William Durant Cole

William Durant (Buttons) Cole, a 28-year old former boxer with a lengthy record of sex offenses and a prior confession to a murder in Akron, Ohio, raped and killed his landlady, Pearl Lean Williams, in her Rose St., Hill District home on May 30, 1954. Williams, 30, had been strangled.

2142 Rose Street, now vacant

Cole, who had been released from prison on another rape conviction five months earlier, turned himself in to police and confessed on the same day as the murder.


At trial that December, Cole pleaded guilty, anticipating such a plea would result in a life sentence. He was instead sentenced to death by a three-judge panel on February 14, 1955.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, March 22, 1955

As part of his earlier conviction, for sexual assault of a 12-year old girl, Cole had been diagnosed as homicidal, perhaps indicative of boxing-related brain damage. The resulting report, which was read at Cole’s sentencing, concluded “there is no penance possible for persons of this kind. No hospital or prison can rehabilitate or make socially acceptable a human type like William Cole.” While in prison, Cole was involved in multiple violent incidents.

Western Penitentiary Admission Record, 1949

Cole aggressively pursued appeals and was aggressively rejected (Commonwealth v. Cole, 384 Pa. 40, 1955). In its opinion, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court wrote “The details of the murder to which the defendant in this case pleaded guilty are so revolting that no purpose can be served in sullying the printed pages of the State Report with a narration of the loathsome particulars. It is enough to say that a reading of the record establishes beyond the light’s shadow of even a mist of uncertainty that the facts spell first degree murder under the Criminal Code and all the decisions of this Court on the subject.”

William Durant Cole was executed on May 14, 1956. He was buried in the prison cemetery in Bellefonte, Centre County.

Pittsburgh Press, May 14, 1956

Though Cleveland Thompson was executed three years later, Cole’s death sentence had been imposed later, making his the last Allegheny County death sentence to result in an execution.


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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