Michael Ruminski, a Polish-born steelworker, murdered his wife, Johanna, on the evening of January 28, 1898, in their boardinghouse room at 94 Ohio St. in Allegheny. The killing was the culmination of years of violence that had haunted their relationship.
After strangling Johanna, Ruminski set the room on fire in an effort to cover his crime. He then fled the scene and went in to Pittsburgh to stay with friends. When he returned to Allegheny the next day to try to raise enough money to leave town he was recognized and arrested.
Ruminski had been arrested for the death of their son, Leo, in December 1896, and for the attempted murder of Johanna several months prior to their baby’s death. He was not charged in either case. Despite testimony that Ruminski was alone with the child at the time of death, the coroner ruled that the child died of pneumonia. The Ruminski’s were living in Braddock at the time.
At trial for killing his wife, Ruminski gained notoriety and the nickname “the Polish dude” for his insistence on being well-dressed. In a closely watched trial, police testified that Ruminski had two prior arrests for assaulting his wife and had tried on several recent occasions to file a complaint related to his wife’s lack of attention to his care. Neighbors testified to having heard the couple quarrel the night of the murder and to Ruminski’s suspicious behavior the day after the murder.
Pittsburgh Press, November 5, 1898
The strength of the physical evidence and testimony and the weakness of Ruminski’s alibi defense left little doubt that he would be convicted. The jury found him guilty of first-degree murder on November 4, 1898. After his motion for a new trial was rejected, he was sentenced to death on December 3.
On January 17, 1899, Michael Ruminski committed suicide by strangulation in the Allegheny County Jail. His clemency request was still before the Pardon Board.
Subsequent to Ruminski’s suicide, jail officials began placing prisoners awaiting execution under a death watch.
Edward J. Coffey was the ne’er do well son of a middle class Pittsburgh family. Well-read, well-dressed, and well-connected, Coffey spent most of his life on the wrong side of the law.
Pittsburgh Daily Gazette, February 15, 1876
Pittsburgh Daily Post, February 16, 1880
His criminal record included bank robbery and jewelry store robbery convictions (he was also a confederate of Edgar Frank Small and was widely believed to have been an accomplice in Small’s murder of Nicholas Jacoby).
Early on the morning of August 4, 1885, weeks after his father’s death and weeks after having been paroled from federal prison on a counterfeiting conviction, Coffey, 30, was involved in an altercation in front of a Sixth St. restaurant.
When Officer John F. “Benjamin” Evans responded, Coffey shot him. Fleeing, he was apprehended after a shoot out with pursuing police. Evans, Irish-born and 31 years old, died on August 6, after providing statements implicating Coffey.
At the time of the shooting, the Post-Gazette described Coffey as “one of those moral monstrosities who delight in law-breaking” (August 5, 1885). At trial, despite representation by the best private counsel available, Coffey was convicted of first-degree murder on November 13, 1885, and sentenced to death. The result caused a great deal of surprise among those who expected his connections to lessen his punishment.
Considerable effort was made to reverse Coffey’s death sentence, including the intercession of his attorney, religious leaders, and prominent Pittsburghers. When his appeal was rejected, the case was carried to the state supreme court, where it was rejected again.
These efforts were able to delay the execution of Coffey’s sentence for several years. Ultimately, though, his appellate and his clemency opportunities were exhausted and his final death warrant was issued for January 18, 1888.
Once it became clear that all legal avenues to saving his own life were foreclosed, Coffey slit his own throat.
The Daily Post wrote, “[b]y one desperate thrust a life was transferred from the scales of justice to those of nature, and there it still hangs, trembling, wavering.” Coffey died on January 24, 1888.
Though John Evans was described at the time as the first Pittsburgh Police officer murdered in the line of duty, my research indicates he was the sixth such officer and the eighth law enforcement official from Allegheny County to be feloniously killed. He was, though, the first officer whose killing resulted in a death sentence.
In a remote section of Lower St. Clair Township, near one of the many coal mines that lined Mount Washington and just beyond the neighborhood formerly known as Birmingham, Frederick Reidel lived wife his wife, Margaret, and their three children and worked as a coal miner.
On Sunday, July 12, 1846, the German-born Reidel, who was out on bail for assault and had a prior assault conviction for stabbing a man, beat Margaret to death with an axe. Confronted by neighbors, he denied responsibility, though his clothes were blood-stained and his six-year old son was a witness. He was promptly arrested.
At trial, neighbors and coworkers testified that Reidel regularly assaulted his wife. The coroner testified about the manner of killing. The bloody axe handle was shown. Reidel’s own testimony, in which he denied any knowledge of the killing and claimed that he was away from home at the time, was effectively countered by challenging his story.
Reidel was convicted of first-degree murder on November 18, 1846. He immediately filed a motion for a new trial, claiming the evidence did not support his conviction. Pursuant to that claim, Margaret Reidel’s body was disinterred in an unsuccessful effort to establish the absence of the wounds allegedly inflicted by her husband.
That motion failed and Reidel was sentenced to death on December 5, 1846. Once sentenced, he again loudly denounced his conviction.
While his counsel pursued post-conviction remedies, The Daily Post remarked “we are strongly inclined to the opinion that the poor devil has got to swing” (March 18, 1847). His history of abuse and the unassailed character of his wife offered Reidel little hope.
