The case of George “Babe” Jones and Jesse Carter presented an all too familiar series of events from that era: young working men, alcohol, and fighting, though with one important difference. On April 4, 1882, in a series of events most similar to the case of John Lutz a quarter century earlier, Jones and Carter killed John Foster outside Martin Carney’s Saloon, at 104 Water St., downtown.
Earlier that day, the eighteen-year old Jones had been involved in an argument with another man at a different bar when Foster, a steamboat worker from West Virginia whose ship was docked at the nearby wharf, intervened. Jones vowed and took revenge, shooting Foster, who died more than three months later, on July 25, 1882.
Jones fled, and was arrested a week later in Erie. Jesse Carter, who had accompanied Jones in purchasing the gun and was present for the shooting, was arrested on April 5.
Jones was convicted of first-degree murder on December 17, 1882, after his insanity defense failed. Despite his secondary role and the absence of evidence of his involvement with Jones at the time of the shooting, Carter was convicted of first-degree murder on February 22, 1883.
The newspapers cast Jones in the most unfavorable light. Whereas his youth and poverty might have diminished his responsibility, he was portrayed as beyond redemption. Whereas the months that passed between the shooting and Foster’s death and the serious questions this raised about the role of Foster’s medical care in his death,* may have diminished his crime, such consideration was not forthcoming.
“He will soon stretch hemp,” the Cincinnati Enquirer (December 18, 1882) declared at the time of his conviction; “he will hang beyond a doubt.”
George Jones hanged on April 3, 1884, before a large crowd inside the jailyard. Several days before his execution, he swore under oath that Carter was not involved in the killing (Pittsburgh Post, April 1, 1884).
Despite commentary that he was certain to be spared, even pardoned, due to his limited role in the case, Jesse Carter was executed two months later, on June 3. Newspaper accounts stated that his hanging attracted less attention than any in memory.
What distinguishes this case from its predecessors, of course, is that Jones and Carter were black, a circumstance that allowed Jones’s youth and disadvantage to compound his dangerousness and Carter’s modest role in the case to be separated from his fate.
Both had been born into slavery and had come to Pittsburgh only recently. Described as a “quadroon by complexion,” Jones was portrayed as particularly dangerous; light-skinned, handsome, dashing, a real underworld character who “haunts low gambling dens, preys upon the earnings of the river roustabouts or thrives off the gains of cyprians” (Daily Republican, April 5, 1882). Foster, on the other hand, was cast as a fine example of his race, “an industrious colored man.”
As far away as Kansas, the Leavenworth Times (April 4, 1884) triumphed his execution as a “Neck-Tie Festival,” an allusion common to lynchings.
Ninety-nine years after Pittsburgh’s first execution, this was the first case in which black defendants were sentenced to death for a crime that took place outside of the home and outside of the intimate relationships found there.
* A week before Jones’ execution, the Toledo Blade (March 27, 1884, p.8) published a story suggesting that the surgical procedure used on Foster, also used in an unsuccessful effort to save the life of President Garfield, may have contributed to his death.