In the Line of Duty: The Murder of William Whiteman

William Whiteman, Rose Hill Cemetery, Altoona

I had finished paying my respects to Robert Cox, a Medal of Honor recipient, before scanning the nearby stones for another grave I sought within the borders of Rose Hill Cemetery. I knew the grave was close to Robert Cox’s burial site and I studied the stones as I walked among them in search of the memorial. A short distance away, I spotted the grave and walked over to the small, simple stone that marked the burial spot of an Altoona native who was murdered in 1920. Note: more about the Medal of Honor recipient can be found here: Robert E Cox.

Located in the rear corner of Rose Hill Cemetery, the stone does not start to tell the story of the man who rests beneath it. Standing in front of the memorial, I took in the words on the stone, “Father / Wm Elmer / Whiteman / 1870-1920.” Nothing on his marker hinted that he was a police officer who was killed in the line of duty and whose death remains unsolved.

William Elmer Whiteman was born August 31, 1870 to John and Mary Whiteman. Whiteman had served on Altoona’s police force before becoming the Police Chief for the Vesta Coal Company in Daisytown, Washington County, about three miles west of California, Pennsylvania. He had served as the head of the coal company’s police force for eight years when tragedy struck.

On January 14, 1920, at 1:30 in the morning, Chief Whiteman was murdered while in the performance of his duty. While making his rounds that morning, Whiteman responded to the sound of an explosion coming from the Daisytown post office.

Arriving at the post office, he was ambushed by a man standing in the shadows of the post office – this shooter was standing watch while his companions attempted to blow open the safe with dynamite. A bullet fired by the unknown assailant struck Chief Whiteman in the abdomen.

The shot brought the other three men out of the post office. Whiteman, unable to draw his pistol, could only watch as the four masked men fled into the night. The men failed to open the safe, although the explosion badly damaged it. It was believed they left the scene with the five or six dollars which had been in the cash drawer.

A posse was formed to go after the criminals, but the criminals disappeared into the night. Despite police blocking the roads within the immediate area, the men avoided the roadblocks.

Chief Whiteman was transferred to the Southside Hospital in Pittsburgh. He was able to tell Constable John Young what had happened before he passed. Whiteman’s body was returned to Altoona and buried in Rose Hill Cemetery. He was survived by his wife and ten children – Whiteman was forty-nine years old.

Over a hundred years have passed since the murder of Police Chief William Elmer Whiteman. The masked men who were responsible for the attempted robbery and the shooting death of Chief Whiteman were never identified. With no leads to go on, Whiteman’s murder quickly vanished from the newspapers and his case has faded into the mists of time.

As I left his gravesite, I knew his case may not have been solved, but the murder of William Whiteman has not been forgotten.

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