On this date in 1858, Charlotte Jones and Henry Fife hanged side by side in Pittsburgh for murdering Jones’s elderly aunt and uncle the year before. But their dying confessions insistently exonerating their death-sentenced co-accused led the governor to pardon Monroe Stewart ahead of the latter’s scheduled hanging later that February.
Fife, Jones, and Stewart had been tried and convicted together in the so-called “McKeesport Murder” or “Wilson Tragedy”. The reader will infer that it entailed the murder of a man named Wilson in the city of McKeesport.
George Wilson, an elderly farmer, was Charlotte’s uncle: resident in a McKeepsort log cabin with his sister Elizabeth McMasters. He had a tightfisted reputation and a consequent stash of gold and silver coins and paper bills, amounting altogether to several hundred dollars.*
“Maddened by a thirst for gold and stimulated by drink I gave them the fatal blow that robbed them of life and sent their souls, without warning, to the bar of God,” Fife lamented in his scaffold confession. George Wilson had been stabbed to death; Elizabeth McMasters bludgeoned with a poker until her brains spattered the room.
Their 27-year-old niece, our Charlotte Jones, was the one who reported the murder but it would soon become painfully apparent that she had lacked the poise for this high-stakes bluff. She had already the reputation of a woman of low morals, and her suspicious eagerness to leave the vicinity brought her in for close questioning. It was not long before Jones served up a confession.
In her initial iterations of this statement, Jones implicated not only her lover, 22-year-old Irish shoemaker Henry Fife, but Fife’s friend Monroe Stewart. It seems that this was a bit of panicked vindictiveness on the part of Mrs. Jones, for Stewart had often counseled his friend to kick Jones to the curb.
This denunciation was enough to see all three condemned in an 11-day trial in July of 1857. Post-conviction, Fife would join Jones in admitting guilt, but both exculpated Stewart of any part in the crime. And in the subsequent odyssey of appeals and clemency petitions, it was really only Stewart’s fate that remained at issue.
When Pennsylvania’s high court squelched the trio’s last legal avenue, reported the Baltimore sun (Nov. 26, 1857), Stewart, “who had always displayed the most astonishing self-possession and calmness, appeared overwhelmed by the news, and betrayed a degree of emotion that he never before manifested.”
His whole hope centered on the Supreme Court. He believed firmly that there would be a reversal of the judgment of the court below in his case, and when he found the hope which had buoyed him up suddenly destroyed, his self-possession deserted him, and he gave himself up to a degree of anguish that surprised while it pained his fellow-prisoners. He still proclaims his innocence, and maintains that, though a thousand courts held otherwise, he is guiltless of the blood of the Wilson family.
Fortunately for him, Stewart did not hang with Fife and Jones but was slated to die a fortnight later.
By execution day, Jones was in a state of near-collapse — “utterly broken down and bewildered,” according to the Pittsburgh Gazette‘s report (as reprinted in the Harrisburg Patriot and Union, Feb. 17, 1858). “She cried bitterly, and every now and then uttered incoherent sentences — now stating that she desired to die, and again declaring that she was afraid of death and wished to live.” The lengthy execution prelude on the scaffold, as she multiplied over and over the terrors of her imminent death while Fife tried to console her through interminable prayers, statements, and other ceremonial niceties, must have been agony.
Jones’s statement (read by a spiritual counselor) and Fife’s (which he delivered himself) both owned the murder while insisting that Monroe Stewart had no part in it. Outgoing Gov. James Pollock* had had no time for this ploy in issuing Stewart’s death warrant, and even in the hours after the hanging newsmen speculated that this exculpation carried little credibility. But a new man, William Packer, had taken office between the death warrant and the executions, and Packer thought better than his predecessor of Stewart’s protestations. He pardoned Monroe Stewart days before his February 26 execution.
* In the hours after the crime, Fife buried sacks of $20 gold coins and silver half-dollars and dollars along the bank of the Youghiogheny River. He only had one chance to recover the money later and couldn’t find the hole; neither could the authorities when he later described the hiding place from his condemned cell.
Finally, in 1880, two boys accidentally ran across the cache … only to have a passing stranger with “a heavy red beard and red hair” immediately relieve them of the treasure and hurry off into the mists of history.
On this day..
- 1728: Joseph Barret - 2020
- 1945: Walraven van Hall, banker to the Resistance - 2019
- 1584: Five Catholic priests - 2018
- 1584: Five young thieves - 2017
- 1661: Maeyken de Smet, Olsene witch - 2016
- 1943: France Bloch-Serazin, bombmaker - 2014
- 2012: Three drone strike spies in Yemen - 2013
- 1937: Tom Steinbock and Juan Mirbol in Sartre's The Wall - 2012
- 2004: Former vice-governor Wang Huaizhong - 2011
- 1554: Lady Jane Grey, the Nine Days' Queen - 2010
- 2003: Richard Edwin Fox, bogus job interviewer - 2009
- 1942: Avraham Stern, a strange bedfellow - 2008
- Themed Set: Unruly Britannia - 2008