True Crime Scranton

Murder on the 708 Train

The Old West wasn't the only place trains were robbed! A bandit, inspired by the moving picture, "The Great Train Robbery", pulls off a heist in Scranton.

The “Bloom” was a Lackawanna Railroad train that was scheduled to arrive in Scranton on Friday, November 17, 1911, at 8:30pm. Onboard, were several sides of beef, over a dozen cans of milk, cases of flowers, and other usual cargo. A typical routine for the train that originated in Northumberland and made its way “up the line” and into Scranton along what is now Main Avenue.

Also on board was Irvan Borger, a “messenger” for the United States Express company. US Express was one of several companies that specialized in package delivery – think UPS or FedEx. As such, Borger was responsible for the safe transfer of the packages that were picked up at the stops along the way – including any cash or checks. The messengers usually have a car to themselves where they hold any currency that is being transported. They also have a revolver and cartridge belt – just in case.

The day proceeded as normal until they reached the stop in Taylor – the last stop before Scranton. That’s when a cargo trunk, destined for New York, was loaded into his car. Witnesses said Borger seemed fine and didn’t see anything out of the ordinary at that point.

It’s a short three miles from the Taylor stop to the station in Scranton. The normal travel time is listed as just four minutes. But in that four minutes, tragedy struck.

At the station in Scranton, Drillmaster John Guthier and Switchman Arthur View started on their work to decouple the cars. At the same time, car inspector James Cummings noticed that the door on the messenger car was already opened.

The men boarded the car and that’s when they found Borger sprawled out on the floor of the car, blood covering his face. At first, they thought he had fallen over and struck his head – his body still warm. Then, they noticed the bullet wound to the base of the back of his neck and knew immediately that it was much worse. Borger was dead – leaving behind his wife and two young children.

Within four minutes of the ride from Taylor, someone had gained access to the messenger car, assassinated the caretaker, and vanished.

Borger had all of his paperwork in order, ready to exit in Scranton. The only thing missing was all of the cash and checks. Robbery was quickly established as the motive. Investigators found his revolver and cartridge belt tucked away in the safe – with the key in Borger’s pocket. This was against the “unwritten rule” that the messengers wear their holster until the deposit is made at the end of the run. It was also reported that while there is a rule that messengers are not to take on “deadheaded” passengers into the car, Borger was known to break that rule.

The money accumulated at each stop – each in its own package, were deposits from businesses along the route. Most were to be sent to the First National Bank in Scranton and Borger had all of the receipts listed – so they knew exactly how much money was missing – just under $1,700 in cash and checks – about $50,000 in 2022 dollars.

The railroad men told investigators that there was only one spot between Taylor and Scranton where someone might be able to jump from the train without much harm. That would be as they entered the yard just as they turned east parallel to Lackawanna Ave as they crossed the Lackawanna River,

Current Map of Area

Immediately, investigators pointed to someone who knew about the business – the money, the route, the timing, etc…

County Detective Michael A. Rafter didn’t get notified of the killing until about 11:00pm on Friday. He got himself out of bed, got dressed, and went to work. Immediately, Rafter called for reinforcements from Wilkes-Barre to assist in the investigation.

Rafter knew that messengers should be alone in their cars, and the fact that Borger was shot in the back of the head made him believe that Borger may have known his assailant. He might have trusted him to be in the car with him.

In talks with US Express officials, Rafter was informed that there was a young man named “Bill” that had recently been hired by the company but quit just yesterday. That led Detective Rafter to be suspicious – supporting his theory that the killer was someone with inside knowledge. Bill quickly became a person of interest.

Further inquiry determined that Bill was William Peter Bishie, just 18 years old. He lived with his parents in Kingston. Police were quickly dispatched to the parent’s home in case he made a return. Amazingly, Rafter found someone who told him that Bishie would stay at Scott’s Saloon and Hotel on Lackawanna Avenue on occasion.

Scranton Times, Dec 1897

Now, at 1:00am Saturday morning, Detective Rafter and several state troopers covered the front and rear of the hotel. Rafter made his way to the room where Bishie was registered. After several knocks, Bishie replied and opened the door.

“Why did you kill the express messenger?” Rafter demanded. Initially, Bishie denied the allegation. Rafter, skeptical, searched the room. When he lifted the mattress, he found what he was looking for. A handkerchief that contained a wad of cash along with other silver coins next to it.

Bishie then confessed. “I did it alright.” Within two hours of being notified of the murder, Detective Rafter had his man.

