Lillian Gish

Lillian Gish starred in the silent film, “The Lily and the Rose,” which Lillian Roupe saw at The Strand on Dec. 30, 1916.

The story so far: As Lillian Roupe sits in jail for the murder of her husband, sympathy grows for the woman who worked in factories as a child an became an unwed mother as a teenager. Meanwhile, to strengthen its case, prosecutors exhume the body of William Roupe for another autopsy.

A woman on trial in Pennsylvania in 1916 faced an immediate obstacle in her defense: No woman could sit on the jury of her peers. Jurors were chosen from the list of registered voters, and until 1920, when the 19th Amendment granted women the right to vote, only men could go to the polls and thus become jurors.

A century ago, a woman's place was in the home. Laws protected men in the workplace, but not women. Women could and were routinely paid less than men, and they could be fired for becoming pregnant. Sex was the duty of married women, and marital rape was not a crime.

It was in this atmosphere of male superiority that Lillian Moss Roupe on the afternoon of Monday, May 22, 1916, stepped into Judge John A. McIlvaine's courtroom, filled with curious onlookers.

“Clad in deep black, Mrs. Roupe took her seat at the defendant's counsel table as soon as the case was called,” The Washington Observer reported. “… She evidently feels the trying position in which she is placed. As she sat and listened to the preliminaries incident to calling of the jury, she gave several deep sighs. She never looked about, but sat with gaze downcast the greater part of the time, except to speak to her counsel.”

Lillian's version of events on the night of Dec. 30 and early hours of Dec. 31, 1915, was that she had attended a movie up town with a friend; was supposed to meet her husband after the show at that friend's house; that he had already left the friend's house when she arrived there at about 10:30 p.m.; that she then went to her in-laws' house on Elizabeth Street but decided to leave her son there to spend the night, returning to her Charles Street home around 11 p.m.; that she dressed for bed and waited for her husband. He returned home intoxicated after 12:30 a.m. They argued and then went upstairs where the scuffle that would prove fatal to William Roupe occurred.

The prosecution's version of events, based mainly on the statements of the deceased, was entirely different.


The court docket recorded in Lillian Roupe’s release fro jail on bond at $7,500.

As he lay fatally wounded in City Hospital, knowing well that he would not recover, Roupe dictated a dying declaration to County Detective F. H. Mitchell and the family physician, Dr. John R. Maxwell. He said that he went up town with his brother Louis and had arranged to meet his wife on the street after she attended the show at The Strand, and in case they failed to find each other they were to meet at the Valentines' on Allison Avenue.

Roupe got on the street car at Main and Beau streets. The car turned west at Chestnut Street and north on Jefferson Avenue, taking 12 minutes to reach Tylerdale. It would be his last ride.

Roupe's statement read:

“About 10 o'clock I called at Valentine's and found my wife had not reached there. I then went to E.M. Cain's, my brother-in-law, and later returned to Valentine's and not finding my wife there I went on home, arriving there around midnight. My wife had not returned home. I went to my bedroom, took off my coat and hat and sat on the edge of the bed and began to take off my button shoes, when my wife entered the room about 10 minutes after I had returned home.

“She demanded of me to know where I had been and I began to tell her when she interrupted me, saying, 'I am going to kill you.' I replied, 'All right,' not even thinking she would do such a thing. She either drew the revolver from her pocket or muff and shot me before I could stop her. During the evening I had been at a club room and had a few drinks of beer, I think three glasses, but did not drink any whiskey.”

Roupe had told investigators on several occasions that his wife was dressed as a man in his old clothes when she shot him.

The commonwealth's own witnesses contradicted portions of Roupe's declaration, and none of the witnesses saw his wife dressed anywhere as a man. It became clear rather quickly that Roupe had more than three glasses of beer during the night. His brother Louis and the bartender at the Moose Lodge both testified that the brothers had been there twice, drinking a number of beers each time. He'd also been at his brother-in-law's drinking blackberry cordial. Asked if Roupe was intoxicated when he left, Cain said, “He was feeling better when he left than when he came.”

The prosecution, though, had a trump card: forensic evidence. Lillian claimed that she had tried to grab the gun away from her husband, and in the struggle, the gun went off. If that were the case, there would have been powder burns on the victim's clothing, District Attorney Issac Baum contended. There were none.

