By Jan Kurth
It would be easy to overlook the grave of William Beck as you’re wandering through Smithfield East End Cemetery in Squirrel Hill, given that more than 8,800 people are buried there.
Beck’s grave is not close to any of the trails, nor is it in a family plot. His marker is isolated on the cemetery’s southern slope, a good stone’s throw away from any of the other marked graves, alone in an empty sea of grass.
The gravesite is not remarkable. There is a small American flag stuck in the ground. It is a standard issue flat grave marker with a copper plate, the kind that’s provided by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. There’s no flowery notation here, just the basic facts:
PVT CO F 318TH INF
ENLISTED APR 5 1918 DISCHARGED JUNE 3 1919
AGE 37 DIED JAN 22 1927
In fact, we know almost nothing about the man who was buried on Jan. 27, 1927, in Section F, Row 33, Grave 9 in the Smithfield Cemetery, because the man who is buried there is not William Beck.
The mystery is first revealed in the death certificate. It states that Beck was not married, was an unskilled laborer and his parents were Robert and Sarah Clegg Beck, Irish immigrants, also buried at Smithfield Cemetery.
One detail on the death certificate stands out. The coroner wrote that Beck was the “probable” murder victim who died from multiple gunshot wounds. Even the date of death is a guess because Jan. 22, 1927, was the day his body was found.
But that wasn’t the last word on William Beck.
A further search reveals a second death certificate for a man named William Beck, which could be expected since “William Beck” is not an uncommon name. But this William Beck has the same parents, the same birthday — Aug. 16, 1891 — and the same service and enlistment information on his VA grave marker.
The second Beck, a 67-year-old retiree, is buried at Duncan Heights Cemetery in McCandless. This Beck reportedly died on July 24, 1959, of “natural causes”— more than 40 years after the first Beck was killed.
The newspapers from 1927 tell us more about this strange tale. Here is the account:
The Brushwood Murder
It had been a rainy January of 1927 in Pittsburgh, with flooding Downtown and on the North Side. On Saturday, Jan. 22, colder temperatures — with a low of 15 degrees — were expected, along with light snow. It was hoped that the change in the weather would halt the rise of the rivers.
Late that Saturday afternoon, around 5 p.m., Andy Meyers, an employee with the Wilkinsburg Reduction Company on Frankstown Road in Penn Township (today’s Penn Hills), was winding his way along a muddy lane near Saltsburg Road. While passing by the Barr farm, Meyers discovered the “half-incinerated” remains of a man propped up against a rock in a clump of bushes and underbrush. The man was also “riddled with buckshot.”
Investigators scoured the vicinity for clues, and, about 10 to 20 feet from the body, they located a “foreign made” .38 caliber revolver of “unusual design.” The gun was reportedly fully loaded with nine copper-nose cartridges. A broken blackjack — a short, leather-clad club — was also found nearby.
The weapons were clean, with no dirt or marks on them. Some investigators assumed that the weapons had been on the scene no longer than 12 hours. They also surmised that the body must have been at that location for the same length of time.
However, others disagreed. They thought the body might have been there for several days, perhaps as long as two weeks.
Eventually, the gun and the blackjack were dismissed as useless clues, maybe even red herrings. Neither, apparently, had anything to do with the man’s death.
Though the victim was described as being “slumped in a heap of blackened embers,” the general absence of fire marks in the underbrush led some of the investigators to conclude that the victim had been shot and burned at another location before being dumped. Others thought that the victim had been burned at the location where he was found, but that the killers had been unable to fully incinerate the body because of the wet damp conditions. All seemed to agree, however, that the man had been murdered elsewhere.
Investigators guessed that the dead man had been the victim of some sort of feud or vendetta involving the “Black Hand,” which is what extortion rackets, allegedly run by Italian immigrants, were called at the time. Maybe hired killers had “taken him for a ride,” shot him at some distant place, then poured gasoline on the body and burned him — either before or after dumping his body from a passing automobile in the middle of the night.
It was also assumed, at least at first, that the victim must have been Italian himself, around 30 to 35 years of age. But that theory was eventually discarded, after investigators pored through nearly 50 photographs of men who were rumored to be Black Hand associates, and found no match.
The coroner determined that the man had been killed by shotgun wounds to the back, head and abdomen. Detectives also claimed the man had several stab wounds that looked like they had been made by an ice pick. The victim could have been tortured before he was killed, they said, in an effort to ply information out of him.
A detailed description of the victim was released to the public. He was described as 5 feet, 1 inch tall, with small features and dark brown hair but slightly balding. It was noted that a “round mark” had been shaved from the top of head “as though for an operation.”
Though a lot of his clothing had burned away, it was noted that he had been dressed in a blue serge suit, a blue and white dotted shirt, and tan shoes. He had little cash on him —just a few cents — and one of his pockets contained fragments of a tobacco packet.
The case was soon dubbed the Brushwood Murder.
Identifying the victim
Speculation as to the victim’s identity began immediately.
A Wilkinsburg man was among those who inspected the remains. He declared that the dead man was a friend of his by the name of Albert Stewart. Stewart worked at John Peterman’s farm, which was located in the area of Frankstown and Saltsburg roads, so the location seemed to be right. In addition, Stewart had allegedly been missing since early December; even his wife claimed she hadn’t seen or heard from him in six weeks.
However, Walter Kaiser, Stewart’s brother-in-law, declared that the man was definitely not Stewart. In an interesting coincidence, Kaiser was also one of the city detectives who had been assigned to the case.
Perhaps out of desperation, the authorities ignored Kaiser and pushed ahead with their only positive identification: the man had to be Albert Stewart, an accused bootlegger.
