The Murder Trial of Carmene de Renzo

An interesting case came before the September 1905 Indiana County criminal court.  Carmene de Renzo was charged with the murder of his sweetheart, Marianna Barra.  Judge Telford presided over the case.  The Indiana Progress described Renzo as “a large man, rather fair, with a peculiarly round head, the forehead sloping back from the eyes, which are small and light in color.  His hair is short and unkept…”

Both the defendant and the victim were foreigners, which made several interpreters necessary to understand both the evidence and testimony in the case.  The mother of the deceased took the stand and detailed the crime, which occurred before her at her home near Creekside on July 7.  The mother did not speak English, so her testimony was presented through the interpreter.  

From the testimony it was revealed that Carmene Renzo went to Marianna Barra’s home and questioned why the Barras did not like him.  Both mother and daughter replied that they did not care for him because he did not like to work.  After hearing their response, Mr. Renzo left the home, but returned to find Marianna standing on the doorstep.  He grabbed her by the arm and fired his revolver, causing five shots to enter her body.  The mother intervened and the girl fled.  As Renzo reloaded the revolver, he threatened the mother and followed the wounded girl.  He fired another shot, which was the fatal blow. 

Renzo had made an attempt on his own life, but was unsuccessful.  He narrowly escaped being lynched by his neighbors, by being arrested and taken to jail.

The testimony elicited showed that the deceased at one time wished to marry Renzo, but when she found out that he would not work, her mother became involved, and the romance ended.

The defendant took the stand and told his story of his love for Marianna and of her rejection and the ensuing quarrel.  He admitted that he shot her and graphically described to the court how she ran from the house.  Then according to Renzo, his mind went blank from that time until he found himself in jail.

Dr. George E. Simpson was called by the defense as to the question of transitory insanity.  The defense then offered to submit writings and medical books regarding insanity.  The prosecution objected to this and Judge Telford sustained the objection.

The defense then attempted to offer into evidence a certificate of good behavior and moral character, which was obtained from Italy, but it was ruled out.

This trial, although of some interest today, did not attract a great deal of attention as the attendance at the trial was quite small.  It was noted in the news report that most of the witnesses were also foreign.  It would be the guess of the author of this post, that because much of the testimony would be presented through interpreters, that many of the general public were deterred from attending.

The case was sent to the jury late in the afternoon on September 21, 1905, and at a quarter before eight that evening, the jury filed back into the courtroom with their verdict.  Once the jury was seated, word was sent to Sheriff Neal that a verdict was reached and he brought Renzo into the courtroom.  The jury foreman handed the verdict to Prothonotary Calhoun who gave the paper to Judge Telford.  Judge Telford gave the paper back to the Prothonotary who read it aloud, “Guilty of murder in the first degree.”

As Renzo walked from the courtroom, many witnesses to the scene drew a long breath and expressed in the words of pity: “Poor devil!”

Renzo was sentenced before Judge Telford on January 20, 1906.  Despite motions filed by the defense for a new trial, it was refused.

Renzo was asked if he had anything to say why the sentence of the Court should not be passed upon him; he said, “Nothing.”  During the sentencing, he remained standing with his eyes cast down.  The only thing he said was that one word.  The sentencing imposed was as follows:

“We have long delayed this official duty.  We meet our present obligation with a severe regret for its necessity.  As we have said, at last September court you were found guilty of murder in the first degree.  In passing upon you the sentence of the Court we trust, in view of the future, you will see truly your duty in the light of the teachings of the church.  Whilst punishment here falls hard upon you, may penitence and contrition sustain you and may you be given courage to sustain you now.  The sentence of the Court is: That you be taken by the Sheriff of Indiana County to the jail and from there to the place of execution within the walls or yard of the jail, and be hanged by the neck until dead.  And may God have mercy upon your soul.”

Governor Samuel W. Pennypacker set Thursday, July 26, 1906, for the hanging of Renzo.  The Italian consul had made an effort to save Renzo.  The execution was then stayed by Governor Pennypacker after he received a petition from C.C.A. Baldi, president of the Italian Federation of Philadelphia.  These attempts to save Renzo’s life were to no avail as he was hanged on August 27, 1907.

The hanging took place in the corridor of the county jail at 10:38 a.m.  Those who had tickets for admission went to the Sheriff’s office at 10:20 and were given their places in the jail corridor.  At 10:30 Sheriff Jacob Wettling ascended the scaffold and two minutes later Renzo ascended part way to the scaffold, accompanied by Father Emelio Farri of the Roman Catholic church; John B. DeSanta, a friend; and Officer Orrin Stiffler.

Renzo’s face bore no trace of fear and his step was firm and brave.  He was dressed in a dark suit, with collar and necktie and patent leather shoes – the County Commissioners had provided him with the new outfit. 

Father Farri and DeSanta followed Renzo to the scaffold.  The priest raised a crucifix and they all kneeled in prayer.  Following a short prayer, the Sheriff placed Renzo over the trap and quickly adjusted the noose around his neck and drew over his head the black cap.  

The Sheriff touched the lever which allowed the trap to drop at 10:35, but the rope broke and Renzo fell to the floor.  Officers quickly carried the body to the scaffold and the Sheriff placed the rope with which James Allison and Joseph Sarver were executed. The trap was sprung a second time at 10:38 which was successful.  

At 10:48, the four physicians present – Coroner W.D. Gates, Dr. McMillan, Dr. H. Ney Prothero and Dr. T.D. Stephens – pronounced Renzo dead.  The Sheriff’s jury – Dr. H. Ney Prothero, J. Earl Lewis, J.A. Crossman, John C. Work, George Jeffries, J.L. Orr, Dr. T.P. Stephens, M.H. Henry, D.M. Caldwell, Elder Peelor, George W. Roof and William H. Clawson – viewed the body and made an affidavit to the fact that they had seen Renzo executed in accordance with law.

After the physicians had pronounced Renzo dead, the body was taken down and prepared for burial by the undertaker.  About noon, the body was taken to the Arbitration Room in the court House, where it was viewed by hundreds of people.  At 4:00 p.m. the body was taken to the Catholic cemetery and buried.

The Murder Trial of Frank and Angelina Borgio

Saturday June 17, 1916 marked the beginning of the trial of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Frank Borgio and Angeline Borgio.  On May 2, 1915, Frank Borgio went to Iselin at approximately 9:00 a.m., he and his wife were leaving their home in Nowrytown, because of the lack of work.  They had planned to spend the day with friends in Iselin, prior to leaving town.  The couple arrived in Iselin and awaited the return of Sam Russo, when he got off of work in the mines which they knew would be around 5 or 6 in the evening.  When Russo returned from working in the mines.  Now the Borgios knew Rosso as he was at one time a border with them. He greeted Mrs. Borgio, as he normally would, and she returned the greeting.  Just as he was entering the boarding house, Mrs. Borgio drew her hand which was covered with a handkerchief, which concealed a revolver and fired twice, both shots lodging in Russo’s back.

