Who Killed Rose Haber and Other Pittsburgh Murder Mysteries

Rose Haber, a 35-year old store clerk, was robbed and beaten after she exited a bus in East Liberty on the night of July 12, 1941. With the help of bystanders, she made her way to a nearby drugstore where she reportedly talked about her assault and assailant with the police and others. Transported to Shadyside Hospital, where she was initially thought to be recovering, she died the following afternoon.

Little is known about what Haber was able to report. Surviving police and coroner records do not include a description of her assailant. The first newspaper account of the crime recounts a description of a “white man” wearing “light colored slacks, a white shirt and a sailor straw hat.”[1] Subsequent press reports make no reference to the assailant’s race.

With all the elements of a panic – an unsolved, late night, stranger-based murder of a white woman in a residential area – and other unsolved crimes in the area, police were under intense pressure to make an arrest. All they had to go on were the reports provided by Haber and others at the scene. Most promising was the report of a young woman who had witnessed the assault from inside a home next to the bus stop.

In September, police arrested and briefly held Hoy Kenneth Houck, a white man linked to a series of assaults of women in and around Lock Haven, Pa., though no evidence linked him to Haber’s murder.[2] The “natty dresser” was released after several days of questioning based on evidence he could not have been in Pittsburgh at the time of the killing.[3]

In February, 1942, seven months after the murder, suspicion fell briefly on Raymond Dumont, also white, who had assaulted a woman in McDonald, Pa. The woman who had witnessed the attack from her home told police “she was positive” he matched the description of the man she had seen assault Haber.[4] Dumont was also released due to a lack of evidence.

Pressure continued to mount. Then, on March 19, 1942, 20-year old William Kennie Wilson, a homeless, Alabama-born black migrant who was in custody for assaulting Victoria May on the North Side days earlier, confessed to killing Haber.[5] Police were “baffled” and “puzzled” by his confession and reenactment of the crime, which did not match the “known facts” of the case.[6] A second reenactment conducted a week later resulted in an “entirely different” scenario, compounding the confusion of police.[7]

Up to this point, police had not given any indication that Haber’s killer might be black, despite accounts from witnesses. Neither had the newspapers, which covered the investigation closely and were always ready for the type of incendiary crime story a black man preying on white women would have provided.[8]

Also troubling was that news reports of May’s assault had described her assailant as a “giant colored man.”[9] Wilson’s World War II Draft Registration card, filled out a month before his arrest, listed him as 5’7” and 157lbs.

Indicted on April 15, Wilson entered a plea of not guilty on May 4, before withdrawing it and pleading guilty the next day after a church missionary interceded. He also pleaded guilty to other robberies, rapes, and assaults, clearing numerous serious crimes for police.

William Wilson was formally sentenced to death by a three-judge panel on May 14. His defense plea for mercy, during which his attorney, P.J. Clyde Randall, told the court that “this defendant has the mind of a child….I don’t mean he’s insane. This boy doesn’t have the same viewpoint of other youths his age,” was rejected.[10] Poor, alone, disadvantaged in numerous ways, and without benefit of trial, appeal, clemency review, or competency hearing – a remarkable lack of due process for a death penalty case – Wilson was executed on August 10, 1942.

Yes, William Wilson confessed. All things considered, though, how confident can we be that he killed Rose Haber?

State Killings in the Steel City

Over the past several years, I have been working to document every death sentence imposed in Allegheny County history. Through this effort, which has produced the most comprehensive database of death penalty cases for any county in the country, I have documented 201 death sentences and 102 executions.[11]

Beginning with Mamachtaga,[12] a Lenape man executed for killing two white settlers in 1785, and ending with Richard Poplawski, a white supremacist who remains on death row for the 2009 murder of three Pittsburgh police officers, these cases provide a dramatic history not only of crime and punishment but of Pittsburgh. The roles of migration and immigration and their connections to racial discrimination, seen particularly in the vastly disproportionate death sentencing and execution of black defendants who kill white victims;[13] the inequitable gender relations, most visible in the often overlooked histories of domestic violence that preceded many intimate partner murders; and the misery and exploitation experienced by many capital murderers and victims, often recent entrants into the steel mills and coal mines, are all prominent themes.