This turned out to be a big surprise for the U.S. Commissioner in Pittsburgh when he was informed on a Tuesday morning that Stewart was dead.
“Well, there’ll be no hearing this morning,” a Prohibition agent was quoted in the Pittsburgh Daily Post account. “Our man has been murdered. His body’s in the morgue now. It was found in a field in Penn Township on Saturday.”
“That’s funny,” the commissioner replied. “Albert Stewart’s attorney just called and said he and his client would be down in a few minutes.”
Sure enough, Stewart showed up shortly thereafter.
“Say, I thought you were murdered,” the Prohibition agent exclaimed.
“Nope,” Stewart replied. “My friend made a slight mistake. But I was in to see that body. It has my general lines and as the face is burned beyond recognition, the description would fit me except that I’m very much alive. It was not me.”
Stewart, who had been charged with operating an illegal moonshine still, was eventually released on a technicality.
Beck’s sister steps up
At some point over the next few days, detectives tracked down Margaret Frazier, who had apparently reported that her brother, William Beck, had gone missing. She explained that Beck did odd jobs for a living and that he had formerly lived with her and her husband at their home on Old Coal Hollow Road in Verona. She had last seen him on Christmas, when Beck had promised to come by later for Christmas dinner, but had failed to show. There had been no sign of him since.
Frazier formally identified the remains as those of her brother.
Hesitant to take her word for it, the authorities brought in a family friend, William Thornton, who had been acquainted with the Becks for more than 20 years. He also made a positive identification.
At least that’s what the story was at first.
Later, it was claimed that a county detective named Sam Wistner, who had known the Beck family for 10 years, was the first to make the identification. He then contacted Beck’s brother-in-law, Edward Heid, the husband of Beck’s sister Mary, for confirmation.
Heid denied that the man was Beck. Yes, he admitted that there was a “remarkable resemblance” to his brother-in-law. Both were about 5 feet, 1 inch tall, 140 pounds, with black hair and blue eyes. Even the same shoe size. But he was certain it wasn’t Beck.
Heid telephoned his wife, her sister Margaret Frazier, and another sister, Elizabeth Wendell, and told them what he thought.
Investigators were not happy with Heid’s verdict and called in the three sisters for their opinion. The sisters had their initial doubts but later reported that they felt pressured into claiming the body as that of their brother. They were supposedly promised that if they confirmed the remains were those of William Beck, the authorities would “lay their hands upon the slayers in 24 hours.”
But these allegations wouldn’t come out in the newspapers for several months.
After the sisters agreed that the man was their brother, the coroner’s jury determined that “William Beck had been murdered by a person or persons unknown.” The coroner issued an official death certificate, and a life insurance policy paid out $400 for the funeral.
The body was released to the Beck family. The funeral for the man identified as William Beck took place on Thursday, Jan. 27, at the home of Beck’s sister, Mary Heid of Etna. The man was then buried at Smithfield Cemetery. Soon afterward, the grave was marked with a stake with the numbers “33” and “9” burned into it. The numbers stood for Row 33, Grave 9. And at some point, since Beck was a World War I veteran, an honorary grave marker was installed.
Investigators withheld the public identification of the victim until Sunday, Jan. 30. They had hoped that suppressing the information might help them track down the killer or killers, but as they were unable to trace any of Beck’s movements since December, it turned into a dead end. Unfortunately, Margaret Frazier was of little help. She claimed she knew nothing of her brother’s friends or companions, and had no idea why anyone would want to harm him.
“Go back to your grave!”
On Wednesday morning, April 13, William Beck showed up on his sister’s front step.
He was startled when neighbors ran away after spotting him on Old Coal Hollow Road, some of them screaming in horror. One person yelled, “Go back to your grave!” His family initially felt like running off when Beck thumped on the door. But after the initial shock, Margaret Frazier invited him in.
In “lost generation” fashion, Beck was in the habit of “tramping” for months at a time with no word to his family, so his conduct was not uncharacteristic. He had taken off at Christmas and found work in Ohio. After a few months, without even bothering to send a postcard, he decided to return home.
When informed of the murder and his apparent demise, Beck assured them he never heard of any crime.
“News to me!” he exclaimed.
Later that afternoon, Beck and his sister met with detectives, and then dropped by the morgue and the coroner’s office in an effort to prove he was alive and alter the official record.
Margaret Frazier was contrite over her mistake; she claimed that the body had a “remarkable resemblance” to that of her brother. As for Beck, he was just happy to be standing on his own two feet.
“I never heard of the Brushwood Murder or the funeral held for me. I’m sorry for the victim, but am glad that I am alive and enjoying life,” he said.
Detectives reluctantly fell back to square one to determine who the murder victim was and who had killed him.
The Post-Gazette ran a high-handed editorial, decrying the dangers of mistaken identity in a criminal matter.
And then, as they say in today’s parlance, the case went cold.
Through some bureaucratic snafu, Beck’s 1927 death certificate was never pulled from the files. It was eventually microfilmed along with scores of other county death certificates for study by genealogists and other researchers.
When the real Beck died in 1959, another death certificate was issued. There was obviously no “red flag” in the system to indicate that the same man had “died” around 40 years before.
William Beck is buried in a small cemetery on Duncan Road, across from Allegheny County Memorial Park.
Nearly 100 years later, Allegheny County and Pittsburgh police still have no information on the unsolved Brushwood Murder and the identity of the man buried in Section F, Row 33, Grave 9 at the Smithfield Cemetery remains a mystery.
Jan Kurth is a regular contributor to Print, a newspaper covering Pittsburgh’s East End communities.