So, here’s a fun fact that I found on Wikipedia: In January 1863, the world’s first underground railway opened in London. It opened between Paddingdon and Farringdon. We call it the “London Underground.”
If you Google “London plague pits underground,” you can read all about the urban legend on this. Local lore claims that the detours that the workers had to dig for the London Underground’s path so that the train didn’t barrel through the mass graves of Bubonic Plague victims from 1665. (One of the articles visible to me on the first page of my Google search questions the “research” used by the author who claimed this as fact in her non-fiction book, but it makes a cool story.)
On this week in January 2020, I went to an author visit for a New York Times bestselling author at a Barnes and Noble near Pittsburgh. The author promoted the release of her newest book, a novel about a prominent person in London during both World Wars.
As I stood in line waiting for the author’s signature, I heard a man identify himself as a reporter from our local Pittsburgh “newspaper.” (I say “newspaper” because it’s not available in print form in many Pittsburgh area locations now; it’s online.) The reporter said that THE AUTHOR had reached out to the “newspaper” and asked them to cover the event.
Again, this was a New York Times bestselling author. She had several successful books under her belt. She had to contact the Pittsburgh media on her own and ask them to cover her event at Barnes and Noble. So, if you dream about writing your own book, and about having your publisher (or Barnes and Noble or whomever) market your book tour for you, think about this again.
I have a final story that mentions London. It has absolutely nothing to do with January, but it involves ice, so close enough. My husband is a huge fan of iced beverages. Before I met my husband, I always ordered “Diet Pepsi with no ice” at Subway or Burger King or whatever so that I could get “more bang for my buck.” Then, I met Jonathan. He turned me on to the joys of drinking beverages with ice.
When we went to London, we learned that we wouldn’t get ice in any of our drinks unless we specifically asked for it. It was a hot-ish week in September. We stayed in a hotel directly across the Thames from the Tower of London. Even better, the hotel had a working ice machine on our floor, directly across the hallway from the elevator!
As soon as we checked in to our room, I grabbed the ice bucket. I headed for the ice machine. As I filled our ice bucket, the elevator opened, and a woman stepped out.
The woman said to me, “You’re an American, aren’t you?”
How did she know? I hadn’t even spoken. Did I make a gaffe that only an American would make? Did I wear the wrong thing? OMG, did I drop my passport on the floor for her to find?
I said, “Yes.”
The woman said, “I could tell because you are getting ice. I’m from Texas!”
I learned today that the United States’ first crematory is located in Washington, Pennsylvania.
I learned about this in the book “Disconnected from Death: The Evolution of Funerary Customs and the Unmasking of Death in America” by April Slaughter and Troy Taylor.
I learned that Dr. Francis Julius LeMoyne, a Washington, PA, physician, dedicated decades to practicing medicine and advocating for Civil Rights. By the 1870’s, Dr. LeMoyne vocalized his concerns regarding the pollution and hygienic / public health consequences of embalming and burial. Dr. LeMoyne proposed that a crematory be built in a local public cemetery. This did not happen. So, Dr. LeMoyne had the crematory built on his own property.
Dr. LeMoyne’s cremation advocacy resulted in negative responses from the Washington, PA, community. Dr. LeMoyne even offered to educate the public about cremation. How do you think that this went?
On December 5, 1876, Dr. LeMoyne finally received a body to cremate.
Dr. LeMoyne passed away in 1879 and his body became the third to be cremated in his own crematory.
According to “Disconnected from Death,” Dr. LeMoyne’s crematory still stands on Gallows Hill in Washington, PA. The Washington County Historical Society maintains it.
I had to memorize a bunch of Pennsylvania “firsts” in school. I didn’t have to learn about this cremation thing in school. So, here you go.
Back in the olden days before Joe Biden was elected POTUS, I had to learn in “Pennsylvania History” class that James Buchanan was the only U.S. President born in Pennsylvania. My history teacher and my “Pennsylvania History” book both pretty much said, “James Buchanan was the only President born in Pennsylvania. We shall NEVER speak of this again.” Ha, ha, ha. If you want to learn a little bit more about Buchanan’s administration, go Google what was said about his Secretary of War, John B. Floyd.
Do you have any interesting Pennsylvania “firsts?” If so, please reach out to me.
