At 30 years old, Catherine Miller, of Jersey Shore, had the unfortunate notoriety of being the only woman in Lycoming County to be executed by public hanging. She shared this grisly fate with her lover and partner in crime George Smith. It was the county’s first, and only, double hanging.
The year was 1881 and the hanging yard was inside the walls of the county jail, which today is remade as the Cell Block, a popular night club on East Third Street in Downtown Williamsport.
The morning of Feb. 3 was described as pleasant, but “intensely cold,” as roughly 150 spectators gathered to watch.
At 20 minutes past 11 a.m., the trap door swung open and Miller and Smith fell to their deaths.
Young Catherine Rush was born in Clinton County on Sept. 3, 1851. When she was 12, the Rush family moved to Jersey Shore and at age 17 she was married to Andrew Miller, who was 48. Rumors that Rush’s father forced her to marry Miller were denied, but, regardless, the marriage was less than happy.
Now Catherine Miller, the young bride had three children over the years. Both of her parents lived with them until they passed away.
In 1877, Miller tried to leave her husband and went to Williamsport to live with her sister. But Mr. Miller retrieved her within a few days and took her back to their Jersey Shore farm along Pine Creek.
George Smith was born in Danville and moved to Porter Township, Lycoming County when he was 12.
Smith and Miller were both married to other people, but this didn’t stop them from developing their own relationship. Smith would often walk Miller home and soon their love affair became quite serious.
The unfortunate lovers, who were the same age, wanted to make a life together, and hatched a plot to murder Mr. Miller. They spoke about the plot often, even publicly at times.
Miller devised a plan to get her husband to walk outside where Smith would be waiting with a heavy wooden board. In his later confession, Smith admitted to making a loud noise outside the house and luring Mr. Miller into the barn, where he struck him one time on the head.
Miller then brought coil of rope, which they tied around his neck and threw over a beam, raising him up to hang in the barn.
The next morning, on March 18, 1881, Mr. Miller’s body was discovered by his 12-year-old daughter Mary.
At first, Smith and Miller implicated a young black man named Robert Brown, of the crime. Brown was arrested and taken to the Williamsport jail, but he vehemently pronounced his innocence.
However, during the course of the investigation it became clear that Smith and Miller’s testimony did not make sense. On April 22, 1880, Smith said he was racked with guilt and couldn’t keep quiet any longer.
He made a full confession. Miller would eventually confess as well.
The murder trial began in May, 1880. Even though both Miller and Smith had previously confessed, they plead not-guilty.
After the prosecution brought a number of witnesses against Miller and Smith, the defense rested immediately, with no witness testimony. Miller and Smith were found guilty, and in June, 1880 they were sentenced to death by hanging.
The last morning
Miller sat in her cell on the morning of Feb. 3, 1881, as the gallows were prepared. Crowds clambered outside the gates after space inside the yard filled up.
Both Smith and Miller were given a last breakfast and visited by their spiritual advisors. Smith also was visited by members of the press whom he had asked to see and he read them his confession.
Around the same time, an undertaker brought two coffins into the jail courtyard through a back entrance.
At 11 a.m. Smith and Miller were escorted from their cells for the reading of the death warrant. Reportedly, Miller could barely walk and leaned frequently on her assistants, groaning often.
The ill-fated pair were placed on the gallows and the crowd listened as they each made their last statements.
“Friends I did the deed myself,” Smith began. “She drew up the plan. Then after told me to do it. When I had him killed, she gave me the rope to hang him up.”
Smith went on to say that he had made his peace with God and was ready to face the consequences of his actions.
Miller didn’t speak of the specifics of the crime. Instead, she gave a word of warning to the onlookers.
“I have been an unfortunate woman …. Strand after strand of sin coiled itself around my heart almost unconsciously until I was its ready servant and by it I have been brought to where I stand today,” she said.
“I wish none to pursue such a course of life as I have. And on the gallows I raise a warning voice.”
In Pennsylvania, 689 people were executed by hanging, the last in April of 1916. Twenty-four women were hanged in the state.
The Williamsport jail continued to be used until 1986 when the current Lycoming County Prison was opened at 277 West Third Street, just a block up the street.