Oyler: Bridgeville's most famous cold case explored
For its October “Second Tuesday” workshop, the Bridgeville Area Historical Society interrupted its study of the history of Bridgeville High School to focus on the community's most famous “cold case,” the murder of Pennsylvania Railroad Station Agent John C. F. Franks attempting to prevent a robbery 102 years ago.
On a peaceful Saturday evening, Oct. 16, 1915, a pair of strangers were loitering in the vicinity of the station when the whistle of the 8 o'clock passenger train from Pittsburgh announced its imminent arrival.
At this point, Station Agent Franks came out of the station, probably to determine if the train's conductor had any mail for him. The two strangers entered the building. The westbound train pulled to a stop, blocking the crossing, and discharged its passengers, some of whom proceeded up Station Street toward Washington Avenue. A dozen or so waited patiently for the train to pull out.
At this point, Mr. Franks realized that something was wrong and hurried back into the station, where he found one of the strangers rifling his cash box. He immediately attacked him and fell to the floor on top of him. In the meantime the passenger train and left, but before the passengers could get across the crossing an eastbound freight appeared, preventing them.
Two young boys dashed across the tracks in front of the freight and found themselves in the middle of a confrontation. The stranger standing guard at the station door grabbed 14-year-old John Schulte, threw him on the floor, then proceeded to shoot Mr. Franks and rescue his partner. Franks was mortally wounded. Walter Der, 13, observed this from the platform.
By the time the freight train had passed, and the passengers had come rushing across to investigate, the two burglars were leaving the station. The shocked passengers found Mr. Franks' dead body close to the ticket office he had tried to defend.
As soon as news of this tragedy spread, sightings of suspicious characters began to come in from all directions. A futile manhunt, supported with bloodhounds, focused on the area south of Bridgeville.
A careful search of old newspaper articles related to this event turned up a list of 14 suspects, two of whom didn't surface until 1934. The facilitator carefully reported all the available clues to the audience, as well as the fact that none of these men was ever formally indicted.
Based on this knowledge, he now asked the workshop attendees to come to their own conclusions and decide whom they thought was guilty. Suspect John Mokati, possibly allied with William Sanders, got the most votes, followed closely by “I haven't a clue.”
It is a remarkably convoluted story, one that doesn't paint a favorable picture of the County Detective Department in that era.
The next “Second Tuesday” workshop will return to our review of the history of Bridgeville High School, picking up with the Class of 1939. We hope to get as far as 1942 or 1943. It will be at the History Center at 7 p.m. Nov. 14.