Unsolved: The Murder of Hugh Muirhead

Grave of Hugh Muirhead, Oak Ridge Cemetery, Unionville

I turned my attention from the grave of Benjamin H. Rich, a young man whose love of football would result in his death in 1897, and scanned the garden of stone known as Oak Ridge Cemetery. It was comforting to see the American flags flapping lazily in the breeze and the graves of loved ones decorated with flowers. Knowing the decorated graves have not been forgotten by family and friends, I meandered among the stones in search of another grave a short distance away. Note: More about the deadly football game can be found here: Benjamin H. Rich.

I moved carefully among the stones studying each one – both decorated and undecorated – wishing I had the time to research all the life stories remembered by the monuments. In the lower rear corner of the cemetery, I spotted the stone lying almost flush with the ground and covered with lichens. Brushing off the recently mowed grass, I studied the stone. There was nothing on it that hints at the tragedy which befell the man who rests here.

Born in Munson on March 30, 1909, Hugh was one of seven children of Henry and Margaret Muirhead. Hugh, who also went by the name “Dewey,” was living in Coleville – located outside of Bellefonte – where he married, fathered three children and worked for the American Lime and Stone Company plant. Unfortunately, he would not live to see his children grow.

On the morning of Monday, September 30, 1935, his lifeless body was discovered by Edward Decker. Decker, a clerk for the Bellefonte station, was checking the boxcars in the freight yard at the plant when he discovered Muirhead’s body in one of the boxcars.

Authorities immediately determined Muirhead had been badly beaten – a blow on the left side of his head fractured his skull, killing him. It was believed that the murder took place around 10:30 the night before. Near the boxcar, authorities found an iron bar and wrench, both which had blood on them. Note: there is mention of a flesh wound to Muirhead’s abdomen and when his body was exhumed, one of the things that was investigated was the wound. The wound to the abdomen was never mentioned after his body was re-examined at the end of October.

Some initially stated to authorities that they had heard Muirhead arguing with his brothers about his personal habits, but police were quick to dismiss this theory as the cause of the murder. Others reported hearing Muirhead arguing with his neighbor about the theft of some old coins from the Muirhead home.

Despite these theories, authorities already had a suspect, Joseph “Joe” Rine, who was described as a companion of Muirhead. Rine, who worked at the American Lime and Stone Company as a crane operator was arrested, questioned and released. The reason Rine was questioned was due to the wrench discovered at the scene belonging to him.

Note: While most places state the wrench belonged to Rine, in some articles the wrench was described as belonging to the crane Rine operated. Also, it was reported that while searching Muirhead’s clothes, authorities discovered a man’s ring in one of his pockets. The ring was similar to a type produced by inmates at the Rockview Penitentiary and it was not known how he came to possess it. This piece of evidence is mentioned only once in the October 3, 1935 edition of the Tyrone Daily Herald and it is unclear the significance of this ring, nor what happened to it.

On December 18, Rine was again arrested for Muirhead’s murder. Authorities believed the blood on Rine’s jacket, the wrench and iron bar were Muirhead’s. When Rine was questioned about the blood on his coat, he did not deny it belonged to Muirhead, but stated it had gotten on his coat when he went to examine his coworker’s dead body. Authorities dismissed Rine’s claim, stating Muirhead’s body had been guarded since its discovery, so Rine could not have gotten close to it.

The case against Rine went to trial in February 1936. On Wednesday, February 26, a jury was selected and the following morning, the trial began with Judge Fleming presiding. The case against Rine was built upon the testimony of Dr. John Rice, an expert from Bucknell University. Rice’s testimony for the prosecution was the blood on the coat and wrench was human. Rice also testified the iron bar, which struck and killed Muirhead, was the primary murder weapon. Added to Rice’s statements, the prosecution presented witnesses who either 1) heard a man’s screams that evening or 2) placed Muirhead at the scene. What the prosecution failed to do was to place Rine at the scene or provide a motive why he wanted to kill Muirhead.

According to the Lock Haven Express’s (Lock Haven, Pa) February 28, 1936 edition, the moment the state rested their case, Fleming commanded the jury to acquit Rine, stating the prosecution had “failed to show a motive for the crime” and had “failed in any way to connect Rine with (the murder).”

The only suspect authorities focused on had been set free. Nobody else was ever charged for the murder of Hugh Muirhead.

A breeze flowed across the cemetery grounds and – despite the warmth of the afternoon sun – I found myself shivering. A number of questions entered my mind as I stood there. Who wanted Muirhead dead and why? Had the justice system set a murderer free? Why didn’t authorities look into other potential suspects and scenarios? Had it been a complete stranger – maybe somebody riding the rails who was not supposed to be in the freight – who murdered Muirhead? I did not have an answer to any of these questions and after all these years, those questions will most likely never be answered.

I finished remembering the life of Hugh Muirhead and while too many years have passed, could only hope that one day the mystery of who murdered him and why will be answered. With that hope in mind, I slowly walked back toward my vehicle, knowing that his murder may remain unsolved after all these years, but he will never be forgotten.

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