Sophia’s Grave

They call this your grave. Your haunted grave.

Little girls grow up fast in the American colonies. You turn nine years old in 1775. Your native Virginia erupts in seven years of rebellion, of war, of sacrifice.

Did you ever know a time free of hunger and sacrifice? At what point did your widowed mother open her Richmond door as a boardinghouse?

At what point did your boarder, Albert Gallatin, fall in love with you? Was this before or after he told you of his dream to live on a remote estate in the Pennsylvania wilderness?

And did your mama know – just KNOW – of your early death, far from everything you knew,  on the edge of the Appalachian Mountains?

Is that why your mama opposed the match?

You eloped in May 1789.

You begged your mama’s forgiveness. Then you set off with Mr. Gallatin for his Pennsylvania estate, Friendship Hill.

And five months later you died.

How did you die? Illness? Pregnancy complications? Or, as one legend goes, something darker, more gruesome?

Mr. Gallatin buried you in an unmarked grave overlooking the Monongahela River.

Mr. Gallatin later remarried and sold Friendship Hill because his new wife didn’t like to spend time there.

Another homeowner found your grave and reburied you. We now believe that you are buried in that stone square behind your former house.

The countryside of Friendship Hill became Fayette County. Friendship Hill became a public park.

One day I read an article in my local media about Friendship Hill. About the ghosts of Friendship Hill. About the ghost of you.

I drove out to Friendship Hill to see your grave.

I visited your grave on a bright sunny day. No ghosts at your grave that day, Sophia!

As I trekked through the woods and fields back to my car, well-dressed men and women walked towards the house that was yours for five months, Sophia. They proceeded to a reception tent next to your house.

I watched the bride and her azure-clad bridesmaids model for their photos on the edge of these woods where you lay, Sophia.

I went looking for a dead bride that day. I found a living bride instead.

Friendship Hill, Pennsylvania

13 Haunted History Podcasts; Updated for Friday the 13th

I updated my curated list of 13 haunted history podcasts especially for Fall 2019.

I am very picky about audio quality and storytelling. I have shut off podcasts after only five minutes if said podcasts didn’t meet my standards. I recommend these thirteen podcasts because I enjoyed them.

These aren’t specific to Pennsylvania.

1.) Listen With the Lights On From WAMC Northeast Public Radio – This podcast highlights legends and lore of New York State. 

2.) Unobscured by Aaron Mahnke – Season #1 highlights the Salem Witch Trials. Season #2 features the Spiritualist movement.

3.) American Hauntings Podcast by Troy Taylor and Cody Beck (The entire first season is about Alton, Illinois and the entire second season is about St. Louis, Missouri. The second season includes a multi-episode feature on the Lemp family. The third season explores New Orleans! The audio quality of the episodes in the middle of the first season is not great. However, the audio quality improved greatly in the second season. I thoroughly enjoyed the history and storytelling.)

4.) Snap Judgement Presents: Spooked From WNYC Radio

5.) Lore by Aaron Mahnke

6.) Haunted Places from Cutler Media and part of the Parcast Network

7.) New England Legends by Jeff Belanger and Ray Auger

8.) Southern Mysteries Podcast by Shannon Ballard

9.) Southern Gothic by Brandon Schexnayder

10.) Southern California Ghosts and Folklore hosted by Susan Burns

11.) Why Is This Place So Haunted from Destination America  – I think that this podcast consists of only 2 episodes. Both are posted on iTunes. The first episode is about the Rhode Island Shore and the second episode is about Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

12.) Haunted Talks – The Official Podcast of The Haunted Walk, hosted by Jim Dean

13.) History Goes Bump hosted by Diane Student 

Check out these podcasts that, while not dedicated to haunted history, do have spooky podcast episodes:

Curious City by WBEZ in Chicago has one ghost story episode. Be sure to check out the October 2014 episode “We Ain’t Afraid of No (Chicago) Ghosts!“)

The Bowery Boys Podcast about New York City history has an annual ghost story episode.