Russo ran through the basement of the boarding house and was on his way to the first floor when Frank Borgio appeared and fired three shots, two of which hit Russo.  Frank Borgio left the house and the injured man tried to reach his room on the second floor.  Mrs. Borgio escaped those who could have detained her, raced up the stairs and came face-to-face with Russo, being exhausted, had sunk to the steps.  Without saying a word, Mrs. Borgio drew the revolver and fired twice, striking Russo in the face.  Despite these life-threatening wounds, Russo lived almost two hours.

In the meantime, a foreigner had secured a gun and ordered Frank Borgio to hold up his hands, but some intervening force caused Borgio to escape along with his wife. The couple got in a car and went as far as the Conemaugh Township election house, and then continued on to Nowrytown.  The couple was arrested on the Owl train of the Pennsylvania Railroad in Saltsburg.  They were brought to Indiana on May 3, 1915 by Sheriff Boggs.  Mr. and Mrs. Borgio were approximately 30 years old, and expressed no regret over what they had done and took their imprisonment nonchalantly.

At the time of their arrest, Mrs. Borgio told Sheriff Boggs that her husband was jealous of the alleged suspicious attentions Russo had paid to her and the best way out of the family difficulty was to do away with the cause of it.  They planned and executed the murder. 

During the trial, the defense claimed that Russo had assaulted Mrs. Borgio.  The alleged assault is said to have occurred in July 1914, while no one was at the home, except for Russo.  Russo allegedly solicited improper relations (today we would call this either sexual assault or potentially an attempted rape), but she refused.  Russo is then said to have pointed a pistol at Mrs. Borgio and made various threats and accomplished his purpose.  After the assault, according to Mrs. Borgio, Russo stated that if she told anyone about what had happened, he would kill her.  Because of the threats, she did not tell Mr. Borgio, but he had heard through rumors around town and confronted his wife, and she then told him the story.  The defense claims that Borgio immediately declared his wife’s honor had to be avenged, and that is when they planned the murder.  

When the jury first went to deliberate, their first vote on the charge against Frank Borgio came in with 11 for first degree murder and one for second degree.  The second vote came in with 8 for first degree and 3 for second degree.  The third and final vote by the jury came in a unanimous guilty for murder in the first degree.

The vote for Mrs. Borgio came in the first time at 1 for first degree and 11 for second; the second vote resulted in a unanimous vote for conviction of murder in the second degree.

After the verdict was announced, Attorney James Mack, for the defendants, made an application for a new trial.

Frank Borgio was calm as his sentence was imposed, aside from a shrug of his shoulders, he maintained his quiet attitude which marked his entire captivity.  When Mrs. Borgio learned of her and her husband’s sentence, she became hysterical.  After the sentencing, when Mrs. Borgio was returned to her cell, she made threats to kill herself, so to avoid this from happening, a guard was placed with her until the time for her to be taken from the Indiana Jail to the Western Penitentiary, where she was to serve 10 to 15 years.

The sentence was as follows:

The verdict rendered in this case requires the Court to impose upon you the most serious penalty known to the law.  The sentence about to be imposed upon you is not the discretionary act of the court; it is the sentence of the law.  The jury has found you guilty of causing the life of Sam Russo to be taken and the jury has also found that you did it willfully, deliberately and premediately and without excuse or justification.  You had a fair and impartial trial and was defended from the beginning to the end by able, zealous and conscientious counsel.  Your situation at this hour appeals most feelingly to our sympathy.  We trust that you make so direct the remaining days of your life that you may meet the end with fortitude.

And now, January 8, 1917, You, Frank Borgio, being in open Court, the motion for a new trial and reasons therefore having been carefully and fully considered, it is ordered overruled, and it being demanded of you in open Court if you had anything to say why the said Court of Oyer and Terminer should not proceed to judgment and sentence against you, now, therefore, the sentence of the law is that you, Frank Borgio, here present in open Court, he taken hence to the jail fo Indiana County from whence you came, and that from thence at a time later to be determined, you be transferred to the custody and keeping of the Warden of the Western Penitentiary in Center County, Pennsylvania, and there by him detained until such time as His Excellency, the Governor of the Commonwealth, by his warrant may direct, and at such time you be taken to the place of execution at said penitentiary and that a current of electricity of sufficient intensity to cause death be then and there passed through your body and so continued until you are dead.

And may God, in His infinite goodness have mercy on your soul.

On January 9, 1917, it came time for Mrs. Borgio to be taken to the Penitentiary, a sorrowful good-bye was shared between Mrs. Borgio and Mr. Borgio. 

Sheriff Harry A. Boggs, along with County Commissioner W. Bruce Wagner, and some newspapermen read Frank Borgio the Governor’s warrant fixing the week of September 10, 1917 as the time for his execution.  Afterwards Borgio remarked, “There’s no law in this country for me,”  and proceeded to make preparations for his departure to Rockview, Center County, where the execution was to be carried out.

A stay of execution was issued by the Governor late on Saturday September 8, 1917, which postponed the execution until November 5, 1917.  In the interim period, the Pardon Board would review the case.  A recommendation was made that an Executive Order be issued which would commute the death sentence and substitute a sentence of life.  This recommendation was made by the Pardon Board and submitted by Frank B. McClain, Lieutenant Governor; Cyrus E. Woods, Secretary of the Commonwealth; Francis Shunk Brown, Attorney General; and Paul W. Houck, Secretary of Internal Affairs. 

Frank Borgio was pardoned by the State Board when his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.  

The story does not end here, as a further order of court was made on October 24, 1930:

And now, October 24, 1930, it appearing to the Court that in October 5, 1921, this Court made an order of removal of Frank Borgio from the Western Penitentiary to the Farview State Hospital for the Criminal Insane at Waymart, Wayne County, Pa., pursuant to the report of the Commissioners who were appointed to inquire into the mental condition of the said Frank Borgio; and it further appearing to the Court that the said Frank Borgio has been treated in said institution since his admission therein, and upon petition of William M. Lynch, Superintendent, praying that this Court make an order discharging the said Frank Borgio from the State Hospital for the Criminal Insane for the reason that he has sufficiently recovered, and no longer needs the custodial care and treatment of said hospital.

….where he has been serving a commuted life sentence for the crime of first degree murder for which he was convicted June 21, 1916.

….Direct Elmer Borland and return the said Frank Borgio to the Western Penitentiary, located at Pittsburgh, Allegheny County Pa…

J.N. Langham, P.J.

It was reported in the Indiana Evening Gazette on January 16, 1931 reported that Borgio would get his freedom as he was issued a commutation of the minimum sentence, however, it was not reported when or if he was released, as there seems to be no further mention after this date.

John Brown’s Army: The Man from Indiana County

Albert (Absalom) Hazlett was born September 21, 1837, in the area near the old “Devil’s Elbow,” Green Township, Indiana County (about six miles east of Indiana near the old, closed Route 422).  He was the sixth of eleven children.  His mother, Sarah, was born around 1814, and was a widow by July 1860.  His father, Alexander, had 40 acres worth about $100 in 1850.  He was listed as Absalom, age 12, by the census taker in 1850.  It is likely he disliked the name and adopted Albert instead.  Hazlett was five feet, eleven inches tall, genial, with a fair complexion and blond, curly hair.  Richard Hinton, an abolitionist who sympathized with John Brown, remarked that he “did not impress you unless you specially as striving to climb the golden stairs.”  It is quite apparent he had a craving for adventure.  John Brown’s daughter, Anne, said he “was a really good, kind-hearted man, with little or no education. He had always lived and grown among the roughest kind of people.  He was the least accustomed to polite living” of any of Brown’s men.

Absalom Hazlett: Abolitionist from Indiana County

Sometime during the early part of 1857, Hazlett went to Kansas where he joined a volunteer Free State military company.  In the later part of 1858 he met John Brown and joined his raiding party.  Early in 1859, he went with Brown and others escorting a group of fugitive slaves to freedom in Canada.  After accompanying Brown as far as Cleveland, they parted and Hazlett returned to Indiana County where he worked as a farm hand and wrote to Brown on May 21, “I wish it would come off soon, for I am tired of doing nothing.”  Around the early part of September, Hazlett joined the others of John Brown’s party at the Kennedy farm in Maryland, and the raid at Harper’s Ferry occurred on October 16-18, 1859.  The details of the Harper’s Ferry raid need not be retold here except to note that Hazlett, with two colored members of the Brown party, were assigned to hold the Arsenal.  When the situation worsened, Hazlett and Osborne P. Anderson managed to escape.

Anderson later wrote that after the raid he and Hazlett returned to the Kennedy farm but found it ransacked.  Since they had nothing to eat for forty-eight hours they roasted some ears of corn at night and headed north.  Because of the “hard journey and poor diet” they became

nearly famished and very much reduced in strength.  Poor Hazlett could not endure as much as I could.  With his feet blistered and sore, he gave out at last ten miles below Chambersburg.  He declared he could go no further, and begged me to go on as we should be more in danger if seen together in the vicinity of towns, that after resting that night he would throw away his rifle and go to Chambersburg, where we agreed to meet again.  The poor, young man’s face was wet with tears when we parted.

After this, Anderson saw no more of Hazlett.

On October 22, Hazlett was arrested and taken to Carlisle on the supposition that he was John E. Cook, another of Brown’s men, for whom there was a $1,000 reward.  Hazlett gave the authorities the alias “William H. Harrison.”

The story continues in the words of W.J. Shearer of Carlisle, an attorney who tried to save Hazlett from extradition to Virginia.

One Sunday morning in October, 1859 [probably October 23], I was coming up town . . . [and] passed the place where Squire Sponsler had his office, . . . I was attracted by a large crowd there.  I crossed over to learn what it all meant.  I went into the office, and there sat a tall, raw-boned man and with him were Charlie Campbell and Bill Houser, of Chambersburg.  I asked what was the matter, what they were doing. Houser said here is Cook, one of John Brown’s men.  He was in Chambersburg and slipped out and came down here, and we followed him and arrested him up the railroad.  I asked which is Cook? They said that man back there. I said no that cannot be Cook, . . . he is described as being an effeminate-looking man, with light hair and blue eyes.  This is no such man, this tall, rawboned man with hard hands, which show him to be a laborer . . . I said what are you doing with him here.  He said Squire Sponsler is writing up authority to take him down to Virginia.  And I turned to the man and said to him, do you know any lawyer here in Carlisle, and he said no.  He asked me, are you a lawyer?  I said yes.  Well, will you see that I have justice done me? I will.

Next Shearer objected to Squire Sponsler writing a commitment and the squire sent for his attorney, who informed him he did not have that authority.

Houser said it didn’t make any difference whether he gave them the authority or not, we brought him here, he said, and we will take him away.  I said I don’t believe you will.  In the meantime I had sent for Sheriff McCartney, to come up with his deputy, and when they came up I went out and told them to stand against the wall to the right of Squire Sponsler’s door.  I then went into the office; they were preparing to take that man away.  I said to Houser, if you take this man out of this office against his will, you will be put to jail for kidnapping.  He said I guess not.  That is what will be done, I said, I have the sheriff out there for that purpose.  He looked out the door and he saw Sheriff McCartney whom he knew, he asked him what he was doing there, and Sheriff McCartney says we are waiting for you and Campbell.  I had told McCartney that if they took that man out to arrest them and put them to jail, and I would make information against them for kidnapping.  Mr. McCartney says if you will promise to stand by me, I will do it, and I said I will stand by you.  They didn’t take him away, but of course Squire Sponsler had the right to put him to jail, which he did.

Shearer presented a petition for habeas corpus and was assisted at the hearing October 26 by attorneys W.J. Miller and A.B. Sharp.  A warrant from the Governor of Pennsylvania was presented, at the request of the Governor of Virginia, for the delivery of Hazlett but, since he would not be positively identified as Hazlett, he was returned to jail.  On October 29 Shearer, Miller and Sharp asked that the prisoner be discharged on the ground that his name was not Albert Hazlett but William Harrison.  Judge James H. Graham recommitted him to await a third hearing on November 6, at which time three witnesses identified him.

