In a remote section of Lower St. Clair Township, near one of the many coal mines that lined Mount Washington and just beyond the neighborhood formerly known as Birmingham, Frederick Reidel lived wife his wife, Margaret, and their three children and worked as a coal miner.
On Sunday, July 12, 1846, the German-born Reidel, who was out on bail for assault and had a prior assault conviction for stabbing a man, beat Margaret to death with an axe. Confronted by neighbors, he denied responsibility, though his clothes were blood-stained and his six-year old son was a witness. He was promptly arrested.
At trial, neighbors and coworkers testified that Reidel regularly assaulted his wife. The coroner testified about the manner of killing. The bloody axe handle was shown. Reidel’s own testimony, in which he denied any knowledge of the killing and claimed that he was away from home at the time, was effectively countered by challenging his story.
Reidel was convicted of first-degree murder on November 18, 1846. He immediately filed a motion for a new trial, claiming the evidence did not support his conviction. Pursuant to that claim, Margaret Reidel’s body was disinterred in an effort to establish the absence of the wounds allegedly inflicted by her husband.
That motion failed and Reidel was sentenced to death on December 5, 1846. Once sentenced, he again loudly denounced his conviction.
While his counsel pursued post-conviction remedies, The Daily Post remarked “we are strongly inclined to the opinion that the poor devil has got to swing” (March 18, 1847). His history of abuse and the unassailed character of his wife offered Reidel little hope.
His execution was set for April 30, 1847. That morning, Reidel was found dead in his cell. He had extensive cuts on both arms and was hanging by his bedsheet. The Pittsburgh Daily Post headline the next day exclaimed “Frederick Reidel his own executioner!”
Reidel was buried near his brother’s Erie County residence. That brother, George, murdered Joseph Bartanalli in November 1858, for which he served a nine year sentence.
The newspaper story announcing the Reidel murder made reference to another domestic murder on May 19, 1846, in which Robert Beatson was alleged to have killed his wife, Margaret, with an axe in their home on Prospect St., downtown. Despite testimony against him by his daughter, testimony from neighbors who heard Beatson threaten his wife, and statements provided by Margaret implicating her husband before she died, Beatson was acquitted.
The only evident difference in the cases is that Margaret Beatson was identified by friends and neighbors as a frequent and unrepentant drinker, an uncaring mother, and, perhaps, an unfaithful wife (Daily Post, November 26, 1846), apparently unworthy of the full protection of the law. Particularly in an era of such strong temperance sensibilities, the possible role of alcohol in this case was closely considered in the public and legal evaluations of the defendant and the victim.
Like Beatson, the case of Joseph Zimmerlee, who murdered his wife, Maria Anne, on September 11, 1848, provides another example of the considerable social and legal space granted to men who kill their wives. It also illuminates the social and legal space granted to men to redress the sexual abuse of women.
At the time of the killing, which occurred during a drunken argument over money, Zimmerlee was in an advanced state of alcoholism with associated signs of declining mental health.
After a trial in which Zimmerlee’s guilt was not seriously questioned, and which included statements his wife provided to authorities before she died, he was convicted of first-degree murder. In a highly unusual move that prevented Zimmerlee from ever being formally sentenced to death, widespread public and newspaper opposition to the verdict led to an immediate motion for a new trial.
At issue was that Zimmerlee’s daughter had previously been sexually abused by his wife’s brother, after which Zimmerlee, reportedly previously sober and peaceable, became dissolute. Declaring of the verdict that “no event has occurred for years more horrible than the conviction of this miserable and friendless old German” and that “the crimes of the world drove him to madness,” the Pittsburgh Daily Post implored, “Let not the Commonwealth MURDER an insane man” (December 4, 1848).
Whatever the merits of these claims, that his wife was not allowed similar grief or shown any expressions of sympathy is noteworthy. Zimmerlee’s motion was granted in January 1849, and he was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to twelve years in prison on April 28, 1849.
Consider also the gothic tragedy of the several cases of Mary Delaney. Working as a prostitute in the downtown brothel of Mrs. Criswell, Delaney was stabbed by a patron on October 25, 1851. No arrest was made.
Eighteen months later, on April 9, 1853, Jacob Shaw, a prospective patron, was stabbed after a quarrel over a pair of stockings escalated into threats. Before dying, he identified Delaney as his assailant.
After a trial in which she denied stabbing the abusive Shaw, the jury deliberated a remarkable eight days before convicting Delaney of manslaughter and recommending mercy. Her motion for a new trial, which included statements that a man had confessed to the killing, was rejected. Despite the jury’s recommendation, Delaney was sentenced to three years in prison.
After her release, she married and started a family. On June 24, 1859, Delaney was killed by her husband, Richard Jones, who worked as a constable. The murder was particularly brutal; Delaney was shot, then stabbed and badly disfigured. Jones confessed to fellow authorities that he killed his wife after learning she had returned to her previous employment (New York Times, June 28, 1859).
“Although all of the elements of a higher grade were clearly proven” (Pittsburgh Daily Post, October 1, 1884), Jones was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to six years in prison on February 18, 1860. He was pardoned thirteen months later. At the time of his release, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette noted “the murder was most deliberate and terrible, but owing to the character of the victim, and the peculiar circumstances surrounding the case, Jones had many sympathizers and no one we think will be disposed to grumble at his release” (March 19, 1861).
A final example of the way in which the worst abuses of men are mitigated by the character attributed to their wives involved the murder of Isabella Campbell by her husband, Thomas, on November 7, 1869. The Campbells, a couple of modest means with one child, had been married for several years, during which Thomas regularly and severely beat his wife, a fact that was known to neighbors and authorities.
On the evening of her murder, they were drinking in their home with several others. Apparently believing that Isabella was being too friendly with other men, Thomas became violent and beat his wife repeatedly. The result, as the headlines declared, was a “shocking” and “savage” murder of “unparalleled fiendishness.”
After being arrested, Campbell denied any responsibility, claiming his wife fell down a flight of stairs while running away after he caught her with two other men. He maintained the same story throughout the case, though multiple witnesses testified to hearing, but not seeing, Campbell beat his wife over a lengthy period of time. They did nothing to intervene.
At trial, Campbell was convicted of second-degree murder, a verdict “that occasioned universal surprise in this locality. The gallows has clearly been cheated of its dues in this case. The prisoner deserved the rope as richly as any man who ever stained his hands with the blood of his fellow being, and an outraged public deeply regret that any twelve men could be found so insensitive to evidence, or so ignorant of the law, as to bring in so mild a verdict” (Pittsburgh Weekly Gazette, January 13, 1870).