Biscayne Tales: The Miami History Podcast has an episode titled “Ghosts of the Biltmore.”

I personally consider Twisted Philly by Deana Marie to be primarily a Pennsylvania “true crime” podcast. However, several episodes of Pennsylvania ghost stories and urban legends exist here. 

See the episode on John Tyler: Ghosts and the Vice Presidency from Presidential by the Washington Post

See these haunted history podcast episodes about Michigan:

Haunted Places from Cutler Media and part of the Parcast Network – Episode dated October 19, 2019: The Michigan Dogman.

I frequently recommend the podcast “Lore,” by Aaron Mahnke.  

Here is a “Lore” episode about Mackinac Island.  Episode 91: Beneath the Surface.

Also, did you ever hear of the “Nain Rouge” (French for Red Dwarf) or “Demon of the Strait?” The folklore of Detroit says that it appears prior to disaster. The Nain Rouge possibly appeared to Detroit founder Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac before his own downfall. The “Lore” podcast told the story of the Nain Rouge in Episode 65: Doing Tricks.

Here are haunted history podcast episodes for American Civil War buffs:

Why Is This Place So Haunted? from Destination America –  Episode 2: The Ghosts of Gettysburg

Haunted Places from Cutler Media and part of the Parcast Network – Episode dated March 14, 2018: Gettysburg Battlefield

Haunted Places from Cutler Media and part of the Parcast Network – Episode dated June 20,2018: The Myrtles Plantation

Haunted Places from Cutler Media and part of the Parcast Network – Episode dated July 3, 2018: The White House

Southern Gothic hosted by Brandon Schexnayder – Episode dated February 26, 2018: Ghosts of the Myrtles Plantation

Southern Gothic hosted by Brandon Schexnayder – Episode dated April 9, 2018: Buried Alive on Edisto Island

Southern Gothic hosted by Brandon Schexnayder – Episode dated July 2, 2018: William Faulkner’s Rowan Oak

Southern Gothic hosted by Brandon Schexnayder – Episode dated September 4, 2018: Fort Jefferson’s Most Infamous

Southern Gothic hosted by Brandon Schexnayder – Episode dated September 17, 2018: The Madison County Grey

Southern Gothic hosted by Brandon Schexnayder – Episode dated November 12, 2018: Phantom Flames of Tuscaloosa

Southern Gothic hosted by Brandon Schexnayder – Episode dated February 18, 2018: The Burning of Atlanta

Southern Gothic hosted by Brandon Schexnayder – Episode dated March 6, 2019: The Ghost Town of Cahaba

Southern Gothic hosted by Brandon Schexnayder – Episode dated June 26, 2019: The Ruins of Rosewell

Southern Gothic hosted by Brandon Schexnayder – Episode dated September 4, 2019: Skeleton of Longwood Mansion

Southern Gothic hosted by Brandon Schexnayder – Episode dated September 18, 2019: Lost Confederate Gold

Haunted Talks Podcast hosted by Jim Dean is a Canadian podcast, but it has episodes that feature Civil War ghost stories at Vicksburg and Antietam / Sharpsburg.

My Evening with the Fire Hall Medium: Part 2

To recap Part 1: A rural fire department (that I call  “Hosting Fire Department” ) held this fundraiser: a fire hall dinner with a medium who contacts the dead. I am skeptical of mediums and psychics. I attended the dinner anyway.

Here’s Part 2:

In order to reach Hosting Fire Department’s hall from my town, I turned off of the main highway at a cemetery.

Then I drove past “Witch Way.”

I drove into a heavily wooded area as the sun disappeared behind dark clouds. The rain pounded my windshield as I pulled into Hosting Fire Department’s parking lot.

The volunteers at Hosting Fire Department were very friendly and helpful. I left a voice mail message the night before the event to ask if I could still buy a ticket. The organizer called me back Friday morning to let me know that she could reserve a ticket for me. She asked me if I was meeting up with anyone else there, and I told her that I would be alone because I didn’t have friends. (Snark doesn’t translate well over the phone.)

