The ‘Selfless Act’ of Deputy Sheriff Milton McMillan of Somerset, PA

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Milton R. McMillan (1851-1935) grew up on the farm of his parents Jehu and Mary Ann (Ream) McMillan near Listonville, Somerset County, PA and in 1890, at the age of 39, served as deputy sheriff of the county, working for his uncle Rush McMillan. Among the prisoners he was charged with overseeing at the county jail were David and Joseph Nicely, who were facing death by hanging for their brutal slaying of a local farmer. On one fateful day, in a selfless act, he made a name for himself while in the face of deadly danger. Said the Meyersdale (PA) Republican, “In the whole history of Somerset County, or for that matter of any other county in Pennsylvania, who has done a braver act than that of Milton R. McMillan … when the Nicely brothers, convicted murders, attempted to escape?”

At noon on Sept. 16, 1890, “the day watchman had been let out for the purpose of procuring a bucket of water,” said the 1906 book History of Bedford and Somerset Counties, Pennsylvania, as quoted in the Republican.

On his return, Deputy Sheriff Milton McMillan unlocked the jail door from the outside and admitted him. As the guard stepped away from the door, and before the deputy sheriff could close it, Joseph Nicely stepped forward and pointed a revolver in the deputy’s face. A struggle at one took place between the two men, in the outer hall leading to the door of the jail corridor, during which the deputy sheriff was shot twice by Joseph Nicely, and was at that time supposed to be fatally wounded. The deputy had, however, during the struggle with Joe, succeeded in locking the door, but could not take the key out of the lock. David Nicely put his hand through a small opening in the door, turned the key and made his escape from the jail while the struggle between his brother and the deputy was still going on. On being shot the second time, Deputy McMillan released his hold on Joseph Nicely, who at once ran out of the front door…. The plucky fight made by the deputy was something that had not been anticipated by them, as they supposed he would throw up his hands, and they could lock him up in one of the jail cells while all the prisoners could make their escape before any alarm could be given.

It took a year for Milton to recover from his gunshot wounds. As he convalesced, in the spring of 1891, the Nicelys were executed by hanging in the county jail, generating sensational coverage in newspapers from coast to coast. Later that year, Milton was pictured in a commemorative booklet about the affair, authored by Edward H. Werner, and entitled The Umberger Tragedy, with a Criminal History of Somerset County, Pa., in which this image was published. The Republican later reported that he “recovered from his wound and lived to a ripe old age, but the bullet remained imbedded [sic] in his body until the day of his death.”

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