Six Degrees From the Serial Killer H.H. Holmes

Phipps Conservatory, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Phipps Conservatory was constructed in 1892-1893. The first exhibit at Phipps consisted of plants purchased from the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

My sisters and I used to play “Six Degrees from Kevin Bacon.” If you’re not familiar with the game, it’s based on the theory that everyone in the world can be linked by six or fewer relationship connections. So, when you play “Six Degrees from Kevin Bacon,” one player picks a famous person from Hollywood, and then the other players try to link that person by six connections or fewer to Keven Bacon.

So, since Halloween was coming up, I thought that it would be fun to play “Six Degrees from H.H. Holmes.”

Very briefly, H.H. Holmes was a serial killer (as well as a medical school graduate, body stealer, and con artist) active in the Eastern United States, Chicago, and Canada in the late 1800’s. He was executed in Philadelphia in 1896. He confessed to 27 murders, but some writers speculate that he actually killed hundreds of people.

Holmes owned a building located three miles from the location of the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. The building came to be known in popular culture as Holmes’ “Murder Castle.”

Writers theorized that Holmes took advantage of the large crowds in Chicago for the fair in order to pick out new victims. They conjectured that Holmes pretended to be a hotel owner and brought these victims to his Murder Castle under the guise of providing lodging. Then, he allegedly killed these out-of-towners.

Erik Larson’s novel “The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America” ran with this particular narrative. In 2017, I took an architecture boat tour of the Chicago River. My tour guide referenced “The Devil in the White City” several times. I left the tour with the impression that this was a non-fiction book. I learned later that the book is NOT non-fiction. Larson even conceded in his remarks at the end of the book that many of the things that he wrote about Holmes’ murderous activities were conjecture.

If you want to learn about H.H. Holmes based on documentation and research, then I recommend Adam Selzer’s “Mysterious Chicago” Facebook page. Selzer has posted several “virtual tours” exploring Holmes on this Facebook page. He also wrote his own non-fiction book about Holmes. I didn’t read the book, but I watched all of Selzer’s Facebook videos.

Some writers claim that H.H. Holmes was also Jack the Ripper. However, Selzer discovered documentation that showed that Holmes was in the United States at the same time that the Ripper murders occurred in London.

So, back to the “Six Degree”thing.

Henry Phipps (a businessman who belonged to the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club whose dam caused the Johnstown Flood of 1889) had Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in Pittsburgh erected in 1892 – 1893. The conservatory lists this history on its website. (The Phipps Conservatory website does NOT include that part about the Johnstown Flood.)

During one of my visits to Phipps Conservatory, I learned through an exhibit that representatives from the conservatory travelled from Pittsburgh to Chicago in order to acquire the plants that were exhibited at the 1893 World’s Fair. The Phipps representatives purchased these plants (they outbid several other parties), then had the plants shipped by train from Chicago to Pittsburgh. These plants from the 1893 World’s Fair became Phipps Conservatory’s opening exhibit in 1893.

So, maybe the original plants at Phipps Conservatory in Pittsburgh were originally viewed – possibly even enjoyed – by the serial killer H.H. Holmes. Maybe H.H. Holmes lured one or more of his victims among these plants. Maybe H.H. Holmes attempted to prey on the people who travelled from Pittsburgh to Chicago, looking for Phipps Conservatory’s first flowers. Maybe these plants are the ancestors of plants that I now enjoy when I visit Phipps.

You see, Erik Larson, I too can speculate about H.H. Holmes and his activities at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago.

Here’s my call to action: If you enjoy (or hate read) my blog, please share it with others would would also enjoy (or hate read) it.

This is How Ghost Stories Get Started

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.

Crack!

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!”

And that’s how my dad became a ghost story.

 

Finding Shelter at Eat’n Park

This is NOT a photo of Eat’n Park. However, I haven’t physically been inside of an Eat’n Park since Covid hit. So, this is what you get until I can walk down the street and take a photo of the one in my neighborhood.

On Monday, I read through the online Pittsburgh news. I learned that the place where I met my future husband, Jonathan, would close that very day: The Eat’n Park at Edgewood Towne Center.

See, here is how I found my husband: one of my best friends at the time, “Lucia,” met him online. She thought that he seemed like my type. She arranged an online introduction. Then, I chatted with him online. After a few weeks, we met at the above referenced Eat’n Park.

