On November 28, 1912, in preparation for that afternoon’s Thanksgiving meal, Joseph McGill went out to purchase some whiskey. When he returned to his 546 Allequippa St. home, his wife, Dolly Brown, was not there. Concerned that she was at the nearby home of Dora Henry, McGill went to find her.
Henry’s lengthy record of altercations with the police for theft, assault, and drunkenness was well known to McGill, who had apparently called police to her home in the past.
Henry met McGill at her door. An argument began, which escalated into a fight when Henry insisted Brown was not there and McGill insisted on seeing her. When Brown suddenly fled from the house, McGill lunged at her with a knife.
Brown died of stab wounds at Mercy Hospital on December 6, 1912. It was the second capital murder case in Pittsburgh in twenty-four hours.
Arrested soon after the stabbing, McGill confessed to neighbors and police. In a fast-moving sequence of events, he pleaded guilty to murder on February 10, 1913. On February 15, the judge fixed the crime at first-degree murder. McGill, who worked as a teamster and had a prior record for vagrancy, was sentenced to death on March 5.
Though McGill’s guilty plea foreclosed the possibility of an appeal, he did pursue clemency. Robert L. Vann, then a young attorney who would go on to become editor of the Pittsburgh Courier, a leading figure in Pittsburgh’s Black community during that community’s most vibrant era, and a nationally-prominent political figure, represented McGill before the Pardon Board.
McGill’s death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment on September 17, 1913, based on a finding that the case lacked the premeditation necessary to sustain a first-degree murder conviction. He was transferred to Western Penitentiary and, later, to Eastern Penitentiary.
McGill made annual requests for pardon in the 1920s; all were refused. Finally, his life sentence was commuted to time served on March 1, 1937 and he was released after nearly twenty-five years behind bars.
Joseph McGill died on September 23, 1977.
Characteristic of cases involving Black defendants and victims at the time, only once did the case receive more than a single paragraph of news coverage. While every story focused on the race of the parties, little information was provided about their lives.