On the morning of Saturday, January 14, 1905, a forty-seven-year-old man named Frank Johnson got into a confrontation with his stepson Frederick “Fritz” Genkinger at the family residence on Wood Street in New Castle, Pennsylvania. Fritz and his older brother Herman Genkinger wanted Johnson to move out of the house, because they felt that he was not adequately assisting their mother (and his wife) Catherine Genkinger with the finances. Johnson soon headed downtown to run some errands. Along the way he made a stop at a hardware store and purchased a revolver. When he returned home that afternoon that revolver would come to play a pivotal role in subsequent events.
Frank Johnson was born in Shenango Township on Tuesday, June 23, 1857, and attended school until the age of fifteen. As an adult in resided in New Castle and took up the occupation of a lather, a contractor who applies strips of wood (and/or plaster) to form the foundation of interior walls for houses and buildings. In 1892 he was badly injured on a job when he struck himself in the leg with a hatchet. He was bedridden for three months as he recovered. Fortunately, the leg was saved but he would walk with a severe limp for the rest of his life. While claiming malpractice he sued his physician, the well-known Dr. Albert M. Cook, but the case was dismissed in May 1893. Two months prior he was one of five candidates who ran for mayor of New Castle, but he was soundly defeated as Alexander Richardson was elected into office.
At some point Johnson found employment, apparently during a labor strike, as a replacement conductor with a streetcar company in Youngstown. He soon returned home and was hired as a conductor with the New Castle Electric Street Railway Company, operated by wealthy businessman and politician William M. Brown. Due to earlier work as a “scab” he was very unpopular and had to be terminated.
Johnson had a run-in with the law when he was arrested for aggravated assault and battery in late May 1898. He had been residing at a boarding house owned by Mrs. Josephine Stiner, but apparently moved out and into another nearby house without paying off his bill. When Mrs. Stiner went to inquire about the bill he allegedly assaulted her. The following month, during a jury trial, he was convicted and ordered to pay a $20 fine and court costs.
The New Castle News of Wednesday, June 22, 1898, reported what happened when Stiner went to Rockingham’s boarding house to ask for the money: “Johnson said that he did not owe any bill, and when Mrs. Stiner asserted that he did, he jumped up, ran across the room, caught hold of her wrist with one hand and with the other struck her a blow in the face. Witness said that she was staggered by the blow, and called for Mrs. Rockingham, who with her husband came to the rescue. Johnston (sic) denied to them that he had struck Mrs. Stiner. However, her face was greatly swollen, and it was not long until she had a black eye.”
In about 1901 he began renting a room from Catherine (Rahrer) Genkinger at #228 Wood Street (later Wick Avenue). Mrs. Genkinger was a widower who was struggling to make ends meet while raising her six children. Her former husband, Frederick “Fritz” Genkinger, was from a well-known family and was a brewery operator and salon owner. Fritz Genkinger had been involved in a high-profile bribery case in which Mayor Alexander Richardson was disgraced and forced out of office in October 1894. Genkinger, possibly despondent over health issues, shot himself in the head in April 1897. He survived but passed away from serious heart issues ten months later.
Before too long Johnson and Catherine Genkinger began a relationship and made plans to get married. They applied for a marriage license in January 1902 but did not get married until a year later on Tuesday, January 6, 1903. The New Castle News of Wednesday, January 14, 1903, mentions the marriage with, “A simple and quiet, but happy wedding, which will interest the large circle of acquaintances of the couple, was that which united the lives of Mrs. Catherine Genkinger of Wood street, and Frank Johnson, a well known lather of this city. The ceremony was performed Tuesday afternoon by Rev. J. Q. A. McDowell. D. D., at his residence on Neshannock avenue. Mr. and Mrs. Johnson are both popular in the social circles in which they move and their numerous friends will join in wishing them a long life or married felicity.”
Two months after they were married tragedy struck the family. U.S. Army veteran John F. Genkinger, his wife’s nephew, was shot and killed in downtown New Castle during a dispute over a woman. The assailant, a former Long Avenue butcher named George Merkle, was convicted and sentenced to seventeen years in prison during a high-profile trial that summer. Two years later Merkle grew ill with typhoid fever and died in prison in November 1905.
Frank Johnson’s wife gave birth to a child in January 1904, a boy they named Frank Johnson Jr. Open friction soon developed in the home over their worsening financial situation, and possibly jealously issues regarding the newborn baby. In particular Johnson and his oldest stepsons Herman and Fritz Genkinger did not get along, and they began quarreling on a frequent basis.
