Ernest Ortwein, a 28-year old German immigrant and Franco-Prussian War veteran, worked as a laborer on the farm of British-born John Hamnett, near what was soon to become the industrial center of Homestead, in the winter of 1874.
There, on April 29, 1874, Ortwein killed the Hamnett children, Ida and Emma, and Robert Smith, a child who worked as a farmhand, with an axe while they slept. He then killed John and Agnes Hamnett when they returned from visiting friends. After burning their bodies in an effort to conceal his crime, Ortwein fled with a small amount of cash and some jewelry.
Passersby saw the house in flames and found the murdered family. Suspicion quickly fell on Ortwein, who was nowhere to be found.
Ortwein was arrested the next day in Troy Hill, a German enclave in Allegheny City, after telling a fellow bar patron that he had committed the killings that were so much in the news. Items he had stolen and traded were recovered as evidence. He provided a full though contradictory confession to police. Residents of Homestead threatened to lynch him if he was not executed.
At trial in June 1874, various motives for Ortwein’s crimes were offered. At different points, Ortwein claimed that his motive was robbery and rape, stating that he had raped Ida and killed her and her family when she screamed. Most people understood the case as a robbery, with Ortwein having wrongly believed the Hamnetts – who were prosperous – kept a large amount of cash on hand. A third possibility, which may have played a role in either of the preceding scenarios or may stand alone, is that Ortwein’s military service had left him with a brain injury or some other mental illness.
Ortwein was convicted on June 14, 1874, and sentenced to death. His appeal, which alleged a number of errors, most prominently that the defense had raised reasonable doubt as to Ortwein’s sanity, was rejected (Ortwein v. Commonwealth, 76 Pa. 414, 1875).
Ernest Ortwein was hanged on February 23, 1875. A very large crowd gathered but was prevented from witnessing the execution by a large wall that screened the jailyard.
In a letter to the editor published days after Ortwein’s execution, noted Pittsburgh journalist, feminist, abolitionist, and death penalty opponent, Jane Grey Swisshelm, focused her ire on Agnes Hamnett, for failing to meet her “obligation of personal care to her children” by going out that evening.
Post-mortem examination, crude though it was, found no mental abnormalities.
Due to its scale and circumstances, the Ortwein case is often included among the most notorious cases in Allegheny County history.