That’s how I met a lot of guys when I was single. I met them on the ‘net. Then, I arranged a “coffee date” at an Eat’n Park. For the first meeting, we arrived separately. (At this point in the “relationship,” I never gave the men my home address.) Sometimes, I arranged to have Lucia come into the restaurant with her mother. They arranged to sit nearby and have their own coffee date. We didn’t acknowledge each other. (This way, if the guy was a dud, we could all snark about him later.)

When I first met Jonathan, I was by myself. No Lucia, even though she had arranged the online introduction. I was actually on my way home from the South Side of Pittsburgh after a job interview that had not gone well. I called Jonathan and asked if he wanted to meet in person. I specifically chose the Eat’n Park at Edgewood Towne Center because I had gone there many times with Lucia and I knew how to exit the Parkway and find it. Jonathan had no idea where it was, and he got lost. I waited for him in the lobby for over an hour. He called me for directions at least once. (Smartphones weren’t a thing back then.) Then he found the place. We spent several hours that night talking. Then we became a couple.

I trusted Eat’n Park with my future and my safety.

I learned this from my mom, Shirley. Mom took my youngest sister to Eat’n Park so often that the staff recognized her when she showed up with the rest of us. Our server said to Mom, “Oh, I see that you brought your family this time!”

Mom was so embarrassed that she tried to stop going there. But she couldn’t stay away for long. One time, I went out alone with Mom’s mother. Grandma said to me, “Your mother likes to take me to Eat’n Park. Can we please go somewhere else?”

Before I met Jonathan, I made a terrible mistake one night with another man that I met online. I shall call this man “N.J.,” which stands for “NOT Jonathan.” So, per my usual plan, I met N.J. at an Eat’n Park. I did NOT tell N.J. where I lived. N.J. and I had our coffee date. I thought that we really hit it off. He seemed like a really great guy. So, I agreed to accompany N.J. to a bar in the same shopping plaza as that Eat’n Park on that very same evening. We left our cars parked at the Eat’n Park. We walked across the parking lot. Once we reached the bar, I had one drink and stopped. N.J. continued to drink. And drink. And drink. N.J. was drunk. I offered N.J. a ride home to HIS place. N.J. insisted that I take him home with me so that he could “sleep it off” on MY couch. I said no. The rest is a really long story that ended in a nearly empty parking lot next to a dark Eat’n Park. I was scared. I jumped into my car when N.J. wasn’t paying attention. I drove off. I went home and went to bed. N.J. left me drunk voice mail messages ALL NIGHT, one after the other. He left me a voice mail message to apologize the next day. I never returned his call. Had I just STAYED AT THE EAT’N PARK and ended the evening there, this never would have happened. I learned my lesson. Don’t stray beyond Eat’n Park on a first date.

I mentioned before that my family lived in Somerset County when Flight 93 crashed on September 11, 2001. After the crash, I heard stories about official-looking investigator types of men and women who spent hours drinking coffee inside the Somerset Eat’n Park during that grim autumn of 2001. It was the same Eat’n Park where my mom ate so often that the staff knew her. It was the same Eat’n Park where I smoked a menthol cigarette just to “scandalize” two conservative high school classmates who worked there. (I watched them go into the kitchen and laugh at me. So, major fail on my part.) Perhaps the Flight 93 investigators found the restaurant to be a place of safety and familiarity just as I did.

A Death in Vintondale’s Jail / Schoolhouse

Vintondale's Single Cell Jail. Vintondale, Pennsylvania.
Vintondale, Pennsylvania. November 1, 2019. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

A sign on the Ghost Town Bike Trail in Vintondale, Pennsylvania, identified the cage pictured in the above photo as “Vintondale’s Single Cell Jail.”

The sign identified Denise Dusza Weber as a Vintondale historian. The sign attributed the following story to Weber:

This cell was one of two located in Vintondale’s borough building. The local public school had located classrooms in this same building due to the school’s increased enrollment in 1912-1913. As a result, one classroom shared a wall with this jail cell. In February 1913, students in this classroom reportedly heard moaning on the other side of their shared wall. Weber noted that a miner had taken his own life in the jail cell.

I learned that Weber wrote at least two books on the Vintondale area.

Jonathan and I biked on the Ghost Town Trail on November 1, 2019. On that day, Vintondale was still decorated for Halloween. The single cell jail stood in a pavilion next to the bike trail, and it included Halloween decorations. We observed two paper “ghosts” hanging in the cell.

My Hometown Conspired with the News Media (My High School, My Bank, and My Mom were in on It)

I participated in my first media conspiracy at the tender age of 17.