Shearer had asked Sheriff McCartney not to spot Hazlett for any parties from Virginia coming to see him.  Two groups failed to identify Hazlett, but on the third attempt a man from Harper’s Ferry professed to known him and was able to pick him out from a group of prisoners.  Shearer continues:

Mr. Miller went down with me the last night to spend a short time with him before he would be taken to Virginia, and we sat and talked with him until 10 o’clock in the jail. . . . When we left him, he said to me, Mr. Shearer I wish you would tell the sheriff that I would like to have a plug of tobaco [sic tobacco].  Now if it is remarkable on what small matters one’s life may depend.  Asking for that plug of tobacco cost that man his life.  As I passed out of the jail with Mr. Miller., I said to Sheriff McCartney, Mr. Hazlett said I should ask you to give him a plug of tobacco.  Well, why he did it I don’t know, but he went back and examined the man’s cell, and found the whole back of the cell out.  A blanket was hung against it, out of which he could walk whenever he wanted to do so, and Mark Scott, of Carlisle, a colored barber . . . was sent here by James Redpath, of Kansas notoriety, with a horse and buggy, and a rope ladder to help him over the wall and take him away, but McCartney went and examined his cell and finding it open in that way he put him in another cell, and that cost him his life.  Why Sheriff McCartney did that I could never understand.  The only way that I can account for it is, that Mr. McCartney thought Hazlett had not asked for tobacco, and that I only asked him this to warn him not to let this man escape, as if I, his counsel, had to do anything of the kind. I know that he wanted him to escape, that is why I could never fully understand why he went and took him out of that cell.  The reason I know he wanted him to escape is, that one day, the time of the hearing of the habeas corpus, it was late at night.  I was down at the jail the next morning and McCartney said to me, Mr. Shearer that client of yours is the most stupid man I ever saw in my life.  He says you know when I was sent down with him it was very dark, as dark as midnight under those trees in front of Judge Hepburn’s and if he had just given me a little push I would have fallen over in the gutter and hollowed murder, and he could have been out in the North Mountains in a short time . . . Mark Scott didn’t get him, he was taken to Virginia.

In early November, shortly after Hazlett’s arrest and extradition to Virginia.  The Indiana Weekly Report reported that:

. . . Albert Hazlett, one of the Harper’s Ferry insurrectionists, is a native of this county. About two years since Hazlett was arrested in this place for the larceny of a number of overcoats from the hall of the American Hotel, was admitted to bail, but forfeited the recognizance by not appearing at the time of trial.  He then left for the State of Ohio, and we believe was in Kansas a short period, and took part in the struggle between the Free State men and Missourians, and boasted that a pistol ball at one time made a furrow through his beard.  He remained in that territory . . . until the later part of July last, when he returned to this county. Being in search of employment John B. Allison, Esq. of White tp., engaged him to assist in harvesting his oats crop, and while in the employ of Mr. Allison, and at work in the field cradling, he inquired of him if he had observed the letter B on the blades of the oats and knew what it was to represent. Receiving a reply in the negative and asked to give his interpretation of the symbol, he replied that it stood for Blood, that all the oats this year bore the same impression, and the time was near at hand when it was to be shed. This aroused Mr. Allison’s curiosity and he desired to learn how it was possible that it could be construed into that light, and where and for what purpose the blood was to be shed.  Hazlett’s reply was, that he was connected with a company who were pledged to the overthrow of slavery, and that he must soon leave for the west. Mr. Allison treated the whole affair at the time as ridiculous in the extreme.  Shortly after this Hazlett left, but it was ascertained instead of going west he took the cars for the east, and nothing was known of his doings and whereabouts until we hear of his connection with Ossawatamie Brown at Harper’s Ferry, and is now on trial for insurrection, treason and murder.

            The Register also published an extract from the Johnstown Echo alleging that Hazlett, while working as a canal boatman some years earlier, had sold his employer’s boat and team but returned the money and avoided prosecution. It was also said he was connected with a gang of horse thieves but turned state’s evidence and testified against his confederates at their trial in Elmira, New York. Fearing their vengeance, he left for parts unknown.

In January 1860, another resident of Indiana County, J.E. Coulter, the postmaster, provided additional information about Hazlett’s background. In response to an inquiry from Andrew Hunter, prosecuting attorney for Virginia, seeking information or witnesses, Coulter replied:

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Hazlett remained in the Charles Town, Virginia (now West Virginia), jail more than four months while the authorities completed preparations for his trial which finally took place during the week of February 6-10, 1860. Shearer obtained the services of Botts and Green, eminent Virginia lawyers, for Hazlett’s defense, and in Shearer’s words they “made a noble defense.”  The Richmond Enquirer reported that Botts’ closing argument took two hours, and Green spoke for three hours, “the ablest argument made since the commencement of the Harper’s Ferry Trials.” Prosecutor Hunter, writing to Virginia Governor Letcher, spoke of the “Protracted and hotly contested trial of Hazlett.” The Indiana Weekly Register followed the trial and reported that Captain Clowe, who had never seen Hazlett before, spoke with him in the jail February 8. “At that time the prisoner stated that he had not heard from his mother since his connection with the Harper’s Ferry Affair.  After the prisoner made the statement he seemed to regret it.”

Shearer heard that the jury was out all night and an acquittal or hung jury was expected, but some citizens “gathered below and howled ‘Hang him or we will hang you.’ In that way they succeeded in extorting the verdict of guilty from them.”

On February 13, Hazlett was sentenced to be hanged. When asked if he had anything to say, he responded:

I have a few words to say. I am innocent of the charge on which I have been convicted. I deny ever having committed murder, or ever having contemplated murder, or even having associated with any one with such intentions. Some of the witnesses have sworn to things which I deny, and which were positively false. For instance in reference to my beard; I have never in my life until my imprisonment to jail, allowed my beard to go more than three weeks without shaving, and all testimony therefore as to the length of my beard is false. Again, Mr. Copeland testified that I was sitting on a stool when he entered the jail cell at Carlisle, this I deny; I was sitting on a blanket, beck against the wall, and another man was on the stool . Copeland also said there were only two men in the cell: this is false, as there were four other white men in the cell with me, and we comprised all the white prisoners in the jail. Others of the witnesses made false statements, but I forgive them all. I have been treated kindly since my confinement – much better than I had expected – and I must say I think better of Virginia. I wish to also to return my thanks to the counsel who have so ably defended me; they have done more in my behalf than Northern counsel could possibly have done. I repeat I am innocent of murder but am prepared to meet my fate.

            Strong efforts were made to secure an executive pardon of commutation of the sentence. The Register reported

A petition signed by two or three hundred of our citizens, asking the pardon of Hazlett, the last of the Harper’s Ferry Insurrectionists, was circulated in this borough last week. It is hope, I that the Governor of Virginia will grant the prayer . . . the honor of the Old Dominion has already been more than vindicated.

Another petition for clemency came from Carlisle. Judge Graham at Carlisle and the attorney who represented Virginia at the Carlisle hearings both wrote letters asking Governor Letcher to pardon Hazlett. Another petition, accompanied by a letter from A.W. Taylor of Indiana, the county’s representative in the State Senate, was signed by 55 members of the Pennsylvania Senate and House.