Also scattered among these cases are some mysteries, including cases in which serious questions can be raised about the guilt of the defendant, cases that likely involve other unrecognized victims of the defendant, and cases of defendants who disappeared. These are some of those mysteries.

Wrongful Convictions

Six Allegheny County men have had their death sentences pardoned on the basis of a legal finding that they were uninvolved in the murder for which they were sentenced to death. Monroe Stewart was a friend of Henry Fife who was sentenced to death with Fife and Fife’s companion, Charlotte Jones, in the 1857 double murder of Jones’s aunt and uncle. After Jones made a gallows confession that she had falsely implicated Stewart, he was exonerated only to die a few weeks later of smallpox likely contracted in jail.

Alexander Killen was sentenced to death for his part in a jewelry store robbery-murder that killed Mary Ann Rudert in Tarentum in 1889. After having his death sentence commuted to life in 1891 when the Pardon Board found he had been overcharged, doubts grew as to whether he was involved at all in the crime. With the backing of influential civic figures who professed his innocence, Killen was granted a full pardon nearly twenty years later, in 1909.

Andrew Toth, Michael Sabol, and George Rusnock, recently arrived Hungarian-immigrant steelworkers, were sentenced to death for killing Michael Quinn, a steel mill supervisor, during a strike at the Edgar Thomson Works on January 1, 1891. With labor unrest increasing and the spectre of the epic Homestead Strike looming, the three “riotous Huns” were caught up in the anti-immigrant, anti-labor, anti-leftist politics of the time and sentenced to death.[14] A national and international clemency campaign organized by labor and Eastern European immigrant groups followed, resulting in the commutation of their sentences in 1892.

Pardon campaigns followed, during which local legal authorities acknowledged the fervor that had “railroaded” the three men.[15] Sabol was pardoned in 1895; Rusnock followed in 1897; Toth was not pardoned until 1911, probably due to confusion between him and Steven Toth, an unrelated fellow steelworker believed to have been responsible for Quinn’s killing but never apprehended. Toth was declared “innocent almost beyond a doubt” when finally released.[16]

Finally is the case of Albert Carelli. Like Killen, Carelli had a criminal history that made him suspicious to authorities when his “Blue Bandana” gang was implicated in the 1923 robbery-murder of Philip Flynn, an East End bartender. Though he confessed, Carelli claimed his confession was  beaten out of him and otherwise steadfastly maintained his innocence. He was convicted and sentenced to death in 1924. That death sentence was commuted to life the following year after the Pardon Board supported his claim that he was in Ohio at the time of Flynn’s killing. Carelli was pardoned and released from prison later in 1925, though he spent much of the next three decades in court and in prison on a series of robbery, burglary, and other charges.

Beyond the doubts raised here about the guilt of William Wilson and elsewhere about the guilt of Joseph Thomas,[17] another black man executed for killing a white woman in the 1920s, there may very well be other cases in which the capital defendant’s guilt would not withstand the scrutiny of fuller reinvestigation.[18] Convictions achieved in the white heat of elevated racial, anti-immigrant, and anti-labor tensions would seem to be particularly vulnerable.[19]

Consider the case of Lorenzo Savage, for example, a so-called “voodoo doctor” executed for the 1923 murder of Elsie Barthel, an unmarried, pregnant white woman apparently in search of an abortion.[20] Savage’s conviction is so fraught with racial and sexual taboo in an era in which such taboos were deadly that, at the very least, it is difficult to accept the state’s theory that he acted alone. Particularly when all three of the men most likely to have impregnated Barthel were very near the scene of her killing.[21]

Missing Murderers

In other cases, the mystery centers on what happened to the defendant after being sentenced to death. The story of the Biddle Boys, prominent in Pittsburgh folklore and literally cinematic in its scope, is certainly the best known case of death-sentenced inmates fleeing jail and future execution, in this case to be killed in their escape.[22] It is not the only such case, though.

