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.

 

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.

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.

A Ghost Might Have Climbed Into Bed With Me (Subtitle: Be Careful What You Wish For!)

The bed and breakfast suite where we spent a spooky night. Jean Bonnet Tavern. Bedford, Pennsylvania.

The posts on this blog that receive the most hits are those about “haunted” Livermore Cemetery in Westmoreland County, Misery Bay in Erie, and my list of haunted history podcasts. My thoughts about William Crawford’s brutal life and his encounters with Simon Girty also scored big on the analytics. So, if you found my blog through searches on these topics, then I wrote this blog post for you.

Okay, so Route 30 as it winds up and down through Central and Western Pennsylvania – the Lincoln Highway – is one of this blog post’s biggest stars. Other writers have already published books and internet content about the ghosts and legends of the Lincoln Highway. (It definitely helps that Gettsyburg is located along Route 30!) I won’t regurgitate what they already said. I’m not gonna steal someone else’s piece of the ghost story pie. It’s totally okay with me if you go off and Google “Route 30” and “history” and “haunted.” Just please come back.

I spent my early childhood in Central Pennsylvania (near Harrisburg) and all of my living grandparents lived west of us, in the Pittsburgh area. Sometimes, when we drove between Central PA and Western PA, my dad wanted to save money on PA Turnpike tolls. On such trips, my dad drove us across the western half of PA on Route 30.

Now, once you travel from Bedford County into Somerset County, you will climb to the top of a mountain summit, then drop down said summit, and then climb to the top of another summit. Over and over again. More than once, my parents’ fully-loaded station wagon followed fully-loaded coal trucks up and down these summits. If you’re from Western PA, then you understand the pain of these trips. When I was seven, my family actually moved to a town on the top of one of these Allegheny Mountain summits, in Somerset County. We still followed coal trucks to my grandparents’ houses, but we didn’t have as many summits to climb and descend.

(Side story: Flight 93 crashed less than 20 miles from our family home in Somerset County in 2001. When the National Park Service established the Flight 93 Memorial, they built the memorial’s main access road off of Route 30. I read the Flight 93 Memorial reviews on Trip Advisor. One reviewer noted that she drove her camping trailer from the Flight 93 Memorial, up and down Route 30, into Bedford County. She described her trip as “hellish.”)

So, as you leave Bedford traveling west on Route 30 en route to the Flight 93 Memorial, Saint Vincent College (my alma mater), and Pittsburgh, you will come upon the Jean Bonnet Tavern.

Again, I won’t steal somebody else’s piece of ghost story pie by getting too deep into the history of this place. The Pittsburgh news runs at least one story every Halloween about the ghosts. Several writers published books about the stories here. A bunch of other ghost bloggers wrote about the Jean Bonnet Tavern much more thoroughly than I have the patience to do so.

Here are the basics: The tavern probably opened in the mid-to-late 1700’s. It now sits at the intersection of Route 30 and Route 31. Back in the 1700’s, these were both trails. Modern-day Route 30 was a major trail that ran from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh. The tavern sat at the bottom of the first of a series of summits that travelers crossed to reach Pittsburgh. Since this was a crossroads, local lore claims that people in trouble with the law were hung here. George Washington might have stopped here.

The tavern today includes a restaurant and a bed and breakfast. I have eaten there several times as an adult. The basement dining room and the first floor dining room have different menus. The first floor dining room includes the option of outdoor seating. I’ve dined at all three options.

I never saw any ghosts when I dined at the Jean Bonnet. My sisters and I hope to see one each time that we visit.

Well, my husband and I finally booked a room on the second-floor bed and breakfast when we travelled to the area for a family event. We booked for a one night stay, which meant that I had ONE CHANCE to see a ghost overnight. Our room had one of those little books where you can write about your stay. Some of the recent entries noted, “I didn’t see any ghosts,” but most of the recent entries for that little book for that particular room DID mention ghost encounters. In most of these entries, the room guests reported being shoved or held down as they slept.