On the morning of Saturday, January 14, 1905, the quarreling came to a tragic conclusion. Johnson arose early and learned that the baby was sick. Johnson, who loved his son dearly, began swearing at his wife over the perceived lack of care for the child. His eighteen-year-old stepson Fritz heard the commotion and came downstairs to check on his mother. Johnson yelled at Fritz and began chasing him around the dining room. Fritz apparently struck Johnson on the side of the head with a broom handle. Fritz immediately fled the home and went to see his brother Herman at his place of business, a small grocery store he had recently opened on Grant Street. Herman, who turned twenty-one that same day, was also employed as a firefighter with the New Castle Fire Department. The two boys soon returned to their home on Wood Street presumably to confront Johnson.
Johnson, after the fight with Fritz, departed home around 8:00am and headed downtown. He intended to run several errands and visit with Dr. William G. Wilson regarding the baby. One of the first stops was at the office of Dr. Wilson and together they rode in a horse and buggy back to the home on Wood Street. The doctor examined the baby and then the two men returned downtown. Johnson was given a prescription for the child and filled it at a drug store, before visiting several other shops. Along the way he chatted with several people including County Judge William E. Porter. At some point he stopped by Dickson & Company located at #72 East Washington Street, where he purchased a .38 caliber revolver and a small box of ammunition for $14. He then returned home for lunch at about 12:45pm.
Soon after arriving home Johnson was encountered by his stepson Fritz near the bottom of the stairs. A few angry words were exchanged. Herman then came downstairs and confronted Johnson in or near the kitchen. Herman was angry and asked Johnson to pack up his things and leave the house. Johnson said he had money invested in the house and had no intention of leaving without being paid what was owed him. Herman told him he would not be allowed to sleep in the house that night, to which Johnson replied he was not going to leave.
Accounts differ as to what happened next, but Fritz and other witnesses claimed that Johnson pulled out the revolver and threatened the two boys. Herman yelled to Fritz to run away. Fritz sprinted upstairs while Johnson, slowed by his crippled leg, clamored after him. Fritz took shelter upstairs while Johnson, still downstairs, fired a wayward shot into the ceiling. Johnson then went back towards the kitchen, where his wife began pleading with him to give up the revolver. Johnson went at Herman and fired another shot through a window. The two of them started wrestling and while locked at close quarters Johnson fired two shots from the revolver. One shot hit Herman in the forearm, but the other struck him squarely in the upper chest.
Johnson’s account was that he was arguing with the two boys in the dining room and Herman pulled out a revolver and fired at him. Johnson brought up his left hand and the bullet grazed his wrist. Herman then charged at him. As the two wrestled with each other Fritz joined the fray and hit Johnson on the side of the head with a club of some sort. Johnson was dazed and knocked to the ground. He got back on his feet, pulled out his own revolver, fired several frantic shots at the boys in self-defense, and quickly fled the residence through the front door.
In the aftermath of being shot Herman immediately fell to the floor as blood gushed from his chest wound. Catherine Genkinger, who likely witnessed the actual shooting, ran to the aid of her oldest son and tended to him. She began patting down his chest, as the revolver was fired at such close range his shirt was left smoldering. Herman’s wound was mortal and he died almost instantly. Meanwhile, Fritz had climbed out of a second-story window and summoned help. A handful of authorities soon arrived on scene, including Dr. Wilson, Dr. John Foster, County Coroner Joseph R. Cox, Chief of Police Cyrus C. Horner, and undertaker John C. Offutt.
Johnson fled the house and planned to turn himself in. He walked down Locust Street, caught an Erie Railroad train to West Washington Street, and then made his way towards the Diamond. He went to Police headquarters in the City Hall building and arrived about 1:15pm. He was very calm and explained what had happened. He said that his stepsons had attacked him and that he fired several shots to protect himself. He turned over the revolver and was locked in a jail cell.
The news quickly swept through the city and people began gathering around City Hall. Chief Horner, wanting to avoid any trouble, had Johnson transported to the more secure county jail, where County Sheriff Edwin L. Ayers took over the responsibility of guarding him. Johnson had left the house abruptly and was unaware of the actual fate of Herman. It wasn’t until later the evening that he was told that Herman had died. He was shaken and expressed remorse that he had killed his stepson.
Dr. Foster treated Johnson for several injuries including a large gash on his temple, and a small wound on his wrist. The doctor determined that the wrist wound was actually a powder burn from a handgun being fired, and not the result of being grazed by a bullet or hit with a club. This seemed to indicate that Johnson held Herman with one hand, and fired the revolver at close proximity with the other hand – burning his own hand in the process.
Authorities began an investigation, led by County Detective J. Lee McFate, and started questioning everyone that was involved. Johnson claimed he fired at his stepsons in self-defense, but his story quickly began to fall apart. Johnson said that Herman had fired a revolver, but no such weapon was found on the deceased young man. Herman was known to own a revolver but it was not operational. Mrs. Olive Klee, a next door neighbor, had been coming over for a visit and actually witnessed part of the altercation. She was at the back door when she heard a commotion and then entered the house. Mrs. Klee said she witnessed Johnson pull out a revolver and go after Herman. She heard but did not witness the shooting as she fled back to her house. The only other person in the house at the time of the shooting was eleven-year-old Rose Genkinger, the youngest sister of the boys.