Since I didn’t need to sit with anyone else, the organizer seated me at a table that was reserved but still had extra seats. That’s how I ended up sitting at the middle table directly in front of the “stage.”

The volunteers prepared a fantastic chicken and pasta dinner.  (At the end of the event, the volunteers thanked us all for supporting their fire department.)

But you didn’t actually want to hear about a fire hall chicken dinner, right? You wanted to hear about the medium. I shall call her “Fire Hall Medium” since she traveled from the heart of Pittsburgh to the little fire hall in these woods in Western PA. So here goes:

During dessert (cake), Fire Hall Medium introduced herself to each person in attendance as she handed us her business card.

Per the card, we can schedule Fire Hall Medium for individual sessions as well as for group events. We can hire Fire Hall Medium to remove ghosts. We can book her for weddings and funerals.

The organizers introduced Fire Hall Medium to the room. She showed off her heavily tattooed arms. She explained her journey from corporate employee to self-employed medium. We learned about her Native American heritage. About her experiences as a young child talking to her dead grandmother. About her spiritual training in Lily Dale, New York.

Fire Hall Medium asked us to concentrate on thoughts of our departed loved ones.

At the same time, she warned us that when she is working a large room such as ours (the event advertised 150 tickets available), she is bombarded with many departed souls trying to get her attention at the same time.  She can only speak to a few of these beloved dead within the 90 minutes allotted for this show.

She told us not to be mad at her if she doesn’t make contact with our individual loved ones tonight.

To be clear, I entered the dinner a skeptic. However, I still thought of all the people that I lost. Just in case.

She then initiated her first “contact.”

Fire Hall Medium said that the soul trying to contact her was a woman. She named a characteristic of this woman that was very general and frankly could be applied to almost every woman I knew. Then she named a characteristic that was a little bit more specific, but still pretty general. Then she named a third characteristic that was slightly more specific than the first two characteristics.

Fire Hall Medium said to the room, “Does anybody know this woman?”

Fire Hall Medium continued to name characteristics until a very nice lady in the back of the room took the bait. The nice lady announced that the soul was either her mom or her grandma or her Aunt Jane or something. The nice lady shared with all of us additional details about her loved one. Fire Hall Medium built on these details about the “soul” who contacted her.  Fire Hall Medium gave the nice lady a vague message from the other side as the nice lady cried.

Fire Hall Medium then told a long story about something medium-related that happened in Fire Hall Medium’s own life.

Fire Hall Medium then started the next “contact.” The pattern pretty much matched the first. Fire Hall Medium announced clues that started out general and became more and more specific until an audience participant claimed the “soul” as “their loved one.” The audience participant discussed their newly-found loved soul with the Fire Hall Medium. More tears.

Then Fire Hall Lady told another long story about her own life.

This pattern basically described the entire 90 minute-long presentation.

A few times, Fire Hall Medium did get pretty far into describing the “soul” without having any “takers” from the audience. Whenever this happened, Fire Hall Medium backtracked and told the audience that she misread some of the details.  She noted that she sometimes had trouble hearing the soul correctly because so many other voices of dearly departed shouted out to her at the same time. Then she would switch up the details until an audience member finally claimed the “soul” as their loved one.

Fire Hall Medium ended the evening by announcing that the ghost of the former fire chief of Hosting Fire Department stood in the back of the fire hall. She told us all that the dead former fire chief had a message for one of the firefighters in the kitchen. She gave that firefighter a hug and thanked him on behalf of the dead chief’s ghost. Everybody clapped. The end.

Several people cried during the 90 minute event. I feel that they truly believe that their loved ones contacted them through Fire Hall Medium. I hope that they found peace through this. I also hope that nobody exploits them financially or emotionally due to this belief.

I personally arrived a skeptic and I left a skeptic. But I already explained this.

Do you believe that you have a chance to make contact with your loved ones in the afterlife?

My Evening with the Fire Hall Medium: Part 1

Last week, a (Western Pennsylvania) volunteer fire department held this fundraiser: a dinner with a Pittsburgh Area medium. A medium who claims to contact the dead.

