My Love Letter to Telegraph Operators and Their Heartbreaking Tragedies

I live in a house built in the 1890’s. I spend a lot of time thinking about the people who lived here before me. What did these people know about their own world? What tragedies did they see and explore?

My husband, Jonathan, purchased our house a year before I met him. I had never actually been to New Kensington until I met Jonathan. Jonathan moved to New Kensington when he was in the sixth grade because his grandparents already lived here. That’s why he later decided to buy a house in the Parnassus neighborhood here.

Parnassus borders the Allegheny River. This is important for part of my story.

The Alter family originally owned my and Jonathan’s Victorian home here in Parnassus. This same family is now buried in a churchyard down the street from this same house. I speculate that some of them still reside in the home with me and Jonathan.

Jonathan researched the Alter family. He told me about the Alters when he first showed this house to me.

Let’s start with the family patriarch, Frank Alter Sr.

Alter was born in 1871 in Pittsburgh.

Alter’s father fought in the Civil War. Alter’s father then maintained a long career with the Allegheny Valley Railroad Company.

Frank Alter Sr.’s own professional life began at age 17 with his own job at the Allegheny Valley Railroad Company as a telegraph operator.  Four years later, he was appointed station agent at New Kensington.

Now, shortly after Alter assumed his first job with the railroad, the Johnstown Flood killed over 2,000 people, in May 1889. A privately-owned dam on a private lake upstream from Johnstown failed. The wall of water demolished the communities that sat between the lake and Johnstown, and then the water hit Johnstown and destroyed it as well.

The flood occurred upstream from New Kensington as well. It occurred on a tributary to a tributary of the Allegheny River. According to the book “The Johnstown Flood” by David McCullough, flood debris washed downstream from Johnstown, eventually into the Allegheny River, on to Pittsburgh and points beyond. McCullough wrote that somebody plucked a live baby out of the Allegheny River in Verona, which is downstream from New Kensington. McCullough wrote that onlookers stood on the banks of the Allegheny, watching the results of the flood flow past them. Some even plucked souvenirs from the river.

Did Alter first learn about the flood during his duties in the telegraph office? Did he join the crowds which lined the Allegheny River’s banks?

Now, I grew up an hour’s drive south of Johnstown, and my sixth grade class studied the Johnstown Flood. We read excerpts from McCullough’s book.

McCullough acknowledged at the beginning of his book that “most” of the dialogue in Chapters 3 and 4 of his book had been taken directly from a transcription of testimony taken by the Pennsylvania Railroad in the summer of 1889. The railroad’s tracks lined the tributaries hit hardest by the flood. The railroad’s telegraph system documented events leading to the moments before the flood wiped out the tracks and the telegraph lines.

McCullough’s book noted that in the moments before the Johnstown flood happened, a railroad telegraph agent communicated the impending dam failure to Hettie Ogle, who ran the “switchboard and Western Union office” in Johnstown.

McCullough identified Ogle as a Civil War widow who had worked for Western Union for 28 years. The book noted that she was with her daughter Minnie at the time. She passed the message on to her Pittsburgh office. McCullough noted that the two perished in the flood and their bodies were not recovered.

When I was in the sixth grade, I was told that Hettie Ogle faithfully stayed at her telegraph post and relayed river gauge data until at last she wrote:

THIS IS MY LAST MESSAGE

The story haunted me.

Based on how this story was presented to our class, I was under the impression that Hettie Ogle was trapped in the telegraph office with just her daughter. I assumed that Hettie Ogle and her daughter were “rare” because they were women who also worked outside the home at the telegraph office.

Now, here is something that McCullough’s book did NOT tell me, and that I learned instead from the website for the Johnstown Area Heritage Association (JAHA): Ogle was actually trapped in that office with her daughter Minnie, “four other young ladies” who were named by the JAHA website, and also two named men. When I read the website, I understood this to mean that all eight of the named women and men who were trapped in this telegraph office worked in the telegraph industry. They all perished.

I didn’t realize until I first read the JAHA website that Hettie Ogle actually managed an office full of staff. I also didn’t realize that many of the employees in Johnstown’s Western Union office in May 1889 were women.

I have since figured out that if Hettie Ogle worked for Western Union for 28 years until she died in 1889, that means that she started her Western Union career in 1861. The Civil War also started in 1861. As I noted above, she was identified as a war widow. Did she have to take a job with Western Union in order to support her children when her husband went off to war? Did she do it out of a sense of duty for the war effort, and then she stayed with it because she enjoyed the work? I speculate now about the circumstances that led her to her “duty” operating the telegraph.

