About The Series

100 years ago, Lillian Roupe sat in her cell at the Washington County Jail, contemplating what could be the climax of her life. Her husband lay mortally wounded at City Hospital with a bullet wound suffered on New Year's Eve. Should he die, she might well face execution for his murder. "Mercy Has a Human Heart" is a true story, written by Parker Burroughs, retired executive editor of the Observer-Reporter.

A chance at a new life

Mercy Has a Human Heart, Chapter 4

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The Casino was one of at least eight theaters operating in Washington in 1916.
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The Rev. James S. Jewell led an effort to free Lillian Roupe on bail.
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The use of a photograph in the newspaper of someone accused of a local murder was highly unusual in 1916.
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Cars like this one were first used in Washington in 1891.
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This streetcar, shown on East Maiden Street in 1918, traveled through Washington to Tylerdale.
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Motorman Austin Watson poses on an early model “summer car.”

The story so far: Lillian Roupe awaits trial for the murder of her husband. The daughter of immigrants, she labored in factories as a child and became an unwed mother as a teenager. As an unwed mother, Moss became socially unacceptable – until she met and married William Roupe, the man she is accused of murdering five years later.

We can only imagine the regret and despair that Lillian Moss must have felt as an unwed teenage mother in 1907. This was a time before Social Security or other government programs that helped the poor and the hungry, when finding work was critical to survival, and when all members of the family, including the children, were valued for their earning potential.

Macaque in the trees
The use of a photograph in the newspaper of someone accused of a local murder was highly unusual in 1916.

Burdened with a fatherless child, Lillian found herself no longer socially respectable, and thus her opportunities for work were severely limited.

Lillian and her infant son, whom she called by his middle name, Lester, were living in rented rooms at 949 Summerlea Ave. in Tylerdale in 1907. They shared the apartment with Lillian’s mother, Mary; her brother, Thomas; and another family member, possibly a cousin, William, 18, who was employed at the Tyler Tube Works. William began working in the steel mill in Weirton, W.Va., at age 11. Why he moved in with the family is unknown, and the relationship is complicated. He used the surname of Moss while in Washington, but was known as William Neathway (Mary’s maiden name) after moving to Indiana around 1920. His 1938 obituary listed Mary’s three daughters – Lillian, Edith and Nellie – as his sisters.

By 1909, according to the Washington City Directory, William Moss was working at Washington Tin Plate Co., where Lillian also had found work as an assorter, who inspects the work of those who sorted the factory’s products. It was most likely in that plant that she met her future husband, William Lazear Roupe.

Roupe’s people had come to America much earlier than the Mosses. His ancestors on his father’s side had come from Germany around 1760. His great-grandparents, born in Maryland, moved to Morris Township, Greene County, in the 1820s. Roupe’s mother’s ancestors were pioneers, having arrived in Greene County even earlier.

When Roupe was a teenager, his parents, Franklin and Lydia Adams Roupe, moved from the Waynesburg area to Washington with their nine children shortly after Jessop Steel was established in 1902. William Roupe worked with his father at that mill until moving to Washington Tin Plate, where he was employed as a heater.

Roupe continued to live with his parents on Elizabeth Street in Tylerdale until July 4, 1911, when he and Lillian Moss were married in Waynesburg. The couple and Lillian’s 4-year-old son moved into the house at 204 Charles St., just two blocks away from Roupe’s parents’ house.

Trolleys beganhere in 1891

Two operators stand on East Maiden Street beside a street car that operated on the local line. A poster on the front of the car dates the photo to 1918.
Photo courtesy of Pennsylvania Trolley Museum

It is difficult to imagine now, but steel tracks once ran up the middle of many streets of Greater Washington, and horse-drawn buggies and later automobiles had to yield to the trolleys that rode them.

The first trolley began running on Maiden Street on April 24, 1891.

“When those first cars went along the street, with the coal stove in full blast and smoke belching from the chimney, they looked strange, even for that early day, and people remarked that they had the appearance of a misplaced steam engine, of sort,” Earle Forrest wrote in The Washington Observer in 1951.

In 1953, when the Pittsburgh Railway Co. announced it would abandon the city line, Forrest wrote:

“People today do not realize just what that first street car line meant to the town of Washington. Electric street cars were comparatively new in the nation, and it was the beginning of an era for Washington which was then enjoying its first industrial prosperity, brought on by the great oil and natural gas strikes of the 1880s and 1890s. In fact, the local line was put in operation only four and one-half years after the first completely electrically equipped line was in successful operation at Richmond, Va., in 1886. That is how fast Washington moved in those days.

“Within a very few years after 1891, the line was built out Jefferson Avenue to the Tyler Tube Mill. Young people who wanted a ride on Sunday afternoon rode back and forth, from the end of the East Maiden Street line to the Tyler Tube Mill. You could ride each way for a nickel.”

In 1896, cars began running on an interurban line between Washington and Canonsburg. In 1909, that service was extended to Pittsburgh.

