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 on a residential street 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 describes a “white man” wearing “light colored slacks, a white shirt and a sailor straw hat.”[1] Subsequent press reports provide the same description without making reference to 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 Ella Kennedy, a young woman working as a domestic 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, after he assaulted a woman in McDonald, Pa. Ella Kennedy told police “she was positive” he matched the description of the man she had seen assault Haber.[4] Dumont was later 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 eyewitnesses. 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 157 lbs.

At trial, Wilson entered a plea of not guilty 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, 1942. His plea for mercy, during which his attorney, P.J. Clyde Randall, [10] 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.[11] 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.

Wilson’s execution raises two troubling questions. First, notwithstanding his confession, how confident can we be that he killed Rose Haber? Second, what role did his race play in the processing of his case?

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.[12]

Beginning with Mamachtaga, a Lenape man executed for killing two white settlers in 1785, [13] and ending with Richard Poplawski, a white supremacist who remains on death row for the 2009 murders of three Pittsburgh police officers,[14] these cases provide a history not only of crime and punishment but of Pittsburgh itself. 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,[15] are a prominent theme. So too are the inequitable gender relations, most visible in the often overlooked histories of domestic violence that preceded many intimate partner murders and in the blithe normalization of male predation as love or romance in official and media accounts. The misery and exploitation experienced by many capital murderers and victims, often recent entrants into the steel mills and coal mines, is also evident.

This article’s mission is two-fold: to highlight the race, class, and gender dynamics of Pittsburgh’s death penalty by telling the stories of a diverse set of cases, including wrongful convictions, serial murders, escapes, and mass murders, and in so doing to invite readers to consider enduring questions about many of these cases.

Pittsburgh’s Wrongful Capital Convictions

Nine Allegheny County men have had their death sentences pardoned or never formally imposed on the basis of a legal finding that they were uninvolved in the murder for which they were convicted.[16] Notably, all of these men were white.

Monroe Stewart was a friend of Henry Fife who was sentenced to death with Fife and Fife’s companion, Charlotte Jones, for the 1857 robbery and double murder of Jones’s reclusive aunt and uncle in Glassport. 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 the Tarentum jewelry store robbery-murder of Mary Ann Rudert in 1889. The two men identified as the principals in the case – Peter Griffin and Thomas Conroy – were never apprehended. After having his death sentence commuted to life in 1891 when the Pardon Board found he had been overcharged, doubts grew as to whether Killen was involved at all in the crime. His original story, that he had unknowingly ferried the assailants across the Allegheny River and was paid in the stolen merchandise later found in his possession, came to be accepted. 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. Tracking the changing patterns of immigration into rapidly-industrializing Pittsburgh, they were the first of the “new immigrants” from Southern or Eastern Europe sentenced to death in Allegheny County.[17] With labor unrest increasing and the specter 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.[18]

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.[19] 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.[20]

Like Killen, Albert 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. Convicted and sentenced to death in 1924, his death sentence was commuted to life the following year after the Pardon Board accepted 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.

That same decade produced three other wrongful convictions, all of Italian immigrants. Daniel Rastelli, a coal miner from Avella, was convicted of first-degree murder for the Pittsburgh Coal Company payroll robbery-murder of John Robert Dennis in Mt. Lebanon in 1922, despite a corroborated alibi defense and the acquittal of his two alleged accomplices.[21] A motion for retrial was granted in 1923 and Rastelli was acquitted in 1924 without ever having his death sentence formally imposed. Likewise for Vincenzo Ciccia and Oreste Delforte, who were convicted of the 1927 Hazelwood murder of Rocco Famia as part of organized crime violence over bootlegging despite a weak state case and strong alibi evidence. The two men were acquitted on retrial in 1928.

While these cases suggest the roles of anti-immigrant and anti-labor tensions in wrongful convictions, more concerning are the roles of race and gender.[22] All three of the cases in which an apparent wrongful conviction resulted in an execution rather than exoneration involved Black men alleged to have killed white women; a transgression of the most rigorously policed of all social boundaries. In all of these cases, the key decisionmakers – the judges, prosecutors, and jurors – were white men.[23]

Beyond the doubts raised here about the guilt of William Wilson and elsewhere about the guilt of Joseph Thomas,[24] who was executed in 1922 for the robbery-murder of Anna Kirker, a Mifflin Township resident likely killed by her husband, there is the case of Lorenzo Savage. Caricatured as a “Jamaican voodoo doctor” despite no Caribbean ancestry, Savage was executed for the October 6, 1923, murder of Elsie Barthel, an unmarried, pregnant white woman apparently in search of an abortion.[25] Despite a confession, which he claimed was coerced, Savage denied any involvement in Barthel’s murder.

