Catfish Alley

Kunselman was captured on the night of Oct. 21, 1935, in Catfish Alley, between Canton and McCarrell avenues.

A light but steady rain fell on the city of Washington, Pa., on the evening of Monday, Oct. 21, 1935.

The State Theater on North Main Street had been showing the romantic comedy, “Shipmates Forever,” starring Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler. A few people emerged tentatively from below the marquee, raised umbrellas and turned up the collars of their coats before stepping into the wet chill of the night.

On South Franklin Street, family members gathered around the deathbed of Wray Zelt, a Spanish-American War veteran, bank director and civic leader.

On West Maiden Street at the YWCA, the Community Theater cast was rehearsing “The Late Christopher Bean,” which would open the following Thursday.

In the parlors of bankers' stately homes and the kitchens of glass and steel mill workers all through this gritty factory town, radios were tuned to WJAS for its broadcast of the Wayne King Orchestra.

And on Catfish Alley in Washington's West End, three figures hiding in the partial shelter of a basement stairwell waited silently, smoking cigarettes in cupped hands, the rain pelting the broad brims of their hats.

Sounds were amplified in the damp air. Every time the door opened at Tucker's beer garden on McCarrell Avenue across from the schoolhouse, the three men could hear voices and laughter and the clinking of bottles.

At 9:40 p.m., above the hiss of rain, the trio heard footsteps coming down the alley from Canton Avenue. Fingers slipped into coats and wrapped around pistol grips. A dim silhouette appeared – a man, walking haltingly, as warily as a deer, pausing to listen.

In the cellar stairwell, motor patrolman James Armour, a 12-year veteran on the police force, felt the back of a hand tap his thigh, and hearing a whisper, “Now!” bolted up the steps, blasted a beam from his searchlight on his target and yelled, “Put your hands up, Ray!” County Detective Frank Creps and state police Sgt. William Hanna sprang from their hiding place toward the figure, frozen in sudden illumination.

“Put your hands up! Put them up or I'll shoot you now!” Creps yelled.

The fugitive Ray Kunselman stood motionless, grimacing against the light, his filthy hands at shoulder height. An old gray hat, limp from the rain, sagged low about his ears and eyebrows. He wore a long, tan coat – like the ones worn by service station attendants – and beneath it another coat, a heavy yellow shirt and two pairs of pants. He stood in a pair of four-buckle rubber boots. In the pocket of his ragged coat was a loaded .32-caliber revolver.

Kunselman had acquired the gun from a friend during the more than four months he had been in hiding, and he vowed to use it rather than be captured. But this was no longer the swaggering tough guy his friends had known, the dapper little man with the big temper they feared. Thin and unshaven, with dark circles below his eyes, Kunselman looked far older than his 37 years. And now he seemed nearly relieved to surrender.

Since the morning of June 13, when the body of Dorothy Virginia Horne, 19, was found along a lonely road in Buffalo Township, Armour had been searching for her accused killer. He knew Kunselman; they were about the same age, and both lived on Fayette Street in the West End. But they were different people. While Armour joined the police force. Kunselman had gone to work for his father, building oil rigs, and he had gotten into some trouble in his early 20s, caught burglarizing Sprowls' Hardware in Claysville. Kunselman seemed to have straightened out, though, married and had a couple of kids. But then he abandoned them and began trolling for girls in his father's big Hupmobile. He became a fixture at West End beer joints – respected as a great friend by many, despised as a braggart and a drunk by a few. By early 1935, his drinking and strange behavior began to worry his father and sister.

Armour had been obsessed with capturing Kunselman. He would hear rumors that the fugitive was back in town, but he always seemed to be a few steps behind him. Armour had always believed Kunselman's friends were helping him. They knew he was desperate and were afraid not to help him, afraid that informing on him would earn them – like Dorothy – a bullet in the brain.

When he was off duty that summer and early autumn, Armour would dress in plain clothes, sometimes in disguise, and patrol the seedy bars and grim eateries of the city's West End. He roamed the streets and alleys and back lots in moonlight in pursuit of what at times seemed like a ghost.

It would come out later, at the trial, that although Kunselman had traveled as a tramp, riding trains through Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York and Michigan, most of his time was spent close to home. He had broken into Eighth Ward School – just a few steps from where he was captured – and used it as his hideaway most of the summer.

And now all the hard work had paid off. Armour had hunches before and had talked Creps and Hanna into what they called wild goose chases. But this time he had him, a shivering animal in handcuffs, sandwiched between his trench-coated colleagues in the back of his patrol car, bound for a jail cell and, Armour hoped, the electric chair.

Now all they'd have to hunt was the proof that Ray Kunselman had murdered his teenage mistress.

Next: “Life among the desperate”

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