Small-time true crime from New Castle, Pa.

Author Archive

Sylvester Newton, “Malicious Mischief”, 9 July 1938

Sylvester Newton

Sylvester Newton’s family farmed land by the Shenango for a century until it was sold for industrial development. Sylvester’s father went to work in the new tinplate mill. He stayed there almost forty years, until the depression shut it down.

Sylvester worked in the tinplate mill, too, except when he was sent to Europe in the first world war. He divorced his first wife on the grounds of cruel and barbarous treatment. The following year, he married someone else. They had a son; Sylvester’s only child.

In 1938, when he was forty-three, Sylvester was arrested for malicious mischief and eventually sentenced to three to six years in the Western penitentiary for statutory rape. It was an unusually long sentence for the crime, but no newspaper reported the details of the trial. He received a pardon after two years.

Sylvester’s second wife divorced him in 1947 and his son died ten years later, crushed to death in a press machine that started up when he was making adjustments inside it.

In the early hours of a November morning in 1970, Sylvester parked his truck on the side of the highway that passes through South Beaver township and had just started to cross the road when he was hit by a car driven by a teenage girl and killed instantly. He was seventy-five years old.

Sources: New Castle News (2 November 1918 , “Twenty Men Are Called”; 28 July 1922, “Large Number Of Local Persons On Same Job Over 20 Years”; 20 October 1924, “Divorce Is Granted To Sylvester Newton”; 22 March 1932, “Deaths Of The Day”; 27 May 1939, “Sentences Passed In County Court”; 24 July 1941, “Paroles Granted Four Lawrence County Youths”; 17 November 1947, “Divorce Notice”; 30 April 1957 , “Mesta Worker Dies Instantly In Accident”; 23 November 1970, “Ex-Local Man Killed by Auto”).

Angelo Pegnato, “Burglary”, 24 March 1947

Angelo Pegnato

Angelo Pegnato was one of a gang of safe-crackers and burglars—most of whom, like Angelo’s brother, Frank, had fought in the war—who were arrested in March, 1947, after stealing thousands of dollars from businesses in town.

They took almost $4,000 from the Strouss-Hirshberg department store, and $3,360 in cash and $6,250 in war bonds from the Rick’s Motor Car office. Smaller sums were taken from Lebo’s clothing store, the Lincoln-Garfield school, the Lawrence laundry, Exide Battery and Star Lumber. They broke into safes in Fisher’s furniture store and Marchaletta’s hardware store, but found no money.

One of the gang, Sammy Sams, implicated an apparently innocent man—Leonard D’Antonio—in the crimes, which led to a lengthy series of court appearances and legal complications. Angelo avoided all that by pleading guilty at once. He got a year in jail.

Six years later, he was charged with unlawful participation in a riot and aggravated assault and battery after he and five companions beat a police officer at a roadside café. (The fight had come to an end when the officer shot one of the men in the foot, amputating a toe.)

There is no further record of Angelo’s life. He died, at the age of sixty-three, in 1983.

Sources: New Castle News (7 June 1947, “Enter Pleas In Safe Cracking”; 22 September 1953, “Bartoshek Waives Case Into Court”; 23 September 1953, “Indictments Are Returned”).

Eugene Sullivan, “Murder”, 24 July 1930

Eugene Sullivan

The Commodore Grill on East Washington street stayed open all night serving food and alcohol to shift workers at the mills. After prohibition, it switched to coffee but those who wanted a real drink could still get one as long as they spoke to Elmo Clarke, who boarded in the rooms above the restaurant.

On 24 July 1930, Eugene Sullivan entered, shouting loudly that he wanted a pencil to write a check. It was 2.30 in the morning. There were four customers in the bar. Eugene had been thrown out of the Commodore a few times for fighting, and had been sent to jail twice in the previous year: once for brawling in the hot-dog place down the block; and once for stealing chickens.

He went upstairs to the toilet, which was where customers went to buy liquor. Elmo Clarke, sitting at a table with a couple of men from the travelling carnival, saw Eugene go upstairs but didn’t follow him. He and Eugene had had a falling out over money.

Eugene waited in the toilet for twenty minutes, then came downstairs. He cursed at the carnival men and tried to pick a fight with another customer.

Abraham Nader, the owner of the bar, took Eugene by the arm and said, “You can’t start trouble in my place.” He led him to the door.

When they stepped outside, Eugene punched Abraham in the mouth. Abraham grabbed the window frame to steady himself and Eugene punched him again. His head hit the brick wall and he fell across the doorway of the pet shop next door, cracking his skull on the sidewalk. He would die in the hospital a few hours later. He had left his home in Mount Lebanon, Syria, when he was a young man and had run the Commodore for twenty years. He was fifty-one years old.

