Hungarian immigrant Steve Rusic boarded in the Ashton Alley, McKees Rocks home of Louis and Galvarra Domboy and worked at the nearby Pressed Steel Car Company. Referred to as “The Slaughterhouse,” the plant was the site of a lengthy strike in 1909 that exposed the system of industrial sharecropping, including frequent workplace deaths, forced labor, debt peonage, and systematic rape faced by its almost exclusively Eastern European labor force, and that ended in a violent attack by state police officers referred to by the strikers as “cossacks.”.
Only months after that strike, after Mrs. Domboy refused Rusic’s advances on the evening of January 15, 1910, Rusic shot her while she slept with her husband, Louis, and baby. She died immediately. Rusic also fired at Louis Domboy, but missed.
Rusic was arrested in the home of friends the following morning. Questioned by police, he claimed that he and Mrs. Domboy had been involved for several years in a consensual relationship she had initiated.
At trial, Louis Domboy was the featured prosecution witness. Rusic called no witnesses and offered little defense. He was convicted on May 17, 1910, and sentenced to death on June 2. After an unprecedented period of death penalty activity between 1897 and 1907, Rusic’s was the first death sentence imposed in the county in more than two years.
After an unsuccessful appeal (Commonwealth v. Rusic, 229 Pa. 587, 1911) and without resources to pursue a pardon, Steve Rusic went to the gallows singing a battle hymn on March 21, 1911.
While Rusic’s case is a rather ordinary capital homicide, it became a part of a much larger controversy when Frederick Merrick, editor of the local Socialist newspaper, Justice, published an editorial, titled “Justice, Thy Name is Mud,” critical of the presiding judge, Marshall Brown, for the harsh treatment of Rusic compared to the much more lenient treatment he provided to Brooks C. Buffington, in a homicide case that he tried at the same time. Brown, Merrick claimed, discriminated against Rusic as an Eastern European immigrant laborer at a time of heightened anti-immigrant and anti-labor tensions.
Buffington, meanwhile, escaped conviction for murder. On December 20, 1910, heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson was in Pittsburgh to watch a fight. Buffington, angered that a Black man held the heavyweight title and that he was in Pittsburgh on behalf of a white boxer, shot and killed Robert Mitchell in the bar of the St. Charles Hotel on Wood St. when Mitchell refused to share his racist views.
At trial, Buffington was acquitted on the grounds of alcohol-related insanity, though testimony indicated he was sober at the time and subsequent medical evaluations confirmed his good health.
Judge Brown sued Merrick for criminal libel, an unusually harsh allegation. Merrick was convicted.