Thank you for continuing to read this blog. This has been a tough year. I have really enjoyed sharing stories, lore, and photos with you. Please share this blog if you enjoy it as well.
When my husband’s mother and grandmother were both still alive and healthy, they and my husband’s father all lived together up the hill from us. They invited us over to their house for a dinner of Salisbury steak and mashed potatoes, twice a year , on Election Day.
Every single year, I said something to the effect of, “It’s fantastic that you guys celebrate the democratic process this way!”
Then, my husband and his mom, Fran, reminded me of the dinner’s true origins.
See, my husband’s grandmother – Babcia, as the family called her – worked for the City of New Kensington. She received a day off of work from the city on each Election Day. She used her “day off” to cook a dinner which ordinarily took her too long to prepare on normal work days – Salisbury steak and mashed potatoes.
(I know – I just know – that somebody out in cyberspace is going to read this and either think or say, “Look at those lazy public servants, getting Election Day off on the taxpayers’ dime.” I don’t care. I’m a taxpayer myself. If the City of New Kensington once paid my husband’s grandmother so that she could stay home and cook dinner for her family twice a year, whatever.)
After Babcia retired from the city, she and her daughter continued the Election Day tradition.
They passed away in 2015 and 2016. We were all heartbroken. Jonathan’s dad outdid himself in trying to keep up all of the family traditions, including the Election Day dinner. I give him a lot of credit.
Then Covid happened. We stopped the big family dinners.
Jonathan and I will eat dinner alone together today on Election Day. Then, Jonathan will spend the evening at a volunteer fire department training. I will write as I listen to music and try to not watch the Election Day news coverage.
Jonathan and I both voted this morning. I joked to Jonathan, as we left our polling place – the basement of a Presbyterian Church that sits on our street – that now we had to jump in our car and drive north to Rochester, New York. This way, I could attach my “I voted” sticker to the sticker guard that protects Susan B. Anthony’s tombstone. We didn’t actually drive to Rochester. We returned to our house to do laundry and telework at our day jobs.
My sister, E., texted me to tell me that she walked around a Civil War battlefield after she voted in Northern Virginia today.
E. and I – and our other three sisters – all grew up in Somerset County, Pennsylvania. In late August each year, we walked around the Somerset County fair. I picked up every bit of “free” political swag offered to me in the exhibition tent. Pens and notepads and wooden rulers and, of course, bumper stickers. I asked my parents if I could put the “free” bumper stickers on their car and truck. They always said no. My dad told me that we couldn’t ever put bumper stickers on our family autos because this would affect the resale value. I figured out later that most of these “free” bumper stickers listed the names of people for whom my dad would never vote.
When I was in the sixth grade, our social studies class held a mock presidential election to model the actual presidential election that fall. We each wrote down our choice of candidate on a piece of paper, folded the paper, and placed it in the “ballot box.”
The election was meant to be “anonymous.”
Unfortunately, the teacher picked two fellow students to count up all of the ballots.
I had “voted” for the same presidential candidate that I knew that both of my parents favored. I was the only person in my entire class – perhaps the entire sixth grade – who voted for this candidate.
Everybody in my class wanted to know which student had voted for this candidate.
The students who had been selected to count the ballots figured out that the unpopular vote came from me based on my handwriting.
The students who counted the votes snitched on me. They ratted me out as the person who had cast the lone vote of dissent.
My entire social studies class made fun of me for this.
My classmates did me a favor. They warned me back in the sixth grade about the way that people behave when they get caught up in groupthink. They warned me at the age of twelve that politics is a dirty game.
For this tale, I changed almost all of the specific details, including names and places, in order preserve the magic of a small town’s ghost story.
Dad taught high school for about four decades before he retired. During this time he also worked a second and sometimes third job on evenings, weekends, and summers. Spread over four decades, the jobs included: ambulance driver, chimney sweep, youth counselor, and seasonal law enforcement for the Pennsylvania Game Commission and for the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR).
For this story, my family lived near a Central Pennsylvania farming town I shall call “Random Woods.”
Dad taught at Random Woods High School. He also held a part-time law enforcement job patrolling for illegal spot-lighters (poachers – you know, illegal hunters) in the woods outside the town. Now, dad worked many nighttime shifts. For these shifts, he often parked his patrol car in this little gap between the edge of the woods and Random Woods’ Civil War-era cemetery.
