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Western Penitentiary officers killed in 1924 riot to be commemorated

Sunday, February 09, 2003

By Milan Simonich, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Owen Pieper cannot forget the Pittsburgh prison riot of 79 years ago. Few others have heard of the catastrophe, which was swept under the rubble by a humiliated state government.

Owen Pieper with a photo of his father, John A. Pieper, a deputy warden who was killed in the Western Penitentiary riot on Feb. 11, 1924. (Joyce Mendelsohn, Post-Gazette)

Pieper was 5 years old on Feb. 11, 1924, the morning that inmates at what was then Western Penitentiary used a smuggled cache of dynamite and handguns to try to break out.

His father, Deputy Warden John Pieper, 35, was shot dead by a prisoner. Also murdered by inmates was Yard Sgt. John T. Coax, 29, who rushed to the south end of the prison after two explosions there. Coax thought the blasts were caused by a gas leak, not sticks of dynamite set off by prisoners intent on burrowing to freedom through the smashed wall.

For almost eight decades, no official mention of Pieper or Coax was made at what became the State Correctional Institution in Pittsburgh's Woods Run neighborhood. That will change Tuesday, when plaques picturing both men will be placed on a wall of honor for officers killed in the line of duty.

Owen Pieper, 84, will be there to see his father memorialized at last.

Descendants of Coax, including his daughter, Jean Coax Callahan, 78, also will attend the ceremony. Callahan's mother, Julia Coax, was four months' pregnant with her when the riot occurred.

The remembrance of the fallen officers is finally coming about because of James Hollock, a unit manager at the prison and aspiring author of its history.

Hollock was busy a couple of years ago researching a book about a murderer named Stanley B. Hoss. In 1973, Hoss and two other prisoners beat a black prison guard to death with a chair and mutilated his face with broken fluorescent lighting tubes, all the while shouting racial slurs. As Hollock delved into the guard's execution, he came across passing references to the 1924 prison insurgence.

Jean Callahan and Julie Smith are the daughter and granddaughter of slain prison guard John T. Coax, shown holding his son. (Annie O'Neill, Post-Gazette)

"The riot, I would say, was unknown, just lost in time," Hollock said.

A bit later, in December 2001, Coax's granddaughter, Julie T. Smith, wrote the prison staff. Smith, of Ingram, who was researching Coax's life for a family history, inquired about any records of the riot that the prison might have.

Moved by her three-paragraph note, Hollock decided the prison owed it to the families of Pieper and Coax to decorate the officers.

Owen Pieper, a retired salesman who lives in Fox Chapel, said that for decades the state had done everything it could to cover up the riot.

Three inmates were convicted of the killings, though Pieper believes countless others and a complicit prison administration also may have been involved.

He remembers details of the day of the riot the way people of later generations would recall where they were when they heard that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated.

Pieper was eating breakfast with his mother, Rose, and his 9-month-old brother, Gerald, when a reporter from The Pittsburgh Press telephoned their home in Beechview. An inmate uprising had begun about 9 a.m. and his father had been killed. The reporter asked if the family wanted to make any comment or statement.

Pieper's older brother, John, had turned 9 that day. He was in school, looking forward to an afternoon birthday party that would never occur.

As the years rolled by, the Pieper family learned little about how inmates came to possess dynamite and handguns. A persistent claim, never substantiated, was that an inmate's girlfriend had bribed a smitten guard.

Owen Pieper heard that the dynamite was packaged in tea cans. Nobody offered a theory on how handguns made it through prison security and into inmates' hands.

Pieper's father, a strapping man 6 feet 5 inches tall and 220 pounds, was shot by an inmate named Paul Orlakowsky. Orlakowsky, 24, was serving a seven- to 10-year sentence for a Nov. 15, 1921, bank holdup in Imperial.

"My father put his hands up and said, 'Paul, you'll never get out of here alive.' He reached for the gun and Orlakowsky shot him."

Orlakowsky and every other inmate survived the riot, which ended with guards regaining control of the prison after two hours. Nobody escaped.

Even among the rioting prisoners, Coax was regarded as a compassionate man.

Inmate rehabilitation was raw in the 1920s, but Coax took it upon himself to hold classes for prisoners. Many in the penitentiary's population of about 400 were of Italian, German and Polish descent. They spoke little or no English. Often working on his own time, Coax tutored them.

Coax, a resident of the North Side, had fallen into prison work because of labor strife that was so common in that era. He grew up in a family of railroaders and planned to make his living the same way. He jumped to the prison staff during a railroad strike in 1921, deciding he could not cross the picket line.

Coax, like Pieper, was shot to death, though details of the attack on him are more murky.

Victims' rights were little more than a concept in the 1920s, and his family was not apprised of details. What is clear is that Coax rushed into the teeth of the riot because he believed that gas explosions had placed inmates and perhaps other guards in danger.

Coax's granddaughter, Smith, 50, said the prison's commemoration of his life was important to his descendants.

"Nothing can fill the hole that was torn into this little family, but this remembrance means so very much to us," she said.

Early newspaper coverage of the riot and killings described the crimes as the work of "The Four Horsemen," a pack of wild inmates who had been transferred to Pittsburgh from Eastern Penitentiary in Philadelphia. The claim turned out to be romanticized if not downright false.

Orlakowsky, a thief with a fifth-grade education, later was portrayed by prosecutors as the chief culprit.

Convicted of murder and sentenced to death, he wrote a letter to Rose Pieper, asking the widow to support his plea for mercy. Orlakowsky hoped she would act as though the letter were her own and convey it to the one man who could spare his life -- Gov. Gifford Pinchot.

"She didn't do a damn thing with it," Owen Pieper said.

He still has Orlakowsky's pleading letter in his collection of case records. Pieper also kept the autopsy report of Orlakowsky's death. He was electrocuted on Dec. 26, 1926.

The other two inmates convicted in the guards' murders, Salvatore Battaglia and Michael Norton, got off with lighter punishments.

Battaglia, known as "Battleaxe," was serving 20 years for a murder in Philadelphia County. After his conviction in the riot and killings of the guards, he was returned to the county prison in Philadelphia, where he remained until 1962. He was deported upon his release.

Norton, serving 16 to 19 years for an Allegheny County robbery, was sentenced to another 20 to 40 years for the prison murders. Neither the state corrections nor parole departments has any record of Norton or what became of him.

After the murders, both widows were left with three young children and no pension to help them pay the bills. Social Security did not yet exist, and the state's contribution to the families was meager.

"Mother got $9 a month for each one of us until we were 16," Owen Pieper said.

Prison guards chipped in to help the families. Julia Coax wrote to Western Penitentiary Warden Jack Egan on Feb. 24, 1924, to say how much she appreciated a gift of $235.50 from the staff.

"It is the humble prayer of this little home, made desolate by the absence of our beloved one, that [other guards] be spared from similar fate," she wrote in her thank-you letter.

Two other guards would die violently at the prison, one in 1965 and the other in 1973. Tributes to them are posted on a wall in the administration building.

Now the victims of the 1924 riot will join them, easing old wounds more than a little.

"I'm happy something is being done," Owen Pieper said. "Even as a boy, I was well aware that no commemoration was made. I called the prison 10 or 15 years ago to discuss the riot, and they didn't know what I was talking about."

Milan Simonich can be reached at msimonich@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1956.

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