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.

Blue Spruce History

Located in Ernest, PA is a popular Indiana County Park, Blue Spruce Park. This ever-popular park has some great history behind it, linked to the railroad that ran through town. Because Ernest was also known for its coal mine, the railroad was an ever-important mode of transportation, but the locomotives were damaged by the acid mine water and created a large expense to the railroad. In this area Crooked Creek was polluted by the acid mine water. The solution to this problem was to purchase large quantities of land to protect watersheds to provide a pure source of water. Hence, Cummins Dam was built (also known locally as Cummings Dam with a “g”). The dam was constructed by the Buffalo, Rochester and Pittsburgh Railway (BR&P) on Getty Run in 1908 and named after an early landowner, J.D. Cummins. The Dam was enlarged in 1912 due to water leaking through the shall rock at the bottom of the lake bed, this caused an inadequate water supply for the railroad. The work in 1912 included capping the existing dam by adding eight feet in height. 

Once the Dam was completed it became a place for people to visit for swimming, fishing, and picnicking.  It is reported that the BR&P Railway even stopped at the nearby Cummings Railroad Yard to allow passengers to disembark the train and take a short walk to the dam to picnic and enjoy the day. 

Cummings Yard was located between Creekside and Chambersville and had a large water tower that was gravity fed by a pipeline from the dam. The Yard had its own volunteer fire company. There was also a collection of houses, on what is the current park property, that housed the railroad yard workers. 

In 1932, BR&P was acquired by the Baltimore & Ohio (B&O) Railroad. This railroad hauled coal from the mines and coke from the coke ovens, primarily to markets in Buffalo and Rochester, New York. There was also passenger train service to distant cities and to vacation spots like Niagara Falls. An advertisement from the time offered two 5-day excursion trips to Niagara Falls for $5.00. 

Train Excursion Ad
Advertisement for an train excursion to Niagara Falls

Many people from the area will remember the Hoodlebug, the gas-powered motor car, that ran on the B&O line and offered service between Indiana and Punxsutawney which ran until 1952. The Hoodlebug also transported mail and supplies in a separate attached car. There was another Hoodlebug that ran on the Pennsylvania Railroad line between Indiana and Blairsville. 

The story behind Cummins Dam is not without tragedy. On Sunday August 18, 1940, James Kendrick, a fourteen-year-old from Chevy Chase, drowned on an afternoon outing. A large crowd gathered at the site to watch the four-hour search and recovery of the body. A funeral service was held at the Church of the Living God in Chevy Chase and burial took place at the Greenwood Cemetery. 

It was during World War II that there was a concern during the war that the dam, along with other industrial sites in Western PA, could be blown up. Therefore, night watchmen were employed at these sites throughout western, PA because this region was so important in supplying coal, steel, and industrial products for the war effort. 

The railroad company was always trying to keep people away from Cummins Dam. The property had been posted with “No Trespassing” signs, and vandals were constantly tearing down the old signs down. The company routinely issued notices and published warnings in the local papers requesting trespassers stay off the property. However, people continually came onto the property despite the warnings. 

There was a severe tornado passed over the area on June 23, 1944. There were many trees on the property that were destroyed. The railroad also suffered damage when a railroad caboose car was blown off the tracks near Chambersville. Two B&O employees, David Potts and Lewis Grube, were slightly injured while riding in the caboose. Mr. Potts suffered a head and back injury and Mr. Grube was not seriously injured except for some lacerations of the body. 

It was in 1965 that Indiana County became involved with the site when funds were secured to acquire 377 acres for a county park, 143 of these acres were originally owned by the railroad, by this time it was Rochester & Pittsburgh Coal Company (R&P). In 2001 an additional 230 acres were acquired from R&P. The park today totals 650 acres.  The park was originally known as Rayne Township Park until Blue Spruce Park was chosen by the Indiana County Park Boar in September 1968. 

Murder in the Park 

Blue Spruce Park again saw tragedy in 1980, as it was the scene of a murder. On January 3, 1980, John Lesko and Michael Travaglia, both 21, picked up William C. Nicholls, 32, of Mt. Lebanon at the Edison Hotel in Pittsburgh. Richard Rutherford, 15, also accompanied the group. Mr. Nicholls was an accomplished organist at St. Anne Church in Castle Shannon. 

The group traveled in Nicholl’s new sports car to Indiana County. They spent several hours at the Rose Inn, then drove to Blue Spruce Park. Mr. Nicholls was bound and gagged in the vehicle trunk while the others were inside the Rose Inn. As the group drove to Blue Spruce, they gathered rocks from along Groft Road. Once at the park, they pulled Mr. Nicholls from the trunk, shot him in the arm, stuffed cigarette butts down his throat, gagged him with a scarf, placed the rocks in his jacket, and then threw him into the icy waters. It was the next day after Lesko and Travaglia confessed to the murder and told the investigators where the body could be found. The autopsy report revealed the Nicholls was still alive when he was thrown into the lake. 

The story doesn’t stop there, after leaving the park the group headed to Apollo, and on their way they baited Rookie Police Officer Leonard Miller to approach their car by speeding past him several times and running a red light. As Officer Miller approached the stopped car, he was shot and killed. 

Later that day Lesko and Travaglia was apprehended in Pittsburgh and began to tell their story of four murders over the span of eight days. The first victims were Peter Levato and Marlene Sue Newcomer. These murders became known as the “Kill for Thrill” murders.  

You may be asking yourself, how did Lesko and Travaglia find or even know about Blue Spruce Park. As it turns out Travaglia’s father owned a trailer near the park that was used as a summer camp and he had visited it as a child. 

The pair plead guilty to second degree murder in Indiana County and sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of William Nicholls. They were then turned over to Westmoreland County for trial for the death of Officer Miller. They were convicted of murder and given the death sentence for Miller’s death. In 1981, they began a long series of appeals. Travaglia died in prison in 2017; Lesko continues to appeal the sentence of death. 

In 2009, a book about the crime spree was released, “Kill for Thrill” written by Michael W. Sheetz. 

Lady Umpire 

Also located on the park grounds is an historical marker on the ball field honoring Bernice (Shiner) Gera. She was a native of Ernest, born in 1931 and made baseball history as the first female umpire in the sport. Baseball was not her first career, instead she started working as a secretary and got married. One day she decided that she would like to become an umpire. She discussed and convinced her husband, Steve, of the idea and she enrolled in the Florida Baseball School in 1967.  

For five years Gera was barred by minor league baseball, but won a landmark lawsuit allowing for her to work as an umpire.1 Her first, and only, game as a professional umpire took place on June 24, 1972 in a New York-Pennsylvania League game in Geneva, New York. This achievement thrust her into the national spotlight and opened the doors, not only for other women, but for men previously denied umpiring opportunities because of arbitrary restrictions. 

Bernice went on to work in community relations and promotions for the New York Mets Baseball Club. She was inducted in the Indiana County Sports Hall and Fame. She was an outstanding athlete in her own right. As a youth, she was described as a “tomboy” who could play ball as well as most boys. Bernice Gera died on September 25, 1992.

New York State Div. of Human Rights v. New York-Pennsylvania Professional Baseball League, 320 N.Y.S.2d 788 (N.Y. App. Div. 1971). 

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.

535fd-silas
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.