William McDonald

In another case of fatal jealousy, William McLeod McDonald, alias Smith, recent emigre from England, killed his common law wife, Mrs. Bessie Hyslop Smith.

Across the street from 825 Beech, which has been torn down. Gertrude Stein was born several doors down in 1874

He cut her throat with a razor at their home at 825 Beech Avenue, North Side, on September 18, 1907, upon discovering that she had been receiving letters from a man in England. After killing his wife, McDonald drank poison in an attempt to commit suicide.

Pittsburgh Press, September 19, 1907


The couple had left England for Pittsburgh after McDonald secured his release from prison, where he was serving a sentence for non-support of his wife and six children. They arrived in Pittsburgh only six weeks before the murder.

Ms. Smith, a spiritualist medium, had confided in friends that McDonald was intensely jealous of the people she met in connection with her work.

At trial, the principal witness against McDonald was Smith’s young son, who witnessed the killing. In his defense, McDonald claimed insanity. After lengthy jury deliberations, McDonald was convicted of first-degree murder on October 25, 1907; only five weeks after the murder. Court-watchers anticipated a second-degree murder conviction.

Pittsburgh Press, September 19, 1907

After his conviction and subsequent death sentence, McDonald actively wrote letters to friends in England urging assistance in stopping his execution. Those efforts led to a pardon campaign by fellow Scots in Pittsburgh and abroad.

Though entreaties by high-ranking British officials brought a stay of execution, the Pardon Board refused to intervene and efforts to have McDonald’s sanity reviewed were unsuccessful.

Pittsburgh Press, April 28, 1908

Blaming Smith for turning him from a Christian life, William McDonald was hanged in the Allegheny County Jail on April 28, 1908. He was the first person hanged using the new, permanent, and more efficient gallows.

Pittsburgh Press, October 7, 1928

Accompanying its coverage of the execution, the Pittsburgh Press published a remarkable front-page article. Written by an unnamed minister and witness to the execution, it aggressively supported the death penalty. The author begins by noting that “[t]aking human life, with the sanction and hand of the law, is not so fearful a thing as it seems. In fact, there is little or no feeling of distress when a man, whose career has been a menace to his time and his kind, is taken away…It is only soft, squeamish sentimentalism which thinks and expresses itself otherwise.” The author continues, drawing on the Social Darwinism of the era, by noting that “there are many persons…who would be well out of the way. The world would be better for the elimination of such persons….The execution…is merely, as I take it, a help to nature.”

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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