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O'Toole-Barber Murder Case - New Castle PA

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 Tom O’Toole Jr. 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.

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.”

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 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 murdered his twenty-one-year-old stepson Herman L. Genkinger in January 1905 and was scheduled for execution within five weeks, did not escape as well. (NOTE: Johnson soon had his sentence commuted to life imprisonment by Governor Samuel W. Pennypacker and 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 apparently 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.

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.

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.

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 probably 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.

Nettie Barber apparently worked and resided in the orphanage in Cleveland for a number of years. It is known that Nettie and her two sons lived out their days in the Cleveland area. In October 1909, in the courthouse in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, she was granted a divorce from the fugitive Tom O’Toole. Nettie was remarried to local man named Harry F. Cunningham in 1919 and died at the age of ninety-six in Medina, Ohio, in January 1976. Her eldest son Harold 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, settled in North Olmsted, Ohio, was married to the former Helen Haff, had two children, and died in July 1965.

Just what became of the murderer Tom O’Toole, who would have been seventy years old in 1950, remains a mystery to this day.

Tom O’Toole, a local tin will worker, with his young son Wescott in happier times. O’Toole seemed to go into a downward spiral following the death of his daughter Mabel in August 1905. (c1904)

The victim of O’Toole’s rage was his brother-in-law Roy Barber (shown above). O’Toole blamed Barber for much of his own troubles and murdered him in cold blood. (c1904)

Another photo of Wescott O’Toole, the son who Tom O’Toole was desperately seeking in late 1905. Wescott grew up, was married with two children, and settled in the Cleveland area. He eventually passed away in 1965. (c1905)

After O’Toole was captured and returned to New Castle he was immediately taken to the City Hall building for a preliminary hearing before Mayor Hainer. Afterwards he was taken to the nearby county jail. (c1905)

This photo shows the hole that O’Toole dug to escape from the county jail on the morning of August 2, 1906. He avoided recapture and was never heard from again! (1906)

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



  1. 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.

    David Barber

    David Barber · 12/15/2013 11:59 PM · #

  2. Thomas O’Toole did not go back to Ireland. He died in 1907 in Philadelphia according to his death certificate.

    Dee · 02/29/2016 01:44 PM · #

  3. (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

    Jeff Bales (EDITOR) · 03/01/2016 01:36 PM · #