Paul Orlakowski

In terms of ruthlessness and sheer determination to avoid punishment for his many crimes, perhaps no Allegheny County offender surpasses Paul Orlakowski.

Orlakowski was serving seven to ten years in Western Penitentiary for a November 15, 1921, bank robbery in Imperial, itself committed while on parole for a West Virginia bank robbery, when he organized a spectacular plot to escape from prison. As a leader of the “Four Horseman,” Orlakowski, and fellow inmates Salvatore Battaglia, Michael Norton, and James Yandis, took advantage of weak and corrupt prison security to stockpile dynamite and dozens of weapons.

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On February 11, 1924, they carried out their plot. When the dynamite failed to open the prison wall, the four men were left to fight it out with prison guards. The first two guards to respond, Assistant Deputy Warden John A. Pieper and Sergeant John T. Coax, were shot and killed. The riot that followed lasted two hours before guards, reinforced by city police, were able to restore order.

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Confronted by inculpatory testimony from guards and fellow inmates, as well as by police testimony that Orlakowski had confessed, he was convicted of first-degree murder on May 16, 1924, and sentenced to death on July 30, 1926.

The long delay between his conviction and his death sentence resulted from Orlakowski’s effort to argue that his conviction was invalid because he was convicted of two murders by the same jury. Whether such proceedings were unconstitutional was settled in favor of the state by the United States Supreme Court in the Allegheny County case of Joseph Valotta on March 15, 1926.

Battaglia and Norton were both convicted of second-degree murder in separate trials. Yandis was acquitted. James Kearns, who was alleged to have aided in the planning but did not participate in the attempted escape and riot, was also acquitted.

On March 8, 1926, Orlakowski, later dubbed “Pittsburgh’s toughest prisoner” (Pittsburgh Press, July 31, 1930), charged after Warden John McNeil with a homemade knife. When stopped, he stabbed two guards, Clarence Welsh and John Bell; both survived.

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Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, March 9, 1926

His appeal and commutation request were rejected. After having spared no effort, legal or otherwise, to prevent his execution, Paul Orlakowski went to the electric chair on December 27, 1926.

An investigation into how so much dynamite and so many weapons were smuggled in to the jail concluded that the contraband, as well as drugs and alcohol, were hidden just outside the prison and smuggled in by trustees allowed to work on the grounds surrounding the prison.

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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