Then he shut off the car lights and sat for hours in the dark.
Whenever the topic of ghosts comes up, Dad says that he doesn’t see things that he can’t explain. One time he saw a glowing red disk in his mother’s backyard – which turned out to be a glow in the dark frisbee.
His countless nights spent next to a cemetery didn’t scare him. Ghosts did not matter. Physical, living humans mattered. In his job enforcing hunting regulations, just about every person that Dad approached also carried a gun.
So, on the night of this “ghost story,” Dad worked his law enforcement shift. He parked in his usual spot between the woods and the cemetery.
He sat for hours in the dark.
He heard a noise.
He jumped in his seat and as a reflex he hit the patrol car’s headlights switch.
He saw a figure in the cemetery.
The figure crossed the cemetery, and then disappeared.
Dad thought all weekend about the “apparition” in the Random Woods cemetery.
Why did he see a figure appear and vanish in the cemetery late at night? A figure that did not present itself as being an illegal hunter?
Dad walked into Random Woods’ only grocery store a few days later.
He ran into his former student, Kurt.
My dad and Kurt chit-chatted.
Then Kurt said, “Mr. G, the graveyard is haunted!”
Dad said, “Really, Kurt? Haunted?”
Kurt said, “Yeah! I spent Friday night at my girlfriend’s house. On the way home, I cut through the graveyard. All of a sudden a huge glowing light shined on me. Oh my god, Mr. G., I hauled ass out of there!”
I’ve posted on Facebook and on this blog about the virtual tours and livestream lectures about ghosts, true crime, and cemeteries that I enjoyed since March. However, I wanted to put my main thoughts together in one place. I picked up some ideas that I think can be useful to very local history and tourism groups.
I’m going to start off with American Hauntings. American Hauntings is the blanket name for a business owned by Troy Taylor and Lisa Taylor Horton. When I first discovered American Hauntings, the operation included ghost tours, true crime tours, ghost hunts, in-person “Evening with” catered dinner experiences, and books.
In 20017, I went on a search for new podcasts about the paranormal, specifically related to American history. I listen to several hours of podcasts each week. I am very picky about allowing new podcasts into my listening schedule. If a podcast host sounds as if he or she didn’t bother to research anything beyond a one minute Google search, or if the host shoots the breeze for several minutes at the beginning of each episode, then I almost always shut off the podcast.
So one morning in 2017, I waited for the bus and discovered Season #1 of American Hauntings, hosted by Troy Taylor and Cody Beck. I was hooked.
American Hauntings the podcast didn’t include advertisements for anything except for other American Hauntings products and services. Part way through each episode, Troy plugged the tickets for his in-person experiences.
The “Evening with” dinners that Troy promoted intrigued me. The approximately $50 per person ticket price for these included a catered meal at the Mysterious Mineral Springs Hotel in Alton Illinois, followed by a live lecture given by Troy on that night’s topic. However, I live outside of Pittsburgh, so I don’t think that I will ever make it to Alton for an in-person “Evening with” dinner.
Then, in March 2020, most of the governors of most of the states shut down everything fun. This included the in-person American Hauntings tours, ghost hunts, and in-person “Evening with” dinners. Troy began to post livestreams every Friday night on his Troy Taylor Facebook page. Sometimes he gave lectures about topics that are not included in his “Evening with” dinner talks. (For instance, one night he spoke on Facebook about the time that grave robbers attempted to steal Abraham Lincoln’s body.) Sometimes he held Q&A sessions about the many topics that American Hauntings covers. In each livestream, he promoted the sale of his books (he offered a Shelter in Place discount) and advanced bookings on his in-person experiences when they resumed. He added a virtual tip jar for viewers who chose to tip him for the livestream entertainment. When he had to cancel the June 2020 Haunted America Conference, he sold tee shirts to offset the costs that he had already incurred for it.
Then Troy made an announcement that made me very happy. He scheduled several of his most popular “Evening with” dinner talks as Zoom lectures. I could pay $13 to receive a log-on link to a live “Evening with” dinner talk over Zoom.
I listened to three of Troy’s Zoom “Evening with” talks so far. I made sure to have in my house food and drink that I enjoyed so that I could pretend that I was eating a catered dinner at the Mysterious Mineral Springs Hotel during the lectures. The Zoom participants all have the option of shutting off their own computer’s camera or leaving it on. So, when I participated in these talks, I could see who some of the other participants were. We could chat with each other during the talk using Zoom’s chat function. At the end of the talk, Troy answered questions from the Zoom audience.
