There is little doubt that Victor Downs would have relished the fact that 81 years after his picture first appeared on the front pages of newspapers across the country, there would be yet another article written about him in the Southampton Press.
To look at him, one might think he was a movie star or a wealthy, society playboy instead of the suspect in a terrible murder. Handsome far beyond the norm, he did his best to present the image of a swashbuckling romantic who was simply misunderstood. “Vic,” as he would be affectionately dubbed by the press, was one of those elusive creatures whose first name became immediately recognizable in a headline—no last name necessary. By 1943, everyone on the East End knew who he was.
The saga of Victor Downs is intermingled with the story of another well known character around the East End, known as the “Corn Doctor.” But the story of Victor Downs began long before the Corn Doctor came into the picture.
Once a police officer, Vic had also been a member of the Bill Dwyer Liquor Mob. Disgraced, and discharged from the force, he continued to live a questionable life, staying on the wrong side of the law and eventually meeting a young woman who would become the love of his life.
Her name was Mitzi and she too would enjoy the distinction of making headlines, on a first-name-only basis. Platinum blonde hair and almost 20 years Vic’s junior, she was his feminine match.
The summer of 1932 saw the Great Depression and money was scarce. People lost faith in banks. Those who had money often kept it close at hand. It was this atmosphere, that would shape the story of another local character, Frank Tuthill, affectionately known as “The walking bank from Quogue” or more commonly referred to as “The Corn Doctor.”
One of the most picturesque figures in Long Island history, Frank Tuthill would gather his supplies and travel around the island, treating people for their foot ailments and collecting cash for his services. It became his habit to carry thousands of dollars in bills in the pockets of his overcoats, mostly in envelopes and between sheets of paper.
Doc Tuthill was often spotted walking through the Village wearing not one, but two overcoats. Perhaps the his biggest flaw was his delight in exhibiting his wealth to others in public places.
The Corn Doctor often boasted that he was not afraid of being robbed because he was a “crack shot with a revolver” and was “too quick on his trigger finger.”But neither fact would prove of any assistance on the night of August 6, 1932.
The 68-year-old doctor was renting a room in Quogue from Mr. and Mrs. Filmore Dayton. The couple became alarmed when Mr. Tuthill addressed them before leaving the house that night, telling them that he was carrying $10,000 in cash.
Before walking out the door, he turned and to Daytons and said, “If I’m not back by tomorrow, call the police.”
The next morning, when he had not returned home, that’s exactly what the Daytons did. Two weeks later, he was found crumpled on the floor of his dilapidated car with every pocket of his two worn and tattered coats turned inside out. He had been brutally beaten and then shot.
In a matter of days, Victor Downs and his wife, Mitzie, were taken into custody and charged with first-degree murder. The case made national news and the trial was sensational, largely due to the antics of the defendants. Even by today’s standards, it would have been one of those stories worthy of gavel-to-gavel coverage.
It didn’t take long for the police to get a confession out of Mitzi, who claimed that after meeting the doctor in an isolated location, she lured him back to their home with complaints of a foot ailment. It was there, she told them, that Mr. Tuthill was murdered and then robbed.
Mitzi was offered a deal if she agreed to testify against Victor. But when she took the stand during the trial, she did something that shocked everyone. To the astonishment of the prosecutors, she began screaming in open court about being made to make a false statement.
“You tricked me! You made me lie!” she shrieked.
The prosecutor, L. Barron Hill, was forced to admit that other than Mitzi’s testimony, he had no other evidence against her husband. The charges were reluctantly dropped.
Try as he might, the prosecutor was not able to convict Victor Downs of first-degree murder. But that didn’t stop him from trying.
He used several tactics to snare the elusive Vic, starting with charging both husband and wife with first-degree murder. In short order, the alleged murderer claimed double jeopardy and was released.
Since Mitzie remained in jail, Mr. Hill announced that he would use her confession against her. All the while, newspapers covering the crime were selling like hotcakes.
Adding fuel to the fire, on November 18, 1932, Victor arrived at the jail house with a box of chocolates under his arm. He requested to see his wife but was denied the visit.
As a result, Vic flew into rage. He and challenged the sheriff, Ory Young, to a “duel by fists or by guns.”
After some name calling, and advice from the sheriff to go home, Vic left the jail in a huff. The exploits were reported and avidly read by those interested by the case.
But prosecutor Hill was certainly not finished with Victor Downs. He was again arrested not long after, this time charged with grand theft for stealing the Corn Doctor’s money.
As the case was awaiting trial, he was released on bond and into the waiting arms of his Mitzie, who had served her time. After her stint in jail, she had dyed her hair and became a brunette.
While out on bond, Vic visited his friend, Mike Gallo, at his home in Mattituck. During the course of the evening an argument broke out and Vic attacked Gallo, stabbing him and cutting his throat.
Once again, Victor Downs was arrested. He was charged with second-degree assault, pleading guilty to a first-degree assault. Vic was sentenced to 10 years at Sing Sing.
As the years passed by, Vic spent his time in prison studying law. In 1937, when he came up for parole, he began a bid for his freedom.
The case was herd in the Brooklyn Supreme Court where Vic claimed he had been “persecuted” by the authorities in Suffolk County “for political reasons.” He went on to tell the court that he had been “made the goat,” following his acquittal in the Corn Doctor’s murder.
The request was denied. Victor then filed a second request, this time in the Supreme Court at White Plains, in Westchester County. This time he won.
In late August of 1937, after serving three years in prison, it looked like Victor Downs was again going to be released. While he and Mitzie were planning their reunion, their old adversary, Prosecutor Barron Hill, was busy at work opposing the ruling.
No doubt the circumstances of the Corn Doctor’s murder and the assault on Mike Gallo helped Hill to make his points. The writ was subsequently denied and Victor Downs was kept in prison.
He was released on February 4, 1943, having served the full 10-year sentence.
During his time behind bars, the rage inside of Vic had festered. Eight days after leaving prison, he would be making headlines once again.
Immediately following his release, he sent threatening letters to the now former Prosecutor Hill, who was at that time an acting judge. Judge Hill immediately informed the FBI and they were soon hot on the trail of Victor Downs, who was charged with extortion and escorted back to the jail in Riverhead.
At his arraignment, Vic plead not guilty and insisted on acting as his own counsel. The judge refused to allow it. In turn, Vic refused to accept the court-appointed lawyer, effectively postponing the trial.
Vic’s bail was set at $50,000 and he was sent back to jail. Eventually, after refusing to work with any Suffolk County attorneys, and making headlines at every turn, eventually Vic approved of a Westhampton-based lawyer, who asked for and received a change of venue to Nassau County.
The Nassau County jury dismissed one blackmail charge and remained undecided on another. Eventually all of the charges would be dismissed.
Unable to give up on the case, Judge Hill had Victor Downs arrested and re-tried in Suffolk County for the remaining charge. Once again, Vic asked for a change of venue and got it, ultimately pleading to a lesser charge of “sending an annoying letter” and receiving a suspended sentence.
Throughout it all, Mitzie waited faithfully for Vic’s release. Together they left the Riverhead jail house, one final time, with newspaper reporters in tow. No one was ever be effectively prosecuted for the murder of Frank Tuthill, known affectionately as “The Corn Doctor.”