Bishie outlined the ambush for investigators – his confession printed on the front page of the Times. In short, he knew Borger and would frequently ride along with him. That allowed him to witness the amount of money that was often on board, but more importantly, that Borger had a habit of laying the money out on the shelf as he did his paperwork. Other messengers put the money in the safe per protocol.

He boarded the train on the left side – to avoid the conductor. He knew that if he had been seen boarding the express car, he would have been identified immediately. When he knocked on the door, Borger welcomed him in and told him to “Come on in WIllie. Make yourself at home.”

Bishie waited until the train whistle blew, signaling the Scranton Street crossing in Bellevue and that the turn and approach into the yard were just ahead. That was his queue to take action. He pulled his revolver and fired directly into the back of the head of Borger. He quickly grabbed what he thought was all of the money envelopes, hung onto the outside of the car doors, then dropped down as the train slowed at the curve.

Bill ran down to the bridge that crosses the river and threw his weapon into the water. He then sat along the bank of the river and opened up the envelopes. Part of his stash included two gold ten-dollar pieces, some silver dollars, and several paper notes that made up a significant bundle of cash. He threw all of the paper checks into the river and made his way toward town.

The Desert Well and Hindu Jewel playing on Friday

Once downtown, he went to the movies. He took in two “reels of pictures” at the Hippodrome before checking into his room at the Scott Hotel. There, he counted and divided the money – the payment to his parents in a handkerchief and the rest for him – before he went to sleep.

1900 Map of Scranton

Bishie was somewhat down on his luck – and his parents didn’t have much money either. His father was out of work and his mother was pushing him to pay for room and board. Over six months, he had wracked up $165 in rent that he promised to pay his mother. This would have amounted to almost his entire paycheck over that time. He told his parents that he was working full-time as a messenger, but that wasn’t true – he was working on and off for about a year and admitted that he resigned just yesterday.

In jail, Bill started to feel the weight of what he had done and felt remorseful. It was reported that he was visibly shaken. He was quoted as saying “I expect to be hung but I suppose that will depend upon whether the jury believes me too young to hang or not.”

While in custody, he was asked where he come up with the idea to rob the train, and Bill said he “saw the same thing pulled off in a moving picture show”. Later it was revealed that the movie he referenced was The Great Train Robbery, a picture from 1903. Below is the actual moving picture from the time.

He continued that he “saw a fellow getting shot in a car just like that” and that he “often saw the way they robbed banks too.” These statements fired up the citizens as a string of these types of statements were made by criminals recently. Editorials were written about how “criminal scenes in moving picture shows is a direct incentive to crime.” It seems over 100 years ago, the same arguments were taking place about the influence media has on our society.

After being informed of his capture, his parents were crushed by the thought of what their son had done. William’s father, Michael Bishie, told investigators, “If my boy committed the terrible crime they say he did and brought disgrace to upon his mother, then he ought to be hanged. We are poor and have no money to hire lawyers and he must suffer for what he has done.” I could not imagine the emotion in uttering these words.

Father of William

His parents told police that Bill had been working and was earning $42 per month and that the company owed him $162. He planned to get it soon. It was confirmed with United Express that nothing was due to Bill – and that he only worked sporadically.

Meanwhile, efforts to recover the murder weapon were unsuccessful. On the night of the murder, Detective Rafter brought Bishie to the bridge where he said he threw the revolver into the river. Later, crews searched using rakes and heavy magnets but believed that either the weapon was already buried in the silt at the bottom of the river or had been washed further downstream. Rafter was not too concerned about recovering what is normally a critical piece of evidence given the overwhelming amount of evidence piling up against Bill.

At his arraignment on November 23, 1911, William came before Alderman M.J. Ruddy and pleaded “guilty”, however, at the time, the suspect in a murder trial could not consider themselves guilty – a trial was mandatory. The court and jurors would have to decide if the accused was guilty – so the Judge entered his plea as “not guilty” and set the legal proceedings in motion. William was held until the Grand Jury met in January.

It was no surprise that the Grand Jury indicted him and set the trial date for Monday, January 29, 1912. Due to the cold-bloodedness of the crime, the state was anticipated to ask for the death penalty.

While waiting for his hearing, a doctor was brought in to evaluate prison conditions as well as to evaluate Bill’s mental state. Dr. Harris H Dunham of Boston claimed that prison reform was sorely needed. He called the prison a “lump ill-smelling, fetid, ill-ventilated, poorly-heated chamber of horrors” and claimed that the county jail was three hundred years behind the times.

