Thomas B. Keenan

In another of the “cutting affrays” that were the focus of public attention at the time, Thomas Keenan stabbed to death John A. Obey, Jr., a conductor on the Citizens Passenger Railway, on July 5, 1862; it had been precisely a decade since David Jewell had committed a similar crime.

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Keenan, an Irish-immigrant gunsmith at the Allegheny Arsenal, was returning from downtown to Lawrenceville on the trolley with a group of friends when Obey asked the rowdy and intoxicated group to settle down. They continued their rowdy behavior, Obey intervened again, a fight followed, and Obey, Pittsburgh-born and well known, was killed. The group of seven men was arrested.

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Pittsburgh Daily Post, July 7, 1862

As President Lincoln removed General McClellan from command of the flailing Army of the Potomac in favor of a more aggressive strategy, Keenan was put on trial for Obey’s murder. In a case in which court-watchers expected a manslaughter conviction, Keenan was convicted of first-degree murder on November 13, 1862. After his motion for a new trial was argued and rejected, Keenan was sentenced to death on February 28, 1863.

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Pittsburgh Daily Post, November 14, 1862

His companions were acquitted.

Following an unsuccessful appeal (Keenan v. Commonwealth, 44 Pa. 55, 1863), which argued that inadequate consideration had been given to the extent of Keenan’s intoxication, Keenan sought a pardon.

With public sympathy on his side and limited support for executions, Keenan sat in jail. After years in which his case languished, passing from governor to governor, Thomas Keenan was finally pardoned by Governor Curtin on January 12, 1867.

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Pittsburgh Daily Post, January 12, 1867

Much like John Lutz before him, who was pardoned after a suitable period of imprisonment, Keenan’s identity and popularity proved more powerful than the weak checks on the pardon process. The justification for his pardon noted that there was some doubt as to whether Keenan administered the fatal wound and that a number of witnesses were unable to testify at trial, but had provided affidavits on his behalf.

With growing concern about abuse of unfettered gubernatorial pardon power, Keenan’s was the last capital pardon in Allegheny County. The state Board of Pardons was established in 1872.

After Keenan’s conviction, the Pittsburgh Gazette editorialized against carrying daggers, arguing they demonstrated an intention to harm and were “a serpent in the bosom, which may turn upon him and inflict the fatal sting at any moment.”

Two months after Obey’s murder, on September 17, 1862, an explosion at the Allegheny Arsenal killed 78 workers, all of them girls and women. It was the largest civilian tragedy of the Civil War and the largest single-incident loss of life in Pittsburgh history, occurring on the same day as the Battle of Antietam, the largest single-day loss of life in American history.

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Allegheny Cemetery

 

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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