Hauntings At The Hoyt Museum in Western Pennsylvania

This looks like a job for Scooby Doo and the Meddling Kids who travel in the Mystery Machine!

I’ve blogged in the past about my favorite spooky podcasts. In fact, here’s my most updated list of 13 Haunted History Podcasts.

My list included Snap Judgement Presents: Spooked. Now, WNYC studios presented the podcast Snap Judgement. WNYC and Snap Judgement originally introduced Spooked to me. That’s why I included the NPR link here.

Spooked later moved to a subscriber-only model on Luminary. However, Luminary occasionally releases former subscriber-only episodes to the public.

My iTunes and Spotify profiles both advised me that Spooked JUST released to the public a former subscriber-only episode titled “Fright At The Museum.” The episode detailed a former museum intern’s allegedly true experiences with ghosts at a museum which she referred to as The Hoyt.

I Googled “The Hoyt” and its alleged ghosts “Alexander Hoyt” and and “May Emma Hoyt” and I discovered that The Hoyt is actually the Hoyt Art Center in New Castle, Pennsylvania.

New Castle is north of Pittsburgh and south of Erie in Western Pennsylvania. If you like to shop at outlet malls, note that New Castle is 16 miles south of the outlet mall in Grove City.

Through this podcast and my Google research, I learned that The Hoyt’s physical location consists of the two adjacent, century-old mansions once occupied by the siblings May Emma and Alexander.

May Emma allegedly lived a Roaring Twenties lifestyle not approved by Alexander. Alexander allegedly burned May Emma’s prized possessions after she died. Hence the ghost stories.

I learned that only very recently did preservationists undertake a major restoration project at The Hoyt. Restoration continues.

I understand. Jonathan and I live in a house built in the 1890’s. Restoration continues at our establishment as well. In fact, I soon hope to blog about a major project at our house!

Once upon a time, I myself worked as a “sort of” intern at an old building-turned-art center in a recovering Rust Belt town. I worked as the “Events Coordinator” at the Bottleworks Ethnic Arts Center in the Cambria City neighborhood of Johnstown. (My placement came from participation in Americorps / Pennsylvania Mountain Service Corps/ PMSC.) The Bottleworks occupied (still occupies) a former bottle factory – hence the name. I never encountered any ghosts at Bottleworks, though. Maybe I just didn’t pay enough attention.

That Time When I Almost Cut Off My Finger

Thank you to everybody who read last week’s blog post. An extra thank you to everybody who reached out to me after I posted it.

I forgot a pretty major part of last week’s story about my struggle to learn about photography.

I forgot to tell you about how I almost cut off my finger.

In last week’s blog post, I mentioned that I took a course on photojournalism during my final semester of college.

I NEEDED to pass this class in order to graduate. Saint Vincent required this class to graduate with a degree in Communications. Also, Saint Vincent charged tuition by the credit back then. I purposely took the absolute bare number of credits that I needed in order to graduate in order to reduce my student debt. So, I needed the three credits from this photojournalism class just to meet the minimum credit requirements for a bachelor’s degree – any bachelor’s degree.

I had a pretty eventful final semester of college. My youngest sibling was born less than two months before I graduated from college. (March 20, so happy belated birthday, Little Sister.) Now, my parents had FIVE children, not four children. I am the oldest of their five children. I absolutely could not just move back home with my parents for the next year or two until I found a well-paying job.

I worried about the photojournalism class until it made me sick. I KNEW that I would fail the class and NOT graduate on time.

Anyway, for our final photography project, we had to crop our photos and mat them for an exhibit to be held during finals week in Saint Vincent’s student union, which we called “The Shack.”

We held at least one workshop during class time to mat our photos. We each purchased Exacto knives and photography mats ahead of time.

Now, I will out myself about what a big idiot I can be. I don’t have a very good track record with knives. When I was a kid, my dad gave me my very first Swiss Army Knife. The VERY NEXT MORNING, I watched a videotape of the musical “The Sound of Music” as I played with my new knife. I closed the knife on my hand. I cut myself. I didn’t show my parents. They would take my knife away from me. I just grabbed a paper towel from the kitchen and pressed it against my bloody hand as I continued to watch “The Sound of Music.” I quietly waited for my hand to heal.

