James McSteen

James McSteen, 36, his wife, Mary Toole, both Irish-born, and four children lived in a log cabin along the B&O Railroad line near Hazelwood, just as the area was being transformed into an industrial center. McSteen worked at Jones & Laughlin’s burgeoning Eliza furnace and at Glenwood Steel Works.

Eliza Furnace boiler house crew, 1894

During the late afternoon of June 9, 1882, McSteen viciously attacked his wife with an axe and then fled. As he left, he asked his neighbor, Mrs. Mary Welch, to look after his children, leading her to the discovery of the dying Mary Toole.

McSteen was arrested aboard a Pittsburgh-bound train. He confessed to having struck his wife. His motive was jealousy.

McSteen and Toole had been married for five years. She had one child (Patrick, who testified against McSteen) at the time of their marriage. They had three children together.

Newspaper accounts describe McSteen as “ordinary looking” and his wife as “comely,” “honest,” “faithful,” and a “good mother” of “considerable popularity.” Accounts also suggest McSteen may have been of unsound mind, having previously been institutionalized at Dixmont.

Trial testimony indicated McSteen was acting peculiarly on the day of the murder, was “insanely jealous,” and had tried to kill his wife two years earlier (resulting in his arrest and jail sentence). There is no evidence of her unfaithfulness.

McSteen was convicted of first-degree murder on September 22, 1882 after brief jury deliberations, and sentenced to death. Barely three months had passed since the murder.

Prior to the verdict, there was sentiment that the murder was appropriately second-degree, a far more common outcome in cases of intimate partner homicide. No appeal was undertaken, though a pardon request was filed and rejected.

Pittsburgh Daily Post, September 23, 1882

James McSteen was hanged in the yard of the county jail on October 4, 1883. Though described as a “well-conducted hanging,” McSteen slowly asphyxiated. More than 200 witnesses were in attendance and more than 2,000 had applied for admission. He is buried in St. Mary’s Cemetery.

image001New York Times, October 5, 1883

Author: Bill Lofquist

I am a sociologist and death penalty scholar at the State University of New York at Geneseo. I am also a Pittsburgh native. My present research focuses on the history of the death penalty in Allegheny County (Pittsburgh), Pa. This website is dedicated to collecting, analyzing, and sharing information about all Allegheny County cases in which a death sentence was imposed. Please share any questions or comments, errors or omissions, or other matters of interest related to these cases or to the broader history of the death penalty in Allegheny County.

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