A funeral service was held for Herman Genkinger at the family home on Wood Street on Tuesday, January 17. The New Castle News of Wednesday, January 18, 1905, reported, “The services were held at 2 o’clock and an hour before the appointed time the house was filled with friends and many who could not gain an entrance were compelled to stand on the porch and street. Rev. Dr. J. H. Miller, pastor of the St. John’s English Lutheran Church, of which Mr. Genkinger was a member and regular attendant, conducted the services and was assisted by a quartet from the church who sang “Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me,” “Asleep in Jesus,” and “Nearer, My God, to Thee.” Rev. Miller spoke touchingly of the young man who had been taken from this life in the bloom of youth. He remarked that there were very few young men who possessed such splendid traits of character as Herman Genkinger and it was hard to single out any young man who was such a fair example of the high type of manhood… The firemen of the city, of whom he was one, attended in a body and marched to Greenwood Cemetery where the interment took place.”
Johnson was escorted by four police officers to the office of Mayor John C. Jackson on the afternoon of Wednesday, January 18. He was arraigned before Mayor Jackson on a charge of murder and entered a plea of “not guilty.” A preliminary hearing then got underway to determine the basic facts of the case. District Attorney Joseph V. Cunningham represented the prosecution, while Johnson was defended by a excellent team of attorneys that included Andrew Marquis, Archie W. Gardner, and J. Norman Martin. Martin was a former judge in Lawrence County.
The New Castle News of Wednesday, January 25, 1905, reported on the hearing with, “The Mayor’s court was literally packed with an eager and anxious crowd, waiting with bated breath and anxious faces to hear the least syllable of the testimony… Fritz Genkinger, brother of the murdered boy was the first witness called on behalf of the Commonwealth… On cross examination he denied having a revolver or any weapon at the time of the shooting. Asked if Herman did not own a revolver, Fritz replied that had one, but it was broken and no weapon was found upon his person after the shooting… Dr. Foster testified concerning the nature of Genkinger’s wounds, as discovered by a post-mortem examination… At that time Herman was dead, death having been caused almost instantaneously by the severing of the pulmonary artery by the murderous bullet. Primarily, death was caused by the internal hemorrhage resulting from the wound. The doctor identified the bullet extracted from Herman’s body.”
A grand jury was convened in early March and considered forty cases provided by the district attorney, including that of Frank Johnson. The grand jury returned a “true bill” or indictment for murder against Johnson and a criminal trial was scheduled for March 15. A jury of twelve men, if they found him guilty, would decide if it was for first degree murder, second degree murder, or manslaughter. A verdict in the first degree could result in the death penalty.
The New Castle News of Wednesday, March 8, 1905, carried an article entitled, “WIDESPREAD INTEREST IN THE JOHNSON TRIAL.” It read in part, “In many quarters the belief is general that there will be considerable trouble in getting a jury. For one thing, it is seldom that a crime is so universally condemned as has been this one, and it is believed it will be extremely difficult to find 12 men who have not expresed (sic) an opinion as to the merits of the case, and the guilt or innocence of the prisoner. Several features of the transaction will be of vast importance as determining the grade of crime, particularly the time the weapon with which the deed was done, was purchased. All the circumstances attendant upon the shooting also will figure in the trial, which promises to be one of the most sensational and interesting taking place recently in Lawrence county.”
The trial began on the morning of Wednesday, March 15, 1905, in the courtroom of County Judge William E. Porter. The courtroom and nearby hallways were packed with curious spectators and newspaper journalists. Prosecuting the case was District Attorney Joseph V. Cunningham, now assisted by attorney Robert K. Aiken. Johnson, represented by his trio of attorneys, entered a plea of not guilty.
The prosecution called dozens of witnesses to testify including his step children Fritz and Rose, but a state law enacted in May 1897 prevented Catherine Genkinger from taking the stand against her husband. Johnson indicated that the two boys attacked him and he acted to save his own life. A good deal of testimony obviously centered around his purchase of the firearm that morning. It was learned that he had been looking to purchase a revolver for some time, but the fact that he acquired it that very morning was extremely harmful to his defense. Johnson also claimed that Herman had shot at him first, but there was no proof to support this accusation. No weapon was located at the scene and no other discharged bullets were found. The defense brought in a handful of witnesses to testify to the good character of Johnson, including the esteemed attorney and civic leader Col. Oscar L. Jackson – who soon began actively supporting the defense team. The trial lasted four days and testimony wrapped up on the evening of Saturday, March 18. At about 9:15pm the jury retired to start its deliberations.