Apparently, I didn’t get any better with knife safety after I became a legal adult. I screwed up an entire bulk foil package of ketchup when I worked at Wendy’s (next to the PA Turnpike in Somerset) the same month that I turned 18. I was supposed to cut it out of a cardboard box with a box knife. I used the box knife to slice through the bulk ketchup’s foil container instead. The manager was pissed. She had me transfer all of the ketchup to another container so that most of it could be saved. I kept my job because apparently Wendy’s Next to the Turnpike desperately needed employees.

Anyway. I know – NOW – that I must never, ever, ever cut towards myself when I cut something with a knife.

I apparently did not know this when I was a final-semester college senior.

I cut towards myself with the Exacto knife.

I sliced through the tip and side of one of my fingers.

As soon as I cut myself, I knew that it was bad. I sliced though the top of my finger and along the side a bit.

My finger bled.

I ran out of the classroom without speaking to anybody.

My dorm was connected by a walkway with the room where we held the photography mat workshop. The workshop was on the same level as the walkway, as was my dorm room.

I ran into the hallway of my dorm and showed my finger to my very good friend, “Saoirse.”

Saoirse said, “I’m driving you to the hospital.”

Saoirse drove me to the Emergency Room at the hospital in Latrobe.

We got to the ER. We arrived at pretty much the same time as a woman who came into the ER on a stretcher.

The medics said that the woman had just gotten hit by a car.

The woman said, “I can’t feel my legs.”

The ER triaged me ahead of the woman who got hit by a car.

That’s right. I cut myself. At the hospital, I got to cut the line ahead of a woman who got hit by a car.

The ER sewed my finger back together. My finger eventually healed, just like my hand eventually healed that time that I closed a Swiss Army Knife on it.

Nobody in my photography class realized that I cut myself. Not the instructor. Nobody.

I returned to the classroom later that day and picked up the rest of my stuff. It was all still there. Even all of my photography workshop stuff. It was all exactly how I left it. Including the Exacto knife.

I got a B in the photojournalism class. I don’t know how that happened, because my final project looked pretty terrible.

I will forever be greatful to Saoirse for driving me to the ER that day. Saoirse, if you are reading this, thank you.

After this incident, I dreaded ever matting anything again. So, maybe my fear and anxiety of photography actually all came from the day that I almost cut off my finger.

Years later, my husband Jonathan walked me through how to properly mount a photo – you know, how to do it without ending up in the ER. He helped me to mat a photo that I actually like for an exhibit that I actually wanted to enter.

So, maybe my key take-aways from this story is that I have a gem of a friend in Saoirse and I have a gem of a husband in Jonathan.

Also, be careful with knives.

Photography Blog Confession

Here is a photo that I took of my husband taking a photo at Phipps Conservatory

I enjoy spending significant amounts of time in pursuit of a skill that other people had already written me off as unable to learn.

I’m talking about photography here.

Just as a background, I have a strabismus. I can’t see out of both of my eyes at the same time. I don’t remember ever being able to see out of both of my eyes at the same time, so perhaps I was born this way. I don’t know. However, in kindergarten or the first grade, I had a lot of trouble learning how to read. We had to sit at tables with other kids in our class, and take turns trying to read words. Then, we all got moved to tables based on which words we could read.

I got moved to the table with all of the rest of the kids who couldn’t read any of the words.

I resented my classmates who were moved to the tables with the kids who COULD read words. I thought, “Oh, hey, I bet that they think that they are better than me!”

Then, when the teacher tried to teach me how to read, I got pounding headaches. I got sent home on more than one instance due to my headaches.

My mom took me to my very first of many eye doctor appointments. The doctor determined that I had trouble with my vision.

(One time that I was in college, I told this story to some of my friends. They told me that this was the plot of a “Little House on the Prairie” television episode. Well, that may have been the case, but it also happened to me in real life.)

At the age of six, I ended up with my first pair of bifocals. At this point in my life, my mom also drove me an hour or so on several occasions to that I could visit a specialist in regards to my strabismus. Since we lived in the middle of nowhere, these visits to the specialist were a major trip for me. During each visit, I had to do eye exercises that involved trying to focus on an object tied to a string.

(I know a lot of parents who brag that their four-year-old child can read. If you are one of those parents, good for you! I could NOT read when I was four years old. When I was six, I had to sit at the table with all of the other kids who couldn’t read. And look how I ended up. Tomorr0w – March 18 – is the third year anniversary of my blog here.)

