My sister, Katie, blogs about her adventures. Here is Katie’s new post Adventuring With Katie at Shenandoah National Park at Skyland and Old Rag Mountain
Confederate soldiers climbed the circular staircase that inspired “The Circular Staircase,” Mary Roberts Rinehart’s mystery novel about a haunted house.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Updated May 11, 2021
What do Kennywood Park (an amusement park outside of Pittsburgh), and the Tower of London have in common?
Well, at each of these places, I heard a shout-out to British Major General Edward Braddock.
At Kennywood Park , a statue and also a Pennsylvania Museum and Historical Commission (PMHC) sign honor General Edward Braddock. When I rode the train around Kennywood, I ate a chocolate brownie as the train intercom extolled the park’s fun rides and told us about Braddock’s Defeat.
Braddock’s army and its Native American allies marched ON the land that became Kennywood Park in 1755. They crossed the Monongahela River (the Mon) at what is now Kennywood. After they crossed the river, a French army and its own Native American allies attacked them. Braddock’s army retreated.
Braddock died. A lot of his men died or taken prisoner. Women who followed the army as cooks and laundresses also died or were taken prisoner.
You can actually find a much better synopsis than mine with a 30 second Google search. A lot of Google searches refer to this as the “Battle of the Monogahela.”
However, I have an anecdote! I went to London and I toured the Tower of London. The Yeoman Warder (“Beefeater”) who was assigned to docent my tour group started off by saying:
“Is anyone in this group from Pennsylvania?”
The Yeoman Warder said something about the Yeoman’s own involvement in the Coldstream Guards. He specifically mentioned the grave of “General Braddock.”
Well, then the Yeoman Warder moved on to a different subject (after all, we were at the TOWER OF LONDON). I had to look up the Coldstream Guards later.
Turns out that General Braddock also belonged to the Coldstream Guards. Officers from the Coldstream Guards actually travelled to Pennsylvania to dedicate a new monument at General Braddock’s grave in 1913. So, they did this less than a year before World War I started.
Now, just to be clear, General Braddock wasn’t buried at the actual battlefield. He wasn’t buried at Kennywood Park. Braddock was wounded at the battlefield that is behind Kennywood. He died of his injuries later, and miles away, during the retreat.
A young George Washington served as an officer on Braddock’s staff. Washington had to oversee Braddock’s burial.
The Coldstream Guards dedicated a new monument at Braddock’s actual grave in Fayette County in 1913. They actually travelled from the United Kingdom to Pennsylvania and attended the dedication ceremony. Here is an old photo that I took of the actual grave in Fayette County.
Here is a close-up of the Coldstream Guards’ regimental badge on Braddock’s grave monument:
I really wish that I could blog here that the Coldstream Guards also visited Kennywood Park in 1913 during their trip to see Braddock’s grave. A trip to Kennywood in the summer before World War I! Sadly, I have not found any mention of any Coldstream Guard visit to Kennywood during any of my 20 minute Google searches.
That would be a fun story to tell, if it were true.
I don’t have anything else to add here about the Tower of London, the Coldstream Guards, or Braddock’s actual grave in Fayette County.
The rest of this is about Kennywood Park, the Battle of the Monongahela battlefield, and the bike trail that runs between these two.
I discovered a now-defunct travel blog in which the blogger visited this area because he had an interest in the battle’s military history. In his blog, he RAILED against “developers” for completely carving up the actual site of the Battle of the Monongahela. (There’s actually a “Braddock’s Battlefield History Center” IN Braddock, PA, near the site of the battle. However, I think that this blogger meant that he wanted to visit someplace where one could retrace the actual battle, like one can do at Gettysburg.)
I, too, find it a shame that people today can’t visit the actual battlefield and walk where the two armies fought.
But, the thing is –
The developers who failed to preserve the battlefield were . . . business associates of Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick. The battlefield was “ruined” . . . at the turn of the century. The turn of the LAST century. During the Industrial Revolution.
If you aren’t familiar with Henry Clay Frick’s treatment of organized labor, then Google “Homestead Strike.”
Also, go ahead and Google “Johnstown Flood” and “South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club.”
I mention all of this just to point out that “ruining the site of the Battle of the Monongahela” wasn’t the very worst allegation ever connected to Henry Clay Frick and Andrew Carnegie.