Savage’s conviction is so fraught with racial and sexual taboo in an era in which such taboos were often 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 closest to Barthel and most likely to have impregnated her – her reported relational partners, John R. Daugherty and Walter Haule, who she was planning to marry, and Savage himself – were very near the scene of her killing. Based on an improbable theory of the case in which Haule, a passing taxi driver, just happened to serve as an unwitting get-away driver for Savage, and in which Barthel, who had some medical training and worked for a prominent Shadyside doctor, was killed after reneging on paying the inflation-adjusted amount of more than $5,000 for playing cards that would terminate her pregnancy.[26]

What we know from multiple accounts, including Savage’s, is that Barthel sought his aid in terminating her pregnancy and that he agreed to provide some aid. Was Barthel’s death somehow related to an abortion? What was Haule’s role in the case? Was it merely a coincidence that he picked up Savage on the evening of the murder? Why was Haule dismissed as a suspect so quickly? Likewise with Daugherty, who is mentioned early in the coverage of the case but does not appear to figure in the trial. What about the reports of screams and screeching tires heard late at night at the abandoned Hussey mansion where her body was found the next morning?[27] Despite these questions, few cases proceeded from arrest to conviction (by a jury of twelve white men) to execution any faster (167 days) or received less post-conviction review, and far more than most this case cried out for such review.[28]

Unsolved Mysteries

Just as Black defendants are more vulnerable to wrongful convictions, particularly in cases involving socially protected victims, race also serves to provide white defendants, especially those of some means, partial immunity from suspicion.

That was the experience of James Newton Hill who, by 1890, was married, had a young daughter, a management job in the burgeoning steel industry, and a home in Tarentum. At Apollo Iron and Steel, he worked for Emil Rotzler, with whom he developed a friendship and then a partnership owning racehorses.

Through that relationship, Hill began an affair with Rotzler’s wife, Rosa. When the affair became public, Rotzler fired Hill. Finding a similar position at Allegheny Steel, Hill moved to Allegheny City. After her husband’s death, Rosa and her son moved to the same neighborhood.

According to subsequent testimony from Rotzler’s son, Edward, when Rosa refused to loan money to Hill, he 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 Rotzler 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.[29]

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 bodies of Hill and Rotzler. Hill was found guilty and sentenced to death in January 1894.

Hill’s attorney argued that his neck wound made it impossible to hang him without risking decapitation. With the resources to finance a vigorous clemency campaign, 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. He received a full pardon and was released from prison in 1920. James Newton Hill died in Pittsburgh in 1936, more than 43 years after sustaining what were thought to be fatal self-inflicted injuries.

What puzzles me about this case is the death of Emil Rotzler. Only 37 years old, he died on December 22, 1891, a month after his wife’s affair with Hill became public and just before she moved closer to Hill. Not only did his death clear the path for their relationship, it also left to Rosa Rotzler the money Hill later sought. I have been unable to find any evidence Rotzler’s death was treated as suspicious.

The case of Edward Exler two decades later presents a similar tale of a young, white man operating with the social and legal protection of his privilege. While running errands to help her mother prepare for Thanksgiving, twelve-year old Lillian Schadle disappeared on the afternoon of Wednesday, November 27, 1912. After an intensive search, her body was recovered from the Westinghouse Reservoir on Thanksgiving evening. Attention had focused there after a witness reported seeing a man with a large bag acting in an unusual manner. Exler, 25, with a prior arrest for improper contact with girls, was arrested a week later after investigators determined that Lillian’s last stop was his father’s North Braddock butcher shop.

Witness testimony related to Exler’s movements and evidence collected at the scene and at his 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, Frank, stalwart in support of his son, declared he would spend his last cent and the money of wealthy relatives to free his innocent son. On appeal, Exler argued that Schadle’s death did not constitute first-degree murder. In a split decision premised on a reading of the law so convoluted that it defies simple explanation, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that the rape-murder of Lillian Schadle was punishable only up to fifteen years imprisonment.[30]

His conviction reversed, Exler was then indicted for rape rather than murder. After a second trial, he was convicted and sentenced to 12-13½ years in prison. 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.[31] I have been unable to find any trace of him.

Likewise for John H. Vasbinder, Jr., the only Allegheny County inmate to successfully escape a death sentence.[32] Vasbinder (alias Jack Bussinger) was a 22-year old with a drug problem and a long record of petty offenses when he shot and killed Stephen Yelich during a strong arm robbery on Market St. in McKeesport on March 7, 1926. Yelich, a Duquesne steelworker, was reported to have told Vasbinder to get a job if he wanted money, perhaps provoking Vasbinder to shoot him.