Three hours later, at about 12:15am, the jury announced it had reached a verdict and all parties were called back to the court house. The New Castle News of Wednesday, March 22, 1905, reported, “There was a hush of expectancy in the court room when, at 12:40 the members of the jury filed in and took their seats. They were followed by the clerk, and in response to the usual inquiry, replied that they had agreed upon a verdict, and that it should be announced by the foreman. When the fearful words, “We find the defendant, Frank Johnson, guilty of murder in the first degree, fell from Mr. (Thomas) Wilson’s lips, the prisoner scarcely flinched. Some one in the court room clapped his hands. Johnson did not seem to hear it. Apparently unconscious of the deadly peril in which he stood – of the almost certainty of a shameful death, heedless of the popular rancor and seemingly oblivious of his surroundings, the prisoner, with hand upraised, gazed steadily into the faces of the 12 men as each, in turn, pronounced his doom.”
Johnson was returned to his jail cell while his legal team began working on an appeal. His attorneys, citing numerous irregularities in the proceedings, filed a motion in the Lawrence County Court House for a new trial. On Monday, May 8, 1905, Judge Porter listened to arguments from both sides as to whether he would grant such a request. Four months later, on September 4, 1905, it was announced that the application for a new trial had been denied. Judge Porter now moved on to the sentencing phase, as a hearing was scheduled for the following week.
The New Castle News of Wednesday, September 13, 1905, reported, “Mrs. (Zenesta) Barge of this city, a cousin of Frank Johnson, now in jail awaiting sentenced for the murder of Herman Genkinger, seems now to be the only one except the condemned man’s attorneys who is sufficiently interested to make any effort in his behalf. Mrs. Barge is still working loyally for the convicted man, and it is understood will furnish the money with which to carry the case to the supreme court. Johnson himself maintains a hopeful view of his case.”
On the afternoon on Wednesday, September 13, 1905, all of the interested parties met in the courtroom of Judge Porter to hear the sentence. The New Castle News of Wednesday, September 20, 1905, reported, “It was 2:35 Wednesday afternoon when Johnson was brought into the court room. The scene was a grave one. Judge Porter was the most visibly affected of all. Johnson assumed a careless air. He was dressed in the same cutaway suit he wore throughout all of his trial. His attorneys, Andrew Marquis and A. W. Gardner, were present, but Judge Martin, another attorney for the defense, had not reached the court room. Attorneys Cunningham and Robert Aiken who had represented the state were present… “Before this sentence is pronounced have you anything to say as to why the penalty of the law should not be passed? “Your honor,” said Johnson, “self-preservation is the first law of nature. I am guilty of neither first nor second degree murder. I ask that my child be brought to me. This is all I have to say.” As he uttered the final words his voice sank and his lips trembled. He could say nothing more.”
With that Judge Porter announced, “It is the sentence of the court that you, having been convicted of murder in the first degree, suffer death by hanging by the neck until dead, and may the Lord have mercy on your soul. The date of the execution will be fixed by the governor of the commonwealth of Pennsylvania.” A distraught Johnson was then led back to his jail cell. A week later the official paperwork concerning the death sentence was forwarded to Governor Samuel W. Pennypacker, a Republican who took office in January 1903, for his review.
Johnson’s legal team filed an application to retry his case before the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania and presented its argument to that court on Monday, October 30, 1905. The New Castle News of Wednesday, November 1, 1905, reported, “That the jury was improperly drawn, that Mrs. Johnson indirectly testified against him by procuring and furnishing evidence against him, and that the court erred in its charge to the jury relative to the law of self-defense, are the grounds for which arguments for a new trial were made in the case of murderer Frank Johnson, before the supreme court at Pittsburg Monday.” It would take a few months for the decision to be announced.
On January 23, 1906, Governor Pennypacker set a date of execution of Monday, March 19, 1906. At that time executions in Pennsylvania were handled at the county level, and in this case Lawrence County Sheriff Edwin L. Ayers would be responsible for carrying out the execution of Johnson. It wasn’t until 1913 that the state took over responsibility for all executions, while mandating electrocution as the preferred method to be utilized. On Tuesday, January 30, 1906, Sheriff Ayers formally read the death warrant to Johnson.
On February 1, 1906, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania announced that it had denied his application to hear his case. It was reported that Johnson nearly collapsed when he was informed of the news by his attorneys. However, all hope was not lost as one other avenue of appeal was still pending.
An application had previously been made to the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons to have Johnson’s sentence of death commuted to life imprisonment. The Governor could commute his sentence to life imprisonment, but first he had to have the approval of three members of this four-man board. The board was made up of Secretary of Internal Affairs Isaac B. Brown, Secretary of the Commonwealth Robert McAfee, Attorney General Hampton L. Carson, and Lieutenant Governor William M. Brown. The latter was none other than Johnson’s former “boss” with the streetcar company in New Castle. The stance of the Lieutenant Governor, a prominent New Castle resident with obvious ties to the case, was a bit of a mystery.