So, how did the business activities of Henry Clay Frick and Andrew Carnegie “ruin” this battlefield?
Well, they built a steel mill on top of it.
They built the U.S. Steel plant known as the Edgar Thomson Steel Works on top of the battlefield.
I mention all of this because a bike trail – the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) -runs along the Mon River behind Kennywood Park. You can ride on a path directly behind the roller coasters. You can look across the river and see this U.S. Steel plant .
You can ride past a 1906 locomotive roundhouse in McKeesport.
Here’s some photos of said roundhouse.
Jonathan took much better photos than I did. You can view Jonathan’s photos here, at our other blog.
I found an article titled “Who Was Alexander Hamilton’s Real Nemesis: Aaron Burr or Albert Gallatin and the Jeffersonians?” by Christopher N. Malagisi, dated August 30, 2018, on the Townhall website. This article referenced the book “Jefferson’s Treasure: How Albert Gallatin Saved the New Nation from Debt,” by Gregory May.
The idolized and fabled Alexander Hamilton served as our first Secretary of the Treasury. Hamilton rival Albert Gallatin served as our fourth Secretary of the Treasury.
Thomas Jefferson was the President of the United States who appointed Gallatin as Secretary of the Treasury. Aaron Burr was elected as Jefferson’s Vice President in the election of 1800. So, these guys all knew each other.
Now, my brain totally shut off about one paragraph into reading about the subject matter. Just as it did when I had to learn about the Federalists and the Whigs and the Jeffersonians in high school. So, I don’t have my own fully-formed opinion about whether Albert Gallatin was Hamilton’s real nemesis. I do think that if Lin-Manuel Miranda had rewritten the Hamilton musical so that it was just a bunch of guys arguing about whether Hamilton or Gallatin made a better Secretary of the Treasury, it would not still be on Broadway.
Albert Gallatin owned an estate in Southeastern Pennsylvania. Gallatin’s first wife, Sophia, is buried on the estate. The National Park Service now runs the estate as Friendship Hill National Historic Site. There is no admission fee to visit.
Part of me wishes that Miranda had at least written Gallatin into his “Hamilton” musical – even in a tiny role – so that Point Marion could use it to lure tourists there.
If you want to sight-see while also social distancing, you may want to check out Friendship Hill. Here is my prior blog post about Friendship Hill.
Thinking today about fall in the Laurel Highlands / Allegheny Mountains.
Mount Davis in Forbes State Forest is the highest point in Pennsylvania.
Here is a photo that I took of the observation tower that stands close to the summit’s true geographic high point.
Here is a photo that my mom took of my dad and four out of their five kids at the summit’s true geographic high point.
The posts on this blog that receive the most hits are those about “haunted” Livermore Cemetery in Westmoreland County, Misery Bay in Erie, and my list of haunted history podcasts. My thoughts about William Crawford’s brutal life and his encounters with Simon Girty also scored big on the analytics. So, if you found my blog through searches on these topics, then I wrote this blog post for you.
Okay, so Route 30 as it winds up and down through Central and Western Pennsylvania – the Lincoln Highway – is one of this blog post’s biggest stars. Other writers have already published books and internet content about the ghosts and legends of the Lincoln Highway. (It definitely helps that Gettsyburg is located along Route 30!) I won’t regurgitate what they already said. I’m not gonna steal someone else’s piece of the ghost story pie. It’s totally okay with me if you go off and Google “Route 30” and “history” and “haunted.” Just please come back.
I spent my early childhood in Central Pennsylvania (near Harrisburg) and all of my living grandparents lived west of us, in the Pittsburgh area. Sometimes, when we drove between Central PA and Western PA, my dad wanted to save money on PA Turnpike tolls. On such trips, my dad drove us across the western half of PA on Route 30.
Now, once you travel from Bedford County into Somerset County, you will climb to the top of a mountain summit, then drop down said summit, and then climb to the top of another summit. Over and over again. More than once, my parents’ fully-loaded station wagon followed fully-loaded coal trucks up and down these summits. If you’re from Western PA, then you understand the pain of these trips. When I was seven, my family actually moved to a town on the top of one of these Allegheny Mountain summits, in Somerset County. We still followed coal trucks to my grandparents’ houses, but we didn’t have as many summits to climb and descend.