See, my family moved from Central Pennsylvania to the town of Berlin, Pennsylvania, when I was seven. Berlin is south of Somerset, in Somerset County. Today, I tell people that Berlin is less than 20 miles “as the crow flies” from Shanksville (the town where Flight 93 crash on September 11, 2001). When I was a kid, Shanksville wasn’t nationally famous because 9/11 hadn’t yet happened. So, I just told people that I lived in the town with the “Snyder of Berlin” potato chip factory. (The factory is located down the street from my high school. My class walked there for our senior field trip.)

Berlin isn’t very big. I lived on the opposite side of town from school, and we lived too close to school to qualify for bus transportation. Our school district, Berlin Brothersvalley, was geographically enormous. However, the land consisted mainly of farms. Many of my classmates were farm kids. Our entire school district’s physical plant was three whole buildings connected by a tunnel. (When we first moved to Berlin, it was only two buildings connected by a tunnel.) My senior class had less than 100 students. We mostly all knew each other from elementary school.

I played the clarinet in the high school marching band. My best friend, “Nadine,” played the cymbals in the band. My sister, K.S.., played the trumpet in the band. Nadine originally played the flute and K.S. originally played the clarinet just like me, but our school didn’t have enough students who already played some of the instruments necessary for a marching band. Thus, these two agreed to embrace new musical adventures.

Where’s the conspiracy, you say? It’s coming, it’s coming. What else can you do right now? Sit at the bar? Tailgate at Heinz Field?

Our biggest high school football rival was Meyersdale. I guess that Berlin’s biggest rival today is still Meyersdale.

Every March, Meyersdale (still) holds the Pennsylvania Maple Festival. When I was a kid, this was kind of a big deal. High school senior girls from all over our county participated in a “Miss America” type of pageant to vie for the title of Maple Queen and small scholarships. My sisters and I listened to the local radio station’s pageant coverage each year. We (usually, sometimes) rooted for the contestants from Berlin. (When I was a senior, none of my classmates made the final cut to participate in the actual pageant. Womp, womp.)

In addition to the Maple Pageant, the Pennsylvania Maple Festival includes a bunch of other activities. Such as one of the largest parades in the area. My high school’s marching band travelled there to perform. I am pretty sure that a parade organizer who had it out for Berlin always put our band at the very end of the lineup.

In case it’s not clear, the Pennsylvania Maple Festival promotes the Pennsylvania maple syrup industry. The festival’s exhibits tout the “miracle” of maple sap. Or so I’ve heard. My family didn’t visit the exhibit hall. The exhibit hall has an admission fee.

Right before my senior year in high school, I learned that Berlin was trying to establish its own festival. We had the firefighter’s carnival each June and this event already included a parade, but that was a fundraiser for the volunteer fire department. It didn’t have anything unique to draw people from out of the area. The Pennsylvania Maple Festival in Meyersdale drew people from other counties and maybe even other states. I personally think that Berlin aspired to have a festival just as large. Berlin had to have its own “thing.”

Now, if anybody had asked me, I would have said, “Let’s have a potato chip festival!”

But nobody asked me.

Instead, our town decided to celebrate the Whiskey Rebellion.

Now, if you’re not familiar with the Whiskey Rebellion, you can go and read about it on Wikipedia or the website for the Heinz History Center. Briefly, in the late 1700’s, Congress decided that it needed new ways to pay its bills. (Doesn’t Congress always decide this?) Congress decided to place a tax on the production of whiskey.

Farmers in Western Pennsylvania turned their crops into whiskey because it was less expensive to transport whiskey over the Allegheny Mountains than it was to transport their raw crops. So, Western Pennsylvanians (understandably) thought that it was NOT fair that this new tax directly hit their pocketbooks. A bunch of farmers raised a militia to protest this new tax. This militia went into Pittsburgh and set a bunch of stuff on fire and probably scared the “elites” who lived in Pittsburgh. George Washington, who at the time was President of the United States, had to personally lead an army into the area to settle everybody down.

This has absolutely NOTHING in common with anything that’s happening in the United States right now. Absolutely nothing. Right?

Just to clarify: Maybe you’ve heard of the Whiskey Rebellion Festival that still happens every year (except perhaps this year of 2020?) in Canonsburg, in Washington County, in the southwest corner of Pennsylvania. This was not us. No, my hometown is Berlin in Somerset County, and my hometown is nowhere near Canonsburg. Back when I was in high school, Berlin’s community leaders decided to have its very own Whiskey Rebellion celebration. See, one of the several Whiskey Rebellion leaders lived in Berlin, which is why Berlin decided to claim the Whiskey Rebellion as its “thing.”

