It’s a case that both flaunts and implicates the racial and sexual taboos so prominent at the time and baffles contemporary readers for the utter absence of any coherent narrative as to what happened.
The body of 28-year old Elsie Barthel was discovered outside Shadyside, an abandoned mansion in Pittsburgh’s East End built by steel pioneer Curtis Hussey, by Alexander McGonigle as he walked his dog on the morning of October 7, 1923. Her head had been crushed by a large stone. One early newspaper story indicated Barthel’s body was identified by John R. Daugherty, identified as her fiance.
Barthel was single, living in her parents’ Bloomfield home, and working as a secretary and nurse for prominent Pittsburgh doctor, Robert S. Marshall.
By October 8, police had secured the confession of Lorenzo Savage, described as a “Jamaican voodoo doctor,” after hours of intensive interrogation. Savage, who worked as a butler for Dr. Marshall, became a suspect after Barthel’s family identified him as the man Barthel spoke with on the phone on the day of her death.
At the time of her death, Barthel was pregnant, apparently by someone other than the man she was planning to marry, Walter Haule, who worked as a chauffeur. (In the discrete fashion of the day, newspaper accounts often suggested that Barthel was ill or was trying to attract a husband, rather than pregnant.)
Barthel’s pregnancy (which was confirmed by autopsy) was not yet known to others, and she was desperate to terminate it before it was detected.
In the state’s version of events, Barthel sought out Savage, who was known to offer card readings and potions, for assistance with her urgent and delicate personal matter. In September, he told her to carry a particular set of playing cards as a way to end the pregnancy. For his services, Savage was said to have charged $395 (equivalent to nearly $6,000 today).
Barthel and Savage, the state argued, met clandestinely outside the Hussey Mansion on the evening of October 6, where they exchanged the money. When Barthel tried to take the money back, Savage became upset and struck her with a stone, crushing her skull. The money was not found at the scene. Haule is said to have driven Savage from the meeting.
Arrested the next day, Savage confessed under questioning by police and reenacted the murder.
Both the Chicago Defender and the Baltimore Afro-American, two prominent Black newspapers of the era, repeated the state’s sensationalistic and racist caricaturization of Savage in stories replete with chants, drums, jungles, and snakes. The Pittsburgh Courier took a much more skeptical approach to the state’s case.
Despite the many questions raised by the case, it was expected to move quickly to trial. The Pittsburgh Post noted that “a record for speedy justice is expected to be set” (October 17, 1923).
At trial, Savage pleaded not guilty and claimed that his confession was produced by beatings and death threats from police. He was convicted on November 22, 1923, by a jury of twelve white men, only six weeks after Barthel’s murder.
His motion for a new trial was denied by the court that convicted him and he was sentenced to death on January 30, 1924. Lacking the financial resources for appellate review or a clemency campaign, Savage was taken to Rockview and electrocuted on March 31, 1924, without any independent review of his case. He was buried in the prison cemetery.
Few cases proceeded from arrest to execution any faster (167 days) or received less post-conviction review, and far more than most this case cried out for such review. The state’s version of the case is clouded by a series of troubling questions. Most broadly, the repeated characterizations of Savage as a “Negro high priest of voodoo,” a Jamaican voodoo doctor, and a diabolical menace, despite having been born in Virginia to parents also born in Virginia, portray him as dangerous and exotic in ways that are racist and highly prejudicial.
That racism and associated violence were endemic at the time; a reaction against the Great Migration that was bringing unprecedented numbers of black people, particularly young, male laborers, into Pittsburgh and elsewhere in the urban north. The result was a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, which staged a large rally in nearby Carnegie two months prior to Barthel’s murder, and racial terror more generally.
Add to that the racial sexual dynamic in which the prior relationship and clandestine meetings between Barthel and Savage suggest the possibility that he is the father of her unborn child (a possibility acknowledged in one newspaper story), the presence of Haule at the scene, the identification of Daugherty as a second (or third) love interest of Barthel’s, the implausibility of Barthel – a nurse – believing that playing cards could terminate her pregnancy and paying the equivalent of thousands of dollars for that chance, and the likelihood of a coerced confession, and alternative and much less convoluted theories of the case become obvious.
Was Barthel’s death somehow related to an abortion? What was Haule’s role in the case? Was it merely a coincidence that he picked up Savage on the evening of the murder? Why was he dismissed as a suspect so quickly? Likewise with Daugherty, who is mentioned early in the coverage of the case but does not appear to figure in the trial. What about the reports of screams and screeching tires heard at the Hussey mansion late on the night of October 6? Does that indicate Barthel was killed elsewhere and transported there?
The police and court records with which to better answer these questions are lost. Yet, in reading the newspaper coverage, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Savage was knowingly and wrongly convicted and executed or, at least, that the theory of the case on which he was convicted is deeply flawed, as the preferable option to openly acknowledging the circumstances of Barthel’s pregnancy.
The types of police tactics implicated in the likely wrongful convictions of Savage and Joseph Thomas, as well as in other cases involving Black defendants during this particularly racist era, became a focus of official attention. Only modest reforms were undertaken.