In October 1905 twenty-five-year-old local tin mill worker Thomas “Tom” O’Toole Jr., charged with disorderly conduct while high on cocaine, was sentenced to thirty days in the city jail in New Castle, Pennsylvania. He had been drinking heavily for several months and some accounts say he was physically abusing his wife, the former Jeanette “Nettie” Barber. They had recently suffered a tragic loss as their three-month-old daughter Mabel had died in August 1905. O’Toole’s arrest was the culmination of a very tumultuous time for his family.
Tom O’Toole Jr. was one of nine children born to Thomas and Mary O’Toole, Irish immigrants who had come to the United States in about 1866. They originally settled in Philadelphia, before relocating to Etna in Allegheny County. Thomas Jr. was born in Etna in March 1880. The family moved to New Castle in about 1892 as father Thomas Sr. found work in a local steel mill. Mary, at about age fifty-three, died rather tragically (and oddly) on Saturday, August 26, 1904, when she fell down the stairs at the family home on South Jefferson Street.
While O’Toole was incarcerated in late 1905 his wife took their four-year-old son Thomas “Wescott” O’Toole, and her seven-year-old son Harold Leroy Barber from a previous marriage, and fled to Cleveland, Ohio, where her father had since relocated. In Cleveland she found refuge working and residing with her sons in an orphanage, the Jones Home for Friendless Children, and had plans to divorce her abusive husband as soon as she could.
O’Toole was released from jail in mid-November 1905 and immediately set about trying to find his son. He directed most of his anger towards his brother-in-law, twenty-four-year-old Leroy “Roy” Barber, who worked at his uncle’s bakery on Long Avenue. Nettie and Roy were the only children of the widowed James W. Barber, who operated a grocery store on Moravia Street for many years. O’Toole, who had several siblings in the Pittsburgh area, soon moved down to Braddock with his father.
O’Toole, who wanted custody of his son Wescott, wrote several threatening letters to Roy Barber. The last one came on Monday, December 11, 1905, and indicated he was coming to pick up Wescott and closed with, “… I will have him or your life and that is all I have to say.”
The next evening O’Toole boarded a Pittsburgh & Lake Erie Railroad (P&LE) train at Braddock and arrived at New Castle Junction at about midnight. At about 2:30am Mrs. Rose Tripp, who operated a boarding house with her husband at #117 East Long Avenue, was awakened by someone knocking on the front door. She answered the door and challenged a strange man standing before her. He repeatedly asked if Roy Barber was home and finally gave his name as Peter Smith. Mrs. Tripp, not knowing who he was, asked him to wait downstairs while she went to wake Roy Barber.
Barber said he didn’t know a Peter Smith, but agreed to see him. Mrs. Tripp called for the man to come upstairs and she continued back to her room. She heard an excited Barber call out the name “Thomas O’Toole” and an argument ensued. About a moment later a gunshot rang out. She raced into the hallway and saw the strange man standing over a fallen Barber. The man pointed a revolver at Barber and fired four more shots into his prone victim. O’Toole immediately fled, while Mrs. Tripp ran to the nearby Miller Hotel to have someone summon the police.
Several police officers quickly arrived on scene and assisted to the unconscious Barber, who died about ten minutes after being shot. The alarm was passed to be on the lookout for O’Toole. Police officers started searching throughout the Long Avenue area, while others were posted at the train stations. Authorities also placed a call to Cleveland to inform Nettie and her father about the tragic crime.
Meanwhile, as the search was underway, a fearful Nettie apparently went into hiding with her two sons. A well-attended funeral service was held for Roy Barber, a member of the First Christian Church and a young man of outstanding character, on Friday afternoon and he was subsequently buried in Greenwood Cemetery in New Castle.
The citizens of New Castle were shocked by the brazen crime and a $500 reward was issued for O’Toole’s capture. Veteran policeman John W. Eberle was sent down to lead the search in Braddock and nearby areas. The trail quickly turned cold and no sign of O’Toole was found despite many reported sightings. Finally, in late January 1906, a man from East Chicago, Indiana, came to New Castle with some news for policeman Eberle – provided the reward was still active. The man, a former resident of New Castle, said he met and befriended O’Toole as they lived in the same boarding house in East Chicago. Eventually, O’Toole entrusted his new friend to deliver a secret message to his father in Braddock asking for money. The man betrayed O’Toole for the reward money and went straight to New Castle to alert the authorities. A call was made out to the police department in East Chicago and O’Toole, using an assumed name, was arrested without incident on Wednesday, January 24, 1906.