I’ve seen it suggested on the internet that Hitler and various serial killers such as H.H. Holmes had strabismuses. (Strabismi?) Well, I have one as well, and I haven’t killed anybody yet.

(Also, in the past five years, I visited a new optometrist AND a new PCP, and they both asked me whether I could actually see out of both eyes. Then I had to explain to both of them that I visited a specialist for my strabismus when I was younger, but that I still can’t see out of both of my eyes at the same time, and I have to switch back and forth.)

I mention all of this because I still struggle with my depth perception.

I mean, I can drive a car and dress myself. However, my depth perception issues frustrate me in learning new skills such as, you know, photography.

So, I didn’t really learn much about photography when I was a kid because I’m old and there was a larger barrier to entry back then in regards to equipment and technology. Smartphone with cameras weren’t a thing. Neither were DSLR’s. We had point-and-shoot cameras that required film in our house. However, my parents had four kids at that time. (It was later five kids because my youngest sibling was born when I was in college.) Camera film was expensive, and so was the cost of having photos developed. So, for instance, if I wasted an entire roll of film trying to photograph an inanimate object in an artsy way and then my mom paid to have the film developed, she wasn’t very happy to get the photos back from the developer and discover that an entire package of newly developed photos were just of the sky or a tree or a building. If I wanted to take a photo, it should be of a person or people, and they should be photographed head-on as they posed.

I had access to ONE film camera that wasn’t a point-and-shoot when I was in high school. It was the camera that belonged to the school newspaper, and I wrote for the school newspaper in 12th grade. However, I didn’t understand how any of the settings worked on this camera, so I happily passed all of the photography duties off on a classmate who actually knew how to use the camera.

So, anyway, fast-forward to my years at Saint Vincent College. I switched my major from accounting to Communication Arts, but my heart wasn’t in it because multiple people had made it very clear to me that I was destined to work at Wal-Mart for the rest of my life. (I DID work at Wal-Mart after college – for three months! Then, I moved on to something else. I ended up finding better-paying jobs. Majoring in something “unworthy” is NOT a moral failing that automatically consigns one to a lifetime of being a Victorian chimney sweep or something.)

So, my heart wasn’t really in my Communications classes because multiple people told me that I wouldn’t be able to succeed in the field. Saint Vincent College’s poor quality video equipment also frustrated me.

Looking back, I’m sure that my history of depth perception problems also caused me trouble with the one or two college video classes that I took. This didn’t occur to me at that time, though. I got B’s in video production, and I was more than happy to just take my B’s and just forget about the shame that I felt at struggling with all of it.

Anyway, for my final semester in college, I took my only still photography college class, which was called “Photojournalism” and was cross listed in the course catalogue for both Communications and English. It was required for my degree program. I had to pass this course in order to graduate. I didn’t have any background in still photography and the only camera that I owned at that time was a point-and-shoot. I didn’t understand still photography or camera use very well. I felt that the instructor was frustrated with me the entire time. I honestly worried all semester that I would fail the class and that I would not be allowed to graduate or walk at the end of the semester.

I finished this photography class with a B. I’m not at all sure how I got a B in the class. My final project was total crap. I think that the instructor just wanted to get me out of his hair.

So, as a result of these college experiences, I left school with a very bad taste in my mouth for video and still photography.

I ended up working in the financial services industry instead. I didn’t do anything creative for several years after college because I was made to understand that creativity didn’t pay the bills. And the people who told me this were right to tell me this. I still work in financial services. I can afford camera and blogging equipment now because I work in financial services.

I eventually met and married Jonathan Woytek. Jonathan enjoyed photography when he was in high school and college. He took photos for his high school yearbook. He drifted away from it. Then, on the way to our honeymoon in South Carolina, we drove off of the interstate at a very specific shopping center in North Carolina because Jonathan had learned that this shopping center included a very specific camera store. You see, Jonathan’s Best Man gave him wedding gift money specifically to use for the purchase of a new camera. Jonathan bought that camera on the way to our honeymoon.

Jonathan restarted his own love for photography.

