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Pennsylvania Oddities

Pennsylvania Oddities

By Marlin Bressi
Author and "historian of the macabre" Marlin Bressi explores true crime, unsolved mysteries, haunted places, and strange history from around the Keystone State. Based on the Pennsylvania Oddities blog and book series by Sunbury Press. New episodes on the 1st and 15th of every month.

Be sure to visit the Pennsylvania Oddities blog for hundreds of astonishing true stories from every corner of the spookiest state in America!
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The Haunted Lumber Camp of Betula
Once a thriving lumber camp on the banks of Potato Creek in McKean County, the village of Betula lies halfway between Smethport and  Emporium. The few people who call this backwoods location home are friendly folks, who are likely to point you to the best fishing spots or give you directions to nearest gas station. However, during the height of the lumber boom in the early 20th century, Betula was known around the region as home to some of the meanest characters who ever wielded an axe-- and home to the ghost of a murder victim named Edward Ralph.
October 15, 2021
Buried Alive! The Murder of Mary Newlin
On a sunny Sunday in June, 1907, a pretty little girl with golden hair walked the short distance home from her grandfather's farm near the  village of Avondale in Chester County. Accompanying five-year-old Mary Robbins Newlin was her little sister, Fannie. At a fork in the road where an old, abandoned church stood, the sisters parted and it was at this lonesome spot where Mary was last seen alive.
October 1, 2021
Louis Moff: The Vice King of the Coal Region
The history of the Pennsylvania Coal Region wouldn't be complete without one, or several, chapters devoted to organized crime. During the Prohibition Era, crime rings could be found in just about every nook and cranny of the anthracite region. The nefarious plots of many mobsters were hatched in dozens of area "houses of ill repute", such as the notorious Sunset Inn in Numidia, which was just one of the many seedy establishments owned by Louis Moff, who met his death in a hail of gunshots outside his Atlas home in 1931.  
September 15, 2021
A Blood-Stained Dress and Other Lessons From Gnadenhutten
Somewhere in the historic Cross Creek Cemetery in Washington County, about thirty miles west of Pittsburgh, there is a lost grave that holds the dust of a frontier wife named Mary Wallace, whose death in 1782 led to one of the most famous, and horrific, massacres in American history.
September 1, 2021
The Last Ascension of Wash Donaldson
This is the story of famed balloonist Wash Donaldson and how he came to be buried thousands of miles away from home, in a graveyard north of the Arctic Circle. It is also a tale of unsolved murder; many believe that Donaldson intentionally "disappeared" after throwing a passenger from the basket of his hot air balloon in 1875.
August 15, 2021
George Pletz: The First Casualty of American Aviation
Seventy-five years before the Wright Brothers flew into the history books, a pair of eccentric brothers from Dauphin County built a flying machine.
August 1, 2021
The Ghost of Reverend Nowak: The Pond Hill Tragedy
On a hot July evening in 1921, a mysterious fire claimed the lives of Reverend Felix Nowak, his wife, and their three children. Was this a case of arson or a tragic accident? Those who encountered the ghost of the dead preacher are likely to say it must have been a case of cold, premeditated murder.
July 15, 2021
Lover's Leap, Accident, or Murder?
On the cold, dreary Monday morning of January 10, 1916, two sets of parents awoke to discover their children were missing. Those who knew Clayton Mengle and Helen Hepler insisted they had gone to Maryland, where Helen's tender age wouldn't be a deterrent in obtaining a marriage license. Whether they ever reached Maryland is unknown; for three months no one saw or heard a thing from either Clayton or Helen. Whatever events took place during that time remain a mystery, but when the young lovers were finally found, many believed that Clayton and Helen had never made it out of sight of their Schuylkill County homes.
July 1, 2021
The Fantastic Disappearance of Captain Rehrer
Like his father, Erasmus Godfrey Rehrer seemed destined for success. After serving honorably as an officer in the Union Army's  engineering corps and attaining the rank of captain, he entered the coal mining business. As superintendent of the Tremont Coal Company, Captain Rehrer, along with two partners, saw an opportunity to strike it rich. After discovering a previously unknown vein of coal near Donaldson, they formed their own company, obtained a lease on the land and sunk all their savings into drilling a tunnel. And that's when things went horribly wrong.
June 15, 2021
The Lost Confederate Grave of Wildcat Falls
It's impossible to say how many generations have been enchanted by the beauty of Wildcat Falls in York County, but it is known that hundreds of years ago the Susquehannock tribe had a village here, where Wildcat Run cuts a magnificent gorge through the rocky hills before taking a 150-foot plunge on its short course to the Susquehanna at a point across the river upstream from Marietta. It was here, on the site of the old Indian village, where a hotel was erected in the late 19th century. Though largely forgotten today, the Wildcat Falls Hotel was a local landmark. During the early 20th century, cottages and cabins were erected  along River Road, and the locale became a popular weekend getaway for many York and Lancaster County residents. But even after the last traces of the once-prestigious hotel had disappeared, there were still a few locals who kept a close watch on the grounds. One of them was George Wilson, who, for decades, upheld a little-known  local tradition-- decorating the grave of an unknown Confederate soldier who was hastily buried at Wildcat Falls after a scouting mission gone horribly wrong.
June 1, 2021
The Cawley Murders: Boy Genius Gone Berzerk
Across the river from Pittsburgh, on the southern banks of the Monongahela, lies the suburb of Homestead. Here, on a quiet street, lived a quiet boy named Charlie Cawley, a teenage genius who seemed destined to one day join the ranks of Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham  Bell and Cyrus McCormick in the pantheon of great American inventors-- until he inexplicably slaughtered his mother and siblings one fateful night in 1902.
May 15, 2021
The Lost Grave of Benjamin Remaley
Somewhere just over the Columbia-Luzerne county line, on a hill overlooking the scenic valley north of Beach Haven, lies the mortal remains of one of the most eccentric citizens to ever call Salem Township home. Benjamin Remaley passed away in 1885 and the age of 75, but not before making out a detailed will with several bizarre stipulations-- like his demand that two holes be drilled into his coffin so that he could escape-- if necessary-- from evil spirits. But that's just one of the many strange final requests made by the ornery farmer. And had Benjamin Remaley not been such a quirky fellow, his moldering bones would be slumbering in a graveyard instead of hidden somewhere on the foothills of Knob Mountain.
May 1, 2021
The Legend of Tom Skelton and the Ghost of Packsaddle Gap
Old-time railroaders in western Pennsylvania often told tales about Wild Tom Skelton, whose ghost was fond of standing on the tracks as the locomotives bore down on him, leaning on his long gun with a forlorn look in his eyes, cursed to search for all eternity for his beloved Maria. The tragic tale of Tom Skelton is one of heartbreak on the wilderness frontier of present-day Indiana County, but what is the true origin of the story of Wild Tom Skelton's wandering spirit, known throughout western Pennsylvania as the Ghost of Packsaddle Gap?
April 15, 2021
The Clearfield UFO Sighting of 1950
The coincidental timing of the science fiction craze and the Cold War inspired millions of Americans to keep their eyes glued to the night sky for Soviet missiles, flying saucers, and all things in between in the decade following World War II. Just three years after the Roswell crash, a peculiar UFO sighting in Clearfield County on March 15, 1950, made national headlines. The fact that this "flying saucer" was seen by Dr. Craig Hunter, an amateur pilot and technical director for a supply firm specializing in scientific instruments, added a touch of credibility to the claim. But not everyone was convinced of the authenticity of Dr. Hunter's story, however; some insisted that Hunter had fabricated his story, and had based his drawings of the spaceship he had seen on a drawing published earlier that month by a magazine. So what is the truth behind Dr. Hunter's spectacular story?
April 1, 2021
Albert Large: The Hermit of Buckingham Mountain
The trials and tribulations of Albert Large, a Civil War-era hermit who found peace living inside a hilltop cave... that is, until his hideaway was discovered by nosy locals.
March 15, 2021
The Strange History of Peddler's Grave
In a lonesome spot on North Mahanoy Mountain, near the No. 3 Reservoir on Waste House Run, lies a grave with a peculiar history. This is the final resting place of Jost Folhaber, a Jewish-German merchant who became the first known murder victim in Schuylkill County. This spot, known locally as "Peddler's Grave", has been one of the Coal Region's best-kept secrets ever since Folhaber's gruesome death in the summer of 1797.
March 1, 2021
Peter Hauntz: The Mysterious Puppetmaster of Pennsylvania
Peter Hauntz was the stage name of James H. Sharp, a Civil War veteran from Clinton County who rose to prominence during the latter half of the 19th century as a master puppeteer, ventriloquist, magician and stage performer. Trained in the German tradition of the famed Eisenstadt Puppet Theatre by Professor de Rotschkoff-- a man who believed the key to making realistic puppets was by using real human blood-- Sharp's performances included a variety of characters so realistic that, to this day, some aren't sure whether they were wooden puppets, or living, breathing human beings.  One such character was Herodia, a young gypsy ballerina who Sharp claimed had climbed into his wagon to hide from her evil parents one night in 1873. Herodia performed with the Peter Hauntz show for four years-- before disappearing as mysteriously as she had arrived. 
February 15, 2021
Mickey Smith: The Peg-Legged Killer of Cambria County
In 1884, a peculiar series of murder trials took place in Cambria County. Two men, both of whom were named Mickey, were convicted of murder in the same week. Both men not only shared the same first name, but also the same handicap-- they both had wooden legs. But  what makes this bit of historical trivia even more interesting is that  both judges in these respective murder trials, Judge Dean and Judge  Johnston, were also peg-legged. The court clerk who made out the juror's  orders also had a wooden leg, as did the county treasurer who cashed the orders. One of the witnesses was peg-legged, while one of the jurors  had not one, but two wooden legs. In total, there were nine artificial limbs in the Cambia County Courthouse during a single week in March of 1884. But it is one of these two convicted murderers, Mickey Smith, who went  on to achieve infamy after pulling off a daring escape from the Cambria County Jail in Ebensburg. This escape led to a massive manhunt and a spate of Mickey Smith sightings all across the state for years to come.  And, strangely, no one knows for sure what became of the peg-legged escape artist. He was never caught.
February 1, 2021
The Shocking Murder of Eleanor Buggy
Life was finally beginning to look up for James Buggy. It had been three years since his beloved wife Kathryn passed away during the birth of their first child, leaving him with the seemingly impossible challenge of keeping a steady job in the mines that would allow him to raise his infant daughter on his own.  And then, in January of 1917, James' prayers were answered. The thirty-year-old single father met and fell in love with a young Italian woman who also lived in the Edgewood neighborhood of Shamokin. With hair as dark as the anthracite mined in the nearby hills and piercing eyes that flashed with youthful passion, twenty-three-year-old Annie Compolo swept the lonely widower off his feet. And, much to James' delight, his new flame took an immediate liking to his motherless daughter, Eleanor.  Four weeks later, James would realize that he had made the biggest mistake of his life.
January 15, 2021
William Hummel and the Montgomery Murders of 1899
The small town of Montgomery in Lycoming County was thrust into the national spotlight on Thursday, November 23, 1899, after a chilling discovery was made under a haystack. Wrapped in bloodied burlap were the bodies of a young widow and two small children. The bones of another child, just a mere infant, were later found under a manure pile in a horse stall. Suspicion immediately fell upon a temperamental rag peddler whom the widow had married just one week earlier. This is the story of William Hummel, the cold-blooded killer who committed one of the ghastliest crimes in the history of Pennsylvania.
January 1, 2021
The Burning of Chambersburg and a Civil War Mystery
Chambersburg played a role in many important chapters of American history, from the French and Indian War to the Whiskey Rebellion to the Underground Railroad. Chambersburg also holds the distinction of being the only northern city that was burned down by Confederate forces; the order given by Gen. John McCausland on July 30, 1864, reduced much of the community to ashes and smoldering rubble. History records only one casualty resulting from the series of raids on  the borough-- a black resident who was trapped inside a burning building  because the rebels refused to let him out. A few hundred Union soldiers  were captured as prisoners, and two Confederate soldiers were reported  as missing-- and therein lies Chambersburg's most captivating unsolved Civil War mystery. So how did these Confederate soldiers disappear, and why?
December 15, 2020
Colonel Noah Parker and Blackbeard's Treasure
Eight miles north of Emporium, in the wilderness of McKean County, lies the ghost town of Gardeau. Once a prosperous lumber town with over a thousand residents, Gardeau is home to more rattlesnakes than humans these days. Although it is a lonely place today, Gardeau does boast one unusual and mysterious tourist attraction-- the  mausoleum of Colonel Noah Parker. What makes the mausoleum strange is that it is not in a cemetery; it seems to have just grown out of the wilderness like an ancient Mayan temple. And what makes the tomb even more strange is that some folks believe there is pirate treasure hidden inside.
December 1, 2020
The Man Who Killed the Witch of Ringtown Valley
On St. Patrick's Day of 1934, a 23-year-old taxi driver named Albert Shinsky murdered a woman near Ringtown, in Schuylkill County. But this was not a cold-blooded killing; according  to Shinsky, the reason he put a lead ball through the heart of Susan Mummey was because a Pennsylvania Dutch witch doctor had told him that  it was the only way to remove the evil spell that Mrs. Mummey had placed on him. This is the tragic tale of Albert Shinsky and Susan Mummey-- a  tale of murder, superstition, ghosts, and modern-era witchcraft in the  Mahantango Mountains.
November 15, 2020
Who Stole the Corpse of the Councilman's Son?
During the early 20th century, James Black Spahr was a popular member of the Chambersburg borough council. Unlike many politicians, Spahr genuinely cared about his community and those who called it home, and his many years of public service were unblemished by scandal. A devout Christian and family man, he didn't seem to have an enemy in the world. But on December 3, 1909, the beloved public figure made a horrifying discovery... someone had stolen the remains of his infant son. Who did it and why? Therein lies the mystery.
November 1, 2020
The Lost Children of the Alleghenies
In the spring of 1856 one of the saddest chapters in the history of Bedford County was written, after the two young sons of Samuel and  Susanna Cox wandered away from home and into the mountains. The search for the two boys lasted for two weeks and culminated in a gruesome discovery beneath a large tree on the shady  banks of Gypsy Creek. And had it not been for a prophetic dream, the whereabouts of George and Joseph Cox might still remain a mystery.
October 15, 2020
The Legendary Life (and Afterlife) of Captain Jack Armstrong
Virtually everyone who lives in Huntingdon County is familiar with the legend of John Armstrong, who is more  commonly remembered as Captain Jack-- arguably Pennsylvania's most iconic hero of the  frontier. However, what most people don't know is the bizarre story of how his long-lost bones were discovered more than a century after his tragic death.
October 1, 2020
The Legend of Margaret Duncan's Burying Ground
In the 19th century, Philadelphia lost  one of its most curious and morbid historical landmarks-- an obscure  graveyard hidden in the center of an urban jungle, where the bones of forgotten Philadelphians slumbered for generations-- until their remains  were mysteriously and unceremoniously disinterred. Attached to the graveyard was a curious legend about the plot's namesake,  Margaret Duncan, who survived a ghastly "lottery" aboard a ship lost at sea to become of the most successful businesswomen of the Colonial Era. Be sure to visit the Pennsylvania Oddities blog for hundreds of strange but true stories from every county in the Keystone State!
September 9, 2020
The Mysterious Suicide of a Penn State Professor
In the summer of 1947, Dr. Vernon Haber, a well-liked Penn State University professor, went missing. Despite a massive month-long search involving  hundreds of students, law enforcement officials and State College residents, the fate of the vanishing professor remained unknown... until his body was found hanging from a tree, in a place that had been searched thoroughly just days before. Was it a suicide or murder? The mystery remains unsolved.
September 2, 2020
William Bierly: The Man-Beast of Sugar Valley
When a newspaper reporter from the Philadelphia Inquirer traveled  to the remote mountain wilderness of Clinton County in 1890 in search  of a story, he discovered more than the rustic ways and quaint customs  of the backwoods hill people-- he discovered an unspeakable horror. It  was in Sugar Valley where the Inquirer reporter discovered  William Bierly, an elderly man, known to locals as a "raving lunatic",  who had been chained like a wild beast for 35 years and forced to live  inside a wooden pen.
September 2, 2020
The Strange Death of a Candyman
Unpunished murders have always been a blight on Schuylkill County, especially during the 1920s and 30s. In some cases the murderer was identified but eluded capture, disappearing into the night, never to be seen again. Other cases, such as the peculiar death of William Laughlin in 1930, remain unsolved to this day. Laughlin, who worked as a confectioner at his father's candy shop in Centralia, disappeared after attending a boxing match at Lakewood Park. His nude body was discovered the following day in a most unusual place-- inside a fortune-telling booth near the entrance of a now-defunct amusement park. 
September 1, 2020
The Haunting of the Titus Homestead
While many ghost stories are easily debunked or explained by natural phenomena, other stories-- such as the haunting of the Titus homestead in Luzerne County in early 20th century-- defy explanation and seem to provide irrefutable proof that the dead don't always stay in their graves.
September 1, 2020
The Lykens Triple Axe Murder of 1932
The quiet borough of Lykens in upper Dauphin County was thrust into the national spotlight in July of 1932 when Barney Godleski, an out-of-work miner,  inexplicably slaughtered three of his four children in the basement of his home on the 600 block of East Main Street.  Pennsylvania Oddities presents the true tale of this ghastly crime.
September 1, 2020