Berlin leaders decided that Berlin’s Whiskey Rebellion Festival would definitely have a parade. Somebody got one of the Pittsburgh network news stations to come out and do a media package about our festival. That is, the station agreed to do a story on the Pittsburgh news about our festival. Then, perhaps, people might travel from Pittsburgh to our festival. (Berlin is about a two hour drive or so from Pittsburgh.)

And this is where the media conspiracy comes into play. The local news needed to have video footage to use in its story about Berlin’s Whiskey Rebellion Festival. They had no footage because Berlin had not done this before.

So, Berlin staged a fake parade.

Every member of the high school band (which included the honor guard, color guard, etc) got out of school for several hours on the day of our fake parade. Somebody paid our school’s bus contractor to transport all of the band members, our uniforms, and our musical instruments, several miles from our high school to the start of the planned parade route. Our parade route was also the town’s main street and main business route. Many coal trucks passed down it each day because it was also a state highway that connected the PA Turnpike to Maryland. Part of this road got shut down for our fake parade. The coal trucks had to wait.

Our marching band dressed in our full uniforms. We marched down the street as we played one song, or else we played the same song twice in a row. It was all for the benefit of the camera crew from the Pittsburgh news station.

Someone released balloons as we marched past. I know that ballon releases kill wildlife and they aren’t commonly done now. However, it actually looked pretty when I watched the video footage of our fake parade.

The bank where I opened my very first checking account was located near the start of our “parade route.” The bank employees came out and stood along the street as “parade spectators.” Some of the bank employees wore costumes from the 1790’s. You know, the type of costume that people at arts festivals wear when they try to sell you homemade butter and wool.

People who lived within walking distance of the “parade route” came outside and also acted as “spectators.” My mom came to our fake parade!

Just to clarify, we only played and marched for about 5 or 10 or 15 minutes. There was nobody else in the fake parade. Just the Berlin Brothersvalley High School Marching Band. We stopped when the camera crew told us that they had enough footage.

Then, we packed up our instruments and our uniforms, took our buses back to our high school, and went back to class.

As promised, the Pittsburgh network news ran a story about Berlin’s Whiskey Rebellion Festival. My family taped the story so that my sister and I could watch ourselves marching down the street on the Pittsburgh news. We held our festival – and our real parade – a week or so later.

I graduated from high school and left Berlin. On my visits home, Berlin’s Whiskey Rebellion Festival seemed to get smaller and smaller each year. Then, the festival stopped happening.

Every time that I read about the Whiskey Rebellion, I think about the fake Whiskey Rebellion parade that I helped to stage in high school.

Don’t believe everything that you see in the media. Sometimes, things get staged to look good for the camera.

Tattoo Parlors and Train Stations

Downtown Greensburg, PA, November 3, 2019
Jenny Gaffron Woytek
I might possibly have walked through this alley the day that I visited that Greensburg tattoo parlor.
No, I do NOT believe that the alley was all painted up like this back in those “olden days.”

The first time that I went to downtown Greensburg, Pennsylvania, I went to a tattoo parlor. I also walked up and down the city’s hilly streets, popping into any store that advertised cigarettes, and asking if they also sold Playboy magazine.

The tattoo and Playboy weren’t for me.

At that time, I attended college at Saint Vincent College in nearby Latrobe. I had never before visited downtown Greensburg for these reasons:

1.) I had no reason to go into downtown Greensburg. None. Like just about almost every other place in western PA, Greensburg suffered when the steel industry collapsed. Greensburg’s big fancy downtown department store closed. The area’s only decent mall was several miles away, on the interstate.

2.) I didn’t own a car at that time. Uber and Lyft didn’t exist. I only went places where other people offered me rides. Up until my trip to the tattoo parlor, nobody had ever offered me a ride to downtown Greensburg.

Then, this young woman who lived in my dorm named “Esme” came back from summer vacation with several new tattoos. She decided that she needed at least one more tattoo – of the Playboy Bunny, on her back.

Our mutual friend “Nina” agreed to drive Esme to a tattoo parlor in downtown Greensburg. (Esme didn’t own a car, either.) For some reason, they agreed to bring me along on the “adventure.”

So, we all set off for Greensburg.

One of the tattoo parlor employees told us that we needed to give her a picture of the Playboy Bunny if we wanted the artist to ink it on Esme’s back. Smartphones weren’t a thing that any of us owned back then. We couldn’t just Google an image of this.