A few years after this, I became interested in blogging. I told Jonathan that one of the things that I didn’t like about other people’s blogs were poor quality photos. Jonathan told me that if I wanted to create a decent blog myself, then I would have to learn how to create my own photos for it.

Then, Jonathan spent hours giving me photography lessons. We had to start pretty much from scratch because I had such a bad taste in my mouth with my prior experience trying to do photography. I cried more than once when Jonathan tried to get me to understand such concepts as Depth of Field.

Now, I might not be the best photographer in New Kensington or even in my own household. However, I consider it to be a very big accomplishment for me to go from “I don’t think that I am going to graduate from college because I can’t figure out this photography thing and I can tell that the instructor hates having to explain things to me,” to this: Last summer, my dad’s neighbor got socially-distanced married, and I took a photo of the bridal party’s socially-distanced car parade as it drove through my rural hometown. I emailed the photo to my aunt because she went to the same church as the bride, and a few weeks after this, I learned that MY photo had appeared in my childhood home county’s only daily newspaper as a “Photo of the Week.” Somebody had decided that MY photo was good enough to forward on to my childhood hometown newspaper.

Now, I mentioned that in the past, one of my barriers to entry to photography was my lack of equipment and technology. I have a lot more resources now. Heck, I use a program called Lightroom to straighten every single photo that I take because all of my photos are crooked when they come off of my camera’s memory card. (See above re: strabismus.) But I would argue that it’s pretty snobby to suggest that I shouldn’t enjoy or work on a discipline just because I need specific equipment in order to do it now. Ever since the 1800’s, photographers have taken advantage of the most high tech equipment to which they personally had access at that time.

I say all this, because I was thinking about all of the times in my life when I have observed people shutting other people down in particular disciplines. I thought about all of the times when somebody told me that I “wasn’t any good” at a skill, so I stopped trying to be good at the skill. I thought of the times when I observed the same thing happening to other people.

Heck, I STILL remember that time when I was six years and I had to go sit at the table with all of the other kids who couldn’t read. This ceased to be a problem shortly after I got my first pair of glasses. So, now I feel terrible if I ever made any of my classmates feel this same way. I hope that I didn’t shut down any of my classmates for trying to get better at school themselves.

I wrote this post because I wanted to share my experience about how I believed for YEARS that I was really terrible at a particular discipline, and that I would never improve at it, but now that I have fewer barriers to entry, I really enjoy this discipline as a hobby. I will probably never make a living doing photography. However, photography and blogging (and going on long walks to find things to blog and write about) significantly helped me get through my mom’s death in 2018 and also the past year of Covid-19 stress.

Happy third-year blog anniversary to me.

My Love Letter to Telegraph Operators and Their Heartbreaking Tragedies

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alter was born in 1871 in Pittsburgh.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THIS IS MY LAST MESSAGE

The story haunted me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What I’ve Learned About Spooky Tours

I’ve posted on Facebook and on this blog about the virtual tours and livestream lectures about ghosts, true crime, and cemeteries that I enjoyed since March. However, I wanted to put my main thoughts together in one place. I picked up some ideas that I think can be useful to very local history and tourism groups.

I’m going to start off with American Hauntings. American Hauntings is the blanket name for a business owned by Troy Taylor and Lisa Taylor Horton. When I first discovered American Hauntings, the operation included ghost tours, true crime tours, ghost hunts, in-person “Evening with” catered dinner experiences, and books.

In 20017, I went on a search for new podcasts about the paranormal, specifically related to American history. I listen to several hours of podcasts each week. I am very picky about allowing new podcasts into my listening schedule. If a podcast host sounds as if he or she didn’t bother to research anything beyond a one minute Google search, or if the host shoots the breeze for several minutes at the beginning of each episode, then I almost always shut off the podcast.

So one morning in 2017, I waited for the bus and discovered Season #1 of American Hauntings, hosted by Troy Taylor and Cody Beck. I was hooked.

American Hauntings the podcast didn’t include advertisements for anything except for other American Hauntings products and services. Part way through each episode, Troy plugged the tickets for his in-person experiences.

The “Evening with” dinners that Troy promoted intrigued me. The approximately $50 per person ticket price for these included a catered meal at the Mysterious Mineral Springs Hotel in Alton Illinois, followed by a live lecture given by Troy on that night’s topic. However, I live outside of Pittsburgh, so I don’t think that I will ever make it to Alton for an in-person “Evening with” dinner.

