The Mystery “Guardian” of Livermore Cemetery

Did a man who later claimed to be affiliated with Livermore Cemetery actually pursue several trespassers during a late night car chase in Derry Township, Westmoreland County? Did the Livermore Cemetery “associate” actually shoot at the trespassers and also try to force them off of the road as he chased them down?

I ask this because I actually heard this story on “The Dirtbag Diaries,” a national podcast for outdoor enthusiasts sponsored in part by the clothing company Patagonia. Each October, this podcast releases its Tales of Terror. On Tales of Terror Vol. 8, released in October 2017, contributor Joe Shearer claimed the following:

Shearer recounted that he and his friends admittedly trespassed in Livermore Cemetery.  They arrived in two cars. They walked through the cemetery. Shearer did not admit to causing any vandalism. He claimed that he and his friends merely visited the cemetery in order to spook themselves. The following happened as the friends returned to their two cars:

1.) A “mystery man” who did not identify himself allegedly pointed a gun at the group and told them to put their hands on one of their cars.

2.) Half of the group was actually still in the woods, so this half of the group ran out of the woods to their second car.

3.) The entire group was able to jump into cars and drive off.

4.) The “mystery man” with the gun allegedly got into his own auto and pursued one of the cars as he shot at them.

5.) This “mystery man” also allegedly tried several times to force one of the cars off of the road as he pursued it.

6.) Both cars managed to get away from the “mystery man.”

7.) The group riding in one of the two cars eventually managed to locate a state trooper on the main highway. They convinced the trooper to accompany them back to the Livermore Cemetery.  They located the “mystery man” at the cemetery. The “mystery man” allegedly identified himself as being associated with the Livermore Cemetery. The podcast then referred to the “mystery man” as an “overzealous grave keeper.”

8.) According to the podcast, the state trooper convinced both sides to shake hands and drop the matter.

If you want to listen to this specific podcast episode, here is the link on the podcast’s website. This specific story begins at 3:32 in the episode. This is the very first story told in Tales of Terror Vol. 8, and you can go to 3:32 to skip the show’s introduction.

Today, the local media website posted a story by Jacob Tierney about Livermore Cemetery. Tierney interviewed several people associated with the cemetery about issues surrounding vandalism and trespassing. I am very curious as to whether the officials at Livermore Cemetery are aware of this podcast episode about this alleged incident.

If the incident in this story did actually happen, I am sure that the self-identifying “cemetery associate” has a completely different perspective on what happened that night.

I’ve personally never been to Livermore Cemetery. I have picnicked many times at nearby Conemaugh Dam and Tunnelview Historic Site.

As I wrote in an earlier blog post, the actual town of Livermore no longer exists. Most of Livermore is actually under the Conemaugh River.

Livermore is (was?) near Blairsville and Saltsburg.  In the 1950’s, the US Army Corps of Engineers built the Conemaugh Dam on the Conemaugh River. This created the Conemaugh Lake and flooded Livermore. The town’s cemetery remains above the river bank.

Have you ever visited Livermore Cemetery?

My Mom, A Child of Pennsylvania and Supporter of Education

My mother, Shirley Katherine (Brueggman) Gaffron, passed away this week from lung cancer.

She never smoked. I mention this because I want to make it clear that non-smokers DO get lung cancer.  To paraphrase my sister Liz, anybody who has lungs can get lung cancer.

Mom was a Pittsburgh kid. Her dad came from the South Side and her mom grew up on Mount Washington.  Mom grew up in Carrick.  She got tar on her school shoes during annual trips to Kennywood Park. She visited Three Rivers Stadium during its construction for a field trip.  She took my dad to her prom on the Gateway Clipper. My parents got engaged on the walk home from Christmas Eve Mass at St. Basil’s Catholic Church in Carrick.

Mom didn’t come from an affluent family. She didn’t get a lot of support growing up to pursue higher education. She worked briefly for Pitt so that she could take some classes there. (Mom worked in the Cathedral of Learning.)

