At the peak of the Gilded Age, among industrialists who made Pittsburgh home to some of the richest men in the world, George Schmous, a German-immigrant iron worker, lived in poverty with his wife, Catherine, and their four children on Oak Alley, on the steep slopes of the South Side just above the Knoxville Incline.
There, in the middle of the night of July 26, 1893, in “one of the most dastardly crimes ever recorded” in the area, Schmous killed his wife and two daughters, Mary and Maggie, beating them with a hatchet and a lamp while they slept, then attempting to set the house on fire to conceal the crime. The beatings were especially vicious. Neighbors intervened before the fire could spread.
Newspaper coverage of the killing was strikingly sexist in its discussion of the circumstances leading to the crime. While characterizing the Schmous’s as poor, unhappy, and struggling, Catherine was described as “a peculiar woman,” unclean, having a violent temper, and a “reputation as a fighter.” George, on the other hand, was “peaceable, honest, and industrious,” though “a German of a very low grade of intelligence” (Pittsburgh Press, July 26, 1893).
Schmous was immediately arrested. He confessed to firemen and police on the scene, but denied his guilt at trial. Though the motive for the crime was not clearly established, speculation focused on an insurance policy on the lives of the children that was in Schmous’s possession. Schmous was also heard to say that he was driven mad by Catherine.
After a brief trial, Schmous was found guilty on September 23, 1893. “The defense was lame,” the Daily Post noted. His claims of insanity and imbecility were unsuccessful in gaining a new trial or a pardon, though the evidence of his mental instability was certainly present.
George Schmous was hanged on September 20, 1894. In its lengthy execution day story, the Pittsburgh Press was especially sympathetic toward Schmous, stating that it was Catherine “who generally caused the trouble in the marriage,” reciting as fact the story Schmous told of the killings, even entertaining the argument that George was innocent and that a neighbor who had a grievance with Catherine had killed her.
An autopsy showed that Schmous was “perfectly sane and a perfectly fit subject to suffer the law’s greatest penalty.”
Johnnie Schmous was adopted into the German community in Pittsburgh.