I sat in our room and said to my husband, “I will be really disappointed if I don’t meet a ghost tonight!”

Jonathan told me that I better be careful what I wish for.

I fell asleep because I was actually really tired from all of my quality time with my family.

IN THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT, I WOKE UP TO FEEL SOMEBODY PINNING ME DOWN IN THE BED.

The entity pinning me down wasn’t my husband. My husband was asleep on the other side of me.

I tried to wake up my husband, but I couldn’t move and I couldn’t talk. So, either I suffered sleep paralysis, or else a ghost put its arms around me when I was in bed.

I slept some more.

I woke up to the sound of classic rock music. It was Credence Clearwater Revival or something. And then an Elton John song. It sounded as if the music was coming from the floor below, from the restaurant area. As if somebody had turned on the restaurant’s sound system. I looked out the window. The only cars in the parking lot appeared to be ours and those of the other bed and breakfast guests. It didn’t appear that any Jean Bonnet employees had arrived for the day. It was only 5 a.m. I considered dressing and leaving my room to investigate the source of the music, but I was too tired to put that much effort into the investigation.

I fell asleep again.

I woke up again around 8. I no longer heard music.

Jonathan and I dressed and went to the dining area for our breakfast. The Jean Bonnet Tavern’s owner greeted us and asked us if we had encountered any of the ghosts.

I didn’t ask about the early-morning musical wake-up call. Perhaps another guest played the music from their room. Perhaps, as I suspected, the music did originate from the restaurant’s sound system. Perhaps one of the ghosts turned it on. Perhaps the sound system was set up on an automatic timer programmed incorrectly. Perhaps one of the restaurant employees screwed up. Perhaps a living human did it on purpose to perpetuate the ghost stories. (I watched too much Scooby-Doo in my childhood.) If a living, breathing human did cause the early-morning music, would the tavern owner cop to it? Or would she play it off and blame it on the ghost anyway? After all, the ghosts seem to be a pretty major part of the tavern’s marketing campaign.

I said, “Perhaps.”

***

Postscript from the blogger: See my post “Meeting Aaron Burr in the Alleghenies.” Former FLOTUS Julia Dent Grant wrote in her memoir that her own mother, Ellen Bray Wrenshall Dent, encountered Aaron Burr at a tavern in the Alleghenies. Mrs. Dent was traveling between her home in Pittsburgh and her school in Philadelphia at that time. The memoir does not provide the tavern’s name. However, I speculate that this happened at the Jean Bonnet Tavern.

Mrs. Dent was born in 1793. I am under the impression that Mrs. Dent would have been a schoolgirl in the first decade of the 1800’s. Keep in mind that Burr shot Alexander Hamilton in 1804. The Burr conspiracy allegedly happened in 1804/05 – 1807. Aaron Burr was arrested for treason in 1807.

So, was Burr in the process of planning the alleged Burr conspiracy when JDG’s mother saw him at the tavern? When JDG wrote in her memoir of “Aaron Burr and his army,” did JDG mean the militia that Burr allegedly raised for the conspiracy?

This story stands out to me because, in my mind, Mrs. Dent said to her children (including future FLOTUS Julia Dent Grant), “Did I ever tell you about that time that I met a very famous person? Wait until you hear this story!”

If you enjoyed reading this blog post, please share it with someone else who also loves history and folklore.

Here’s Some Stuff About Bigfoot

Almost every year, I enter the Ligonier Valley Writer’s annual Flash Fiction Writing Contest. The prizes aren’t big. But – there’s no entry fee, and you don’t need to belong to this group in order to enter. From what I understand, the winning entries are read at Greensburg area venues around Halloween.

Each year’s contest requires a story of 1,000 words or less on that year’s stated theme. In 2018, that theme was “Bigfoot.” I submitted an entry to the contest.

Then I learned that my mom was really sick with cancer. I forgot about Bigfoot.

