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.

 

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Share This