On the evening of November 16, 1917, three Black men were reported to have robbed and stabbed a man in Duquesne and fled by streetcar. While investigating the case, Munhall Borough Police Officer Michael J. Lebedda saw two Black men on the Braddock Bridge.
When Labedda approached the two men – later identified as Clarence Morgan and Jack Thompson – for questioning, Thompson is alleged to have shot him. Reverend Roskovic, who was a bystander on the bridge, was also shot and injured. The assailants fled.
Though Labedda and Roskovic were both able to provide descriptions of their assailants soon after the shootings – both 5’10” and of average build, one light-skinned and one dark-skinned -authorities initially had no idea of their names or their locations.
Labedda died the next day.
Police arrested two men – Pinky Johnson and John Monroe – as they attempted to board a train that night. The men, both migrant laborers from Virginia reported to have quit their jobs at the Edgar Thompson Steel Works that same day, were thought to have known something about the killing.
Questioning led to the identification of Thompson and Morgan, though their whereabouts were unknown. Police alerted authorities in nearby cities, though they were only able to provide a “poor description of the men.”
Thompson, a 23-year old steelworker from Rock Hill, South Carolina, who had arrived in Pittsburgh only months earlier after working as a coal miner in West Virginia, was arrested in Concord, North Carolina, eighteen months later, in May 1919.
His arrest was said to have been based on a photograph. The Charlotte Observer reported that he confessed at the time of arrest. Clarence Morgan was never apprehended.
After being extradited to face trial, Thompson was convicted of first-degree murder on October 24, 1919, and sentenced to death on December 20, 1919. He maintained his innocence throughout the proceedings, blaming the shooting on two other men.
Jack Thompson died in the Allegheny County Jail on April 7, 1920, the third inmate to die while awaiting execution in twenty months. No clemency request or appellate review of his conviction had been undertaken.
Though his cause of death was listed as tuberculosis, his death, like the deaths of Byrd and Kemanos before him, was attributable to the influenza pandemic of that era. Newspapers accounts linked his tuberculosis to having “lost his nerve” after his conviction.
From the Allegheny County Jail Murder Book, courtesy of Ed Urban.
The absence of a trial record, appeal, or clemency request are particularly unfortunate in a case such as this. The conviction of a recently-arrived single Black laborer for the murder of a white police officer in an era of heightened racism, in a case in which there was so little evidence and media attention, which relied on notoriously unreliable cross-racial identification, and in which the defendant consistently denied his involvement is certainly troubling.