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Forgotten Crimes: Woman, 19, slain, another assaulted in Perry Projects

In the early morning of Feb. 7, 1957, Irma Gill was enjoying a comfortable night’s rest in the small third-floor apartment she shared with her 19-year-old daughter in Buffalo’s Commodore Perry housing complex. Around 1 a.m., she was awakened by the unmistakable sound of screaming.  

Jumping from her bed, Gill moved quickly to the nearest window and peered down at the cold and snow-free street below: All was silent and there was no one in sight.

What Mrs. Gill had unknowingly heard were the screams of her daughter, Marilyn Cannon, as she was being strangled in the stairwell of their apartment building at 353 Alabama St. The murder of Cannon was one of two assaults against women that occurred in the Perry apartments that week, just two days and one block apart from one another.

Both crimes received seemingly lackluster attention from the press and local criminal justice system, despite their shocking nature and proximity to one another.

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After finding nothing awry in the street below her apartment window, Gill returned to bed and “lapsed into a dream-troubled sleep,” The Buffalo Evening News reported later that day. She awoke roughly two hours later – at around 3:30 a.m. – after having restless “dreams of death.”

The Feb. 7, 1957, headling from The Buffalo Evening News' initial report on the murder of Marilyn Cannon.

Soon after waking up,  Gill realized that her daughter, Cannon – who was living with her mother while separated from her estranged husband in Chicago – had not yet returned home from her evening shift as a porter at the Colonial House Restaurant in Williamsville.

Recalling the scream she’d heard earlier in the night, Gill rushed from her bed to the building’s stairwell. There she found Cannon, her lifeless body was sprawled across the second-story landing.

Cannon's neck was covered in bruises, leading examiners to determine she had been choked to death with her own winter scarf. Her slacks had also been pulled from her body, though her undergarments remained undisturbed, leading police to discount a sexual motive for the crime.

Cannon's empty purse was also found near her body, though police were quick to dismiss robbery as the motive for the murder, the Buffalo Courier Express reported Feb. 8, 1957.

The Feb. 8, 1957, edition of the Buffalo Courier-Express; a report on the murder of Mrs. Marilyn Cannon can be found to the far left. This brief article was the most substantial media coverage of her homicide.

Only two days after Marilyn Cannon’s murder, on the evening of Feb. 9, 1957, another young woman was attacked in the Perry complex, just a block and a half away from Cannon's apartment building.

Elsie McNerney – the 25-year-old wife of a newly minted Buffalo police officer – was in her bed at 379 Perry St., when a stranger entered her bedroom. The man clamped his hands over her mouth but fled when McNerney screamed, The News reported on Feb. 13, 1957.

Even though they’d had few leads thus far in their investigation of Cannon’s murder, investigators immediately suspected that the two crimes might share the same perpetrator. Fortunately for police, one of the victims had survived her assault and could hopefully identify her attacker.  

On Feb. 13, 1957, authorities arrested 37-year-old Edward P. Major after receiving an anonymous tip implicating him in both crimes. Major lived less than a mile from the Perry Housing Projects in Buffalo’s Valley neighborhood, and he had been charged with assault against a woman once before: In early August 1956, Major was charged with third-degree assault for stalking and assaulting his former girlfriend, Irene Gerling. Facing a six-month prison stint for forcibly grabbing Gerling and insisting she go somewhere with him, Major was instead let off with a weak and nonbinding warning from the judge to “stay away from her,” The News reported Aug. 7, 1956.

A modern view of the neighborhood in which Marilyn Cannon lived with her mother before her murder. (Derek Gee/News file photo)

On Feb. 13, 1957, Major was included in a criminal lineup at the Louisiana Street Police Station, where McNerney positively identified him as her attacker. Major also failed a lie detector test when being questioned by detectives about the two attacks, The News reported that same day.

Police had no physical evidence linking Major to the slaying of Marilyn Cannon, but McNerney’s testimony – along with Major’s failed lie detector test – were enough for police to charge him with first-degree assault for the attack on McNerney.

When Major's trial took place on Oct. 3, 1957, McNerney maintained her assertion that it was Edward Major who sneaked into her bedroom and assaulted her that February night.

Major’s main defense argument was that he had “worn glasses at nearly all times for a number of years,” which conflicted with McNarney’s recollection that her attacker had not been wearing glasses at the time of the attack, The News reported on the night of the trial. The argument – which was circumstantial and flimsy at best – was enough to earn Major a “not guilty” verdict, as well as his freedom.

A conviction was never reached for the assault on McNerney.

An article from the Oct. 7, 1957, edition of The Buffalo Evening News describes the jurors' lackluster lunch in great detail before briefly reporting on the outcome of Edward P. Majors' trial for first-degree assault.

Unable to move forward with their suspicion of Major’s involvement in the slaying of Cannon, police followed up on a few more leads in the case – including clearing her estranged husband, Surre Cannon, of the crime – but with no eyewitnesses and little physical evidence, authorities failed to ever establish any substantial leads in the case. Marilyn Cannon's murder remains unsolved to this day.

Both the murder of Cannon and the assault on McNerney received somewhat paltry coverage in local newspapers, despite their shocking nature and close proximity.

Cannon's murder didn't appear in The News until page 33 of the evening edition on the day she was killed, and other mentions of her death and the investigation received similar back-page and single-paragraph coverage by other local publications. The assault of McNerney received similar afterthought treatment by the press, and its report on the outcome of Major’s trial was also buried at the end of an article; it followed a several-paragraph description of the jurors’ cold and underwhelming lunch that day.

This neglect by the press may have been due, in part, to the stigma associated with people who live in public housing projects and by the fact that Cannon was African-American and the year was 1957, in a time of strong racial biases.

Both crimes serve as examples of the way economic, social and racial biases enabled both the criminal justice system and the press to effectively devalue the lives of minorities and the poor, in addition to the validity of female testimony – issues that many still struggle to overcome today.

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