There are some days which stand out in the mind of a young child. One of the first tangible memories of my life was a sunny Saturday in May 1988. The day was perfect for a walk, and my parents decided to do exactly that. Given the fact I was very young at the time, I was carried around a good bit during this walk. Starting from my home on Grandview Avenue, we headed north to Good Lane, made a left, and walked to the foot of the hill. My mother began to tire while climbing this ascent. My father took over the duty of carrying me. I took in my sights and was mostly fixated on the traffic signal at the top of the hill but also saw a ton of homes along the way. As we passed the final residence on the right before Route 19, none of us had any idea what had happened there 53 and one half years earlier. After all, I was simply enjoying my first walk into downtown Perrysville, a walk which I would repeat many times up until the day I left Pittsburgh in August. I remember my mom pressing the button to change the signal at Good Lane and Perry Highway. I pointed at the signal as we crossed to the sidewalk in front of St. Teresa School (still standing at the time). We crossed back over, stopped at the little deli that used to be at the plaza, and walked back down Good Lane, passing that house once again.
The house in question was a multi-family unit at 103 Good Lane. Technically, it had been given a different set of addresses by 1988, but still was better associated with Good Lane (known as Good Way when it was constructed). By 1988, nobody thought much of the house except for those who had been in Perrysville for a long time or had heard stories passed down from generation to generation. It was simply an old building owned by Schneider Real Estate Company (which I have been told had some connection with the Schneider Dairy) where four families could rent small apartments. However, things were far different in 1934.
Much as it is today, the Perrysville of 1934 was a small town which normally wouldn’t enter the spotlight. Known as the “Gateway to the Country”, it was the textbook definition of a small town. Aside from the Biddle Boys, nothing had happened to that point to give Perrysville notoriety. There weren’t all that many homes in the town back then, as many large plots were still owned by the landowners of ages past, but construction had started to pick up before the Great Depression hit. Among the homes built in that timeframe was the residence at 103 Good Way, at the time a duplex. The western parcel was home to Walter F. Dempsey, a welfare worker and veteran of World War I, and his wife Clara. With them lived their four sons, Robert, Thomas, Walter Jr., and David. By all accounts, they were a normal, happy suburban family who attended St. Teresa Church and enjoyed living in the little town of Perrysville.
As autumn turned to winter, residents of Perrysville geared up for another Christmas season. Everyone began to decorate their homes and businesses for the holiday, using their Christmas spirit to brighten a time dampered by economic depression. The Dempseys were no different, having prepared their home for a joyous celebration. As the days remaining in the year dwindled, visitors from near and far paid a visit to Perrysville, reuniting with family members in time to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ.
One such visitor was Kathryn Schoch, a nurse who had traveled by taxi from Dunkirk, New York. She was the sister of Mr. Dempsey and had recently lost her son, seven years of age, just two months earlier. Shocked and depressed from the the untimely death, she decided to take out her rage against her own sister, killing her in Dunkirk before escaping to Perrysville.
When Mrs. Schoch arrived in Perrysville, nobody knew of her murderous deed. Her brother took her in and made her feel at home. The evening of December 23 was a pleasant one for the family, reunited with a beloved aunt, brother, and sister-in-law. Gifts were passed out, bringing great joy to the children.
Once everyone had fallen asleep, Mrs. Schoch closed every blind in the home. A piece of cloth was nailed over the window with no blind in the rear of the home. Drawing a revolver, Mrs. Schoch struck once again.
David and Robert were killed instantly in the rear bedroom. Thomas and Walter Jr. met the same fate in the front bedroom, as did their parents. Only Walter Jr. and his mother survived; Walter Jr. would die later in the hospital.
With nearly the entire family dead, Mrs. Schoch concocted a potion of poison, guzzling it to commit suicide shortly after writing a note about her grief-stricken life.
Mrs. Dempsey, badly wounded, ran up the hill to St. Teresa Church, screaming in terror. She managed to get the attention of Father Schoppol, who discovered the bodies in the home. Mrs. Dempsey and her son were rushed to the hospital, where only she survived.
Michael Howe, the driver of the taxi which brought Mrs. Schoch to Perrysvile, reported Mrs. Schoch was somewhat quiet and told him that she would not be around when asked if he could hire her as a family nurse. This harbinger was ignored; nobody could have predicted what happened in Perrysville that fateful evening.
The community of Perrysville was shocked. Any joy and happiness in the community had been obliterated by the murders. Most residents were in disbelief and could not believe such a tragedy was capable of happening, let alone at the happiest time of year in the most peaceful small town north of Pittsburgh. The bodies were buried in St. Teresa Cemetery a few days after Christmas. News of the murders reached near and far, having been published in the form of an Associated Press article which spanned the United States. Perrysville had found itself on the map, gaining temporary notoriety in the process.
While Mrs. Dempsey apparently moved from the site of the tragedy, the house remained as the calendar turned a page to 1935. Another family moved into the vacated property shortly after the murder occurred. Although the building changed somewhat over the years, losing its front porch, it remained an occupied home in Perrysville until the late 2000s. Having sat abandoned for a few years, it was demolished in July 2011. The building had fallen into deplorable shape by then and was torn apart without heavy machinery. (In fact, in its final months, the doors were open).
During its final years, a piece of pink and white cloth hung above the window which had no drapery during the murder in 1934. Although this was likely highly coincidental, it certainly deserves recognition. (The current street view of the property on Google Maps, taken in 2007, shows this in the view from Good Lane).
This year will mark 78 years since the gruesome murders. It serves as a reminder that even the most mundane, boring, and apparently safe neighborhood can be the backdrop of despicable deeds of evil, which may arrive in the form of a nurse traveling by taxicab or perhaps out of nowhere in an ordinary residence. Take the time to know your surroundings, become street smart, and never assume anything, even in a community as tranquil as Perrysville.
Of course, this also serves as a reminder for those facing mental health issues to get the help they need. If you or a loved one is suffering from grief, anxiety, or depression, take the time to talk with them and be sure proper help is sought. Although it is often difficult to get through problems, which so often go ignored by those who simply say “tough it out, be like Chuck Norris, and move on,” mental health is a serious issue and needs to be addressed to better the lives of all involved and to prevent potential tragedies like the one which happened the evening of December 23, 1934 in Perrysville. Although the dark clouds have lifted over the community and the site of the murder has been gone for 15 months, the row of graves in St. Teresa Cemetery serve as a reminder of why great care should be given to those suffering from grief.
NEXT TIME: A pioneer in the grocery industry once operated in Ross Township. Featuring grocery pickup, prepared foods, cooking classes, a store debit card, and experts in all major departments, the upscale store was revered by “foodies” of the day. Who was the genius behind the concept? Find out next time as we flash back to November 1984, when this one-of-a-kind retailer opened its doors for the first time!
Hamilton Daily News Journal, Hamilton, OH; December 24, 1934 (AP Article)
Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, PA; December 24, 1934