(Side story: Flight 93 crashed less than 20 miles from our family home in Somerset County in 2001. When the National Park Service established the Flight 93 Memorial, they built the memorial’s main access road off of Route 30. I read the Flight 93 Memorial reviews on Trip Advisor. One reviewer noted that she drove her camping trailer from the Flight 93 Memorial, up and down Route 30, into Bedford County. She described her trip as “hellish.”)
So, as you leave Bedford traveling west on Route 30 en route to the Flight 93 Memorial, Saint Vincent College (my alma mater), and Pittsburgh, you will come upon the Jean Bonnet Tavern.
Again, I won’t steal somebody else’s piece of ghost story pie by getting too deep into the history of this place. The Pittsburgh news runs at least one story every Halloween about the ghosts. Several writers published books about the stories here. A bunch of other ghost bloggers wrote about the Jean Bonnet Tavern much more thoroughly than I have the patience to do so.
Here are the basics: The tavern probably opened in the mid-to-late 1700’s. It now sits at the intersection of Route 30 and Route 31. Back in the 1700’s, these were both trails. Modern-day Route 30 was a major trail that ran from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh. The tavern sat at the bottom of the first of a series of summits that travelers crossed to reach Pittsburgh. Since this was a crossroads, local lore claims that people in trouble with the law were hung here. George Washington might have stopped here.
The tavern today includes a restaurant and a bed and breakfast. I have eaten there several times as an adult. The basement dining room and the first floor dining room have different menus. The first floor dining room includes the option of outdoor seating. I’ve dined at all three options.
I never saw any ghosts when I dined at the Jean Bonnet. My sisters and I hope to see one each time that we visit.
Well, my husband and I finally booked a room on the second-floor bed and breakfast when we travelled to the area for a family event. We booked for a one night stay, which meant that I had ONE CHANCE to see a ghost overnight. Our room had one of those little books where you can write about your stay. Some of the recent entries noted, “I didn’t see any ghosts,” but most of the recent entries for that little book for that particular room DID mention ghost encounters. In most of these entries, the room guests reported being shoved or held down as they slept.
I sat in our room and said to my husband, “I will be really disappointed if I don’t meet a ghost tonight!”
Jonathan told me that I better be careful what I wish for.
I fell asleep because I was actually really tired from all of my quality time with my family.
IN THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT, I WOKE UP TO FEEL SOMEBODY PINNING ME DOWN IN THE BED.
The entity pinning me down wasn’t my husband. My husband was asleep on the other side of me.
I tried to wake up my husband, but I couldn’t move and I couldn’t talk. So, either I suffered sleep paralysis, or else a ghost put its arms around me when I was in bed.
I slept some more.
I woke up to the sound of classic rock music. It was Credence Clearwater Revival or something. And then an Elton John song. It sounded as if the music was coming from the floor below, from the restaurant area. As if somebody had turned on the restaurant’s sound system. I looked out the window. The only cars in the parking lot appeared to be ours and those of the other bed and breakfast guests. It didn’t appear that any Jean Bonnet employees had arrived for the day. It was only 5 a.m. I considered dressing and leaving my room to investigate the source of the music, but I was too tired to put that much effort into the investigation.
I fell asleep again.
I woke up again around 8. I no longer heard music.
Jonathan and I dressed and went to the dining area for our breakfast. The Jean Bonnet Tavern’s owner greeted us and asked us if we had encountered any of the ghosts.
I didn’t ask about the early-morning musical wake-up call. Perhaps another guest played the music from their room. Perhaps, as I suspected, the music did originate from the restaurant’s sound system. Perhaps one of the ghosts turned it on. Perhaps the sound system was set up on an automatic timer programmed incorrectly. Perhaps one of the restaurant employees screwed up. Perhaps a living human did it on purpose to perpetuate the ghost stories. (I watched too much Scooby-Doo in my childhood.) If a living, breathing human did cause the early-morning music, would the tavern owner cop to it? Or would she play it off and blame it on the ghost anyway? After all, the ghosts seem to be a pretty major part of the tavern’s marketing campaign.