So, for the next hour, Nina and I walked into stores and asked the clerks if they sold Playboy. We walked up and down – and up and down and up and down – the streets of Greensburg.

I don’t remember us actually finding a Playboy magazine to purchase.

But, we must have found one! I watched Esme get the Bunny tattooed on her back that afternoon. In my opinion, she seemed to be in much pain during the whole ordeal.

Had I been more of a STRIVER, I would have stayed at Saint Vincent and studied for whatever class I blew off that day. I would be a bigger professional and financial success today. But, here we are! I get to sit all day in my yoga pants, in my comfortable chair in Parnassus, and work from home. You get to hate-read my blog. Win, win!

A few months after our Playboy Bunny scavenger hunt, I returned to downtown Greensburg for a handful of job interviews. I didn’t get any job offers out of this. Maybe all of the hiring managers at all of these companies would have picked me, IF ONLY I had gone to class that one day instead of visiting that tattoo parlor.

(Sidenote: Somebody that I know DID get one of those jobs for which I interviewed in Greensburg. This person left the job a few weeks later. I don’t know why this person left.)

Now, I know that Greensburg is more than just tattoo parlors and stores that sell cigarettes and possibly Playboy. And jobs that I couldn’t get.

Greensburg became the Westmoreland County seat after Seneca warriors and British Loyalists burned down Hannastown in 1785. My dad was born in Greensburg. My grandma worked for this very county for years. Later, my husband and I applied for our marriage license at the courthouse here. I saw the deed to my great-grandparents’ farm on a computer inside this same courthouse.

Now, Seton Hill College looks over downtown Greensburg from its very own bluff. My dad’s youngest sister graduated from Seton Hill. So, they must be a fine school if they convinced my fabulous aunt to spend her money and her time there.

The Westmoreland Cultural Trust poured its heart and soul into gorgeous renovations on such downtown Greensburg landmarks as the 1912 train station and the Palace Theater. Cafes face the courthouse.

Last fall, my husband Jonathan and I walked around Greensburg and took photos. I took the two that I posted here on this blog post.

A lot of people are angry and / or worried right now. I just want to bring you all some joy by showing you photos and telling you that I was weird when I was 21 years old. Some things never change.

“Indentured Slaves” in Pittsburgh?

So, I’ve been trying to blog about this for about a year now. I couldn’t figure out how to handle the topic. I still don’t know how to handle the topic. However, we might all be dead before 2020 ends, so I will give it a shot now.

When I was a teenager, I was super “into” the American Civil War. That is, I was “into” upper class white women’s experiences in the Civil War. (Such as the the fiction of Gone with the Wind.) I didn’t care about the military strategy. Then, I went to college and formed interests in OTHER things. About a year or so ago, I joined a Civil War message board and I started to read about the Civil War again.

I still don’t care about military strategy. I still read about upper class white women’s experiences.

Last year I read most of “The Personal Memoirs of Julia Dent Grant (Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant).” Julia Dent Grant was the widow of American POTUS and General Ulysses S. Grant. (Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant during the American Civil War in 1865.) President Grant wrote his memoirs to great fanfare shortly before he died of cancer in 1885. After this, Mrs. Grant wrote her own memoirs. Mrs. Grant was actually the very first First Lady of the United States to write her own memoirs. Unfortunately, she did not find a publisher for her own memoirs during her lifetime. Mrs. Grant’s memoirs were published in the later half of the 20th century.

In Mrs. Grant’s memoirs, she wrote that her own mother, Ellen Bray Wrenshall Dent, grew up in Pittsburgh, attended school in Philadelphia, and then lived briefly in Pittsburgh as an adult. Mrs. Grant wrote that her mother and her father moved from Pittsburgh to St. Louis two years after their marriage. Mrs. Grant wrote, “Nearly all Pittsburgh assembled on the river bank to wish pretty Ellen Wrenshall and her brave young husband Godspeed.”

Here’s one part that caught my attention: Mrs. Grant wrote of this journey “The party consisted of papa, mamma, baby John, Mr. Edward Tracy, a friend of father’s, also two indentured slaves, Hester and Bob, with men for handling the rafts, etc.”

Now, the Dent family’s ownership of enslaved workers when they lived in St. Louis is well written about. The reason that I hesitated to blog about this is because on the Civil War message board that I joined last year, some of the posters use Ulysses S. Grant’s connection by marriage to a slave-owning family as support for their arguments that the American Civil War was fought over “States’ Rights” and not Slavery. I didn’t want to give any of the fools such as these more ammunition for their arguments. (Pardon the ammunition pun.)

