Did Confederate Soldiers Climb That Haunted Circular Staircase? Also, Watch Me Use the Phrase “Convicted Polygamist” in a Blog Post

Mary Roberts Rinehart’s residence on Pittsburgh’s North Side. This particular neighborhood is now branded as Allegheny West. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Rinehart wrote “The Circular Staircase” at this residence. (Photo: Dennis Woytek)

Confederate soldiers climbed the circular staircase that inspired “The Circular Staircase,” Mary Roberts Rinehart’s mystery novel about a haunted house.

Maybe?

Who is Mary Roberts Rinehart? And who cares?

Well, Mary Roberts Rinehart (1876 – 1958) was a mystery fiction novelist born and raised in Pittsburgh. I care because my late mother-in-law, Fran, enjoyed reading Rinehart’s books so much that she read excerpts of them to me shortly before her own death in 2016. Fran and I actually got to tour the Pittsburgh house where Rinehart wrote her novel “The Circular Staircase.”

Also, in full disclosure, I am a dues-paying member of the Pittsburgh Chapter of “Sisters in Crime,” a club for writers (and readers) of crime fiction. The Pittsburgh Chapter is officially the “Mary Roberts Rinehart Chapter,” in honor of this local mystery writer. (Also, pre-Covid we met at the Carnegie Library in Oakmont, not in Pittsburgh.) But the true reason that I cared enough about Mary Roberts Rinehart to blog about her several times was that Fran was a true fan of Rinehart’s work.

One year, Fran took “The Circular Staircase” with her on vacation. Then, she downloaded a Rinehart travel memoir onto her tablet and read that during the same vacation. She paused multiple times to tell my husband and myself about the her favorite parts of the Rinehart memoir.

Fran read us a page in which Rinehart talked about the household staff that Rinehart brought along on an African safari.

Fran said, “Can you imagine? Bringing servants with you? To go camping?” She laughed. She got quiet and read more for a little bit. Then she told us about another story in the Rinehart memoir that tickled her fancy.

(I do the same thing every time that I blog here about something that I just read that excites me. You are all excellent people for reading the little tales that I recount from other people’s books.)

Oh, let me mention this again – “The Circular Staircase” took place in a haunted house!

So, as I just mentioned a few paragraph’s ago, Rinehart grew up on Pittsburgh’s North Side. For those of you from out of the area, the North Side is the part of Pittsburgh on the North Side of the Allegheny River. Rinehart trained as a nurse in a Pittsburgh nursing school. Through this profession, she met her physician husband. They lived together on the North Side in the house pictured at the top of this blog post. This house sits in the portion of the North Side now branded as Allegheny West. (The neighborhood even has its own website!) Now, Heinz Field – the Pittsburgh Steelers’ home stadium – sits on the North Shore of the Allegheny River. Allegheny West sits behind Heinz Field.

Allegheny West’s neighborhood preservation group sells tickets to various tours throughout the year in order to raise money. Jonathan and I toured Allegheny West during several of its Victorian Christmas-themed house tours. Jonathan’s parents joined us during several of these tours.

I personally cannot afford to live in this particular neighborhood. It’s directly across the river from downtown Pittsburgh. One year, one of the homeowners featured on the tour told our group that he walks to Pittsburgh Steeler games because he lives so close to Heinz Field. However, I enjoy seeing all of the loving work that the homeowners put into preserving these homes built in the 1800’s.

The houses featured on the Christmas house tours change each year. One year, the featured houses included the house photographed above – the one where Rinehart wrote “The Circular Staircase.”

So, that’s how Fran and I and our husbands got to tour the house.

Now that I’ve toured the North Side house, I can tell you that this particular house DOES NOT have its own circular staircase. We were told that a completely different house – a house somewhere in a rural area, a house where Rinehart stayed once on a vacation – possessed the circular staircase that inspired the novel.

Which begs the question:

Where is the haunted house with the circular staircase?

So, I have in my possession a self-published book titled “History of Old Allegheny Township, Westmoreland Co, PA From Prehistoric Times to c. 1875 Territory Comprising Present Day Allegheny Twp., Arnold, East Vandergrift, Hyde Park, Lower Burrell, New Kensington, Upper Burrell Twp., Vandergrift and West Leechburg” by Rev. Reid W. Stewart, Ph.D., Point Pleasant Ltd. Lower Burrell, PA 2005.

