The Cawley Murders: Boy Genius Slaughtered Family with Axe



Author's Note: I'd like to express my gratitude to Marianne Perry for correcting some of the information which originally appeared in this article. Perry, who is the great-great granddaughter of Hannah Cawley, was generous enough to provide some truly fascinating details. The additional information she provided appears at the end of this article.


Across the river from Pittsburgh, on the southern banks of the Monongahela, lies the suburb of Homestead. Here, on a quiet street, lived a quiet boy named Charlie Cawley, a teenage genius who seemed destined to one day join the ranks of Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell and Cyrus McCormick in the pantheon of great American inventors.

It was 1902 and Charlie, a boy of just seventeen, already had a patent pending in Washington, D.C., for a new type of air brake. But there had been some kinks that he wanted to work out, and as summer evaporated into fall, Charlie's incessant work had driven him to the brink of mental and physical exhaustion. Adding to his frustration was the fact that it was difficult to find peace and quiet inside the tiny Cawley home, which Charlie shared with his mother, Hannah, and several siblings. Hannah had a total of 14 children; 10 of whom were listed as alive on the 1900 US Federal Census. 

It seemed to Charlie that from dawn until dusk there was never a moment of peace inside the crowded Cawley home. At the age of 20, brother James was the oldest, while baby Joseph, at 15 months, was the youngest. The other Cawley children fell somewhere in the middle, filling the air with all the sounds of youth: squeals of toddlers, the petty bickering of teenagers, the wailing of a baby and the exuberant rough-housing of six-year-olds. It was enough to make a shy, introvert like Charlie lose his mind. How could he ever focus on his mechanical drawings and perfect his inventions with so much activity taking place around him?

Nevertheless, it was a happy, healthy family, and Hannah Cawley was proud of all fourteen of her children. She was especially proud of Charlie, whose brilliant mind she was counting on to be the family's salvation. Maybe one day one of Charlie's inventions would revolutionize the world, and catapult the Cawleys out of poverty and out of the cramped quarters they managed to share without tearing each other apart. Her husband had met his death by drowning in the Monongahela at Redman's Mill just one year earlier, and life for the Cawleys had been a bittersweet struggle ever since. But Hannah held on to hope.

On October 9, Charlie made a maddening discovery: his papers and drawings had been stolen! A few weeks earlier, an unidentified Italian had approached the young inventor and ordered him to stop working on his patent, or else he would see to it that Charlie was killed. The boy thought nothing of the man's threat at the time, but he was inconsolable after he found his papers missing after so many weeks and months of meticulous, nerve-wracking work.

At around ten o'clock on the evening of October 9, the Cawley family inside their six-room house at 414 Second Avenue (presently the site of The Waterfront) was preparing for bed. Mrs. Hannah Cawley and her twelve-year-old daughter, Belle, curled up together in one bed, while Joseph, Agnes and the six-year-old twins-- Adelaide and Raymond-- clambered into another. Charlie, James and Harold-- the three oldest children-- occupied a room adjacent to their mother's room.

It was around 3 o'clock in the morning (October 10) when Charlie arose and got dressed, careful not to awaken his brothers. He did not put on his shoes. He tip-toed down to the cellar, grabbed an axe, and tip-toed back upstairs and entered his mother's room. There was a small kerosene lamp turned down low on the table next to Mrs. Cawley's bed, washing Hannah and Belle with a warm, yellow glow. Charlie stared at his mother and sister for a moment, watching their chests rise and fall in rhythm with their deep, peaceful breaths.

Mrs. Cawley's skull was crushed with the first blow of the axe. She never knew what happened, and in some strange, grim way it was for the best. It was a mercy killing; Hannah would be spared the horror of witnessing the maniacal rampage that was to follow.

The thing about murder is that the hardest part is getting started. The hard part is taking that first stab of the knife, the first pull of the trigger, or, in Charlie's case, the first swing of the axe. But any murderer will tell you that the second blow comes easier than the first, and the third comes easier than the second.

Nobody was really sure how many blows from the dull edge of the axe were delivered to Mrs. Cawley, but it was said that Charlie had beaten his mother's head to a jelly.

