2017-10-25 / News

“Gunsmoke” in Paw Paw, Part II: Price not guilty in 1905 shoot-out

by Steve French


The trial of John Price was such a high-interest event in Berkeley Springs that The Morgan Messenger printed this special trial coverage edition on Saturday, April 7 – the day the jury returned their verdict. Normally, the Messenger was printed once a week on Thursdays. The trial of John Price was such a high-interest event in Berkeley Springs that The Morgan Messenger printed this special trial coverage edition on Saturday, April 7 – the day the jury returned their verdict. Normally, the Messenger was printed once a week on Thursdays. On October 14, 1905 in Paw Paw, local John Price came up against a band of tough Italian immigrant railroad workers in a gun battle that ended in the death of three workers -- Frank Ficco, G. Dalessandro and Clemento Ronollee. Price turned himself in to Paw Paw police following the deadly shoot-out. Part II: Trial of John Price

For almost six months, Price cooled his heels in jail. Charged with three counts of murder in the first degree, John, always claiming self-defense, protested his innocence. In a special interview given to The Baltimore Sun, “Price admitted that he shot at two men and was sure that he had hit one, but he did not shoot all three.”


Paw Paw’s railroad station in full operation. 
photo courtesy of Barbara Norton Paw Paw’s railroad station in full operation. photo courtesy of Barbara Norton On the morning April 4, 1906 over fifty witnesses were on hand to testify, as John’s trial for the murder of Frank Ficco started. Soon, Sherriff Biser brought the defendant into the packed courtroom. A Messenger reporter described Price as being “heavy set, has light hair, blue eyes, and is about 20 years of age.”

Prosecuting Attorney J. Hammond Siler, assisted by eminent Charles Town barrister Forrest W. Brown, was on hand and ready to present the state’s case. W.B. Lindsay, a distinguished Martinsburg lawyer, led the defense team, which also included two other capable attorneys with the last names of Allen and McIntire. Circuit Judge Elisha Boyd Faulkner presided.

Jury selection took the rest of the morning session but finally twelve men were selected to hear the capital case. During this time Price reportedly “seemed to be perfectly calm and apparently did not realize the enormity of the crime for which he is being tried.”

E.C. Sherman was the first prosecution witness called that afternoon and H.W. Miller, the second. According to the Messenger account, both testified, “they saw Price strike an Italian… at Okonoko.” At Paw Paw, the pair watched the gun battle from the platform of their car and “saw him shoot at the Italians and saw them fall.”

Afterward, H.H. and Latrobe Hunter presented an illustration of the crime scene. Four other witnesses, including P.E. Nixon followed them. The store owner remembered, “that Price had borrowed a revolver from him, stating that he wanted to go to Magnolia and was in a hurry to catch the train.”

The next morning, the trial resumed at nine o’clock. One after another, witnesses recounted their stories of what had happened on the train and at Paw Paw. Emmanuel Gale remembered Price coming out from the store and running toward the train, where four Italians waited. When the shooting started, Price ran after one Italian (Ficco) and shot him between the barber “shop and Mr. Moreland’s.” He also recalled, “one Italian shooting at him (Price) from near the train.”

That afternoon Dr. I.P. Canfield took the stand. Canfield, who proved to be one of the state’s most important witnesses, recounted Ficco’s death. The doctor testified that he “saw him place the revolver on top the man’s head and fire. He fell with his face down and remained perfectly quiet.” Hoping to take Price to the authorities, Canfield then grabbed John by his gun hand but soon let him go.

Spectators in the crammed courtroom watched the proceedings attentively as testimony continued through the afternoon and into the night. Finally, at 9:15, the judge adjourned the court.

Friday would be another long day for everyone involved. In his testimony, Conductor C. B. Cox said that when the shooting started, he began moving forward but had trouble getting through the “panic stricken… crowd.” Finally, Cox collared one of the Italians and took away his empty revolver.

Other witnesses backed up Price’s claim of self-defense. At last, it was time for the accused to take the stand. The defendant stoically recounted the Okonoko fracas, noting that while he stood beside the track, an enraged Ficco shouted, “…I kill him. I kill him.”

As to the fight at the station, Price said, “They came towards me, the one who I had struck started to pull his gun, and I drew my revolver and fired…. The other fellow (Ficco) threw his hand to his pocket and I again fired.”

Now under fire from both men and another on the train, Price started to run. When Ficco ran in front of him, “I fired and he fell on his left side.” Later, Price kept to his story during the prosecution’s long and contentious cross examination, which ended around 5:30.

Saturday morning, the trial dragged into its fourth day. Since each attorney chose to address the jury, it was not until 1:45 that the twelve men retired to make their decision. At 4:30, the foreman delivered the verdict, Not Guilty.

Even though Price’s friends still feared for his safety, the “Black Hand’s” threat of swift retribution if John went free proved empty. According to Jim Droegemeyer’s research, Price lived another 23 years before dying in Mercer County, W.Va. on May 22, 1928.

Barbara Norton for provided the photographs, and Jim Drogemeyer and Allyson Ruppenthal helped research portions of this story. Later this fall, Kent State University Press will be releasing the author’s new book Phantoms of the South Fork: Captain McNeill and His Rangers.

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