I said, “Perhaps.”
Postscript from the blogger: See my post “Meeting Aaron Burr in the Alleghenies.” Former FLOTUS Julia Dent Grant wrote in her memoir that her own mother, Ellen Bray Wrenshall Dent, encountered Aaron Burr at a tavern in the Alleghenies. Mrs. Dent was traveling between her home in Pittsburgh and her school in Philadelphia at that time. The memoir does not provide the tavern’s name. However, I speculate that this happened at the Jean Bonnet Tavern.
Mrs. Dent was born in 1793. I am under the impression that Mrs. Dent would have been a schoolgirl in the first decade of the 1800’s. Keep in mind that Burr shot Alexander Hamilton in 1804. The Burr conspiracy allegedly happened in 1804/05 – 1807. Aaron Burr was arrested for treason in 1807.
So, was Burr in the process of planning the alleged Burr conspiracy when JDG’s mother saw him at the tavern? When JDG wrote in her memoir of “Aaron Burr and his army,” did JDG mean the militia that Burr allegedly raised for the conspiracy?
This story stands out to me because, in my mind, Mrs. Dent said to her children (including future FLOTUS Julia Dent Grant), “Did I ever tell you about that time that I met a very famous person? Wait until you hear this story!”
If you enjoyed reading this blog post, please share it with someone else who also loves history and folklore.
So, I’ve been trying to blog about this for about a year now. I couldn’t figure out how to handle the topic. I still don’t know how to handle the topic. However, we might all be dead before 2020 ends, so I will give it a shot now.
When I was a teenager, I was super “into” the American Civil War. That is, I was “into” upper class white women’s experiences in the Civil War. (Such as the the fiction of Gone with the Wind.) I didn’t care about the military strategy. Then, I went to college and formed interests in OTHER things. About a year or so ago, I joined a Civil War message board and I started to read about the Civil War again.
I still don’t care about military strategy. I still read about upper class white women’s experiences.
Last year I read most of “The Personal Memoirs of Julia Dent Grant (Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant).” Julia Dent Grant was the widow of American POTUS and General Ulysses S. Grant. (Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant during the American Civil War in 1865.) President Grant wrote his memoirs to great fanfare shortly before he died of cancer in 1885. After this, Mrs. Grant wrote her own memoirs. Mrs. Grant was actually the very first First Lady of the United States to write her own memoirs. Unfortunately, she did not find a publisher for her own memoirs during her lifetime. Mrs. Grant’s memoirs were published in the later half of the 20th century.
In Mrs. Grant’s memoirs, she wrote that her own mother, Ellen Bray Wrenshall Dent, grew up in Pittsburgh, attended school in Philadelphia, and then lived briefly in Pittsburgh as an adult. Mrs. Grant wrote that her mother and her father moved from Pittsburgh to St. Louis two years after their marriage. Mrs. Grant wrote, “Nearly all Pittsburgh assembled on the river bank to wish pretty Ellen Wrenshall and her brave young husband Godspeed.”
Here’s one part that caught my attention: Mrs. Grant wrote of this journey “The party consisted of papa, mamma, baby John, Mr. Edward Tracy, a friend of father’s, also two indentured slaves, Hester and Bob, with men for handling the rafts, etc.”
Now, the Dent family’s ownership of enslaved workers when they lived in St. Louis is well written about. The reason that I hesitated to blog about this is because on the Civil War message board that I joined last year, some of the posters use Ulysses S. Grant’s connection by marriage to a slave-owning family as support for their arguments that the American Civil War was fought over “States’ Rights” and not Slavery. I didn’t want to give any of the fools such as these more ammunition for their arguments. (Pardon the ammunition pun.)
But, I would like to know more about the “two indentured slaves, Hester and Bob” with whom the Dent family left Pittsburgh for St. Louis.
I learned through a Google search that the Dent family left Pittsburgh for St. Louis in 1819. How many of their friends who wished them well on the riverbank in Pittsburgh also had “indentured slaves?”
I didn’t even know until I was an adult that people who lived in Western Pennsylvania exploited indentured and enslaved workers in the 1800’s.