Now, I speculate about many things. I speculate that since Frank Alter Sr. got his start in the railroad industry as a telegraph operator, the tragedies of the Johnstown Flood would have impacted him personally. Perhaps he even knew some of the telegraph and / or railroad employees who died that day in 1889.

The telegraph industry of the 1800’s fascinates me because I think a great deal about my own dependence on technology.

I first realized how much I – or at least my sense of well-being – depended on being able to keep contact with others and with information on September 11, 2001. I lived in the family home in Somerset County. I worked in downtown Johnstown. Flight 93 crashed between these two points while I was at work that day.

After I and my co-workers watched the twin towers burn live on television, our employer’s co-owner told us to “go back to work.”

However, a few minutes later, this same co-owner’s daughter rushed through the office to announce that a plane had crashed in Somerset County. (This plane, we later learned, was Flight 93.) We learned that we – along with every other worker in downtown Johnstown at that time – were being evacuated because a federal court building existed in downtown Johnstown. I couldn’t reach my family who lived with me in Somerset County on the phone. I attempted, and I had no connection. I then learned that we were being asked to stay off of our phones in order to leave the lines available for emergency crews. I also learned that a portion of Route 219 – the main highway that I used to drive to my family home in Somerset County – was closed due to the morning’s events. I was being forced to leave downtown Johnstown due to the mandatory evacuation, but I had no information about whether I would be able to get back to my home in Somerset County.

I made it home to Somerset County without incident. However, this was the first time that I remember feeling confused because all of my decision making instincts depended on information that I couldn’t access.

More recently, I thought that I was so slick because I specifically curated my Twitter feed to follow the feeds for Pittsburgh’s transit agency, the National Weather Service, and several other emergency management agencies. I worked in downtown Pittsburgh by then, and I commuted home each weeknight – usually by bus – to New Kensington. I reasoned that with my specially curated Twitter feed, I would have available all of the information that I needed to make informed decisions about my commute home if I were to be in Pittsburgh and a natural disaster – or another terrorist attack – happened.

However, on the day that Pittsburgh and its surrounding region had a major flash flooding event, Twitter broke. I had based my entire theoretical emergency plan on having up-to-the date tweets from all of the sources that I listed above. I had access to no updated information from any of these sources.

Once again, I felt completely betrayed by technology at the moment when I felt its need the most.

Now, for another story that I have about being dependent on technology:

I read part of “The Personal Memoirs of Julia Dent Grant (Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant).” Julia Dent Grant (JDG) was born in 1826. In 1844, Samuel Morse sent the United State’s first telegram over a wire from Washington to Baltimore. (Congress partially funded this.) In 1845, JDG’s father, Frederick Dent, travelled from their home in St. Louis to Washington for business. He sent a telegram to Baltimore. JDG wrote that her father received an answer within an hour and that “it savored of magic.” The event was such a big deal that Frederick Dent brought the telegraph repeater tape back home to St. Louis to show the family.

Now I’m going to skip ahead in the memoirs to 1851. At this point in the memoirs, JDG is married to Ulysses S. Grant and they have an infant son. Julia visited family in St. Louis while her husband was stationed at Sackets Harbor, near Watertown, in New York State. JDG planned to telegraph her husband from St. Louis, and then travel with her nurse to Detroit. Then, she would release her nurse and meet her husband in Detroit. Finally, she would travel with her husband from Detroit to Sackets Harbor. I am under the impression that the trip from St. Louis to Detroit to Watertown was all by train.

Well, JDG telegraphed her husband in St. Louis per the plan. She left St. Louis and travelled with her nurse to Detroit. She dismissed her nurse and waited for her husband in Detroit. Her husband never showed up. JDG eventually travelled alone with her baby to Buffalo, hoping to meet her husband there. Her husband wasn’t in Buffalo, so she continued on the train to Watertown. From Watertown, she had to hire a carriage (the Uber of the 1800’s), and travel to Madison Barracks, the military installation at Sackets Harbor. The entrance to Madison Barracks was closed, so she had to yell to get a sentry’s attention.

The telegram that JDG sent to her husband from St. Louis arrived at Sackets Harbor IN THE NEXT DAY’S MAIL.

That’s right – at some point in the journey, the telegram failed to perform its basic function as a telegram. The telegram became snail mail.

After JDG’s husband was promoted during the Civil War, he travelled with his very own personal telegraph operator. (In fact, the Grants learned about President Lincoln’s assassination through a personal telegram received by the personal telegraph operator.)

By the end of the Civl War, the Grants had come a long way since their days of “snail-mail telegrams.”

