Murder of 2 Harrison Township police Officers still shocking 101 years later
Brackenridge’s Prospect Cemetery and police have been paying their respects to the 101st anniversary of the deaths of one of two policemen killed by a drunken Harrison Township man, who was turned in by his father.
The brutality of the double murder on Dec. 21, 1917 — both policemen were shot in the head and face at close range with a shotgun — even by today’s standards, makes police officers wince.
“I couldn’t imagine how that affected the community back then,” said Christopher Cottone, 32, a Harrison police officer.
Cottone grew up in Harrison’s Natrona neighborhood but only recently learned the details of the century-old crime during a ghost tour in Prospect Cemetery in Brackenridge where both men were laid to rest.
Cottone’s wife, Lauren Cottone, crafted a custom-made wreath in the traditional black-and-blue color scheme with a thin blue line symbolizing a fallen police officer.
“I feel honored to do this, to pay tribute to them,” Cottone said.
There isn’t much to remind the public of the fatal shootings save for the policemen’s tombstones and a plaque in the Harrison Township Police Department.
Other police have been visiting the graves, according to reports from the groundskeeper to Cindy Homburg, president of Prospect Cemetery.
“It’s nice to know people are coming to visit the graves of these fallen heroes from 100 years ago,” Homburg said.
Details of the tragedy
James Gibson, 33, was drunk and complaining that he would not work, according to press accounts on Dec. 22, 1917.
Previously, Gibson threatened police and was reportedly dangerous when he drank.
Joseph Gibson, father of James, went to police, asking them to arrest his son, “who refused to work or contribute to the support of the family,” according to an account in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Dec. 22, 1917.
After his father threatened to have him arrested, James Gibson threatened to shoot the officers if his father followed through with his request, according Joseph Gibson’s testimony in the trial, reported in the March 14, 1919 edition of the Pittsburgh Press.
After his father left for the police station, Gibson took two shotguns from his family’s home on Walnut Street in the Natrona section of what is now Harrison Township, according to press reports.
Gibson waited in the alley behind the house for the police.
The three men walked up the alley and when they reached the rear of the house, Gibson, who was hiding in the backyard, opened fire.
With two double-barreled shotguns, Gibson quickly fired four charges into the policemen, according to the Valley Daily News’ account published Dec. 24, 1917.
Chief Harry Meyer, 33, received a full charge, losing his eyes, while police Officer William Lucas, 53, suffered wounds to his head, according to the Pittsburgh Daily Post, from Dec. 22, 1917.
“Gibson was reaching for his second gun and Meyer rushed him but by that time Gibson had grabbed the second gun and shot Meyer in the neck and jaw. The shots are said to be lodged inside Meyer’s skull and will probably cause his death,” doctors said in a report in the Valley Daily News.
“Meyer was hit first and Lucas, coming to his aid, was wounded immediately afterward. The building where the officers went down was covered with bloody hand marks,” according to the Valley Daily News.
Gibson barricaded himself between sheds in the yard, threatening to shoot anyone who passed in the alley, accounting to the Valley Daily News.
“Two men risked their lives to rush into the alley and remove Chief Meyer, who was bleeding from the eyes, mouth, ears, and nose.”
Two Natrona men, J.F. Heck and Ernest Bargerstock rushed to the alley and took Meyer, “carrying him over fences and between buildings to keep out of firing range.”
Meyers was taken to West Penn Hospital in Pittsburgh and Lucas, to Allegheny Valley Hospital now in Harrison , where it was reported he was dying.
The newspaper reported that 56 pellets entered Meyer’s neck, face and head.
Gibson’s father convinced his son to give up.
The younger Gibson was arrested by Constable Edward Hellman and was held in the Natrona lockup.
At the Natrona lockup, the young Gibson said, “He bet his father was sorry he had brought Meyers to the house,” according to the Valley Daily News. Allegedly, Gibson bragged about the slayings and threatened to kill others. He was charged and taken to the Allegheny County Jail in Pittsburgh the next morning.
The principal witness was Gibson’s father, Joseph.
Lucas died two days after the shooting on Dec. 23. Funeral services were held on Christmas Day with members of Natrona Volunteer Hose Company No. 1 attending in full dress uniform.
Meyer died Jan. 6 after an agonizing hospital stay in which he was unable to recognize anyone.
At the coroner’s inquest in Tarentum on Jan. 24, 1918, Gibson was held for a grand jury trial.
Gilson pleaded guilty Sept. 18, 1918 for the murder of Lucas. He was also tried for the murder of Meyer that same month and a jury found him guilty of murder in the second degree.
Testimony was taken by Allegheny County Judge Joseph M. Swearingen for the Lucas case. He took almost six months to decide on the first-degree murder verdict for the death of Lucas, according to the Pittsburgh Press on
March 14, 1919.
Judge Swearingen added that the accuracy of the shooting of Gibson “indicated that he was no so intoxicated as not to know what he was doing.”
The judge sentenced Gibson to death by electric chair, according to the Valley Daily News.
Gibson appealed the sentence to the state Board of Pardons in Harrisburg, where they commuted his sentence to life in prison.
“He smiled cheerfully and claimed to be the happiest man in the world as he was led from the county jail to embark for the Western Penitentiary, where he will stay until he dies,” according to a court account reported in the April 1, 1920 edition of the Pittsburgh Daily Post.
Gibson petitioned for parole four times but died in Western Penitentiary two days before the fourth hearing in 1951, according to media accounts.
Freelance writer George Guido contributed to this report.
Mary Ann Thomas is a
Tribune-Review staff writer.
You can contact Mary Ann at 724-226-4691, [email protected] or via Twitter @MaThomas_Trib.