John Lutz

John Lutz, a young, single, native-born man, fatally stabbed Richard O’Leary, also young, single, and native-born, during an argument in Benitz’s Saloon on Wood St., downtown, on June 27, 1856. In all of its details, it was the prototypical murder of the era. O’Leary, his brother, and friends were drinking and arguing in the saloon when Lutz and friends entered. The two groups began to argue. The argument moved to the street, then became a fight. The stabbing occurred on the street.

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Lutz fled. He was identified and apprehended in a traveling circus in St. Louis more than a year later, on July 19, 1857.

After receiving a continuance during the October court session, Lutz’s trial began on December 29, 1857. Lutz, who had a long list of prior arrests and convictions, was convicted on December 31, 1857, and sentenced to death on February 2, 1858.

After an unsuccessful appeal (Lutz v. Commonwealth, 29 Pa. 441, 1857), a pardon effort was undertaken that focused on the unfairness of Lutz’s trial and the role of medical malpractice in O’Leary’s death (O’Leary died the day after he was stabbed). That effort, which involved the submission of thousands of signatures gathered in saloons and on the streets as well as letters from prominent citizens, succeeded.*

After an unusually long delay, Lutz was pardoned on May 21, 1863, by Governor Andrew Curtin. William F. Packer, governor at the time of Lutz’s death sentence, was said to believe Lutz had not committed first degree murder, but felt it too soon to pardon him. His successor, Governor James Pollock, refused to sign his death warrant or to pardon him.

Benitz’s Saloon was the first iteration of what became Iron City Beer and the Pittsburgh Brewing Company. Anton Benitz, a German immigrant, opened a saloon at 139 Wood St., in 1844, and operated it as Iron City Lager Beer Saloon. He later started a brewery at a nearby location on Wood St.

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W.G. Armor 1868

Lutz, who was born in Pennsylvania to German parents, lived on Troy Hill and worked as a yeoman. His criminal record, which dated to at least 1848, included convictions for counterfeiting, extortion, robbery, and assault and battery with intent to kill. O’Leary was born in Pennsylvania to Irish parents.

* Pardons were an unreviewable, unfettered, and exclusive gubernatorial prerogative until revisions to the state constitution in 1872 created a pardon board. As such, pardon campaigns often functioned as quasi-political campaigns and pardons as a way to secure and reward political support. See https://journals.psu.edu/pmhb/article/viewFile/43292/43013

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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