Robert McConkey was part of a gang that robbed Hendrickson & McClure’s Hardware in McKeesport, on July 31, 1881, stealing a large and valuable cache of knives and guns. Two days later, store owners George A. McClure and Wilbert Hendrickson, as well as Joseph Lynch and George Fleming, traced the gang to a bend on the Monongahela River known as Dead Man’s Hollow, near where Fife and Jones had committed double murder nearly twenty-five years earlier.
When they confronted the gang, McConkey, only 19 years old and already with a criminal record, shot and killed McClure. He and his accomplices then fled. A sizable reward was offered for their capture. Reports that they would be lynched were widespread.
Months later, in January 1882, McConkey was found in prison in Upstate New York, where he was serving time for theft. Once released, he was arrested and extradited.
At trial the following month, Hendrickson, Lynch, and Fleming as well as other witnesses identified McConkey as McClure’s killer. His defense, that this was a case of mistaken identity, failed. McConkey, poor, fatherless, illiterate – “[f]ew persons raised in this country of free schools know less,” remarked the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette – and already well down a wayward path, was convicted of first-degree murder on February 15, 1882. His motion for a new trial was rejected and he was sentenced to death on February 25.
McConkey’s appeal, which challenged the veracity of the witnesses and raised a series of technical points, was likewise rejected (McConkey v. Commonwealth, 101 Pa. 416, 1882).
In the days before his execution, newspaper accounts expressed sympathy for McConkey’s youth, his quiet demeanor, and the impression of him as poor, uneducated (“few persons raised in this country of free schools know less”), misunderstood, and fatherless.
Ward McConkey was executed on May 10, 1883. Due to the unusually high level of public interest created by both the notoriety of the case and the compassion shown to the young killer, a large fence was erected around the jailyard to obstruct the view of onlookers.
Described as a model prisoner, brave all the way to the gallows, McConkey declared his innocence to the end. His final words were “Good-Bye, murderers.”
About the execution, the Pittsburgh Daily Post wrote: “The moral effect of the execution on the criminal class or those whose steps are verging toward criminality may be safely placed at about zero….We doubt if it has any, or is anything else than the vengeance of society….One valid reason is left…the protection of society. This is tangible ground and one can understand it. McConkey will murder no more. That much has been accomplished by the execution. As a deterrent power on the criminal class we doubt the efficacy of the gallows. There is too long an interval between the crime and the penalty, to say nothing of the uncertainty of the punishment….”
Though the case remained in the news for years with reports of sightings of McConkey’s accomplices, no other arrests were ever made.