George Straesser and Joseph Brandl, both recent German immigrants, boarded in the Stuekenberger home in a German enclave on Holt St. on the South Side.
Straesser’s relationship with the Stuekenbergers became strained in the spring of 1892 after he failed to pay his board and, in a related incident, assaulted his landlord’s son, Joseph Stuekenberger. As a result, Straesser moved back in with his family.
Returning home from a hearing related to these legal matters on August 3, 1892, a quarrel broke out between members of Straesser’s family and Brandl. After insults were hurled at Brandl by Straesser’s mother, Johanna, and sister, Rosina, Brandl struck the two women. Straesser, who was not present when the fight began, came to their defense and stabbed Brandl multiple times. He died the next morning.
At trial, the popular Straesser claimed Brandl was a well-known troublemaker who died after falling on his own knife. Despite conflicting witness testimony as to whether Brandl was armed, who initiated the fight, and the sequence of events in the fatal affray, Straesser was convicted of first-degree murder on October 8, 1892, and sentenced to death on November 28. The severity of Brandl’s wounds figured in the verdict.
After his conviction, Straesser changed his story to admit stabbing Brandl, but claimed he did so after Brandl attacked his mother and sister. On appeal, Straesser’s counsel argued that the state had failed to prove the elements of first degree murder and that Straesser had acted out of passion and without premeditation.
Straesser’s appeal was rejected as not germane to the defense – that “he did not slay the deceased” – he had made at trial (Straesser v. Commonwealth, 153 Pa. 451, at 456).
Based on lingering questions about the circumstances of the killing and the extent of his responsibility, Straesser requested clemency. Given his status, the status of his community, and the social sanction for the violent defense of family and femininity, Straesser’s clemency effort attracted the support of the mayor, newspaper editors, businessmen, and thousands of petition signatures.
His death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment on December 4, 1893, and he was transferred to Western Penitentiary. Straesser then sought and obtained a pardon. He was released from prison on October 28, 1899.
George Straesser died of tuberculosis, reportedly contracted in prison, in his South Side home on April 26, 1901.