So, these are my observations of how American Hauntings handled the Shelter in Place order and the Covid-19 “quarantine.”
However, even the American Hauntings company didn’t produce enough podcast and video content to keep me entertained from March 15 until now. So, I searched the internet for other virtual tourist experiences that I would enjoy.
I purchased the Virtual 360 degree tour from the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, CA. If I ever make it to see the house in person, I know which rooms I want to focus my attention.
I typed something like “Chicago” and “virtual tours” into the Facebook search function because I visited Chicago once for a week as a tourist and I enjoyed the trip. I discovered the Facebook page for Mysterious Chicago, owned by Adam Selzer. This guide gave in-person tours up until mid-March. He also wrote several books, including such topics as ghosts, H.H. Holmes, Roaring Twenties true crime, and Abraham Lincoln.
As of now (July 12), several other Chicago tour companies have restarted their in-person tours. However, Mysterious Chicago has not done this. Instead, Mysterious Chicago posts virtual tours multiple times each week on Facebook. It’s free to watch these on Facebook, but each tour includes information about how to donate to a virtual tip jar. There’s also a Patreon page for Mysterious Chicago, but I have not subscribed to it. I watched every Mysterious Chicago video posted to Facebook.
Here’s where I compare American Hauntings to Mysterious Chicago.
All of the American Hauntings livestreams and “Evening With” Zoom presentations that I watched consisted of Troy sitting in his spooky-looking American Hauntings office. In these presentations, I saw in the background lighted candles, the books that Troy wrote, and fake (I hope!) skulls. He shared his computer screen, onto which he pulled up photos of the people and places mentioned in his presentation. His partner, Lisa Taylor Horton, joined all of the Zoom presentations. Lisa handed all of the requests for technical assistance. Lisa also moderated the Q&A sessions at the end of each Zoom presentation. It was clear from watching the presentations that Troy and Lisa were either in separate rooms or separate buildings.
Everything that I watched from Mysterious Chicago came from Facebook. No Zoom. These tours happened several different ways:
1.) Some of the tours were real-time cemetery tours, taking all social distancing precautions including the use of a face mask. These tours happened at times when there were no or else very few other people around.
2.) Some of the tours were real-time tours on the streets of Chicago, taking all social distancing precautions including the use of a face mask. These tours happened at times when there were very few other people around.
3.) Most of the tours took place completely in Adam Selzer’s living room. He didn’t wear a face mask during these tours. He shared pre-recorded video footage during these tours. He also shared photos – something that he wasn’t able to share during his live tours.
(To be clear, Adam Selzer made a point of taping footage of himself wearing the face mask while he was outside traversing the Chicago cemeteries and streets.)
Finally, I watched three virtual tours of New Orleans narrated by long time New Orleans tour guide Alexander Addams. (He said, “I have been doing this for many, many – God knows – many years.”) I found two of these videos under the Facebook page for Crawl New Orleans, and I found the third video under the Facebook page for Crawl USA. These were three completely different video tours by the same guide. I’m not sure why they were on different Facebook pages. Oh, well. I very much enjoyed all of these tours.
Just like the companies mentioned above, Crawl New Orleans used photos and pre-recorded video footage. However, unlike the other two, Crawl New Orleans also had video footage recorded from the air. That was very cool. There was a link to a tip jar. The tour guide encouraged viewers to book in-person tours with Crawl New Orleans once the Covid-19 restrictions had ended. He even provided a code for 20% off all tours: CORONA.
Here’s why I took such an interest in this: in the past, I purchased tickets for tours of local cemeteries and historic neighborhoods. Almost all of these tours were put on by local civic groups and staffed by volunteers. These tours raised funds in order to maintain and preserve said cemeteries and neighborhoods. For instance, one of these cemeteries held tours every October in order to raise enough money to pay somebody to mow the grass. This was the very cemetery which included the graves of that community’s founder and his entire family. I wonder how many of these tours will be able to continue in this era of Covid-19.