But, I would like to know more about the “two indentured slaves, Hester and Bob” with whom the Dent family left Pittsburgh for St. Louis.

I learned through a Google search that the Dent family left Pittsburgh for St. Louis in 1819. How many of their friends who wished them well on the riverbank in Pittsburgh also had “indentured slaves?”

I didn’t even know until I was an adult that people who lived in Western Pennsylvania exploited indentured and enslaved workers in the 1800’s.

Now, in this same section of the memoir, Mrs. Grant mentioned that when she was growing up in St. Louis, several family friends visited them from Pittsburgh: “the Nevilles, O’Hara’s, Wilkinses, Robinsons, Dennys, Ogdens, etc.” I recognize several of these family names from Pittsburgh history. For instance, I blogged before about James O’Hara, who was Mary Schenley’s maternal grandfather. Ebenezer Denny was Pittsburgh’s first mayor. How many of these families had their own “indentured slaves” in Pittsburgh?

Whenever I had trouble verbalizing a thought to my late mom Shirley, Mom used to say, “Spit it out, Jen.” I don’t know if this is a saying that she learned from her own working class, German-descended Pittsburgh upbringing. But, I think of my mom whenever I am having a hard time expressing my thoughts. So, tonight I “spit it out.” Mom’s advice has actually served me very well!

By the way, I took a “break” from the Civil War message board. I can’t deal with the posters who are more upset about Robert E. Lee’s legacy being tarnished (he actually tarnished it himself!) than about the living Americans that our society failed to protect.

What I’ve Learned About Spooky Tours

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.

Growing Out of “Gone with the Wind”

This is a magnolia tree. Margaret Mitchell included the presence of magnolia trees in her novel “Gone with the Wind.”

I posted here that my cousin doesn’t like the term “New Normal” and she and her co-workers prefer the term “Temporary Weirdness.”

Yesterday, I listened to the most recent episode of the podcast “American Hauntings” hosted by Troy Taylor and Cody Beck. Taylor and Beck constantly referred to the days before Covid-19 as the “Before Times.”

So, IRREGARDLESS of whether I use the term “Before Times” or “Tempoary Weirdness” the thing is that I think about the days before Covid-19 A LOT.

So, here’s a story about my life before Covid-19.

My favorite book when I was 12 or 13 years old was Gone with the Wind.

Up until that time and even after that time, I still read the Babysitters Club and Nancy Drew books. (And also Little House on the Prairie.) However, when I was 12 years old, I watched the North and South miniseries on television, based on the book trilogy of the same name by John Jakes. I loved it. Someone suggested that I would like Gone with the Wind. I checked Gone with the Wind out of my school library. I was only in the seventh grade, but at my school grades 7 – 12 all shared one building and we shared one library.

So, I read Gone with the Wind cover to cover when I was 12 or 13. I didn’t even skip to the end and read that first, as I used to do (and still do sometimes). This was the very first “grown up” book that I read the entire way through. It was over 1000 pages long.

I loved Gone with the Wind so much that I asked my mom to buy me my very own copy of the book for Christmas. She did!

Then, I re-read my favorite sections.

Gone with the Wind was one of MY Harry Potters. (My other Harry Potter was The Babysitters Club.)

I outgrew Gone with the Wind a very long time ago.

Now, just to be clear, I’m talking about Gone with the Wind the novel by Margaret Mitchell. I’m NOT talking about the novel’s famous movie adaptation.

Here’s something that happened in the second half of Gone with the Wind the novel:

During the year 1866 or 1867 or something, Scarlett O’Hara married her second husband (Rhett Butler is husband #3). She took over the accounting / bookkeeping of her husband’s Atlanta sawmill because she was really good at numbers. All of the respectable white people in town disapproved. She did it anyway. One day, she travelled from her husband’s sawmill back to her house. Two big black men (newly freed enslaved men who live in the town slum) attacked her and tried to rip off her dress. Her husband rounded up all of the other respectable white men in town and they went and had a Klu Klux Klan raid on the black people who lived in the town slum. Husband #2 got killed in the process.

Yes, this is something that happened in the novel Gone with the Wind. This book won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1937.

I guess that I ignored this part of the book when I was a teenager. I don’t remember.

What I do remember was that I completely fell for the “Lost Cause” narrative as Gone with the Wind (the novel) represented it. I disagreed with my high school history teacher about the actual evils of slavery. I actually did this. My history teacher had a PhD.