Just to clarify any confusion, the word “Allegheny” in reference to place names comes up A LOT in this blog post. The reference to “Old Allegheny Township, Westmoreland County” in this particular book title has NOTHING to do with the Allegheny West neighborhood of the North Side of Pittsburgh – except that both of these are on the Allegheny River. I wanted to clarify this because the North Side of Pittsburgh ALSO includes a section that was called “Old Allegheny” because, again, ALL of these are located on the Allegheny River. (Also, to make things even more confusing, the “Old Allegheny Township” referenced in the book title is in Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania. Pittsburgh, including the North Side where Rinehart lived, is along the Allegheny River in Allegheny County.)

Now, the North Side of Pittsburgh (in Allegheny County) – where Rinehart lived – is VERY CLOSE to what Pittsburghs call “The Point” – the Allegheny River’s confluence with the Monongahela River to form the Ohio River.

On the other hand, the geographic area referenced in this book title – Old Allegheny Township, Westmoreland Co, PA From Prehistoric Times to c. 1875 Territory Comprising Present Day Allegheny Twp., Arnold, East Vandergrift, Hyde Park, Lower Burrell, New Kensington, Upper Burrell Twp., Vandergrift and West Leechburg – is actually the area where I live. (Again, this is along the Allegheny River in Westmoreland County.) This referenced geographic area is a pretty large area. The places mentioned in this book title are approximately 20 – 40 miles UP RIVER from Pittsburgh’s North Side where Rinehart lived.

Jonathan and I live in New Kensington because this is where he grew up from the age of 12 onward. Fran – Jonathan’s mom – also grew up in New Kensington. This self-published book copy that I just referenced came from Fran. She lent this copy to me. Or, somebody gave this copy to me after she died and they cleaned out her book collection. Anyway, I have no idea where Fran acquired this copy of this book. Local fair? History talk? Booth at a parade?

Anyway, this history book includes a “Chapter 9 – Legends and Stories of the Area – Ancient and Modern.” The second story in this chapter cites a “local tradition” that a local mansion included “divided staircases” which inspired “The Circular Staircase.”

Per Stewart’s History of Old Allegheny Township, this house “stood toward the southern end of River Forest Golf Course.” Stewart noted that Duncan Karns built the mansion in the 1870’s. Stewart also noted that Rinehart wrote “The Circular Staircase” in 1908. The mansion later burned down. Per Stewart, Rinehart visited the house as a young woman.

This history book provided no citation for the claim except for “local tradition.”

In full disclosure, my sister-in-law – Fran’s daughter – got married at the banquet hall at River Forest. I pedaled past River Forest on a bike trail once. Also, Jonathan and I drive past it several times a month during each of the summer months. River Forest is near Freeport, PA. I had never heard of the former Duncan Karns mansion until I read this chapter in Stewart’s book. I figured out the approximate location of the Duncan Karns mansion based on my (limited) knowledge of River Forest. The site of the former mansion is near a four-lane highway and a major intersection. I mention all of this because – in my opinion, at least – the former Duncan Karns mansion does not live on in regional memory as a beloved landmark.

By the way, the site of the former Duncan Karns mansion is approximately 35 miles up the Allegheny River from the North Side of Pittsburgh where Rinehart lived.

This is the book that told me that the Duncan Karns mansion which stood near the present day River Forest Golf Course near Freeport, PA, was the inspiration for Mary Roberts Rinehart’s 1908 novel “The Circular Staircase.” This mansion later burned down.
This is the book that told me that the Duncan Karns mansion which stood near the present day River Forest Golf Course near Freeport, PA, was the inspiration for Mary Roberts Rinehart’s 1908 novel “The Circular Staircase.” This mansion later burned down.

Steward also claimed in his book that Duncan Karns never got to live in his mansion because he lost all of his money in speculation. So, if the Duncan Karns mansion wasn’t haunted, I guess that at the very least, it was cursed.

What does this all have to do with Confederate soldiers?

Well, here’s the thing. I wrote this blog post in April 2018 speculating on the “true” location of The Circular Staircase inspiration. I included much of the information that I just included here.

Crickets.

