In a case that garnered enormous media and public attention from the moment it occurred through every twist and turn of its decades-long history, twelve-year old Lillian Walker Schadle was raped and killed not long after leaving her North Versailles home on the afternoon of Wednesday, November 27, 1912. She had sent her on an errand to buy groceries for Thanksgiving.
A massive search followed news of Schadle’s disappearance. Her body was recovered from the Westinghouse Reservoir, Wilkins Township, on Thanksgiving evening. Attention had been focused on the area after a neighbor, Frank Neeper, reported a man carrying a large bag acting in an unusual manner. Threats of lynching were heard. Her killer, it was later learned, watched as the reservoir was drained and her body recovered.
A week-long intensive police manhunt led to Edward Exler, who was arrested December 4. Police had determined that Lillian’s last stop was at a 636 Linden Avenue, North Braddock butcher shop, owned by Edward’s father, Frank Exler. Schadle had been seen walking with 25-year old Edward Exler, whom she knew from deliveries he had made to her home, from the shop toward a stable at Exler’s home. The rape likely occurred in the stable, after which Exler moved her body to the reservoir.
North Braddock, 1912
On the day prior to the murder, Exler had broken his engagement to be married. The wedding had been scheduled for Thanksgiving weekend.
Once arrested, twenty-eight hours of continuous “sweating” by rotating teams of detectives did not produce a confession. Exler, who had a prior arrest for improper contact with girls, consistently denied any involvement in the case.
Witness testimony and evidence collected at the scene and at Exler’s home formed the core of the state’s case. After very brief jury deliberations, Exler was convicted of first-degree murder on March 1, 1913. His motion for a new trial was refused and he was sentenced to death on July 25, 1913.
Exler’s father was stalwart in his defense and financial support of his son, declaring that he would spend his last dime and the money of wealthy relatives to free his innocent son. Top quality legal counsel was retained toward that end.
On appeal, Exler argued that Schadle’s death did not constitute first-degree murder. In a split decision (Commonwealth v. Exler, 243 Pa. 155, 1914) premised on an exceedingly strict construction of the underlying statute, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court agreed.
Though young Lillian’s death occurred during the perpetration of a rape and therefore would seem to constitute felony murder, which is first-degree murder, the state supreme court held, quite controversially, that minor drafting differences between the state’s 1860 statute defining murder and the 1887 statute defining rape created a loophole in the punishment proscribed for the rape of a child through which Exler could pass.
Exler’s conviction was reversed on January 5, 1914, and a new trial was ordered. Due to the statutory concerns identified by the court, Exler was then indicted for rape rather than murder. After a long and contentious second trial, in which Exler offered an alibi defense, he was convicted of rape on July 1, 1914, and was sentenced to 12-13 years in prison.
He appealed that conviction, which was sustained (Commonwealth v. Exler, 61 Pa. Super. 423, 1915) on October 11, 1915.
Eleven months after his release from Western Penitentiary in 1928, Exler was arrested for raping a six-year old girl on March 22, 1929. His father posted bail. Exler skipped bail and fled, never to be seen again.
His family had Edward Exler declared legally dead in 1940, though there is no evidence of his subsequent whereabouts.
A lengthy 1949 Post-Gazette article by Ray Sprigle was sharply critical of the handling of the case, arguing that the “drooling sentimentalists” on the Supreme Court “tossed law and common sense into the ash can” by not allowing Exler’s capital conviction to stand.