Then, in March 2020, most of the governors of most of the states shut down everything fun. This included the in-person American Hauntings tours, ghost hunts, and in-person “Evening with” dinners. Troy began to post livestreams every Friday night on his Troy Taylor Facebook page. Sometimes he gave lectures about topics that are not included in his “Evening with” dinner talks. (For instance, one night he spoke on Facebook about the time that grave robbers attempted to steal Abraham Lincoln’s body.) Sometimes he held Q&A sessions about the many topics that American Hauntings covers. In each livestream, he promoted the sale of his books (he offered a Shelter in Place discount) and advanced bookings on his in-person experiences when they resumed. He added a virtual tip jar for viewers who chose to tip him for the livestream entertainment. When he had to cancel the June 2020 Haunted America Conference, he sold tee shirts to offset the costs that he had already incurred for it.

Then Troy made an announcement that made me very happy. He scheduled several of his most popular “Evening with” dinner talks as Zoom lectures. I could pay $13 to receive a log-on link to a live “Evening with” dinner talk over Zoom.

I listened to three of Troy’s Zoom “Evening with” talks so far. I made sure to have in my house food and drink that I enjoyed so that I could pretend that I was eating a catered dinner at the Mysterious Mineral Springs Hotel during the lectures. The Zoom participants all have the option of shutting off their own computer’s camera or leaving it on. So, when I participated in these talks, I could see who some of the other participants were. We could chat with each other during the talk using Zoom’s chat function. At the end of the talk, Troy answered questions from the Zoom audience.

So, these are my observations of how American Hauntings handled the Shelter in Place order and the Covid-19 “quarantine.”

However, even the American Hauntings company didn’t produce enough podcast and video content to keep me entertained from March 15 until now. So, I searched the internet for other virtual tourist experiences that I would enjoy.

I purchased the Virtual 360 degree tour from the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, CA. If I ever make it to see the house in person, I know which rooms I want to focus my attention.

I typed something like “Chicago” and “virtual tours” into the Facebook search function because I visited Chicago once for a week as a tourist and I enjoyed the trip. I discovered the Facebook page for Mysterious Chicago, owned by Adam Selzer. This guide gave in-person tours up until mid-March. He also wrote several books, including such topics as ghosts, H.H. Holmes, Roaring Twenties true crime, and Abraham Lincoln.

As of now (July 12), several other Chicago tour companies have restarted their in-person tours. However, Mysterious Chicago has not done this. Instead, Mysterious Chicago posts virtual tours multiple times each week on Facebook. It’s free to watch these on Facebook, but each tour includes information about how to donate to a virtual tip jar. There’s also a Patreon page for Mysterious Chicago, but I have not subscribed to it. I watched every Mysterious Chicago video posted to Facebook.

Here’s where I compare American Hauntings to Mysterious Chicago.

All of the American Hauntings livestreams and “Evening With” Zoom presentations that I watched consisted of Troy sitting in his spooky-looking American Hauntings office. In these presentations, I saw in the background lighted candles, the books that Troy wrote, and fake (I hope!) skulls. He shared his computer screen, onto which he pulled up photos of the people and places mentioned in his presentation. His partner, Lisa Taylor Horton, joined all of the Zoom presentations. Lisa handed all of the requests for technical assistance. Lisa also moderated the Q&A sessions at the end of each Zoom presentation. It was clear from watching the presentations that Troy and Lisa were either in separate rooms or separate buildings.

Everything that I watched from Mysterious Chicago came from Facebook. No Zoom. These tours happened several different ways:

1.) Some of the tours were real-time cemetery tours, taking all social distancing precautions including the use of a face mask. These tours happened at times when there were no or else very few other people around.

2.) Some of the tours were real-time tours on the streets of Chicago, taking all social distancing precautions including the use of a face mask. These tours happened at times when there were very few other people around.

3.) Most of the tours took place completely in Adam Selzer’s living room. He didn’t wear a face mask during these tours. He shared pre-recorded video footage during these tours. He also shared photos – something that he wasn’t able to share during his live tours.

(To be clear, Adam Selzer made a point of taping footage of himself wearing the face mask while he was outside traversing the Chicago cemeteries and streets.)