In late January 1906 the county jail became home to another high-profile prisoner – the infamous Tom O’Toole. O’Toole had murdered his brother-in-law Roy Barber on December 12, 1905, and was captured in Indiana about six weeks later. The New Castle Herald of Wednesday, January 27, 1906, reported, “Frank Johnson, who is sentenced to hang on March 19, and Thomas O’Toole, who is locked up yesterday on a murder charge, are both looked upon by Sheriff Ayers as men who would stop at nothing to gain their liberty… At present the cells occupied by O’Toole and Johnson are some distance apart, but if O’Toole is allowed liberty of the corridor in which Johnson exercises it is feared that some scheme to break jail would be planned and an attempt made to carry it out. The prisoners will, therefore, be kept apart and Sheriff Ayers will allow no communication whatever between them.”
It seems security was soon relaxed as the New Castle News of Wednesday, February 21, 1906, reported, “O’Toole assumed the role of mop pusher Saturday morning and assisted in the weekly clean up at the jail. O’Toole took especial pains with his own cell, going over it thoroughly and even wiping the dust from the iron bars that form the barrier between him and the liberty of the jail corridor. The office of chief mop pusher is assumed by Frank Johnson, who directs the work of the other prisoners and superintends the daily cleaning of the prisoners’ quarters. In this work, he takes great pride and keeps the jail always looking spank and clean. Johnson is also handy man about the place when it comes to the question of making minor repairs to the cells or anything within the confines of his prison home.”
The Reverend Hugh S. Boyd (1845-1915), a well-known Presbyterian minister who resided in New Castle, began acting as Johnson’s spiritual adviser. The New Castle News of Friday, March 2, 1906, reported of the prisoner’s failing spirit with, “Johnson for the first time since his imprisonment of more than a year, has weakened. The strain has begun to tell upon him and what was possibly a forced spirit of bravado has died away. Hope alone has buoyed up his spirits for the past few months. This hope too has died. His own words, “It will all be over in a few days,” echoes the final chapter of his life, death upon the gallows.”
The Board of Pardons considered his application in late February 1906, but it was refused soon after. The New Castle News of Wednesday, March 7, 1906, reported, “Johnson’s case was one of twenty four considered. Lieutenant Governor William Brown, contrary to former reports that he had interested himself in behalf of Johnson, took no part in the consideration. The final decision was rendered by Secretary of State Robert McAfee, Attorney General Hampton L. Carson and Secretary of Internal Affairs Isaac B. Brown.” Sheriff Ayers broke the news to a dejected Johnson, who replied that justice was not being served and that only God could judge him.
The New Castle News of Wednesday, March 7, 1906, ominously mentioned, “Sheriff Ayers went to Pittsburg Tuesday morning to secure a hang man’s rope to be used in the execution of murderer Frank Johnson. The ropes used on such occasions are handmade and are expensive requisites, costing from $20 to $30. The county now has $125 invested in execution paraphernalia.”
A few days later Sheriff Ayers received a tip that several prisoners planned to assault him on the evening of Saturday, March 10, and use his keys to escape. Ayers planned a trap but the alleged attack never took place. Tom O’Toole was implicated as the ringleader of the plot. The New Castle News of Wednesday, March 14, 1906, reported, “Tom O’Toole, Vernon Ryhal and Charles J. Johnston were the men suspected of planning the attack upon the sheriff in some hocus pocus manner. Those after a sensation attempted to claim that Frank Johnson, the condemned murderer, was also implicated in the alleged plot. As a matter of fact he was upstairs in another part of the prison under guard of the death watch and could not have gotten away even if the prisoners had secured the keys… A wire hook, which might in an emergency, have been used to throw back the bolt on the outer door, was found in one cell and a four-foot piece of gaspipe and a short iron bar were discovered under a bathtub. These might do to fell a man or they might have been lying under the bathtub for years. No one knows.”
The same article went on to describe the following, “Postmaster J. A. McKee had been told in the meantime by a former prisoner that he had several weeks ago seen Frank Johnson saw a bar off. An investigation proved this correct. The bar was yet in place, but was removed and might give a small man entrance from the main corridor to that leading toward the two big outer steel doors. If Frank Johnson sawed that bar several weeks ago and he has not been in that part of the jail for two weeks, the sawed bar could scarcely been connected with any Saturday night plot to escape. Vernon Ryhal was Sunday found to have from a spoon made another hook which would have worked the catch on the outer door. It is also said he had been busy at key-making and could pick the big padlocks on the cells.”