At trial, Vasbinder’s claim that his gun discharged accidentally during an altercation with Yelich was rejected and he was found guilty of first-degree murder on November 24, 1926, and sentenced to death on April 20, 1927. While in jail awaiting execution, Vasbinder became acquainted with notorious gangster Paul Jaworski, who had been sentenced to death after a series of daring and deadly payroll robberies. With the outside assistance of Jaworski’s brother, Sam, the pair broke out of Allegheny County Jail on August 18, 1927, shooting and wounding guards John Hanlon and Harry Riger in the process.

A massive manhunt followed. An effort to apprehend Jaworski and Vasbinder in a Cleveland restaurant on September 13, 1928, ended in the murder of a police officer. Jaworski was also shot and apprehended. His companion, who Jaworski later identified as Vasbinder, escaped. Soon after his extradition to Pittsburgh, Jaworski was executed. His death row claim of having killed Vasbinder at some point during their time on the run was discredited by police.

In October 1928, a man initially reported to be Vasbinder was killed during a robbery in Detroit. That report was soon rejected. Other reports placed him in Texas, Alabama, Cleveland, Buffalo, and his hometown in Clarion County. None of the many stories about Vasbinder’s whereabouts were ever corroborated. A 1962 investigation by the state attorney general’s office found no trace of him. John Vasbinder was never apprehended or heard from again.

A different kind of escape haunts perhaps the most disturbing and improbable capital case in Pittsburgh’s history, the mass murder of five people by sixty-seven year old serial rapist and Duquesne police officer, Martin J. Sullivan, while ostensibly in police custody on December 17, 1936.

The road to that tragic evening began several years earlier when, not long after the death of Sullivan’s wife, Phoebe, his fourteen or fifteen-year old neighbor, Helen Benda (b. 1919), moved into Sullivan’s home. Their relationship, which may have begun with young Helen working as a housekeeper, became sexually predatory. Though some reports characterized the two as married, Sullivan’s efforts to marry Helen had been rejected by her parents; not long after, Helen moved out.

Sullivan then identified another neighbor, eleven-year old Antoinette Vukelja, as his next victim. Over the next six months, he raped her repeatedly. On December 11, 1936, Antoinette’s mother, Mary, filed a formal complaint against Sullivan, including the allegation he had raped Antoinette that day.

Sullivan was arrested on those charges on December 17. At his initial appearance that evening, Mary Vukelja and Laura Bacon, head of the Duquesne Community Center, who had investigated the alleged rape, testified against him. He was ordered held without bail.

Constable Thomas L. Gallagher, a lifelong Duquesne resident and colleague and long-time “good friend” of Sullivan, was assigned to bring Sullivan into custody.[33] While walking together to the nearby jail, Sullivan asked Gallagher for the opportunity to stop at his son’s home. With Gallagher waiting on the sidewalk outside for more than forty minutes talking with friends and neighbors and shuffling his feet to stay warm, Sullivan entered his son’s home alone, exited by the back door, went to his home to get his gun, and then to the home of Joseph and Helen Benda, parents of Helen Benda, and killed them. He then walked to the home of Joseph and Mary Vukelja, where he killed Mary and her son, Milan, when he ran to her aid. Joseph and another son, Walter, were injured.

After killing four people, Sullivan re-entered his son’s home and exited to rejoin Officer Gallagher. While police responded to the sound of gun shots, the two men stopped at a bar for a drink before continuing their walk to the jail. Over beer and whiskey, Sullivan apparently persuaded Gallagher he was bring framed.

Leaving the bar, Sullivan, still armed, made one more request: to stop at the home of Laura Bacon and talk with her about the case. With Gallagher at his side, Sullivan knocked on her door, spoke briefly with Bacon, and then shot and killed her. At that point, Gallagher took hold of Sullivan’s arm and led him out of the house and completed the walk to the jail. Bacon’s son-in-law, Howard Weisen, witnessed the killing and described Gallagher as acting calmly and “gently” after the shooting.[34] Having systematically killed everyone involved in the case against him, Sullivan made a complete confession, expressed his satisfaction at having completed his work, and asked to be executed.

Sullivan’s arrest and trial brought forth from Duquesne residents stories of a feared and mocked older man who donned a wig and make up and used the power of his position to attract and rape children.

Martin Sullivan was convicted of first-degree murder on May 21, 1937, and executed on March 21, 1938, a week after he had attempted suicide in his cell. He is the oldest person ever executed in Pennsylvania.