Finally, I watched three virtual tours of New Orleans narrated by long time New Orleans tour guide Alexander Addams. (He said, “I have been doing this for many, many – God knows – many years.”) I found two of these videos under the Facebook page for Crawl New Orleans, and I found the third video under the Facebook page for Crawl USA. These were three completely different video tours by the same guide. I’m not sure why they were on different Facebook pages. Oh, well. I very much enjoyed all of these tours.

Just like the companies mentioned above, Crawl New Orleans used photos and pre-recorded video footage. However, unlike the other two, Crawl New Orleans also had video footage recorded from the air. That was very cool. There was a link to a tip jar. The tour guide encouraged viewers to book in-person tours with Crawl New Orleans once the Covid-19 restrictions had ended. He even provided a code for 20% off all tours: CORONA.

Here’s why I took such an interest in this: in the past, I purchased tickets for tours of local cemeteries and historic neighborhoods. Almost all of these tours were put on by local civic groups and staffed by volunteers. These tours raised funds in order to maintain and preserve said cemeteries and neighborhoods. For instance, one of these cemeteries held tours every October in order to raise enough money to pay somebody to mow the grass. This was the very cemetery which included the graves of that community’s founder and his entire family. I wonder how many of these tours will be able to continue in this era of Covid-19.

I’m not personally involved with any of these civic groups. However, I think that maybe some of these groups will be able to continue their tour fundraising efforts by taking them online. For instance, a member of said group could go out alone and take the video footage needed for the tour. Then, they could put the footage up on a free Facebook livestream. Viewers would be asked to donate to a virtual tip jar for the benefit of this organization.

Well, that’s just my suggestion. Off to watch more ghost and true crime tours.

Quarantine Podcast

Historic Downtown Fredericksburg, Virginia. November 2011. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

Yesterday, I viewed an online training session. The host joked that “everybody” is now producing “quarantine podcasts” since most of us are now living under “Shelter in Place” orders.

Now, I received podcasting equipment for Christmas a year and a half ago. I haven’t used it as much as I had hoped. So, I’m going to take another shot at creating a podcast series about folklore and history, mainly in Western Pennsylvania.

So, this new series will be my personal “quarantine podcast.”

I don’t expect to make any money from my upcoming podcast. I’m not trying to take anything away from the people who already create podcasts – or give ghost tours – as their bread and butter. I’m just working on this to have a little bit of fun. So please be kind when I finally post an episode.

(If you get all snarky about me anyway, then I guess that I deserve it.)

In the meantime, here is a virtual flower show for you to enjoy.

Magnolia Tree. University of Pittsburgh Student Union. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. March 31, 2016. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

Here is a photo of my husband Jonathan taking a photo at Phipps Conservatory, Pittsburgh:

Phipps Conservatory, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

Here is another photo from Phipps Conservatory:

Phipps Conservatory, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. April 2015. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

Here are some photos that I took when I visited Longwood Gardens during a rainstorm and a flood warning:

Longwood Gardens, Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. June 2015. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)
Longwood Gardens, Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. June 2015. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)
Longwood Gardens, Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. June 2015. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)
Longwood Gardens, Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. June 2015. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

Patient Zero

Phipps Conservatory, Pittsburgh, PA. February, 2020. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

Phipps Conservatory in Pittsburgh just ended a show themed on outer space. I laid on the floor underneath an exhibit there and took the above photo. This exhibit represented one of the ringed planets: Saturn, Jupiter, Uranus, and Neptune.

I just learned by reading the website for History (formerly The History Channel) that allegedly at one time, scholars from the University of Paris claimed that on March 20, 1345, the planets of Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars lined up in a specific way to create the Black Death (Bubonic Plague).

My sister O. celebrates her birthday on March 20. So, now I can tease her about this.

My other sister, K., got me attached to an NPR podcast called Radiolab. Radiolab used to focus on science and technology. I recommend the episode from November 14, 2011, titled Patient Zero. The episode began with the story of Typhoid Mary, and then explored the identity of Patient Zero from the AIDS epidemic.

(The term “Patient Zero” referred to the index case or initial patient in an infectious disease outbreak.)

If you want some humor when you listen to podcasts about infectious diseases, check out Episode #105 of the true crime comedy podcast, My Favorite Murder. The second half of this explores Typhoid Mary.