Other people have actually written entire books about how telegraphs and semaphores affected the Civl War.

Here’s one of my favorite parts of JDG’s memoirs: At one point during the war, JDG asked her father, Frederick Dent, why the country didn’t “make a new Constitution since this is such an enigma – one to suit the times, you know. It is so different now. We have steamers, railroads, telegraphs, etc.

I just find this so fascinating because JDG witnessed her country’s tremendous changes that resulted from Technology. She wondered how all of these Technology changes affected her country.

I, personally, spend a lot of time wondering about how Communication Technology in general – the telegraph, the internet, whatever – changed our national culture and also changed each of us as people.

Cremation Pioneer on Gallows Hill

The United States’ first crematory is located in Western Pennsylvania. Its first cremation took place in December 1876.

I learned today that the United States’ first crematory is located in Washington, Pennsylvania.

I learned about this in the book “Disconnected from Death: The Evolution of Funerary Customs and the Unmasking of Death in America” by April Slaughter and Troy Taylor.

I learned that Dr. Francis Julius LeMoyne, a Washington, PA, physician, dedicated decades to practicing medicine and advocating for Civil Rights. By the 1870’s, Dr. LeMoyne vocalized his concerns regarding the pollution and hygienic / public health consequences of embalming and burial. Dr. LeMoyne proposed that a crematory be built in a local public cemetery. This did not happen. So, Dr. LeMoyne had the crematory built on his own property.

Dr. LeMoyne’s cremation advocacy resulted in negative responses from the Washington, PA, community. Dr. LeMoyne even offered to educate the public about cremation. How do you think that this went?

On December 5, 1876, Dr. LeMoyne finally received a body to cremate.

Dr. LeMoyne passed away in 1879 and his body became the third to be cremated in his own crematory.

According to “Disconnected from Death,” Dr. LeMoyne’s crematory still stands on Gallows Hill in Washington, PA. The Washington County Historical Society maintains it.

I had to memorize a bunch of Pennsylvania “firsts” in school. I didn’t have to learn about this cremation thing in school. So, here you go.

Back in the olden days before Joe Biden was elected POTUS, I had to learn in “Pennsylvania History” class that James Buchanan was the only U.S. President born in Pennsylvania. My history teacher and my “Pennsylvania History” book both pretty much said, “James Buchanan was the only President born in Pennsylvania. We shall NEVER speak of this again.” Ha, ha, ha. If you want to learn a little bit more about Buchanan’s administration, go Google what was said about his Secretary of War, John B. Floyd.

Do you have any interesting Pennsylvania “firsts?” If so, please reach out to me.

Thank you for continuing to read this blog. This has been a tough year. I have really enjoyed sharing stories, lore, and photos with you. Please share this blog if you enjoy it as well.

Happy Krampusnacht and Happy Feast of St. Nicholas

My husband’s co-worker once told my husband that our Married Life blog (www.jennyandjonathangetmarried.com) was the most G-rated thing that he ever read. The Parnassus Pen might or might not be G-rated. I just want to keep my readers entertained.

I’m going to type today’s blog post from memory. If you want to read the actual stories, you can go to Wikipedia.

Today (December 6) is the Feast of St. Nicholas. St. (Saint) Nicholas was a European bishop. According to one legend, St. Nicholas travelled past the home of a very poor family. The family had no money to afford dowries for their three daughters. Since the daughters would have no dowries, they would not be able to secure husbands. The girls’ only career option at this point was sex work. The daughters hung their stockings outside of their house at night. St. Nicholas placed gold coins in each stocking. Thus, the girls could now afford to purchase husbands. The girls would not have to become sex workers after all.

The college that I attended, St. Vincent College in Latrobe, was founded by Benedictine monks from Bavaria. On the eve of the Feast of St. Nicholas, we dorm residents placed our shoes in the hallway outside of our doors overnight. The dorm prefects filled our shoes with bags of candy.

(I used to explain to people that a “prefect” was St. Vincent’s version of an R.A., or Resident Assistant. Then, the Harry Potter books introduced the concept of prefects to its readers. So, now I don’t have to explain this so often.)

The night before the feast of St. Nicholas, December 5, is Krampus Night or Krampusnacht. Krampus is a demon who drags poorly behaved children off to Hell. You know how some parents use Elf on a Shelf to try to convince kids to be good in December? Well, in olden days, parents used Krampus for this purpose. Folkore describes Krampus as half-goat, complete with cloven hooves and horns. Some versions of the Krampus story are super racist.

I’ve joked with Jonathan all weekend that Krampus brought me a new camera for Krampusnacht.