A few days before my mom passed away, I received an email from the Ligonier Valley Writers. The email told me that the contest awards only six prizes each year (First, Second, and Third Place, and also three honorable mentions), but that the contest organizers wanted me to know that I actually placed in the top ten of all entries. The email indicated that the top scores were close together. The contest organizers invited all ten writers who placed in the top ten to read their stories at a flash fiction party in Greensburg. Unfortunately, I had to decline the offer because this event was held the same day as the funeral home viewing for my mom. With my permission, the contest organizers designated somebody else to read the story at their party in my place.

As part of my recognition, the contest organizers also provided me with a “professionally edited” version of my story. They released me to submit the story elsewhere.

Last month, I bought a new laptop and I re-discovered this story when I moved my files to it.

I prefer to not submit this to a list of slush pile magazines who provide payment in the form of “free copies.” I respect writers who choose to do so. However, I think that you fantastic blog readers need a bit of cheer and entertainment right now. So, I present to you here the “professionally edited” version of my top-ten-placing story about Bigfoot:

Jonathan Woytek. Somerset County Cemetery. Mount Davis

The No-Kill Group

by Jenny Gaffron Woytek

Perry said, “Did you bring your gun?”

Ron said, “Don’t need a gun to find Bigfoot.”

Perry said, “You sure, man?”

Ron said, “My Bigfoot club is a no-kill group. I pledged not to pack. “

Perry insisted, “I wouldn’t spend the night in the woods without my gun.”

Ron said, “We’re scouts, not hunters. No one’s ever been hurt by Bigfoot.” 

“Ain’t Bigfoot that I’d worry about, Ron.” 

Perry took the half-bushel of apples from the back of his pickup emblazoned with “Perry’s Produce” and set it down in the trailhead parking lot. “That’ll be ten bucks.” 

“Here you go, buddy. Thanks again. Bigfoots love apples.” 

Perry said, “How far are you gonna hike?” 

“Just down this hill. I’ll set up camp in that field where that one creek flows into the Loyalhanna. The guys up at the Drop Inn saw tracks there last week.”  

Perry climbed into his truck.  “I wouldn’t do this without a gun.” 

Ron pulled off his black and gold Steelers ballcap and scratched his balding head. And what if he did have his gun? What business was it of Perry’s? “Look, man, I promised the group. No guns.” 

Perry said, “Whatever. I gotta go.” 

Perry drove away.   

Ron pulled his pack from his car. Checked it for the important stuff.  Nikon. Camp chair. Flashlight.  Snacks. Apples. Night-vision goggles. And, of course, the Nikon.  

Good to go.  

Ron had seen Bigfoot up close once. That was two summers ago on the Fourth of July, with Allison. Ah, Allison. The feel of her long soft auburn hair and the scent of that apple lotion stuff that she liked. Her huge–magnetism.  

That night, Allison wanted to watch Latrobe’s fireworks. Ron knew that the top of Laurel Ridge had the best view. He took her up a logging road.   

Ron held Allison close throughout the show. 

On the drive back down the mountain, they saw something in the headlights.  

A figure. Bigger than a man. 

Thud!                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 

Ron slammed on the brakes. “Shit!” 

Ron and Allison scoured the dark with their flashlights, but saw nothing.  

Ron found a large dent, some blood, and brown fur on the bumper the next morning.  

“We hit a bear, Ron,” Allison told him. 

“It was thinner than a bear. We both saw it. And it had brown fur. Grizzlies don’t live here,” he said. 

No bears in Pennsylvania towered over the truck on erect legs. Bears didn’t look at you with the face of a man. They didn’t run away and then appear every night in your dreams. 

 Then Allison stopped answering Ron’s texts.  Well, that was that. Now Ron walked by himself to a field on Laurel Mountain.

 He needed one good photo.  The guys who came back from scouting with blurry photos got laughed at by everybody.  

At the field, Ron set up his chair and readied his Nikon. He pulled the pheromone chips out of his pocket and hung them in several of the trees that lined the Loyalhanna Creek. He spread apples on the ground. Good to go.  