The less well-known death row escapes of Paul Jaworski (or Jawarski) and John Vasbinder are no less dramatic. They are also the source of an enduring mystery. Paul Jaworski is among the most infamous of Pittsburgh’s many murderers and the city’s primary contribution to the gangster pantheon of the Roaring ‘20s. Three times he and his Flathead Gang carried our daring robberies of payroll deliveries; in 1922 in Beadling, in 1925 in Castle Shannon, and in 1927 in Bethel Park; twice killing the drivers and the third time making history by using a roadside bomb in the nation’s first armored car robbery.

Eluding arrest until 1927, Jaworski was sentenced to death after pleading guilty to killing the two drivers, John Ross[23] and Isiah Gump. While on death row, he met John Vasbinder, a small-time crook from Clarion County who had murdered Stephen Yelich in McKeesport during a robbery in 1926.

With the outside assistance of Jaworski’s brother and fellow gangster, Sam, Vasbinder and Jaworski escaped from Allegheny County Jail in 1927, leaving two guards wounded.[24] On the lam, they killed Anthony Wieczorek, a Cleveland police officer who was trying to apprehend them in 1928. Jaworski was arrested, extradited to Pittsburgh, returned to death row, and executed in 1929.

Vasbinder’s flight continued. After reported sightings of him in Clarion County, Buffalo, Cleveland, Texas, Alabama, and elsewhere, the trail for Vasbinder went cold. A 1962 investigation by the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office found no trace of him. John Vasbinder had vanished.

Likewise with Edward Exler. In a case that garnered enormous media and public attention from the moment it occurred through every twist and turn of its decades-long history, twelve-year old Lillian Schadle was raped and killed not long after leaving her North Versailles home on the afternoon of Wednesday, November 27, 1912. Her mother had sent her on an errand to buy groceries for Thanksgiving.

A massive search followed news of Schadle’s disappearance. Her body was recovered from the Westinghouse Reservoir, Wilkins Township, on Thanksgiving evening. Attention had been focused on that area after witnesses reported seeing a man with a large bag acting in an unusual manner. Schadle’s killer, it was later learned, watched as the reservoir was drained and her body recovered.

A week-long intensive police manhunt led to Edward Exler, who was arrested December 4. Police determined that Lillian’s last stop was a North Braddock butcher shop owned by Edward’s father, Frank Exler. A girl matching Schadle’s description had been seen walking with the 25-year old Exler from the shop toward a nearby stable. The rape and murder likely occurred there.

Once arrested, twenty-eight hours of continuous “sweating” by rotating teams of detectives did not produce a confession. Exler, who had a prior arrest for improper contact with girls, consistently denied any involvement in Schadle’s murder.

Witness testimony and evidence collected at the scene and at Exler’s home formed the core of the state’s case. After brief jury deliberations, Exler was convicted of first-degree murder on March 1, 1913. Exler’s father, stalwart in support of his son, retained top quality legal counsel to fight Edward’s conviction. On appeal, Exler argued that Schadle’s death did not constitute first-degree murder. In a split decision premised on an exceedingly strict construction of the underlying statute, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court agreed.[25]

His conviction reversed, Exler was then indicted for rape rather than murder. After a long and contentious second trial, he was convicted and sentenced to 12-13½ years in prison. Disgraced, his family relocated to Troy Hill. Eleven months after his release from Western Penitentiary in 1928, Exler was arrested for raping a six-year old girl on the North Side. His father posted bail. Exler skipped bail and fled, never to be seen again. At his family’s urging, Edward Exler was declared legally dead in 1940.[26]

Missing Murders?

