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Firearm users had a bad month in February 1911

Published February 19. 2011 09:00AM

By jim zbick

During a 10-day period in February 1911, three big news stories, all involving firearms, stunned area residents. Two of the local incidents occurred in neighboring communities within three days of each other.

The first, a story of a tragic romance that went terribly wrong, ironically occurred just two days after Valentine's Day in Brockton.

Michael Lalick, 21, worked as a mine boss at Moss Glenn Colliery, located between Brockton and Tuscarora. His girlfriend was Alice Hyland and the two were considered an item for three years, often seen attending summer dances at Tamaqua's Odd Fellows Hall.

In early 1911, Alice decided to end the relationship and Lalick became distraught.

"She refused absolutely to have anything to do with him, notwithstanding his ardent declaration of love," a reporter for the Tamaqua Courier stated in setting the scene for the romantic tragedy. "He brooded over it and friends noticed yesterday that he appeared wild-eyed and restless."

Alice and two companions were headed to a party one Thursday evening in February when Lalick approached them in front of the Brockton Hotel. When he asked Alice if she would go with him to the party, she refused, stating "I don't want anything more to do with you!"

The stinging rebuff caused Lalick to snap. He pulled out a revolver and shot Alice, killing her instantly, and then fled to the nearby mountain.

State police arrived on the scene and conducted a search before darkness fell. The next morning they followed a thin trail of blood about half way up the mountain where they found Lalick's body lying in the snow, a bullet hole in the right temple.

They also noticed a bullet wound in the right hip, which caused the blood trail. It was believed that the gun accidentally fired when he attempted to put it back in his pocket after shooting Alice.

The tragic event, which one local reporter called "the most brutal murder in the history of the Schuylkill Valley," stunned area residents. Some 2,500 paid their respects at the two viewings, which were held on the same morning three days after the shootings. Alice's home was on the western end of Brockton while Lalick lived on the extreme eastern end.

"The little village of Brockton looked like a summer resort," one reporter stated. "Between the two houses there was a regular parade all day. People from all parts of the county flocked to look at the slain girl as well as her assassin."

Just three days later a few miles away from this solemn gathering, six men got together to do some target shooting in New Philadelphia. It was bad enough that they were using a small caliber rifle in the cellar of Theodore Cutto's home. Their judgment only got worse when they decided to start drinking.

"The men were having a good time and sat down a few minutes between shooting events to drink," the Courier stated. "While sitting on a bench, the rifle held by Joseph Preppo went off."

"My God, I'm shot!" Lawrence Pessi said before dropping to the floor dead.

Investigators learned, however, that the shooting may not have been accidental. The two men reportedly had not been on speaking terms for quite some time.

"The only cause that can be given for the shooting is an old grudge which Preppo is said to have held against the dead man. Both were Tryoleans about 24 years of age," the Courier reported.

Preppo was immediately placed under arrest, charged with murder and committed to jail.

"Preppo takes the affair very cooly," the Courier stated. "He does not deny that he intentionally killed Pessi nor does he appear sorry that Pessi is dead."

The last shooting occurred in Philadelphia, but the story was carried by the Courier since it involved young boys who were influenced by a new phenomenon sweeping the nation - the "moving picture show." Moved by a wild west adventure involving cowboys and Indians, the boys decided to reenact their own combat in a vacant lot. Unfortunately, one of their weapons was a real rifle that fired a 22. cal. cartridge.

Remarkably, Dennis Kelly, a father, had been watching some of the play-acting.

"My two boys had told me so often of the great times they had playing on the lot that I decided to go over and watch them," said Kelly, "I noticed they were playing with an air rifle and cautioned them to be very careful. In a little while I went home."

Ten minutes later a boy rushed into the Kelly home and said, "Your boy wants you."

During their play, Kelly's son John, 15, was chasing Jimmy Engel, 10, who suddenly turned and fired the loaded rifle.

John cried out "I'm shot," ran a few steps and fell dead.

John Engel, Jimmy's father, learned of the tragedy when his son came running into the home, and through tear-filled eyes cried, "Pop, I picked it (the rifle) up and it went off."

A few seconds later, another son, Louis, 12, who was also playing in the lot, came rushing into the home.

"He was overwhelmed with grief and passionately called upon his mother and father to pray for John, 'as he is sick.' He did not know that John had been killed instantly," the reporter stated.

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