The former fireman walked toward his old firehouse concealing a weapon — and cradling a grudge.
“Is Jimmy upstairs?” asked George Washington Fletcher.
Fletcher and James “Jimmy” Hanley had recently clashed over Fletcher’s alleged sexual assault of a child, which led to his unemployment.
He had been out drinking all night Nov. 3, 1875, when he found himself outside the three-story brick Engine No. 3 Firehouse at Second and Queen Streets.
What followed was murder.
The men were companions from boyhood, and in 1875, both were in their early 30s.
Both were members of the old Marion Hose Company of the Volunteer Fire Company. When the volunteer outfits transitioned into paid departments, both caught on with Engine 3 on Queen Street.
NEXT WEEK: Learn more about the history of the Weccacoe Firehouse and development in its Queen Village neighborhood.
Hanley was described as kind, peaceable, sober, and honest.
Fletcher, on the other hand, was known since boyhood as a “vicious, idle fellow, quarrelsome and unruly,” according to The Inquirer.
At age 11, he apparently cut tails off pigs at Allburger’s Yards, which once sat at Sixth and Wharton Streets. For the offense, he was temporarily committed to the House of Refuge, a juvenile detention center. A few years later, he stabbed a man in the side with a knife during a scuffle.
After the outbreak of the Civil War, Fletcher followed the First Pennsylvania Reserves to the Army of the Potomac. Before long, he deserted his company. After a trip around Europe, he returned to the city and worked as an oyster shucker at the Spruce Street wharf and as a political mercenary. He was appointed a member of the paid Fire Department unit, eventually landing on Queen Street with his buddy Hanley.
In the 1870s, he was arrested numerous times for violent and disorderly behavior but always saved through his political affiliations.
In 1874, Fletcher was charged with sexually assaulting a 12-year-old girl. Enough strings were pulled to achieve an acquittal, but he lost his job with the department.
Fletcher blamed Hanley for his downturn. He claimed that his boyhood friend had told the girl’s father about the assault, and in doing so instigated his prosecution.
The night of the murder, Fletcher ran into the girl.
Their discussion grew heated, and there was a scuffle. She bolted. She claimed Fletcher attempted during the struggle to goad her into admitting Hanley’s involvement.
Hours later, Fletcher returned to the firehouse.
‘He shot me!’
Hanley descended the stairs, finding Fletcher waiting a few feet inside the door. The two men walked into the night.
Fletcher slid his arm around Hanley’s neck. He drew a pistol with his other hand, pointed it at Hanley’s chest, and fired.
Hanley staggered backward.
“My God,” Hanley screeched. “He shot me!”
Hanley was pulled into the firehouse, bleeding profusely from the left side of his chest.
He died minutes later.
Fletcher fled to a neighborhood tavern, where he was found hiding in a closet.
After a trial that ended in January 1876, the jury deliberated for 45 minutes before convicting him of first-degree murder. Fletcher was sentenced to be hanged and was executed in June 1877.
Extraordinary efforts were made to shield the murderer from his punishment, from accusing jurors of holding conflicts of interest to fighting for a second-degree murder charge in the Supreme Court. But the former firefighter’s political buddies could not save his life.
Within months of the trial’s conclusion, the teenage girl died of “galloping consumption,” the 19th-century term for tuberculosis.
When he was read his death warrant, Fletcher replied: “I’m sorry the time isn’t sooner.”