The story so far: In the early morning hours of Dec. 31, 1915, mill worker William Roupe comes home from a night of drinking and his confronted by his wife. In the ensuing argument, Roupe is shot in the chest, and his wife, Lillian, is taken to the county jail.
Washington residents woke to high winds and frigid temperatures on the first day of 1916 – much different than the wet weather of the previous week that was blamed for illness sweeping the borough.
“A general crippling of working forces throughout the community is a result of the grip epidemic,” The Washington Reporter stated. “In some cases, nearly an entire office force is laid up. The Bell Telephone office is an instance of this condition, 10 operators from the exchange being confined to their homes.”
Physicians had begun calling the grip by another name: influenza. Just two years later, from 1918 through 1919, the Spanish flu would spread across the globe, killing 4 percent of the world's population and between 500,000 and 650,000 Americans.
On New Year's Day, Washington residents were reading in their newspapers about battles with bandits on the Mexican border and the latest about the war in Europe: the British passenger liner Persia torpedoed by a German submarine near Crete, taking 231 passengers bound from London to Bombay to the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea.
It was an item of local news, however, that was the most common subject of chatter around holiday tables. The papers reported that Dr. John R. Maxwell was “mystified” that William Roupe was still alive after being shot in the chest, as the victim insisted, by his wife, Lillian. Roupe's brothers and sisters told the papers that Lillian had tried to kill him once before, but that William was able to wrench the gun out of her hand. And readers must have wondered: What sort of woman would run around town in men's clothing spying on her husband?
Over the next few days, the newspaper reported that Roupe, realizing that his death was imminent, dictated his will, assigning half of his life insurance to his wife, after all his debts were paid, and leaving all of his property to his brother Louis.
Public sympathy, at that time, was clearly with the dying man at the hospital and not with his wife in the county jail.
Growth and grime
The discovery of vast stores of natural gas and oil in Washington County in the 1880s changed the county seat from a sleepy agricultural village of 4,000 people to a bustling boomtown. By 1910, the population of the borough (Washington would not be designated a city until 1924) had surpassed 21,000. New neighborhoods sprang up around the glass factories, steel and tin mills and the Tyler Tube Works, and skies darkened with the discharge from scores of factory smokestacks and the coal smoke from stoves and furnaces in workers' homes.
European immigrants, pouring in to work in the mills and mine coal, brought their languages and culture and Catholicism here. Their labor was cheap, and industry and the businessmen who ran it prospered. As the hovels grew, so did the mansions.
As life expanded in Washington in the early 1900s, so did the ways in which citizens died. Congestion in the workplace and in crowded neighborhoods eased the spread of diseases like tuberculosis. Working conditions in factories and mines were dangerous, with 79 miners dying in Washington County mines in 1914 and another 73 killed in 1915. That year's coroner's report listed 25 deaths on the railroads and streetcars and eight from automobile accidents as the growing population became more mobile.
The year's 24 murders and the prevalence of shootings prompted The Washington Observer to editorialize: “There should be such legislation, or amendment to the Constitution, if necessary, as would place some restriction on the indiscriminate sale and use of deadly weapons.”
In a time before the introduction of antibiotics, infection from burns and other wounds often proved fatal, another reason that life expectancy for men was 53 years and just a year longer for women.
For William Roupe, with a bullet hole in his chest, the only hope of survival rested with his own body's immune system.
Work in the steel and tin mills was long, exhausting and incredibly hazardous. The heat of the furnaces and molten metal was searing, and fumes, smoke and dust choking. Laborers typically worked six days a week and at least 10 hours each day under these conditions.
The workers' leisure time was precious, and they spent much of their pay making sure they enjoyed it. Although Washington was a dry town with no taverns, liquor poured freely in speakeasies and clubs, and brothels could be found in every ward of the borough. No less than eight theaters were operating in town at the start of 1916, staging live theatrical performances, showing silent movies and hosting variety shows and amateur contests. The theaters and Washington Park were easily accessible by trolley from the factory neighborhoods in West Washington and Tylerdale.
In the years before Prohibition, Washington had gained a reputation as a place for hard work, and hard play.
