In probably the most sensational bank robbery in Pittsburgh’s history, five Russian immigrants robbed the First National Bank in Castle Shannon on May 14, 1917. Though the timing and circumstances of the crime bear some resemblance to organized crime, there is no evidence this group was anything other than a one-time collection of acquaintances trying – and mostly failing – to pull off a daring robbery.
The five men – Samuel Barcons (listed on his death certificate as Sam Barcons Betz), Nick Kemanos (listed on his death certificate as “Nick Krivoworzy”), Haraska Garason, John Fedotoff (identified on his death certificate as “Supposed John Oyech”), and Mishka Titoff – lived near one another in the Russian immigrant community in the Hill District and worked in the steel mills.
In a scene right out of the movies – the Great Castle Shannon Bank Robbery – in the middle of the day of May 14, 1917, the five men drove a late model touring car from Pittsburgh to Castle Shannon, entered the bank, and began firing. Two bank tellers, Daniel H.A. McLean and Frank W. Erbe, were killed. The robbers fled with $17,000.
As they fled, armed citizens chased them with guns blazing in a remarkable vigilante episode. Under fire, Fedotoff committed suicide. Barcons was pursued and cornered, at which point he attempted suicide by shooting himself in the head, but survived. Titoff and Garason escaped and were never apprehended (without any reliable idea of their names, it is impossible to trace them). Kemanos was apprehended and beaten; some wanted to lynch him on the spot. Police had yet to arrive.
Proceeding to trial, Barcons and Kemanos asked to be tried separately. After his trial had begun in December 1917, Barcons decided to plead guilty. His plea was accepted and his crime was fixed as first-degree murder on December 12. He was sentenced to death on February 1, 1918.
Kemanos, who claimed he was an unwitting and unarmed accomplice, was tried separately for each of the two murders. On December 16, 1917, he was acquitted of McLean’s murder after the jury refused to find him guilty of first-degree murder, its only available charge.
On February 7, 1918, after seven days of jury deliberations, he was convicted of first-degree murder for killing Erbe. He was sentenced to death on May 30, 1918.
Desperate to avoid execution, Kemanos offered himself to military service in the Great War. He also appealed his conviction, arguing his consecutive murder trials constituted double jeopardy.
Before the issue could be litigated, Kemanos, like Samuel Byrd and Jack Thompson soon after, died of tuberculosis in the Allegheny County Jail on November 29, 1918, during the global influenza pandemic that followed World War I. Michael Roma, who had been sentenced to death in 1912 and found insane and sent to Mayview State Hospital in 1913, died there of influenza one day before Kemanos.
His clemency request rejected, Samuel Barcons was electrocuted at Rockview on January 13, 1919.