After Mom moved to rural Pennsylvania with my dad and had four out of their five daughters, she busted her butt to finish her associate degree and obtain an LPN license.  She also taught herself how to program in BASIC on my parents’ Texas Instrument TI-99/4A.

The thing is, Mom always encouraged her own daughters to keep learning.

I learned that I loved to read about the same time that Ann M. Martin’s The Baby-Sitter’s Club books became “a thing.”  We didn’t have Amazon or access to the internet.  We lived 30 miles from the closest bookstore which carried The Baby-Sitter’s Club. (This bookstore was Waldenbooks in the Richland Mall in Johnstown.) Scholastic released one book in the series each month. So, once a month, Mom drove the 60-mile round trip to Waldenbooks so that I could get my monthly dose of  Baby-Sitter’s Club. At one point, I owned the ENTIRE set of Baby-Sitter’s Club titles, which at that point numbered in the dozens. Thanks to my mom.

Both of my parents pushed us four older girls to finish our degrees. One of the last things that we heard from both of our parents was how important it is for my youngest sister (a college sophomore) to finish her own degree.

I take offense at educated people from BOTH major political parties who ridicule and berate the uneducated. When I say “uneducated,” I mean both the urban and the rural uneducated. Some kids (like my mom) just didn’t have the support system. Some just never had the resources and see no clear path to obtaining those resources. In fact, when I was growing up in Somerset County, one of my high school classmates participated in no after school extracurriculars because she lived in the middle of nowhere, her family had one car that often broke down and that her dad needed to get to his job, and our rural school district offered no transportation to kids outside of “regular” school hours. Another one of my classmates worked after school in order to help his parents pay for groceries. And you know what? Colleges take extracurricular participation into account when they make financial aid decisions.

Now here’s my tie-in regarding Pennsylvania: I was born shortly before the Pennsylvania steel industry completely collapsed. Pennsylvanians, both urban and rural, suffered for it. I watched as aunts, uncles, cousins, and neighbors left the state. Then my friends from high school left the state. Then my friends from college left the state. Then three of my sisters and my sister-in-law left the state.

Now I work in downtown Pittsburgh. I hear the hype about Pittsburgh’s exciting renaissance and the new economic opportunities through education and the technology industry. I visit some of the trendy, gentrifying “hipster” neighborhoods in Pittsburgh. And I want people to be mindful that poor and uneducated people still live in urban and rural Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania, don’t leave these people behind. Give these people access to the educational opportunities available in Pittsburgh’s exciting new transformation. I think that my mom would be very sad to hear that people are still being left behind here.

PA “Witchcraft” Part 2: Hex Hollow

Now I have a real-life tale about a witchcraft allegation that ended in murder. This took place in Stewartstown (York County) in 1928.  So, just like the fictional Nancy Drew mystery The Witch Tree Symbol, this took place in South Central Pennsylvania.

I first heard about this event through Aaron Mahnke’s Lore Podcast. If you want to listen to Aaron Mahnke’s tale, it is Episode 62: Desperate Measures, dated June 11, 2017.

Keep in mind the following:

  • Large numbers of German immigrants settled in PA in the centuries after William Penn established his colony in the 1680’s. (In fact, I’m German-American on both sides of my family.)
  • In the 1600’s and 1700’s, immigrants from a specific region of Germany, with its own German dialect, settled in Eastern and Central PA. This group was known in German as the “Deutsch.”  Outsiders confused the word “Deutsch” with the word “Dutch.” As a result, outsiders referred to them as the “Pennsylvania Dutch.”
  • However, this group did NOT descend from the Dutch. (See above.)
  • Not all German immigrants to PA were Deutsch.
  • The term “Pennsylvania Dutch” developed to include a variety of Christian affiliations with different beliefs and practices. The Christian German immigrants in this region included the following affiliations: Lutheran, German Reformed, and Anabaptists. (The Anabaptists included Mennonites and Amish.)
  • I absolutely DON’T imply that all “Pennsylvania Dutch” observed the beliefs mentioned in this blog post.