As for Bill, the doctor claimed that “it would be murder to execute Bishie, murder more foul than that which the degenerate youth committed.” His reasoning was that young Bill didn’t have “two teaspoonfuls of brains.” That “his skull comes to a point and is shaped like a loaf of Vienna bread.” He reiterated that he believed Bill was influenced by The Great Train Robbery and that Bill thought that it is reasonable to kill a man if robbery is the motive. With that, Dr. Dunham claimed that Bishie was insane and that he should be committed to a mental institution.

After some delays, the trial opened up with William’s defense team claiming insanity. The prosecution wanted first-degree murder – or nothing at all as they outlined their case to the jury.

The state was well-prepared and called about 75 witnesses. One after another backed the prosecution’s claim. For a day-and-a-half, the jury heard from the state’s witnesses – the DA painstakingly walking through every detail that would leave little doubt that William was the killer. The defense had just a few witnesses. His mother testified that when he was just four years old, Bill fell off the porch of their home and hit his head – leading the jury to believe this was the point at which Bill might have been impaired.

The defense’s argument was that, while William did pull the trigger, he was not able to determine wrong from right. Adding that Borger invited him along for the ride and that he acted on impulse when he saw the money. Alienists, the common term for criminal psychiatrists at the time, differed on their opinions of Bill’s state of mind – but even the defense witnesses stopped short of calling him insane. Instead, they used terms like “mental deficiency” and “lacking moral perception”.

The defense took just two hours to present their case – then handed the decision over to the jury. The group deliberated until 11pm before calling it quits for the night. The next day, while the jury was still deliberating Bill’s fate, it was reported that Bill talked to a reporter and disclosed for the first time that he had met with a Fortune Teller the night of the murder. Bishie hadn’t planned to visit her, but passed by her after the movies and decided to partake.

For $0.25, the “colored” woman told Bill that he would soon face serious trouble. She added that after a short while, he’d be out of town working with horses. Bill was only mildly concerned because he truly thought that the police would not be able to pin the murder on him. The physic also said that he would marry at 27, and never be rich, but he would always be healthy and live to be 78 years old.

The initial ballot was split based on six jurors claiming insanity. Additional ballots were taken and they slowly trended towards guilty. After some clarification with the Judge, the very next ballot had all claiming guilty in the first degree.

After the verdict, Irvan Borger’s wife, Vernie Borger (nee Webster), was asked if she supported hanging. She pondered it for a while and finally opened up. “From the start, I have favored his hanging and I favor it now.” When she was told that there was a petition underway to commute his sentence to life in prison, she said “if life imprisonment meant life imprisonment, I might look at this differently, But after a few years he might be liberated and given a chance to commit crimes as cold-blooded as was that which robbed me of a husband.” She continued “He killed to get it (money) and the penalty for murder should always be hanging.”

Wiliam became the youngest person in Lackawanna County to have the death sentence imposed on him. Now, he awaits the Pardon Board to see if they find mercy on him and reduce his sentence to life in prison.

After months of waiting, the Board of Pardons denied the request to reduce the sentence to life in prison. Governor Tener then announced that Bishie will be hanged on June 20, 1912 – just over one month away. At the time of the announcement, William was not surprised. From the very beginning, he felt that death was the only outcome given the circumstances. He was prepared for what was to come.

With their primary breadwinner behind bars, the Bishie family was falling further and further behind society. It was previously reported that they were already receiving aid from various charities. Their monthly allotment of food that was provided by the Poor Board was listed as; fifty pounds of flour, a bushel of potatoes, five pounds of butter, five pounds of bacon, three pounds of sugar, and one pound of tea. In addition, they were receiving $6.00 per month from the Poor Board while their rent was reported as being $5.50 per month.

The city was preparing for the upcoming execution. In the past, they used famed executioner, James Van Hise of Newark, NJ. Van Hise performed several hangings for Lackawanna County using his “patented deathtrap.” By this time, electrocution started to replace hanging in many states so Van Hise’s business was dying in more ways than one – sorry, I had to…

It was reported that Van Hise executed anywhere from 75-250 men and women throughout his career. Still, there was some concern that Van Hise was either out of business already or had passed away (he died later – in 1919 at the age of 86) so the county was making plans in case Van Hise was not available.

As time marches towards the 20th, Bishie was asked about his state of mind. He claims that he has no hope of avoiding death. He’s made aware that the Board of Pardons meets again on the 19th – his last chance before he’s executed. He says the 19th doesn’t matter to him – that he doesn’t want to get his hopes up, only to be let down. He says he prays and looks forward to what happens after his execution.

