Back in Time: In 1916, four shootings in Albany left one dead; suspect arrested in Schenectady

Newspapers of 92 years ago called him the “silent slayer,” and a story that began in the Capital Cit
Harold Severy’s mug shots are seen in a story from the Schenectady Union-Star newspaper.
Harold Severy’s mug shots are seen in a story from the Schenectady Union-Star newspaper.

Mrs. John A. McKown felt a sting as evening approached Albany on Friday, Jan. 28, 1916.

James Irving figured kids had struck him with a snowball.

John McCormack heard someone ask him for a match, then felt pain in his back.

Edward C. Kenny thought somebody had slapped him.

All four injuries were far more serious: A gunman was on the move in the city.

Newspapers of 92 years ago called him the “silent slayer,” and a story that began in the Capital City ended a few days later when Harold Severy, 25, was apprehended in Schenectady. Severy would later give law enforcement officials a weird explanation for his actions.

It all started at 4:30 p.m. on Jan. 28, according to newspaper accounts. McKown, 70, was walking on Delaware Avenue near her home at 225 Myrtle Ave. when she heard a muffled crack and felt pain in her back. She kept moving, but soon became faint and asked a fellow pedestrian for help. The woman was taken to Albany Hospital on New Scotland Avenue, where doctors discovered she had been shot.

Irving, who also was called James Erwin and James Irwin in press reports, was next. The 60-year-old was on Chestnut Street near Lark Street and at 5 p.m. passed some kids who were throwing snowballs. He thought one of the rowdies had pelted him, and decided to report the problem at a nearby police station.

Officers went to Chestnut, found the gang and made arrests. The kids admitted throwing snow at Irving, but said they had not hit the man. While police were getting the youths’ story, Irving was growing weak. He also was sent to the Homeopathic Hospital at 161 N. Pearl St., where doctors found he had been shot in the right lung. Police let the kids go and began worrying about a more serious problem.

McCormack of 46 Dove St. didn’t know anything about the trouble. The 20-year-old was on Madison Avenue when a pedestrian had asked him for a match. Seconds later, he felt a sting in his back. Soon, he was on the way to the hospital, the city’s third gunshot victim in 90 minutes.

The fourth person injured was Kenny. He was on Lake Avenue, on his way home from work as an assistant secretary at the state Department of Health, when he felt a slap. Police said he turned, and saw a young man standing just behind him with his hands in his pockets. The guy ran off, and Kenny continued home.

The state worker must have been wearing a sturdy coat. Once home, he found a .22-caliber bullet lodged between his shirt and back. He had suffered only a flesh wound.

Manhunt begins

Police believed the victims all had been shot with a .22-caliber revolver. They deduced loud sounds were absent because the gunman was firing from an overcoat pocket or using a silencer. By early evening, every man on the force was looking for the shooter.

“Throughout the night and early morning hours, the police rounded up all known ‘dope fiends’ in an effort to learn if any of them were the guilty party,” read a story in the Albany Times Union. “They all could provide an alibi and were allowed to go.”

Officers had no luck over the weekend. By early Monday, Jan. 31, they were looking for a murderer: James Irving died of his injuries at 12:25 a.m.

Police had some leads, and had found one of the shooter’s unique, small bullets. Examination revealed the cartridge was loaded with a heavily compressed explosive salt and quicksilver instead of gunpowder. The firing pin’s impact upon the base of the cartridge was enough to explode the ingredients, police told reporters. Resulting noise would be no louder than a hiss, but the bullet would be propelled with a force three times greater than a gunpowder-powered projectile.

“Out in the street, such a shot could be fired unheard,” said Albany Police Chief James L. Hyatt.

The break in the case came Tuesday, Feb. 1, in Schenectady. Police — and citizens — owed a debt to Laura Mundy, who ran a boarding house at 623 Terrace Place.

Terrace no longer exists. According to maps on file at Schenectady’s Efner History Center and Research Library, it was once situated off Lafayette Street, in the block between Liberty and Franklin streets, and ran to Nott Terrace. Houses in that area, which also included Blaine Street and Dobro Avenue, were leveled in 1957 as part of a municipal redevelopment project. The block is now occupied by the Bechtel engineering building, parking lots and the Holiday Inn off Nott Terrace.

Mysterious boarder

Mundy had just accepted a boarder named Harold Severy, who showed up at her door on Saturday, Jan. 29, the day after the shootings.

The woman was quickly suspicious. She thought the young man was just too quiet for someone his age.

“He did not leave his room at all during the day or night, except to go out and get his meals, and had asked the landlady if she objected to his getting food and preparing his own meals in the room,” the Schenectady Gazette reported.

Mundy also noticed Severy, who used an alias of George Beverly, sometimes seemed tense. Other times, he was depressed.

Intuition aroused, Mundy gave Severy’s room a thorough cleaning that Tuesday, after the young man left to pick up some lunch. She even checked drawers inside a bureau and discovered a specially equipped gun — a .22-caliber rifle with the stock removed. The 15-inch barrel was tipped with a silencer.

She called Schenectady police’s first precinct, then based at nearby City Hall, at 1:20 p.m. She told Sgt. Albert Gould she suspected the Albany shooter was rooming in her house.

Patrolman William C. Blaser of Duane Avenue was at the station and got the assignment. Blaser didn’t wait for a patrol car; he ran all the way to Terrace Place. He met Mundy and got a look at the gun, which was rigged with heavy wire tied to the trigger. Shortly afterward, Severy returned to the room and was arrested.

He had two boxes of bullets with him. The suspect told police he had been born in Boston and was a movie actor. He lived on a $6 weekly allowance sent to him by his father, inventor Melvin Severy, and said he had passed through Kingston, Albany and Troy. More outlandish statements were reserved for authorities in Albany County, whom Severy met later that day.

In a story published in The New York Times, Albany County District Attorney Harold Alexander said two gunshot victims identified Severy as their assailant.

Wild stories

The young man seemed mad at society. He told Alexander that people kept sticking out their tongues at him and shuffling feet as they passed him on the street. These “persecutions” had taken place in New York City, Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Chicago. In Albany, Severy said, the insults continued. So that Friday, he hid the modified rifle in a coat sleeve and went out for a walk.

“He assured the prosecutor that it was not his intention to kill anybody,” The Times story said. “He merely wished to make them stop persecuting him. He said he went out on Friday evening, and when he still found people sticking out their tongues at him, he shot them.”

Severy also said he traveled to Schenectady because he believed his “pursuers” would no longer follow him. Authorities learned Severy had been committed to hospitals in Massachusetts and Vermont.

He had escaped from the Vermont facility in 1912.

Albany County Court Judge George Addington, acting upon the recommendation of a special commission of psychiatrists, committed Severy to the Matteawan State Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Beacon, Dutchess County (now known as Fishkill Correctional Facility). According to newspaper reports, Severy died in his sleep at Matteawan on July 21, 1936. He was 46.

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