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.

 

Do Your Achievements “Count” if People Don’t Link “You” to Them?

Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek

Every so often, I Google various combinations of “Jenny” and “Jennifer” and my maiden and married name just to see what people are saying about me. I do this mainly to see what potential employers (or old frenemies) think that they know about me.

Now, I am a Jennifer. My husband has several cousins named Jennifer. At least one of my own cousins married a Jennifer. Also, to further complicate things, I went to high school with A BUNCH of people who have the same last name as my future husband, even though they aren’t relatives and I didn’t even know my husband back then. One of these classmates was named Jennifer. As a result, I know of several women named Jennifer Gaffron at some point in their lives, and several women named Jennifer Woytek at some point in their lives.

So, I’m not that surprised when I find a bunch of results in my Google name search that aren’t actually about me. I’m okay with this. The women who come up in the image searches are attractive. They seem to have pretty happy, well-rounded lives. I’m very relieved that none of these results are that bad. I found that one combination of “my first name” and “my last name”led to one of those shady websites where your co-workers can post anonymous comments about you. The result for my name said something to the effect of, “She’s pretty grouchy, and nobody in this office likes her.” If one of my coworkers actually did write this about ME, then my apologies to all of the rest of you people with “my first name” and “my last name.”

So, I did one of my “name” searches tonight. I learned that a photo that I took appeared this past June in the “Top Photos of the Week” section of my hometown newspaper’s online version. (This “hometown newspaper” is the Daily American, Somerset County’s only daily.)

See, my dad’s neighbor got married in a socially-distanced ceremony. The wedding party paraded down my hometown’s Main Street. (This was the same section of Main Street that my high school marching band paraded down in this blog post.) I took several photos. I emailed the photos to my aunt since she attends the same church as the bride. I told my aunt that I was okay if the happy couple did whatever they wanted with the photos.

Tonight, I discovered that one of these photos appeared online in my childhood newspaper.

I hope that the new couple has a long and happy life together.

I’m flattered that someone liked the photo enough to send it to the Daily American, and that the Daily American liked it enough to post it.

This is the VERY FIRST TIME that a photo that I took appeared in a “newspaper,” even if it is an “online newspaper.” This is the very first time that a photo that I took appeared anywhere outside of my blogs and my social media accounts.

The Daily American even credited me.

I thought, “But they credited me as Jennifer Woytek. Nobody will know that I took the photo. Nobody back home knows me as Jennifer Woytek. Jennifer Woytek was someone else who went to our high school. Everyone back home knows me as one of the Gaffrons.”

Then it hit me. A lot of the people that I knew from “back home” actually moved away from Somerset County. Just as I did. Somerset County does not have a lot of high paying jobs. So, maybe nobody that I knew from back when I was Jenny Gaffron even looks at the Daily American anymore.

So, does it actually ‘count” if you accomplish something “neat” and nobody that you know socially knows about it?

This reminded me of the blog post that my sister wrote about the time that she saw David Sedaris speak. She posted a photo of her ticket stub. She wondered, “Does life only count if I post about it on social media?”

My sister made a good point.

Now, back to the results of “my first name” and “my last name.” Most of these results are of women WHO AREN’T ME accomplishing things professionally THAT I DIDN’T ACCOMPLISH. I’m happy that these women are making ME look better to potential employers, frenemies, and cyberstalkers. Thanks, you guys!

Finding Shelter at Eat’n Park

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“My Favorite Murder” Meets My Rural Western Pennsylvania Childhood

I listen to all of my favorite podcasts on this phone.

So, this is just a warning that I will discuss a very popular, True Crime comedy podcast that discusses tragic subject matter. The podcast also involves copious amounts of swearing by females. This particular episode also involves injury to a child. If this will offend you, then DO NOT listen to the podcast that I discuss in this blog post.

So, I grew up going to an amusement park by the name of Idlewild in Ligonier, Pennsylvania.

Here is the Too Long / Didn’t read (TL / DR) version of today’s blog post: Today’s episode of the Comedy / True Crime Podcast My Favorite Murder, hosted by Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark, included a story about a tragic incident that occurred at Idlewild a few years ago. Fast Forward to time 21:00 if you don’t want to listen to the other stories in this episode.

Now, today’s episode (today is October 5, 2020, BTW), featured only stories sent in by listeners. This particular story involved the park’s wooden roller coaster and a small child. Through a Google search, you can find articles from the local news regarding a similar-sounding incident that happened several years ago. However, the podcast did not give any indication that their staff fact-checked the story. Keep that in mind if you choose to listen to it.