I read at least one biography about the author, Margaret Mitchell. I also watched the made-for-television movie about her life. Shannon Dougherty of Beverly Hills 90210 starred in this movie. Based entire on this one biography and this one movie, I personally think that Margaret Mitchell suffered from trauma over losing her fiance in World War I, losing her mother in the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918, and then suffering domestic violence in a very brief first marriage. This is my personal opinion. I personally believe that Gone with the Wind reflected Mitchell’s trauma over these events.

By the time that I was out of college and married, I was completely over Gone with the Wind. Then one day, my husband Jonathan got sent to Atlanta on a business trip. I tagged along with him.

By complete coincidence, our hotel was on the opposite site of the exact same block as the house where Mitchell lived when she wrote Gone with the Wind. The Federal Reserve was on this same block. Neither my husband nor I chose this hotel ahead of time. Somebody else at my husband’s place of employment chose the hotel. I never met this person, and this person had no idea that I used to like the novel Gone with the Wind.

The house where Margaret Mitchell wrote Gone with the Wind was actually a downtown Atlanta apartment building. Mitchell lived in one of the apartments with her second husband (John Marsh) when she wrote the book. I read something once that suggested that Gone with the Wind was actually a team effort. Mitchell once wrote for an Atlanta newspaper, and Marsh was her former editor. Anyway, years later a group purchased the apartment building with the intention of turning it into a museum about Mitchell and Gone with the Wind. Shortly after the museum was set to open, most of it burned down in an arson. The group rebuilt the thing. They opened this building as “The Margaret Mitchell House.”

So, yeah, I visited the Margaret Mitchell House that one time when I went to Atlanta. I got to spend an entire week sleeping on the same block as the Margaret Mitchell House. It felt really weird, though. I had loved that book for so long. Then, by the time that I got to see where it was written, I didn’t actually think much of the book.

In fact, the docent who led me around the Margaret Mitchell House opened the tour by telling me about how much she personally loved Gone with the Wind. (I guess that you have to love Gone with the Wind in order to give tours around the apartment where either Mitchell or Marsh wrote it. I was under the impression that the docents were all volunteers.)

Then she said to me, “What do you think of the book?”

I said, “This used to be my favorite book. Now it isn’t.”

The tour was kinda awkward after this. Oh, well.

During this same trip, I rode the MARTA (the commuter train) and walked a bunch in order to visit the Joel Chandler Harris House (also called “The Wren’s Nest”). I did this because Harris wrote the Uncle Remus stories that my Grandma Gaffron read to me.

So, on my one trip to Atlanta, I toured the homes of problematic authors.

Also, my husband and I ate in a downtown Atlanta restaurant where we eavesdropped on the business meeting happening at the table next to ours. It was clearly a business meeting. All of the participants were wearing business attire. Also, I’ve sat in enough business meetings myself that I enjoy watching the pain of other people who are trapped in business meetings. The one man in this meeting told the other participants that when he was a kid, he raised a goat on his dad’s farm. Then his dad had the goat served as dinner one night. I think that someone at that table had ordered goat meat for lunch.

I miss sitting close enough to strangers to hear their entire conversations. I miss eating in restaurants. I miss visiting the museum homes of problematic authors. I can’t wait until the “Temporary Weirdness” ends.

Restaurant Confessions Part I: The Great Veterans Day Weekend Oil Shower

I have a confession. Before the Covid-19 crisis changed my world in March, I ate out at restaurants A LOT. Everyone has a different definition of “A LOT.” I’m not going to provide my definition of “A LOT.” Let’s just say that I’m embarrassed to let my dad and sisters know how often I ate out.

I didn’t always eat out A LOT. I didn’t go out much during college or right after college because I couldn’t afford it. In fact, when I worked at my first job after college in Johnstown, my friends and I made fun of a co-worker who did go out to eat “A LOT.”

Then, I got a job in downtown Pittsburgh. I married a man who worked in the Oakland section of Pittsburgh. I moved into his house in New Kensington. New Kensington isn’t that close to Pittsburgh during rush hour. My after-work commute changed from 5 minutes in Johnstown to much longer. I also made more dough because I no longer worked in Johnstown. Also also, my living costs were still really low because- well, because I lived in New Kensington. So, I paid other people to make my dinner.

That all changed in March 2020. People on Facebook told me that I could die or kill my grandmother if I went outside. My employer told me to work from home. (Woot! Woot! No painful commute!) The governor shut down all of the restaurants. So, I learned how much money I actually save by making my poor husband cook for me.

