William Hillman, Jr.

William Hillman, Jr., thirty years old and single, worked part-time on John Conrad Noss’s farm in Wexford, in the northern reaches of Allegheny County. Noss and his wife cared for their 14-year old granddaughter, Bertha Speigel, whose father, John G. Speigel, had been killed by Thomas Burke during a work-related fight on July 3, 1888. Burke was later convicted of voluntary manslaughter and sentenced to seven years in prison.

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Wexford, 1922

Hillman showed interest in the much-younger Speigel, a situation her grandparents disapproved of and intervened to stop. When Hillman called for Speigel on March 29, 1898, Bertha’s grandmother informed him that he could no longer see Bertha. While Hillman and Speigel talked in the yard later that evening, Hillman drew a gun, shot her three times, and attempted suicide by shooting himself. Speigel died the next day. Hillman survived.

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Evidence developed that Hillman had purchased the murder weapon the week before the shooting, leading the Allegheny County District Attorney to characterize the killing as “one of the most atrocious murders” in the County’s history and involving “a great deal of preparation and premeditation.”

At trial, Hillman’s defense was insanity. He countered the state’s clear recitation of the events surrounding the killing with medical and family testimony that he was subject to seizures. He was convicted of first-degree murder on June 9, 1898. After his motion for a new trial was rejected, he was sentenced to death on July 11, 1898.

On appeal, Hillman argued that his crime was not properly first-degree murder and that he was insane. Citing his purchase of a gun and his deliberate steps in using it to kill young Bertha, facts which Hillman did not challenge at trial, the court rejected his first claim. While the court was more considerate of his insanity claim, his failure to draw a clearer connection between his seizures and his actions ultimately led to the rejection of that claim (Commonwealth v. Hillman, 189 Pa. 548, 1899).

Hillman then sought a pardon on mental health grounds. That pardon was refused, though a sanity commission was impaneled to evaluate his mental health.

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On July 19, 1899, that commission determined that Hillman was of unsound mind, not suitable for execution.

After the commutation of his death sentence, William Hillman was transferred to Dixmont State Hospital. He committed suicide by drowning while an inmate at Woodville State Hospital on May 11, 1928. He was 60 years old.

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Dixmont State Hospital

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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