I – a skeptic – attended this dinner with a medium because:

  • A volunteer fire department held this dinner as a fundraiser.

Volunteers planned the event.

Volunteers prepared the chicken and pasta dinner in their fire hall.

(Coffee, iced tea, and soda pop were provided, alcohol was BYOB. Tickets were $35 each.)

I shall call this particular fire department “Hosting Fire Department.” In disclosure, my husband is a volunteer firefighter at a department less than 10 miles from Hosting Fire Department. My husband is not affiliated with Hosting Fire Department.  We like to support local fire department fundraisers.

  • I attended for the experience.

I write fiction about the life of a Pittsburgh medium in 1890. I wanted to watch an actual practicing medium “at work.” Even if I never publish these stories, at least I can get a few blog posts out of the evening.

Here’s why I became a skeptic years ago:

  • Do a Google search or a Wikipedia search on the Fox sisters. Then do a search on the spiritualist movement in the 1800’s. If you’re still bored, then look up the debate between Harry Houdini and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. As a finale, search “Confirmation Bias.”
  • When I attended and lived at (a Catholic) college, our school required each floor in each dorm to plan two activities for outreach. For our project, my floor invited a Greensburg Area psychic to our lounge to give private palm readings for $25 or $35 each. We advertised this on campus so that people not affiliated with our dorm could also pay for readings.  (Somehow the residential life office at our Catholic college approved this. I don’t think that they fully understood our “project.”)

So many people showed up that the psychic stayed several hours past her scheduled time. Why not? Everyone paid their fee directly to her. I didn’t purchase a reading because I was nervous about spending money. However, several of my friends did throw down the $25 or $35 to learn their futures. The psychic told my friends that if they shared what they “learned” in the readings, then their readings wouldn’t come true. However, my friends shared their readings with each other a few days later. They learned that the psychic gave them all basically the same prediction!

To be clear, the Greensburg Area psychic at my college was NOT the Pittsburgh Area medium who performed at last week’s fire hall dinner. I share this story to point out that I knew going into this dinner to not be disappointed with the outcome.

Did you ever hire a psychic and / or a medium? What was the outcome?  Did the experience leave you satisfied?

Al Roker’s New Book Underwhelmed Me

Al Roker just put out a new book: Ruthless Tide: The Heroes and Villains of the Johnstown Flood, America’s Astonishing Guilded Age Disaster.

Al Roker’s new book underwhelmed me.

In my opinion, it rehashed much of  “The Johnstown Flood” by David McCullough. It didn’t provide enough new insights.

Here’s the thing: From ages 7 – 18, I lived in a small town in the Allegheny Mountains (the Laurel Highlands) about 30 miles from Johnstown.  Johnstown was the “city.” We drove to Johnstown frequently in order to access services that we didn’t have in our own town.  (Johnstown was much closer to us than Pittsburgh.)

At my school, we studied the Johnstown Flood of 1889 for weeks. We had to write essays about it. We toured the flood museums in downtown Johnstown and at the site of the South Fork dam that caused the flood. (Yes, multiple museums about the the Johnstown Flood exist.) We also visited the stone railroad bridge where many flood victims burned to death, as well as the cemetery where Johnstowners buried many of their flood victims. We saw the graves of the unidentified flood dead.

After college, I moved to Johnstown for three years for a job. I worked downtown. Every day, I walked past monuments to the victims of Johnstown’s three major deadly floods. I walked down the streets that the flood destroyed. I drove past and under the infamous stone railroad bridge. (Route 56 goes under the very edge of this bridge.)

After I left Johnstown, I purchased and read “The Johnstown Flood” by David McCullough.

Roker listed McCullough’s book as a source document. In fact, under his section “A Note on Sources and Further Reading,” Roker says, “The best-known modern book on the subject is David McCullough’s groundbreaking The Johnstown Flood, first published in 1968; its nearest predecessor similar in scope was Richard O’Connor’s Johnstown: The Day the Dam Broke, published in 1957.”

