John P. Rush

On Christmas morning, 1921, Dormont Police Officer Joseph Coghill was shot in the head and killed instantly as he and his partner, Byron Schwartz, responded to a report of prowlers at a home on Dormont Avenue. Schwartz was also shot, but recovered. The shootings occurred as the suspects were being arrested. The assailants fled without a trace.

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Intersection of Dormont and Pinehurst Avenues, Dormont

The search for the killers was so intense that a group of citizens nearly lynched some men caught during a burglary on December 27. Police intervened to prevent any injury. A similar vigilante group chased a group of robbers in Brookline on December 28. Shots were fired in that case.

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Pittsburgh Daily Post, December 28, 1921
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Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, December 29, 1921

John Rush was among those who were arrested in the days after the killing, only to be released due to a lack of evidence. Continuing investigation allowed police to develop enough evidence to link Rush to the killing. He was arrested on January 23, 1922, on an unrelated charge in the Hill District and was held for Coghill’s murder. His accomplice, identified as Manuel Nirelli, was never apprehended.*

Under police questioning, Rush provided inculpatory information. He was also identified as Coghill’s killer by Officer Schwartz. He subsequently provided a written confession.

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Rush, who was well known to police, attempted suicide in his jail cell the same day he was arrested. Then, on March 20, 1922, he was found in jail in possession of a gun and was implicated as the leader of an escape plot that included three other inmates facing murder charges, including Walter Troy and Joseph Thomas.

Confronted by eyewitness testimony and his own confession, Rush was convicted of first-degree murder on June 24, 1922, and sentenced to death on November 18, 1922.

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Pittsburgh Press, June 19, 1922

On appeal, Rush challenged the admissibility of his confession. That challenge was rejected (Commonwealth v. Rush 277 Pa. 419, 1923).

Rush’s sentence was commuted to life by Governor Pinchot on October 31, 1923, due to concerns about his mental health. He was transferred to Western Penitentiary, where he served until being paroled on June 10, 1946.

His criminal career was not over.  John Rush was arrested again in 1947, at age 58, for possession of a firearm and explosives that he planned to use in safe-cracking. He pleaded guilty and was returned to Western Penitentiary. He died there on June 18, 1960.

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* I have been unable to identify any person who matches that name.

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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