I’m not personally involved with any of these civic groups. However, I think that maybe some of these groups will be able to continue their tour fundraising efforts by taking them online. For instance, a member of said group could go out alone and take the video footage needed for the tour. Then, they could put the footage up on a free Facebook livestream. Viewers would be asked to donate to a virtual tip jar for the benefit of this organization.
Well, that’s just my suggestion. Off to watch more ghost and true crime tours.
I returned to the Soldiers’ Lot in 2019 in order to take some photos.
I didn’t have any prior knowledge of this following soldier, but I Googled his name when I returned home.
From the Veterans Affairs / website for Allegheny Cemetery Soldiers’ Lot: Corporal John M. Kendig (Civil War). He received the Medal of Honor while serving in the U.S. Army, Company A, 63rd Pennsylvania Infantry, for actions at Spotsylvania, Virginia, May 12, 1864. His citation was awarded under the name of Kindig. He died in 1869 and is buried in Section 33, Lot 66, Site 32.
Here’s a grave for an unknown Union (United States) Civil War soldier:
Finally, here is a Confederate grave that I saw at the Soldiers’ Lot. Note how the headstone differs from that of a Union soldier.
Here are my absolute favorite history podcasts. These are the podcasts to which I re-listen to episodes.
I, personally, download podcasts from iTunes. However, I linked to each podcast’s website.
1.) Uncivil, from Gimlet Media, hosted by Jack Hitt and Chenjerai Kumanyika
I blogged about this Civil War podcast a few months ago. Each episode discussed stories and events that aren’t part of the common Civil War narrative. For instance, one episode taught me about female soldiers who enlisted in the army as men. Many of the episodes featured stories and events involving African Americans.
I complained about this podcast last year because Season #1 ended with no announcement and Gimlet said nothing about the status of Season #2.
I included American Hauntings because the podcast actually taught me more about history then it did about the supernatural.
I posted about American Hauntingslast month. Co-host Cody Beck commented on my post! Thanks, Cody!
Season #4 is Haunted New Orleans! I learned that Jean Lafitte the pirate might actually have NO actual connection to the building known as “Lafitte’s” Blacksmith Shop Bar. That the most graphic stories about Madame LaLaurie’s mansion may be fiction. (Though the LaLaurie family’s brutal cruelty towards their enslaved servants DID happen.) I learned about “quadroon balls.”
I even learned that Nicholas Cage (who also owned the LaLaurie Mansion) purchased for himself a pyramid-shaped tomb in New Orleans’ St. Louis Cemetery No. 1!
The entire first season highlighted Alton, Illinois. I didn’t even know that Alton existed until I found American Hauntings. I learned that Alton competed economically with St. Louis. It hosted a Civil War Prison AND a tuberculosis sanitarium. A LOT of people died horrible deaths in Alton.
I learned that an abolitionist named Elijah Lovejoy ran a printing press in St. Louis. Three angry mobs destroyed Lovejoy’s printing press three separate times. Lovejoy moved to Alton, Illinois and bought yet another printing press. A FOURTH angry mob, this time in Alton, destroyed Lovejoy’s fourth printing press. Also, the fourth angry mob shot and killed Lovejoy.
The Season #2 taught me about St. Louis, Missouri. Season #2 included a multi-episode feature on the Lemp brewing family. I learned that the most atrocious stories about the Lemps did NOT happen! (There is NO record that the young boy known as “Zeke” Lemp actually existed. Charles Lemp DIDN’T kill his dog. Lillian Lemp AKA “the Lavender Lady” DID face a child custody challenge from her ex-husband after she wore trousers in a photo.)
The audio quality of the episodes in the middle of the first season was not great. However, the audio quality improved greatly in Season #2.
Season #3, titled Murdered in Their Beds, covered the string of midwestern ax murders (including Villisca) that occurred at the turn of the last century. This was my least favorite season.
Each episode explored a dark historical event, place, or folklore tale from American Southern history.
I included Southern Gothic on this list because the host did advise when folklore did not match historical records. For example, in the episode about the Myrtles Plantation, the host noted that dates on the local death records do not match the storyline involved with the plantation’s most famous ghost story. (Troy Taylor mentioned this same thing during an episode of American Hauntings.)
I took this at the Allegheny Cemetery Soldiers’ Lot, Lawrenceville, Pittsburgh, PA. This headstone marks the grave of a Confederate soldier from the American Civil War. (C.S.A. stands for “Confederate States of America.”)