The New Castle News of Wednesday, March 14, 1906, reported, “Frank Johnson has bid the last goodbye to his only child, Frank Jr., the little two-year-old tot, who is fairly idolized by the condemned father. The meeting took place at the jail Saturday afternoon and was one never to be forgotten by those who witnessed it… The meeting lasted nearly an hour. Johnson was loath to have the child taken away, but the paring must come. The final scene was an awful one. Johnson could not control his feelings. He sobbed piteously and clung to the form of the boy. The final words of the father were spoken through the iron bars of the massive door which excluded him from the freedom of the world. “Goodbye, baby, goodbye.” Johnson’s voice was barely audible at the foot of the stairs leading to his apartments.”
On the morning of March 16, three days before the scheduled execution, Johnson was given a reprieve by Governor Pennypacker. The governor apparently believed that Johnson had acted in self-defense, and wanted the sentence commuted to life imprisonment. The governor withdrew the death warrant and ordered that the case be brought before the Board of Pardons – for a second time. The board met on March 28 and considered the evidence. The board subsequently went quiet and as time went by people speculated if politics was affecting a decision. It appears that Lieutenant Governor William Brown, with the support of two others members of the board (Carson and Brown), was steadfastly opposed to any reduction in sentence. Pennypacker could apparently only count on one vote, that of Secretary of the Commonwealth Robert McAfee.
In the middle of July 1906 the board finally announced that it had denied his request. Johnson’s death warrant was reinstated and Governor Pennypacker was forced to schedule his execution for Tuesday, September 11, 1906. The countdown to Johnson’s execution was resumed, although efforts on his behalf continued in earnest.
On the morning of Thursday, August 2, 1906, a county employee was walking around the County Jail and noticed a pile of bricks and broken mortar. He glanced up and noticed a hole in a walkway connecting the old jail to a newer section of the jail. A frantic check of the facility revealed that only one prisoner, Tom O’Toole, was missing. He was last seen the previous evening. An investigation got underway. In his cell, which was locked shut, was found a metal bar hammered to a sharp edge the length of one side.
O’Toole had somehow acquired the flattened metal bar and used it to slowly cut the bars. He used pieces of soap to hold the cell bars in place – and conceal the breaks – once he had cut them all the way free. While the other prisoners were sleeping at night he would creep down the hallway, up a flight of stairs, and use a makeshift skeleton key to open a small semi-hidden or ”blind” door leading to a sealed off corridor. This narrow corridor was a second story walkway leading to the newer section of prison. In this corridor O’Toole used the metal bar to carefully chip away at several layers of brick and mortar. After dropping through the hole he simply vanished. The search went on for years – but no trace of O’Toole was ever found! Many people were puzzled as to why more prisoners, including condemned inmate Frank Johnson, did not escape as well.
The New Castle News of Wednesday, August 29, 1906, reported, “With less than two weeks of life yet before him, murderer Frank Johnson sits moodily in his cell, awaiting the news he feels certain will come that Governor Pennypacker has granted him another respite. The condemned man seems to actually believe that something will develop that will save him from the awful death that awaits him on the gallows.”
Johnson was evidently correct as the next day Governor Pennypacker withdrew the death warrant and ordered another review of the case by the Board of Pardons. Most people in New Castle were very greatly displeased with the governor’s actions. The New Castle News of Wednesday, September 5, 1906, reported, “General indignation is here expressed over the action of the chief executive of the state for his interference. If Pennypacker resided in this community, where murder after murder had been committed without the life of one criminal having been forfeited to the law, he would probably be less ready to interfere… The News, some months ago, stated that Governor Pennypacker had stated that Johnson must not hang and he is evidently determined to force the pardon board to commute the death sentence to life imprisonment, if this is possible to be accomplished. The governor bases this upon the idea that Johnson was the master of his own home and so had the right to enforce his authority there, even to the final step of taking the life of another. The peculiar legal technicalities of the strange governor’s mind are past all understanding, especially in this case.”
Pennypacker apparently adopted a plan to wait out the Board of Pardons. In early November 1906, after Pennypacker had previously announced he would not be running again, fellow Republican Edwin S. Stuart was elected as the new governor. Those involved in the case inevitably wondered would Stuart, when he took office in January 1907, assume the same sympathetic stance as the outgoing governor. Behind the scenes there was another important development. While ardent Pennypacker supporter Robert McAfee would retain his governmental post and his seat on the Pardon Board, all three of the other members – who were united in their opposition to Pennypacker – were to be replaced as a new crop of elected officials took office in January 1907.
An editorial appeared in the New Castle News of Wednesday, November 28, 1906, and read in part, “Every person who knows anything about the case knows that Governor Pennypacker has decided that if can prevent it Johnson will never hang. There is every probability that Pennypacker can accomplish a great deal toward defeating the prescribed punishment of the crime and therefore there is some hopeful prospect for Johnson that the governor will ultimately defeat the object of the law and the will of the people.”
