By Glenn Waight
In my continuing research on "Hell's Half Acre" -- that shady little state line neighborhood of 1920-50 -- the most notorious frequenter of the site was a young bootlegger who killed his brother and became Pretty Boy Floyd's companion in crime.
Willis Miller, originally from Ironton, shot to death his brother, Joseph "Alabama Joe" Miller, over a woman in the autumn of 1925 a short distance into Pennsylvania from "The Half-Acre." The slaying earned Willis the nickname "Billy, the Killer" throughout the Midwest.
Jake Eckert, longtime proprietor of the state line tavern and husband of Jennie EÁkert, was a witness to the slaying, according to a newspaper account Joan Witt recently provided me.
Billy, 22, was living in Midland when he and Joe, 29-- known as the "King of the State Line Bootleggers" -became infatuated with Mrs. Hazel Campbell Anthony. Jealousy turned to bloodshed Sept. 18.
ECKERT LATER told police he had met Billy and Louis Campbell of Michigan Ave., brother of Mrs. Anthony, near the state line on that evening.
Billy asked Jake if he had seen his girlfriend. Jake replied that Joe Miller and Mrs. Anthony were near a spring up the hill 200 yards east of the Ohio line. Billy and Campbell began walking up abandoned Island Run street car tracks, while Eckert headed toward the spring on a shortcut, arriving before the other two.
Jake said after he joined Joe and the woman, they spotted Billy and Campbell coming up the path. Joe started down to meet his brother, Jake said, and when within a few feet, Billy pulled out a revolver began firing without saying a word.
The bullet hit Joe in the chest, passing through his body. Eckert said he jumped behind a tree to avoid being struck by a stray bullet, and did not see what followed. However, police reported Joe was apparently beaten severely about the head with the handle of the revolver after he fell and rolled into weeds along the path.
Eckert said he saw Mrs. Anthony run to Billy and throw her arms around his neck. They then walked down the path toward the streetcar tracks, Billy warning Jake to stay where he was.
City officers, alerted around 7 p.m., found the body on the path, dragged there by William Llewellyn, operator of a stateline refreshment stand, who heard a shot and went up to investigate. City police along with Pennsylvania law officers combed the area seeking the suspects. Billy, Mrs. Anthony and Campbell reportedly went to Campbell's home after the shooting, then disappeared.
The Miller brothers, according to police, had arrived in the area about three years prior, and were blamed for a number of offenses linked with "Hell's Half Acre." Joe. had been released from the Allegheny County (Pa.) Workhouse a month before, serving a year on a liquor charge in Beaver County for which he had been fined $1,000.
Joe had been sought for several months on that offense, making several sensational escapes before he was captured. He had been living at the state line since freed from the workhouse.
HIS YOUNGER brother had earned a bad reputation as a youth around Ironton, Ohio. Billy had returned to the state line area that spring after serving six months in the Allegheny workhouse on a liquor charge. He reportedly had resumed his bootlegging enterprises, and a city illegal liquor charge was filed against him.
June 1925 city Patrolmen Herman Roth and Chester Smith went to the state line looking for Billy, locating him on the Ohio side. When Roth told him he was under arrest, Miller bolted. Roth fired at him, the bullet hitting in the leg, and he surrendered.
He was admitted to City Hospital where, eight days later, he escaped, apparently with the help of outsiders, one a woman. He climbed down from a second story window using sheets tied together to form a rope. Police said he was taken to New Castle Where he recovered from his wound, and went to Midland where he got a job in the mill and took up residence.
Just a few days before the shooting, Billy indicated he wanted to "go straight," and had almost completed a deal with city police to turn himself in and pay his fine in installments.
Billy Miller later was tried in Beaver County for first degree murder in connection with his brother's death. He claimed he fired his weapon only after Joe attacked him, and the jury returned a not guilty verdict.
However, the trial judge ordered him held under under an old English law requiring him to post $2,000 as guarantee for future good conduct. Unable to raise the money, he spent a year in jail until the bond was reduced to $500. It was posted by his mother who, it was said, mortgaged her home in Ironton.
Billy eventually drifted to other parts of Ohio, engaged in illegal activities, and six years later had met up with Floyd after the latter escaped from a train taking him to the Ohio Penitentiary.
In Kansas City, the two became involved with two married women whose husbands were soon found murdered along a country road.
Police in Bowling Green in the spring of 1931 became suspicious of a foursome who were spending plenty of money, and seemed to be casing a bank. It was to be Billy's final encounter with The Law. But more on that another time.