Last Man To Hang

Over 100 hundred years ago, my Great-Grandfather Charley H. Butler was murdered. Until recently I did not know the details of his murder.  My mother had done some research 20 or 30 years ago and as I had recalled  the story, he had been robbed for his pay and shot.  Part of the story was true but in the last few weeks I found more details.

It seems, there remain many newspaper accounts of the robbery and shooting.  Two young Italian immigrants met one another outside a bar early one January morning in 1913.  They consume the whiskey they had and then went to buy more.  At some point in the day, they notice an older couple shopping.  The couple went from store to store and in a clothing store they purchased an expensive winter coat.  The gentleman flashed his cash  as he paid for their purchases and the drunken youth hatched a plan.  They followed the couple through town, on to the street car, and toward the couple’s home.  The couple realized they were being followed and hurried along to walk with the neighbor who is also walking on the road toward home.  That neighbor was my Great Grandfather.

Charley Butler was a big, strapping man.  A painter and paper hanger, part-time farmer and father of five.  My Grandmother, Esther, 18,  was his second child.  They lived in a coal patch called Edenborn, PA.  Esther had an older sister and three younger brothers.  Charley and his bride Alice, who was 9 years younger, had grown up in the eastern panhandle of West Virginia.  Most of the Butlers were farmers in that area and parts of northern Virginia.  Charley and Alice and their parents had moved to Western PA because of work available in the mines.  By all accounts, they were happy and doing well.  My Grandmother was going to college to become as teacher as her sister had before her.

Then,the Highwayman leapt from the darkness that Friday evening, brandishing their weapons, a gun and a razor, frightening the threesome.  Charley yelled “ha  loo” a cry for help.  One of the boys, fired his gun.  The bullet hit Charley causing him to fall face first into the snow.  The boy fired 4 more times.  Quickly, they turned on the older couple, threatening the same fate, robbing them of the remaining cash and the new coat.

The older gentleman, Mr. Cavalcante, rushed to the nearest house for help.  It was where the Butler’s lived and were waiting for Papa to come home for dinner.  My Grandmother answered the door and hurridly followed Mr Cavalcante down to where her father lay in the snow bank bleeding profusely from his wounds.

The police quickly arrived and sent word along the streetcar line to apprehend the assailants.  They were soon captured and charged with robbery.  The next day my Great-Grandfather succumbed to his wounds and a first degree murder charge was filed.  Prior to his death, he had provided a statement as to which of the young men did the shooting.

Local and regional newspapers covered the story and trial.  Both men were found guilty of first degree murder and were ordered to be executed.  The method of execution was hanging.  An appeal to the PA Supreme Court was denied.  The Governor intervened on behalf of the younger man who had his sentence commuted to life in prison.  Ten years later, he would later be released and deported.

Frank Wells, 20 years old, was to become the last man hanged in Fayette County, Pennsylvania.  A ghoulish newspaper article describes his last hours listening to the construction of the gallows, being visited by all the prisoners who kissed him and held his hands in theirs, and receiving love notes and flowers from a throng of female trial followers.  By all accounts, he was remorseful.  The trial and appeals had filled the newspapers with sensational reading for over one year.  Many had sympathy for the handsome young men and pleaded for that their lives be spared. While officials said the execution would be private and not a spectacle, 250 spectators filled the courtyard to watch Frank Wells strangle to death.  Hundred of others lined the streets outside.  I do not know if any of my family attended the hanging.

Alice Butler was only 36 when her husband died.  She had 5 children, 3 of which under the age of 12.  She struggled finding work after his death.  Luckily her parents and in-laws were nearby and helped.  As bad as 1913-14 was for Alice, in 1918 she lost her sister to the flu epidemic and both parents died.  She kept moving forward though and eventually remarried.  She died in 1941.

My Mother did not know of her Grandfather’s murder until one Sunday when she was 10, she went to  a neighbor’s house to read the paper and came across an article on the murder.  “Mr Betz said, those are the men that killed your Grandfather.”  She said that her own Mother, Esther agreed that Charley had been murdered when confronted about the article, but said nothing else. It must have been one of the blurbs, “10 years ago in local history…” articles.

I have to say that finding out about all of this has caused me mixed emotions.  An objective reflection would be that unfortunately the same combination of elements that fueled crime then are present in most crimes now–youth, poverty, guns, and alcohol.  Even the issue of capital punishment remains.  In hindsight, it was a botched robbery by a couple of inexperienced drunken kids that my Great Grandfather foolishly tried to stop.  Sad situation all the way around. Sadder still is that in 103 years later, it is still happening.

Not much was written about the victim’s family.  No picture of Charley Butler appeared in the paper.  No face to what those boys actions had taken.  No story about the family’s struggle to survive.   It had to be hard to sit through sensationalized trials full of mixed emotions and pressure to let the boys off.  My Great-Grandmother would take solace in that he died trying to protect his kind neighbors.

Even though, by all accounts, Charley may have lived had he not grabbed for the gun and cried out for help, there is part of me that thinks that it is not good to be silent.  Silience and submission are never good.  Speaking up has its risks, but giving in is worse. Charley did what he thought was right.  The lesson from this family chapter is to be careful, but act.

I have written other posts on family history, what we can learn from exploring our history and how it has helped to may us who we are.  You may want to look at these two posts.


Out of Entropy

I also recently posted about silence and how it is an action.

The High $$$ of Silence



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s