Absolute Best History Podcasts

Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. November 10, 2019. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

Here are my absolute favorite history podcasts. These are the podcasts to which I re-listen to episodes.

I, personally, download podcasts from iTunes. However, I linked to each podcast’s website.

1.) Uncivil, from Gimlet Media, hosted by Jack Hitt and Chenjerai Kumanyika

I blogged about this Civil War podcast a few months ago. Each episode discussed stories and events that aren’t part of the common Civil War narrative. For instance, one episode taught me about female soldiers who enlisted in the army as men. Many of the episodes featured stories and events involving African Americans.

I complained about this podcast last year because Season #1 ended with no announcement and Gimlet said nothing about the status of Season #2.

2.) American Hauntings Podcast by Troy Taylor and Cody Beck

I included American Hauntings because the podcast actually taught me more about history then it did about the supernatural.

I posted about American Hauntings last month. Co-host Cody Beck commented on my post! Thanks, Cody!

Season #4 is Haunted New Orleans! I learned that Jean Lafitte the pirate might actually have NO actual connection to the building known as “Lafitte’s” Blacksmith Shop Bar. That the most graphic stories about Madame LaLaurie’s mansion may be fiction. (Though the LaLaurie family’s brutal cruelty towards their enslaved servants DID happen.) I learned about “quadroon balls.”

I even learned that Nicholas Cage (who also owned the LaLaurie Mansion) purchased for himself a pyramid-shaped tomb in New Orleans’ St. Louis Cemetery No. 1!

The entire first season highlighted Alton, Illinois. I didn’t even know that Alton existed until I found American Hauntings. I learned that Alton competed economically with St. Louis. It hosted a Civil War Prison AND a tuberculosis sanitarium. A LOT of people died horrible deaths in Alton.

I learned that an abolitionist named Elijah Lovejoy ran a printing press in St. Louis. Three angry mobs destroyed Lovejoy’s printing press three separate times. Lovejoy moved to Alton, Illinois and bought yet another printing press.  A FOURTH angry mob, this time in Alton, destroyed Lovejoy’s fourth printing press. Also, the fourth angry mob shot and killed Lovejoy.

The Season #2 taught me about St. Louis, Missouri. Season #2 included a multi-episode feature on the Lemp brewing family. I learned that the most atrocious stories about the Lemps did NOT happen! (There is NO record that the young boy known as “Zeke” Lemp actually existed. Charles Lemp DIDN’T kill his dog. Lillian Lemp AKA “the Lavender Lady” DID face a child custody challenge from her ex-husband after she wore trousers in a photo.)

The audio quality of the episodes in the middle of the first season was not great. However, the audio quality improved greatly in Season #2.

Season #3, titled Murdered in Their Beds, covered the string of midwestern ax murders (including Villisca) that occurred at the turn of the last century. This was my least favorite season.

3.) Southern Gothic by Brandon Schexnayder

Each episode explored a dark historical event, place, or folklore tale from American Southern history.

I included Southern Gothic on this list because the host did advise when folklore did not match historical records. For example, in the episode about the Myrtles Plantation, the host noted that dates on the local death records do not match the storyline involved with the plantation’s most famous ghost story. (Troy Taylor mentioned this same thing during an episode of American Hauntings.)

Extremely Rich People in Alcohol Caves

A cave / railroad tunnel. NOT a wine cave or a beer cave!
An abandoned railroad tunnel. NOT a wine cave or a beer cave!

This week, I learned about modern-day billionaires in wine caves.

Last year, I learned about the 19th century Lemp family in St. Louis, Missouri. This family owned a brewery empire. They integrated caves into their beer making process. They also entertained and socialized in a cave.

I learned about the Lemp family and their caves on Season 2, Episodes 6 – 11 of the American Hauntings podcast. Be sure to check out the second episode in this Lemp series (Season 2, Episode 7 on the website) to learn about the Lemp caves. Here is the podcast, hosted by Troy Taylor and Cody Beck. Just type “Lemp” into the search bar.

Gimlet Media: Dark Podcasts that End Abruptly

I listen to podcasts from Gimlet Media on this iPhone. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

Someone told my dad that I write a lot of dark stuff on my blog. So here’s another blog post about the dark podcasts that I enjoy.

This is about Gimlet Media’s dark podcasts that end abruptly.

