The drowning of Brockport, NY resident Maxwell Breeze in the Erie Canal back in 1936 was the basis for one of the most unusual death penalty cases ever. Find out who was placed on trial, the decision handed down by the court, and what happened to the accused murderer in the end.
Useless Information Podcast Script
Original Podcast Air Date: March 31, 2016
One would never have called it the crime of the century, but the drowning of 14-year-old Maxwell Breeze on July 4, 1936 was a story that was followed closely by nearly every newspaper in the United States. The scene of the crime was the Erie Canal in Brockport, NY, which lies approximately 20 miles (30 km) northwest of the city of Rochester.
That afternoon, while Max was swimming with his friends in the Erie canal, the accused murderer supposedly leaped from the shoreline and swam a short distance before jumping on to the back of the victim. As he grabbed hold, the boy struggled for air. Max fought to get the weight of the attacker’s body off, but he failed. His lungs filled with water and Maxwell Breeze’s life ended.
Witnesses immediately identified the perpetrator, an arrest was made, and a trial ordered. The penalty, if found guilty, was death. But, this case was different from most murder trials. Extremely different. That is because the accused was not human. He was a nine-month old shaggy, part-Airdale, part German Shepherd dog named Idaho.
He was named Idaho by his owner, twenty-two-year old Victor Fortune. Idaho was one of a litter of seven puppies that he cared for while working at a CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) camp in Salmon, Idaho nearly six-months earlier. All of the other puppies were given new homes, while Fortune opted to bring Idaho back east when he returned home to Brockport.
The decision as to whether Idaho was a vicious dog bent on attack or simply a fun-loving mutt was placed in the hands of Justice of the Peace Homer B. Benedict. During preliminary testimony on July 21st, friends of Max Breeze each identified Idaho as the dog that jumped on his back.
Donald Duff was one of the three boys swimming with Max at the time. Justice Benedict directed the following questions to him:
He began by asking the lad, “What did the dog do to Max?” to which Donald replied “Just tried to climb on Max’s back.”
Next he asked, “Was Max playing with the dog before he went in the water?” The answer was a simple “No.”
“What did Max do?”
“He got frightened and swam out toward the middle and hollered ‘The dog’s after me. Help.”
Justice Benedict continued his questioning. “What happened then?”
“Paul Hamlin swam out to help but the dog tried to climb on him and when he tried to shake him off, Max went down and Paul couldn’t get him.”
Twenty-one-year-old Daniel Houghton claimed that the dog had attacked him on two different occasions as he swam in the canal. The opposition included Victor Fortune, who insisted that Idaho was simply playing around and wouldn’t cause any harm.
Mary Foubister, then secretary of the Rochester Dog Protective Association, was called to the stand because she had been caring for Idaho at the Scottsville shelter since the incident occurred. She said that New York State law required that an animal be observed by a veterinarian for a two-week period before it was adjudged to be vicious. Justice Benedict agreed and issued a two-week postponement until the case would continue.
By this point, word of placing a dog on trial for murder had spread far and wide through the nation’s media. One reader, Carl Hoisington of Moscow, Idaho took one look at the photo of the accused dog in his local paper and was convinced that Idaho was identical to the dog that was reported stolen from his brother-in-law Cecil Tulley in Idaho Falls. Moscow police chief Giles Hoyt sent the following telegram to authorities in Brockport:
“Dog accused drowning boy answers description of animal stolen from Idaho Falls, Idaho. Hold dog until airmail letter description arrives.”
But Victor Fortune stuck to his story that he had obtained Idaho as a pup and since there was no further mention of it in the press, and since the stolen dog was eight years old, we can assume that this claim was unfounded.
Letters, telegrams, and cash donations started to pour in from all corners of the country, most in support of the pooch.
The money was used to set up a defense fund, which basically meant obtaining a good lawyer – they hired Harry A. Sessions – and for payment of the court stenography fees.
The famed Hollywood movie dog Kentucky Boy sent a dollar along with a letter that read: “My name is Kentucky Boy. I am just an Airedale dog – yet the governor of California, the Mayor of Los Angeles and many noted persons have conferred honors on me because I am credited with saving many lives and preventing the destruction by fire of a studio in Hollywood.”
“I am now pleading for the life of Idaho and the dollar enclosed is my contribution for his defense. Sincerely yours, Kentucky Boy 3rd, 3814 Sunset Blvd. Hollywood, Calif.” The letter was signed with the obligatory paw print.
Renowned dog authority Albert Payson Terhune was unable to get to Brockport to examine Idaho, but offered the following opinion, “…it is evident to any expert that a nine-month-old puppy is not intentionally homicidal and that he was in play when he climbed on the boy’s shoulders.” He continued, “Instead of putting Idaho to death, it would be more sane to keep him away from the canal in the future.”