If you aren’t familiar with the Johnstown Flood of 1889, then first note this: downtown Johnstown is in a valley at a river confluence. The South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club was an exclusive, secretive, private club upstream from Johnstown.  Many of the very wealthy industrialists of Pittsburgh, including Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick. Andrew Mellon, etc, belonged to this club.

On the days leading up to May 31, 1889, a significant amount of rain fell. On May 31, the dam on the private club’s private lake failed. The lake emptied into the valley below. This caused the Johnstown Flood of 1889.

To Roker’s credit, he did focus a great deal more than McCullough did on the actual members of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club.

However, if you needed to read one book – and only one book – on the Johnstown Flood, I recommend McCullough’s book over Roker’s book.

As a side note, Johnstown is upstream from New Kensington and Pittsburgh. McCullough’s book noted that flood debris and flood victims were carried to at least Pittsburgh. Here is my blog post about that.  

The Pennsylvania Shelf

I removed a book from the Oakmont Carnegie Library without “checking it out,” and I have no plans to return it.

The Oakmont Carnegie Library includes in its basement the Squirrel’s Nest, a used bookstore. You can purchase used books and other items during library hours.

I like to browse the “Pennsylvania Shelf” at the Squirrel’s Nest. See the above photo. I took that photo with my phone minutes before I pulled from it that book which says “Pittsburgh” on its grey and black spine.

This book is titled Pittsburgh: The Story of an American City, by Stefan Lorant. I purchased this signed third edition of this 670-page coffee table book for five dollars at the Oakmont Library’s Squirrel’s Nest.

The copy in my possession has a copyright date of 1980, but the book also lists a copyright date of 1964 for the first edition.

That’s right. For five dollars, I purchased a 670-page time capsule of Pittsburgh from 1964-1980. Signed by Stefan Lorant.

On page 416, I read the following: The Three River(s) Arts Festival started in 1960 and has been repeated each summer ever since. Its main features are an open-air exhibition of paintings, performances of plays and high school band concerts. 

I mention this because the Three Rivers Arts Festival is currently underway for 2018. I have attended it every summer now for over a decade in order to watch national acts on the main stage. I have never seen a high school band perform at the Arts Festival. (Not to knock high school bands. I played the clarinet in my own high school band for four years.)

Here are some other favorite gems from Pittsburgh: The Story of an American City:

From pages 488 – 489, the caption under 4 page-length photos of women wearing miniskirts: “Pittsburgh girls have the most beautiful legs in the world,” says a Frenchman, says an Italian, says a Turk, says a German, says a Hungarian. Nevertheless – it is the truth.

From pages 490-491, the caption under 4 page-length photos of women wearing skirts and shorts: If these Pittsburgh girls would walk in Paris all sidewalk cafes would be filled by males. But alas, Paris does not have the steep hills of Pittsburgh to develop shapely leg muscles.

From pages 572 and 573, the caption under 4 page-length photos of women wearing split skirts: The miniskirt of the seventies (see pages 488-491) is superseded by the split skirt of the eighties. Though fashion trends have changed, the women of Pittsburgh remain as beautiful as ever.

From pages 592-593, the caption under 4 page-length photos of men wearing suits: The men of Pittsburgh are immaculately dressed, even on the hottest summer day they wear a vest and a tie – downtown executives are conscious of changes in fashion.

Thus were Pittsburgh men, women, and “girls” in 1964-1980.

P.S. After I published this blog post, I did some digging (Google search) and I learned that Stefan Lorant was born in Hungary and he was imprisoned for opposing Hitler in the 1930’s. He became famous for documenting all this after he fled to England. Really famous. So famous that Edgar Kaufmann (the department store titan and owner of Fallingwater) wooed Lorant – persistently –  until Lorant agreed to author Pittsburgh: The Story of an American City. 

A few years ago, I would have played it off that I totally knew that Stefan Lorant was a famous filmmaker, photojournalist, and magazine editor. But the truth is that I had no idea until about 15 minutes ago.

