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.