The popularity and convenience of the automobile and buses doomed the trolleys. The last car of Pittsburgh Railway’s Jefferson and Maiden run started in from the city line on East Maiden Street for the car barn in Tylerdale at 12:49 a.m. Sunday, June 21, 1953. Clyde E. Holder, who rode the first runs of the route in 1891, was not among the crowd riding the last run, but he did ride from one end of the run to the other the previous night.

The last car of the interurban line left Washington on Aug. 30, 1953 – the same day that local trolley service in the Monongahela Valley was suspended.

“Thus an era is coming to an end and another is on the threshold,” the newspaper stated.

An ‘honest woman’

As a married woman, Lillian’s status in Washington society was suddenly elevated. Her teenage waywardness might never be forgotten, but it could easily be overlooked. William Roupe had made her – as the expression went – an honest woman, and she would do all she could to stay that way. Roupe might not have been the ideal mate, but his value to her as husband was immeasurable.

Domestic abuse is as prevalent today as it was 100 years ago, but the social attitudes toward victims of abuse and their attackers have changed dramatically. In the early 1900s, men were not arrested or jailed for beating their wives or their children; the law still considered most instances of domestic physical abuse a private matter of household discipline. There were no restraining orders or women’s shelters. That sort of behavior by men was considered shameful, and women – most often the victims – did their best to conceal it.

If Roupe abused Lillian, her friends probably would not have known about it, at least from her. Mistreatment was a small price to pay for the security of marriage for her and her young son. To all outward appearances, their marriage was a happy one. Nearly five years after their wedding, the truth would come out.

Cracks in the prosecution’s case

At first, District Attorney Issac Baum must have thought he had an open-and-shut case: a victim who for 10 days before he died made repeated statements before witnesses that his wife had shot him. But problems began to surface. First, the postmortem examination had been cursory and whatever forensic evidence there might have been was ignored or destroyed. Second, the bullet that entered Roupe’s chest had not been found. Third, word was beginning to circulate around town about Roupe’s character. It would be difficult to portray him as the innocent victim when he had a reputation as a heavy drinker with a hot temper. And lastly, public perception of the case had made a 180-degree turn, and now an irritating group of citizens was taking up the defendant’s cause.

A century ago, justice was normally swift. Lillian’s trial was scheduled for the February term of court and might have taken place just a month after her husband died if the D.A. had not petitioned the court for a delay.

On Feb. 15, 1916, just one week after a grand jury indicted Lillian for murder, the commonwealth was granted a continuance of the trial until the May court term. Lillian’s attorney, James A. Magill, argued vehemently, but to no avail, that the defense was prepared for trial and that there was no reason for delay.

Opening the grave

On Feb. 23, the body of William Roupe was exhumed from its grave in Oakmont Cemetery in Waynesburg. Few knew about the mission beyond those present at the cemetery that morning: County Detective Frank H. Mitchell, Deputy Coroner T.C. Bebout, Dr. O.G. Lewis, Dr. John R. Maxwell and Louis Roupe, brother of the deceased.

“The casket was opened and the remains identified by the brother,” The Waynesburg Republican reported. “Notwithstanding the fact that the corpse had been in the ground for over a month, it was in excellent condition.”

The body was taken to the undertaking rooms of A. Furman Hoge for an autopsy. The purpose was to locate the bullet and its course after it entered the body, considered “an important feature of the commonwealth’s case.”

Macaque in the trees
The Rev. James S. Jewell led an effort to free Lillian Roupe on bail.

By the end of the month, public opinion of the defendant had not only softened, it had spurred action. The following article appeared in the Pittsburgh Press on March 3:

“An organized effort to secure the release of Mrs. Lillian Roupe, charged with murdering her husband, William L. Roupe, is being made by Washington women. Four petitions are being circulated and more than 500 women have signed them. The movement was started by Rev. James S. Jewell, pastor of the Allison Avenue Baptist Church. The petitions ask that she be released without bail so that she may be able to arrange for her defense when she is placed on trial in the May term.

“Although she admits quarrelling with her husband on the night the fatal shot was fired, she protests her innocence.”

Lillian was released from jail on March 16, but not on her own recognizance.

The Washington Observer reported: “Thomas Moss of Canonsburg, her father, who has stood faithfully by his daughter during all her troubles; Daniel Staley, of Washington R.D. 2; and Henry Jacobs, of Jefferson Avenue, Washington, are the bondsmen. They put up security in the sum of $7,500.”

The suspicion among women of Washington was that the Roupes’ home life was anything but happy. The truth of the matter would undoubtedly surface during her trial. It would then be up to a jury of her peers to decide Lillian’s fate.

Of course, in 1916, it was a given that all the jurors would be men.

Next: Drama in a packed courtroom.

Download Street railways in Washington

Park Burroughs has been with the Observer-Reporter since 1972. He is the winner of numerous state and regional awards for feature, column and editorial writing. He is the author of two books, “Enter, With Torches: Recollections of a Grumpy Old Editor,” and "Washington County Murder and Mayhem." He retired in September 2012 but continues to contribute to the O-R’s news pages.

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