The First Hanging in Indiana County

The first hanging in Indiana County was the execution of James E. Allison for the murder of his father, Robert Allison, but a grave error was made in the guilt of the executed.

Prior to 1877, Robert lived with his family on his farm in Washington Township, but owing to fights and quarrels with his wife and children, particularly James, he left home around January 1, 1877 to live first with his sister and then his brother, Alexander. Robert’s home was about a quarter of a mile from Alexander’s home.

Robert tried to return home, but was thrown out by James, and was assaulted by him, this occurred on March 13, 1880. The assault was set for trial on June 17, 1880. The two agreed to a peaceful settlement, and the left for home with the understanding, that the dispute between them should be submitted to amiable arbitration.

The following set of facts was submitted at trial:

On the Friday following the return from court, at dusk, James Allison asked a neighbor boy to tell his father that Alonzo Allison (Robert’s son) wanted to see him at the road at dark. The boy delivered the message and returned home.

Robert immediately went to the road, and a few minutes later John Allison (another of Robert’s sons) heard shots. He ran to the road and saw James fleeing and Robert lying on the ground. Robert reported that James shot him.

Leon Smeltzer, a neighbor, heard the shots and voice which he took to be James cursing to the person to whom he was talking. John also heard shots and heard Robert yelling out that James was shooting him. Earlier in June, Alonzo overheard James threaten to shoot his father if he met him at court. Many witnesses heard Robert exclaim: “For God’s sake, don’t kill me, Jim, this time,” and after the shooting, they heard the expression, “You damned old son-of-a-b***, how do you feel now?” The last expression was recognized as James’ voice.

James did not resist arrest the following day, at which time he was working in the cornfield with the murder weapon found on his person. James was taken to the Indiana County Jail. Robert died the following Monday, June 21, 1880 at 5:00 pm.

At the September court session charges were filed against James for the murder of Robert Allison. The case was continued until March 1881, when it was tried. The trial began on March 15, 1881. The Jury consisted of: John K. Myers, James A. Black, W.S. Linsenbigler, Alfred Lovelace, William J. Elwood, James Neely, James M. Creps, William Wachob, Joseph Atkinson, William McConnell, Isaac Warner, and Valentine T. Kerr.

The District Attorney M.C. Watson, Harry White and Joseph M. Thompson presented the case for the Commonwealth, and Silas M. Clark, H.K. Sloan, and J.C. Ruffner were represented Allison. Judge Blair presided over the case.

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Silas Clark, attorney for Allison

Testimony closed on Saturday March 19, 1881. The case was argued on Monday and the jury was sent out on Monday evening. The jury remained out overnight and returned with the verdict of guilty of murder. A motion was made for a new trial and in arrest of judgment. The motions were argued on May 20, 1881; they were overruled and the James Allison was sentenced to hang.

As with any murder conviction, a writ of error was taken to the October term of the PA Supreme Court. On November 14, 1881, the opinion of the PA Supreme Court was delivered, affirming the conviction.

A record of the case was sent to Governor Hoyt who ordered the execution to take place on February 17, 1882. An application was made to the Board of Pardons sitting in Harrisburg on January 15, 1882, for a change to the sentence for life imprisonment, but that application was refused.

James was visited by all ministers of Indiana, between the time of reception of the warrant for his execution and the day set for carrying it out. They attempted to impress upon him the seriousness of his crime and the necessity for a quick and sincere repentance, but James was unmoved.

On Wednesday night, February 3, 1882, James was alone in his cell. He was heard pacing the floor and stirring the fire frequently. He only slept a short time.

On Thursday morning, the building of the scaffold for the hanging was begun. The majority of the day was spent completing it. On Thursday evening, Sheriff Jamison requested that James put on a new suit of clothes which he had gotten for him. James refused to accept the suit, despite the fact that his clothes were dirty and ragged.

That evening, James had a hearty dinner, but did not seem excited about the events of the following day. There was no explanation why there was a change of the date of the execution.