Thomas Spiers, the New Castle Chief of Police, and a small contingent of police officers traveled to Indiana by train and returned O’Toole to New Castle on Friday, January 26. From the West Side train station he was transported by a horse-drawn police wagon to the City Hall building, where a huge crowd had gathered, for a preliminary hearing before Mayor M. Louis Hainer. The New Castle News of Friday, January 26, 1906, reported, “ ‘Hello Mayor,’ was the prisoner’s response to Mayor Hainer’s pleasant ‘Good morning, Tom,’ with which the chief executive greeted O’Toole’s appearance before him, as it had been merely a casual visitor, instead of one who stands accused of taking the life of a fellow human being.” O’Toole, without the services of an attorney, was formally charged with first degree murder to which he entered a plea of “not guilty.” He was then taken to the Lawrence County Jail located near the County Court House.
Another high-profile prisoner at the jail was Frank Johnson, convicted of murdering his stepson Herman Genkinger back in January 1905. 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.”
By all accounts O’Toole seemed very upbeat and in good spirits in the coming days. The New Castle News of Wednesday, January 31, 1906, reported, “ ‘Everybody works but father.’ Thus sang Tom O’Toole in his cell in the county jail Saturday morning. His voice could be heard over the entire bastile. For a moment he would break off from the words of the song and content himself with the whistling the refrain. O’Toole was busily engaged washing his face at a stand in the rear of his cell. ‘And he sits around all day,’ he continued. ‘Sitting by the fire, smoking his pipe of clay.’ ‘Mother does the washing, so does sister Ann.’ ‘Everybody works at our house, but my old M-a-a-n,’ concluded the prisoner as he dashed a quantity of cold water in his face and nearly drowned the last brawled word.”
Just prior to the commencement of O’Toole’s trial Sheriff Ayers was secretly informed 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. 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.”
O’Toole’s family raised considerable funds and hired a worthy legal team for his defense. His trial commenced on Friday, March 16, 1906, in the courtroom of Lawrence County Judge William E. Porter. For his heinous crime O’Toole faced the death penalty if convicted. Members of both the O’Toole and Barber families were in attendance. Mrs. Tripp was the key witness for the prosecution and gave very composed testimony against O’Toole – who seemed to be in a very lighthearted mood at times. O’Toole’s lawyers did not deny he was involved in the murder, but indicated that O’Toole was crazy from drug use and asked for leniency. On Wednesday, March 21, the jury deliberated for two hours before returning to the courtroom. O’Toole remained calm as the jury foreman read a verdict of “guilty.” O’Toole was returned to his cell in the Lawrence County Jail to await formal sentencing.
Before too long a story about a juror saying some inappropriate things just before the trial commenced caused a sensation. Reports indicated that juror Charles S. Terrell, the postmaster of Pulaski, had told a few people in Pulaski that O’Toole was obviously guilty and should be hanged. O’Toole’s lawyers learned of this and petitioned Judge Porter for a new trial. Depositions were taken in June and Porter took his time in reviewing the evidence. Meanwhile, O’Toole remained calm and soon began skipping breakfast and often slept in until noon.
On the morning of Friday, August 2, 1906, a county employee named Leonard Reed 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 jail. A frantic check of the jail revealed only one prisoner was missing – Tom O’Toole was at large again! He was last seen by Lawrence County Sheriff Edwin L. Ayers at 9:00pm the previous evening. In his cell, which was locked shut, was found a metal bar hammered to a sharp edge the length of one side.
An alert was sounded and bloodhounds were quickly brought to the jail. The dogs followed the scent for a short distance along Shadyside Avenue to Neal Street, where they were frightened by a loud steam engine at the Shenango Lumber Company and gave up pursuit. Police officers fanned out and continued the search without the dogs.
Newspaper stories immediately speculated it was an “inside job.” Someone in the jail must have assisted O’Toole by unlocking his cell. Many people were puzzled as to why more prisoners, including condemned inmate Frank Johnson, who was scheduled for execution within five weeks, did not escape as well. (NOTE: Johnson later had his sentence commuted to life imprisonment was sent to the Western Penitentiary in Pittsburgh to live out his days.)
Authorities went to work investigating how O’Toole had escaped. It was soon determined that O’Toole had likely acted alone and in total secrecy. He somehow acquired the flattened metal bar and used it to slowly cut through a few sections of his cell 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. Estimates vary but it probably took about two to four weeks of sawing his cell bars and chipping away at the bricks before he cut through to the outside world. The work would have been done late at night and explained why he slept in until noon every day.
