The most notorious death penalty case in Pittsburgh history began on April 11, 1901, when brothers Edward and John Biddle, leaders of the Chloroform Gang, and Walter Scheffler Dorman (aka R.D. Wilcox), killed Mt. Washington grocer Thomas Donnelly Kahney during a robbery of his Albert St. home and grocery.
After having cased the home and store the previous day, the robbery began just after midnight. Their usual modus operandi of chloroforming their victims to render them unconscious failed when Mrs. Sarah Kahney was startled from her sleep, waking her husband. As he began to respond to the situation, the 50-year old Kahney was shot and killed.
The gang then fled to the North Side. Acting on information provided by informants, the police tracked them to 32 Fulton St.
When police sought to arrest the three assailants, a gun battle broke out and highly regarded Pittsburgh Police Officer Patrick E. Fitzgerald, a 45-year old Canadian-born detective, was shot and killed. The three men were arrested at the scene. All of this transpired in a single day.
At trial, witnesses were able to place the gang in the vicinity of Kahney’s home. Mrs. Kahney also identified the defendants. Other witnesses implicated the gang in numerous other burglaries.
John Biddle was convicted of Kahney’s murder on June 14, 1901; his brother, Edward, was convicted six days later.
Dorman, 24, who admitted his guilt and testified against the Biddle brothers, was nonetheless found guilty of first-degree murder on July 18, 1901.
The Biddle brothers and Dorman were sentenced to death that same day. Dorman’s death sentence was imposed with the understanding that his sentence would be commuted to life imprisonment for his earlier testimony against the Biddles.
The Biddle brothers’ executions were respited to consider their appeals. Those appeals were sharply rejected, the court finding the “evidence indisputable” and the first-degree murder conviction “scarcely worthwhile to discuss” (Commonwealth v. Biddle, 200 Pa. 640 and Commonwealth v. Biddle, 200 Pa. 647, 1901).
The Biddles then filed a clemency request that secured additional respites. Their clemency requests were rejected in early January 1902, clearing the way for the execution of their sentences.
The newspaper coverage of their case was unprecedented, at least since the trial of Martha Grinder.
The already sensational case became an international phenomena when, while being held in the Allegheny County Jail, Edward Biddle seduced the warden’s wife, Kate Soffel, who then smuggled a gun into the jail and disabled her husband, Peter Soffel, allowing the brothers to escape on January 30, 1902. Their plan was to flee to Canada. Their timing was inopportune; a snowstorm had begun.
“Soffel, who was reported to be a reserved, God-fearing woman … joined the Biddles as they hopped a trolley to West View. From there the fugitives walked to a farmhouse on Route 19 where they stole a horse-drawn sleigh and a shotgun. They headed toward Butler with the intent of escaping into Canada. Police officers from Allegheny and Butler counties plotted how to thwart the trio, taking up a position at the Graham farm. When the fugitives arrived at the farm, they were ordered to surrender. A shootout ensued, wounding both Biddle brothers and Kate Soffel. The Biddles died, but not before Ed admitted to shooting Kate at her request. She survived her injuries and was convicted for her crimes, spending several years in the Allegheny County jail, the same jail from where she had helped the Biddles escape.”
Edward and John died of their wounds on February 1, 1902. The Pittsburgh Press devoted its entire front page that day, all eleven stories, to the case.
They were interred at Calvary Cemetery in Pittsburgh on February 5, 1902. Officer Fitzgerald is also buried there.
On May 10, 1902, Kate Soffel was sentenced to two years in prison for her role in their escape. After her release, Soffel worked as a seamstress and played herself in stage performances of the Biddle boy saga. She died on August 30, 1909. The 1984 movie, Mrs. Soffel, is based on the case. In the aftermath of serious security breaches at the jail, five men, including Kate Soffel’s father, James McGeary, were fired. Warden Peter Soffel was also removed, of course.
Walter Dorman received his commutation on June 18, 1902, and was transferred to Western Penitentiary. In some respects a model prisoner – he was leader of the prison orchestra and is reported to have learned multiple languages – Dorman was also implicated in multiple escape attempts.
His prison record complicated his numerous pardon requests and delayed his release.
After twenty-two years in prison, Dorman was pardoned on November 1, 1923, and quickly faded from public view.
Alexander Berkman, who had attempted to kill Henry Clay Frick for his role in the violent suppression of striking workers at Homestead in 1892, spent time in Western Penitentiary with Dorman. Based on that experience, he wrote the following in his Prison Memoir of an Anarchist:
“In reference to French leave, have you read about the Biddle affair? I think it was the most remarkable attempt in the history of the country. Think of the wife of the Jail Warden helping prisoners to escape! The boys here were simply wild with joy. Every one hoped they would make good their escape, and old Sammy told me he prayed they shouldn’t be caught. But all the bloodhounds of the law were unchained; the Biddle boys got no chance at all.
The story is this. The brothers Biddle, Jack and Ed, and Walter Dorman, while in the act of robbing a store, killed a man. It was Dorman who fired the shot, but he turned State’s evidence. The State rewards treachery. Dorman escaped the noose, but the two brothers were sentenced to die. As is customary, they were visited in the jail by the “gospel ladies,” among them the wife of the Warden. You probably remember him—Soffel; he was Deputy Warden when we were in the jail, and a rat he was, too. Well, Ed was a good-looking man, with soft manners, and so forth. Mrs. Soffel fell in love with him. It was mutual, I believe. Now witness the heroism a woman is capable of, when she loves. Mrs. Soffel determined to save the two brothers; I understand they promised her to quit their criminal life. Every day she would visit the condemned men, to console them. Pretending to read the gospel, she would stand close to the doors, to give them an opportunity to saw through the bars. She supplied them with revolvers, and they agreed to escape together. Of course, she could not go back to her husband, for she loved Ed, loved him well enough never even to see her children again. The night for the escape was set. The brothers intended to separate immediately after the break, subsequently to meet together with Mrs. Soffel. But the latter insisted on going with them. Ed begged her not to. He knew that it was sheer suicide for all of them. But she persisted, and Ed acquiesced, fully realizing that it would prove fatal. Don’t you think it showed a noble trait in the boy? He did not want her to think that he was deserting her. The[Pg 445] escape from the jail was made successfully; they even had several hours’ start. But snow had fallen, and it was easy to trace two men and a woman in a sleigh. The brutality of the man-hunters is past belief. When the detectives came upon the boys, they fired their Winchesters into the two brothers. Even when the wounded were stretched on the ground, bleeding and helpless, a detective emptied his revolver into Ed, killing him. Jack died later, and Mrs. Soffel was placed in jail. You can imagine the savage fury of the respectable mob. Mrs. Soffel was denounced by her husband, and all the good Christian women cried “Unclean!” and clamored for the punishment of their unfortunate sister. She is now here, serving two years for aiding in the escape. I caught a glimpse of her when she came in. She has a sympathetic face, that bears signs of deep suffering; she must have gone through a terrible ordeal. Think of the struggle before she decided upon the desperate step; then the days and weeks of anxiety, as the boys were sawing the bars and preparing for the last chance! I should appreciate the love of a woman whose affection is stronger than the iron fetters of convention. In some ways this woman reminds me of the Girl—the type that possesses the courage and strength to rise above all considerations for the sake of the man or the cause held dear. How little the world understands the vital forces of life!” (pp. 444-445).
The Biddles were born in Ontario to a father who fled to Canada to avoid Civil War service. They had prior records in Ohio and Illinois. Dorman was born in Cleveland, Ohio.
Albert St. today