Thomas Dunning

A decade after the end of the Revolutionary War, Thomas Dunning, a private in Captain Faulkner’s Rifle Company, was garrisoned at the newly-commissioned Fort Fayette under General Anthony Wayne. The rifle company had been raised in nearby Washington County.

Pittsburg in 1790

It was a particularly intense time at Fort Fayette, as General Wayne rigorously pushed and punished his troops in preparation for battle with Native Americans along the new nation’s western frontier. After losses in recent battles led by Generals Harmar and St. Clair, Wayne was determined to prevail.

Fort Fayette is denoted to the right of center

Though little information about this case survives (despite beginning publication in 1786, no known copies of the Pittsburgh Gazette for the years 1791 and 1792 survive), we know that Dunning killed his wife, Catherine Worthington, on July 30, 1792. The killing occurred by stabbing. Dunning claimed that he acted in “a frenzy of drunkenness.” He then attempted suicide by stabbing himself.

Subsequent reports, inclined as they were to normalize male violence, indicated Dunning and Worthington had a good relationship with no history of discord.

image002Connecticut Journal, August 22, 1793

Dunning, who is reported to have confessed, was convicted of murder on September 5, 1792. His death warrant was issued on December 12, 1792. With his pardon request rejected by Governor Thomas Mifflin, Pennsylvania’s first governor, Thomas Dunning was executed on January 26, 1793. Prior to his execution, he was described as showing “the strongest symptoms of sorrow and distress and every appearance of contrition and repentance.” He had no prior record.

image001Pittsburgh Weekly Gazette, February 2, 1793

Dunning’s was the first murder trial and first civil execution in Allegheny County. His hanging, at Boyd’s Hill, not far from the present-day courthouse, was public.

As with Mamachtaga’s case, which could well have been treated as an act of war and tried by military authorities, that Dunning’s case (and the Moode case two years hence) were tried in civilian court suggests an effort to separate military and civilian justice and establish the primacy and legitimacy of civil authority, even at this early age in the life of American law.

image001Pittsburgh Weekly Gazette, April 8, 1875

General Wayne ultimately prevailed against Native American forces at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in August 1794. As a result, the Northwest Territory was open to American settlement as the frontier was pushed further west. Under those circumstances, Pittsburgh moved from being a frontier town and military outpost to a commercial center supporting the westward expansion along the Ohio River.

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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