On May 11, 1785, a Lenape Indian named Mamachtaga crossed to the north side of the Allegheny River at Killbuck Island, a now vanished narrow strip of land, and fatally stabbed two white men. The killings were related to a years-long series of attacks and reprisals involving white settlers. At trial that November, reportedly the first murder trial west of the Alleghenies, Mamachtaga was convicted and sentenced to death. He was hanged a few weeks later, on December 20, in the first civil execution of a Native American in United States history.
Nearly 225 years later and four miles to the east, Richard Poplawski, an avowed white supremacist, killed three Pittsburgh Police Department officers in an ambush at his Stanton Heights home on April 4, 2009; it was the worst single-day loss of life in the department’s history. Poplawski was convicted on June 25, 2011, and sentenced to death. He remains on death row.
In between these two cases, the first and last death sentences imposed for crimes committed there, Pittsburgh has been the scene of 199 other death sentences and 101 executions. Some of these cases grabbed national headlines; others did not even rate local headlines. Some entered the docket of notable wrongful convictions; others probably should have. One provided the plot for a Hollywood movie; others seemed to be possible only in the movies.
Among them are the notorious Biddle boys, killers of a grocer and a police officer, who escaped jail and the noose by seducing the jailer’s wife, Mrs. Soffel, only to be killed by pursuing police; Martin Sullivan, a Duquesne police officer and serial child rapist who, while in police custody, methodically killed the five neighbors who had him arrested; gangster Paul Jaworski, who led a brief murderous life of payroll robberies and jail escapes during the gangster era of the Roaring Twenties; Martha Grinder, the “Pittsburgh Borgia” who poisoned an untold number of neighbors and family members she had taken into her care as the Civil War came to an end and Louis Lane, who poisoned his six wives, killing five, during the same era; and the more recent murderous racial rampages of Richard Baumhammers and Gerald Watkins.
Far more common are scores of less well-known killers of wives, neighbors, co-workers, storekeepers, and police officers, mostly poor migrants and immigrants, and mostly laborers, living in the shadows of the mills and mines. Some of these cases commanded public and legal attention, at least for a time; in others, offenders and victims, living on the margins, mostly invisible, went all but unknown and now largely forgotten to their deaths.
All of these cases and the larger stories they help to tell are detailed in the links on the right.