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Michael Sabol

On New Year’s Day in 1891, a riot occurred in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, when some 200 striking workers of Hungarian descent, seething with anger that strikebreakers of mostly Irish descent were stoking the furnaces on the holiday, marched on the mill with ax handles, shovels, and other makeshift weapons. Three strikebreakers were killed and 16 injured.
 
The Allegheny County sheriff deputized scores of men, who arrested 54 Hungarians. Six days after the riot, three Hungarian men, Michael Sabol, George S. Rusnak (also spelled Rusnok and Rusznak), and Andrew Toth, and were charged with first-degree murder in connection with one of the riot deaths—that of an Irish furnace boss named Michael Quinn. When the defendants went on trial in the Court of Oyer and Terminer of Allegheny County the following month, two eyewitnesses presented by the prosecution did not implicate Toth, attributing the Quinn beating to Sabol and Rusnak. The sole evidence against Toth was the testimony of one purported eyewitness of Irish descent, Peter Mullin.
 
Mullin’s testimony was dubious for two reasons: First, he initially had told authorities that a man named Steve Toth—not Andrew Toth—had administered the fatal beating with Sabol and Rusnak. A man named Steve Toth had fled the country after the riot, leaving so hurriedly that he did not bother to pick up his belongings at the rooming house where he had been staying. Steve Toth and Andrew Toth were not related. Second, Mullin claimed that the beating occurred near Furnace C, while the other principal prosecution witnesses—the two who did not implicate Andrew Toth—said it occurred 500 feet away near Furnace A.
 
The Furnace A scenario seemed more logical, since that is where Quinn had fallen. It was not possible that either Mullin or the other eyewitnesses simply erred concerning the location of the beating because, from their respective vantage points, Mullin could not have seen what happened at Furnace A and the others could not have seen what happened at Furnace C.
 
Despite the conflicting testimony, the jury found all three defendants guilty and Judge Edwin H. Stowe sentenced them “to be hanged by the neck until you be dead” at a time and location to be designated by the governor of Pennsylvania. Three months later, on June 5, 1891, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court summarily affirmed the convictions and death sentences with an opinion that merely summarized the issues raised in the condemned men’s pleadings and rejected each with one word: “Refused.”
 
However, a number of prominent persons—including most notably Andrew Carnegie and the manager of the Thomson mill, Charles M. Schwab—were troubled by the outcome of the case. At the behest of the concerned citizens, Governor Robert Emory Pattison commuted the sentences to life in prison on February 25, 1892.
 
In December 1894, a man informed police that his acquaintance, Mike Pekar, was actually responsible for the death of Michael Quinn. After investigating, police were convinced of the truth of these statements. It was noted that Pekar bore a very close resemblance to George Rusnak. Shortly thereafter, Michael Sabol was pardoned and released from prison on March 26, 1895. Two weeks after his release, Sabol died of consumption, which he had been afflicted with since the early days of his incarceration. Rusnak obtained a pardon on October 13, 1897, but he, too, died shortly after his release.
 
In December 1910, in Hungary, Steve Toth—apparently believing he was near death from typhoid fever—asked to speak to a judicial authority. When a judge was brought to his bedside, the man who had hastily fled Braddock after the riot confessed that he had inflicted the fatal blows upon Quinn.
 
Steve Toth’s confession was presented to the Pennsylvania Pardon Board. After a hearing at which the questionable evidence used at the 1892 trial was dispassionately reexamined for the first time, the board concluded that Andrew Toth was indeed an innocent man. On March 17, 1911, Governor John Kinley Tener granted a full pardon, and within hours Toth walked out of the penitentiary.
 
This case gave rise to a movement led by, among others, John Henry Wigmore, the distinguished dean of the Northwestern University School of Law in Chicago, to establish systems of automatic indemnification for the wrongfully convicted. To Wigmore, a constitutional principle was involved—that compensation should be made for property taken by the state. There was no more precious property, Wigmore reasoned, than freedom.
 
“To deprive a man of liberty, put him to heavy expense in defending himself, and to cut off his power to earn a living—these are sacrifices which the state imposes on him for the public purpose of punishing crime,” Wigmore explained in a 1913 editorial in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology. “And when it is found that he incurred these sacrifices through no fault of his own, that he was innocent, then should not the state at least compensate him, so far as money can do so?”
 
The indemnification movement was not immediately successful, however. It was not until 1941 that California became the first state to enact legislation to compensate the wrongfully convicted. Wisconsin followed in 1943, Illinois in 1945, North Carolina in 1947, and 10 other states—Iowa, Maine, Maryland, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Tennessee, Texas, and West Virginia—by the end of the Twentieth Century.
 
– Researched by Rob Warden
State:PA
County:Allegheny
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Reported Crime Date:1891
Convicted:1891
Exonerated:1895
Sentence:Death
Race:Caucasian
Sex:Male
Age at the date of crime:
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID