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.

No ordinary crime

Mercy Has a Human Heart, Chapter 1

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Illustration by Park Burroughs
Lillian Roupe, circa 1915, in a rendering from a newspaper photograph published during her trial
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An old Washington, Pa. postcard.
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Washington County Jail, as it appeared in 1915

The motor car sputtered up dark and deserted West Beau Street in Washington as windblown sleet crackled against its canvas top and side curtains. Before reaching the courthouse and Main Street, it turned right through the gates of the Washington County Jail, ascended the driveway and rattled to a stop beneath the portico. Constable Ozyar Simpson emerged from the car's carriage and reached back in to assist his prisoner, a diminutive figure bundled in an overcoat and headscarf, who stepped tentatively on the slippery pavement, grasping the constable's arm.

A guard unlocked and pushed open the heavy door, then ushered the pair into the jail office just to the left of the entranceway. He motioned for the prisoner to be seated and approached a stand on which lay the jail log. He turned a page the size of a pillowcase to the current day, Dec. 31, 1915, dipped his pen in ink from the well at the top of the stand and recoded the time of admittance: 2:45 a.m.

A little more than an hour before arriving at the jail, Constable Simpson had been roused by a telephone call reporting a shooting in Tylerdale, his Canton Township neighborhood. He dressed and walked quickly from his home on West Wylie Avenue just a few hundred yards to the small house at 204 Charles St.

By the time Simpson reached the house, the victim, William Lazear Roupe, 29, was being rushed to City Hospital by orders of the family physician, Dr. John R. Maxwell. Before the doctor left, he told Simpson that he had been summoned from his home on Jefferson Avenue at Montgomery Street by the victim's wife, and upon arriving at the house, he found Lillian Roupe, 25, hysterical and her husband lying half-dressed on the upstairs bedroom floor with a bullet wound to the chest.

The doctor told the officer that he recognized the wound to be mortal almost instantly, yet Roupe was conscious and alert, and he told the doctor that his wife had shot him.

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An old Washington, Pa. postcard.

Simpson found the scene at the Charles Street home chaotic. The victim's wife, at first in hysterics, became nearly catatonic and unresponsive as some of her husband's relatives who had gathered at the house grew increasingly agitated and began hurling accusations in her direction. Simpson heard them claim Lillian had threatened to kill her husband before, and that the jealous woman was seen that night dressed in Roupe's old clothes, stalking him around town, “dodging his movements,” armed with a pistol. A neighbor took Simpson by the arm and showed him bullet holes in the floor from where, she claimed, Roupe had fired at his wife's feet a year or so earlier. The atmosphere had become volatile, and the officer thought it best to get the woman out of the house and continue his questioning at the jail.

'The gun went off so quick'

Lillian Roupe was at first in no condition to be questioned. As she was breathless and fading in and out of consciousness, the jail physician was called to attend to her. Later that morning, a reporter from the local newspaper, The Washington Observer, arrived at just about the time Mrs. Roupe had recovered enough to be interviewed.

The account in the next day's paper stated:

“When seen at the jail yesterday, Mrs. Roupe was in a dazed condition. 'Oh, the gun went off so quick. It all seems like a dream to me,' she said when asked as to the circumstances. 'Does he still say I shot him?' she asked. 'I did not shoot him. He had the gun in his hand. I grabbed his hand and the gun went off. He fell backward to the floor. I ran to the telephone and called the doctor. My husband was trying to get off his collar, and could not do so, and asked me to take off his clothes. I did all I could until the doctor came.'”

Recalling what the victim's angry relatives had claimed earlier that morning, Simpson asked the woman about the location of the gun prior to the shooting. She said she could not remember if it had been in her husband's pocket or hanging on the wall near their bed, where it was normally.

By her account, her husband had business to do uptown, and, leaving her 9-year-old son at her in-laws' house, she and a lady friend had also gone to town to see a picture show. She had arrived home before her husband about 11 p.m., slipped on a kimono and prepared for bed. She was annoyed when Roupe came home nearly two hours later.

The newspaper story continued:

“'Oh the gun went off so quick,' she said two or three times as she closed her eyes, pressed her hand to her forehead and braced herself against the side of the jail corridor. Questioned further she said: 'I had no reason to shoot him. He was too good to me to do anything like that. He drank a little at times, but we never had any serious quarrels, just a few spats.' She was asked if he was drinking last evening and she said: 'Yes, he had been drinking, but he was not drunk. She admitted that she had started the argument that resulted so fatally and that she had taken him to task for being out so late.”

No ordinary crime

The newspaper reporter knew a good story when he stumbled into it. Roupe, he understood, did not have much time to live, and this would be no ordinary homicide. There had already been 24 murders in Washington County in 1915, most of them involving “foreigners.” The Black Hand, a mysterious Italian underworld organization, was responsible for many of them. December had been particularly bloody.

Dominic Articelli's bullet-riddled body had been found on the road between Atlasburg and Cherry Valley after he fled Mingo, where he had killed a man. Rodolfo Vagesera had been slashed to pieces in Washington's Eighth Ward, and Joseph Dameano was gunned down on West Chestnut Street. But Italians killing other Italians all over Washington County had become so common that these crimes were hardly newsworthy. This Roupe affair was something different. This was drama in the lives of everyday people, and it had the scent of sex.

Macaque in the trees
Washington County Jail, as it appeared in 1915

Simpson would need more time to get to the bottom of this case. He knew there were details Mrs. Roupe was unwilling to tell him, or unable to do so in her condition. And he was suspicious of her version of events.

Her story was contradicted by the victim himself, who stated lucidly that his wife had shot him, and the relatives account of her stalking her husband in his old clothes was difficult to dismiss. And Roupe, a sheet heater at Washington Tin Works, had a good reputation. Simpson knew his parents, Frank and Lydia Roupe, who lived on Elizabeth Street. They were a good family, and an old one, originally from Greene County, who had come to Washington for the work.

On the other hand, Lillian's reputation, he knew, was tarnished. She and Roupe had married in 1911. She had a son, 4 years old at the time, supposedly by a previous marriage, but everyone knew he was illegitimate.

Roupe, according to Dr. Maxwell, was likely to die soon, and the charge against his wife would change from assault to murder. Under these circumstances, the procedure was clear. The big, barred gate was rolled aside, and Lillian Roupe, the kimono in which she left her home poking beneath the hem of her woolen coat, was escorted to her cell in the women's wing.

She would have passed by the rotunda, the octagonal center of the jail, with four stories of cells for male inmates encircling an open area. It would be in that space, should her husband die, that she might be brought some day to hang by the neck until dead.

Next Chapter: Hard work, hard play in a boomtown

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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