George Douglass

On May 23, 1897, less than a month after the case of Philip Hill drew racially-charged attention to the camps of black miners in the coalfields of Allegheny County, George Douglass, James Smith, and Albert Grayer were part of a group of coal miners playing cards on a Sunday morning in the mining hamlet of Snowden, south of Pittsburgh.

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In the course of the game, Smith accused Douglass of cheating. Douglass vowed revenge. After getting a gun, he went to the boarding house where Smith was living.

When Douglass encountered Smith, Grayer intervened. The two men spoke briefly before Douglass fired and killed Grayer, shooting him in the head. By other accounts, Douglass shot through a door and struck Grayer without seeing him. He then fled and was quickly apprehended by police.

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Pittsburgh Commercial Gazette, May 24, 1897

Confronted by the eyewitness testimony of Smith and others, Douglass was convicted of first-degree murder on July 15, 1897, and sentenced to death.

George Douglass was hanged on November 30, 1897.

Douglass, Grayer, and Smith were Southern-born and single, drawn north to work in the coalfields.

A series of violent crimes involving this initial wave of black migrants to Allegheny County led to the first episode in which public, media, and legal voices actively constructed and vigorously mobilized against a criminalized, dangerous image of black men.

In stoking this racist sentiment, note how newspaper coverage, particularly of the Pittsburgh Daily Post, links the events in Snowden and Unity though the two communities were twenty miles apart and the miners in each town had no connections to one another.

Subsequent episodes would occur with subsequent waves of black migration, first after the turn of the twentieth century and later in the early 1920s.

Author: Bill Lofquist

I am a sociologist and death penalty scholar at the State University of New York at Geneseo. I am also a Pittsburgh native. My present research focuses on the history of the death penalty in Allegheny County (Pittsburgh), Pa. This website is dedicated to collecting, analyzing, and sharing information about all Allegheny County cases in which a death sentence was imposed. Please share any questions or comments, errors or omissions, or other matters of interest related to these cases or to the broader history of the death penalty in Allegheny County.

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