Joseph H. Thomas

With world war and immigration quotas limiting the availability of once-plentiful Southern and Eastern European immigrants and black laborers moving and being moved in by labor agents to replace them, the Great Migration into the mills and mines of Pittsburgh had begun. With it, already high levels of racial animus soared.

Against that backdrop, Mrs. Annie Mary (Crider) Kirker was killed in her home in a tranquil and affluent section of Mifflin Township on December 16, 1920. She had been robbed, beaten, and shot once in the head; her body was found by her 19-year old daughter, Anna, when she returned home from college after a several day absence.

Police responded to the scene. When Kirker’s husband, Albert, returned from his work as a draftsman at a steel mill in nearby Glassport, police asked him to identify missing items. He reported that his gun and a small amount of cash had been taken.

Albert Kirker became the initial suspect in the murder. Beyond the broader truth that most domestic murders are committed by another resident of the home, Mr. Kirker acknowledged having argued with his wife the previous evening. Also, his missing gun was later determined to have been the caliber of weapon used in the killing and there were no signs of struggle at the home.

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Kirker denied any involvement, claiming he had been at work all day. A neighbor’s report of having seen Annie Kirker earlier in the day seemed to eliminate the possibility that the killing had occurred before Mr. Kirker left for work. Neighbors were adamant in supporting Kirker’s defense and were angry with police for questioning him.

Though there were no witnesses to the crime, which occurred in a secluded home with no nearby neighbors, a Black man had been seen in the neighborhood. Also, a bloody trail was left in the snow and a bloody coat was recovered.

A third theory focused on a “tramp” who had apparently been at the home and in the area. After being surveilled by police, he was dropped as a suspect.

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Pittsburgh Post, December 18, 1920

The coroner’s jury which determined that Kirker had been murdered included Pearl Biddleston, believed to be the first woman to serve as a juror in Allegheny County history. Her service had been enabled by the enactment of the Nineteenth Amendment, which had been ratified five months earlier.

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Pittsburgh Press, January 21, 1921

On February 1, 1921, with residents and police anxious about reports of a Black robber or robbers in the eastern suburbs of the city, police responded to a report of a Black man lurking near homes in Forest Hills. When police apprehended the man, a struggle followed and the man was shot by the officer.

The suspect was identified as Joseph Thomas, a 39-year old, Georgia-born mechanic, who was living and working at the sprawling Westinghouse factory in Wilmerding. When police searched his room, items said to be missing from the Kirker home and newspapers describing the crime were reportedly found. The Kirker murder and the spate of robberies were declared solved.

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Joseph Thomas

A week after his arrest, while in the hospital recovering from wounds that doctors thought might be fatal, Thomas jumped out a third story window and fled. A massive and frenzied nationwide manhunt ensued. The guard stationed at Thomas’s door was later determined to have been drunk.

Another murder of a young white woman in the Hill District added to the frenzy to find Thomas. There were reports that Thomas, by now racially caricatured as an “ape man,” was disguised as a woman and as a minister, that he was in his neighborhood, in the mountains, in Philadelphia, and on his way to Canada.

Months passed before Thomas was ultimately arrested in Baltimore in July 1921, after committing another robbery. Returned to Pittsburgh, Thomas was greeted by Mayor Babcock, who all but declared that he would be convicted and executed; a remarkably prejudicial statement from the city’s leading figure.

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Pittsburgh Press, July 22, 1921

In the midst of a highly charged racial climate, Thomas pleaded not guilty. His counsel offered no defense and Thomas did not speak on his own behalf; a defense strategy somewhere between unorthodox and incompetent. In his closing statement, Thomas’s attorney claimed the prosecution was racially motivated.

Thomas was convicted of first-degree murder on December 1, 1921, and sentenced to death on February 8, 1922. On appeal, Thomas argued that jury instructions related to the legal significance of his escape were prejudicial. His appeal rejected (Commonwealth v. Thomas, 275 Pa. 137, 1922) and his clemency request refused, Joseph Thomas was electrocuted on December 11, 1922.

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The efforts of Robert Vann, the wealthy and prominent Black publisher of the Pittsburgh Courier, to finance Thomas’s appeal or secure his commutation or pardon, had failed. No known copies survive of the Courier’s coverage of the case, which was surely more comprehensive and balanced than that published in any of the city’s white-owned newspapers.

A recent and excellent reexamination of this case in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette emphasized the prejudicial racism of that era and makes a compelling case that Thomas was innocent. In this version of the case, originally advanced by Robert Vann, Kirker’s husband, Albert H., 51, committed the murder and staged the crime scene, while police abetted this effort by planting evidence in Thomas’s room and building a case against an easily-demonized Black man. 

Supporting this case was a written statement from the jury foreman expressing doubt about the verdict, concern that the argument between the Kirker’s the night before the killing had not been mentioned at trial, and concern about the inadequacy of Thomas’s defense. Additional evidence was provided in a written statement from a man who swore to having seen Thomas on a train at the time of the murder.

Albert Kirker, a Pennsylvania-born steel industry draftsman, moved to California in the months after the murder, reportedly after suffering a “nervous breakdown” due to a “severe grilling” by police who suspected him of the murder. Police denied that account. He did not return to Pittsburgh for Thomas’s trial, nor for his daughter’s wedding a few years later.

In an article headlined with a reference to the “Ape Man,” Thomas noted just before his execution that “I am not afraid to die but I hate to go to the electric chair with the people calling me an ape man.”

image001The lead headline, ahead of national and international stories, April 20, 1921

The racist caricature of Thomas and the facile tale of his guilt became a staple of Pittsburgh crime journalism in much the same way as the case of Lorenzo Savage.

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Pittsburgh Sun Telegraph, February 26, 1936
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Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, March 25, 1939
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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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