Yesterday, I received a comment on my blog post about the claim that the Duncan Karns mansion inspired “The Circular Staircase” from a “Mary.” Mary’s comment read in part:

This is not that house. Melrose Castle Estate in Casanova Northern Virginia is the house that inspired Sunnyside the haunted mansion in The Circular Stair.

Well, I had never before heard of Melrose Castle Estate. So, I Google researched the place. Here is part of my response to Mary’s comment:

I see that the Wikipedia entry for this structure claims that it inspired “The Circular Staircase.” Wikipedia includes the following source for this claim: Heincer, Amanda (May 24, 2017). “Historic castle for sale in Warrenton”. Fauquier Times. Retrieved 2018-10-13. However, the article as it is currently available online doesn’t actually provide any sources to cite this claim.

When I Googled this today, the first page of results include a link to this article on http://www.virginialiving.com. This article also claims that Melrose Castle is the inspiration for “The Circular Staircase.” But I don’t see any information in this article to back up that claim.

Per my quick Google research, it appears to me that Melrose Castle is in fact a beloved local landmark for the people of Casanova. I even located a Facebook page for “Fans of Melrose Castle.” I have a sibling who currently lives in Northern Virginia. Perhaps I will visit Casanova when I visit my sibling. Per my Google search, it doesn’t appear to me that Melrose Castle is currently open to the public. Do you know if the building is viewable (and photographable) from a public street?

In my reply to Mary, I listed two media sources that claimed (without citation) that Melrose Castle in Virginia is actually THE INSPIRATION for “The Circular Staircase.”

Here are the other claims that these two sources made for Melrose Castle:

Confederate Hospital during the Civil War

Union Headquarters during the Civil War

Home to a Large Angus Cattle Herd

Thoroughbred Horse Farm

Home of the Racehorse “Noble Quest, who won multiple French prix before being retired as a highly sought-after stud

Site of Many a Breakfast (Fancy Society Breakfasts, I Guess)

Site of Garden Tours

Site that Still Needs a “Final Phase of Renovation” (Note: Since I own and live in a house built in the 1890s’s, whenever I learn of an old house that “needs work,” I yearn to run screaming in the opposite direction.)

Home of William Weightman III, a “Polo Player” and also a Convicted Polygamist

So, it looks as if Melrose Castle in Northern Virginia, former home of the “Convicted Polygamist” William Weightman III, might have actually inspired Mary Roberts Rinehart to create her haunted house in “The Circular Staircase.”

Maybe MULTIPLE houses inspired Mary Roberts Rinehart. Finding the Muse is not a zero sum game.

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Since it’s almost my birthday, I’m going to end this blog post with a little rant. I really wish that the settlers who named everything for their settler maps hadn’t given everything the same name. I got exhausted just trying to explain the differences between all of the places that all had “Allegheny” in the title. Also, I grew up about 70 miles west of the Pittsburgh area in the Allegheny Mountains. My mom graduated from a community college that had a branch in our area (Somerset County, Pennsylvania) called Allegany College of Maryland (yes, different spelling), but there is also a very expensive, private liberal arts school called Allegheny College about 115 miles north of Pittsburgh.

Thanks for reading my blog!

Did the Jersey Devil Fly to Pennsylvania? Also, What is REAL Fame?

Sandhill Cranes. Moraine State Park, Butler County, Pennsylvania. October 10, 2020. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

The Jersey Devil is a mythological creature. Its origin story maintains that the Jersey Devil was the result of a 13th birth to a (human) colonial family in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey. The Jersey Devil terrorized the family (or killed the family, according to some versions of the tale). Then, it flew up the family’s chimney. People have reported it flying for hundreds of years now. Mostly in New Jersey, of course. However, at least one person reported seeing it in Pennsylvania, across the Delaware River.

This Cryptid also named a professional hockey team and inspired its mascot. I speak of the New Jersey Devils. I work in an office in Pittsburgh. My one manager – a Philadelphia-area native – sits directly across an aisle from me. He placed a pillow featuring the New Jersey Devils’ “devil” mascot on a shelf directly above his desk. I see that devil pillow every time that I look at his office’s glass front wall.

So, the locals adopted the Jersey Devil as a beloved part of their culture.

