Frederick Meyers

In the first of a cluster of murder cases involving German immigrants, Frederick Meyers, owner of a saloon at Third Avenue and Market Street (in the basement of the rebuilt Philo Hall, which had been destroyed in the Great Fire of 1845), stabbed his employee, August (Adam) Dorn, on February 29, 1876.

Pittsburgh Commercial, March 1, 1876

Whether or not Dorn had instigated the assault by stealing Meyers’ watch, as Meyers alleged,  is not clear, though possible. Whatever the case, Meyers harassed and taunted Dorn before stabbing him with a hot poker. Meyers was arrested for assault later that night.

Though initial reports indicated Dorn’s wounds were not serious, they proved fatal a few weeks later. Dorn, who was 54 years old, died on March 16, 1876.

Newspaper coverage of the case paints a picture of two disreputable and alcoholic older men, and a sadistic and escalating series of insults and assaults carried out in a seedy “notorious ‘dive’” basement bar.

At trial, the defense argued that Meyers was mentally unfit to sustain the charge. Meyers, who was said to have been suffering from delirium tremens and to have recently attempted suicide, was convicted of first-degree murder on April 20, 1876. His motion for a new trial, which again claimed Meyers was insane, was rejected. He was sentenced to death on September 5, 1876.

Pittsburgh Weekly Gazette, April 18, 1876

Meyers’ insanity defense fared better before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which reversed his conviction on January 2, 1877 (Meyers v. Commonwealth, 83 Pa. 131, 1877) after finding that the trial court applied a “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard to Meyers’ insanity claim when a lower “preponderance of evidence” standard is required. The court also ruled that independent of Meyers’ sanity, the state had not established the intent to kill necessary for first-degree murder.

Meyers’ second trial opened on March 12, 1877 and closed without a defense the next day. After the prosecution presented its case, the defense offered to waive its case in return for a conviction of less than first-degree murder. Meyers, by now routinely referred to as “Poker,” was convicted of second-degree murder on March 13, 1877 and sentenced to 12 years in prison.

Despite his apparently advanced state of degeneracy, Meyers’ history of criminal violence was only beginning. A decade after being released from Western Penitentiary in 1886, Meyers and his wife, Rachel, were arrested for the March 1896 murder of Holmes Anderson, another man well-known to police who had been implicated in the murder of W.J. Gunsaulis in 1891.

Pittsburgh Press, June 8, 1896

Anderson died several days after being assaulted by Meyers, a circumstance that led to Meyers’ voluntary manslaughter conviction on June 8, 1896. Rachel Meyers was acquitted.

Pittsburgh Daily Post, April 11, 1898

Meyers was sentenced to ten years in Western Penitentiary, where he died of pneumonia on April 10, 1898.

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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