If you’re not familiar with My Favorite Murder (MFM), here is my prior blog post – from my other blog – on the podcast. The hosts from this show performed at the Benedum Theater in Pittsburgh in March 2019. I wanted to go, but both Pittsburgh shows sold out before I could get tickets. (It all worked out in my favor, because Jonathan and I got tickets to see Mumford & Sons ON THE SAME NIGHT as one of these shows. )

Here’s my personal experience with Idlewild:

I grew up in Somerset County, so we lived much, much closer to Idlewild than we did to Kennywood Park in Pittsburgh.

For several years, Idlewild held a promotion through Snyder of Berlin, the potato chip company. As you recall, I grew up in Berlin, Pennsylvania, home of this same potato chip factory. Anyway, specially marked potato chip bags included “buy one get one free” admission coupons for weekday trips to Idlewild. Well, during this time, my parents had four kids, so they had a total of six family members for which they needed to purchase tickets. Also, throughout my entire childhood, my dad worked at his second job almost every weekend day from fishing season until after Labor Day. So, the only time that Dad could take us to Idlewild were on non-holiday weekdays. The Snyder of Berlin – Idlewild promotion was perfect for my family.

Idlewild was not the world’s fanciest amusement park. Still, we loved it when we were kids. We didn’t visit Kennywood every single summer. Some years, Idlewild WAS our summer amusement park fun. Idlewild (still) has its own waterpark, and Kennywood doesn’t have this. (Sandcastle is a separate park from Kennywood.)

(Idlewild is over a century old, and it’s located along Route 30 AKA the Lincoln Highway. Stories about it are included in Route 30 lore.)

After high school, I went off to Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, which is less than 10 miles down the road from Idlewild. I became close friends with another student, “Inez”. Inez worked at Idlewild for several summers. She started there when she was a high school student, and she worked there through a significant part of her time as a student at Saint Vincent.

I heard many, many stories from Inez in which she alleged poor treatment of the (mostly high school-aged and college-aged) staff by the Idlewild management. (I heard similar alleged stories from “Varina,” a fellow student who lived in our dorm and worked as a ride operator at Kennywood. Note that Idlewild and Kennywood had common ownership both during this time and currently.)

Even after I heard all of these stories, I applied for a job at Idlewild because I was getting ready to graduate from Saint Vincent and I didn’t have any other job offers in hand.

I worked at Idlewild myself for less than two weeks. I didn’t witness any poor treatment myself. (I did have a ride operator trainer suggest to me that if I really needed a break, and I hadn’t been granted one by management, then I should wait until the next guest threw up on the ride. Then, I should take as long as possible to clean up the puke. This way, I could give myself an unofficial rest.) However, I couldn’t afford to pay for gas to drive from my home in Somerset County to Ligonier every day at the close to minimum wage that Idlewild paid me. So, I quit as soon as I obtained a job offer at the Walmart in Somerset.

Now, you might be asking, “If the management at these amusement parks was as poor as Inez and Varina alleged, why didn’t they just quit? Why did you apply to work at Idlewild if you believed any of these stories?” Why, see, none of us three are Chelsea Clinton or Ivanka Trump. We didn’t have fantastic “consulting” gigs waiting for us at firms owned by our parents “friends.”

So, this particular story about Idlewild Park featured on My Favorite Murder (MFM) began with “Disclaimer: If you think that sketchy, dangerous theme parks died with Action Park, think again.”

(Note that the reference to “Action Park” is in regards to a recently released documentary about a theme park in New Jersey that was the subject of lawsuits in regards to deaths and injuries that occurred there. Action Park and the documentary about it were the subject of a recent MFM episode.)

The “listener story” about Idlewild Park then alleged poor decision making by park management both leading up to and immediately after the tragic incident described in the story.

I feel loyalty to Idlewild because I have so many memories of spending time with loved ones at this park. My family was able to visit an amusement park every summer because Idlewild was less than a two hour drive from our house and it was affordable for our large family.

However, I heard many stories about alleged mistreatment of its employees from somebody that I highly regard. (Also, see above regarding the “advice” that I received from a park trainer in regards to cleaning ride puke. In my opinion, if the employees received adequate time to recharge during a shift, then this advice would not be necessary.) The stories that I heard from my classmates all took place a significant amount of time ago, and I don’t believe that any of us were aware of any way to be a whistle blower.

If you listened to this story yourself, what do you think?

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.

The Mary S. Bloodsucker Library

The Mary S. Bloodsucker Library.

My mom didn’t let me refer to the library as the Mary S. Bloodsucker Library in her presence. Even though my aunt S. (who actually lived a block or so down the street from this library) called it the Mary S. Bloodsucker Library, we kids weren’t supposed to repeat this.