Eugene ran off towards the YMCA. Johnny Nader, Abraham’s son, caught him and knocked him to the ground. He took hold of his throat and punched him in the face until Elmo Clarke pulled him off.

Eugene was charged with murder. It turned out that, for over a month, a warrant had been out for his arrest in connection with the rape of an underage girl in Neshannock township, resulting in pregnancy, but the constables in New Castle had made no great effort to serve the papers. The parents of the girl told the police that, if Eugene had been arrested on that charge, Abraham Nader would not have been killed.

Eugene was indicted for murder and found guilty of manslaughter. He served two years. Three months after his release, he and another man were arrested following some trouble in the old Post Office building on South Mercer street. They were charged with being drunk and suspicious.

There is no further record of Eugene’s life. He died at the age of seventy-five, in 1979.

Sources: New Castle News (24 July 1930, “Fight In Lunch Room Early Today Ends In Death Of A J Nader”; 25 July 1930, “Says Constables Derelict To Duty In Sullivan Case”; 28 July 1930, “Coroner’s Jury Finds Sullivan Cause Of Death”; 24 September 1930, “Sullivan Is Found Guilty”; 11 January 1933, “Two Men Arrested Following Trouble”).

Joseph Copple, “Armed Robbery”, 15 November 1946

Joseph Copple

Joseph Copple left school just as the depression hit New Castle. In 1934, after years without a job, he was arrested for stealing and stripping automobiles and spent a short time in jail. In 1942, when the war reopened some of the factories, he got work in Johnson Bronze. Later that year, he was sentenced to three months for failure to support his wife. As he was led from the courtroom, he looked back and said, “Someone will pay for this.” The judge had him brought back in and added three months to the sentence. When he got out, he was drafted. He spent the next three years in the army.

A few months after he came home from the war, Joseph was picked up for the armed robbery of the R M Barnes clothing store on Liberty street. The day before, two men had entered the store and asked to look at some socks. When Barnes turned to get them down from the shelf, one of the men pressed a pistol into his back and said, “This is a stick-up.” They forced him into his office at the rear of the store and held him at gun point while they rifled his cash drawer and pockets. They left with $862, driving off in a dark sedan.

Barnes said Joseph had been the man with the gun. Joseph said he had nothing to do with it. He spent a month in jail before his trial. The jury spent two days trying to reach a verdict before finding him innocent.

Two years later, Joseph was arrested for robbery, assault and battery and receiving stolen goods. Wilbert German, a former soldier who worked in Youngstown Sheet and Tube, had been out drinking and had accepted the offer of a ride home from a man named Gerald Hanna. On the outskirts of town, Hanna stopped the car and a man who had been hiding in the back seat—identified in court as Joseph—attacked German and took his wallet, which contained his weekly pay.

At the trial, the DA told the jury that Joseph was a criminal type who had never been able to hold a steady job because he was simply too lazy to work. Joseph lost his head. The sheriff took him back to his cell. Joseph told the sheriff that the DA had made him mad when he called him lazy. He wasn’t lazy. He had robbed Wilbert German. That proved that the DA was wrong, as no one who was as lazy as the DA said he was would have gone through with the job.

The sheriff took the confession to the DA. Joseph was sentenced to two to four years in the Alleghenny workhouse.

After his release, Joseph moved to Weirton, West Virginia. He died there in 1984, at the age of sixty-nine.

Sources: New Castle News (3 March 1926, “Missing Boy Found”; 3 August 1934, “Sixty Eight Go To CCC Camp”; 19 November 1934, “Arrest Two More In Car Vandalism”; 20 November 1934, “Not This Copple”; 29 October 1937, “Accept 63 for CCC Service”; 10 October 1942, “Sentence Court”; 6 July 1943, “More City Men Enter Service”; 25 September 1943, “Information Please”; 18 November 1946, “Charge Is Made Against Man In Daylight Holdup”; 19 November 1946, “Copple Pleads Innocent Today”; 25 November 1946, “Copple Ordered Held For Court”; 11 December 1946, “Copple On Trial In Robbery Case”; 12 December 1946, “Copple Case Is Now With Jury”; 13 December 1946, “Joseph Copple Freed By Jury”; 26 February 1948, “Charge Pair Robbed Man In Auto; Then Dumped Him Out”; 13 March 1948, “Copple Admits Jury Was Right”; 16 March 1948, “Court Adds Time To Sam Sentence”).

