Alexander Killen

Rudert’s Jewelry Store, in Tarentum, was open late on December 23, 1889, to accommodate last-minute holiday shoppers. Mary Ann Rudert and her husband, Paul, were in the back of the Main St. store; their three children were in their adjacent home.

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Hearing the sound of breaking glass, Mary Ann ran in to the showroom while her husband went in search of his gun.

Interrupted as they loaded the contents of the display cases into bags, one of the three men robbing the store shot Mrs. Rudert once in the head. She died at the scene.

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Though passersby attempted to stop the men, they fled toward the nearby railroad or Allegheny River.

Alexander Killen, who operated a ferry on the Allegheny River,  was arrested soon after the killing. Though police did not have information that linked him to the murder, he had a record of similar offenses. He was part of group of youths convicted of assault with intent to rob in 1876, for which he served a prison sentence. He had also served sentences for vagrancy, disorderly conduct, and burglary. A gun was found in his possession at the time of his arrest.

Police determined that Peter Griffin and Thomas “Eggy” Conroy, who were positively identified from photographs as having been seen near the store the night of the murder, were the principals to the murder.

Despite an aggressive investigation led by Detective Patrick Fitzgerald, who was killed by the Biddle brothers a decade later, Griffin and Conroy were never charged. News reports reported sightings of men matching their description throughout Western Pennsylvania, Canada, Maine, and elsewhere.

In the weeks after his arrest, Killen denied knowledge of the robbery and murder, stating only that Griffin and Conroy, whom he knew from prison, and a Black man had borrowed his boat to cross the river after the murder and paid him in jewelry, apparently stolen from Rudert’s store.

A Black man identified as Harry Anderson was arrested in relation to the case in Ohio in April 1890 but was later released.

With police unable to develop any other leads in the case, Killen finally went to trial on  October 13, 1890. Though one witness identified him as having been at the store and another said he sold Killen ammunition early on the day of the murder, the primary case against Killen was based on his own statement that he had loaned his boat to Griffin and Conroy and the jewelry found in his possession. He steadfastly denied any knowledge of the murder.

Despite a weak and circumstantial case in which Killen featured as little more than an accomplice after the fact, he was convicted of first-degree murder on October 19, 1890. The jury was reported to be unable to reach a verdict before coming to agreement.

It was Allegheny County’s first capital murder involving a store robbery, a circumstance that would become far more common as retail proliferated.

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The foreman of the jury is reported to have wept while reading the verdict, while Killen’s attorney forcefully proclaimed that the matter was not yet settled. Newspaper coverage echoed the sense of injustice these actions suggested.

Due to questions about the extent of his involvement in the crime, Killen’s death sentence was commuted on October 29, 1891, and he was moved to Western Penitentiary to serve a life sentence.

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Pittsburgh Press, December 31, 1908

Questions about Killen’s role in the Rudert murder grew over time. The belief strengthened that he was entirely uninvolved in the case, a cause that was taken up by Pittsburgh civic, religious, and business leaders.

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With their support, his case was presented again to the Pardon Board, which recommended a full pardon on April 21, 1909.

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Alexander Killen was released from prison three days later. His release was treated as a cause for celebration, with closely observed newspaper accounts of his emergence into a modern world after almost twenty years behind bars.

image001Pittsburgh Press, April 24, 1909

Alexander Killen died in obscurity on January 25, 1925.

Paul Rudert remarried and became a prominent jeweler and businessman.

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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