Friday, October 2, 2015

Not Quite the Real Story: The Murder of Martino Franchetti

Grave of Martino Franchetti from St. John's Cemetery, Schenectady. The gravestone reads, "Martino Franchetti. Born in Castione (Italy) March 5, 1870. Died by assassination November 2, 1902.
This Blog Post was written by Carol Clemens
As a child, I remember hearing the family story that my great-grandfather, Martino (Martin) Franchetti, was accidentally shot and killed while walking home from work. As it was told, a fight erupted in a saloon on Summit Avenue and a stray bullet struck Martino. No one ever really talked about the tragedy, but it was simply stated that he died when my grandmother was young so she never really knew her father. However, in the course of my genealogy research, I discovered that was not quite the real story! 

My first clue was finding a reference at  to an obituary in the Schenectady Gazette for Martino Franchetti…however there were five other articles listed for dates between early November and the end of December 1902. This seemed a bit unusual. Since my sister lives in Schenectady, I asked her to check the newspaper microfilm at the Schenectady Public Library. Once she did, she immediately called me with the news that all the articles were about Martino Franchetti’s murder and not an accidental shooting.
Using the Schenectady Gazette newspaper articles as a starting point, I was able to piece together a very interesting story that is quite different from the family tale. While there are details that vary from article to article, this seems to be the closest to the real story.

Article from the Schenectady Daily Union, Nov. 3, 1902.
Martino Franchetti immigrated to New York on April 6, 1891. He went to Schenectady where he found work as a laborer. Around 1897, Martino married Amelia Benedetta Lavacchini, another Italian immigrant who arrived in 1891 as a 12 year old with her family from Florence, Italy. As was a common practice at the time, Martino and his wife had taken in Italian boarders. From about Oct. 1901-March 1902 Antonio Tonetta boarded with the family. Antonio fell in love with Amelia, and reportedly threatened her, trying to coax her to run away with him. Amelia told Martino about the threats and he kicked Antonio out of his home. Newspaper reports state that Tonetta threated to “get even”, telling Amelia he would shoot her husband and run away with her.

On November 2, 1902, Martino went to a saloon near his home on Summit Avenue. Tonetta and a friend, Nichola Vittelli, were also there. After a couple glasses of beer, Tonetta and Vittelli left the saloon. They had gone only a short distance when a man later identified as Martino Franchetti, called to Tonetta and walked toward him from the saloon. An argument ensued. Vittelli left the men and went back to the saloon to tell the customers there that he "feared the two men would injure each other." He had just opened the saloon door when he heard a shot. Tonetta had shot Franchetti with a 32 caliber pistol in the back of the head.

The first man to reach Franchetti was Frank Columbo, who was about to enter the Franchetti home where he boarded. Columbo helped carry Franchetti to his home and also identified the shooter as Tonetta. Dr. George McDonald, the surgeon who operated on Franchetti at Ellis Hospital, said that the bullet was fired from a point in the rear from close proximity and that he had little chance of surviving. Franchetti died on Nov. 3 leaving his wife, Amelia, a widow with two young daughters.

The murder weapon, a 32 caliber gun, was found under an apple tree in a vacant lot close to the site of the crime. Meanwhile, Vittelli was jailed as a witness but Tonetta disappeared. Police searched Tonetta’s current room on Strong Street and found a trunk with about $80 in cash, several photos of him, and other personal belongings. To the police, the packed trunk indicated that Tonetta might have been planning to leave town. Local authorities circulated a description of Tonetta to neighboring cities. On November 11th, the Schenectady Gazette ran a headline stating “Tonetta probably Captured.” Tensions grew as days passed and Tonetta was not found. The November 18th Gazette had an article titled “Murderers not Brought to Justice”. The search for Tonetta continued across the state and neighboring areas. 