Finally are the cases in which the mystery centers on uncertainty as to who was killed and the possibility that there were additional, unrecognized victims of the defendant. Perhaps the clearest case of this type is provided by Pittsburgh’s most notorious serial murderer, the so-called “Pittsburgh poisoner” and “Pittsburgh Borgia,” Martha Grinder. Her story of slowly poisoning untold numbers of household help, neighbors, and family that she was thought to be caring for in Civil War-era Pittsburgh was a national sensation as it unfolded.[27]

Though Grinder was tried and convicted only of murdering her neighbor, Mary Caruthers, she was widely believed to have also killed her maid, Jane Buchanan, and her brother-in-law, Samuel. Stories also linked her to the deaths of another brother-in-law, another neighbor, as well as other relatives, neighbors, and visitors to her home. How many of these are credible allegations and how many are mythmaking remains a mystery. Despite our fascination with serial killers, her case has yet to receive contemporary reexamination.[28]

Much less well-known is the case of Grinder’s contemporary and fellow serial murderer and poisoner, Lewis (or Louis) Lane, whose race and poverty relegated him and his victims to the shadows of mid-nineteenth century Pittsburgh and environs. When his wife, Henrietta Butler, suddenly took ill in their basement apartment on Wylie Avenue in the Hill District in May 1868, neighbors who tried to aid her became suspicious of Lane for refusing their offers. When her body was discovered on the morning of May 9, these neighbors told police of their suspicions. When Lane was brought in for questioning, he was seen discarding a small vial subsequently determined to contain arsenic.

Examination of Lane’s past found a shocking series of similar incidents: five previous marriages in Western Pennsylvania and Virginia resulting in four previous suspicious deaths and a prison sentence for attempted murder of his fifth wife in Washington County.

Lane’s first wife, Rachel, died mysteriously in 1846, though apparently without eliciting controversy. His second wife, identified only as McKee, with whom he lived in nearby Wheeling, then still part of Virginia, also died mysteriously, probably in 1849, arousing only short-lived suspicions.

His third marriage, in 1851, was to Ellen Bozier. They lived in Washington, Pennsylvania, and Pittsburgh. Soon after Ellen died in Pittsburgh in 1854, apparently without suspicion or investigation, Lewis married his fourth wife, named Lucas, and moved with her from Pittsburgh back to Washington County. She also died suddenly in 1857. This death provoked suspicion among his neighbors, though there is no evidence of a subsequent investigation.

Lane also poisoned his fifth wife, Emma Lewis, whom he had married in 1859, before setting their Washington County home ablaze. However, she had figured out that he was trying to kill her and avoided the fatal effects of his efforts. She was able to testify against him, leading to his six-year prison sentence. His sixth marriage came in 1867 and his fifth and final murder followed soon after.[29]

The primary mystery here surrounds the identities and lives and deaths of Lewis Lane’s many wives. In stark contrast with the Grinder case, public records and newspapers paid little attention to the lives of black people and crimes against black victims. That Lane, who went to the gallows on April 29, 1869, was able to marry, murder, and move so many times is testimony to the obscurity in which black people lived and died. It also reveals the extent to which, as a result of segregation, black lives were lived away from the types of public interaction that might draw attention.

Mystery also surrounds the case of James Newton Hill. By 1890, Hill was married, had a young daughter, a good job in the burgeoning steel industry, and a home in Tarentum. At Apollo Iron and Steel, he worked under Emil Retzler (or Rotzler), a Swiss-born metallurgist with whom he developed a friendship and then a partnership owning racehorses.

Through that relationship, Hill began an affair with Retzler’s wife, Rosa. When the affair became public, Retzler fired Hill. Hill then went to work at Allegheny Steel, a job that required that he live on the North Side during the week. Rosa Retzler, whose wealthy husband had recently died, began to visit him there, and then moved with her son to that neighborhood.

According to subsequent testimony from Retzler’s son, Edward, in February 1893, Hill came to their home to request money to support a business venture. When Rosa refused, Hill brandished a gun and threatened to beat her and Edward.