So here’s what happened: in the late 1800’s / early 1900’s, a man named Nelson Rehmeyer lived in a farmhouse in what came to be known as “Hex Hollow,” also known as “Rehmeyer’s Hollow.”

Rehmeyer practiced “pow-wow medicine,” or “pow-wowing.” This practice depended on traditions of some Pennsylvania Dutch, as well as on the book Pow-Wows; or, Long Lost Friend. “Pow-wow medicine” included elements of faith-healing and witchcraft.

In the early 1900’s, Rehmeyer used pow-wowing to treat a very ill young boy named John Blymire. Blymire recovered.

As Blymire grew up, he studied “pow-wowing” himself. He set up his own “pow-wow medicine” practice.

However, as Blymire entered his 30’s, his health failed him again. He suspected that somebody put a hex on him.

In 1928, Blymire consulted Nellie Noll, the famous local “River Witch of Marietta.” Noll “confirmed” to Blymire that Nelson Rehmeyer had put a hex on Blymire.

Blymire believed that he needed to destroy Rehmeyer’s copy of Long Lost Friend and also bury a lock of Rehmeyer’s hair in order to break the hex and restore his own health.

Blymire recruited two teenagers to help him break into Rehmeyer’s house in “Hex Hollow.”  They confronted Rehmeyer. They demanded that Rehmeyer surrender his copy of Long Lost Friend.

Rehmeyer refused to surrender his book. So, the trio beat Rehmeyer to death and then they set Rehmeyer’s house on fire in hopes that this would break the hex.

The house did not burn down. All three men were tried, convicted, and imprisoned. The “York Witch Trial” made national headlines.

Rehmeyer’s house still stands.

York County renamed the hollow “Spring Valley Park.” Per my review of the county website, the public can rent a picnic pavilion at this park.

Disclosure: I was born in South Central PA. I lived in rural Perry County until I turned seven. My family patronized Amish businesses there. I’ve never been to Spring Valley Park. Also, I’ve never been to Dutch Wonderland, the amusement park in Lancaster. My family visited Knoebels Grove instead.

What experiences have you had in Central Pennsylvania?

Pennsylvania “Witchcraft” Part 1: Nancy Drew is a Witch in Amish Country

This summer I Googled books that take place in Pennsylvania.

I found The Witch Tree Symbol, by Carolyn Keene, which is one of the original Nancy Drew mysteries.

The book took place in Central PA Dutch country – Lancaster County. It involved the Amish community.

I once loved Nancy Drew books and I also grew up in PA locales that included Amish farms, so I purchased this book for a fun read.

My (used) copy listed copyright dates of 1955 and 1975.

First, I want to say something about the author: I grew up thinking that Carolyn Keene wrote my favorite Nancy Drew books. It turned out that “Carolyn Keene” was a pseudonym. Edward Stratemeyer hired several ghost writers, including his daughter Harriet, to write the original Nancy Drew books. I learned on Wikipedia that Harriet Stratemeyer Adams wrote The Witch Tree Symbol.

I read The Witch Tree Symbol in one afternoon, in one sitting. I may have also read this book when I was twelve – I don’t remember.

Now, I DO want to call out the original Nancy Drew books for something that has bothered me ever since I was a kid: the constant fat-shaming.  The Witch Tree Symbol brought its own pile of this nonsense. The “plump” characters did a bunch of really dumb things. Some of them (cough, Nancy’s sidekick Bess, cough) talked constantly about food. The author also mentioned throughout the book that the “plump” characters were “nervous.” (The first page of this book made sure to refer to Nancy as slender and attractive.)

So this is how the book started: Mrs. Tenney, Nancy’s “plump” neighbor in fictional River Heights, New Jersey, did something stupid. Mrs. Tenney’s stupidity resulted in the theft of her inheritance. The inheritance included twin coffee tables which were valuable due to a vague GEORGE WASHINGTON connection. The coffee tables were the most highly prized part of the inheritance. However, the fleeing Coffee Table Thief dropped a picture of a Pennsylvania Dutch hex sign.