Now, in this same section of the memoir, Mrs. Grant mentioned that when she was growing up in St. Louis, several family friends visited them from Pittsburgh: “the Nevilles, O’Hara’s, Wilkinses, Robinsons, Dennys, Ogdens, etc.” I recognize several of these family names from Pittsburgh history. For instance, I blogged before about James O’Hara, who was Mary Schenley’s maternal grandfather. Ebenezer Denny was Pittsburgh’s first mayor. How many of these families had their own “indentured slaves” in Pittsburgh?
Whenever I had trouble verbalizing a thought to my late mom Shirley, Mom used to say, “Spit it out, Jen.” I don’t know if this is a saying that she learned from her own working class, German-descended Pittsburgh upbringing. But, I think of my mom whenever I am having a hard time expressing my thoughts. So, tonight I “spit it out.” Mom’s advice has actually served me very well!
By the way, I took a “break” from the Civil War message board. I can’t deal with the posters who are more upset about Robert E. Lee’s legacy being tarnished (he actually tarnished it himself!) than about the living Americans that our society failed to protect.
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.
I posted here that my cousin doesn’t like the term “New Normal” and she and her co-workers prefer the term “Temporary Weirdness.”
Yesterday, I listened to the most recent episode of the podcast “American Hauntings” hosted by Troy Taylor and Cody Beck. Taylor and Beck constantly referred to the days before Covid-19 as the “Before Times.”
So, IRREGARDLESS of whether I use the term “Before Times” or “Tempoary Weirdness” the thing is that I think about the days before Covid-19 A LOT.
So, here’s a story about my life before Covid-19.
My favorite book when I was 12 or 13 years old was Gone with the Wind.
Up until that time and even after that time, I still read the Babysitters Club and Nancy Drew books. (And also Little House on the Prairie.) However, when I was 12 years old, I watched the North and South miniseries on television, based on the book trilogy of the same name by John Jakes. I loved it. Someone suggested that I would like Gone with the Wind. I checked Gone with the Wind out of my school library. I was only in the seventh grade, but at my school grades 7 – 12 all shared one building and we shared one library.
So, I read Gone with the Wind cover to cover when I was 12 or 13. I didn’t even skip to the end and read that first, as I used to do (and still do sometimes). This was the very first “grown up” book that I read the entire way through. It was over 1000 pages long.
I loved Gone with the Wind so much that I asked my mom to buy me my very own copy of the book for Christmas. She did!
Then, I re-read my favorite sections.
Gone with the Wind was one of MY Harry Potters. (My other Harry Potter was The Babysitters Club.)
I outgrew Gone with the Wind a very long time ago.
Now, just to be clear, I’m talking about Gone with the Wind the novel by Margaret Mitchell. I’m NOT talking about the novel’s famous movie adaptation.
Here’s something that happened in the second half of Gone with the Wind the novel:
During the year 1866 or 1867 or something, Scarlett O’Hara married her second husband (Rhett Butler is husband #3). She took over the accounting / bookkeeping of her husband’s Atlanta sawmill because she was really good at numbers. All of the respectable white people in town disapproved. She did it anyway. One day, she travelled from her husband’s sawmill back to her house. Two big black men (newly freed enslaved men who live in the town slum) attacked her and tried to rip off her dress. Her husband rounded up all of the other respectable white men in town and they went and had a Klu Klux Klan raid on the black people who lived in the town slum. Husband #2 got killed in the process.
Yes, this is something that happened in the novel Gone with the Wind. This book won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1937.
I guess that I ignored this part of the book when I was a teenager. I don’t remember.
What I do remember was that I completely fell for the “Lost Cause” narrative as Gone with the Wind (the novel) represented it. I disagreed with my high school history teacher about the actual evils of slavery. I actually did this. My history teacher had a PhD.
I read at least one biography about the author, Margaret Mitchell. I also watched the made-for-television movie about her life. Shannon Dougherty of Beverly Hills 90210 starred in this movie. Based entire on this one biography and this one movie, I personally think that Margaret Mitchell suffered from trauma over losing her fiance in World War I, losing her mother in the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918, and then suffering domestic violence in a very brief first marriage. This is my personal opinion. I personally believe that Gone with the Wind reflected Mitchell’s trauma over these events.
By the time that I was out of college and married, I was completely over Gone with the Wind. Then one day, my husband Jonathan got sent to Atlanta on a business trip. I tagged along with him.
