Joseph Zimmerlee, a 55-year old German immigrant, his wife, Anna Marie, and their two adult children lived on Fifth St. (now Avenue), downtown.
There, on September 11, 1848, Zimmerlee stabbed and beat his wife during a drunken argument over money. She died of multiple stab wounds on September 16, after being able to report to police that her husband had stabbed her.
Evidence indicates that Zimmerlee was an advanced alcoholic, with signs of alcohol-induced insanity. The narrative that emerged was that Zimmerlee was a sober and well-liked man in Germany, but turned to alcohol after his daughter was sexually abused by his wife’s brother. From there, his life eroded. His family was poor; he worked only infrequently as a shoemaker.
At trial, Zimmerlee pleaded not guilty and claimed he acted in self-defense against an abusive wife. No evidence of prior abuse by Zimmerlee against his wife was presented. He was convicted of first-degree murder on December 2, 1848.
Public reaction against the verdict was strong – the Pittsburgh Daily Post declared “no event has occurred for years more horrible than th[is] conviction” (December 4, 1848) – due to Zimmerlee’s alcoholism and the broad public endorsement of patriarchal violence.
A motion for a new trial was quickly filed and was granted on January 15, 1849. At retrial in April 1849, Zimmerlee was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to twelve years in prison.