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"Rhoda, prepare to die!": The Murder of Mrs. Moss

George W. Moss' grave at Wilkes-Barre City Cemetery


One of the most brutal murders in Wilkes-Barre history took place on October 10, 1889, inside the Moss family home at 44 Helfrich Court.

Today, the site of the murder is a cluster of nondescript, run-down industrial buildings covered with generations of soot from the city's bygone glory days. However, at the close of the 19th century, Helfrich Court was a charming place adorned with modest, tiny homes belonging to miners, railroaders and other hard-working denizens of Wilkes-Barre.

Mr. and Mrs. George W. Moss, by all accounts, had a fondness for quarreling, but it was one particular fight on the evening of August 31 that led to the bloody deed and the eventual hanging of George Moss. History no longer remembers what events precipitated the quarrel, but, at some point during the argument, George threw his wife Rhoda out of the house and locked the doors.

Mrs. Moss wandered the streets until she arrived at the home of her married son, where she took refuge for the night. A short while later George followed her there and was confronted by their son, who told him that Rhoda had gone to stay with relatives in Shenandoah. After George left, the son notified the mayor and the constable was dispatched to the Moss home.

George spent the week in jail, until his wife secured his release on Tuesday, October 8, on the condition that he keep his distance from her and never return to the home they shared.

The murder scene, as it appears today


With no place to go, George rented a room at Trembath's Hotel on West Market Street, where he remained until Thursday morning, October 10. The morning was blustery and bright and George checked out of the hotel-- or had perhaps run out of money-- and began wandering the streets of the city. He wandered aimlessly until evening. Around 6:30 in the evening he went into the general store owned by the Davidow Brothers, where he rented a .32-caliber revolver for fifty cents, assuring the proprietor that he would return the revolver the following morning.

While this might seem like a strange thing to do, such weapon rentals were not uncommon in Wilkes-Barre at the time. The coal mining industry had produced enormous growth, causing the population of the city to swell from a meager 10,000 in the 1870s to over 50,000 by the end of the century. The city was heavily populated by immigrants from all over Europe, many of whom didn't speak a word of English, and dozens of immigrant miners were ambushed, assaulted and robbed on a daily basis, with the bandits emboldened by the knowledge that their victims would most likely be unable to report the robbery to the police.

The mining boom also attracted unsavory characters from across the Atlantic, with many of them forming gangs for their own protection. Ethnic skirmishes were not uncommon and, as a result, the Wilkes-Barre area became a haven of organized crime. In 1892, it was practically unheard of for a man in the city to be unarmed. According to the store's proprietor, George Moss had told them that he needed the weapon because he had business to take care of in Kingston-- a neighboring borough with a reputation for being a dangerous place.

Moss, however, went directly to 44 Helfrich Court, arriving shortly after 7:00. Mrs. Moss was preparing supper for the two boys who still lived at home, Harry and Thomas. George entered the home through the back door, just as his wife was coming out of the kitchen with a bowl in her hand.

"Rhoda, prepare to die!" George shouted, drawing the revolver shooting his wife in the face at point blank range before the woman even had a chance to scream in horror.

The first bullet pierced her right temple, cutting a ridge through her skull and lodging in the wall. Miraculously, Rhoda was still on her feet and conscious. She began to plead for her life.

"Spare me! For God's sake, don't kill me!" she wept, but George continued firing shot after shot.

The shot that finally killed Rhoda Moss struck her just above the right eye, piercing the brain. Her death was instantaneous.

George still had two shots left, and these he fired into his own head. One bullet entering the skull near his right eye.

The two children ran into the room as soon as they heard the first shot, but the bloody incident had taken such a short amount of time that by the time they reached their mother she was dead on the floor and George Moss was making his exit through the same door by which he had entered.

George was arrested later that evening. A true bill of indictment was found against him on November 1, but the murder trial was delayed until the June court term.

The murder trial of George Moss began at 11 o'clock on the morning of June 19 and concluded on Saturday evening. After two and a half hours of deliberation, the jury reached a verdict. Moss was found guilty of murder, and was sentenced on September 9th. The date of the execution was set for March 27, 1891.

This was an odd date for an execution, since Easter happened to fall on that day and it was a legal holiday. The warrant had to be recalled as a result and the date of execution was bumped up to March 26.

Colonel Doster, who commanded the Fourth Pennsylvania Cavalry in Bethlehem, read about the case and recognized the name of George Moss-- who served in the 4th PA Cavalry years earlier-- and traveled to Wilkes-Barre in a last-ditch effort to save Moss' life. Col. Doster, along with two local attorneys named McAlarney and Trembath, believed that Moss was temporarily insane when he killed his wife.

The men visited Moss in his prison cell and Trembath, who was a notary public, affixed his deal to an affidavit claiming that the killer was not sane and should therefore not be executed. Doster presented the affidavit to the state Supreme Court and demanded a stay of execution for the wayward soldier. The court, however, refused to reverse its decision.

George Washington Moss was hanged in the Wilkes-Barre prison yard at 10:18 in the morning, after awakening from a night of restless sleep. Upon waking, he asked the warden about the weather forecast (the warden informed him that it was a clear day) and at 8:30 the condemned killer was visited in his cell by Rev. Hayden of the Episcopal church. They prayed together for about an hour.

A newspaper reporter asked Moss for a statement as he was being led from his cell to the gallows.

"I'm sorry for the sheriff, who is my friend," said Moss. "It must be an unpleasant job for him. I am glad the end is here. I don't think I ought to die." Moss then stated that he didn't remember shooting his wife.
"But I guess I did it," he sighed, "and I would sooner die than live in prison all my life. I am thankful to my friends, who tried to save me, and as soon as the sheriff is ready I will show those present how a brave man can meet death, even in this horrible way. I have faced it too often on the battlefield.

"Do not think that I am complaining," he continued. "I am ready to die and I will meet my fate without a murmur if I can possibly do so. If the sheriff would allow me, I would pull the cap over my head myself and pull the rope, too. Goodbye. God bless you."

Moss walked to the gallows with a smile and a spring in his step. His last words were, "I die like a soldier, with a smile." A moment later the world fell from beneath his feet. The fall broke his neck and death ensued seven minutes later.

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