By complete coincidence, our hotel was on the opposite site of the exact same block as the house where Mitchell lived when she wrote Gone with the Wind. The Federal Reserve was on this same block. Neither my husband nor I chose this hotel ahead of time. Somebody else at my husband’s place of employment chose the hotel. I never met this person, and this person had no idea that I used to like the novel Gone with the Wind.
The house where Margaret Mitchell wrote Gone with the Wind was actually a downtown Atlanta apartment building. Mitchell lived in one of the apartments with her second husband (John Marsh) when she wrote the book. I read something once that suggested that Gone with the Wind was actually a team effort. Mitchell once wrote for an Atlanta newspaper, and Marsh was her former editor. Anyway, years later a group purchased the apartment building with the intention of turning it into a museum about Mitchell and Gone with the Wind. Shortly after the museum was set to open, most of it burned down in an arson. The group rebuilt the thing. They opened this building as “The Margaret Mitchell House.”
So, yeah, I visited the Margaret Mitchell House that one time when I went to Atlanta. I got to spend an entire week sleeping on the same block as the Margaret Mitchell House. It felt really weird, though. I had loved that book for so long. Then, by the time that I got to see where it was written, I didn’t actually think much of the book.
In fact, the docent who led me around the Margaret Mitchell House opened the tour by telling me about how much she personally loved Gone with the Wind. (I guess that you have to love Gone with the Wind in order to give tours around the apartment where either Mitchell or Marsh wrote it. I was under the impression that the docents were all volunteers.)
Then she said to me, “What do you think of the book?”
I said, “This used to be my favorite book. Now it isn’t.”
The tour was kinda awkward after this. Oh, well.
During this same trip, I rode the MARTA (the commuter train) and walked a bunch in order to visit the Joel Chandler Harris House (also called “The Wren’s Nest”). I did this because Harris wrote the Uncle Remus stories that my Grandma Gaffron read to me.
So, on my one trip to Atlanta, I toured the homes of problematic authors.
Also, my husband and I ate in a downtown Atlanta restaurant where we eavesdropped on the business meeting happening at the table next to ours. It was clearly a business meeting. All of the participants were wearing business attire. Also, I’ve sat in enough business meetings myself that I enjoy watching the pain of other people who are trapped in business meetings. The one man in this meeting told the other participants that when he was a kid, he raised a goat on his dad’s farm. Then his dad had the goat served as dinner one night. I think that someone at that table had ordered goat meat for lunch.
I miss sitting close enough to strangers to hear their entire conversations. I miss eating in restaurants. I miss visiting the museum homes of problematic authors. I can’t wait until the “Temporary Weirdness” ends.
I have a confession. Before the Covid-19 crisis changed my world in March, I ate out at restaurants A LOT. Everyone has a different definition of “A LOT.” I’m not going to provide my definition of “A LOT.” Let’s just say that I’m embarrassed to let my dad and sisters know how often I ate out.
I didn’t always eat out A LOT. I didn’t go out much during college or right after college because I couldn’t afford it. In fact, when I worked at my first job after college in Johnstown, my friends and I made fun of a co-worker who did go out to eat “A LOT.”
Then, I got a job in downtown Pittsburgh. I married a man who worked in the Oakland section of Pittsburgh. I moved into his house in New Kensington. New Kensington isn’t that close to Pittsburgh during rush hour. My after-work commute changed from 5 minutes in Johnstown to much longer. I also made more dough because I no longer worked in Johnstown. Also also, my living costs were still really low because- well, because I lived in New Kensington. So, I paid other people to make my dinner.
That all changed in March 2020. People on Facebook told me that I could die or kill my grandmother if I went outside. My employer told me to work from home. (Woot! Woot! No painful commute!) The governor shut down all of the restaurants. So, I learned how much money I actually save by making my poor husband cook for me.
The very last time that I ate in a restaurant was Sunday, March 15. My husband Jonathan and I ate at the brunch buffet at DiSalvo’s Station Restaurant in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. According to Facebook, we should both be dead right now! Good thing that the restaurant only had about five other patrons during our meal.
