In early September 1889, William H. Smith returned home from out of town and learned that his wife, Mary, was involved with another man, a barber named Patterson. Enraged at Mary’s infidelity, Smith “proceeded to reduce the whisky surplus” before shooting and killing her in their Hill District home on September 4.
Smith attempted suicide by shooting himself immediately afterwards. After recovering from his wounds, he confessed to police.
At trial, Smith pleaded not guilty and claimed drunkenness impaired his memory of the evening. He was convicted of first-degree murder on November 22, 1889.
After his motion for a new trial was rejected, Smith was sentenced to death on December 7, 1889. His was the first death sentence imposed in the new, architecturally-acclaimed Allegheny County Courthouse.*
Judge J.W.F. White, who imposed the sentence, openly expressed his opposition to capital punishment and his belief that death was disproportionate in this case, and encouraged a recommendation of clemency.
Demonstrating both racist paternalism and callous sexism, Judge White wrote to the Pardon Board that Smith, born into slavery in Virginia in the final months of the Civil War, was “illiterate and void of intellectual culture.” Though industrious and hardworking, he was “a poor, miserable, ignorant negro, who was infatuated with an unworthy wife” and that many white killers had served a lesser sentence (Pittsburgh Dispatch, March 18, 1890).
The Pardon Board recommended that Smith’s death sentence be commuted to life in prison on March 19, 1890. However, the Governor did not act on the recommendation. As Smith’s execution date approached, he received a respite, then another.
Finally, a sanity hearing (“Commission of Lunacy”) determined on August 14, 1890, that Smith was of unsound mind and unfit for severe penal discipline. He was sent to Dixmont Hospital, an insane asylum.
William Smith died in Woodville State Hospital on April 24, 1919, after almost 30 years of confinement.
Testifying to the disproportionate use of executions against Black defendants, Smith was the sixth Black man in Allegheny County history to be sentenced to death and the first to escape execution.
Testifying to the segregation of everyday life in nineteenth century Pittsburgh, every Black defendant sentenced to death prior to 1898 had killed a Black victim. As interracial homicides became more common in the twentieth century, the racialized practice of the death penalty intensified.
* The sweeping views of the courthouse were short-lived. In an act of “architectural infantilism,” the courthouse was literally overshadowed and largely hidden from view – “dwarfed and emasculated” – by the monuments to commerce that Carnegie and Frick soon erected across the street.