Edward J. Coffey was the ne’er do well son of a middle class Pittsburgh family. Well-read, well-dressed, and well-connected, Coffey spent most of his life on the wrong side of the law.
His criminal record included bank robbery and jewelry store robbery convictions (he was also a confederate of Edgar Frank Small and was widely believed to have been an accomplice in Small’s murder of Nicholas Jacoby).
Early on the morning of August 4, 1885, weeks after his father’s death and weeks after having been paroled from federal prison on a counterfeiting conviction, Coffey, 30, was involved in an altercation in front of a Sixth St. restaurant.
When Officer John F. “Benjamin” Evans responded, Coffey shot him. Fleeing, he was apprehended after a shoot out with pursuing police. Evans, Irish-born and 31 years old, died on August 6, after providing statements implicating Coffey.
At the time of the shooting, the Post-Gazette described Coffey as “one of those moral monstrosities who delight in law-breaking” (August 5, 1885). At trial, despite representation by the best private counsel available, Coffey was convicted of first-degree murder on November 13, 1885, and sentenced to death. The result caused a great deal of surprise among those who expected his connections to lessen his punishment.
Considerable effort was made to reverse Coffey’s death sentence, including the intercession of his attorney, religious leaders, and prominent Pittsburghers. When his appeal was rejected, the case was carried to the state supreme court, where it was rejected again.
These efforts were able to delay the execution of Coffey’s sentence for several years. Ultimately, though, his appellate and his clemency opportunities were exhausted and his final death warrant was issued for January 18, 1888.
Once it became clear that all legal avenues to saving his own life were foreclosed, Coffey slit his own throat.
The Daily Post wrote, “[b]y one desperate thrust a life was transferred from the scales of justice to those of nature, and there it still hangs, trembling, wavering.” Coffey died on January 24, 1888.
Though John Evans was described at the time as the first Pittsburgh Police officer murdered in the line of duty, my research indicates he was the sixth such officer and the eighth law enforcement official from Allegheny County to be feloniously killed. He was, though, the first officer whose killing resulted in a death sentence.