Clarence Williams, Cleo Peterson, and Robert Smith

In a case that closely resembled the Sled and Avery case in both crime and punishment and in the aggravating racial dynamics of each, Clarence Williams, Cleo Peterson, and Robert Smith killed August F. Braum, Jr., 52, during a robbery of his West Elizabeth meat market on October 4, 1930.

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Pittsburgh Press, October 10, 1930

Braum, a prominent local businessman and elected official whose family had operated the butcher shop for at least 40 years, was shot when he tried to defend himself with a butcher knife.

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First and Mill Sts., West Elizabeth

The assailants fled the scene and robbed a nearby gas station, part of a spree of robberies that continued until the next day. Williams, 20, and Peterson, 22, were arrested on October 17 after a gunfight with Donora police who suspected them of involvement in the recent robberies. Williams was shot while being apprehended. Smith had been arrested during a robbery on October 11.

Williams and Peterson provided information to police that linked Smith to Braum’s killing.

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The three defendants, all Southern-born migrants who worked in U.S. Steel’s massive Clairton works, were tried together and convicted of first-degree murder on February 13, 1931.

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The case against them was quite strong. They had committed numerous robberies, were involved in multiple shootings, and were in possession of stolen merchandise.

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Pittsburgh Press, February 13, 1931

The jury recommended death sentences for all three defendants, a highly unusual disposition for a murder with a single victim. A similar disposition had occurred only once before in Allegheny County; in a 1905 case involving three black defendants convicted of killing a white victim in a felony murder.

Smith became ill in jail on March 9 and died of pneumonia on March 14, 1931, before being formally sentenced to death. Williams and Peterson were sentenced to death on March 31.

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Routine appeals and pardon requests were filed, without success. Clarence Williams and Cleo Peterson were executed in succession on June 22, 1931, eight months after being arrested. The two men were buried where they were executed, at Western Penitentiary  (SCI Rockview) in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania.

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Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, June 23, 1931

With their executions, six black men had been tried for the murders of two white men in the space of one year. Five of them had been sentenced to death and four had been executed. Both inside the criminal justice system and outside, already high levels of racism were compounded by the economic hardship and competition for jobs caused by the Depression.

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Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, September 17, 1934

 

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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