On June 6, 1912, the Governor pushed back the date of execution until July 25, 1912. The move was intended to ensure the defense had enough time to present any last case. It also came as a surprise to William’s defense team since they had not considered any other moves. William’s response to the stay? “All right.” Again, showing his lack of emotion about what he’s facing.

An anonymous woman from New York City had been following the news of the trial. She was taken by the plight of William’s mother. She sent Mrs. Bishie a $5 bill with a note saying to use the money to travel back and forth to see her son. The woman told Mrs. Bishie that she too suffered tragedy in her life and she just wanted to help.

At the same time, a reader, Victor Burr, sent a letter to the Scranton Tribune-Republic emploring the DA to reduce the sentence on the young man citing his parent’s situation. Included with the letter was a donation of $1.00 and a request for others to follow his lead to help the family. The Tribune printed the letter and more donations poured in to support the Bishie family.

Within a day, $11 had been collected and donations continued in the days and weeks that followed.

On June 20, the day that was originally set for the execution, the Governor once again pushed back the date to September 25. By now, the defense attorneys were working hard to have the sentence overturned. It seemed that public sentiment was on the family’s side and the tide was turning. The Board of Pardons was set to meet again on the matter on September 18.

The Judge, Sheriff, and former DA all wrote letters to the Board of Pardons and petitioned to have William’s sentence commuted to life behind bars. They claimed that Bill was of a “simple mind” and that he was influenced by the moving picture shows. Finally, Bill was feeling confident that his life would be spared.

The latest efforts were successful. Bill is granted a commutation of his sentence and is now scheduled to spend time in prison. There’s a slight hope that he will serve his time at Farview State Prison for the Criminally Insane, which is set to open shortly, but it wasn’t to be. It’s reported that Bill believes he’ll be free within 10 years – when he’s 28. He says by then, “I ought to know how to behave myself.” Of course, the decision does not make everyone happy. Many believe that cold-blooded murder demands the death penalty.

Bill’s mother and brother visited him before he was transferred to Philadelphia. His mother told Bill that his father was dying at Mt. Alto due to tuberculosis and that he was happy that Bill would not hang for his crime. She urged him to be a responsible prisoner and do what was asked of him so he would be eligible for parole as soon as possible.

On September 27, 1912, Bill reported to the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia. He’s outfitted with his prison clothes – including a cap with a large “M” on it – indicating the classification of the crime for which he was convicted. As the Sheriff handed over Bill to the prison guards, Bill said “So long Sheriff. I’ll see you again.”

While in prison, reports that William had become insane started to appear. He was evaluated again and officials claimed that he was fine – stating that he’s doing much better now than when he was first committed. A plumbing school opened at the facility and Bill was enrolled in the trade. It’s said that over time, Bill had become a favorite within the prison and he himself said he was adjusting fine after three years.

Eastern State Penitentiary was a large facility. In July of 1915, there were 1,632 inmates – 27 of which were female. That number represented a 10% increase year-to-year. When asked about the increase in prisoners, the warden said “They tell me the penitentiaries everywhere are overcrowded.” Some things never change.

The Bishie family suffers again when the patriarch, Michael Bishie finally succumbs to tuberculosis in January 1916. Bill had tried to be released to attend the services, but he was denied.

Just a few months later, Bill is involved in another tragedy. While working at the prison with another inmate, Bill was instructed to turn on the pressure to a caldron they were repairing. When he did, the machine blew up and scalded his fellow inmate – the burns so severe, they killed the man. Bill was not charged with any crime, but the mental stress of that must have been difficult to accept.

Years pass. In October 1920, Bill filed for a pardon. It’s stated that while in prison for the last eight years, he has been a model prisoner. He’s said to be the “dandy” at the prison earning several privileges along the way. His attorney, Kate Davis, blames the crime on the movie industry – saying Bill had carried a revolver for two years before he committed a crime – and it was based on the violence he witnessed in the movies.

The attempt was unsuccessful and Bill had to wait another two years before trying again.

In May 1922, Bill was again denied parole.

Finally, on September 4, 1927, after serving 15 years, Bill had had enough. He and another prisoner, William Lynch, attack a guard and throw his body over the wall to the ground 35-feet below. They repel down a rope that was constructed of wire, electrical tape, and twine that was used to make model ships. It was estimated that they two had worked on the rope for weeks. To aid in their escape, they had cut the wires that sound the alarms.

After fifteen years as a model prisoner, Bill is a fugitive.

