Pennsylvania has no shortage of locations where spooky happenings from yesteryear are a big part of the attraction.
Pennsylvania history is full of mysterious happenings, sordid tales, and fascinating myths. These narratives outline the lives of robbers, explain how certain phenomena came to be, and describe the mystery behind disappearing vessels.
We’re highlighting six such stories, as well as ways to experience pieces of the stories yourself.
The Biddle Brothers Escape From Jail – Pittsburgh
In 1902, a scandal featuring robbers, a secret romance, and a prison break rocked Pittsburgh. The Biddle brothers, Jack and Edward, were responsible for a string of robberies throughout the city. They were finally captured, imprisoned at the Old Allegheny County Jail, and sentenced to death. But the warden’s wife, Kate Soffel, fell in love with Ed. So, Mrs. Soffel did what any infatuated woman would do: She helped plan a jailbreak. The brothers escaped the jail and, along with Soffel, fled Pittsburgh by sleigh, making it all the way to Butler before they were overwhelmed in a gun battle. The Biddle brothers died in the gunfight. Their ghosts, however, were said to haunt the hallways of the old jail, as well as the place where their bodies rest, Calvary Cemetery. You can learn more about the Biddles and other Pittsburgh legends on Haunted Pittsburgh ghost tours. You can also visit a favorite neighborhood coffee shop named after the tale: Biddle’s Escape in Regent Square.
The Legend of the Molly Maguires in Pa. – Jim Thorpe
In the late 1800s (and beyond), coal companies did whatever they could to quash fledgling unionism. When Irish unionists known as the Molly Maguires—a secret society fighting for better labor conditions—were reported to be active in coal country in Eastern Pa., the Philadelphia and Reading Coal and Iron Company acted. The company hired a private detective agency to investigate suspected Molly Maguires and dispatched its private police force, the Coal and Iron Police, to arrest them. After the arrest, the seven Irish immigrant coal miners were hanged at the Carbon County Jail for their suspected involvement in murder related to union activities. Many historians believe it likely the men were falsely accused. Today, you can visit the old jail in Jim Thorpe, now called the Old Jail Museum, to learn the full story, including how the spirits of the convicted are said to haunt the jail.
The Ghost Bomber of Pittsburgh – Homestead
In 1956, a US military plane crashed into the Monongahela River (“the Mon”) near Pittsburgh. Multiple witnesses saw the B-25 fly low over what is now the Homestead Grays Bridge and then land in the waters of the river. While the pilot and crew survived the emergency landing, only four people were rescued; two drowned in the icy river. But though the Mon is just 20 feet deep where the aircraft crashed, the plane has never been found. Some people believe it may have disintegrated in the toxic waters of the Mon. Others believe the military recovered the plane immediately to ensure its contents—a nuclear weapon, perhaps?—didn’t become public. You can’t exactly look for the plane yourself, but you can take a look at where it went down. We suggest viewing the Mon from a safe, dry distance, like via the 8.3-mile Steel Valley Trail, which is especially great for cycling.
Lore at Laurel Hill Cemetery – Philadelphia and Bala Cynwyd
Nearly 200 years ago, Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia was founded as a rural cemetery meant to be enjoyed as a public garden for the living as well as a final resting place for the dead. Many members of the Philadelphia elite were buried at Laurel Hill, including famous names like Rittenhouse as well as Civil War generals. Their graves were often decorated with elaborate statues and markers, helping to make the cemetery a popular day trip destination for many, which it remains today. One of these markers is an intricate statue of a woman holding two infants overlooking a beautiful view of the Schuylkill River. Legend says that the woman, Helena Schaaff Saunders, died with her children in a boating accident on the river. In reality, she gave birth to a stillborn child and then died in labor during the birth of her second child, who also died. Her distraught husband sculpted the statue himself. You can visit Laurel Hill Cemetery and take part in any number of tours of the graves. During October, you might be interested in the spookier tours that focus on a number of the cemetery’s darker stories.
The Shipwrecks of Lake Erie – Erie
The freshwater seas we call the Great Lakes are not exactly lake-like, considering that the waters and waves are often treacherous. Since the 1800s in Lake Erie alone, as many as 2,000 ships have sunk to a watery grave. Of those Erie shipwrecks, scholars believe there were about 200 wrecks that likely occurred in Pennsylvania waters. Yet just 35 wrecks have been found. You can dive in Lake Erie’s waters from the city of Erie itself in order to explore parts of the lake’s ship graveyard. Scuba Erie, for instance, offers scuba diving classes as well as group dives to explore ships like hundred-year-old schooners. Perhaps you’ll even discover another mysterious wreck yourself.
The Origin of the Bald Eagle Mountains – Centre County and Lycoming County
According to Pennsylvania folklorist Henry Wharton Shoemaker, the Native Americans who first lived in Central Pennsylvania used a legend to explain how the Bald Eagle Mountains were created. It goes something like this: In the olden days, there was little strife among people and thus no reason to be brave. But one day, the people were tested by a demon from below the earth. They never had to be brave before, but with the safety of the tribe at stake, they gathered their courage and constructed a giant spear to kill the demon. When it came to attack, it left a ridge in the earth. Members of the tribe killed the demon with the spear, but the broken-up earth remained. This was the Bald Eagle Mountain ridge. Today, the Bald Eagle Mountains are a popular hiker’s paradise, and you can experience the result of this legend by hiking the 9-mile Bald Eagle Mountain Trail near Lock Haven, which offers beautiful views of the valley below. You can also read more about Shoemaker’s stories by checking out Lou Bernard’s writing.
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