The case definitely brought out some strong feelings among the citizens of New Castle. The New Castle News of Friday, January 18, 1907, reported, “Warnings of a very threatening nature have been received during the past few days by Rev. Hugh S. Boyd, the venerable United Presbyterian minister widely known in this city and vicinity. He is notified unless he immediately ceases all efforts in behalf of Murderer Frank Johnson, there is trouble ahead for him. Rev. Boyd was until recently pastor of a church here but now has a charge in South Sharon. He lives at 56 Mulberry street, but spends part of each week looking after the South Sharon charge… Rev. Boyd is not in the least alarmed by the letters. He says that if anything they have made him more determined than ever to follow the course which he has been pursuing… Rev. Boyd does not believe that Johnson should be pardoned. He realizes that he has committed a heinous crime and that he should be punished, but the contention he is raising is that the facts did not warrant a first degree verdict.”
In February 1907, with a new administration firmly in place, the “new” Board of Pardons met for the first time. The New Castle News of Tuesday, February 9, 1907, reported, “Attorney Edwin Jackson of Harrisburg, a brother of Colonel Oscar L. Jackson of this city, will present the case of Murderer Frank Johnson to the pardon board tomorrow. Colonel Jackson, with the assistance of Andrew Marquis, has been engaged collecting new data for presentation for some time. Colonel Jackson has forwarded all of the facts connected with the case to his brother and unless he receives a dispatch this evening that he is needed he will not go to Harrisburg. The presentation of the case tomorrow will be much more complete than ever before.” The board met the next day but did not have enough time to consider Johnson’s application. It was put on the docket for the next meeting to be held in about a month.
On the afternoon of Wednesday, March 20, 1907, the Board of Pardons met in Harrisburg to consider Johnson’s case. Later the evening they reached a decision. Just after 10:00 that same night Sheriff Waddington went to Johnson’s cell to share the news: his sentenced had been commuted to life imprisonment. The News Castle Herald of the next day reported, “If the Sheriff had expected Johnson to show joy or feeling over the announcement, he was disappointed. He did not speak. “How do you like this?” asked the sheriff. “I expected to go free,” answered the prisoner. He would not talk and a few minutes later retired… The other prisoners in the corridor with Johnson congratulated him. He accepted their remarks with little feeling. “I knew God was a just God,” said Johnson this morning. “It would not have been just had I been hanged…” Johnson continued to claim he shot his stepson in self-defense and believed he should have been set free.
The same article went on to mention “Ever since Johnson was sentenced to hang, certain people in New Castle have been working to have his sentence changed to life imprisonment. His attorney, Andrew Marquis, who defended him throughout the trial, has worked indefatigably to save Johnson from the gallows. Everything that could be done was done and Mr. Marquis considers the result today as a personal triumph. Rev. Boyd has been another of those who has worked untiringly in his behalf. Many others interceded for him and great influence was brought to bear upon the pardon board… The people of New Castle heard the news with mingled felings (sic) of satisfaction and regret. The majority commended the action of the pardon board while a few condemned the board.”
It took some time but on Friday, April 19, 1907, Sheriff John W. Waddington received official notice of the action from Governor Stuart. Four days later Sheriff Waddington, with the case finally settled, transported Johnson by train to the Western Penitentiary in Pittsburgh. The New Castle News of Wednesday, May 1, 1907, reported, “Before leaving the Lawrence county jail Johnson asked to see the place where Murderer Thomas O’Toole made his escape. He was taken around by Deputy Frank Waddington. After gazing long and earnestly at the brickwork built into the hole through which O’Toole escaped Johnson (exclaimed) “Geewillikens!” and turned away. He had nothing more to say.”
The New Castle News of Friday, April 26, 1907, reported, “According to a letter just received by Attorney Andrew Marquis from Frank Johnson, the latter when taken to the penitentiary was mistaken by Warden (William Johnston) for a visitor who had accompanied the sheriff to the institution merely for the purpose of sightseeing. He did not know Johnson was a life prisoner until receiving the commitment from Sheriff Waddington. Johnson takes great pride in the fact that he was taken to the penitentiary unshackled and not compelled to walk the streets of this city as well as Pittsburg while handcuffed to the sheriff. Arriving in the Smoky City, he was taken about for a little sight seeing before being put behind the bars where the law says he must spend the remainder of his life… the revolver with which Johnson shot and killed Herman Genkinger has been turned over to Mrs. George Barge, Johnson’s cousin. The latter, according to a bill of sale made out and signed by the prisoner, is now owner of all he possesses in the world.”
A handful of high profile murder cases were tried in the Lawrence County Court House in the coming months and little leniency was shown. Four suspects were convicted and hanged to death to include Rosario Serge in July 1908, Charles Quimby in March 1909, Rocco Racco in October 1909, and Fred Rosena in December 1909.