That evening the guards, H.S. (Barney) Thompson and John Sherman, stayed with James. He talked with them freely until midnight, but made no reference to the execution during the conversation. Again, James did not sleep much; at eight in the morning he had a hearty breakfast.

Later Monday morning, James was visited by his mother, Alonzo and a sister; he turned them away when they entered his cell and refused to speak with them. He told Sheriff Jamison to take them away, stating they were no friends of his.

The Sheriff selected the following as witnesses to the execution: George R. Lewis, C.C. Davis, Dr. J.K. Thompson, James Johnston, G.W. Bodenhamer, G.T. Hamilton, William McWilliams, J.A.C. Rairagh, William Mabon, Dr. W.L. Reed, J.B. Sansom, and Johnston Miller.

As was customary in the day, a crowd had gathered in front of the jail by ten a.m. It was shortly after ten, when the front door of the jail was opened and those having tickets were admitted. At four minutes before eleven, the Sheriff and his assistant went for Allison; James said he would not go. The Sheriff told Allison that he would have to order H.C. Howard and John W. Brooks, to take him to the scaffold.

The Sheriff and Henry Hall walked in front, the others followed, marching slowly in to the courtyard and up to the scaffold. Allison was visibly agitated and trembled. After a brief time, the Sheriff asked Allison whether he had anything to say why the sentence should not be executed. James stated he was not guilty. It was at that point that the execution took place and a short time later, James Allison was pronounced dead. The body was lowered, a shroud put on it, and then placed in the coffin. The crowd that had gathered in front of the jail, was given a chance to the view the corpse, which they did as they passed through the hall and out of the side entrance. The body was taken in charge by his relatives and taken to Plumcreek church for burial.

Some years later, Mary Allison, widow of Robert Allison, became quite ill. As she lay on her death bed, she confessed that on the evening of the murder, she dressed in James’ clothes and shot her husband.

The first hanging in Indiana County may have been a grave error. Was the execution a mistake? Was James Allison guilty? These are all questions that you must answer for yourself based on the facts of the case.

Allison v. Commonwealth, 99 Pa. 17 (1881).; Clarence Stephenson 175th Anniversary History.
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Indiana County Rail Transportation

The Pennsylvania Railroad Comes to Indiana 

One of the important aspects of the county’s history comes with the modes of transportation. In today’s society we know the importance of being able to get from Point A to Point B. Today it is simple enough, we just jump in our car and drive, but in the history of Indiana County it was not that simple. In the early days people traveled by foot, horseback, or horse drawn carriage. What could be considered even more important was the advent of the railroad. 

August 1, 1854, the Indiana Register, published a story with the following headline: “Have We a Railroad Among Us?” In 1852, the Pennsylvania General Assembly authorized the Blairsville Branch of the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) to extend north to Indiana. The Board of Directors of the PRR agreed on May 28, 1852 to build the Indiana Branch, to which the residents of the county subscribed $170,000 to the company’s stock. The mass amount of money provided by the residents showed how important the railroad was to their interests. 

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Indiana Street Car

Construction proceeded, although slowly, over the next few years. One of the difficulties came with receiving an adequate number of rails for the track. The P&T Collins Company advertised for 20,000 cross ties for the section between Campbell’s Mills (Black Lick) and Indiana, this was in December of 1854. By mid-December the track had been laid to Phillip’s Mill (Homer City) on the east side of Yellow Creek. 

Progress continued until May 27, 1856 when the Indiana Register reported the railroad had been completed. By June 10, 1856 the railroad was fully functioning, there were two daily passenger trains running between Indiana and Blairsville. The railroad consisted of a single-track totaling 19 miles and costing $310,000 to construct, but Indiana had its railroad. 

The Railroad Enables Business 

With the introduction of the railroad into Indiana County society, businesses were able to ship their products further geographically but also much more quickly.  