In reality, Jonathan ordered me a new Nikon for Christmas. The camera just happened to arrive on December 5. I already owned a Nikon. However, this is a newer, much more lightweight Nikon model. You see, pre-Covid, I commuted almost every day to my employer in downtown Pittsburgh. I sometimes brought my camera to work with me so that I could photograph anything that I found interesting. I didn’t do this every day because I found my camera to be a bit heavy when I also carried my purse, my laptop, and my lunch.

Usually, whenever Jonathan or I get a new piece of photography equipment, we take it to Phipps Conservatory to experiment with it. I don’t think that we will make it to Phipps this year. So, here is a winter scene that I took in early April 2013 in Parnassus, Pennsylvania.

Happy Krampusnacht and Happy St. Nicholas Day!

The Old Stone Tavern Needs to Have Its Own Ghost

So, for a few years now, I’ve casually followed the efforts of local preservationists to purchase and restore the Old Stone Tavern, aka Elliott’s, in Pittsburgh’s West End. Daniel Elliott, or perhaps somebody else, built the tavern / inn during the late 1700’s.

I took an interest in the tavern because it appeared in Agnes Sligh Turnbulls’s historical fiction about late 1700’s Western Pennsylvania. (Turnbull graduated from Indiana University of Pennsylvania and she wrote several books including The Day Must Dawn and The King’s Orchard.)

In The King’s Orchard, the protagonist, James O’Hara (an early Pittsburgh business leader and also philanthropist Mary Schenley’s grandfather) lived for a while at Elliott’s while he established himself as a fur trader. Also in Turnbull’s fiction, the famous / infamous Colonel William Crawford and Simon Girty drank at a colonial Pittsburgh tavern that I believe may have been based on Elliott’s. Daniel Elliott himself appeared in Turnbull’s fiction.

Turnbull’s historical fiction also referenced either a Pittsburgh innkeeper or Pittsburgh store owner named Sam Semple. I haven’t yet figured out whether Semple’s establishment later became Elliott’s, or if these were two different operations.

I can’t ask Turnbull about Sam Semple and his connection to Elliott’s because she published The Day Must Dawn in 1942 and The King’s Orchard in 1963. She passed away in 1982. She is buried in her hometown of New Alexandria, Pennsylvania.

Everything that I know about the preservation of Elliott’s Tavern came from Wikipedia, the preservationist group’s Facebook page, and the first articles that appeared when I Googled “old stone tavern Pittsburgh.”

For instance, here is an article that appeared in Pittsburgh Magazine in December 2019:

Reviving History: The Fight for the Old Stone Tavern

The last post of the “Old Stone Tavern” Facebook page showed a February 2020 date. It detailed a fundraiser held that same month in order to raise money to purchase the building.

Less than a month after this Facebook posting and the fundraiser, Pennsylvania’s governor shut Pennsylvania down due to Covid-19.

So, will Elliott’s ever open as a tavern again? I wonder. If currently open restaurants struggle right now to stay open, who knows what will happen to a tavern that closed years ago?

I’ve never looked into becoming involved in the tavern preservation group’s fundraising efforts. My husband and I have enough frustration trying to preserve our own 1890’s house. For instance, this past weekend, Jonathan transplanted a baby Japanese maple tree that was growing into our house’s foundation over to a different part of our yard, and the tree didn’t get blown over in the next day’s giant windstorm. This was a major accomplishment in our house restoration. I don’t need to get my heart broken over a 1700’s tavern.

That said, I’ve thought about Elliott’s and compared it to what I know about the Jean Bonnet Tavern in Bedford. I’ve come to the conclusion that Elliott’s needs to have its own ghost. Or ghosts. Or, at least, ghost stories.

I’ve heard that you can purchase “ghost in a bottle” kits on the internet. I think that these are all Caveat Emptor deals, though. What if the ghost that you ordered turned out to be a woman who had unpopular opinions about things?

On a more serious note, what if the ghost was one of the Native Americans slaughtered in the Gnadenhutten Massacre of 1782, or else one of the Native Americans slaughtered by Colonel William Crawford’s men, or else one of the Native Americans who received a smallpox blanket from the soldiers at Fort Pitt?

You never know what you’ll actually get when you order a ghost online. Also, a preservation group can’t purchase ghosts for a building that it doesn’t currently own.

Most of the articles that I read emphasized the tavern’s role in colonial and very early American history. I read about more recent (1870’s and Roaring Twenties) history that happened there; I’d love to blog more about that later.

Thanks for sticking by my side on this blog. I’ve blogged before about the tavern, but I owed you an American history post.

Stay healthy, and talk to you later.

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.