William Kennie Wilson

Rose Haber, a 35-year old store clerk, was robbed and beaten after she exited a bus in front of 5749 Jackson St. in East Liberty on the night of July 12, 1941.

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5749 Jackson St., 2019

With the help of bystanders, she made her way to a nearby drugstore where she reportedly talked about her assault and assailant with the police and others.

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Former drugstore, 901 North St. Clair St.

Transported to Shadyside Hospital, where she was initially thought to be recovering, she died the following afternoon.

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Pittsburgh Press, July 14, 1941

Little is known about what Haber was able to report. Surviving police and coroner records do not include a description of her assailant. The first newspaper account of the crime recounts a description of a “white man” wearing “light colored slacks, a white shirt and a sailor straw hat” (Pittsburgh Press, July 14, 1941). Subsequent press reports make no reference to the assailant’s race.

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With all the elements of a panic – an unsolved, late night, stranger-based murder of a white woman in a residential area – and other unsolved crimes in the area, police were under intense pressure to make an arrest. All they had to go on were the reports provided by Haber and others at the scene. Most promising was the report of a young woman, Ella Kennedy, who had witnessed the assault from inside a home next to the bus stop.

image001Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, July 16, 1941

In September, police arrested and briefly held Hoy Kenneth Houck, a white man linked to a series of assaults of women in and around Lock Haven, Pa., though no evidence linked him to Haber’s murder. The “natty dresser” was released after several days of questioning based on evidence he could not have been in Pittsburgh at the time of the killing.

In February, 1942, seven months after the murder, suspicion fell briefly on Raymond Dumont, also white, who had assaulted a woman in McDonald, Pa. Ella Kennedy told police “she was positive” he matched the description of the man she had seen assault Haber (Pittsburgh Press, February 4, 1942). Dumont was also released due to a lack of evidence.

Pressure continued to mount. Then, on March 19, 1942, 20-year old William Kennie Wilson, a homeless, Alabama-born black migrant who was in custody for assaulting Victoria May on the North Side days earlier, confessed to killing Haber. Police were “baffled” and “puzzled” by his confession and reenactment of the crime, which did not match the “known facts” of the case (Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph, March 19, 1941). A second reenactment conducted a week later resulted in an “entirely different” scenario, compounding the confusion of police (Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph, March 26, 1942).

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Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph, March 19, 1942

Up to this point, police had not given any indication that Haber’s killer might be black, despite accounts from witnesses. Neither had the newspapers, which covered the investigation closely and were always ready for the type of incendiary crime story a black man preying on white women would have provided.

Also troubling was that news reports of May’s assault had described her assailant as a “giant colored man” (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, March 19, 1942). Wilson’s World War II Draft Registration card, filled out a month before his arrest, listed him as 5’7” and 157lbs.

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  • image from the Pittsburgh Press, March 19, 1942. Notice how small Wilson is compared to the men with whom he is speaking.

Indicted on April 15, Wilson entered a plea of not guilty on May 4, before withdrawing it and pleading guilty the next day after a church missionary interceded. He also pleaded guilty to other robberies, rapes, and assaults, clearing numerous serious crimes for police.

William Wilson was formally sentenced to death by a three-judge panel on May 14. His defense plea for mercy, during which his attorney, P.J. Clyde Randall, told the court that “this defendant has the mind of a child….I don’t mean he’s insane. This boy doesn’t have the same viewpoint of other youths his age,” was rejected.

Poor, alone, disadvantaged in numerous ways, and without benefit of trial, appeal, clemency review, or competency hearing – a remarkable lack of due process for a death penalty case – William Wilson was executed on August 10, 1942.

Having carefully investigated this case, I believe there is a compelling argument to be made that the State of Pennsylvania had executed an innocent man.
* Wilson’s family had moved north from Alabama to the coalfields of Cecil, Washington County, when he was a child. Raised in company housing in the coal town of Lawrence, Wilson moved by himself to Pittsburgh in the late 1930s, where he lived on the streets or in the Catholic Worker-led St. Joseph’s House of Hospitality in the Hill District.

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The former Haber residence, 922 North St. Clair St.

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.

6 thoughts on “William Kennie Wilson”

  1. My name is Mark Kahn and Rose Haber (the victim of the crime) was my great aunt. I’ve recently been collecting newspaper articles about this crime, and noticed that some of the stories refer to Wilson’s “child-like mind” and describe a timeline with a relatively quick execution following the crime. It seems to call into question whether he knew what he was confessing to and whether or not the process was entirely fair. Do you have any reason to question his guilt or the fairness of the process?

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    1. These are very good questions. Indictions of Wilson’s limited intelligence, the racist media tropes of large and powerful Black men, the inconsistencies between his confession and the “known facts” of the case, and the fact that the state’s case was never tried are all troubling. Without a trial record or police records (which are not available), answering these questions is difficult. What I plan to do is to try to find the case coverage provided by the Pittsburgh Courier, Pittsburgh’s famous Black newspaper. That coverage is not available at the online source I use.

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  2. You may be interested in my book “Nittany Nightmare: The Sex Murders of 1938-1940 and the Panic at Penn State,” which cites your website and further explores the connection between the Haber murder and Hoy Houck. What happened to Willie appears in hindsight to be no less than a railroad job by authorities. The difference in treatment of the white Houck and the African-American Wilson for their similar crimes by judges is also eye-opening.

    I want to thank you, Mr. Lofquist, for your fine work that helped me round out my own story in the book.

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    1. Thanks for writing. I recently bought and read your book after seeing a reference to it in my research on Houck. The information you provided was very helpful. Thank you. As I continue my research on the Wilson case, I become more convinced that he was innocent. I will be updating my website to reflect that new research soon.

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  3. Awesome I am glad it was helpful! I would have loved to have talked to Houck…There was a lot going through that guy’s head I would like insight into.

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