The facts revealed O’Toole was probably much more clever and intelligent than once thought. Just where he obtained the metal bar remained a mystery. The skeleton key, fashioned from a metal spoon, was probably fabricated by fellow prisoner Vernon E. Ryhal, an expert locksmith and career thief previously transferred to the Western Penitentiary. O’Toole also stole a pair of shoes from another prisoner presumably to throw off the scent of the bloodhounds.
The Lawrence County Commissioners offered a hefty $1,000 reward for O’Toole’s capture – dead or alive. There was a creditable report that placed O’Toole in a small village known as Thorn Hill near Youngstown on August 14. As a freight train moved through Thorn Hill the brakeman, who lived in New Castle and was acquainted with O’Toole, spotted a man he believed was the fugitive sitting near the tracks. Before the local authorities could be alerted the man disappeared. As days turned into weeks his capture seem more and more improbable. There were numerous tips and sightings, mostly in eastern Ohio, but nothing came of them.
It certainly wasn’t from lack of effort as this article in the New Castle Herald of Saturday, August 11, 1906, indicates: “In the hunt for Thomas O’Toole queer things are happening. Apart from the report that the much-wanted man is seen at a dozen different points every day, those who are engaged in the hunt are running into some funny experiences. The Erie, Pa., detectives who visited the jail early in the week returned yesterday and stated that they had been to Buffalo and Cleveland on various clews… One of the “disguises” adopted by the “sleuths” was that of a tramp and on Thursday night this disguise got them into trouble. The detectives were mingling with a number of tramps, unraveling a tangle clew, when a brigade of police swooped down on the party. All, including the detectives were arrested. It was some time before the officers were able to establish their identity and secure their release.”
It wasn’t uncommon for folks to make light of the situation either. The New Castle Herald of Monday, August 20, 1906, factitiously printed in its “Side Steps” gossip column, “Tom O’Toole is still absent on his vacation,” while its edition of Monday, October 22, 1906, mentioned the winter plans of various people to include, “Tom O’Toole – With friends out of the city.” Harris Furniture on Moravia Street printed an advertisement in the New Castle Herald of Wednesday, September 19, 1906, that read in part, “What Tom O’Toole said when leaving jail: “I am going to Harris’ big new and second hand Furniture Store to buy a $5.00 trunk for $2.50, the largest dealer in the Fifth Ward.” I will furnish your home from top to bottom for cash or credit and save you 50 cents on the dollar.” The New Castle News of Wednesday, December 26, 1906, ran an editorial that read, “Mr. Thomas O’Toole spent a very pleasant Christmas, thank you. Just a tinge of nostalgia was felt Sunday when he realized that be must by force of circumstance, spend the day away from dear old New Castle and Frank Johnson.”
On December 12, 1906, Judge Porter held a formal hearing and mockingly called out for O’Toole to present himself. Sheriff Ayers had to explain to the courtroom that O’Toole had previously escaped and was at large. Judge Porter announced that O’Toole’s appeal for a new trial was denied. If O’Toole was captured his sentence of death would be carried out in due time.
There continued to be occasional sightings of O’Toole. The New Castle Herald of Tuesday, January 8, 1907, reported, “Great excitement was caused in this town (Wampum) last night when a man believed to be Thomas O’Toole, the New Castle murderer, was arrested by City Policeman Ferris. In company with another man, the man believed to be O’Toole was arrested about dusk… Officer Ferris believed he had accomplished an important arrest and the people looked on him as a champion. But the excitement turned to disgust shortly after New Castle officials had been acquainted with the facts. The man was not O’Toole. This morning the prisoners were discharged. They promised to steer clear of Wampum in the future.” Three months later, on Friday, May 3, 1907, the same newspaper reported, “There was excitement up in Butler last night. A man supposed to be Thomas O’Toole was captured. The fellow afterwards turned out to be Lawrence Hoyis. He was drunk.”
On Sunday, February 2, 1913, a group of spiritualist mediums held two “readings” or sessions at the Nixon Theater in downtown New Castle, in which they attempted to figure out what happened to O’Toole. About 2,500 people packed the theater during the afternoon and evening sessions, presided over by famous spiritualist Cassius L. Stevens, the President of the Pennsylvania Spiritualists Association. A report in the New Castle News of the next day reported, “Some further expression was given in the message purporting to be from Barber, thanking a number of friends here for things done since he had passed out of the “material life.” A further message read by one of the spiritualists advised Barber said, “You do not need to search longer for the man who shot me in New Castle, he has gone out of the material world and is now in the spiritual world.” Fittingly, the close of the article reads, “Collections were taken at both afternoon and evening sessions.”
