By Editorial Board
This issue introduces a new column about historical incidents bound by a date and a theme, starting off with one of the most well-known crimes in McKees Rocks history: the murder of Martha Westwood.
The 1930s, when the crime took place, had its share of darkness, and was a turbulent era in our country as a whole. There are a lot of parallels between then and now. Even in 1936, there was an extraordinary amount of gun violence for just one household–guns felled four members of the Westwood family. (One death was ruled accidental, two were counted as murder-suicide.)
We tend to think of the issue as coming to the fore during the age of mass shootings, but gun violence is woven into the fabric of our country. Guns were used by the first colonizers as weapons of war and trade. During the Prohibition era and into the 1930s gang violence exploded as organized crime rose across the country.
James Westwood was said to be an affiliate of bootleggers, and witnesses to Martha Westwood’s murder feared her husband’s political reach so much that they were afraid to talk to police. That’s a familiar story, too, with parallels in the modern day. Anyone trying to report on local politics can tell you as much.
Westwood was appealing a charge of voter fraud, an issue that rises again and again in this region.
In the background, fascism was on the rise globally. Contemporary articles about the Westwood case also discuss political decisions in Italy and Germany warning of the rising tide. The whole country was wading through a massive economic slump that caused widespread poverty.
Domestic violence is still a chronic issue for families of all economic stripes, and the Westwoods were no exception. Even if one doesn’t believe James Westwood killed his wife, Martha’s mother still apparently died at the hand of Martha’s father before he took his own life. Untreated mental illness still plagues people.
McKees Rocks Historical Society President Sandy Saban recalls a story about James Westwood claiming his troubles started when he unearthed a skull from the centuries-old McKees Rocks burial mound site and then kicked it into the Ohio River – a story that marries the cultural tragedy of the desecration of the mound with the murderous downfall of a local leader, and somehow lets him off the hook for both.
Supposedly, James Westwood brought a curse down on his family and the surrounding area, known in McKees Rocks as “the curse of the kick.” The story is apocryphal–we were not able to find a record of it in contemporary papers–but it holds a potent allegory.
Westwood’s ignorance – he was just a child after all when he committed the terrible act – kicks off forces he can’t control that bring violence and death to the people around him. By extension, the story implies the people who excavated the Burial Mound and then mined the mountain beneath it for stone were equally ignorant of what they were doing. It implies that the problems faced by McKees Rocks–poverty, environmental exploitation and then the violence that follows–are fated, too.
It’s our opinion at that fate is a fairytale, and so is the curse of the kick. We can’t control what has happened in the past, but we can learn from it, and recognize the patterns that have marked us for generations.