Saturday, December 29, 2007

Jennie Wade House

Image from the Jennie Wade House

There's a whole lotta lore connected with this Baltimore Street home. Jennie - her given name was Mary Virginia Wade - and her sister lived in half of the Gettsyburg duplex while the pivotal Civil War conflict raged around them.

Jennie was baking bread for the Union soldiers on July 3rd, 1863 when a rebel bullet, allegedly fired from a nearby sniper's nest set up in the Farnsworth House, went through two doors and caught her under the shoulder in the back, killing her within minutes. Jennie's body was laid out in the cellar, the only safe place in the house. She has the dubious distinction of being the only civilian killed during the battle (although others died from injuries after the fact.)

There are a covey of ghosties hanging around the house, now a museum. Jennie's still there, and you can sometimes smell the aroma of baking bread and her rose scented perfume in the home.

Some people say she's there still awaiting word on her beau, Sgt. Jack Skelly. A soldier friend was supposed to check on him for her, but was killed at Culp's Hill before he could find her. (Skelly, by the way, died as a Confederate POW from battle wounds. Not a very good day for Jennie.)

Her dad's spook is supposed to be in the house, too. He was said to have lost his mind and ended his days in the poor house because he wasn't at the house protecting his daughter when she died, and held himself responsible for her death.

Other stories say he's bitter because he wasn't allowed to attend Jennie's funeral, or that his mental state was such that he didn't realize Jennie was dead and would wander into the cellar looking for her.

Needless to say, he's not considered a very congenial spirit to bump into and causes a bit of poltergeist activity in the basement, mainly consisting of the aroma of cigar smoke, twirling the guide post chain, and leaving a feeling of deep sadness that blankets the room.

But there are some very friendly spirits scattered around the Wade house. An orphanage a few doors down the street was said to be run by a sadistic director, and Jennie and her sister would let the children play in their house. They're still there.

The kid's ghosts are a very touchy-feely bunch of rugrats. They've been known to say "Hi" to tour guests and follow them around the museum. They like to hold hands, and tug at your ankles, coats and jewelry, still craving attention. They play with the beds upstairs. That may be the greatest compliment to Jennie and her sister - the everlasting affection of the neighborhood orphans. But she does have one more honor.

Her grave, marked by the Mary Virginia Wade monument in Evergreen Cemetery, flies the flag 24 hours a day by Presidential decree. She's the only American woman besides Betsy Ross to be given that honor.

Monday, December 24, 2007

The Green Man of South Park

Green Man's Tunnel - Piney Forks Road
Green Man's Tunnel - Image from Bridges of Allegheny County

This is one of the most enduring legends in Pittsburgh – and it's true! Sorta.

I was raised in the South Hills and my high school babe was from Library, just past South Park, so I can speak with some authority on the Green Man, one of my favorite bits of local lore. The story goes that a guy who was an electrician got struck by lightning while working in the area (ironic, no?) He was horribly disfigured, and ended up with a greenish glow from the jolt.

The Green Man roamed around South Park and laid claim to his own tunnel on Piney Fork Road, today used to store salt. His lair has a long history. It was built in 1924 as the Piney Fork Tunnel to serve coal mines along the PRR's Peters Creek Branch. Abandoned in 1962, the locals have given it the name its gone by for decades - Green Man Tunnel.

If you've even driven on Piney Fork Road, you know it's a dark, two lane drive running parallel to Piney Fork Creek. At night, it's a perfect lovers lane – or lair for an ax murderer. It's easy to imagine anything at all happening there once the sun's set. The Green Man's also been sighted in Brookline, Hays River Road, McKees Rocks, North Hills, McKeesport, even Washington County and Youngstown, anywhere it's dark, isolated, and teen imaginations can run free & wild.

But enough of the Green Man myth – the real Green Man was Ray “Charlie No Face” Robinson, from Big Beaver in Beaver County. When he was 9, he was gruesomely disfigured when he tangled with a high voltage line. He was left half blind and his nose was burned off. He had to wear a prosthetic one and coke-bottle glasses for the rest of his life.

But Ray remained pretty chipper, considering everything. One of his favorite pastimes was to walk along the local highway at night so no one would notice his injuries. Soon the local teens spotted him and would stop to chat with him. Ray was a friendly soul, even posing for pictures. They brought him beer and cigarettes – once or twice his worried family found him sleeping in a roadside field. His legend grew by leaps and bounds across the region.

By the time he died at the age of 74 in 1985, the Green Man's tale had spread across the face of Western Pennsylvania. They're even in the process of making a movie about him.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Centralia's Spirits

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Image from Jim at Offroaders - Centralia

We all know the sad history of Centralia, where a work crew set trash on fire in 1962 and accidentally ignited a coal vein. No big deal, they thought then. We'll just dig out the burning coal and everything will return to normal.