Could the spiritualists be correct? There is a death certificate on file for a “Thomas Joseph O’Toole” who was born in Philadelphia on January 14, 1878, and died in Philadelphia on June 11, 1907. He was twenty-nine years old and was buried in the New Cathedral Cemetery in North Philadelphia. After some research it appears this is not the Tom O’Toole missing from New Castle. First off, there were a handful of people named Thomas O’Toole in the Philadelphia area at the turn of the century. O’Toole was not born in Philadelphia in January 1878 – he was born across the state in Etna in March 1880. The death certificate lists the parents as Thomas & Mary O’Toole, but gives their birthplaces as Pennsylvania – while O’Toole’s parents were both born in Ireland. It is also likely that if there is a death certificate somewhere for escapee Tom O’Toole, it’s under an assumed name. Unless further details come to light we should discount this as simply a close match.
Meanwhile, the hunt continued but less and less time and resources were expended. Many people speculated that he had left the United States, possibly traveling to his parents’ homeland of Ireland. Months turned into years and still no trace of O’Toole was ever found.
The New Castle Herald of Monday, May 8, 1911, reported, “Chief of Police Joseph Gilmore thinks little of the latest of many rumors regarding the whereabouts of our old friend, Tom O’Toole. It is reported that a Chicago policeman thinks he has Tom spotted and is ready to capture him. Chief Gilmore and thousands of others here do not even believe that O’Toole is in the country. It has been rumored that he has been seen in Ireland and it has also been said that he is in the Panama zone, but more believe that he is in Australia.”
The New Castle News of Wednesday, April 8, 1914, reported negatively on a state inspector who recommended that a few changes be made to the county jail. “The Lawrence County jail seems a very comfortable place. Those of our citizens who are compelled to spend part of their time within its walls, seldom complain of the accommodations… As the jail is at present a large element of our population insist in trying to break in. Tom O’Toole, the eminent brick mason and noiseless excavator, has the unique distinction of being the only man within recent years who tried to get out. He succeeded, but Tom always was peculiar in his tastes.”
Undoubtedly inspired by the success of Tom O’Toole, convicts at the county jail never stopped making attempts to escape. The New Castle News of Wednesday, October 17, 1917, announced, “Three prisoners made a daring escape from the county jail last night, by crawling up the ventilators and dropping from the roof of the building, by the aid of a rope made from blankets. The men escaping were: Pete Brown, colored, charged with felonious assault and battery with intent to kill; Ivan McVettie, charged with highway robbery, and L. J. Miller, charge with larceny. Their escape was discovered by Sheriff Carl Johnson early this morning, when he went out to his garage and found the blanket rope dangling from the roof.”
The trio, utilizing a heavy duty file, cut a padlock and made their way into the same hidden corridor the O’Toole escaped from back in 1906. They however did not chisel through the brick wall, but instead crawled through a ventilator shaft to the roof. Brown, who sustained a broken ankle in the escape, was quickly hunted down in New Castle, while seventeen-year-old McVettie was captured at New Castle Junction a month later. No record of what became of Miller can be found.
Five months later a handful of prisoners repeated the same feat as the New Castle News of Monday, March 11, 1918, reported, “Five prisoners escaped from the county jail last night by crawling through a ventilator shaft to the roof and dropping to the ground by aid of a blanket rope… There were eighteen prisoners in the section of the jail from which the men escaped. They were offered the same chance, according to one of the prisoners, but refused to accept it. They were told to keep quiet or face the consequences.”
The ringleader was a nineteen-year-old Greek immigrant named Efstathias Zafiratos, awaiting trial for the killing of a man in Ellwood City the previous December. The same article mentioned, “Zafiratos was locked in the same cell from which Tom O’Toole, the murderer of Roy Barber, escaped twelve years ago. The escape was effected in the same manner, by sawing out one of the bars.” Three of the men were soon recaptured. One of them, Samuel Ettinger, was later arrested for assault in New Castle and only then was it discovered that he was a fugitive. That was fifteen years later – in September 1933! Worse yet, it doesn’t appear that Zafiratos was ever found and brought to trial.
Improvements were made to the jail, but it did little to help as four more inmates escaped on Sunday, August 29, 1920. The New Castle News of Thursday, September 9, 1920, reported, “Four men sawed the bars and escaped from the Lawrence county jail nearly two weeks ago. Two of them have since been recaptured. The other two are still at large. For some reason the jail delivery has been guarded with much secrecy, particulars only becoming known this morning… According to the facts secured the men escaped by cutting bars and escaping by the airshaft route to the top of the building, from which they dropped to liberty. This is the same plan pursued in several previous jail deliveries. It was thought that sufficient precautions had been taken to prevent any more escapes, but it appears that when prisoners get saws iron bars do not stand in their way. How they managed to get the saws is somewhat of a mystery.” Chester Houk, a teenager who had previously escaped from the reform school at Huntington, was captured near Ellwood City a week later. The fate of a fourth escapee, Charles Williams, remains unknown.