Here’s my prior blog post about Gimlet Media. Here’s my recap:

I discovered podcasts in late 2014, when my sisters convinced me to listen to “Serial,” hosted by Sarah Koenig. This American Life released Serial in fall 2014.

Then, a former producer for “This American Life,” Alex Blumberg, co-founded his own podcast company, Gimlet Media, in August 2014.

Blumberg didn’t work on “Serial,” and Gimlet Media and its podcasts are actually competitors to “This American Life.” However, after I ran out of “Serial” podcast episodes, my sisters introduced me to the podcasts produced by Gimlet Media. I spent hours listening to Gimlet Media podcasts since early 2015.

I followed several Gimlet podcasts that just ended abruptly. Where did these podcasts go? I saw no notes on social media or on the platform where I get podcasts. Not even anything as simple as “Hey, guys, this will be our last episode.”

Months passed. Then, Gimlet either announced that they cancelled the podcast, or else that the season ended. For example, I waited for over a year to find out that Gimlet cancelled a certain podcast (“Mystery Show”) and also terminated its host (Starlee Kine) months earlier.

Several Gimlet competitors (including “mom-and-pop” podcasts) communicated to listeners much more clearly about the status of future episodes.

I noted a lack of consistency in regards to the existence of separate Facebook pages for Gimlet podcasts.

In October 2017, Gimlet introduced an American Civil War podcast, “Uncivil”. “Uncivil” is (was?) hosted by Jack Hitt and Chenjerai Kumanyika. (Hite was a contributing editor to “This American Life.”)

Between October and December 2017, Gimlet released ten episodes of “Uncivil.” And then . . . crickets. The episodes stopped. I saw no communication about the status of this show.

Then, on November 9, 2018, “Uncivil” actually did release TWO brand-new episodes. On the same day.

And then . . . crickets. Again.

So, here’s the most recent update that I have for this:

I learned that Spotify acquired Gimlet Media in February 2019.

Then, I recently listened to one of Gimlet’s remaining podcasts, Reply All. At the end of the Reply All podcast episode, the hosts announced that Matt Lieber, the other Gimlet founder, was no longer with Gimlet.

I learned that the Gimlet podcast Startup (a podcast series that dedicated its entire first season to Gimlet Media’s origin story) released one FINAL season, titled Startup: The Final Chapter. This final season explained Gimlet’s sale to Spotify earlier this year. The new episodes in this season included the title Our Company Has Problems

Finally, I listened to the entire season of Startup: The Final Chapter. (Spoiler alert: it consisted of three episodes.)

The episodes in Startup: The Final Chapter didn’t mention Uncivil by name. However, this is what I learned that could possibly apply to Uncivil:

1.) In spring 2018, the Gimlet management had just completed a round of financing that they hoped would last for two years. However, they learned in a meeting that at their burn rate at that time, the money raised would last for a much shorter time.

2.) Blumberg noted that several of Gimlet’s podcasts cost a great deal of time and money to produce. These same podcasts didn’t produce enough ad revenue to cover the expense of making them. (Blumberg didn’t mention Uncivil by name. I am under the impression that Uncivil might have fallen into this category.)

3.) The listenership data disappointed Gimlet’s management.

4.) Gimlet received an offer from Spotify in late November or early December 2018.

5.) Blumberg didn’t mention the podcast My Favorite Murder (MFM) by name. However, the Startup podcast episode about Gimlet’s burn rate and listenership included a clip from MFM. I am under the impression that Gimlet Media’s podcasts compete for listeners with MFM. (I listen to MFM regularly.)

So there you go. Case closed. I’m under the impression that the podcast Uncivil released its last episode.

However, I still needed to blog about this. Blumberg noted himself that several of his company’s podcasts cost significant sums of time and money. How much more time and money would it cost him to leave a note on Facebook to tell us that a certain podcast ended?

Heck, I can name several podcast producers who actually have other day jobs, and these people still communicated to listeners when their podcasts went on hiatus.

Based on what I learned about Blumberg from the first and final seasons of Startup, I am under the impression that Blumberg was very hands-on a micromanager regarding his business’ creative side.

In the meantime, I stopped waiting for Gimlet to string me along regarding Uncivil. I’m listening to hours and hours of podcasts released by Gimlet’s competitors. Here’s a short list of them.