Meantime a small group of sympathizers were meeting in Harrisburg to plot ways and means of rescuing Hazlett and Aaron D. Stevens, also condemned to die. Among the number were Richard J. Hinton, who appears to have been the organizer, Captain James Montgomery, John W. LeBarnes, and Thomas Wentworth Higginson. Revolvers were loaned and money contributed. It was decided to reconnoiter and gather information, so Montgomery went to the vicinity of Charles Town, and Silas C. Soule, who had a perfect Southern accent, went into the town in the guise of a drunk and disorderly Irishman and was locked in a cell of the jail. Cautiously, he conversed with Hazlett and Stevens, telling them of the planned rescue effort, but they requested that it be abandoned as impossible on account of a constant guard of eighty men around the jail at tall times. In spite of this, some of the group were still inclined to try, but heavy snows and bad weather caused them finally to give up.

Clemency was denied by Governor Letcher and Hazlett’s fate was sealed. The following letter from Hazlett to Anne Brown is evidence of his innermost thoughts:

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One of those who came to see Hazlett was Mrs. Rebecca Spring and her son from the “Socialist Union,” or Raritan Bay Union, of Eagleswood, New Jersey (now part of Perth Amboy). Afterward, Hazlett wrote to her the day before his execution:

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The brother who visited him was Jonas Hazlett, at that time a farm hand near Elders Ridge, who later moved to the vicinity of Lawrence, Kansas.  To him Albert entrusted a six-stanza poem which was afterward published in the Indiana Weekly Register:

poem

The execution on March 16, 1860, was a carefully staged, impressive Virginia military display, as well as a gala spectacle. Twelve military companies participated. The Register noted afterward that Hazlett and Stevens

Both exhibited great firmness. There was no religious exercises at the gallows, as they persisted in refusing all the kindly offices of the ministry in their last moments. They were both Spiritualists, and had a peculiar religion of their own, which enabled them to meet their fate with cheerfulness and resignation.

            The bodies were shipped by Adams Express to Marcus Spring. He was warned of an angry mob at Perth Amboy determined to throw the caskets overboard from the boat, so it was arranged for the boat to stop at Rahway where the caskets were taken secretly to the grounds of the Socialist Union. Here funeral services were held and Hazlett and his buddy buried in the cemetery in the midst of a scraggy wood of cedars, pines and scrub oaks.

Hazlett was not completely forgotten in his home community. In 1894 Annie Brown Adams wrote Richard Hinton: “I received a letter from a lady in Indiana Co. Penn. Who had been reading [your book] also, and asking numerous questions about Albert Hazlett, giving all the information she could gather about him and his family in that region. Most unfortunately we do not know the lady’s name. Her letter, if it could be found, would probably reveal more about the Hazlett family.

In 1899, an Associated Press dispatch related that the bodies were about to be dug up because the clay was needed for a tile works at Pertch Amboy. Due to the efforts of Dr. Featherstonhaugh of Washington, D.C., and others, arrangements were made for reburial on the John Brown farm about three miles from Lake Placid, New York. Here, many miles from his native home, Hazlett rests in an unmarked grave near a large boulder surrounded by an iron fence. Eleven of his companions rest there with him.

This ends the strange story, and we are left with unanswered questions. Why didn’t his family help him? Why didn’t they have him buried in his native home soil? Hazlett’s father was dead. His mother apparently did not even write to him. One brother was the only member of the family who went to see him. In 1859, Hinton wrote to Higginson, “His brother can do nothing. They are poor, indifferent or frightened, probably all three.” When Mrs. Spring asked Hazlett who were dear to him, he evaded a direct answer, saying that “everybody that is good is dear to me.”  Yet two stanzas of his “Farewell” were addressed to his mother and a sister and a third stanza to a possible sweetheart, “My angelic maid.” Apparently nothing was provided for funeral expenses. At the first burial in Eagleswood, Stevens’ remains were conveyed to the grave in a hearse but Hazlett’s Virginia coffin was carried on a common farm wagon.  And, to return to the strange circumstance noted at the beginning, why has local and state history so totally neglected him?

On Any Sunday

Loud commercials, antenna balloons and those weird fan-inflated arm wavers.  Indiana County’s forty auto dealerships will do just about anything to get your attention and your business.  So why won’t they sell you a car on Sunday?

Because it’s a crime.

The law that makes it so is called the Act of April 22, 1794, which is short for its real name, “An Act for the Prevention of Vice and Immorality and of Unlawful Gaming, and to Restrain Disorderly Sports and Dissipation.”  You probably know it as the Blue Law.

Like its siblings in most other American states (as well as Canada and several European countries), Pennsylvania’s Blue Law had public observance of the Sabbath as its original purpose.  It takes just three sentences to cover a wide range of activities in surprising detail:  things forbidden and the penalty for doing them, exceptions to the rule, and a statute of limitations.  In a nutshell, it forbids us to “perform any employment or business whatsoever on the Lord’s day, commonly called Sunday (works of necessity and charity only excepted)” or to practice any “game, hunting, shooting, sport or diversion whatsoever on the same day.”  Simple, right?  But those words have been argued over in more detail, for a longer time and with greater passion than any other in our legislative and judicial history.  It’s enough to make a lawyer drool.

The range of things to which the Act has been applied over the years is immense and sometimes quizzical.  From the Penal Code of Pennsylvania, here’s a sample of 19th century rulings that cited the Act in their support.  On Sunday:

* Barbers may shave themselves but not others.

* The trolley driver whose car makes noise shall be subject to arrest.

* Bakers may not sell ice cream without also providing entertainment.

* Steamboat may be operated as ferries but not as excursion boats.

* Killing coyotes and crows is exempt from the ban on hunting.

* Even when otherwise permitted by law, dueling is forbidden.

on any sunday 1

Curiously for a state that led the fight for religious freedom in 1776, the Act raised little objection for the first few decades.  Perhaps the reason can be found in its time and place of birth.  The Whiskey Rebellion, centered right here in southwest Pennsylvania, reached its peak the same year the Act was passed; it may be that “high spirits and freethinkers” were not tolerated while those who fought that insurrection still lived.  In any case, the first legal challenges were not about what the Act prohibited or even why, but when.  In Commonwealth v. Wolf  (1817)* and other cases,  Jews and Seventh Day Adventists asserted that the Act’s designation of Sunday as the Lord’s Day amounted to selective proscription of their faiths’ Saturday Sabbath and a five-day limit to their business week.  The relief that was eventually granted came not from the courts but the General Assembly, after several attempts over many decades.

Support for Pennsylvania’s Blue Law ebbed and flowed over time, often reflecting social changes not related to the law itself.  The most intense of these periods was 1890-1915, during the Third Great Awakening and the closing days of the Industrial Revolution.  Interests-in-common made for strange bedfellows: temperance workers saw in the Act an ally against then-rampant alcoholism and domestic violence, while nascent labor unions welcomed its help reducing the 70-80 hour work week and employers’ control over workers’ lives.

