Due to a history of domestic violence, Martin Kristan and his wife, Mary (“Fannie”), had been separated for two years. During that time, Mary had entered into a relationship with another man, Martin Schreiber. Angry that she was not willing to reconcile with him, Kristan shot her with a rifle through the window of her home on September 23, 1914. Their children were home at the time.
Kristan was arrested soon after the shooting when his young son went to police. He confessed at the time of his arrest.
A Slovenian immigrant and coalminer for the Terminal Coal Company, Kristan lived and worked in a company town in Curry, Snowden Township, in southern Allegheny County.
After a short trial in which he was confronted with his confession and the testimony of his children, Kristan was convicted on December 22, 1914. He was sentenced to death on February 5, 1915.
Following an unsuccessful clemency request and the court’s determination that he was mentally fit, Martin Kristan was executed on March 20, 1916. It had been nearly five years since an Allegheny County inmate had been executed, the longest such delay in twenty-five years.
Pittsburgh Press, March 20, 1916
Kristan was the first Allegheny County inmate to be electrocuted and the first to be executed outside of Allegheny County.
On June 19, 1913, Pennsylvania had enacted legislation centralizing executions under state authority, moving all executions to the newly constructed Rockview State Penitentiary, and establishing that all executions would be done by electric chair (Act of June 19, 1913, Pa. Laws 528). After having set the standard for penal progressivism in the Revolutionary era, Pennsylvania had become a laggard. With this step, it moved, haltingly, into the modern era.
Another modernizing reform, allowing juries the discretion to impose a death or life sentence for a first-degree murder conviction, would not be enacted in Pennsylvania until 1925, well after that discretion had become commonplace, particularly outside of the south.
Since New York conducted the first execution by electrocution in 1890, a consensus had emerged that the electric chair represented a more humane means of execution. Whether it actually was is debatable, though it is clear that botched hangings were common. Contrary to the “science” of executions that was emerging at the time that indicated that hangings could reliably be achieved without strangulation, newspaper descriptions indicate strangulation, sometimes in combination with some other element of a botched execution, occurred routinely even into the Twentieth century.
This era was also marked by an abolition movement more extensive than in the previous seventy years. Between 1907 and 1917, eight states – Kansas (1907), Minnesota (1911), Washington (1913), Oregon (1914), South Dakota (1915), North Dakota (1915), Tennessee (1915), Arizona (1916), and Missouri (1917) – succeeded, at least temporarily, in abolishing the death penalty.
Though there was a distinct lull in death penalty activity in Pittsburgh during this era – with no executions in a thirty-four month period between 1908 and 1911 – the racial tensions of mass migration and immigration militated against abolitionism. University of Pennsylvania law professor Russell Duane articulated this position when he warned legislators that abolition was dangerous in a state “composed so largely of foreigners and Negroes.”