Eyewitness1863: Case of bully's death ends with acquittal

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Judge Thomas Mellon put the fate of Bernard Lauth into the hands of an Allegheny County jury following several days of testimony about the gunshot death of John Kunzler.

Presiding in the Court of Oyer and Terminer, Judge Mellon charged the jury, describing the issues and law in the case, on Nov. 20, 1863. "Court of Oyer and Terminer" was the 19th century name for criminal courts in Pennsylvania.

Lauth was 20 years old when he was accused of killing Kunzler, a man with a reputation for violence. The shooting took place on Nov. 17, 1860, but Lauth fled the country afterward for England. He did not return until July 1863, according to testimony reported on Nov. 20 in The Daily Pittsburgh Gazette. The journalist covering the trial frequently had to leave out letters in swear words as he reported courtroom statements.

Witness Jacob Hennigan said in a Nov. 19 Gazette story that he had seen Lauth laying stone in front of a Pittsburgh business, Grierson's store, on the date of the incident. When Lauth caught sight of Kunzler coming toward him, he told Hennigan, "I must go: there comes Kunzler; he wants to fight me." He fled into the store.

The witness told jurors that Kunzler asked for Lauth, saying, "If I find that d----d Dutch son of a b---h, I'll kill him."

Another witness, Nicholas Bachleitner, said he, too, "heard Kunzler's obscene menacing of Lauth's life."

The two men battled both in the store and outside on the street. In a gesture that seems to have been taken right out of a Western movie, Kunzler momentarily stopped "to pull off his coat," before charging back into Grierson's.

Julius Parasky told jurors he was going to bed when he heard gunshots from what he believed was a pistol. "Just before the shots were fired he heard someone say: You son of a b---, I will kill you," according to the Nov. 20 story. Parasky identified the speaker as Kunzler. "The witness stated he was a music teacher, and was a good judge of sound," the story said.

Defense and prosecution lawyers battled over testimony concerning Kunzler's character, but "after lengthy discussion the Court overruled the [prosecution's] objections." Policeman M.B. Hartzell testified that Kunzler was very ferocious and violent when under the influence of alcohol. Three other police officers and a prison guard agreed that the dead man's "reputation for peacefulness was bad."

"Several witnesses were then called and testified to the physical superiority of Kunzler as compared with Lauth," the story said.

District Attorney John M. Kirkpatrick wasn't giving up. Later that day he brought in several of his own witnesses to "rebut the allegations as to the disparity in size between Kunzler and Lauth."

It's not clear how long the jury deliberated after Judge Mellon sent them the case.

In its Nov. 23 story about a decision being reached, the Gazette described court procedure in detail.

"In response to the interrogatory of the Clerk, the foreman ... signified that they had agreed upon a verdict, and the indictment upon which the verdict was written was handed to the Court. It was then passed to the Clerk, and after it had been recorded, it was duly announced -- 'Not guilty.'"

"While the verdict was exceedingly gratifying to the defendant and his numerous friends, it was unquestionably a matter of surprise to many, who anticipated a conviction for manslaughter," the Gazette reporter wrote. "But the issue is settled and so it must remain."

Len Barcousky: lbarcousky@post-gazette.com or 724-772-0184. See more Civil War-linked stories in this series by searching "Barcousky" and "Eyewitness" at post-gazette.com.

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