During the height of the pro-Sabbath cycle in the early 1900s, Indiana County outdid most of the state in its zeal for enforcement, with the support of churches, citizens’ groups and even the press.  Railing against the McNichol Bill’s proposed dilution of Sabbath laws, the Gazette urged readers to demand their legislators oppose “establishing the wicked ‘Continental’ or European Sunday in Pennsylvania.”  And in December 1907 alone, seventy merchants, miners and railroad employees were arrested for violating the Act in towns from Plumville to Josephine “on information of the Indiana County Sabbath Observance Association.”

The national Sabbath Observance Association chose Pittsburgh as its 1908 convention site because southwest Pennsylvania was ground zero in the battle over U.S. Blue Laws.  The Indiana County chapter had as its field agent one Doctor James Sharp, whose task it was to set up surveillance on suspected violators, collect evidence and witnesses, then “bring information” (press charges) against those caught working or doing business on Sunday.  He was ruthlessly efficient, accounting for hundreds of convictions before his death in 1909; coal companies and railroads that had hitherto ignored the Act stopped requiring seven-day work weeks of their employees, and merchants dreaded running afoul of our county’s Sabbath vigilante.

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By 1929, more than 100 attempts to repeal or amend the original Act had failed…

But times were already changing.  America after World War One was a different place, and the Sabbath Observance Association less Doctor Sharp had a progressively smaller voice in Indiana County.  Both economic hardship and prosperity dealt further setbacks to Blue Law supporters in the decades that followed: with unemployment near 30%, what Depression-era worker could say no to Sundays?  And how many businessmen could afford to reject one-seventh of all opportunities in the postwar boom?  In between, WWII persuaded us that enforceable uniformity was worth fighting against, not for.

In the meantime, non-employment exceptions were slowly added, most notably the 1933 bill leaving Sunday sports to the discretion of local electorates.  (Indiana County voters chose to continue the ban here by a 2-to-1 margin.)  Once 1938’s Fair Labor Standards Act made the forty-hour week national law and state liquor control debuted, the alliance that had supported the Act dissolved for want of common cause.  And in 1959, the first significant modification of the Act was at last signed into law.

Not that the issue is settled, even now!  Failure of subsequent attempts to repeal the Act altogether has demonstrated Pennsylvanians’ support for at least some degree of public Sabbath-keeping, and our Supreme Court has consistently affirmed the Act’s constitutionality.  On the other hand, recent decades have seen moratoria on Blue Law prosecutions; the day after the first of these in 1976, the Gazette carried ads by Indiana County merchants announcing Sunday hours . . . just two years after police had closed Punxsutawney’s Jamesway Department Store for attempting Sunday sales.  Hunting, betting, and yes, even car sales are still limited to Monday through Saturday, and the debate remains a vigorous one on most remaining provisions of the Act.  May it ever be so; may we never forget that both consent and dissent ensure Pennsylvania’s “Virtue, Liberty, and Independence.”

*Commonwealth v. Wolf, 3 Serg. & Rawle 48 (Pa. 1817).

Coal and Iron and the Badge

There’s an old adage that says a frog dropped in boiling water will hop right out, but he’ll stay there till he’s cooked if the water’s heated slowly enough.  We humans can be that way about threats to our freedom, and Pennsylvanians are no exception.  We proudly shed our blood in the War to End Slavery, yet just six weeks before we won, our legislature authorized the next great threat to freedom – and almost no one objected.

Not many realized it was a threat at the time.  The need seemed genuine, and the solution obvious: train-bandits were better armed and organized than law enforcement in many Pennsylvania counties, so railroads asked for the right to create their own police units.  It seemed like a practical idea, so Act 228, An Act Empowering Railroad Companies to Employ Police Force, was passed in April 1865.

coal and iron police act

Rail police were to “possess and exercise all the powers of policemen in the city of Philadelphia.”  Their authority extended not only to company property but throughout the county(s) in which they were commissioned.  A year later, the Act was amended to include two other giants of the Industrial Age: “all corporations, firms or individuals . . . in possession of any colliery, furnace or rolling mill within this Commonwealth.”  Badges were now to read “Coal and Iron Police” and show the company name.  And just what did it take to become a Coal and Iron Police officer?  The governor’s signature on a single-page application from the company, an oath and a badge.  No training, no background check, no security bond . . . and no accountability.  Answering only to his employer, each man was essentially a law unto himself.

Almost from the start, coalfield “C&Is” were used primarily as strikebreakers, economic enforcers and agents of social control in company towns.  They performed evictions and collected debts, kept up surveillance and shut down public gatherings, and above all prevented infiltration by union organizers.  They were not without legitimate functions;  many a murderer and thief was brought to justice by Coal and Iron Police, and the very lack of accountability that made C&Is such a threat to freedom gave would-be criminals reason to reconsider.  Though the Act stipulated that anyone arrested be “dealt with according to law,” in practice they were as likely to be beaten as brought to trial.

Accidents of geology and geography spared Indiana County some of the worst abuses.  We sit on the edge of three high, medium and low-volatile bituminous deposits; since coal companies tended to concentrate on a single type, no monopoly like those in Allegheny and Schuylkill counties controlled our land and people.  Lucky, too, that our miners weren’t recruited from the counties in Ireland where Molly Maguires were found.  In the 1870s, that underground society reacted to coal company abuses in eastern Pennsylvania with arson and murder, and the Coal and Iron Police responded in kind.

The relative peace here was reflected in our newspapers.  Coal and Iron Police were mentioned just three times in their first twenty years, and even then it was for their actions elsewhere in the Great Railroad Strike of 1877.  But in 1894 the lid came off.

It happened as part of the biggest coal strike America had seen to date.  When Glen Campbell strikers threatened their non-union replacements, our County Recorder swore in sixty new Coal and Iron Police officers for the Berwind-White coal company.  “Foreigners” (as newspapers called immigrant miners) and “Cossacks” (as miners called C&Is) seemed eager to trade shots, and the latter had shoot-to-kill orders should gunfire erupt.  Why didn’t it?  Curiously, that credit goes to Jefferson County’s strikers.  They’d already become violent, so Governor Pattison sent in the National Guard.  One thousand uniformed men marched through Glen Campbell on their way to Walston, and trigger-fingers suddenly stopped itching . . . a close call.

Coal consumption was breaking records every year as the 20th century approached, and mine employment rose to meet it.  So did labor activism and the C&Is’ increasingly brutal response.  That the creation of the Coal and Iron Police had been a mistake was by now obvious to almost everyone – even other states’ producers!  An 1898 edition of The Coal and Trade Journal noted that “Pennsylvania has an institution peculiar to itself . . . a private standing army of irresponsible myrmidons apparently authorized by the laws of that state.