Wrong. They couldn't put the fire out, and in fact ended up aerating and spreading it. The feds closed the book on Centralia by buying everyone's property, and for all intents and purposes forced the relocation of the town's 1,100 souls. It was cheaper to move the townsfolk and raze their homes than to extinguish the flames which are expected to continue burning for another century. Fewer than a dozen people remain in Centralia today.

But more than those hardy dozen still call Centralia home. Footsteps, voices, lights and shadows have been heard and seen in completely deserted houses, kept by stay-at-home spooks. The spirits tend to congregate around the cemetery - no surprise there - near where the original fire was set.

One pair of visitors saw a couple of figures wearing miner's hardhats walk out of the large subsidence hole just outside the cemetery. As they approached, both of the men slowly disintegrated into the smoky haze surrounding the town. Even eerier, there's a report of voices from the cemetery saying "Leave here" and "Why did you do that?" Are they spirits still trying to stop the work crew from setting the disastrous fire, or are they just trying to shoo away the curious?

There have been a handful of spots reported in the state that are supposed to be portals to hell, but for my money there's only one. It's Centralia. Old Scratch would feel at right at home in the scarred earth, sulphurous mist and scorching heat of the cursed town. They call the blocked off section of Route 61 leading into Centralia the Highway to Hell. They just may be right.

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The Highway to Hell - Image from Sarah at Offroaders - Centralia

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Anne Coleman & Ten Cent Jimmy Buchanan

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Image from Inn 422

The Inn 422 of Lebanon in Pennsylvania's Dutch Country is built on the foundations of the old Coleman mansion, which was razed for the current building in 1880. And therein lies our spook tale.

The original house was built for Anne Coleman, the daughter of ironmaster Robert and his wife Ann. It was a graduation present to her after earning her sheepskin at Dickinson College in the early 1800s. Her beau was one James "Ten Cent Jimmy" Buchanan.

Her father knew him well, having expelled him from Dickinson while a trustee (although later relenting and allowing him to graduate.) Their love grew while Anne's parents seethed. Marriages were arranged back in the day, and James was no fit match for Anne in her family's eyes. The Colemans were thought to be the richest family in Pennsylvania at the time and they considered Buchanan nothing more than a bald faced fortune hunter.

James went to Philadelphia on business for two weeks, and a distraught Anne received not a single love letter from him while he was away. They had been intercepted by her mother. On the way back home, he stopped at a client's house, and to his surprise an old flame was there.

Though James had no interest whatsoever in her, she made sure to let Anne know that he stopped to see her first in a bit of catty oneupmanship. Worked into a lover's lather, Anne refused to see James when he finally came calling on her and instead went off to her sister's home. She was hysterical, and a doctor prescribed some laudanum, an opiate, to calm her nerves. Anne OD'ed on it and died. No one's sure to this day if she committed suicide or just made an error in the dosage.

James was shattered at her death and remained a bachelor until his dying day. He hung her picture over the mantel of his Wheatland home and it still hangs there today. His last wish was that all his letters from Anne which he had kept for 50 years be destroyed.

But the man her parents thought a neer do well ended up doing OK for himself - he became America's 15th President. As for Anne, she's still at the old Coleman house, now haunting the Inn 422. She's been seen roaming the rooms in the B&B, and still does her house chores - extinguishing candles, opening and closing doors & windows, straightening the beds & fluffing pillows. If not for her meddling parents, she could be haunting the White House instead.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Bloody Mary

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Image from Gothic Manor

This is an old folktale retold by S.E. Schlosser in Spooky Pennsylvania. This particular version's setting is mid-state, but it's lore that has its' roots everywhere.

Bloody Mary was an old crone that lived deep in the woods making her living selling herbal cures to the locals. None dared cross her, as she was supposed to be adept at dealing out curses also. The townspeople thought she was a witch.

The village's young girls began to disappear, one at a time. The folk searched the woods, the buildings, the streams and everywhere they could think of with no luck. They even screwed up the courage to see if Bloody Mary knew what happened to children. She denied any knowledge of the missing girls, but the villagers were suspicious. Bloody Mary looked younger to them.

One night, the miller's daughter got up from bed and left the house. Her mother and father tried to stop her, but she tore out of their grasp and headed into the woods. Their struggle awoke the town, and the people all followed the girl.

She made a beeline towards a light in the forest. At the end of the light was Bloody Mary, pointing a bright wand towards the girl to draw her to the spot. The townsfolk set on her, and one farmer had a gun loaded with silver bullets. (Farmers were ready for anything back in the day.) He fired one into the witch and they carried her back to town, where they put up a stake and burned her.

As she sizzled, she spat out a curse. If anyone mentioned her name while looking in a mirror, she would come back and claim their soul. Wouldn't you know that some people actually tried that? And true to her word, Bloody Mary sprang from the mirror, tore their bodies apart and laid claim to their souls - forever. They are trapped in the mirror for the rest of eternity with her.