Sidney Fell, “Sodomy”, 21 August 1960

Sidney Fell

Sidney Fell and William Dugan were arrested for engaging in an act of sodomy in an empty office on the fifth floor of the Greer building on North Mercer street. They had been discovered after occupants of the building, on the look-out for a thief who had stolen $17 from a secretary’s wallet the day before, had noticed the two men loitering suspiciously in the corridors.

Sidney ran a window-cleaning business; William was a manual laborer and petty criminal who had been arrested the year before for assaulting Sidney in his home and robbing him of $55. (He had been released when Sidney had withdrawn his complaint and declined to press charges.) They were sentenced to four to eight months in the county jail.

Sidney’s parents were Austrian Jews. His father, Herman, had arrived in New Castle in 1905 and became the town’s first window-washing contractor; his mother, much younger than Herman, died of a year-long illness a few days after Sidney’s first birthday.

Sidney ran away from home when he was sixteen. He took a train to Chicago and another to Omaha, Nebraska, where he was accepted by a home for troubled or neglected children that had recently been made famous by a film called Boys Town, starring Spencer Tracy and Mickey Rooney, which played at the Penn theater when Sidney was fourteen, and had been featured in a long Joe Palooka comic strip storyline that ran in the New Castle News the year before he left town.

Around two hundred boys lived in the orphanage, including the youngest bank robber on record and a boy who had killed his father. Sidney liked it a lot. He stayed there for two years before returning to New Castle when he turned eighteen. He moved back in with his father and his older brother and cleaned windows for a year until America entered the war and he and his brother were drafted. Sidney went into the marines and spent two years handling mail in the South Pacific; his brother, Emanuel, went into the army and took part in the invasion of Normandy and the liberation of Holland before being killed in an ambush outside Bastogne, in Belgium—the same incident in which Frank Bullano earned his bronze star.

Sidney’s father’s death from a heart attack, ten years after the end of the war, left Sidney, at forty, all alone in New Castle and the sole owner of the family business. From that point on, he became ever more involved in the New Castle Playhouse, the town’s largest amateur dramatics company. He started out as a supporting actor but ended up taking lead roles and staging ambitious productions of Broadway shows.

In May, 1963, Sidney produced the New Castle Playhouse’s version of Guys and Dolls. The drama critic of the New Castle News gave it a positive review, but remarked that the players appeared confused, that it was difficult to identify with the characters, that people entered and left the stage too early or too late and that the lights and curtains were operated rather poorly. Sidney wrote the following letter in response.

“Dear Sir, I believe your so-called drama critic is grossly unfair. His review of our opening night last Thursday was too severe. Who does he think we are? We are only amateurs and we will be the first to admit it. We feel there are not enough community efforts in our city and without us and people like us this area would have even less community activities to express creative talent. I think this show is the liveliest and funniest show of the year and if you doubt either your drama critic or myself, come to the Playhouse and you will see which of us is right.”

The editor accepted the invitation. He had a good time, as Sidney had known that he would.

In the late sixties, Sidney set up the Drawing Room Players, which he billed as the experimental wing of the Playhouse. He used it to produce uncommercial plays by lesser known playwrights that would not otherwise be performed in New Castle. Its productions earned Sidney the best reviews of his theatrical career, with the New Castle News calling him “tremendously talented” and declaring his works to be a triumph.

Sidney died in July, 2007, at the age of eighty-three. William Dugan—who, it turned out, had been the thief who had stolen the secretary’s $17, thereby alerting the office workers to the presence of suspicious characters in the building and inadvertently bringing about the arrest of Sidney and himself—was arrested in 1974 for beating his son unconscious as a punishment for coming home drunk. There is no further record of his life.

Sources: New Castle News (6 April 1925, “Deaths Of The Day”; 14 November 1930, “Window Washer Falls Into Creek”; 16 Dec 1940, “News Briefs From City Hall”; 30 Aug 1943, “In US Armed Service”; 15 Jan 1945, “Pvt Emanuel Fell Killed In Belgium”; 11 Aug 1955, “Seventy Two Win Drivers Permits”; 31 Oct 1955, “Deaths Of The Day”; 21 Aug 1959, “Barn Players In Rehearsals”; 9 May 1959, “Robbery Suspect Held By Police”; 11 May 1959, “Man Released After Charges Are Dropped”; 13 Aug 1960, “Face Morals Charges”; 15 Aug 1960, “Plead Innocent”; 6 Dec 1960, “Jury Returns 6 True Bills”; 18 Feb 1961, “Court Imposes 19 Sentences”; 17 May 1963, “First Nighters See Guys, Dolls”; 23 May 1963, “The People Write”; 5 Aug 1968, “The People Write”; 10 July 1968, “’A Raisin In The Sun’ Called Triumph For Local Talent”; 22 Jun 1970, “Boys Town Director Tells Father’s Role In Family”; 29 April 1974, “North Hill Man Charged In Son’s Beating”).

