Photo courtesy of Robinson Township Historical Society Martha and Jimmy Westwood with two of their four children.
-ROBINSON TOWNSHIP HISTORICAL SOCIETY-
By Janet Gonter
James “Jimmy” Westwood, a handsome, popular Justice of the Peace in McKees Rocks in the 1920s and 30s, believed he was destined for great things. But when he was convicted of tampering with ballot counts in the 1932 elections, his troubles were just beginning.
Soon, his career and family would fall like a house of cards.
In 1932, Westwood’s 13-year-old daughter Clara died from pneumonia caused by a gunshot wound from Jimmy’s gun, and the girl’s death was hurriedly ruled “accidental.” Later that year, Westwood’s in-laws, John and Josephine Winkler, died in a supposed murder-suicide in their home. Only years later would these three deaths be linked together, but nothing definitive ever resulted. And the worst was yet to come.
At 1:45 a.m. on July 10, 1935, Westwood’s 19-year-old daughter Bertha heard shots in a second-floor bedroom in their Ella Street home. She found her mother unconscious and phoned the police at 1:48 a.m. The three bullets in Martha’s head and body had proved fatal.
She was just 37 years old.
Westwood, a known womanizer, claimed that at the time of the shooting he was with friends at Eddie Peyton’s Roadhouse in Robinson Township (today the site of Primanti Brothers Restaurant). He claimed he had only left the bar for “15 minutes or so,” when he and a female companion had slipped out to a friend’s car in the parking lot, then re-entered using separate doors. Various witnesses at the bar judged the length of their absence to be anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour. The murder occurred just six miles from Peyton’s Roadhouse, so it would have been possible for Jimmy to get home and back.
On Sept. 29, 1936, Westwood was charged with the murder of his wife and the trial began. According to an article in the Charleroi Mail, “Calm and dapper as ever, Justice of the Peace James Westwood, with an upraised right hand, today pleaded not guilty to the slaying of his wife, Martha, as he went on trial for his life.”
When a star witness for the prosecution was killed in a suspicious industrial accident and another requested a 24-hour guard, things got even more intense. At the conclusion of the sensational trial, and despite his pleas of innocence, the father of four was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.
Even Jimmy’s own death was suspicious. In 1951, after serving just 15 years of his life sentence, he “fell” from a scaffold at the Western Penitentiary and died instantly from a fractured skull. Some said he was pushed.
In a last tragic chapter of the Westwood family’s turbulent history, 28-year-old Jimmy Westwood Jr. fell from a painting scaffold in 1955. His instant death, eerily similar to his father’s, occurred on Helen Street in McKees Rocks. It is not known if this incident was ever investigated.
One family, so many tragedies. And so many unanswered questions.