His execution was set for April 30, 1847. That morning, Reidel was found dead in his cell. He had extensive cuts on both arms and was hanging by his bedsheet. The Pittsburgh Daily Post headline the next day exclaimed “Frederick Reidel his own executioner!”
Reidel was buried near his brother’s Erie County residence. That brother, George, murdered Joseph Bartanalli in November 1858, for which he served a nine year sentence.
The newspaper story announcing the Reidel murder made reference to another domestic murder on May 19, 1846, in which Robert Beatson was alleged to have killed his wife, Margaret, with an axe in their home on Prospect St., downtown. Despite testimony against him by his daughter, testimony from neighbors who heard Beatson threaten his wife, and statements provided by Margaret implicating her husband before she died, Beatson was acquitted.
The only evident difference in the cases is that Margaret Beatson was identified by friends and neighbors as a frequent and unrepentant drinker, an uncaring mother, and, perhaps, an unfaithful wife (Daily Post, November 26, 1846), apparently unworthy of the full protection of the law. Particularly in an era of such strong temperance sensibilities, the possible role of alcohol in this case was closely considered in the public and legal evaluations of the defendant and the victim.
Like Beatson, the case of Joseph Zimmerlee, who murdered his wife, Maria Anne, on September 11, 1848, provides another example of the considerable social and legal space granted to men who kill their wives. It also illuminates the social and legal space granted to men to redress the sexual abuse of women.
At the time of the killing, which occurred during a drunken argument over money, Zimmerlee was in an advanced state of alcoholism with associated signs of declining mental health.
After a trial in which Zimmerlee’s guilt was not seriously questioned, and which included statements his wife provided to authorities before she died, he was convicted of first-degree murder. In a highly unusual move that prevented Zimmerlee from ever being formally sentenced to death, widespread public and newspaper opposition to the verdict led to an immediate motion for a new trial.
At issue was that Zimmerlee’s daughter had previously been sexually abused by his wife’s brother, after which Zimmerlee, reportedly previously sober and peaceable, became dissolute. Declaring of the verdict that “no event has occurred for years more horrible than the conviction of this miserable and friendless old German” and that “the crimes of the world drove him to madness,” the Pittsburgh Daily Post implored, “Let not the Commonwealth MURDER an insane man” (December 4, 1848).
Whatever the merits of these claims, that his wife was not allowed similar grief or shown any expressions of sympathy is noteworthy. Zimmerlee’s motion was granted in January 1849, and he was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to twelve years in prison on April 28, 1849.
Consider also the gothic tragedy of the several cases of Mary Delaney. Working as a prostitute in the downtown brothel of Mrs. Criswell, Delaney was stabbed by a patron on October 25, 1851. No arrest was made.
Eighteen months later, on April 9, 1853, Jacob Shaw, a prospective patron, was stabbed after a quarrel over a pair of stockings escalated into threats. Before dying, he identified Delaney as his assailant.
After a trial in which she denied stabbing the abusive Shaw, the jury deliberated a remarkable eight days before convicting Delaney of manslaughter and recommending mercy. Her motion for a new trial, which included statements that a man had confessed to the killing, was rejected. Despite the jury’s recommendation, Delaney was sentenced to three years in prison.
After her release, she married and started a family. On June 24, 1859, Delaney was killed by her husband, Richard Jones, who worked as a constable. The murder was particularly brutal; Delaney was shot, then stabbed and badly disfigured. Jones confessed to fellow authorities that he killed his wife after learning she had returned to her previous employment (New York Times, June 28, 1859).
“Although all of the elements of a higher grade were clearly proven” (Pittsburgh Daily Post, October 1, 1884), Jones was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to six years in prison on February 18, 1860. He was pardoned thirteen months later. At the time of his release, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette noted “the murder was most deliberate and terrible, but owing to the character of the victim, and the peculiar circumstances surrounding the case, Jones had many sympathizers and no one we think will be disposed to grumble at his release” (March 19, 1861).
A final example of the way in which the worst abuses of men are mitigated by the character attributed to their wives involved the murder of Isabella Campbell by her husband, Thomas, on November 7, 1869. The Campbells, a couple of modest means with one child, had been married for several years, during which Thomas regularly and severely beat his wife, a fact that was known to neighbors and authorities.
On the evening of her murder, they were drinking in their home with several others. Apparently believing that Isabella was being too friendly with other men, Thomas became violent and beat his wife repeatedly. The result, as the headlines declared, was a “shocking” and “savage” murder of “unparalleled fiendishness.”
After being arrested, Campbell denied any responsibility, claiming his wife fell down a flight of stairs while running away after he caught her with two other men. He maintained the same story throughout the case, though multiple witnesses testified to hearing, but not seeing, Campbell beat his wife over a lengthy period of time. They did nothing to intervene.
At trial, Campbell was convicted of second-degree murder, a verdict “that occasioned universal surprise in this locality. The gallows has clearly been cheated of its dues in this case. The prisoner deserved the rope as richly as any man who ever stained his hands with the blood of his fellow being, and an outraged public deeply regret that any twelve men could be found so insensitive to evidence, or so ignorant of the law, as to bring in so mild a verdict” (Pittsburgh Weekly Gazette, January 13, 1870).