not only was your grandfather convicted and sent to prison, but your two great aunts were viciously murdered. Sad all around.

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