Nancy deduced that the Coffee Table Thief fled to Lancaster County, PA.

Nancy and her sidekicks travelled to Lancaster County and solved the mystery – sort of. They located the missing coffee tables. They discovered in the process that one of the coffee tables was actually a replica and thus GEORGE WASHINGTON never touched it. However, they didn’t actually track down the Coffee Table Thief. The police located the Coffee Table Thief.

However, before Nancy found the coffee tables, the Coffee Table Thief managed to convince a significant part of the local Amish farmers that Nancy practiced witchcraft. Several members of the local community expelled Nancy from their property. Nancy could not interview “witnesses” until she convinced folks that she was not a witch.

I learned some new things about Amish culture and cuisine from this story.

I still maintain that The Witch Tree Symbol was a weird mystery.

Spoiler alert: It turned out that the Coffee Table Thief descended from a local Amish family that has seen SEVERAL family members disappear without a trace over the years. Nancy learned about a hidden sinkhole on that family’s farm. The sinkhole sat above a “crystal cave.” Years ago, one of the thief’s distant family members fell in love with a (insert colloquial term for the Romani people that starts with the letter “g”) woman who lived in the woods next to the family farm. This itinerant woman who lived in the woods knew about the sinkhole and the cave. She warned her Amish lover about the cave by hiding a message in a hidden compartment of the genuine coffee table that GEORGE WASHINGTON touched.

The Coffee Table Thief could possibly become rich by buying up this old family farm and taking advantage of the crystal cave’s wealth. There was just one hitch: the Coffee Table Thief needed to steal the coffee tables so that he could find the message that would lead him to the sinkhole – and to the crystal cave.

And yet, NOBODY  in this story batted an eye at the news that a bunch of Amish people disappeared over the years because they fell down a hole in the ground.  The book said nothing about the whereabouts of all of these bodies. I guess that all of the bodies are still at the bottom of this hole.

So, this book spent over 100 pages fretting about the whereabouts of a bunch of coffee tables. It spent maybe a paragraph discussing the location of several missing people (bodies).

“Carolyn Keene” should have titled this story “Nancy Drew and the Coffee Table Thief.”

(Also, the whole backstory about the Romani people living in the woods is just so 1955.)

So, the “Nancy Drew” creators gave us a fictional story about Central PA witchcraft allegations.

Stay tuned for Part 2 to learn about real-life witchcraft allegations here.

The witchcraft allegations in Part 2 result in death.

My New Ken Haunted History Walk

Last week, my husband Jonathan and I learned about the history of Brackenridge and Tarentum during Prospect Cemetery’s ghost walking tour.

This tour raised funds for Prospect Cemetery’s upkeep.

Some of the volunteers involved with the cemetery tour have also in past years performed ghost walking tours of downtown Tarentum.

In these tours, guides lead their groups to actors dressed up as local historical figures. The actors tell stories about their assigned figures.

Jonathan agreed to attend past tours of Prospect Cemetery and Tarentum with me because the tour organizers indicated in media posts that these tours weren’t the type of events where people jump out of the darkness to scare guests. (Jonathan refuses to attend scary ghost events.) Nonetheless, we heard true tales of murders, fires, accidents, and illness.

New Kensington could host its own haunted history walk. I didn’t grow up in New Ken (and neither side of my own family ever lived here), so I don’t know many of the old yarns. However, I compiled my own list of historical figures and events based on my knowledge of Western PA history. I welcome anybody with intimate knowledge of New Kensington history to supplement this list. In fact, if you have anything to add, please feel free to tell me in the comments!

Robert E. Lee . . . Just kidding! I don’t have any reason to think that Lee ever came to New Kensington.

Simon Girty  –  Girty  went just about everywhere in Western and Central Pennsylvania. Also, in olden days, Girty’s name was arguably more controversial than Lee’s. (Spoiler: Girty defected from the Americans and fought with the other side.)

Girty was born in Central PA in 1741. During his violent childhood, Seneca warriors raided the Girty family farm and took him prisoner.

Girty grew up learning the Iroquois, Delaware, and Shawnee languages. He lived with (and fought alongside) the Senecas during several battles of the French and Indian War. The Native Americans returned Girty to the British colonists during a prisoner exchange in 1764.

Girty worked as a trader and interpreter. He frequented Pittsburgh and travelled these rivers, including the Allegheny River.  Girty originally served with the American forces during the Revolutionary War. However, he changed his mind after colonial settlers attacked a Native American settlement. (The settlers killed the women found in this settlement.)

Girty defected to the British in 1778.

Girty was present at the execution of American Colonel William Crawford in 1782 and sources allege that he actually egged on the Native Americans who tortured Crawford.

(See my blog post The Brutal Tale of Colonel William Crawford.)

Girty eventually fled to Canada, where he died in 1818. Some sources list Girty as a Canadian.

I believe that Girty travelled the Allegheny River past present-day Parnassus and downtown New Kensington.

My own grandma in North Huntingdon Township often joked about mischief caused by the Ghost of Simon Girty.

Soldiers of Fort Crawford in Parnassus  – Settlers built Fort Crawford next to the confluence of Pucketa Creek and the Allegheny River in the 1700’s. The remains of Fort Crawford later became the Parnassus neighborhood of New Kensington. A stone marking the fort, and also remembering Colonel William Crawford, now sits next to the grounds of the Presbyterian church and cemetery there. For a history walk, actors could dress up as soldiers and tell the fort’s story.

We could even have an actor dress up as Colonel William  Crawford. In 1782, at the end of the American Revolution, Crawford led American forces into Ohio as part of the Crawford Expedition against Native Americans. Lenape and Wyandot warriors defeated Crawford and his men. They tortured and executed Crawford. Simon Girty was there.

The Frank Alter Family – Frant Alter Sr. was one of the founders of the Keystone Dairy Company in Parnassus. Alter and his family originally owned my present-day house in Parnassus. In fact, an Alter child carved his initials into the woodwork in my attic. The Alter family are now buried in the cemetery owned by Parnassus Presbyterian Church. Here is some research that Jonathan did on the Alter Family.

Johnstown Flood Debris –  We residents of New Kensington live alongside the Allegheny River, downstream from Johnstown. After the Johnstown Flood of May 31, 1889 killed at least 2,209 people, flood debris (and bodies) washed downstream. It washed past our current home and also past all of the other Allegheny River towns downstream from us.  In fact, David McCullough noted in The Johnstown Flood that rescuers pulled a living baby out of the river at Verona.  This happy-ending story is perfect for a history walk.

Here are some more ideas that I blogged about in 2014:

Rene-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle

The Logan Family 

Aaron Burr

(See my blog post Meeting Aaron Burr in the Alleghenies.)

Victorian Houses in Parnassus

If you have more stories, feel free to add them to this list. I didn’t grow up here. I would love the insights of those who did.

Peck Family Cemetery – Somerset County, PA

This is the Peck Family Cemetery. It dates back to the mid- 1800’s.

You can view this cemetery from the highway between the true high point of Mount Davis and Deer Valley YMCA Camp.

Mount Davis is the highest point in Pennsylvania. It sits in Somerset County. The true high point sits about 10 miles from the border with Maryland.  (Yes, Mount Davis belongs to the Laurel Highlands. Yes, Mount Davis is slightly north of the Mason-Dixon line.)

Deer Valley YMCA Camp actually owns the land upon which this cemetery sits. They maintain the cemetery.

If you plan to visit Mount Davis, please watch your speed. The highway leading up to the true high point passes a sizable number of Amish and non-Amish farms. Depending on the day and time of your visit, you may encounter a high volume of horse and buggy traffic. For instance, my last visit to the top of Mount Davis occurred on a Sunday. We passed several farms that had multiple buggies parked in front, and we also shared the road with buggies in both directions.

