October 18, 2011
Sisters’ novel tells tale of murder
Book explores the 1903 killing of a McDonough man by their grandfather
Bob Ellis/staff photographer
Sisters Bonnie Sherman, left, and Betty Murrray have written “Murder in McDonough,” a book about a murder committed by their grandfather.
Bonnie Sherman and her twin sister, Betty Murray, grew up with little knowledge about their family history.
Their parents always kept quiet on the subject. In 2008, the sisters finally decided to find answers on their own. That led them to an old newspaper clipping, and they learned why talking about family history was taboo.
Their paternal grandfather, Frank Gale, murdered a man named Tracy Barrows in 1903 by beating him to death in McDonough, Chenango County. The apparent motive: a love triangle involving Barrows’ wife Hattie and Gale.
Gale was arrested for murder, but a Chenango County Court jury convicted him of manslaughter. He served five years of hard labor at the state prison in Auburn.
“After we read that, I contacted my mother and finally she opened up about it,” Sherman said. “Needless to say we were shocked, but we were also intrigued.”
Sherman and Murray, both Cortland County residents, recently published a historical fiction account of the bloody slaying, titled “Murder in McDonough.”
Barrows’ murder and Gale’s conviction were closely followed in newspapers at the time. But in over a century, the story faded into obscurity, Sherman and Murray said.
The book is written as a murder mystery, and most of it is based on news accounts of the case, clips of which can be found in the book.
“We really didn’t have enough to make a nonfiction book out of it,” Sherman said. “We spent several months doing research on the book to try and get as much factual and accurate information as we could.”
As their research into Barrows’ murder unfolded, Sherman and Murray became convinced the story was not as clear-cut as newspapers of the time portrayed it.
It seemed there was more to the story than just a dispute over a love triangle.
“That’s where the mystery comes in, as you read the book,” Murray said. “We’re not sure whether Tracy Barrows died at the hands of our grandfather, or by someone else’s.”
Sherman and Murray declined to discuss further details. They said that would give away the mystery in their book.
The prevailing account of the murder is that Gale and Barrows argued and fought outside Barrow’s house. Barrows fired a revolver shot at the back of Gale’s neck. Gale was not fatally wounded.
Gale killed Barrows on the same day Barrows’ daughter was getting married.
After being shot, Gale attacked Barrows and stomped him to death. Barrows died on his front lawn of internal bleeding. A doctor was unable to remove the bullet from Gale’s head and it stayed inside him until his death, Sherman said.
Sherman and Murray maintain their grandfather was a convenient murder suspect, for “messing around with a married woman,” and might have beaten Barrows in self-defense for being shot at.
“If the murder had happened today, or even 20 years ago, our grandfather would not have been sent to prison,” Sherman said.
Barrows’ house in McDonough is no longer standing, but his barn and the tree he died underneath remain. Sherman and Murray have visited the site.
“I pictured Tracy getting up on one arm and reached for the revolver to finish off our grandfather,” Sherman recalled.
After Gale was released from prison, he lived with his parents for about 20 years. Sherman and Murray have not found his death certificate and do not know where he is buried. No one else in the family knows. Sherman and Murray hope to find out one day.
They said Barrows’ surviving family have read their book and praised it.
“Murder in McDonough” went on sale in September at independent bookstores in Chenango County. Sherman and Murray plan to expand their sales into Cortland County.
So far, they have sold about 200 copies.
Local residents can buy copies of the book by emailing Sherman at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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