In 1887 the Prairie State Incubator Company was founded. The factory produced incubators that were regarded as the finest incubators being produced and were used for raising chicks from eggs. By 1913, the factory was reported as the largest in the world. 

There was a total of three factories; the first two were located at the present-day site of Floodway Park, but were destroyed by fire. The third and final plant was built in Homer City.  Beginning in 1937, the site was the home of Iler Manufacturing, the Syntron Company and later the FMC Corporation. Thanks to the expansion of the railroad Prairie State Incubator Company was able to ship its products to market in a more efficient way. 

Indiana County Street Railways Company 

The Hoodlebug operated on the Pennsylvania Railroad line, the nearby Indiana Street Railways Company operated their own separate trolley line. The Company served the town of Indiana, with branches to Ernest, Clymer, and Blairsville. Operations began in 1907, remaining in service until 1933, when streetcars were abandoned in favor of buses and automobiles. 

There were numerous trolley companies proposed, but the various proposals were combined into one company. Ridership of the trolleys declined thanks in part to the Great Depression. During the Depression the area coal mines downsized and factories closed – these were many of the people using the trolley line. Further buses and automobile travel came into popularity and now people could travel as they pleased and did not need to wait for the trolley to take them to town. Furthermore, the Company had an inability to make interest payments on its bonds. All of these factors taken together eventually led to the trolley’s demise. 

Indiana-Clymer Street Car Motorman_Andy Salsgiver_ Conductor Fred Kier_ unknown passenger
Indiana-Clymer Street Car. Pictured from left to right: unknown passenger, Motorman Andy Salsgiver and Conductor Fred Kier

So how important was the trolley system during its 26 years of existence? It transported millions of passengers to work, to shop, and to leisure excursions at trolley company-owned parks. According to records, some years the trolleys transported as many as three million passengers. The trolleys were also used to haul freight, supplies, and mail between the local businesses. There were also occasions where the trolleys transported injured miners and other workers to Indiana for emergency medical treatment. 

The Indiana County Street Railways Company coupled with the Railroad enabled the County to become more connected with the outlying communities. The system worked as a shipping line, mail service, and in emergency situations as an ambulance. 

Historical Society Sock Hop

The Old Armory building was transformed back to the 1950s recently for a night of dancing. On October 12, 2018, guests to the Indiana County Historical Society were transported back to the 1950s for a Sock Hop. Special thanks to Crisp Entertainment for providing the music and giving swing dance lessons to all the dancers on the dance floor. A question many people may have is: what are Sock Hops? So, this week’s blog goes on to discuss the dance popular in the 1950s and the culture during the 1950s. School dances were popular during the 1950s, and those dances were held in the school gymnasium, and in order to protect the floor, story goes, that teenagers often danced in their socks, henceforth the name “sock hop.” Young people would flock to these dances either with a date or as a group, which was a major change in society. 

FASHION 

Fashion in the 1950s was much different than it is today, girls often suited up in sweaters and swirling circle skirts, the best remembered is the poodle skirt. The first poodle skirt was made in 1947, and quickly became a must-have item. The garment was specifically marketed for teens. . Guys would commonly wear sport jeans and T-shirts, although looks varied across social roles ranging from “preppies” to “greasers.” Along with the poodle skirt were saddle shoes, these shoes were black and white shoes that looked like saddles and were worn by both men and women. Some famous saddle shoes in popular culture were Elvis Presley in Jailhouse Rock and Lucy van Pelt from the Peanuts comic strip also wears saddle shoes. 

MUSIC AND DANCE 

Music during the 1950s was a defining characteristic of the time; rock-and-roll had surged into mainstream music, and many young people were obsessed with the new sounds. This music included socks like Carl Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes” and Elvis Presley’s “Jailhouse Rock.” This embrace of a “new” style of music lead to “American Bandstand” hosted by Dick Clark with nationwide broadcast beginning in 1957. 