I listened to these podcasts about the Jersey Devil:

Episode 9:  A Devil on the Roof from the Lore podcast by Aaron Mahnke

Episode 314: The Jersey Devil from Last Podcast on the Left

(Just a warning that Last Podcast on the Left (LPOTL) includes adult language and content.)

I’ve read several books on folklore that include chapters or at least mention of the Jersey Devil. Depending on your source, you will read different things about the Jersey Devil.

Some of my sources speculate that people who reported seeing the Jersey Devil actually saw a sandhill crane. That’s why I included at the top of this blog post a photo of two sandhill cranes. Here’s another photo of the same pair of sandhill cranes:

Sandhill Cranes. Moraine State Park, Butler County, Pennsylvania. October 10, 2020. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

I took these particular photos in October 2020 from a kayak on Lake Arthur at Moraine State Park in Western Pennsylvania. The park sits about 90 miles south of PA’s Lake Erie shoreline. When I took my photos of these birds, the birds ate in the wetlands at the lake’s edge. I made a lot of noise. The birds ate. They did not flee from me. They just ate. I took these photos during the same week that I read that biologists anticipated significant numbers of migratory birds to fly south for the winter. I am under the impression (I am NOT a scientist) that these birds stopped at Lake Arthur to feed during a migration from somewhere on the Great Lakes to somewhere south.

Here is a different set of sandhill cranes that I saw on an island of Lake Huron in Northern Michigan in August 2020:

Sandhill Cranes. Drummond Island. Lake Huron. Northern Michigan. August 2020. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

I’ve established what sandhill cranes look like. My crane photos are all from the Great Lakes region. However, from what I understand (again, I am NOT a scientist), sandhill cranes have a range that includes other areas of North America.

Was the New Jersey Devil actually a “Pennsylvania” Sandhill Crane?

Also, what does it actually take to be famous through the ages?

I blogged about American Naval hero Stephen Decatur a few days ago. He defeated pirates. He won a Medal of Honor. He married a socially elite woman. He and his wife were an early 1800’s power couple! He lived in a mansion near the White House. He seconded Oliver Hazard Perry in a duel. He then died in a duel himself. A bunch of people who were born before the American Civil War were named after him.

And – he (allegedly) saw the Jersey Devil while he was testing cannons for the United States military. He (allegedly) fired a cannonball at the poor creature.

And – for me – the whole Jersey Devil story is what convinced me that Stephen Decatur will not be forgotten in America. He was famous enough to be linked in folklore to a beloved American figure – the Jersey Devil.

Just for the record, several sources that I consumed also linked Napoleon’s brother, Joseph, to a Jersey Devil sighting. Joseph Bonaparte used to be the King of Spain. After Napoleon’s defeat, Joseph had to move to New Jersey. The Canadian band Moxy Früvous has a song titled King of Spain that begins with the lyrics “Once I was the King of Spain, now I eat humble pie.” The song’s lyrics include mention of employment in a North American pizzaria. I personally think that the song is a dig at Joseph Bonaparte – the former King of Spain who had to move to Jersey, and then went down in folklore for his alleged run-in with the Jersey Devil.

Remastered: When Duelers Sailed the Great Lakes

US Brig Niagara. Sailing from Lake Erie to Port of Erie, Pennsylvania. Photo taken from Presque Isle State Park. (Photo taken in 2010’s. Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

Updated July 1, 2021

My blog’s most popular post is about the time that Jonathan and I accidentally sailed into Misery Bay off of Presque Isle State Park in Erie, Pennsylvania.

Presque Isle State Park now features a monument to the War of 1812’s American naval hero Oliver Hazard Perry. The monument at the end of a little peninsula sits next to Misery Bay. In fact, when my husband and I sail, we try to use the Perry Monument as a landmark to prevent ourselves from sailing into Misery Bay.

Here is a photo that I took on my iPhone of the Perry Monument on Columbus Day Weekend in 2019. An organization associated with the National Guard decorated the monument minutes before I took the photo.

iPhone photo. Perry Monument, Presque Isle State Park, Erie, Pennsylvania. Circa October 14, 2019.

