It was just after 8 p.m. on July 2, 1885, when a Johnstown man came barreling into the city, horse's hooves pounding furiously as he reached his destination. He frantically sought medical help, for there had just been an attempted murder only two miles northwest of the courthouse. A local woman had been shot three times before her assailant turned his pistol on himself in an attempt to take his own life.
The attacker was a man named Israel Wolinski (sometimes spelled Volinski), a jeweler who had come to Johnstown from Syracuse two years before. He spent little time in the store and traveled often on business, trading with farmers and selling his goods. The Fulton County Republican described Wolinski as "young man, rather quiet and retiring in manners" who "seemed wrapped up in his business." He wasn't long in town before becoming acquainted with the young and beautiful Cora B. Jeffers. Cora was the only child of Robert Jeffers, a wealthy farmer and former glove maker. The Jeffers' were a prominent local family who came to the area from Connecticut in the 18th century; four of the descendents (Robert and his three brothers) had been glove manufacturers. The Jeffers' farm was about two miles north of Johnstown. Cora's parents encouraged Wolinski's attentions, and it wasn't long before the two were sweethearts. Wolinski wanted to marry Cora. Rather than give an answer, Cora told him to ask her father. Robert refused and prohibited Wolinski from seeing his daughter. But the fierce flame of young love is not easily extinguished. Cora and Israel continued to meet secretly. Their meetings were not discreet enough, though, because Cora's father soon uncovered their clandestine rendezvous and put a stop to them. He threatened to disinherit his daughter and turn her out of the house if she continued to go against his wishes, and he had a few choice words for Wolinski, too. Threatened with disownment, Cora had no choice but to follow her parents' wishes.
Wolinski did not give up so easily. On the night of the crime, Cora and her neighbor, Jennie Stewart, brought home a friend who lived in town. Before departing, the pair stopped at the post office, where Wolinski appeared with his horse and buggy. He begged his former fiance to take a ride with him, but Cora, mindful of her father's threat, refused. Cora and Jennie continued on their way home, but Israel pursued them. The girls pulled into someone's yard to escape him. Wolinski continued on, and the girls thought he had finally decided to leave them alone. But he appeared again - this time, driving his buggy directly into the middle of the road so the girls could not escape. Wolinski walked over to Cora and produced two pistols before asking again if she would take a ride. According to Cora's account, he said, "you do not go with me I will take your life." She replied that "she would do anything for him," but she could not disobey her parents. Wolinski began firing as Cora and Jennie fled from their carriage. Three of the bullets found Cora, and Wolinski, thinking he had killed her, attempted to take his own life.
The Jeffers monument in Johnstown Cemetery.
Photo courtesy of Samantha Hall-Saladino
Cora was taken to the residence of Eugene Miller, who lived nearby, where medical aid was procured. The first official on the scene was C.W. Johnson. Investigators thought Wolinski dead, but as they approached him they realized he was still alive, though completely blinded by the shot from his pistol. They also discovered a bottle of whiskey on him, along with several letters from Cora offering "love and affection and regretting that their unequal circumstances would not permit of their speedy marriage, and stating that she would remain true to him," according to the Fulton County Republican. Cora was eventually sent home to recover and Wolinski was taken to the Sir William Johnson Hotel for surgery. Some stories say that he felt very sorry for what he had done, and two weeks prior to the event, he did not sleep, spending his nights pacing in his room and muttering to himself.
Wolinski's lengthy trial was a source of anticipation for locals, and it was reported in newspapers across the state. Several witnesses were called, including professionals in the medical field, and the whole trial was reported on extensively in the Republican. Cora was well enough to testify, and after her testimony, it was said that Wolinski lost interest in the proceedings, his former sweetheart's story not what he wanted to hear. As the testimonies went on, a case was building for the mental instability of Wolinski. On the stand, his former roommate told that he would often pace, cry and mutter to himself about his affairs with Cora. Others recalled that he had once been a kind and courteous young man, but that a change came about him around the time the trouble started with Cora's parents. R.H. Cameron, a local physician and one of the county coroners, was asked: "the young man described at the time he attempted the life of the girl in your judgment sane or insane?" Cameron answered: "I think he was insane." The prosecution claimed that Wolinski was not insane, but had been blinded by his anger fueled by the consumption of alcohol. Their argument did not convince the jury. On Dec. 25, 1885, Israel Wolinski was found "not guilty" on grounds of insanity.
Today's Johnstown residents may have a difficult time imagining something like this happening in the streets. It is an event that wouldn't be out of place in an episode of "Law and Order." This scandalous crime of passion captured the attention of the county and the state. It also helps to tell a story about late 19th-century social conventions and beliefs about mental health.
Cora Jeffers died as a result of her wounds two years later at the age of 24. Her last words, as inscribed on the Jeffers family monument in the Johnstown Cemetery, were: "I am so sleepy." She is buried in the family plot. Wolinski, permanently blinded by the damage from his pistol, returned to Syracuse for a brief time after the trial. He was forever known as the man who shot his sweetheart. It was reported that Wolinski was in great debt after the whole ordeal. He died on Dec. 23, 1886. I have not yet been able to find the location of his grave. If anyone has information about the whereabouts of Wolinski's burial, please call the historian's office at 736-5667 or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Samantha Hall-Saladino is the Fulton County historian.