When Nazi violence came to Cohoes – Albany Times Union

Posted By on August 25, 2017

Cohoes

Fifty years ago this weekend, a former American Nazi Party member killed a 59-year-old Jewish man in Cohoes.

Francis Mainville laid in wait for Harry Pearlberg, a door-to-door salesman from Troy, before gunning him down on Saturday, Aug. 26, 1967. Police arrived to find Pearlberg lying in a pool of blood and Mainville standing at the top of the stairs with a unregistered .32 caliber revolver.

"Here I am, officer," police recalled the 29-year-old saying as his gun was snatched away. "If you'd been black, I'd have shot you, too."

He wore a Nazi armband and a silver SS pin.

Harry Pearlberg, who was shot by avowed Nazi Francis Mainville in Cohoes in August 1967. (Provided photo)

Harry Pearlberg, who was shot by avowed Nazi Francis Mainville in Cohoes in August 1967. (Provided photo)

Francis Mainville points to an arm insignia while in the custody of Police Aug. 29, 1967. He was charged with murder for shooting Harry Pearlberg in Cohoes. (Times Union archive)

Francis Mainville points to an arm insignia while in the custody of Police Aug. 29, 1967. He was charged with murder for shooting Harry Pearlberg in Cohoes. (Times Union archive)

Francis Mainville is escorted by police during his arraignment on murder charges Sept. 1, 1967, for shooting Harry Pearlberg in Cohoes. He is bandaged after an attempted suicide. (Times Union archive)

Francis Mainville is escorted by police during his arraignment on murder charges Sept. 1, 1967, for shooting Harry Pearlberg in Cohoes. He is bandaged after an attempted suicide. (Times Union archive)

Rabbi Israel Rubin of the Maimonides Hebrew Day School speaks to summer camp students about the Charlottesville, Va. protests on Friday Aug. 18, 2017, in Albany, N.Y. (Will Waldron/Times Union)

Rabbi Israel Rubin of the Maimonides Hebrew Day School speaks to summer camp students about the Charlottesville, Va. protests on Friday Aug. 18, 2017, in Albany, N.Y. (Will Waldron/Times Union)

When Nazi violence came to Cohoes

The slaying came a day after the assassination of George Lincoln Rockwell, the founder of the American Nazi Party, by another party member in Arlington, Va. Doctors who assessed Mainville's mental state later testified at trial that he had killed Pearlberg as a twisted form of retaliation.

"Hitler was like God to me and Rockwell was next," Mainville told a psychiatrist after his arrest. He was ultimately sentenced to life in prison after a jury rejected an insanity plea. He later died in prison.

A husband, father and grandfather, Pearlberg had fled Poland during World War II and settled in Troy, where he was a respected member of B'nai B'rith and the Jewish Community Center. At his funeral, Rabbi Herman Horowitz said, "The hour of the extreme right is still with us."

Those fears echo in the nation's current conversation on racial intolerance.

A white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., turned violent Aug. 12 when a car mowed down counterprotesters, killing one woman and injuring 19 more. The night before, men with torches and Nazi flags chanted, "Jews will not replace us," as they protested the City Council's decision to remove a Confederate statue from a public park.

Fifty years ago, Pearlberg's murder sparked public outcry for stricter gun control laws, better psychiatric care and harsher punishment for hate crimes. Today, lawmakers and advocates are asking for many of the same measures.

"I don't think anything has gotten better," Pearlberg's son said in an interview last week.

Edward Pearlberg was cautious, though, to cast his father's killing as political. "I just want him to be remembered as my father, not as a martyr of the Jewish community," he said. "I remember him as having a tremendous sense of humor. He was a scholar in his own right, as far as Judaism was concerned, and devout. He liked people and people liked him."

The murder

Mainville knew Pearlberg, who had been selling dry goods to his family and the bakery where Mainville worked for four years. The morning of the shooting, the two men had coffee at the same counter and discussed Pearlberg stopping by to pick up a payment, Edward Pearlberg recalled.

Later that day, Mainville sat alone in his Ontario Street apartment, watching television with a loaded pistol in his hand, "waiting for this Jewish guy," he said in a signed statement to police. A paperboy and grocery delivery boy had already stopped by unharmed.

When Pearlberg rang the doorbell, Mainville called out, "Who's there?"

"It's only Harry," the salesman said.

Gunfire smashed through the door. One bullet grazed Pearlberg's abdomen, another struck him beneath the left arm and ripped into his heart. He bled to death before reaching the hospital, without seeing his son or wife, Rose.

"That was probably the last day of her real life," Edward Pearlberg said about his mother, who fell ill shortly after her husband's death.

Mainville, on the other hand, was a "calm, cool, collected suspect who showed absolutely no remorse," Cohoes Police Chief John Klieb told reporters. The killer told officers he was "a Nazi stormtrooper" and wrote in a signed statement, "Jew, I hope you die."