Then, on the mild late winter morning of March 7, 1893, in East Park, Hill shot Retzler twice and slit her throat, killing her. He then slit his own throat. When police found them, Hill was carrying unsigned loan papers. Due to the seriousness of his injury, it was widely expected that Hill would die. His survival became the subject of an article in a medical journal.[30]

Hill’s trial, featuring an attractive and wealthy French widow, an affair, a murder, and an attempted suicide, was closely watched. His counsel presented the defense that an unknown assailant committed the murder and was seen fleeing. That defense collapsed when the prosecution presented the man seen fleeing, who testified he ran when he discovered the bloodied bodies of Hill and Retzler. Hill was found guilty on November 16, 1893, and was sentenced to death on January 27, 1894.

Hill’s serious neck wound made it impossible to hang him without risking decapitation. His attorney made this concern the central argument in his successful commutation effort. With supportive letters from neighbors and clergy and petitions signed by hundreds of people, Hill’s sentence was commuted to life imprisonment on October 30, 1894. After almost 27 years in prison, James Newton Hill received a full pardon and was released in 1920. He died in Pittsburgh in 1936, more than 43 years after sustaining what were thought to be fatal self-inflicted injuries.

The mystery here is at the beginning of this saga. The death of Emil Retzler at age 37 on December 22, 1891, a month after firing Hill, is suspicious particularly in light of Hill’s subsequent actions. Whether these circumstances raised questions about the cause of Mr. Retzler’s death is not clear from available records, though no investigation appears to have been conducted.[31]

Finally is the case of Charles Edward Scherer, who lived in Pittsburgh only long enough to murder his second wife, Bertha. Prior to that murder were at least two other violent crimes in which Scherer was implicated that presaged Bertha Scherer’s death. Subsequent to that murder were a series of legal decisions that shed some light on the circumstances that made that murder possible.

The Wilmington, North Carolina-born Scherer killed his wife in their Butler St. home on the morning of April 27, 1918. After another in a long series of encounters in which the often drunk and abusive Scherer had threatened Bertha with a gun the previous evening, Scherer shot her three times as she got dressed. Believing that Bertha, who was twenty years his junior, was carrying on an affair with a neighbor, Scherer had quit his job to monitor her actions.

Sentenced to death in 1919, Scherer’s appeal was rejected for failing to offer any evidence to mitigate the guilt of the “intensely jealous” and “abusive” man.[32] The Pardon Board viewed his case more generously, commuting his sentence to life imprisonment in 1920 and pardoning him entirely in 1930; in both decisions expressing some sympathy for his unsubstantiated claims of his wife’s infidelities.

The type of casual misogyny that normalized Scherer’s abusiveness had long protected him. First in a sketchy incident in 1908 in which Scherer was arrested for involvement in the assault and attempted rape of a woman who ran a “disorderly house,” only to be discharged with a guilty plea to assault with a deadly weapon and a $20 fine.[33]

More notably, in 1917, Scherer was implicated in the murder of 19-year old Neal Walton and the rape of his black girlfriend, Florence Davidson. In Wilmington. He was arrested while in the process of selling off his properties and traveling with Bertha to Pittsburgh to plan their move. In a highly charged atmosphere, ripe with rumors of Scherer’s conniving, he was released after witnesses provided an alibi. [34] The state’s theory that Scherer killed Walton after confusing him with a man he believed was involved with Bertha remained unproved.[35]

Seven months later, Bertha was murdered after Scherer believed she was involved with another man.

Conclusion

With a death penalty moratorium in place in Pennsylvania, no executions in the state since 1999 and in Allegheny County since 1959, and no new death sentences since 2011, we may be reaching the end of capital punishment in Allegheny County. As the death penalty moves into history, the importance of telling that history increases. One curious chapter of that history centers on these enduring mysteries.

Sources

As much as possible, I have relied on official sources to tell these stories. Coroner and jail records available at the University of Pittsburgh’s Archives of Industrial Society have been particularly helpful. Court records available at the Allegheny County Courthouse, Criminal Division, and the Allegheny County Law Library, have also been used. Jail, court, and, especially, pardon records available at the Pennsylvania State Archives, Harrisburg, are likewise valuable. Birth, death, census, jail, and prison records available electronically, have also been used. Unfortunately, neglect, fire, and flood limit the availability of trial transcripts and police records. Where these records leave gaps, I have drawn on the newspaper record, including the Pittsburgh Daily PostPittsburgh Press,  Pittsburgh Daily American, Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph,  Pittsburgh Commercial, the various iterations of what became the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and the Pittsburgh Courier. These newspapers are available on-line and at the Pennsylvania Room, Carnegie Library and the Hillman Library, University of Pittsburgh.