It didn’t take long for authorities to capture Lynch and return him to Eastern. Just five days after their daring escape, he was apprehended in Elizabeth, New Jersey after a minor traffic violation.

The fugitive said after their escape, he and Bishie took a cab to Morrisville, PA before crossing over the river and into Trenton. They were allegedly detained as vagrants in that city – but released after an hour. From there, they hopped rides to New York City where the two separated. This goes against initial reports that said the two were spotted on the Allentown-Bath Pike where police fired shots at the supposed escapees. Who the police fired at in that instance is anyone’s guess.

Philadelphia Inquirer April 11, 1929

Years pass and Bishie is still on the run. There are reports that he was seen around the world. Witnesses claim to have seen him as far away as Germany, Poland, and Lithuania but authorities could never catch up to him.

While Bishie is on the run, the prisoners at Eastern riot in September 1933. Over 1700 inmates set fires and overtake some guards and even injure the warden. It’s one of the largest prison riots of its time.

It wasn’t until October 9, 1934, after a prisoner at Eastern tipped off police as to his whereabouts, that Bishie was finally captured. On the run for almost seven years, Bill was finally back in custody.

Authorities converged on a home in Syracuse New York in the middle of the night when Bishie gave little resistance to his captors. He had been employed as a traffic guard for school children, using the alias “Harry Hanson” – his paycheck coming through the police department, where, ironically, his wanted poster was still hanging.

It was never disclosed as to which prisoner gave up Bill, but it was reported that the man turned on him because he didn’t want to commit a robbery together. I think one can reasonably assume that the tipster was William Lynch – the man that escaped with Bill. Lynch was released on parole shortly after Bill’s capture. My guess is that Lynch wanted to return to his criminal ways while on the run, but Bishie did not want to risk it.

Lynch, wasn’t a very good parolee. Within months of his release, he commits another robbery and was immediately returned to prison. His sentence for his latest crime was now 10-20 years – plus another 40 years for violating his parole. Lynch’s story ends when he gets into an altercation with another prisoner in 1938. He’s stabbed with a makeshift knife and dies in custody.

Bishie on the other hand was reported to have led a clean life while in hiding. He befriended a Rabbi and an Alderman in Syracuse who were stunned to learn of Bill’s past. He was said to be a responsible and trustworthy citizen.

Back in prison, it didn’t take long for his attorneys to file for another pardon. In January 1936, just over a year since his capture, they plead for his release. However, before the plea is heard, they drop the petition – only to refile again in April 1936. His attorneys claim that his life on the run for the last seven years shows that he can be a good citizen and he should return to freedom. It didn’t work. The petition is denied.

In October 1940, at this point, Bishie has been in charge of the cobbler division in the prison for several years. Once again, he files a petition for a pardon. He’s now 46 years old and has served twenty-one years behind bars – plus seven as a fugitive. Once again, the petition is denied.

Not to be denied, William’s team once again files a petition for his release in November of 1942.

While waiting for the latest petition to be heard, Vernie Borger, Irvan’s wife, passes away on January 1, 1943.

One week later, on January 9, 1943, now 50 years old, William Peter Bishie is granted parole. I can’t help but think Vernie’s passing had something to do with William’s release. Vernie was so adamantly opposed to Bishie’s commutation of life in prison. She was on record as saying she favored the death penalty for what Bill had done to her and her family. Thankfully, Bill was still behind bars when she passed.

At some point between 1943-1948, Bill marries Sophia Helen Tabak in Philadelphia.

In May 1948, Bill is petitioning for a full commutation of his sentence so he can leave the state and move to Florida to be with his wife who, he says, owns a restaurant there. The decision was deferred but denied two months later. This is the last time Bill appears in the newspapers.

The two show up in the 1950 census as living in Jacksonville Florida. Bill is listed as working at a Poultry Farm and Sophia as a saleslady in a department store.

William Peter Bishie passed away in Florida in 1972 at the age of 79. His wife Sophia lived for another 20 years. I can’t find any evidence of children of this couple.

I have to look back to what the fortune-teller had told Bill the night of the murder. The woman said he would face serious trouble, would move away to work with horses (maybe she meant chickens), would marry at 27 (he was about 50), he would never be rich, but he would always be healthy and live to be 78 years old. Hmmm…

Irvan’s legacy would continue on through his children in the Scranton area. His son Irvan Borger Jr, would follow in his father’s footsteps to become a messenger. He passed away in 1980. While his daughter Viola Borger Michaeli died in 1968. Each leaving their own children to live out their grandfather’s legacy.

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