He pulled out his book and settled in for the wait. 

In 1977, a group of snowmobilers took off into the Ural Mountains and never returned. A search party found their crushed bodies one month later.” The book included pictures of the victims, alive and then in body bags. 

The sun disappeared. Ron picked up his flashlight to continue reading.  

An autopsy revealed that at least one of the victims choked to death on his own blood.” 

Then Ron heard the noise. 

“Ooo! Ooo!” 

Ron aimed his flashlight into the branches of a pine.  

He saw an owl. 

He went back to his book. “The first responders to the crime reported an overwhelming smell of sulfur.” Funny, many in the Bigfoot community believed their animal smelled like sulfur. 

He drifted off and dropped the book. 

He sat in the cab of the truck, next to Allison, who smelled like apples. The truck hit something. The figure stepped into the headlights. Large, brown fur, the face of a man. Staring at him.  

“Crack!” 

Ron started. Had he heard something? Nah. Man, it was chilly!  

“Whack!”  

Something hit him.  

He looked down and saw an apple in his lap.  He looked up. He was sitting under an apple tree.  

“Crack! Whack!” 

Several acorns landed in his hair. Oh, this was only the wind picking up.  Still–  

“Hello?” He shined the flashlight in front of him.  

“Whoosh!” went the crack of branches. 

He stood up and walked toward the trees. No time for childish fears–  

“GGGRRRRR!” 

Ron jumped back and screamed. He pulled his Glock out of his jacket pocket. 

 “GGRRUUUUHHHH!” Another apple flew past him. 

Ron shot into the darkness.  

“Uhhh!!!” 

Then–  

“You shot me!” 

Ron dropped the gun as Perry walked toward him, clutching his side. 

“Oh my god! Oh my god! Perry! Oh my god! Where did I hit you?”

 “You got me in the side.” Perry collapsed on all fours and then rolled over onto his back, clutching his ribs. 

Ron leaned over Perry. “Let me see.” 

Perry moaned on the ground. 

Ron moved his flashlight to Perry’s chest, 

Perry jumped up and screamed “GGGRRRR!” into Ron’s face. 

Ron jumped back and threw his hands into the air. “What the hell, man?” 

 “You jackass! You said no gun!” 

“You stalker!” 

Perry replied, “I’d be dead if you weren’t such a lousy shot.” 

“Crack!” 

Ron picked his flashlight off the ground just as an apple flew past him. 

A figure stepped out from behind the tree.  

A hand reached toward him. A large, fur-covered hand. 

Both men fled. 

Fionnuala the Sasquatch pulled out her camera and photographed the hairless creatures as  they ran.  

She couldn’t wait to show her photo to her no-kill group.

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.

Check Out These Fun April Fools’ Day Tricks from the 1800’s

I bought a copy of The American Girls Handy Book, by Lina Beard and Adelia Beard, copyright 1887.

The Victorian-era Beard sisters were born in the 1850’s in Kentucky. Their family moved to New York City in the 1860’s. The sisters wrote The American Girls Handy Book several years after their brother wrote a similar book for boys.

(FYI all of you English teachers and grammar snobs: I confirmed that this book possesses no possessive or plural apostrophe in the word Girls. So there.)

Chapter 1 is titled The First of April. The sisters began with these April Fools’ Day bits of lore:

1.) England: “Early Christians” referred to the day as “Festum Fatuorum” or “Fools’ Holiday.”

2.) France: The Beard sisters claimed that mackerel are easily caught on the French coast and that the fish have a reputation for low intelligence. Thus derives the term “Silly Mackerel” or “Poisson d’Avril” (French for “April Fish.”

3.) Scotland: The word “gowk” referred to a “cuckoo,” a bird that does not have the knowledge to build its own nest.

4.) India: The Huli Festival, held on the last day of March, encouraged celebrants to prank their friends.

One of the Beard sisters (the book doesn’t specify which one) then explained that one year she invited friends over to her parents’ house for a candy-pull to celebrate her April 1st birthday.