[1] “East End Woman Slain By Purse Snatcher’s Blow.” Pittsburgh Press, July 14, 1941, p.1+.

[2] Fuller coverage of Houck’s crimes is available in Derek. J. Sherwood. Nittany Nightmare: The Sex Murders of 1938-1940 and the Panic at Penn State (Exposit, 2019).

[3] “Slugging-Death Suspect Sticks to Denial Story.” Pittsburgh Press, September 21, 1941, p. 33.

[4] “Haber Slaying Suspect Held.” Pittsburgh Press, February 4, 1942, p. 1.

[5] Wilson’s family had moved north to the coalfields of Cecil, Washington County, when he was a child. Raised in company housing in the coal town of Lawrence, he moved by himself to Pittsburgh in the late 1930s, where he lived on the streets or in the Catholic Worker-led St. Joseph’s House of Hospitality in the Hill District.

[6] “Slaying of Rose Haber Re-Enacted by Suspect,” Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph, March 19, 1941.

[7] “Rose Haber Slaying Reenacted.” Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph, March 26, 1942, p. 17.

[8] The Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph covered this case development by development. Curiously, only the Sun-Telegraph noted the problems with the case against Wilson. Articles written by the other papers on the same day these problems were reported would make no reference to them.

[9] “Man Admits Haber Death, Police Report,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, March 19, 1942.

[10] Randall is a fascinating figure. Born in Georgia in 1879, he fought in the Spanish-American War, graduated from Howard Law School, petitioned President Theodore Roosevelt to lead black troops in World War I, wrote a semi-autobiographical book on the black migration, was active in black civic and political affairs, and practiced law in Pittsburgh for thirty years.

[11] The stories of all of these cases referenced herein are told at my website, https://state-killings-in-the-steel-city.org/

[12] Because Allegheny County was not formed until 1788, there is some question about how to locate this case. The murder itself occurred within the present boundaries of the city of Pittsburgh, though the prosecuting jurisdiction at the time was Westmoreland County and the execution itself occurred in Hannastown. Closer consideration of this case and the early history of Pittsburgh’s death penalty is provided in William S. Lofquist, “Justice on the Western Frontier: The Death Penalty in Pre-Industrial Pittsburgh, 1754-1840,” Pennsylvania History 85 (Autumn 2018).

[13] Between 1897, when the black migration of coal and steel workers into Pittsburgh began, and 1959, when Allegheny County conducted its last execution, 22 of 26 (85%) black defendants who killed white victims were executed, 18 of 26 (75%) black defendants who killed black victims were executed, and 29 of 61 (48%) of white defendants were executed.

[14] Pittsburgh Daily Post, January 3, 1891, p.2.

[15] Quote is from a letter to the Pardon Board written by Lew Holtzman, Justice of the Peace of Braddock.

[16] The innocence story of Andrew Toth is told in Edwin Borchard’s pathbreaking Convicting the innocent (1932), the first book to examine wrongful convictions.

[17] The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette recently published an excellent reexamination of the Joseph Thomas case in which they strongly suggest that Thomas, who was executed in 1922 for the 1921 robbery-murder of Anna Kirker, was wrongly convicted (September 21-23, 2019). While the prosecution and the media ran wild with the story of an animalistic black predator, review of the evidence points towards Kirker’s husband, Albert, as her killer.

[18] Another much more common source of error are those cases in which the defendant was convicted of a more serious charge than the circumstances of the crime warranted. In death penalty cases, such errors are often fatal.  The 1905 execution of three black men, Charles Jackson, Charles Miles, and Walter Obey, for the 1904 murder of Ivan Kluzor is an example. It is the only triple execution in Allegheny County history; rarely are three people convicted of the same crime, particularly first-degree murder, in killing one person.