How could Constable Gallagher have been so casual in his arrest of an alleged child rapist, a person whose reputation must have been known among his colleagues, permitting Sullivan the time and space within which to kill five people? Though Gallagher was found guilty of criminal negligence in January 1939, a petition signed by Duquesne residents persuaded the court to sentence him to probation. He also lost his job.

Pittsburgh’s Serial Murderers: How Many Victims?

Martha Grinder is Pittsburgh’s most notorious serial murderer. Dubbed the “Pittsburgh poisoner” and “Pittsburgh Borgia,” her Civil War-era story of slowly poisoning untold numbers of household help, neighbors, and family, while concealed by assumptions of benign and dutiful caregiving, was a national sensation as it unfolded.[35]

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.[36]

Much less well-known and more mysterious is the case of Grinder’s contemporary and fellow serial poisoner, 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.

Newspaper reports at the time of his arrest provided widely divergent accounts of his past. The Pittsburgh Commercial of May 11, 1868, reported Lane had four previous wives and had served time in prison for poisoning one of them. The Pittsburgh Gazette of May 11 made the same report, but by May 18 was reporting five previous marriages and five previous suspicious deaths. The Pittsburgh Daily Post’s May 11 edition reported five previous wives, “two or three” of whom his neighbors said died suspiciously. The Ashland, Ohio, States and Union of May 13 reported two previous wives had been murdered. The Nashville Union and American of May 14 reported three previous wives had been murdered.

Only weeks later, on June 18, Lane was convicted of first-degree murder by a jury that deliberated fifteen minutes. That conviction was reversed on procedural grounds, leading to a retrial, a January 1869 conviction, a February 1869 death sentence, a March 1869 execution warrant, and an April 29, 1869 hanging. In the final days of his life, Lane’s conversations with a newspaper reporter from the Pittsburgh Weekly Gazette supported earlier stories of other murders without providing the information necessary to determine their precise details.[37]

The story Lane recounted, some of which I have been able to corroborate, is that his first wife, Rachel, died mysteriously in Wellsburg, (now West) Virginia around 1849. Lane denied having killed her. He quickly remarried, moved to Wheeling, and there poisoned his second wife, identified only as McKee. Her death, probably in 1850, arousing only short-lived suspicions.

His third marriage, in 1851, was to Ellen Bozier. They lived in Washington County, Pennsylvania, and Pittsburgh. Soon after Ellen died in Pittsburgh in 1854, apparently without suspicion or investigation, Louis married his fourth wife, named Lucas, and moved 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 in February 1860.[38] His sixth marriage came in 1867 and his fourth or fifth and final murder followed soon after.

To what extent these tales are true and, if so, the identities of Lane’s wives and victims remains mostly a mystery. In 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 may have been able to marry, murder, and move so many times is testimony to that obscurity.

Conclusion

Beneath this litany of murders lies troubling evidence that the administration of justice, even in the most serious cases, is profoundly affected by the race, class, and gender of defendants and victims. Socially marginalized defendants, particularly new immigrants, labor activists, and, most of all, Black men, face the greatest risk of wrongful conviction and execution. Socially marginalized victims, particularly young, poor, and Black women, are made vulnerable by the social and legal resistance to recognizing them as victims. Any comfort we might take in the age of these stories is tempered by the tumult of the present Black Lives Matter and Me Too movements and the extraordinary depth and currency of race and gender tensions in American criminal justice they reveal.

Though these injustices persist, the death penalty may not. Governor Thomas Wolf’s 2015 death penalty moratorium, which remains in effect, was premised on concern about systemic injustices in the state’s death penalty system, as were the recent decisions of the neighboring states of New York (2007), New Jersey (2007), Maryland (2013), and Delaware (2016) to abolish the death penalty.[39] No Allegheny County defendant has been executed since 1959, and none have been sentenced to death since 2009. The last execution in Pennsylvania was in 1999. That defendant and the two others who have been executed in the fifty years since the United States Supreme Court began an ultimately failed effort to eliminate the discrimination that has both fueled and plagued the system, were so-called “volunteers” who had rejected to pursue appeals that would likely have prevented their executions.[40]

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 Post, Pittsburgh 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, 1942.

[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 by the Sun-Telegraph 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, rose to a leadership position in the Allegheny County Republican Party, and practiced law in Pittsburgh for thirty years.

[11] “Judge Questions Haber Slaying Plea,” Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph, May 6, 1942, p.1

[12] The stories of all of the cases referenced herein and all other Allegheny County death penalty cases are told at my website, https://state-killings-in-the-steel-city.org/

[13] Because Allegheny County was not formed until 1788, there is some question about how to locate this case. The murder itself occurred on a now-vanished island at the confluence of the Allegheny and Ohio Rivers 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, also in present-day Westmoreland County. 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).