So if you knew who Stefan Lorant was before you read my blog post, then:

1.) Congratulations. You are more well read than I am.

2.) Please continue to enjoy my blog.

3.) You can help me to figure out if I can sell my signed copy of Pittsburgh: The Story of an American City for more than the five dollars that I paid for it.

Corpus Christi Sawdust Carpets

Holy Martyrs Parish in Tarentum marks the Feast of Corpus Christi by creating sawdust carpets in their parking lot each year.

It would not be fair of me to regurgitate the information that I just took off of another website about these sawdust carpets. So, if you want to know why and how the parish does this, you should Google it. I just did.

I live across the Allegheny River from Tarentum. However, I found out about these sawdust carpets less than a week ago, when my sister-in-law shared a Facebook post about this.

Here is what I personally noted about the tradition:

This past Thursday (May 31) was the Feast of Corus Christi. So, on today – Sunday – the parishoners of Holy Martyrs labored over their sawdust carpets. They worked all morning and afternoon on these in order to hold their vesper service in late afternoon.

I took my sister-in-law and her two small boys to Holy Martyrs at around 2 this afternoon.  We chose this time because this was after the last Sunday mass.

We parked on the hill above the church since the parish makes its carpets IN their parking lot.

Then, we walked around the parking lot and looked at all of the finished and work-in-progress beauties.

From what I understand about the tradition, the church held its vesper service in late afternoon. Then, they brushed over all of their sawdust masterpieces!

What traditions does your church celebrate?

5 Tales of the Brackenridge Family (that I Learned from a Novel)

Cemetery talk prompted this post.

The Community Library of Allegheny Valley announced an informational session at its Tarentum branch about the history of Prospect Cemetery in Brackenridge, PA. 

I learned about this talk from our local newspaper. I cannot attend the session. However, I DID attend a “ghost” (and history) tour at Prospect Cemetery one Halloween.

I learned that Hugh Marie Brackenridge and his wife and family are prominently buried at Prospect Cemetery in Brackenridge.

Hugh Marie’s father, Hugh Henry Brackenridge, founded both the University of Pittsburgh and also the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

And then I read the novel “The King’s Orchard” by Agnes Sligh Turnbull. This historical fiction follows General James O’Hara (George Washington’s quartermaster and Mary Schenley’s grandfather), with Hugh Henry Brackenridge as the protagonist’s good friend.

And here’s what I learned from “The King’s Orchard” (and also from the internet) about the Brackenridge lore:

1.) Hugh Henry Brackenridge grew up poor on a farm in New England. He borrowed other people’s books. A cow ate one of these borrowed books.

2.) Hugh Henry saved up enough money to send himself to the school that became Princeton University.

3.) The first time that Hugh Henry  saw his wife Sabina, he was a lawyer headed to the courthouse in Washington PA. Sabina was a farmer’s daughter chasing after a runaway cow. (Cows are a theme here!)

Hugh Henry watched Sabina vault over a fence without touching the fence. Then, he told the other lawyers that if Sabina did it again, he would ask Sabina to marry him. She did it again.

Sabina’s father said that Hugh Henry couldn’t marry Sabina because dad needed Sabina to “shrub the meadow.” Hugh Henry paid Sabina’s father $10 to hire somebody else to “shrub the meadow.”

4.) Hugh Henry (again, the founder of Pitt) wanted a political career. Sabina had no education. So after the wedding, Hugh Henry sent his new wife to finishing school in Philadelphia for a year.

5.) Hugh Henry’s son (Sabina’s stepson) was Hugh Marie Brackenridge.

McKeesport to Duquesne Bike Ride, Part Deux

This post is just more photos from last weekend’s rail-trail bike ride along the Great Allegheny Passage past McKeesport, Port Perry, Duquesne, and Kennywood Park.

Here are more scenes from the McKeesport roundhouse:

This is the US Steel Braddock Works. We stopped for a rest directly across the Mon River when I took this: