Monday, October 29, 2007


(image from Wikipedia)

It's time to take a break from the spooky and delve into the history of the region. The legendary state of Pittsylvania, sometimes called Westsylvania, was just a Congressional vote away from becoming a reality back in the day.

According to historian George Swetnam, "In March, 1759, less than half a year after Forbes had taken Fort Duquesne and named it Pittsburgh, a letter from New Jersey to the Maryland Gazette reported a movement for application to the Crown . . . 'to settle a New Colony on the Ohio, by the name Pittsylvania.'" It was to include southwestern Pennsylvania, the western panhandle of Maryland, nearly all of what is now West Virginia, a bit of Virginia, and a tad of eastern Kentucky.

The king nixed that petition (we'd get even with him later), but the settlers didn't give up. They were the western frontier then, and believed that their interests were being snubbed by the city fops back East. A writ for the creation of an independent Pittsylvania was presented to the Second Continental Congress in 1775. But the Revolutionary War broke out shortly afterwards, and in the name of national unity, Congress chose to ignore their request, much the same as they do with citizen requests today.

The region's last hurrah at independence was the Whiskey Rebellion. Riled by a tax on whiskey in 1791 by the U.S. government, farmers in the west began making life sheer hell for the federal revenuers. The tax eliminated any profit by the farmers from the sale of a popular & potable cash crop, and it became the lightning rod for a laundry list of grievances by the locals against the federal government. Does "taxation without representation" ring a bell? As a result, much rioting and tar & feathering of federal agents ensued.

The insurrection flared into open rebellion in July of 1794 when a federal marshal was attacked in Allegheny County. At the same time, several hundred men marched on the home of the fed's top tax man and burned it to the ground, along with anything else flammable they could find to torch on his property.

A month later, President George Washington had enough. He called out the militia (there weren't Pinkertons in those days, we guess) and ordered the Western rabble back to their homes. Washington marched at the head of an army of 13,000, although the generaling was left to Harry Lee. They scattered the rebels, squelched the rebellion, saved the union, and killed the last hope of a Pittsylvanian state.

George Swetnam covers the history of the area in his book "Pittsylvania Country".

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Axe Murder Hollow

image from OKCupid

We'll take a cruise up I-79 and head towards Erie for today's story. This gruesome tale starts in a quiet wooded area off of Sterrettania Road in Millcreek. There you'll find the burned out foundations of a small home. (Not anymore, though. We've been told that plot was the last site sold in the housing project that's sprung up in the area.)

A rock path from there will lead you to a creek with a tree stump near its' bank. A jealous husband who suspected his wife of cheating on him with a farmhand chased her down that path and beheaded her with an axe on that stump. (Other versions say he killed her and his children in the house.) Then he immolated himself by setting the small house on fire.

Skip ahead a few years. A young couple are driving down a narrow road along the creek in the rain when the car got mired in the mud. The driver, being cautious in the secluded spot, told the girl to lock herself in the vehicle while he went for help.

She sat for what seemed to be forever in the car. Then she heard the muffled sounds of a struggle, followed by a gurgling noise. A bright light shone in the car and a voice commanded her to get out. Too terrified to protest, she unlocked the door and stepped into the rain. Hanging from a tree by his ankles was her dead boyfriend, blood dripping from his slit throat.

She turned to the man, and then ran screaming into the dusk. The shadowy figure held a light in one hand, an axe glistening with blood in the other, and was reaching out for her. If you ever visit an old friend that's a long-time Erie local, ask him about the tale. He'll know it. He may offer to take you there. A nice rainy evening would be a perfect time to visit.

Erie's not the only place with a similarly gruesome tale. A reader wrote "There was a tragic murder in York county on Iron Stone Road. A husband killed his pregnant wife and children with an axe and then hung himself. It's said that spheres of lights circle the house!"

There's also supposed to be another Axe Murder Hollow in McKean. A reader, Sally, wrote that "Axe Murder Hollow is located in an area of Thomas Road between Sterrettania Road and California Drive. I lived within walking distance of Axe Murder Hollow for over 30 years and never met any kind of Ghost or supernatural being."

"The property around there is all privately owned property and I knew one of the owners. He owned a lot of construction equipment and was sick of curiosity seekers trespassing on his property and would go out at night with a shotgun with rock salt and fire in the direction of trespassers. This, of course, just added to the excitement and rumors." As for us, we think we'd rather bump into an unarmed spook.

Developers in Erie gobbled up the land and built suburban homes in the Hollow; even the old burnt-out lot was sold. You can barely recognize the place now. But the road is still there, running right along the creek...

Sunday, October 21, 2007

The White Lady of Wopsononock Mountain

(image from Pennsylvania Mountains of Attraction)

We head east today, towards the Blair and Bedford county lines and Wopsononock Mountain, for this classic resurrection legend. The tales - there are several versions - all start with a young couple heading along a narrow, twisting mountain road on their way to the Wopsy Hotel (Wopsy is the local shorthand) atop the peak.

To give you an idea of the age and duration of this story, the resort hotel burned down in 1903 and was never rebuilt. In one version, they crash and the husband is decapitated. In another, they both lose their lives. In yet another, a baby is thrown out of a carriage in the accident and dies. In some tales, they're eloping and being pursued by the bride's irate father. In version five, the ghost roams the adjoining Buckhorn Mountain.

The story is so wrapped in the mists of time that while a few people say they were in a car, most believe that they rode a buggy or carriage. At any rate, their fates converge at Devil's Elbow, a nasty curve on the mountain road, where they meet their destinies.

Thus begins the Lady In White legend. She's been spotted many times by the woods of Wopsy Mountain roaming the road, dressed in a long flowing white gown. She's usually seen carrying a candle or a lantern, out searching for someone - child, hubby, dad, whomever.

Many people have stopped and given her a ride. She's described by these kindly souls as beautiful, smiling, and quiet. Oddly, when they glance into their rear view mirror, they can't see her. But when they turn to check on her, she's still sitting serenely in the back seat. And once they reach Devil's Elbow, she disappears. This has been reported many times over the years, and this tale has passed from the realm of folklore to local gospel, much like South Park's Green Man.

The old hotel is now a lover's lane with a famed historic lookout (you guessed it, Wopsy Lookout, a remnant from the old hotel) where you can see 6 different counties when it's clear outside. There's a couple of tales involved with that, too.

First, there have reportedly been multiple suicides there from spurned lovers taking the leap. That's always fodder for a spook tale or two. The other is that if you park there on a clear, dark night, the streetlights below will spell out “Altoona.” I'd really be impressed if they spelled out "Wopsononock."

If you want to take the trip, the mountain road is now called Juniata Gap Road (known locally as Wopsy Road), and runs up the mountain from Altoona. If you're approaching from the opposite direction, we believe the route is along Colonial Drake Highway (known locally as Buckhorn Road), which leads over Buckhorn Mountain and up Wopsy from the other side. Drive carefully.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Phantoms of the Pittsburgh Playhouse

image from Point Park University

This legendary Craft Avenue site is possibly the most renowned haunt in Pittsburgh. Built by Richard Rauh, it opened its doors in 1933, variously known as the Hamlet Theatre, the Summer Playhouse, and the Civic Playhouse. And the theatre wasn't the only entertainment venue located in the house over the years.

The upstairs was used as a brothel, the theatre served as a church, and the basement was a restaurant at various times. Part of the building was the Tree of Life Synagogue and another section served as a social hall in 1910. And it was built over the rubble of a neighborhood of old tenements, which segues right into our story.

The first ghost is Weeping Eleanor, who is never seen but whose sobbing and moaning can be heard at night. She was the victim of a fire that claimed her Oakland rowhouse, once standing where the Playhouse dressing rooms are now located. Eleanor and her daughter perished in the blaze, and she's been lamenting their fate ever since.

The Lady In White is next on the list. She was an actress who discovered her husband was having an tryst with one of the ladies from the upstairs bordello – on their wedding day! The reception was being held in the downstairs restaurant after they were married in the Playhouse church. She climbed the steps in a rage, found them in flagrante delicto, and shot the amorous pair dead. Then she committed suicide by leaping off the balcony, which she yet paces, gun in hand.

The lady has appeared to people on numerous occasions, always in a white dress. She once pointed a ghostly pistol at a stagehand's head while backstage and pulled the trigger. He dodged the spectral bullet, but ended up somewhat the worse for wear – he promptly left the building, never to return.

The third spirit is that of John Johns, an accountant by day and stage actor by night who began performing at the Playhouse in the thirties. It's said that he suffered a heart attack while at a banquet in the downstairs restaurant. His castmates carried him up to his dressing room, #7, to wait for the ambulance, but Johns died before they could get him inside.

Since that day, people have heard disembodied footsteps climbing the stairway to room #7, always stopping just short of the door. Johns occasionally appears wandering the Playhouse, often dressed to kill in his tuxedo.

Caveat emptor with him. As the only spook who is clearly identified, we researched him a bit, and came away with enough to know that the trouper did exist and was a Playhouse regular, but we couldn't find his obituary.

A reader, Deb, wrote that "When I was a student at the playhouse, I was told by Bill Leach, who was the director of the Playhouse Jr. and who had known John Johns, that the actor died at the Veteran's Hospital in Oakland, not in the dressing room." As for the other stuff, she adds simply that "I had some experiences at the Playhouse..."

JJ has sometimes been spotted dancing on stage with the White Lady (We guess she got over her meandering hubby after crossing to the other side.) Johns also checks the sets and fancies himself a director, intently watching the rehearsals from the seats, and will occasionally share some tricks of the trade or a criticism with the actors.

Following in the illustrious line of spooks is Gorgeous George, a misnomer if ever there was one. His claim to fame is that he has a green, oozing face and an unmistakably rank aroma. He likes to tap people on the shoulder and watch their shock when they turn and see his rotting visage. Then he *poof* disappears, cackling maniacally. No one knows where exactly he came from. Maybe he just enjoys the Playhouse company.

The latest ghoul to join in the fun is the Bouncing Red Meanie, sometimes called the Bouncing Loony. On a Halloween Night in the seventies, a group of students held a séance to try to communicate with the ghostly gang at the Playhouse. They conjured up a little more than they bargained for.

During their trance, they looked at the stage. On it was a man with a gashed gray face, dressed in red from head to toe, pacing back and forth. He picked up steam every time he crossed the stage, until eventually he was going so fast he rose in the air and began bouncing of the walls. As that happened, the house phones in the theatre began ringing, distracting them.

One student's gaze again turned towards the seats, and the other eyes followed hers. They found that the auditorium was completely filled with people dressed in turn of the century outfits – starched collars, dark jackets, and evening gowns. A spotlight focused on the Bouncing Red Meanie. He turned toward the crowd and the audience broke into a silent ovation, his reward for the evening's performance that the seance had so rudely interrupted.

The Bouncing Red Meanie manifests itself now either as a man or a red ball-shaped light, and his pleasure is to chase people around at breakneck speed.

There's also alleged to be some ghostly shenanigans that occur in the ticket office, but its mischievous poltergeist pales compared to the antics of the phantom posse working the building.

The Pittsburgh Playhouse has been owned and operated by Point Park University since 1973. It's home to three performance spaces for shows staged by The Rep, Point Park's resident professional theatre company, and three student companies: the Conservatory Theatre Company, Conservatory Dance Company, and Playhouse Jr.

A think tank has suggested that the University relocate its renowned theater department from Oakland to its downtown campus. It might be the smart move for PPU, but would break the hearts of local theatre - and ghost - lovers.