Then it hit her. What if everyone thought that this was a joke? What if nobody came? She worried. Then – all of her guests showed up at the same time. They arrived as a group so that nobody would look individually foolish if this were a prank.

5 Fun Pranks for Your April Fools’ Party

So, if you do hold your own “First of April” Party, the Beard sisters offer this advice: first assure invitees that your party is not a hoax. Then, they suggested these fun games:

1.) Who’s the Fool Now?

  • Position a large mirror in front of a doorway or window.
  • Write “We are April Fools” in soap on the top of the mirror.
  • Drape curtains over the mirror so that you completely cover the mirror.
  • Invite your guests to gather in front of the curtain-draped mirror to see a special show.
  • Draw aside the curtains so that your guests can see their own faces reflected in the mirror, under the words “We are April Fools.”

2.) The Chair

  • Write “APRIL FOOL” backwards in white chalk on a chair.
  • Convince “some boy” who is wearing a “coat” with a “dark woolly surface” to sit on said chair.
  • The boy will then walk around with “APRIL FOOL” written on his back.
  • Ha, ha! Isn’t that funny? The Beard sisters convinced me that this boy will “join in the general laughter his appearance creates” without knowing that everybody else is laughing AT him, not WITH him!
  • (Fun fact for you Stephen King fans: “APRIL FOOL” written backwards is “REDRUM.”)

3.) The Premises Liability Claim / Future Lawsuit

  • Replace the top of a “packing-box” with wrapping paper.
  • Throw a blanket or something over the thing.
  • Pile pillows on top of the blanket.
  • Make your creation look “exceedingly comfortable and inviting.”
  • Wait for someone to sit on your fake seat.
  • Watch said guest fall through the wrapping paper.
  • The American Girls Handy Book said that you should make sure that this fake couch should be “not more than twelve inches high, so that the fall will be only funny, not dangerous.”

4.) Noah’s Ark Peep-show (That’s the actual name of this prank!)

  • Procure a box shaped like a rectangle. Each end should be open but covered with a curtain.
  • Put a sliding divider in the middle of the box.
  • Announce that viewers to each side of the box will view a different animal from Noah’s ark.
  • Call up a boy to view one side of the box and call up a girl to view the other side of the box.
  • As soon as the boy and the girl peak through the curtains on their respective side of the box, slide open the middle divider.
  • The girl will view the boy and the boy will view the girl.

5.) The Cookie Table

  • Cover small blocks of wood with cake batter and bake them so that they look like cakes.
  • Cover small radishes with icing.
  • Coat button-moulds (what’s a button-mould?) with chocolate.
  • Fill a pill-box with flour. Paste tissue-paper on top. Cover the thing with icing. Offer the thing to party-goers as cake. Watch the flour fly when someone bites into the thing.
  • Mix the “trick” desserts with real desserts. What fun!

The Beard sisters ended the chapter by reminding us to “keep the jokes entirely harmless.”

After all,” they concluded, “the spirit of mischief must be kept within bounds even on All-Fools-Day.”

Happy Friday the 13th: Spooky Photos for You

New Kensington, Pennsylvania. Photo: Jonathan Woytek and Jenny Gaffron Woytek (The photo was an exercise for a photography lesson.)
Pet Cemetery, Hartwood Acres, Allegheny County, Pennsylvania. Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek
Tintern Abbey, Wales, United Kingdom. Photo: Jonathan Woytek
Round Island, off of Mackinac Island, Michigan. Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek
Ohio Turnpike. Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek
Ohio Turnpike. Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woyek

The Lead-Lined Coffin

Byers Mauseoleum, Allegheny Cemetery, Lawrenceville, Pittsburgh, PA
Byers Mausoleum, Allegheny Cemetery, Lawrenceville, Pittsburgh, PA. November 10, 2019. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

I took a guided tour of Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, in 2018. This tour included the Byers Mausoleum. The industrialist Eben Byers now rests here, inside of a lead-lined coffin.