Haunted Road Tripping: Bloody Handprint Edition

Picture this: your little daughter takes her allowance money to her elementary school’s book fair. Your daughter returns with a book that has an angry-looking skull on its cover.

The book contains ghost stories.

Your daughter reads these stories to her little sisters. One of these stories involves xenophobia,  a bloody labor dispute, executed miners, and a handprint on a jail cell wall. Your daughters tell and retell this story about the Bloody Handprint at every family campfire for decades.

This happened to my poor mom.

My sisters and I liked the “Bloody Handprint Story” so much because it happened in Pennsylvania. Wow, we ALSO lived in Pennsylvania!

So let me tell you now about the famous “Bloody Handprint” of Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania:

First, Jim Thorpe wasn’t always called “Jim Thorpe.” In the 1950’s, officials renamed this borough “Jim Thorpe” after the Native American athlete from Oklahoma who was “educated” at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School (in Pennsylvania). That whole story deserves its own blog post. (Or else its own blog.)

Back in the 1800’s, everyone still referred to this town by its original name, “Mauch Chunk.” (This came from the Lenni Lenape people’s name for the nearby mountain. I mean, the irony  . . . )

Jim Thorpe – the former Mauch Chunk – sits in a gorge in the Lehigh Valley. Many inhabitants earned their livings from the coal mined above Mauch Chunk. In the 1820’s, they built the Switchback Gravity Railroad from these coal mines. 

The mine owners employed significant numbers of Irish immigrants. The mine owners exploited and oppressed these miners.

The Irish miners fought back against the brutal working conditions. They formed a labor union. Some joined a secret society called the Molly Maguires (the Mollies).

The mine owners hired the Pinkerton Detective Agency to bust the union and the Mollies. The Pinkertons planted a mole inside the Mollies. Then the local law enforcement (who were all totally in the pockets of the mine owners) arrested several of the Mollies’ alleged members for murder.

The authorities tried and hung several alleged Mollies at the Carbon County Jail in Mauch Chunk (Jim Thorpe) in June 1877.

Before the hanging, though, one of these men – Alexander Campbell – slapped his hand on the wall of his jail cell and swore his innocence shortly before his execution. He left a “Bloody Handprint.” (In one version of the story that I read, the Handprint started off as a “muddy handprint.” In another version of the story, Campbell slapped the wall so violently that he left blood on the wall.)

This particular jail cell wall still has the Handprint. In the version of the story that I read, this wall has been painted and re-plastered, and the Handprint keeps reappearing.

The old Carbon County Jail where this all happened is now the Old Jail Museum. You can tour this old jail and see the cell with the Bloody Handprint.

In fact, I and two of my sisters DID tour the jail. We DID see the Bloody Handprint. Unfortunately, the museum does not allow visitors to take photos of the Handprint. The museum conveniently sells their own photos of the Handprint in their gift shop.

All of the photos in this blog post belong to my sister Katie.  The gallows in the top photo are now kept INSIDE the jail museum. However, the actual executions took place outside, next to the jail.

In this bottom photo, my brother-in-law Brendan peers inside a jail cell that held Irish coal miners. (As you will note by his hat, Brendan roots for the Phillies. However, we can forgive him for this since he is good to my sister and my nephews.)

The Old Jail Museum’s physical building witnessed a haunted, loaded history.  As such, it now carries several ghost stories. The museum features these stories on its tours and also on its website.

(One word about the tour: visitors are required to climb up and down several staircases. This is NOT a comfortable tour for people with mobility issues.)

Do you have a favorite ghost story based on a historical event? Did you actually get to visit the scene of the historical event? Drop me a line in the comments!

Also, check out these blog posts:

1.) My post about the Switchback Gravity Railroad of Mauch Chunk.

2.) My sister Katie’s post about Jim Thorpe.

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