An inquest was held and Tonetta was indicted, even though he remained at large. Amelia Franchetti testified and was described as being very "composed". She said she had not seen Tonetta for 4 days prior to the killing. The last time she saw him, Tonetta again insulted her, but she did not tell Martino because she was afraid it would lead to trouble. Amelia said she received several letters from Tonetta after Martino evicted him, but she never answered them. She also testified that Tonetta always carried a revolver and that he had several times drawn it on her and threatened to kill her unless she would go away with him.  In conclusion, Mrs. Franchetti said that she did not like Tonetta and never had.

Finally, on December 30th, nearly two months after the crime, Tonetta was captured in a Green Mountain logging camp in Vermont. When captured, Tonetta admitted that he had shot Franchetti, but did not know he had died. Tonetta was transported by train back to Schenectady, attracting crowds along the route. Once in Schenectady, he was questioned by authorities and gave the following account of the evening. According to Tonetta, he and Franchetti did not have words, but rather their friends got into an argument. Tonetta claims that when Franchetti started to enter the controversy, he drew his revolver and tried to hit Franchetti on the head.  Instead, he states the weapon discharged. Tonetta fled, dropping the revolver in the yard where the young boy later found it. Tonetta said he fled along Veeder Avenue and hid in the woods near Veeder’s Mill and eventually made his way to North Adams, MA. Hearing of work in a logging camp, Tonetta went to the Green Mountains and worked there until he was captured.

Commutation of Antonio Tonnetta. From New York, Executive Orders for
Commutations, Pardons, Restorations and Respites, 1845-1931. Courtesy of and
the New York State Archives.
Antonio Tonetta was arraigned before the Supreme Court in March of 1903 on a charge of Murder in the First Degree. When asked what his plea was, Tonetta stated that he had killed Franchetti but he hadn’t meant to do so. Presiding Justice Martin Stover ordered a plea of not guilty be entered.  Stover then ordered extra jurors to be called for the trial which was to begin on March 18th, 1903. That morning as the trial was about to start, Tonetta’s court appointed attorney, Alexander Fenwick, asked for the plea to be changed from not guilty of murder in the first to guilty of murder in the second degree. Tonetta feared if found guilty of murder in the first degree he would face the electric chair, while murder in the second degree would bring a life sentence. District Attorney Walter Briggs accepted the change, and Tonetta asked to be sentenced immediately. Judge Stover sentenced Antonio Tonetta to life at Dannemora Prison in upstate New York.

Using records found on, I was able to find Antonio Tonetta in Dannemora Prison in the 1910 Federal Census. Other on-line sources led me to find references to prisoner records for Dannemora Prison for that time period. Contacting the New York State Archives, I was able to obtain copies of prisoner records affirming that Antonio Tonetta was in fact detained in Danemora for a life sentence. Additional records found on confirmed that Antonio Tonetta was released from Dannemora on March 20, 1917 after serving about 14 years for Franchetti's murder.

Supreme Court Minutes from the case of "The People of the State of New York vs. Antonio Tonetta".
 Courtesy of the Schenectady County Clerk
I also contacted Sharon Sheffer at the Schenectady County Clerk’s office in the summer of 2006, in an attempt to locate any trial records they might have. While nothing was available when I first contacted them, Ms. Sheffer and her staff took a great interest in my quest. In 2007 Ms. Scheffer located a 1903 document in which Mr. Fenwick indicated he had not received any payment for his court appointed defense of Tonetta. Then in February 2009, I was again contacted by the County Clerk’s office. Buried in the back of a vault whose contents were being moved, they found the Schenectady County Supreme Court Minutes Book for 1901-1908, and kindly sent me copies of the pertinent pages.  In September 2009, Ms. Sheffer sent me a copy of the indictment which had been found when old files were being moved.

While it has taken several years to piece together the events regarding the death of Martino Franchetti, it has been a fascinating project for me.  I am grateful to the Schenectady County Clerk’s office and for those who so patiently transcribe and post records on line making it possible for me to fill in this piece of my family’s past.

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