Mainville registered as a member of the National Socialist White People's Party five years before the killing but kept up his membership for just six months, the organization told the Times Union in 1967. After his arraignment on a first-degree murder charge, Mainville posed for a photograph pointing to an SS armband and giving a Nazi-style salute to the gathered crowd.

Mainville had a history of threats and violence. Ten years before the killing, Mainville told an Albany County judge, probation officer, sheriff's deputy and his father, "I will get you," after he was sent to prison on a burglary conviction. The 19-year-old later escaped but was caught two days later.

In 1963, Mainville attacked his pregnant wife just a month after they had married, nearly killing her. He brandished a machete and knife before strangling her, later telling police he'd decided to "kill my wife with my bare hands." The attack left her hospitalized. Mainville was convicted of assault but received probation.

And a year before shooting Pearlberg, Mainville went to an Army-Navy Store on Remsen Street planning to kill the proprietor also Jewish but turned around when he noticed children inside the shop, he told police after his 1967 arrest.

The trial

Two days after the killing, Mainville set fire to his clothing and mattress in an apparent suicide attempt inside Albany County jail. He was taken to Albany Medical Center Hospital with second-degree burns and kept under psychiatric observation. Days later, he appeared in court bandaged and silent to enter a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity. The judge sent Mainville to Hudson River State Hospital in Poughkeepsie for further psychiatric evaluation.

Mainville remained in state psychiatric care for eight years before doctors ruled in May 1975 that he was competent to participate in his own defense. The trial began that September.

Mainville's family and neighbors testified about his obsessive fear that black and Jewish people would take over the United States, while doctors hired by the defense argued his bigotry was the result of paranoid schizophrenia a theory the jury rejected.

"Is fanatical hatred by itself sufficient to classify one as mentally ill?" the prosecutor said, asking the defense's medical expert if he considered "80 million German people fanatics and psychotics." The doctor demurred.

After his arrest, Mainville told a psychiatrist that he'd heard about Rockwell's death on the radio and "decided to kill the first Jew I saw. I didn't have anything against that little guy."

"When I shot the guy, I was not sick," Mainville told another doctor. "This is my belief. I am a Nazi." His statements are eerily similar to those made by Dylann Roof, the 22-year-old white man who massacred nine black parishioners during a June 2015 Bible study in Charleston, S.C.

When asked to explain the fatal shooting, Roof told jurors, "There's nothing wrong with me psychologically." As at Mainville's trial, family and friends said they knew about Roof's fanatical hatred and his violent intentions before the attack. Roof was sentenced to death in January.

Mainville was ultimately convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison after a three-day trial in Albany County Court. He died by suicide in 1979.

Edward Pearlberg, now 80, said it wasn't until then that his family stopped looking over their shoulders in fear of Mainville's release.

The lesson

Edward Pearlberg thinks his father was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, but he's not surprised that the story of the murder has resurfaced in the aftermath of the Charlottesville riots.

Earlier this month, rabbis Israel Rubin and Leible Morrison gathered about 20 elementary school-aged day campers inside the Maimonides Hebrew Day School in Albany to explain how they saw the connection.

"There is a difference between not liking someone and hating someone," Rubin told the children. "God made all of us in different ways. ... We have to learn how to accept each other, even if we can't love everybody."

Rubin's family was nearly wiped out in the Holocaust. When he asked his students if they'd heard anything about Charlottesville, roughly half raised their hands.

"It's important for you to know this," he said before explaining how neo-Nazis targeted a historic synagogue in the Virginia city during the protests.

Three men dressed in fatigues and armed with semiautomatic rifles reportedly stood across the street from Congregation Beth Israel on the morning of Aug. 12, as neo-Nazis marched past and shouted, "Sieg Heil!" The temple's rabbi stood in the doorway with a security guard hired to keep the congregation safe.

"They didn't shoot anybody but it was really nasty," Rubin told the children, who at the mention of guns momentarily stopped fidgeting. "There was real hate. And the Jews inside were very, very worried. They had to go out the back, hiding."

Morrison said people raised without compassion or a sense of the need to care for others grow up to hate.

It's not an easy conversation to have with kids, but Morrison believes it's a necessary one.

"We always have to remember: There's hate, there's not liking and there's loving. So we have to do a lot more mitzvahs so that the love and caring takes away the hate," he says, using the Hebrew word for good deeds.

Morrison pointed to Harry Pearlberg as an example.

"Neighborhoods wouldn't matter to him. He was a grassroots kind of guy, and that's how most peddlers were," Morrison said, adding that it was common practice for Jewish salesmen to sell goods to hard-up neighbors with the simple promise of later payment.

"They were very trusting and compassionate," Morrison told the kids. "And that's the example we want to follow: They brought out the goodness in people."

emasters@timesunion.com 518-454-5467 @emilysmasters

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When Nazi violence came to Cohoes - Albany Times Union

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