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.
Hillman was infatuated with the much-younger and uninterested 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.
His successful pleadings led Bertha’s grandparents to allow Hillman to talk with Bertha one more time, apparently hoping to pacify him. Reportedly enraged, Hillman drew a gun, shot Bertha three times, and crushed her with a stone. Returning home, he attempted suicide by slitting his throat. Speigel died the next day.
An effort by neighbors to lynch Hillman was rebuffed by police. As he was being led away to safety, Hillman fought to escape before being subdued and then jailed.
Recognizing Spiegel’s youth and the absence of any relationship with Hillman, newspaper references to a “sweetheart” “murdered by jealous lover” after being “told he cannot marry her” woefully misportrayed the crime.
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.
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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