The very last time that I ate in a restaurant was Sunday, March 15. My husband Jonathan and I ate at the brunch buffet at DiSalvo’s Station Restaurant in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. According to Facebook, we should both be dead right now! Good thing that the restaurant only had about five other patrons during our meal.

DiSalvo’s is a renovated former train station that sits under active railroad tracks. The current Amtrak station sits above the restaurant. When you dine at DiSalvo’s, you can hear freight trains or perhaps even the Amtrak over your head.

I visited DiSalvo’s for the very first time when I was a senior at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe. I ended up at DiSalvo’s as part of a double date. It turned out that my “date” part of the double date actually wanted to be with the other girl in our foursome, and a few months later he did just that. However, that’s the way that things go sometimes. I got a free meal out of the whole thing.

So, the place has a model railroad that travels along the dining room wall. This little train passes replicas of Latrobe landmarks, including the Saint Vincent Basilica. When I went there on my “double date,” the other girl and I cooed “Oh, train!” every time that the train passed our table. Someone finally turned the train off just to shut us up.

A few years later, I went to a wedding reception held at DiSalvo’s for a college classmate who got married at Saint Vincent Basilica.

A few more years went by and I got married myself. (I married a guy who never went on a double date with me while he actually wanted the other girl. Also, my own wedding wasn’t as fancy and it didn’t take place in Latrobe.)

A few years after this, my sister K. gave me a gift card to the place. Then, I went cabin camping with my husband and in-laws at nearby Keystone State Park over Veterans Day weekend. My father-in-law is a veteran. My father-in-law loves trains. We used the gift card to treat him to Sunday brunch at DiSalvo’s.

So, after brunch, we walked up to the railroad tracks to watch trains. A few freight trains passed us. We even saw a male and female stowaway riding on one of the cars. (I’m too politically correct to use the word “hobo.”)

And then . . . it happened. A train stopped on the tracks directly above DiSalvo’s Station. Oil covered the locomotive and several of the front cars.

It turned out that the thing’s turbo had exploded. Thus the mess. Oil everywhere.

We watched railroad employees disconnect the oil-covered locomotive from the front car and replace it with a fresh, oil-free locomotive. We watched this for over an hour. We didn’t need no stinking model train that could be turned off by the whim of annoyed restaurant employees. We had our own, real train entertainment outside!

I swiped this photo of the oil-covered locomotive from my sister-in-law’s Facebook page. Good thing that I don’t actually make any money from this blog!

My husband and I saw all of this with his mom Fran, his dad, his sister M., and her future husband J. After this, my husband and I drove to Latrobe sometimes to grab brunch at DiSalvo’s. Every time we ate there, we talked about the Great Veterans Day Weekend Oil Shower.

After Fran died, I couldn’t think about the Great Veterans Day Weekend Oil Shower without thinking about how much fun Fran seemed to have had that day at the train tracks above DiSalvo’s Station.

Now, as I said, my routine completely changed in March 2020. A lot of people’s lives did. My employer had planned a major client social function at a downtown Pittsburgh restaurant for mid-March. Two weeks before everything shut down, my big manager announced that the client function was still on her schedule. She told my co-workers that she herself planned to keep eating out.

By that time, Twitter was filled with memes about how our entire family would die if we left the house. I ignored the memes because my mother-in-law and my own mom had both lived their lives “correctly” and they had both died anyway. So, if I croaked from eating at a brunch buffet, at least I got to eat that final piece of chocolate cheesecake.

So – about that brunch at DiSalvo’s Station on March 15. The restaurant was pretty empty. We were at least six feet away from the other patrons the entire time. The only other patrons sat on the other side of the dining room. The staff seemed really nervous and stressed. Maybe I just projected my own feelings onto them.

The next day, Monday March 16, was my last day inside my employer’s downtown Pittsburgh office. During that day, we received an email to start working from home effective immediately. The governor shut down all of the restaurants less than a week later.

I’m blessed because I didn’t lose my job. I got to stop making my commute. I saved a lot of money. However, I’m sad that I haven’t eaten inside of a restaurant since March. I’m sad for all of the restaurants that I loved to visit. So, from time to time, I will blog about my restaurant memories.

By the way, I’m aware that Pennsylvania restaurants eventually opened again to inside diners. However, my husband and I decided to cherry-pick our activities. We are involved in some other stuff (including my husband’s participation in our community’s volunteer fire department) so we balanced this out by not eating inside of restaurants. Now restaurants in my area are being shut down again. It looks as if I won’t be eating inside of a restaurant for a long, long time.