Detective Mitchell stated that he, along with Major Blaine Aiken and Washington & Jefferson College student John Grubb had conducted experiments at a gun range a few days before the trial. They used the actual murder weapon and shot it at a pillow from various distances, changing the pillow case each time. Up to four feet, there was evidence of powder splashes. From eight feet – the distance the prosecution contended that Lillian had fired the gun – there was no evidence of powder burns.

The ugly truth

On the night that Lillian was arrested, she told Constable Ozyar Simpson that she and her husband had never had more than a couple of spats, that he was good to her, and that although he had been drinking that night he was not intoxicated. By her own words and those of defense witnesses, that story changed considerably at the trial.


A poster from the film starring Lillian Gish.

Lillian's friend Viola Valentine had been with the Roupes at supper earlier that night, and she and Lillian had gone uptown to see Lillian Gish in “The Lily and the Rose,” playing at the Strand Theatre. They also went to the Rex Theatre, and then they took the streetcar to the Woodland Avenue station and returned to Valentine's home at about 10:30 p.m.

Valentine testified that Roupe appeared at her home for the second time shortly after midnight, after she and her husband had gone upstairs to bed. She said he came in without knocking, and that he was drunk and falling down.

A short time later, three young ladies, Mary Arnold, Merle Hillberry and Grace Beddow, were outside the Beddow home on West Wylie Avenue when Roupe approached them, asking them to walk home with him. All three testified he was staggering and that he frightened them and they ran into the Beddow Home. Grace's father, Logan Beddow, said he saw Roupe, and that he was “pretty full.”

During defense testimony, the courtroom was so packed that some witnesses were forced to stand outside in the hall. Nevertheless, a hush fell over the crowd as a series of witnesses testified about Roupe's history of violence against his wife.

Mrs. Robert Gregg, who had boarded with the Roupes, told of an incident 16 months earlier when Roupe brandished a revolver at his home, threatened his wife and shot twice into the floor.

Thomas Moss, father of the defendant who sat at the table with her throughout the trial, said that in Canonsburg on July 4 of the previous year – the couple's wedding anniversary – he heard screaming and went out to his yard to find Roupe shooting his revolver in a reckless manner. Roupe was drunk and trying to make her dance around the bullets, and Moss took the gun away from him. Moss also testified he had no doubt that his daughter had on occasion been beaten by her husband.

Her account of last moments

Lillian said that after she arrived home she slipped on a kimono over her nightclothes and went upstairs to read. When she heard her husband fumbling at the door she let him in. According to the account in The Washington Observer: “They went upstairs to the bedroom. Her husband tried to get off his overcoat, but on account of his condition she had to assist him. He then sat down on the edge of the bed and prepared to undress. Some words passed between them about his being out so late and where he was. As he sat on the bed his hat rolled off on the floor. She picked it up, took it into the other room to hang it up. When she returned her husband had a revolver. She asked him what he was going to do with it. Pointing it at her feet he said he was going to make her dance. She said she then grabbed his hand and in the scuffle between them the revolver was discharged.

“Mrs. Roupe told her story in a very quiet manner, speaking at all times in a very low tone and answering every question very positively.

On cross examination, Lillian was firm in her denial that she got home after her husband or that she was dressed in his old clothes. She denied that she had ever threatened to kill him, as her father-in-law, Frank Roupe, had testified, or that Roupe had ever had to disarm her.

Defense Attorney James Magill must have felt confident as he rested his defense; he did not call any of his character witnesses. His point in closing arguments was that Roupe's death was more his own fault than that of his wife, and that the accidental shooting was the result of his own drunkenness and belligerence. He urged the jury to acquit the defendant.

In his closing statement, District Attorney Baum stressed that Lillian Roupe's killing of her husband was premeditated; that the absence of powder burns and the trajectory of the bullet through the victim's body are proof that his ultimate death was not an accident, but rather cold-blooded murder by an intolerant spouse.

At 4:30 p.m. on Wednesday, May 24, Judge John A. McIlvaine instructed the 12 men of the jury to begin their deliberations and informed them they would be confined to the courthouse until they reached a verdict. Their meals would be provided and a temporary dormitory assembled, if necessary.

The judge must have known that the jury's work would be arduous. He would have sensed, by the attention the trial had attracted and by the size and nature of the crowd in his courtroom, that this was no ordinary crime. There was something more to this trial than homicide, and that justice might not, in this case, have much to do with the law.

Next: The verdict

Mercy Has a Human Heart
See what people are talking about at The Community Table!

Thank you for reading!

Please log in, or sign up for a new account and purchase a subscription to read or post comments.