New styles of dancing also occurred during this time including the hand jive, the stroll, and the box-step, but none captured the younger generation like the Twist. Although it came late in the game originating in 1959 in a Hank Ballard song, it did not fully come into the spotlight until 1960 when 17-year-old Chubby Checker released a recording of the infamous song. The song and dance were so popular that it was followed up with “Let’s Twist Again.” 

The 1950s were a time of change in American Society not just with music and dance but also in culture. Teenagers parents were concerned, especially with the dance moves; Elvis Presley’s dancing was considered “dirty” and “too sexy” for television. But the teenagers of the day accepted it and the culture of the 1950s become a part of society. 

A.W. Taylor: Prominent Attorney, Political Figure, Man of Affairs, and Landholder

There are so many street names in Indiana that are named for prominent people from around the County, one of those is Taylor Avenue, named for Alexander Wilson Taylor, Esq. Mr. Taylor was a prominent attorney, political figure, man of affairs, and landholder.

Alexander was born March 22, 1815 to John and Mary Wilson Taylor, in Indiana. He had strong ties to the history of Indiana; he was the grandson of Alexander Taylor, who had settled in Indiana County in 1790 on a farm on Saltsburg Road about four and one-half miles southwest of Indiana.

A.W. Taylor
A.W. Taylor

While growing up, A.W. Taylor’s father filled many important positions in Indiana including Country Treasurer (1817-18); Deputy Surveyor (1815 and 1825-27); Burgess of Indiana (1819-20), and Prothonotary (1818-21). In later years, John Taylor was a member of the Pennsylvania Legislature, Associate Judge, and Surveyor General for Pennsylvania. He was also an editor and publisher of the “Indiana Free Press.”

A.W. was educated at the Indiana Academy (located on the present site of the Silas M. Clark House) and at Jefferson College. He interrupted his studies in 1836 when he moved back to Indiana to serve as a clerk in his father’s office, who at the time was Surveyor General of Pennsylvania, a position he held until 1839. It was in 1839 that he entered law school in Carlisle, PA and studied there for one year. He continued his law studies at Judge Thomas White’s office and was admitted to the Indiana County Bar in 1841.

After being admitted to the bar, Taylor became a successful practicing attorney. He served as clerk of the Indiana Borough Council in 1843, 1844, and 1845. Then from 1845 until 1851, he served as Prothonotary and clerk of courts of Indiana County.

A.W. Taylor married Elizabeth Ralston, daughter of David Ralston, Esquire, on May 8, 1849.

Politically Taylor was a member of the Whig Party and he was strongly anti-slavery and took part in the establishment of the Republican Party in the 1850s, of which he remained a member until his death. He was elected to the Pennsylvania House in 1858 and 1859; while there he circulated a petition for the pardon of Absalom Hazlett at Harper’s Ferry and opposed proposals to create Pine County partially out of Indiana County territory. Taylor’s service did not stop there, he served as Burgess of Indiana in 1863. He was also chairman of a meeting to raise Civil War volunteers.

Then in 1872, he became a representative of Indiana, Westmoreland, and Fayette Counties as a Republican in the 43rd Congress where he served on the Committee on Railways and Canals. It was also in 1872 that he introduced Horace Greeley to a crowd at the Indiana County Fair.

Although not a practicing farmer, A.W. Taylor was interested in agriculture. Hence, Taylor served as President of the Indiana County Agricultural Society. In 1873, Attorney Taylor was elected Trustee of the Agriculture College of PA (a forerunner of Pennsylvania State University). Then in 1878, he served on the Board of Trustees at the Indiana Normal School.

Mr. Taylor was also a temperance advocate. It was on June 26, 1875 that he presented a lengthy argument in Court against the granting of liquor licenses. Taylor attempted to run as an independent candidate for judge but was defeated by Harry White.