Meanwhile, back at the prison for delinquent dogs, a watchman – one who had been a bodyguard for President Taft – was assigned to keep an eye on Idaho. It wasn’t that they feared that Idaho would try to break out and make a run for it. Instead, there was the possibility someone would break in and try to steal the now-famous dog.
Over the two-week period, Idaho was subjected to a variety of tests to determine how vicious he really was. Overall, he was found to be simply a nice and friendly puppy. Martin J. Gagie, a reporter for the Herald-Times, was able to jump in the canal with Idaho while under the supervision of Dr. William H Mahoney, the veterinarian at the Dog Protective Association.
“Idaho enjoys the water immensely. I am convinced he meant no harm when he played tag with me in the murky waters of canal. However, he weighs fifty pounds (23-kilograms) and, even in play, is rough. I got several scratches, but there was no hint of viciousness as he pawed me. He was just a big, rough puppy enjoying a swim to the utmost.”
A survey by the Brockport Republic-Democrat found that 120 readers favored putting Idaho down, while 104 preferred that he be set free.
A point/counterpoint story was syndicated by the United Press in early August. Max Breeze’s mom Anne wrote, “My boy Maxie is dead, the victim of a dangerous mongrel dog. I believe that dog was Idaho, and I demand that he be killed.” She continued, “If the people of this country who are not parents continue, as they have in this case, to place the life of a mongrel dog above the life of a happy, healthy child; then it is time that all mothers give up the task of bringing up children.”
In response, Mary Foubister offered up following: “I am not putting the life of a dog above that of a child when I ask that Idaho be allowed to live.” She added, “But for two weeks I have virtually lived with Idaho. I have observed his behavior in every conceivable situation – in water and on land. From my experience of 15 years with dogs of all breeds, I am convinced that Idaho is not vicious, not dangerous. His charts show him to be perfectly healthy and normal in every way.”
On August 5th all involved parties gathered in Brockport’s village hall. Technically, this was not really a trial. Instead, it was a hearing in regards to a civil suit that required the Idaho’s owner to prove why the dog shouldn’t be put to sleep. The place was jammed to the rafters with an estimated three-hundred spectators as the press snapped picture after picture. Idaho seemed little interested in what was going on as witness after witness testified on his behalf. He barked when Victor Fortune took the stand, but quickly settled in to take a nap. The only other time that he showed any excitement was when 3-year-old Rex was brought in as a “alibi dog” to throw some doubt as to whether or not Idaho was really at the canal at the time of the drowning.
No court decision could ever please all involved, but Justice Benedict’s order was probably the best compromise possible. He spared Idaho’s life and, instead, sentenced him to twenty-six months of house arrest.
“After considering all the evidence regarding the dog Idaho’s actions in the water which, in my opinion are dangerous, I have decided to order the dog returned to his owner, Victor Fortune, to keep him in confinement until October 1, 1938.” He added, “if said dog is not so confined, it must be killed by any legally constituted peace officer.”
The crowd jumped to their feet and cheered joyfully at the decision. As one would expect, the parents of Maxwell Breeze were infuriated. Mrs. Breeze said “They’re going to let that dog around loose and it’ll kill someone else. That dog killed my poor son, the only thing that I had.” She continued, “If I had a gun, I’d shoot it myself.”
Idaho was escorted out of the pseudo-courtroom and taken by Ms. Foubister for a couple of days to vacation at Canandaigua Lake in the Finger Lakes. A few inquiries came in from Hollywood, but Idaho was not destined to become the next Rin Tin Tin or Lassie. Instead, he would spend the next two years chained up in the Fortune’s small yard.
While under the supervision of Mrs. George Fortune – Victor’s mom – he did manage to escape twice. One time Idaho pushed the unlatched screen door open and made a run for it, but when they caught up with him, he was already on his way home. The second time, his chain broke and Mrs. Fortune did a search of the fields for him. When she failed to locate him, she returned home to find Idaho sitting right beside the stake to which the broken chain had been attached.
On September 19, 1938, just a couple of weeks prior to the end of his sentence, Supreme Court Justice William F. Love signed a court order that permanently freed Idaho.
On January 12th, Idaho accompanied Jack Fortune, Victor’s brother, to inspect some muskrat traps. Idaho spotted a cat and gave chase. He ran out onto the pavement of the Million Dollar Highway and was struck by a car. Sadly, Idaho did not survive. He was buried in the family’s backyard, not far from the stake that he had been chained to for the previous two years.
Useless? Useful? I’ll leave that for you to decide.