Perhaps the small corridor was finally sealed because the next large scale escape attempt featured a plan to walk out the door. The New Castle Herald of Monday, October 31, 1921, carried a blaring headline that read, “WHOLESALE JAIL DELIVERY IS THWARTED.” The accompanying story described a fantastic plan by five prisoners at the County Jail to acquire the cell keys and escape from their confinement. They planned to kill Sheriff Boyd as well as a fellow prisoner. The article mentioned, “Albert Torrance White, Pete Crist, both condemned murders; John Porter and Verne Ryhal, convicted of criminal attacks on girls, and William Thellman, under sentence to the penitentiary, were the ring leaders of the wholesale plan to liberate the inmates of the county jail.”
Thellman’s wife foiled the plan by confessing she had smuggled a gun into the jail. Her husband, a nineteen-year-old convicted for a second offense of automobile theft, had just been sentenced (some said harshly) to four years in prison. A thorough search of the jail facility turned up a .32 caliber pistol and a box of shells in the cell of Crist. The five prisoners were all placed in solitary confinement awaiting disposition of their cases.
While some might consider Thellman a misguided youth, the other four men were hard-core criminals. John Porter, an African-American resident of Chewton, broke into a nearby home and when discovered assaulted a widowed woman with a revolver. While initially imprisoned in Wampum he set a fire and nearly burned the jail down. He was sentenced to serve at least eighteen months in prison. Crist, who had previously been a fugitive for three years, had recently been convicted for the high-profile murder of James Cucia – a police officer gunned down in new Castle in May 1918. Crist was sentenced to death for the crime in December 1921, but later had his sentence commuted to life imprisonment. Albert Torrence White was convicted of beating his wife to death in New Castle and was sentenced to death. He was executed in the electric chair in March 1922. Ryhal, a career criminal, kidnapped and badly beat a fourteen-year-old girl in June 1921. She recovered for a time, but died in November 1921. He was executed in the electric chair in October 1922.
The article concluded with, “They were to escape in the Sheriff’s automobile. Ryhal was to drive. It is understood they were going to make a dash for the Ohio line, then abandon the car and separate. The unsuccessful attempt recalls the sensational escape of Tom O’Toole from the county jail a decade ago. O’Toole dug a hole through the brick wall. He was never captured.” Despite this unsuccessful attempt and earlier successful jail breaks no prisoner in Lawrence County ever gained the infamy that O’Toole possessed.
O’Toole’s wife Nettie Barber, after moving to Cleveland, worked at an orphanage for a number of years. It is known that Nettie and her two sons lived out their days in the Cleveland area. She was granted a divorce from her fugitive husband in October 1909 and a decade later was remarried to local man named Harry F. Cunningham. Her eldest son Harold Barber died in Cleveland in February 1958. Her son Wescott, the subject of Tom O’Toole’s rage back in 1905, took the surname of Barber. He settled in nearby North Olmsted, was married to the former Helen Haff, had two children, and died in July 1965. Nettie outlived them all and died at the age of ninety-six in Medina, Ohio, in January 1976.
Just what became of the murderer O’Toole, who would have been seventy years old in 1950, remains a mystery to this day.
This photo was marked as “City Jail” but I believe it actually depicts the old County Jail, located near the County Court House, where O’Toole escaped from on August 2, 1906. I believe the hole he carefully dug was at the rear of the new addition built in 1899, seen on the right side of this photo. (c1902) Full Size
David Barber #
Great summary on this story. Where did you get your information? You have tidbits not found in the papers of the time. Nettie had Harold in a former marriage? James Barber was a widower?
Nettie was my great grandmother and I have most of this from newspaper articles too. The family did not know of this till I found it about 11 or 12 years ago.
Thomas O’Toole did not go back to Ireland. He died in 1907 in Philadelphia according to his death certificate.
Jeff Bales (EDITOR) #
(EDITOR’S NOTE) Dee, I wish it were that easy. I have done some research on the death of a Thomas Joseph O’Toole in Philadelphia in 1907. There are some similarities – but even more differences. I conclude at this time that it’s not Tom O’Toole who escaped from New Castle in 1906. I’m about to post some updated text that reveals why I believe that. Jeff