Did You Know?
Did you know that something that happened in Uniontown nearly a hundred years
ago to the day, had (perhaps) never happened in the United States before, or
(perhaps) has never happened again?
First a little background. Back in January of 2007, I wrote about the famous
case of B. Frank Smith, who’d managed to escape from the Fayette County jail in
1911, and taunted the police by sending letters to the Uniontown Daily News
Standard which contained details of his numerous clandestine returns to the
He’d even sent one letter (which made it to the front page of the newspaper),
with his boast that he’d taken in a baseball game in Fairchance. To prove his
boast, he included the final score of the game.
As it turns out, Smith had been involved in another famous bit of Fayette County
lure, because he’d shot and killed one of the notorious Cooley Gang members in
the 1890’s before he fell out of favor with the law himself.
In fact, according to the Indiana (Pa) Evening Gazette on March 1st, 1910,
“Smith is thought to have gone insane brooding over the killing of Dick Cooley.”
That is why, when he shot and killed his father and brother-in-law in the spring
of 1910, he fled the area and there was a massive, widely publicized manhunt for
He was captured in West Virginia and returned to Fayette County, where he was
set to go on trial for the double-murders.
That’s when an unusual milestone took place.
According to the Piqua (Oh) Leader-Dispatch on April 16th, 1910, during jury
selection for Smith’s murder trial, he was picked as one of his own jurors.
There was a mechanical wheel used to select potential jurors for the upcoming
court term, and mysteriously the name B. Frank Smith was the first one chosen.
Yet, Smith wasn’t immediately removed from the jury. According to published
reports, attorneys for both sides argued the merits of having his name removed
from the jury pool, before it was finally stricken.
Smith would later be acquitted by reason of insanity, and (as I’ve mentioned) he
was still in the county jail when he staged his escape in July of 1911.
After he gained national attention for his brazen letter-writing he was caught
at his wife’s house in Bethelboro.
In the September 9th, 1911 edition of the Connellsville Courier, an article
about his time on the lam said, “His delightful summer outing has come to and
end. Frank had a lovely time.”
On April 20th, 1910 (a hundred years ago tomorrow) there were people around the
world focused on another major story – the return of Halley’s Comet.
Scientists around the globe viewed the event with eager fascination, while many
people (with limited knowledge of the cosmos) were fearful.
The Indiana Gazette reported on its front page on April 20th, that while some
local residents claimed they’d seen Halley’s Comet, astronomers at the Allegheny
Observatory said it could only be viewed through a telescope. (It wouldn’t be
until May of 1910 before the comet could actually be seen with the naked eye)
Meanwhile, in Shenandoah, Pa., a 23 year-old man was found on his knees “sobbing
and praying for deliverance” by a searching party 15 miles from his home.
He was said to have been “a mental and physical wreck,” after he claims he
spotted Halley’s Comet while standing on the summit of Locust Mountain.
The Connellsville Daily Courier, though, took a more measured approach to the
return of Halley’s Comet.
In its April 19th, 1910 edition it simply detailed the time (to the minute) that
Halley’s Comet would be closest to the sun.
It also detailed the speed of the comet (1,878 miles per minute), and other
pertinent facts about an event that only takes place every 75 or 76 years.
(Scientists aren’t sure of the precise interval.)
That 75 or 76 year interval only allows a few people to see Halley’s Comet twice
in their lifetimes. The Indiana Evening Gazette did find one 91 year-old woman
who did see Halley’s Comet for the second time. She’d seen it 75 years before –
when she was 15 years-old.
Meanwhile, as the story goes, Mark Twain, (always a man of impeccable irony)
once wrote in 1909, “I came in with Halley's Comet in 1835. It is coming again
next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest
disappointment of my life if I don't go out with Halley's Comet.”
Ironically (I told you he was) Twain died on April 21st, 1910 – the day Halley’s
Comet’s reached the closest point to the sun.
Seventy-six years later, in 1986, when Halley’s Comet reappeared to the people
of earth, hardly any of the fears about its return were reminiscent of those in
1910. In fact, the Russians sent a probe into space to get a closer look at it.
Pictures that were taken a mere 5,555 miles away from its nucleus were shown
around the world.
By the way, that last appearance by Halley’s Comet came just over a little over
a month after Fayette County’s astronaut, Bob Cenker, orbited the earth in Space
Shuttle mission STS-61-C.