David Jewell was well-known around mid-nineteenth century Pittsburgh. Born and raised in the city, he worked as a painter and was the Captain of the Neptune Fire Company, a volunteer fire company and active social organization. In an era before organized policing, he had even served as a watchman.
Jewell was also known as a rogue character, “a desperado of respectable connections” frequently involved in fights and living rougher than his upbringing would indicate. At the same time, volunteer fire companies, once viewed as essential civic organizations, were devolving into little more than street gangs.
In a series of cases that foreshadowed greater violence to come, Jewell was twice arrested for stabbing another man during a street fight. The first assault occurred in 1848.
In a second assault, Jewell and a friend were arrested for an unprovoked assault on a soldier, William Doyle, on May 28, 1852.
Only six weeks later, during the Fourth of July celebration of local fire companies, James A. Cochran, a friend of Jewell’s, got into a fight with Samuel Mitchell, a fellow firefighter and former jail guard, who is alleged to have insulted Cochran. Jewell, who was free on bail in the Doyle case, and others joined in the fight, with Jewell stabbing and killing Mitchell.
The privileged white man, free despite a history of violence, served as a stark contrast to the message of Frederick Douglass’s famous, “The Meaning of the Fourth of July for the Negro” oration, given that same day at Rochester’s Corinthian Hall.
The “cutting affray,” as such incidents were described at the time, was a growing source of concern as young, single men became more numerous in industrializing Pittsburgh. Volunteer fire companies, for all of the important service that they provided, were also notorious for the raucous and often violent behavior of their members.
In a closely watched trial, Jewell was convicted of first-degree murder on December 8, 1852, and sentenced to death. Cochran and William E. Gaw were acquitted.
Despite the strength of the case against him, concerted efforts to save Jewell’s life were undertaken by his many friends and supporters. First was his appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which raised issues about the composition of the jury and the conduct of the trial (Jewell v. Commonwealth, 22 Pa. 94, 1853). That effort failed when the court concluded that overturning Jewell’s conviction on such narrow, technical grounds “would render justice impossible in many cases, and expose society unprotected to the danger of the worst crimes.”
Next was a pardon campaign that included petitions signed by numerous citizens. That effort also failed. An unprecedented effort to interfere in the judicial process by enacting legislation calling for a new trial was also undertaken. That bill failed by a single vote (Pittsburgh Morning Post, February 11, 1854).
Just prior to his execution, Jewell nearly escaped when friends smuggled him a saw. When he was taken to the gallows on March 24, 1854, poison was found in his cell.
After having exhausted all legal and other means to avoid execution, David Jewell spoke from the gallows to decry the process that convicted him and declare himself “a man in the full vigor of life, who is about to die.”
In the context of rising anti-slavery sentiment and approaching civil war, Jewell’s execution was taken up by anti-slavery advocates as a “barbarous practice” that accomplishes no public good.