Herman Robertson, “Manslaughter”, 15 June 1946

Herman Robertson

Jack Boles, a veteran of the Spanish-American war, was the janitor in the Winters block on East street. He turned seventy-one in June, 1946, and invited the residents of the block to his apartment to help him celebrate. He and Herman Robertson, an unemployed man who lived downstairs, walked to the Produce street liquor store to buy whiskey and wine and brought it back to the building. The party went on all evening, until Jack and Herman started arguing and shoving each other. They ended up in a running scuffle through every room in the apartment, which led them out onto the balcony at the rear. Herman stumbled into Jack. Jack went over the banister and fell twenty feet to the ground below, cracking his skull open. Herman went back to his own apartment, where he was arrested later that night.

Jack died in the hospital the next day. Herman pled guilty to involuntary manslaughter and was given a $100 fine and six months in the county jail.

Herman had a young family at the time. One of his sons, Thomas, went on to become a sergeant in the air force. Another, Paul, became a petty criminal, and was arrested for robbing the East street market and the Produce street liquor store, among other places.

Herman died in 1964, at the age of seventy.

Sources: New Castle News (17 June 1946, “East St Man Killed In Fall”; 20 June 1946, “Name Involuntary Manslaughter In Jack Boles Death”; 28 Sept 1946, “Destruction Day At Court House”; 27 June 1954, “Robertson Promoted To Sergeant Ranking”; 7 May 1956, “Police Solve Odd April 13 Hit-And-Run”; 7 June 1956, “Police Hold 2 In East St Market Theft”; 18 April 1959, “Man Pleads Guilty To Burglary Charge”; 3 October 1964, “Death Record”).

Floyd Hillkirk, “OMVWI”, 15 April 1956

Floyd Hillkirk

After serving in the Pennsylvania Volunteers for less than a year, Isaac Hillkirk was captured by the Confederate army in the battle of Plymouth, in 1864. The hundred or so former slaves who had fought alongside his regiment were executed on the spot. Isaac and the other white captives were sent to a prison camp in Andersonville, Georgia, where tens of thousands of Union soldiers were held in a few acres of marshy ground, surrounded by a stockade. Twelve thousand died in little over a year from starvation, dysentery and hookworm. Isaac spent eight months there. When the war ended, he returned to Pennsylvania and set up home in Mercer, twenty miles north of New Castle, where he lived for the rest of his life. He died in 1920, when his grandson, Floyd Hillkirk, was eleven years old.

By the end of the decade, Floyd was an apprentice in the Cooper-Bessemer diesel engine plant in Grove City. He lost his driving license when he was twenty-one, after he was arrested for driving while intoxicated. Two years later, when Mildred Shaffer, the eighteen-year-old girl he was dating, asked for a ride into New Castle to visit her sister, Floyd had to ask his friend, Lowry Conner, to drive them in his car. Mildred sat on Floyd’s lap on the front seat; another girl, Mildred’s friend, sat between them and Lowry. About seven miles from town, Lowry lost control of the car on a corner near the Shady Grove inn. It left the road and overturned in a field. Everyone got out with only minor cuts and scrapes apart from Mildred, who split her skull. She died in the New Castle hospital twenty days later. The inquest apportioned no blame to any of the survivors.

Floyd got married when he was twenty-five and had two children. In 1956, he was arrested at North street and North Mercer street for drunk driving, an offence for which he had his mug shot taken and was fined $100. He later became a foreman in the machine shop of the Cooper-Bessemer plant, where he worked until he died, in 1970, at the age of sixty-one.

Sources: New Castle News (21 July 1930, “Revoke Licenses Of Seventy Two Drunken Drivers”; 28 July 1932, “Three Injured In Auto Crash”; 8 July 1932, “Plans Inquest In Girl’s Death”; 4 Aug 1932, “Hold Inquest In Girl’s Death”); Floyd Hillkirk and Isaac Killkirk details via; “Black Flag Over Dixie”, Gregory J Urwin, Southern Illinois University, 2005; “The 101st Pennsylvania in the Civil War”, Harold B Birch, AuthorHouse, 2007.


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