[19] It is difficult to overstate the extent to which the racism of this era is reflected in the operations of the death penalty. For example, 25 of the 35 executions carried out between 1920 and 1959 were of black men, while none of the 13 death sentences that were commuted during this era had been imposed on a black man.

[20] Newspaper discussions of this case seized on the story that Savage had been paid by Barthel to provide some mysterious solution to her “problem” (pregnancy) and dubbed him a “voodoo doctor,” a racist trope that trailed him to his death.

[21] The Savage (“voodoo doctor”), Thomas (”apeman” and “giant’), and Wilson (“giant”) cases all contain elements of superhumanization, a term used to refer to the way in which black people are assigned extraordinary abilities, thereby reinforcing racist understandings of biological difference and legitimizing racial violence and control.

[22] The Hollywood movie Mrs. Soffel (1984) tells this story, as does Arthur Forrest’s The Biddle Boys and Mrs. Soffel (1902). The University of Pittsburgh’s Archives and Special Collections holds extensive original documents and images related to the case.

[23] In a curious irony, Jaworski’s guilty plea ended the legal saga of Daniel Rastelli, who had been convicted of first-degree murder in 1923 for killing John Ross. In an unusual legal move, Rastelli’s death sentence, which by law was mandatory upon a first degree murder conviction at the time, was not imposed and a new trial was immediately granted. Rastelli was acquitted on retrial. Because he was never formally sentenced to death, I do not count him – and eleven others in similar circumstances – among those sentenced to death in Allegheny County.

[24] Only three years earlier, Paul Orlakowski, who was serving a sentence for robbery, and three confederates took advantage of weak and corrupt security to obtain explosives and weapons to mount a jail break. When the explosives failed to open the wall of the Allegheny County Jail, the would-be escapees killed Assistant Deputy Warden John Pieper and Sergeant John Coax. Orlakowski was sentenced to death in 1924, attacked and injured two more guards in another escape attempt in 1926, and was executed later that year.

[25] Commonwealth v. Exler, 243 Pa. 155, 1914.

[26] Records searches for Edward Exler are complicated by the fact that he and his younger brother, Edwin Edward, born in 1895, have such similar names (likely a tribute to his father’s brother, Edward, who died in 1886). Also, another unrelated Edward Exler was born in Carnegie in 1890. It is notable that obituaries of family members who died after Exler’s disappearance omit any mention of him.

[27] The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Baltimore Sun, and many other papers closely followed the case. Also, as was the case with sensational trials in that era, a record of the case was quickly compiled and published as The Grinder Poisoning Case: The Trial of Martha Grinder (1866).

[28] The case has received some attention in compilations of executions of women. See Kerry Segrave. Women and Capital Punishment in America, 1840-1899 (McFarland, 2008); Marlin Shipman. The Penalty is Death: U.S. Newspaper Coverage of Women’s Executions (University of Missouri Press, 2002).

[29]  The fullest coverage of Lane’s previous marriages and murders is provided by a lengthy article in the Pittsburgh Weekly Gazette, published on April 20, 1869, the day after his execution.

[30] The Pittsburgh Medical Review (May 1894) closely detailed the challenge of saving Hill’s life, pp.144-147.

[31] Emil Retzler died in Armstrong County, Pennsylvania. Death records from that county are available after 1893. No publicly available record documents the cause or circumstances of Retzler’s death.

[32] Commonwealth v. Scherer, 266 Pa. 210 (1920).

[33] Wilmington Messenger, April 1, 1908, p. 8.

[34] Research related to Scherer’s time in Wilmington drew on the Wilmington Messenger, Wilmington Dispatch, Wilmington Semi-Weekly Messenger, and Wilmington Morning Star.

[35] The Charlotte Observer reported after Scherer’s capital conviction that his shotgun had been found near the scene of Walton’s murder (October 5, 1919, p. 27). That same article reported that Scherer promised to shed light on the Walton case at the time of his 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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