A turn of events
At 9 a.m. Wednesday, Jan. 12, William Roupe died in his bed at City Hospital, where he lay for 10 days. That day's edition of The Washington Reporter stated: “Mrs. Roupe since the affair occurred has been in jail and has been in a highly nervous state. She has been under the jail physician's care for the past few days. She was buoyed up by the reports that reached her that her husband was improving and might get well. She was not told this morning that her husband was dead because of her condition.”
Dr. O.G. Lewis performed a post-mortem examination, noting the fatal shot had just missed the heart and the bullet could not be located. Coroner James T. Heffran scheduled an inquest for the following day. A wake was held in the house at 204 Charles St. that Thursday night, and the body was taken to Waynesburg for burial the following day.
On Feb. 8, a grand jury indicted Lillian Roupe for the killing of her husband, and District Attorney Issac W. Baum announced that he would seek a conviction of murder in the first degree.
For Lillian, just 25 years old, life had been hard. And now, she thought, it might also be short. Her grief and hysteria morphed into despair. She must have felt that all of society was aligned against her, but she would soon find that was not the case.
The reporter who witnessed her jail interview with Constable Ozyar Simpson recognized that this would be no ordinary murder. A story was there, crying to be told. The public, too, would recognize that there was more to the story than what they were reading in the newspapers. Lillian's plight began to gather attention, particularly among women, some who realized they might well be in her place but for the grace of God.
Next:Road to riches, road to ruin
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In early 20th century, many murders traced to the Black Hand
During the first two decades of the 20th century, Washington and other counties in Western Pennsylvania were, in the words of historian Earle Forrest, “under a reign of lawlessness and murder that was not surpassed by any other section of the country.”
In his “History of Washington County,” Forrest wrote: “For a period of years, murders were committed in Washington County at more than 25 a year, and many of these were traced to the Black Hand.”
The Black Hand was a method of extortion in which Italian immigrants received letters demanding money, threatening death with crude drawings of knives dripping blood, skulls and crossbones, guns firing bullets and black hands. The writers of these letters were members of Italian gangs with roots in Sicily.
The gangs made good on their threats. Many of the victims were stripped of documentation and had faces so mutilated that they were never identified. Few of the killers were ever apprehended. Power struggles within the organization also left many extortionists dead.
“The murders continued until the Italian population of East Canonsburg lived under a reign of terror,” wrote Forrest. “None knew when his turn would come, and business among them was almost at a standstill. The credit for breaking up the Black Hand is largely due to the daring work of Thomas Reese, Bert M. Laird, William B. Dinsmore and David W. Creigh, of the county detective force.”
The four are credited with the successful convictions of Marcantonio Daniele and a barber named Angelo Fragassa for the shooting death of Gabriele Fiore in his East Canonsburg room on May 29, 1922.
Up to and through the trials of the two that took place in November of that year, the detectives, key witnesses and jurors received death threats.
“During both trials, large numbers of Italians swarmed into the courtroom,” wrote Forrest, who was a reporter for The Washington Reporter at that time. “District Attorney (Howard) Hughes informed the court that these men he believed to be Blackhanders, and he asked that all except witnesses and Americans be excluded from the courtroom, and the blinds on the doors pulled down, as he was afraid their very presence would intimidate commonwealth witnesses.”
Two of those witnesses – Jim Piscrelli and Alfonso Polifrone – were prisoners at Western Penitentiary. “This was probably the first time in any courtroom in the United States that the secrets of the Black Hand were laid bare,” Forrest wrote.
The inmates were separated and testified independently, yet their testimony about initiation into their organization (Piscrelli joined in Italy 18 years earlier) and its methods agreed exactly. They described in detail rituals, power structure and locations of societies, despite the promise of death to any member who reveals the secrets of the society.
Their testimony was damning. Daniele and Fragassa were convicted of first-degree murder and were executed in the electric chair at Rockford State Prison on Dec. 10, 1923. Fragassa went to his death quietly, but Daniele fought his attendants and died with a curse on his lips.
For their cooperation, Piscrelli and Polifrone were released on parole in 1924. The former returned to Indiana, Pa., where he had most recently resided. A few days after his release, he was murdered for his betrayal. Polifrone disappeared, never to be heard from again.
After the execution of Daniele and Fragassa, Black Hand killings suddenly subsided in Washington County. Though extortion became less common here, it would continue as a tool used later by a better-known criminal organization: the Mafia.