DiSalvo’s is a renovated former train station that sits under active railroad tracks. The current Amtrak station sits above the restaurant. When you dine at DiSalvo’s, you can hear freight trains or perhaps even the Amtrak over your head.
I visited DiSalvo’s for the very first time when I was a senior at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe. I ended up at DiSalvo’s as part of a double date. It turned out that my “date” part of the double date actually wanted to be with the other girl in our foursome, and a few months later he did just that. However, that’s the way that things go sometimes. I got a free meal out of the whole thing.
So, the place has a model railroad that travels along the dining room wall. This little train passes replicas of Latrobe landmarks, including the Saint Vincent Basilica. When I went there on my “double date,” the other girl and I cooed “Oh, train!” every time that the train passed our table. Someone finally turned the train off just to shut us up.
A few years later, I went to a wedding reception held at DiSalvo’s for a college classmate who got married at Saint Vincent Basilica.
A few more years went by and I got married myself. (I married a guy who never went on a double date with me while he actually wanted the other girl. Also, my own wedding wasn’t as fancy and it didn’t take place in Latrobe.)
A few years after this, my sister K. gave me a gift card to the place. Then, I went cabin camping with my husband and in-laws at nearby Keystone State Park over Veterans Day weekend. My father-in-law is a veteran. My father-in-law loves trains. We used the gift card to treat him to Sunday brunch at DiSalvo’s.
So, after brunch, we walked up to the railroad tracks to watch trains. A few freight trains passed us. We even saw a male and female stowaway riding on one of the cars. (I’m too politically correct to use the word “hobo.”)
And then . . . it happened. A train stopped on the tracks directly above DiSalvo’s Station. Oil covered the locomotive and several of the front cars.
It turned out that the thing’s turbo had exploded. Thus the mess. Oil everywhere.
We watched railroad employees disconnect the oil-covered locomotive from the front car and replace it with a fresh, oil-free locomotive. We watched this for over an hour. We didn’t need no stinking model train that could be turned off by the whim of annoyed restaurant employees. We had our own, real train entertainment outside!
I swiped this photo of the oil-covered locomotive from my sister-in-law’s Facebook page. Good thing that I don’t actually make any money from this blog!
My husband and I saw all of this with his mom Fran, his dad, his sister M., and her future husband J. After this, my husband and I drove to Latrobe sometimes to grab brunch at DiSalvo’s. Every time we ate there, we talked about the Great Veterans Day Weekend Oil Shower.
After Fran died, I couldn’t think about the Great Veterans Day Weekend Oil Shower without thinking about how much fun Fran seemed to have had that day at the train tracks above DiSalvo’s Station.
Now, as I said, my routine completely changed in March 2020. A lot of people’s lives did. My employer had planned a major client social function at a downtown Pittsburgh restaurant for mid-March. Two weeks before everything shut down, my big manager announced that the client function was still on her schedule. She told my co-workers that she herself planned to keep eating out.
By that time, Twitter was filled with memes about how our entire family would die if we left the house. I ignored the memes because my mother-in-law and my own mom had both lived their lives “correctly” and they had both died anyway. So, if I croaked from eating at a brunch buffet, at least I got to eat that final piece of chocolate cheesecake.
So – about that brunch at DiSalvo’s Station on March 15. The restaurant was pretty empty. We were at least six feet away from the other patrons the entire time. The only other patrons sat on the other side of the dining room. The staff seemed really nervous and stressed. Maybe I just projected my own feelings onto them.
The next day, Monday March 16, was my last day inside my employer’s downtown Pittsburgh office. During that day, we received an email to start working from home effective immediately. The governor shut down all of the restaurants less than a week later.
I’m blessed because I didn’t lose my job. I got to stop making my commute. I saved a lot of money. However, I’m sad that I haven’t eaten inside of a restaurant since March. I’m sad for all of the restaurants that I loved to visit. So, from time to time, I will blog about my restaurant memories.
By the way, I’m aware that Pennsylvania restaurants eventually opened again to inside diners. However, my husband and I decided to cherry-pick our activities. We are involved in some other stuff (including my husband’s participation in our community’s volunteer fire department) so we balanced this out by not eating inside of restaurants. Now restaurants in my area are being shut down again. It looks as if I won’t be eating inside of a restaurant for a long, long time.