June 26, 1947: The night of a killing.
An hour or so before becoming one of Pittsburgh’s most notorious killers, Charles Peyton locked the door of his Steubenville Pike roadhouse, then sat in the tavern’s kitchen and had a beer with his cook, a man named McKenna.
Peyton left the room briefly. When he returned, he carried a loaded and cocked .45 automatic pistol, which he placed on a table. Peyton began singing a song called “When You Were Sweet Sixteen.”
McKenna thought the gun was dangerous and said so. Peyton replied that he’d only use it to defend his “castle.”
By now it was after 3 a.m. McKenna said goodnight and headed upstairs to his apartment.
A short time later, an automobile pulled into the roadhouse parking lot. Peyton would later say he heard men and women talking outside. Suddenly there was pounding on the roadhouse door. “We want a drink,” called a voice.
Peyton hollered that his tavern was closed, then he snapped off the lights.
“We’re coming in anyway,” someone answered
In the darkened tavern, Peyton sat on a barstool behind the counter and aimed his .45 automatic downward. He pulled the trigger — a warning shot, he claimed, to scare away the intruders.
A body crumpled to the floor.
“As I fired my wife walked right in front of me,” Peyton said. “I didn’t see her before I pulled the trigger.”
The bullet, fired at point-blank range, tore into Mary Peyton’s left breast, punctured a lung, ripped downward through her organs, emerged from her right hip and ricocheted off the floor.
Mary, 22 weeks pregnant, fell face down. Blood pooled on the grimy floor. When detectives arrived, they found Charles Peyton “semi-hysterical.” Mary, moaning and weak, was rushed to Mercy Hospital.
There, she rallied long enough to answer a few questions. Did your husband shoot you by accident or on purpose? a detective asked. “On purpose,” came the reply.
Within 10 hours, Mary died. Peyton was arrested.
“I tell you I didn’t see her,” he protested. “It was pitch dark in there.”
Mary’s body was laid out in the living room of her parent’s Carnegie home. Police allowed Peyton to pay his respects. The haggard 51-year-old was led manacled up the front porch, where he was met with stony glares from his in-laws and his 11-year-old son, who’d later testify that his father was a merciless wife- and a son-beater.
His lips twitching, Peyton stood for a moment before his wife’s casket. Then he dropped to his knees and sobbed, “Oh, my God. Oh, my God.”
He rose and stumbled forward to kiss his dead wife on the cheek, but before he could complete the smooch detectives grabbed him and whisked him out of the house.
The trial was 17 days of drama that captivated the city. Peyton said he didn’t hear his wife enter the bar moments before the shooting, but detectives discovered that the door through which she passed squeaked loudly.
Witnesses said Peyton regularly gave his wife black eyes and bruises. No, others said. Peyton was a loving husband who bought furs for his wife.
Then came son Pat, who testified that his father beat him severely and had, on another occasion, fired a gun at Mary. Pat referred to his father not as pop or dad, but “that man.”
A jury found Peyton guilty of second-degree murder. The sentence, 10-20 years, was pronounced on Good Friday. Distraught, Peyton slumped into the arms of deputies.
At Western Penitentiary, he was a model prisoner. During a riot in 1953, he stood aside, far from the fray, where his image was captured by a newspaper photographer.
He served the minimum 10 years. Dressed neatly in a prison-made suit, Peyton left the prison in July 1957. He was 61 years old. “Tanned and full-faced” one newspaper reported.
Son Pat, now 21, was there to greet him. A newspaper photographer snapped a picture of Pat smiling with his dad.
Peyton then slipped into an automobile and headed straight for Miami, Fla., where he was promised a job as a janitor in an apartment complex.
— Steve Mellon
Top picture: After viewing his wife’s body, Charles Peyton sobs in a police vehicle. (Pittsburgh Press photo)