It was in Mr. Taylor’s home, that John S. Fisher (future Pennsylvania governor) lived while he attended high school and Indiana Normal School. Taylor also owned an extensive amount of land, part of this land was developed into the Greenwood Cemetery beginning around May 21, 1879.

Alexander Wilson Taylor continued practicing law. In 1891, Taylor became helpless due to a paralytic stroke and was confined to his home for two years until his death on May 7, 1893.

“Time in the woods is important…”

If you spend any time outside you may have seen a salamander that is bluish-black with large, scattered white spots on its back. This little six-inch creature is related to Indiana County, the Salamander’s name is Wehrle’s Salamander named after Richard White Wehrle. It was in 1911 that Wehrle discovered a new type of salamander in Indiana County’s Two Lick Hills area and it was in 1917 that the salamander was named in his honor.

Wehrle was born on October 1, 1852 in Indiana, PA; his parents emigrated from Germany. Growing up, he attended the public schools and learned the jeweler’s trade from his father, Blaeus. Richard began an apprenticeship in Brookville, PA with his uncle Sylvester M. Tinthoff, at the age of fourteen. But young Richard did not take the easy way from Indiana to Brookville – he went on foot, a two-day trip, with three dollars in his pocket.

Wehrle
Richard White Wehrle

In 1873, Wehrle returned to Indiana County and operated his own jewelry store in Blairsville, which he operated for over 20 years. In 1895, he sold the business and moved to Indiana to operate a jewelry store with his brother, Boniface. The pair operated under the name of B.I. Wehrle & Brother, located at 560 Philadelphia Street, and they remained in business together until Boniface’s death in 1899. It was after his brother’s death that he operated the business under R.W. Wehrle & Co. He was a skilled jeweler and gave personal attention to the repair department. Eyeglasses were also sold, and he functioned as an optometrist would today, even though he was not formally trained.

In addition to the jewelry business, Wehrle owned other business interests as well. In 1889, he purchased two stone quarries, which shipped bluestone and Belgium block paving stone to Pittsburgh. The quarries were sold and he later acquired over one thousand acres of coal and timber land in Center and Burrell Townships.

Wehrle was not only involved in business; he was also a naturalist – he also devoted a lot of his leisure time to the study of the natural history of Indiana County. This included making collections of fish, snakes, salamanders, insects, and turtles in the County, which he submitted to museums.

In 1912, the Boy’s Naturalist Club was established by Wehrle, to provide opportunities for boys to go on field trips and participate in other activities related natural history. He was known as “Uncle Dick” by the children in the community. He also served as a Game Commissioner of the Indiana County Branch of the Wild Life League and was known as the “Bird Doctor” thanks to his efforts to rescue and rehabilitate birds.

Wehrle remained active his entire life and he credited his good health to his outdoor lifestyle. It was on his 70th birthday that he walked from Indiana to Punxsutawney to visit relatives – a distance of 25 miles. He received an honorary lifetime membership in the Academy of Sciences in Philadelphia for his collection efforts on behalf of the Academy. The Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh was also blessed with many collections from Wehrle, which he provided on a regular basis through 1936, a year before his death. Many of these collections came from the Two Lick area and from property he owned near Black Lick, PA.

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Wehrle’s Salamander (from PAHERPS website).

R.W. Wehrle died on July 4, 1937 at his home located at 36 South 5th Street in Indiana. He is buried in the Wehrle family plot at the St. Bernard’s Cemetery. The pallbearers at his funeral were six men who were members of the Naturalist Club as boys.

Wehrle’s collection of specimens are still in existence. Wehrle is still remembered around Indiana, PA – look up on the building at 560 Philadelphia Street you will see etched into the building “R.W. Wehrle 1904.” There is also a side street in the Borough “Wehrle’s Way.” Although, if you are like most people, you have never heard of this unique individual who hailed from Indiana County devoting his life to the natural history.

The title of this post comes from a newspaper advertisement for watches marketed to outdoorsmen at the R.W. Wehrle & Co. Jewelry Store.