On the evening of September 2, 1891, Patrick Fitzpatrick and Samuel Earley quarreled inside Mulvihill’s Saloon in the Phoenix Hotel. After Fitzpatrick was told to leave, Earley followed him onto the sidewalk. There the fight continued, with Fitzpatrick stabbing and killing Earley. Fitzpatrick was quickly apprehended by police.
In a case that played on the class and ethnic stereotypes of the time, the dim and dissolute Irish-born Fitzpatrick, a self-described tramp and former brewery worker in Dublin, was contrasted with Earley, a more sober, hardworking, and prosperous English-born steelworker.
Fitzpatrick, who had a prior robbery conviction, was convicted of first-degree murder on September 29, 1891, less than four weeks after the killing. Despite evidentiary circumstances ordinarily associated with a second-degree murder conviction, Fitzpatrick’s appeal and pardon requests were denied.
Patrick Fitzpatrick was sentenced to death on October 24, 1891. In the first execution in nearly eight years, he was hanged on May 24, 1892. In the fashion of the day, the Pittsburgh Press published a lengthy article discussing the execution that included a detailed description of the final hours before the execution. Fitzpatrick is described in the most favorable and sympathetic terms.
This was also the first case since Jewell’s execution in 1854 in which a white man was executed for a fatal assault – as opposed to a felony murder – against another white man.
The pause in executions that preceded Fitzpatrick’s hanging paralleled renewed questions about the death penalty in northern states in this era, during which both Maine and Iowa abolished the practice. Patterns of migration and immigration which saw limited numbers of Black migrants and most immigrants coming from Northern and Western Europe were associated with limited sense of threat.
Consistent with that, the Pittsburgh Daily Post expressed broad doubts about the efficacy of executions. “The legal killing of a human being for the illegal killing of another has very little effect as a warning,” and rather accomplishes only retribution. Noting that there had been nearly four hundred homicides in Allegheny County since the last execution, “we question if the number would have been reduced had there been an execution every month.” With a curious use of the word “victim,” they concluded that “the sacredness of human life is not enforced by the gallows. People read of executions to learn of the fortitude, hardness, or craven weakness of the victim, not to draw moral lessons.”
The Pittsburgh Press expressed similar hesitancy about the efficacy of the death penalty. Using the calculus by which culpability is measured, Fitzpatrick’s case was thought to be one of second-degree murder. The warden charged with overseeing his execution was quoted as expressing dread due to his “tender feelings” for Fitzpatrick, a “model prisoner.”
Curiously, immediately preceding its judgment that “[t]here never was a more decent or orderly execution in this or any other jail,” the Press described Fitzpatrick’s slow asphyxiation; “The body hung motionless for 18 minutes. At 6 ½ minutes the heart moved still feebly and at 8 ½ minutes both pulse and heart were perceptible. At 11 minutes the beat was normal, but the pulse barely fluttered and at 18 minutes Dr. Ranhauser pronounced the man dead and turned the body over to the jury.”
Establishment opinion about the death penalty would change dramatically, as would the pace of executions. With the influx of Southern and Eastern European “new immigrants” and the first Black migrants into the rapidly expanding steel and coal industries, Fitzpatrick’s execution can be viewed as the last of an era in which capital defendants were primarily and securely white men and the capital machinery was more judicious in carrying out executions.
The Battle of Homestead was only seven weeks away. Mechanization and the associated deskilling of labor and the brutal suppression of a “non-white” laborers were bringing an end to the “craftsmen’s empire” of industrializing Pittsburgh. With that change, the assembly line moved faster and the gallows got busier.