Isabelle, or Belle, as she was known to the rest of the family, had slept right through the murder of her mother. Charlie swung his weapon at Belle but missed, causing her to wake up. But before her young eyes could register what had happened, it was too late. The next blow killed her. But the blows kept coming... ten, fifteen, twenty, thirty... until the bedsheets and mattress were soaked in blood.

Beside the bed stood a crib where 15-month-old Joseph slumbered soundly. Charlie raised the axe high over his head. There was no hesitation, no swing and a miss. No need to deliver more than a single blow. Miraculously, the baby was still alive when Charlie left the room.

Next, he went to over to the bed where Agnes, Adelaide and Raymond were sleeping. Maybe Charlie's chopping had tired him out, because the bodies of these children were still recognizable when the coroner came. For whatever reason, he did not bash them to a pulp as he had done with his mother and Belle.

Charlie entered the room where Henry and James, oblivious to the carnage in the adjacent bedroom, were sleeping. The creaking of the door caused James to awake. The young man sat up and in the faint yellow light of the gas lamp he saw Charlie standing in front of him with an axe clutched tightly in his hand. The weapon was dripping with blood, and Charlie was splattered from head to toe with the gore of his victims. There was a maniacal gleam in the young inventor's eyes.

James knew he had to act quickly if he wanted to save his own life. As soon as Charlie closed the door, James extinguished the lamp, throwing the room into sudden, total darkness. He jumped out of bed just as the axe came crashing down. Charlie, who had not seen his older brother leave the bed, rained blow after blow on the mattress until he reached the point of exhaustion. James heard his brother mumble something he did not understand.

Charlie opened the door and the room was once again illuminated by the glow of their mother's lamp. Seizing his opportunity, James lunged for the weapon as Charlie swung wildly at him. The axe grazed his arm and embedded itself in the bedframe. This only seemed to enrage the killer more; he dislodged the axe and rushed at James. James grabbed a chair as a shield. He sidestepped the next blow and then used every ounce of his strength to bash Charlie with the chair. A fierce wrestling match ensued.

James, who was three years older and much larger than his shy, timid brother, was taken aback by Charlie's strength. It was though he were possessed by demons. Eventually James was able to pin down his brother and subdue him. As he dragged the murderer out of the room he encountered the unspeakable horror that the veil of night had hidden, now revealed in the glow of the lamp. James later recalled that when he saw the blood-spattered walls and the dead bodies of his mother and siblings, he had to vanquish the urge to kill Charlie.




James dragged his brother through the streets of Homestead to the police station and turned him over to Officer Rosser. Charlie was placed in a cell. Rosser then returned with James to the Cawley house. Four of the victims were still alive at this time, and Harry-- the only one of Mrs. Cawley's children home at the time who had avoided the slaughter-- had already summoned Dr. Barton to the scene. The doctor made a grim pronouncement; they would be dead before sunrise. Another sibling, Mary, was spared from the attack because she was staying at the house of a friend.

It was reported that Dr. Barton removed two cups worth of crushed bone from the skulls of the victims. They were taken by train to the South Side Hospital to die.

Meanwhile, police chief West Noble had placed two officers on guard duty to keep away the curiosity seekers, but they had their hands full. Crowds flocked to the crime scene on Second Avenue, and relic-hunters desperately attempted to carry away a souvenir of the bloody crime. The crowds grew even larger the following day, with hundreds of visitors taking out pocketknives and trying to cut away slivers of the porch and siding. Others made off with chunks of the fence.

On Saturday morning, October 11, funeral services were held for Hannah Cawley and Belle at St. Mary Magdalene Church. They were interred at the church cemetery. Later that afternoon the bodies of Annie and Raymond would be buried alongside them. Agnes and Adelaide were still clinging to life at the hospital, as was the baby, Joseph. Of these children, Agnes would be the only one to ever regain consciousness. On November 4, Agnes had recovered sufficiently enough to leave the hospital, though she possessed no recollection of what had happened.

Warden Edward Lewis was perplexed. For days he had been observing the teenage axe murderer, looking for the slightest signs of guilt or remorse. But the boy in the cell remained calm. Not only that, he actually seemed to become more at ease with each passing day. When asked about the crime, Charlie told the warden that he had no recollection of it.