The first small changes to that army were set in motion by the Anthracite Strike of 1902.  When both sides refused even federally-mediated settlement for almost six months, America ran out of home heating coal; with winter approaching, President Theodore Roosevelt threatened to nationalize the mines and replace strikers with soldiers.  The UMWA and Operators’ Association immediately split the difference and resumed production.  As part of the deal, a presidential commission investigated the strike’s root causes.  Among their recommendations was “discontinuance of the system of Coal and Iron Police . . . and resort to regularly constituted peace authorities in cases of necessity.

Though the first part of that recommendation would not soon be acted upon, Governor Pennypacker agreed to limit previously open-ended commissions to three years, and in 1905 signed a bill creating Pennsylvania’s State Police.  Troop D’s location in the heart of our medium-volatile bituminous region was no accident.  The writing was on the wall.

coal and iron police bage

Still, assaults kept increasing as coal production peaked.  More than 170 stories about C&Is appeared in Indiana County papers from 1910 to 1930 compared to those three in the first twenty years.  Yet even in places like Ernest and Creekside where “Cossacks” were ubiquitous, this county continued to see less labor violence than most.

During his first term in office, Governor Gifford Pinchot asked State Police to review all existing C&I commissions.  Their 1923 probe found cause to recommend that some 4,000 of them – the majority – be revoked, and the governor obliged.  He further announced that each future applicant must prove US citizenship and Pennsylvania residence, provide character references and employment history, and post a $2,000 bond.  Problem solved, right?  Well . . . not quite.

A 1928 US Senate Report on events here in the bituminous field was not well received in Harrisburg.  Its 3,400 pages detailing Coal and Iron Police beatings, warrantless searches and property seizures “endangered the peace of the Commonwealth,” said Governor John S. Fisher.  He claimed to mistrust the C&Is but thought that to eliminate them altogether was folly.  A single death the following year made it all academic.

In 1929, officers of the Pittsburgh Coal Company’s police force responded to a miner’s drunken rampage by beating and torturing and finally killing him.  All three were acquitted of John Borkovski’s murder; when retried, two of the three C&Is were convicted of involuntary manslaughter, but not before public outrage had spawned two bills further restricting the Coal and Iron Police.  Governor Fisher’s choice to sign the weaker Mansfield Bill and veto the stronger Musmanno Bill contributed to his defeat in the next election.  Gifford Pinchot was returned to office in 1931.

Making good on his campaign promise to abolish the Coal and Iron Police (announced at Indiana County Courthouse!), Pinchot turned Act 228 against itself.  Its 1866 amendment said “the governor shall have the power to decline to make any such appointment . . . and at any time to revoke the commission of any policeman appointed hereunder.”  He did just that, to all of them.  At midnight on June 30, 1931, Pennsylvania’s Coal and Iron Police ceased to exist.

Some C&Is found employment as “real” police.  Jack Stroble of the Keystone Coal unit served briefly as Indiana’s Police Chief in the 1930s.  And in a final irony, Homer City’s policemen are nowadays represented by United Mine Workers of America!

 

Indiana County Judicial System Part II

As time progress, so did the court system in Indiana County.  To recap from last week’s blog post, Indiana County was part of the newly created Tenth Judicial District, which included Armstrong, Cambria, Indiana, Somerset, and Westmoreland County.  Jefferson County, which then included parts of present Elk and Forest Counties, was also attached to Indiana County for judicial purposes.  In 1818, Somerset County was transferred to the 14th District.

Because of the size of the Judicial District, it was essential to have justice of the peace districts, which were in general, arranged according to townships.  Indiana County consisted of: Conemaugh (264 taxable inhabitants, had 2 justices of the peace), Blacklick (213 taxable inhabitants and 2 justices), Wheatfield (277 taxable inhabitants and 2 justices), Armstrong and Centre (including the South part of Indiana, 303 taxable inhabitants and 3 justices), Washington (including the north part of Indiana, 167 taxable inhabitants and 3 justices), and Mahoning (135 taxable inhabitants and 2 justices) Townships.  This gave Indiana County 6 districts and 14 justices in 1814; by 1827 there were 11 districts and 20 justices, this trend continued in later years as new townships were organized.

Since the Court’s jurisdiction included four, and later three counties, court was only held in Indiana four time a year; it began on the second Monday and later it was the fourth Monday of March, June, September, and December.  “Court weeks” were an important occasion in town, as many visitors came to Indiana.  Civil actions were heard in the Court of Common Pleas, and criminal chargers were heard in the Court of Quarter Sessions.

John Young was appointed as Indiana County’s first judge, along with him there were two associate judges, Charles Campbell and James Smith.  It is interesting to note that associate judges were not required to be learned in the Law.  Judge Young resigned at the end of the November Term 1836, after serving on the Bench for thirty years.  His successor was Thomas White, who was appointed in December 1836.

The following is a list of Associate Judges and the time period of their service: Charles Campbell (1806-1828), James Smith (1806-1818), Joshua Lewis (1818-April 25, 1828), John Taylor (1828-1836), Andrew Brown (1828 – September 29, 1830), Samuel Moorhead Jr. (1830-?), Dr. Robert Mitchell (1836-1842), Meek Kelly (1842-May 14, 1843), James McKennan (1842-?), John Cunningham was appointed in 1843 succeeding Kelly.  In the early days of the judicial system, all those in the judiciary – judges, associate judges and even justices of the peace – were appointed by the Governor, unlike being elected in later years.  Since they were appointed by the Governor, he could also remove appointees from office for cause.  This happened on February 28, 1828 when Governor Shulze revoked the commission of James Dunn as justice of Wheatfield Township because of a “misdemeanor in office” of which he was convicted in December 1826.

Occasionally judges were brought in from other districts, as occurred in 1842 when notice of a special court session was advertised to begin on August 1, 1842, presided over by Judge Robert C. Grier of Allegheny County, for the trial of cases in which Judge Thomas White had been concerned as counsel.  Later, Judge Grier was appointed to the United States Supreme Court by President James K. Polk, and he served on the nation’s highest court from August 10, 1846 until January 31, 1870.

Prosecuting attorneys for criminal cases were appointed from outside the county, and usually represented the Commonwealth as deputy attorney general for several counties.  Prosecuting attorneys included William H. Brackenridge, Henry Shippen, Thomas White, a Mr. Canon, and W.R. Smith.  Ephraim Carpenter was appointed deputy attorney general on March 23, 1824; he lived in Indiana and served for 12 years until William Banks was appointed on March 1836.  August Drum was appointed on March 25, 1839 and was replaced in June 1842 by Thomas C. McDonald who only served a year when Thomas Sutton was appointed on June 26, 1843.  Sutton also only served a little over a year when he was replaced by Thomas C. McDowell on September 25, 1844.