The local community couldn’t seem to forget the Johnson affair as this editorial in the New Castle News of Saturday, May 8, 1909, indicated, “Lawrence county has had a terrible example of trifling with murderers. For several years there was a sentiment in this county against sending them to the gallows… The Johnson fizzle helped intensify the demand of the people for justice, and the two hangings (Serge and Quimby) that helped improve the moral tone of the community within the past few months will be followed by more. If Lawrence county continues to hang a murderer whenever the opportunity presents, which practice is essential to the safety of the people of this county, there will be a striking falling off in murders in this community. Every man’s life will be safe. The popularity of the killing business will fall off wonderfully.”
Johnson remained incarcerated along the shores of the Ohio River in Pittsburgh and over time became a forgotten man back in New Castle. The 1910 U.S. Census lists him as an inmate of the Western Penitentiary and his occupation as “Foreman Blacksmith Shop.” Several unsuccessful attempts were undertaken by his legal team to secure his early release from prison.
Johnson was apparently thankful for his defense team as he sent them small little matchstick holders. The New Castle News of Wednesday, June 28, 1911, mentioned, “Attorney W. H. Falls and Col. Oscar L. Jackson yesterday received little souvenirs from Frank Johnson who is serving a life sentence in the Western Penitentiary for the shooting of Herman Genkinger. The souvenirs are in the shape of match safes made by Johnson. They are in the shape of a barrel mounted on a pedestal or base. The barrel is about five inches long and nearly three inches in diameter.”
His wife quietly divorced him in 1916 and she later died at the age of seventy in September 1934. Her obituary declared that she was the widow of Frederick Genkinger and made no mention of Frank Johnson. She was laid to rest in Greenwood Cemetery.
Frank Johnson’s son (Frank Jr.), who took on the legal name of William E. Genkinger, grew up in the family home on Wood Street. He became an accomplished swimmer and basketball player at New Castle High School and graduated in May 1922. He was a member of the Loose Nuts Club, a group of young men who operated a summer camp and swimming competitions near New Wilmington from 1920-1925. Genkinger, a prominent member of St. John’s Lutheran Church, was married three times and had a son of his own named Norman. William Genkinger died in New Castle at the age of sixty-two in 1966 and was buried in Oak Park Cemetery. His obituary listed his father as Frederick Genkinger, although the elder “Fritz” had died six years before William was even born.
The New Castle News of Thursday, July 8, 1920, revealed, “Considerable local interest will be taken in the announcement that Attorney David Starr of Pittsburgh, wildly celebrated in Western Pennsylvania for his legal talent, has been retained to make application to the Pardon Board of Pennsylvania, for a Pardon for Frank Johnson… A number of friends, who were interested in Johnson and believe that his sixteen years in the penitentiary together with his expressed regret over the shooting that resulted in the killing of Herman Genkinger and his exempliary (sic) conduct, since being confined to the penitentiary for that crime, have retained Attorney Starr to make the application. Johnson is now close to sixty years of age and a cripple.”
One of the last mentions of Frank Johnson, when he was age sixty-three, appeared in the New Castle Herald of Thursday, January 20, 1921. The article announced, “Frank Johnson has again been refused a pardon by the Pennsylvania State Pardon board. The announcement was made this morning. It was the third attempt by relatives of the man to secure his release… Attorney Robert K. Aiken, representing the commonwealth of Lawrence County, made a plea to the pardon board, demanding that Johnson be kept in jail for the rest of his life. Aiken’s plea, which was one of the most remarkable ever given before a court, denounced Johnson, and the sorrow that he already caused, and asked the court that he be kept where he could do no further damage. The pardon board granted his plea.”
His defense team surely took in interest in the case of Dominick Panaro, another Western Penitentiary inmate who received a pardon due to failing health in the fall of 1922. In June 1910, Italian-born Panaro, then about twenty years of age, shot and killed a streetcar conductor named Oren Magwire in New Castle after a dispute about a fare payment. Panaro, who shot Magwire four times (including three times in the head), was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death in September 1910. In May 1911 his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment and he became an inmate at the Western Penitentiary. He received a pardon from the state in late October 1922 due to several reasons, but mainly because he was in extreme failing health. He passed away in the New Castle Hospital about six weeks later at the age of 32.
Despite various attempts to procure his freedom it can only be presumed that Frank Johnson lived out his final days within the walls of the Western Penitentiary in Pittsburgh. There is no mention of him in the 1930 U.S. Census, when he would have been almost seventy-three years old. One can assume he passed away during the 1920’s.
Another view of the Western Penitentiary, later renamed as State Correctional Institution (SCI) Pittsburgh.This historic institution, along the eastern banks of the Ohio River, was in operation for many decades until closed for good in 2017. (1912) Full Size