Detective P.J. Murphy also talked to Charlie, but could discover no signs of insanity. He appeared content, healthy and rational. He was eating well and sleeping without the slightest disturbance. The boy surmised that a burglar must have entered the house and slaughtered the family while they were sleeping.

Things took a strange turn on Thursday, October 16, after a man from Ohio came forward and identified the hero of the tragedy, James Cawley, as one of three men who had beaten and robbed him on the night of October 4. When the magistrate asked James if he was guilty of the charge, the young man nodded. Unlike his younger brother, however, James wept heavily when he was placed in jail.

This new development sparked a thunderstorm of rumors around Homestead. Did James play a role in assisting his brother in the savage slaughter of their mother and siblings? James had admitted to stealing a small sum of money from the man from Ohio after beating him, and Charlie clung to his belief that the killings had been carried out by a burglar. Was it possible that James Cawley, who had wrestled the bloody axe out of his brother's hands before dragging him to the police station, had set up Charlie to take the fall?

While thousands of men and women from the Pittsburgh area contemplated this issue, Adelaide Cawley passed away quietly, making her the fifth victim of the Homestead axe murderer.

Even experts were divided when it came to sorting through the mess. Two doctors-- one of medicine and one of theology-- interviewed Charlie and James in jail. Neither could agree on the identity of the real killer. The physician insisted that it was Charlie, while the theologist declared that it had to have been James. But all argument ceased a week later when Charlie finally admitted to committing the murders.

There is a curious footnote attached to this part of the story; one the same day Charlie confessed, a letter arrived at the Cawley house. It was from the U.S. Patent Office in Washington. His air brake had been accepted, and all Charlie had to do to earn his patent was to pay a fee of $20. This, of course, was now an impossibility (he was eventually awarded a patent for his invention in November of 1902).

The killer's defense team was less than confident in a plea of insanity. By all accounts, Charlie was a model inmate while locked up at the county jail awaiting trial. He showed no signs of remorse; nor did he show any signs of mental illness. According to the warden, he kept himself busy reading books. His attorney would later argue that Charles Cawley was a somnambulist-- he had murdered his family while sleepwalking and, therefore, should be spared the death penalty. Charlie, however, had contracted tuberculosis during his confinement and his relatives convinced the court to release the young killer into their custody so that he could die at home.

The strategy worked. Charles Cawley was acquitted of all charges. After his release, he was sent to live with his grandfather, Michael Cawley, an aunt, Mary McCue, and a sister, Mamie.

But fate caught up with the boy who had butchered his family. On Monday, February 20, 1905, Charles Cawley passed away from consumption at his grandfather's home on River Road between Beck's Run and Six Mile Ferry. Though his relatives did their best to keep the funeral arrangements a secret for fear of creating a public circus, it was later revealed that Charlie was cremated and his ashes buried at the family plot at St. Mary Magdalene Cemetery.

Michael Cawley, the grandfather who had played an instrumental role in bringing Charlie home to die, passed away five days later.


Additional information as provided by Hannah Cawley's great-great granddaughter, Marianne Perry:

Thought I'd add a little more information. A man actually died during the robbery that James was involved with. A man trying to escape was actually struck & killed by a train. The family story as well about the family murders was that Westinghouse may have been involved due to Charles invention. He was also working on several others.  Joseph lived with my great grandmother (his sister). She raised him like a son. 

Thanks for your blog. I am a great great granddaughter of Hannah (Boyle) Cawley. My great grandmother was Ella (Cawley) O'Brien. I did want to mention that some of your information is incorrect. There were not 7 children who were grown & out of the house. Hannah had 14 children, 10 of whom were listed as alive on the 1900 US Federal Census. My great grandmother was the oldest, married & out of the house in 1902. Mary had stayed over at a friend's house & was spared. Charles spent time in Dixmont which is where he most likely contracted tuberculosis. He was actually granted the patent for his air brake in November of 1902, although of course, it was irrelevant by then. The murders actually occurred, according to multiple newspaper reports on October 10, 1902. One other suspicion was that Westinghouse had something to do with it. That was according to family stories.  Otherwise, I loved the blog & shared it with my family on a Facebook family heritage page that I created several years ago. I had written a 500 word essay years ago for The History Channel Club (a published magazine at one time) at the encouragement of the head publisher, Jonathon Miltimore. Unfortunately it was never published.  Thanks again.








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