[14] That more than a decade has passed since an Allegheny County jury has handed down a death sentence is indicative of the decline of the death penalty in Pennsylvania and beyond. The state’s eastern counties have historically been far more active in using the death penalty, though the entire state has experienced a profound decline in death penalty activity since 2010 (Executing Justice: The Discretionary Nature of the Death Penalty in Pennsylvania,” Reading Eagle, June 20, 2016).

[15] Between 1897, when the migration of Black coal and steel workers into Pittsburgh began, and 1959, when Allegheny County conducted its last execution, 22 of 26 (85%) Black defendants sentenced to death for killing white victims were executed, 18 of 26 (75%) Black defendants sentenced to death for killing Black victims were executed, and 29 of 61 (48%) white defendants were executed.

[16] Though the death penalty was mandatory in first-degree murder convictions until 1925, sentence was not formally imposed upon conviction. In the interim, defendants would file a routine motion for a new trial. In rare cases – I have identified eleven such cases in Allegheny County history – that motion was granted and a different disposition was obtained at retrial. In two other cases, the defendant died before imposition of sentence.

[17] The influx of these “new immigrants,” primarily Catholic, urban, and often associated with the burgeoning labor movement, led to a backlash from earlier immigrants of Northern and Western European ancestry.

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

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

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

[21] Paul Jaworski, among the most infamous of Pittsburgh’s many murderers and the city’s primary contribution to the gangster pantheon of the Roaring ‘20s, acknowledged killing Dennis and cleared Rastelli of any involvement prior to his own execution in 1929. Three times Jaworski and his Flathead Gang carried out daring robberies of payroll deliveries; in 1922 in Mt. Lebanon, 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.

[22] The similarities in the experiences of the two distinct white populations (the Northern and Western European-descended and often native-born old immigrants and the “new immigrants”) and the sharp contrast with the experiences of Black defendants is writ large in the outcomes of capital cases. In the period ending with the last Allegheny County execution in 1959, 38% of those executed and 50% of those commuted were Northern and Western European-descended, 16% of those executed and 34% of those commuted were new immigrants, and 47% of those executed and 15% of those commuted were Black.

[23] The Allegheny County District Attorney has always been a white man. Though Black men have served as Allegheny County jurors since the 1870s, recent research finds that Allegheny County juries are disproportionately comprised of white men (see Final Report of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court Committee on Racial and Gender Bias in the Justice System; American Bar Association, 2003).

[24] 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.

[25] 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. 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.

[26] While there may very well be other cases in which the capital defendant’s guilt would not withstand the scrutiny of fuller reinvestigation, 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.

[27] The police and court records with which to better answer these and other questions are lost. All that remains are the records of the Coroner’s Office and newspaper accounts. That the case involved a respectable white woman who was pregnant outside of marriage, in search of an abortion, and perhaps involved with a Black man, limited the amount and candor of newspaper coverage.

[28] 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.

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

[30] Commonwealth v. Exler, 243 Pa. 155, 1914. Until 1887, Pennsylvania law limited statutory rape to victims age ten and younger, at which time the statutory age was raised to sixteen. In its ruling, the Court is saying that it “would be an arbitrary assumption of legislative power” (at 162) to conclude that Schadle’s murder was punishable by death (apparently because prior to 1887, such an offense would have brought no more than a two-year sentence) despite clear statutory language that such an offense was felonious rape and that felonious rape was first-degree murder punishable by death.

[31] 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 tragically 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.

[32] Ed and John Biddle, the famous Biddle boys, escaped from Allegheny County Jail with the assistance of a gun and other support provided by Kate Soffel, the warden’s wife, in late January 1902. However, their escape was foiled by pursuing police, who killed the brothers in Butler County.

[33] “Ousted Constable Freed by Sentiment in Duquesne,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, February 23, 1939.

[34] “Victim’s Son-in-Law Describes Scene,” Pittsburgh Press, December 20, 1936.

[35] 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).

[36] 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).

[37]  The fullest coverage of Lane’s previous marriages and murders is provided by a lengthy article in the Pittsburgh Weekly Gazette, published on April 30, 1869, the day after his execution.

[38] This story is confirmed by the Washington (Pa.) Examiner, as quoted in the Pittsburgh Commercial on May 16, 1868.

[39] West Virginia abolished the death penalty in 1965, during the previous era of abolitionism.

[40] The so-called modern era of the death penalty began with the Supreme Court’s Furman v. Georgia (1972) decision, in which the Court ruled that the death penalty was unconstitutional as administered.