I took an interest in the Perry Monument that sits next to Misery Bay when I visited Erie for the very first time around the age of 10 or so. I was actually born in Perry County in Central Pennsylvania. I lived there for the first seven years of my life. So, after we moved to Western Pennsylvania, I was very excited to see a monument dedicated to the namesake of my original home. I had my parents take a photo of me standing next to the monument. On this same trip, I took a pontoon boat tour offered through Presque Isle State Park. I learned about the folklore surrounding Oliver Hazard Perry and his experiences with Misery Bay and Graveyard Pond during the War of 1812.

Here’s what I didn’t learn on this boat tour:

Some of the American Naval heros of the War of 1812 era – including men who sailed the Great Lakes – dueled. Some of them died in duels.

I learned this much later by reading Wikipedia. So, I trust that Wikipedia and many published books about U.S. Naval history will satisfy you much more on the particular details of this subject than I can in a 1,000 word (or whatever) blog post.

But for example: In 1818, Oliver Hazard Perry fought in a duel. He and his opponent survived. However, Perry chose for his “second” a man who actually did die in his own duel just a few years later. That man was Stephen Decatur.

I don’t remember learning about Stephen Decatur in school. However, I don’t remember a lot of things from my U.S. History classes, even though it was my favorite subject.

I liked to read biographies of famous people from the American Civil War. I noted that a lot of the biographies mentioned various other people who had the first and last name of “Stephen Decatur.” For instance, the writer Mary Chesnut’s father was Stephen Decatur Miller. A bunch of other famous people from the early 1800’s had relatives or acquaintances named “Stephen Decatur This” or “Stephen Decatur That.”

I thought, “This Stephen Decatur guy must be pretty special if a whole bunch of people named their kids after him before the Civil War happened.

So, I looked up Stephen Decatur on Wikipedia. I learned that he – and his fellow Naval officer Oliver Hazard Perry – and a bunch of their other fellow officers got themselves into duels. Often.

So many duels happened before the Civil War, that the Washington elite journeyed to a designated dueling grounds (the Bladensburg Dueling Grounds in Maryland). In fact, I learned from Wikipedia that Francis Scott Key’s son, Daniel, died after a duel that started over a dispute about the speed of a boat.

Stephen Decatur served as an officer in the United States Navy from 1798 – 1820. I’ll make this quick because anyone can just read all of this on Wikipedia. Decatur fought pirates along the Barbary Coast of North Africa. He witnessed his own brother, James’s, burial at sea. He earned a Medal of Honor.

Here’s an example of how highly folks regarded Decatur: I listened to  Episode 9:  A Devil on the Roof from the Lore podcast by Aaron Mahnke.  This episode told the myth of the Jersey Devil in New Jersey’s Pine Barrens. According to the folklore, Decatur saw the Jersey  Devil as he tested cannon balls in Burlington, New Jersey. The legend maintains that Decatur fired a cannon at the Jersey Devil but that the Jersey Devil flew away. This myth implies to me that if such a decorated hero as Decatur saw and reacted to the Jersey Devil, then us common folk should believe that the Jersey Devil actually existed.

I don’t know if Decatur actually saw the Jersey Devil and fired a cannon at it.

However, in 1818 Decatur did actually build his residence in Lafayette Square in Washington, a very short walk from the White House. Before this, Decatur married Susan Wheeler. I am very much under the impression that his bride was from the most well-connected tier of American society. (Aaron Burr and also Napoleon’s brother allegedly attempted to court her.) Decatur and Susan entertained the elite in their gorgeous Lafayette Square home. (In fact, you can still visit this “Historic Decatur House.”)

So, after all of the struggle and success, Stephen Decatur agreed to duel another Naval officer, James Barron, in 1820. Decatur shot Barron. Barron shot Decatur. Decatur died at the age of 41. Barron survived for several more decades.

Dueling declined after the American Civil War. I learned on Wikipedia that the last Bladensburg duel occurred in the late 1860’s. I read in a book of Maryland folklore that a suburban housing development now sits on most of Bladensburg’s “dueling grounds.”

I reworked this blog post because later this year I want to blog about that time that Stephen Decatur allegedly saw the Jersey Devil and tried to kill it. So, here’s some context about Stephen Decatur’s fame in the 1800’s. He, and Oliver Hazard Perry, and others were America’s heros. They sailed the Great Lakes in the 1800’s. Some of them also dueled – at great personal cost.