At the time, the sheriff and his deputies, or the local constables, had a lot of power; they were entrusted with arresting criminals, executing judicial orders, subpoenas, etc.  Thomas McCartney was the first Indiana County Sheriff.  He was followed by Robert Robinson in 1809, James Elliott in 1812, Thomas Sutton in 1815, Clemence McGara in 1818, Thomas Sutton in 1821, Henry Kinter in 1824, James Gordon in 1827, James Taylor in 1830, Joseph Loughry in 1833, James Kier in 1836, William Evans in 1839, and David Ralston in 1842.  For a time the chief law enforcement officer was called the “High Sheriff,” later being shortened to just sheriff.

The first two jails in Indiana County were the hickory log jail and the stone jail of 1807.  The third county jail was built at the corner of North Sixth Street and Nixon Avenue, it was also made of stone.  This structure also had its faults as an editorial in the Indiana Republican in 1846 reported: “a pretty specimen confined in it, Sampson like, carried off the gates and made his escape!”  George W. Robinson was another jail-breaker, he was confined on a charge of bigamy, and escaped on May 17, 1841.

To get a sense of how busy the court system was, take the following data for Indiana County from the decade of 1823-1833:

Number of prosecutions for homicide: 4

Cases in which Grand Juries returned bills: 3

Cases in which Grand Juries found no bill: 1

Acquittals of First-degree murder: 3

Acquittals of Second-degree murder: 2

Convictions of First-degree murder: 1

Convictions of Second-degree murder: 0

Convictions of manslaughter: 0

Acquittals of manslaughter: 0

In 1835, Robert Herrin was killed in a fight with Thomas Jones, both were African-American and from Blairsville.  At the trial before Judge John Young, a verdict of second-degree murder was brought against Jones, and he was sentenced to twelve years in Western Penitentiary.

Other early murders in the County were committed along the Pennsylvania Canal.  In 1830, the confession of Joseph Evans was published.  Evans came from to Blairsville from Maine in 1829 and started working on the construction of the canal.  He was under contract by Hugh McCrea as a cook most of the time.  During a drunken brawl he accidentally killed John Cissler.  There were others involved in the brawl including David Linsebigler, John Ball and a fellow called “Dublin.”  Evans confessed that he struck Linsebigler in the ear, kicked him in the pit of the stomach and jumped on him across his shoulders with both feet. He then struck Ball on the side of the head and caught “Dublin” by the hair and also kicked him in his stomach, let him fall and then kicked him twice more in the side.

Another canal murder was Commonwealth v. King Hewit, Mr. Hewit was tried February 20, 1844 at Greensburg.  He killed James Halferty, Captain of the boat Clipper at John Moonshower’s lock between 4-5 miles east of Blairsville in a 4am fight over who should enter the lock first.  The verdict was second degree murder.

Another type of crime that has since been replaced by car theft was horse stealing.  The Indiana County sheriff advertised in the Westmoreland Republican for two horse thieves, Amassa and Alpha Latimore, who were imprisoned December 5, 1819 and had broken out of jail.  There was a $100 reward for their capture, or $50 for either one.  There were also petty and unsolved larcenies.

The progression of time was causing the judicial system to grow, as the town grew so did the need for judicial system.  Not only with general business, but also with the increase in criminal activity.

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.

Early Crime Briefs

It seems there has always been a fascination with crime; today we have crime dramas on almost every major network, but when did this fascination with crime begin. One hundred years ago, there was another form of entertainment for those “criminal minds” and that was public executions.

Murder and Executions

Executions were publicized and often public events. Here in Indiana County, public hangings occurred in the courthouse courtyard. The earliest known hanging in Indiana County occurred in June 1880 with the execution of James G. Allison for the alleged murder of his father, Robert Allison. A later blog post will explore Indiana’s first execution in great detail.

A second execution during this time was Joseph Sarver, who was hanged on September 23, 1884 after being found guilty of killing his father, William Sarver, on November 10, 1883. Sarver’s guilt was not seriously disputed, and the defense pleaded insanity, but the jury brought in a verdict of first-degree murder. The defense made an application for a sentence of life imprisonment but was denied. Judge Blair presided over the sentencing of both Allison and Sarver. It was reported that His Honor was affected when pronouncing the penalty of death on Allison.

There were other murders; one of the most noted was Pasquale Renaldo, an Italian, who on November 14, 1888 was killed by Jesse Palmer. Palmer was intoxicated and had a shotgun, while Renaldo carried only a knife. Renaldo and his friend, Mike Mireon, were described as “quiet, inoffensive and good workmen” being employed at Meldren’s Brickworks at Blacklick. The trial began on March 12, 1889. The jury was out for four hours when they returned a verdict of “not guilty” on March 19. After the verdict was reported there was considerable unfavorable comment about that verdict. The Indiana Times that many thought that Jesse Palmer should have been found guilty on one of the counts and failed to see his justification for shooting Renaldo.

Counterfeiting

There were other crimes as well during the early period of Indiana County, including an unusual activity in counterfeiting. Martin L. Stewart, of Brush Valley, was arrested for counterfeiting postal currency in August 1866. He had $50 of the counterfeit currency on his person when he was arrested. Although the counterfeit money was in his possession, he denied producing it; he was found guilty by a Federal jury in Pittsburgh and sentenced to pay a fine of $1,000 along with a five-year term in the Western Penitentiary.

About a decade later in 1877, three counterfeiters were sentenced. The ringleader, Scott Mardis, was sentenced to four years in the penitentiary and $1,000 fine; Adam Leck three years and $1,000 fine; and Shirley B. McMillan three years and $1,000 fine. These were not the only counterfeiters either; James S. Black was arrested in July 1881 for giving counterfeit money to a detective who sold him bogus jewelry. In October 1887, a government detective searched the home of “Devil” Dave Black in South Mahoning and found molds used in making counterfeit money.

Miscellaneous Crimes

Beyond murder and counterfeiting there were the usual robberies and burglaries. One of these occurred on March 17, 1871 when four men attempted to break into the safe of the First National Bank in Indiana.

There were also reports of vandalism as well. In April 1867, there was a report that boys were breaking windows in the Episcopal Church in West Indiana with stones and clubs. The college was not left out of vandalism either, as it was reported during the first week of March 1876 that some Indiana Normal School students “abused the building and furniture…in a fearful manner,” this included knocking down plaster, breaking the doors of several rooms, etc.