The library’s real name was – and still is – the “Mary S. Biesecker Public Library.” Today, the banner at the top of its website says “The Community Library of Somerset, PA Since 1914.” I’m sure that Mary S. Biesecker was a solid member of the Somerset community. I’m glad that Somerset has had a “community” library since 1914. However, when I was a kid, I kinda got the feeling that my large family were unwanted guests there.

To start with, my mom had four (at the time) noisy girls. So, maybe my mom was worried that the library staff would be upset that she brought her large, uncouth family to the library. Maybe that’s why mom implored us to be on our best behavior when we got to the library. This was tough, because we all loved books. Also, we got to get out of the house on a rainy or snowy day. We were excited!

But to me, the bigger issue was that this particular library building consists of two floors – a ground floor and a basement. When I was a kid, we were only allowed to check out books from the basement. The way that I understood it, the library’s ground floor required a special library card (on pink cardboard) that my family didn’t have because we didn’t live within the limits of Somerset. We lived ten miles away, in Berlin. Our taxes didn’t go to “fund” the library’s ground floor. The building’s basement floor was the “Somerset County Library,” and since we were Somerset County residents, we qualified for a (green cardboard) library card for the basement.

So, maybe I grew up thinking that we were “intruders” in the Mary S. Bloodsucker Library because we were only supposed to consume the resources relegated to the basement floor.

Now, you might ask, why didn’t we just go to the public library in Berlin? Well, Berlin didn’t have a public library. It still doesn’t have one. So, we had the following options to borrow books:

1.) Our school library. This option was only available to students enrolled in our school district, and only during school days during the actual the school year. So, we had no summer access or Christmas break access to books through this option.

2.) The Somerset County Bookmobile. The bookmobile burned completely in an engine fire at some point. That was sad. The library held fundraisers to purchase a new one.

3.) The basement – and only the basement – of the Mary S. Biesecker Public Library in Somerset, which is ten miles away from Berlin. (Just to clarify, neither the ground floor nor the basement of this building are very large.)

4.) The Meyersdale Public Library, which was 16 miles away from Berlin. For some reason, we residents of Berlin WERE permitted to check out books in this entire building, even though our high schools were football rivals.

Now, my family was privileged to have option #3 and #4 available because we owned two automobiles. Also, my mom was able to drive us to #3 or #4 while my dad was at work. I had classmates who lived in families that didn’t even have ONE reliable automobile.

Things changed at some point. I remember being sixteen years old and checking out books from the GROUND FLOOR of the Mary S. Bloodsucker Library. So, either my parents eventually paid extra to obtain a special library card for the ground floor, or else the library changed its policy regarding borrowing privileges.

Also, at some point around or after I graduated from high school, Somerset County obtained the use of a building that was positioned BETWEEN Somerset and Berlin. They established this as the new home for the Somerset County Library. Fortunate move for Berlin residents, IF you had access to a car. There is (still) no public transportation available to this library.

We’re coming up on the second anniversary of my mom, Shirley’s, death from cancer. When I was growing up, she drove us 10 miles to the Mary S. Bloodsucker Library. She drove us 16 miles to the Meyersdale Public Library. In fact, she even stopped our station wagon and waited for cows to get off of farm roads on the drive to Meyersdale. She drove me an hour to our closest bookstore (30 miles away) every time that a brand new Babysitters Club book was released.

Before I post on the internet these days, I ask myself if what I am about to post reflects a mom who drove 10, 16, and 30 miles so that her kids could access the reading material that they wanted.

I also ask myself these things:

Why was it so blasted difficult for rural people to access libraries (and bookstores) when I was a kid?

Why was (is) there such a “have / have not” divide in Somerset County?

Does this have anything – anything at all – to do with the insights and thought processes coming out of Pennsylvania right now?

Does this have anything at all to do with the prevalence of Confederate flags that adorn Route 30 on the way to the Flight 93 National Memorial in Somerset County?

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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.

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Postscript: My sister K. graduated from the Master of Library and Information Science program at Pitt, and she is now a librarian in Eastern Pennsylvania. So, sometimes noisy library patrons grow up to become librarians.

October on Mount Davis

Mount Davis, Pennsylvania. Observation Tower next to Pennsylvania’s Geographic High Point. Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek

Thinking today about fall in the Laurel Highlands / Allegheny Mountains.

Mount Davis in Forbes State Forest is the highest point in Pennsylvania.

Here is a photo that I took of the observation tower that stands close to the summit’s true geographic high point.

Here is a photo that my mom took of my dad and four out of their five kids at the summit’s true geographic high point.

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.