Recalling the night of officer Jim Burns' death

Published on Friday, 9 March 2018 21:09
Written by Bob Montgomery

Staff Writer

Bristol experienced many tragic deaths during the 20th century, particularly those in the military during World War I, World War II, Korean War and Vietnam.

There were also the losses of public servants, such as those in the Bristol Fire and Police departments. One of those was patrolman James Burns, who was shot and killed while on duty the evening of May 29, 1941. He was murdered by his brother-in-law, Henry J. Cornetski, 36, of 16 Union Street.

Burns was among seven police officers who were sent to a domestic disturbance at Cornetski’s address. Cornetski shot Burns, the senior ranking patrolman with 21 years on the department, five times with a 12-gauge shotgun, while also wounding patrolman Edward O’Connor.

This all began after Cornetski had eight to 10 beers during a cookout at the Sportsmen’s Club in Plainville that Thursday evening.

When Cornetski returned to Bristol with three friends. He and one of the traveling companions entered a Main Street grill, Ma Dee’s. He was there to see his wife, Alice, who went out each week with her mother, Annie, and sister-in-law, Anna, to a movie before later stopping at the dining room at Ma Dee’s.

He asked his friend to dance with his wife, but he said he would dance with a friend of hers if she had one there.

Cornetski, who nursed a rye and Coca Cola for about 20 minutes, left the bar and tried to enter the dining room. However, he tripped on a mat and fell to the floor. When he got up he punched a wall with his fist and a struggle began between he and one of the waiters.

Police were called, but his mother-in-law and sister-in-law talked the police into letting Cornetski get a ride to his residence with his friend.

When he got home, Cornetski, who had threatened his wife’s life on several occasions prior to this night due to his suspicious of her being unfaithful, found her in their bedroom.

He began to beat her and grabbed her by the shoulder and throat, trying to choke her. Her screams brought her sister who lived with their mother on the other side of the duplex house, to rescue her.

The sisters then went next door to the mother’s side of the house, and Cornetski went to that front door and fired two shots through it. This led his wife to call the police.

The first police car arriving was occupied by Burns and O’Connor. The two got out of their squad car, but Burns returned to it to get a flashlight.

During this time, Cornetski’s wife shouted out to her brother, not knowing it was him, and O’Connor from a second floor window, “Look out, he’s got a gun.”

“He has, has he,” Burns replied and then she knew it was her brother. “Look out, Jim, he’s got a gun,” she added.

Cornestski then opened the front door and started shooting at the two policemen from his perch on the front steps. After this, he took a position behind a small evergreen tree in the yard.

Burns was first hit in the head and when he turned to seek cover received five shells in his back, falling in back of the patrol car. This led to O’Connor running to find cover behind a tree in the yard.

He shot three times at Cornetski, however, missed him with each attempt. Cornetski fired back at the police officer, hitting him in both a leg and in his abdomen.

After the shootings, cars stopped on the road nearby and the accused, now back on the veranda, went down to the lawn and told the drivers to, “Keep moving, don’t stop here, keep moving.”

While in the front yard, a bystander came around and grabbed Cornetski’s gun. There was a tussle with Cornetski losing possession of the firearm and police came over and took over from there.

On Sept. 18, 1941, Cornetski was sentenced to life in prison after pleading guilty to having killed his brother-in-law.

During this sentencing in Hartford, Cornetski was among 13 other prisoners. They talked among themselves, while Cornetski sat there silently and watched the court proceedings.

Dressed in a suit and tie and with a recent haircut, he looked far different from the day of the killings. The lone sign of recognition the defendant displayed in regard to the courtroom spectators took place when he nodded his head and smiled at the local newspaper reporters.

He was later removed to the prison in Wethersfield to begin his sentence.

Cornetski had been an employee in good standing of E. Ingraham Company for 17 years and he and his wife, Alice, were married for 13 years. They had three children ranging between the ages of two to 12.

Burns left his widow, Jennie, and two daughters, Doris and Mavis.

A WWI veteran, military services for Burns were held at a filled St. Joseph Church with approximately 150 cars in the funeral procession. State Troopers took over the city beat during this time to allow Burns’ fellow “brothers” from Bristol to attend.

Contact Bob Montgomery at or by calling 860-973-1808.

Posted in The Bristol Press, Bristol on Friday, 9 March 2018 21:09. Updated: Friday, 9 March 2018 21:12.