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!
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.
So, here’s a fun fact that I found on Wikipedia: In January 1863, the world’s first underground railway opened in London. It opened between Paddingdon and Farringdon. We call it the “London Underground.”
If you Google “London plague pits underground,” you can read all about the urban legend on this. Local lore claims that the detours that the workers had to dig for the London Underground’s path so that the train didn’t barrel through the mass graves of Bubonic Plague victims from 1665. (One of the articles visible to me on the first page of my Google search questions the “research” used by the author who claimed this as fact in her non-fiction book, but it makes a cool story.)
On this week in January 2020, I went to an author visit for a New York Times bestselling author at a Barnes and Noble near Pittsburgh. The author promoted the release of her newest book, a novel about a prominent person in London during both World Wars.
As I stood in line waiting for the author’s signature, I heard a man identify himself as a reporter from our local Pittsburgh “newspaper.” (I say “newspaper” because it’s not available in print form in many Pittsburgh area locations now; it’s online.) The reporter said that THE AUTHOR had reached out to the “newspaper” and asked them to cover the event.
Again, this was a New York Times bestselling author. She had several successful books under her belt. She had to contact the Pittsburgh media on her own and ask them to cover her event at Barnes and Noble. So, if you dream about writing your own book, and about having your publisher (or Barnes and Noble or whomever) market your book tour for you, think about this again.
I have a final story that mentions London. It has absolutely nothing to do with January, but it involves ice, so close enough. My husband is a huge fan of iced beverages. Before I met my husband, I always ordered “Diet Pepsi with no ice” at Subway or Burger King or whatever so that I could get “more bang for my buck.” Then, I met Jonathan. He turned me on to the joys of drinking beverages with ice.
When we went to London, we learned that we wouldn’t get ice in any of our drinks unless we specifically asked for it. It was a hot-ish week in September. We stayed in a hotel directly across the Thames from the Tower of London. Even better, the hotel had a working ice machine on our floor, directly across the hallway from the elevator!
As soon as we checked in to our room, I grabbed the ice bucket. I headed for the ice machine. As I filled our ice bucket, the elevator opened, and a woman stepped out.
The woman said to me, “You’re an American, aren’t you?”
How did she know? I hadn’t even spoken. Did I make a gaffe that only an American would make? Did I wear the wrong thing? OMG, did I drop my passport on the floor for her to find?
I said, “Yes.”
The woman said, “I could tell because you are getting ice. I’m from Texas!”
I learned today that the United States’ first crematory is located in Washington, Pennsylvania.
I learned about this in the book “Disconnected from Death: The Evolution of Funerary Customs and the Unmasking of Death in America” by April Slaughter and Troy Taylor.
I learned that Dr. Francis Julius LeMoyne, a Washington, PA, physician, dedicated decades to practicing medicine and advocating for Civil Rights. By the 1870’s, Dr. LeMoyne vocalized his concerns regarding the pollution and hygienic / public health consequences of embalming and burial. Dr. LeMoyne proposed that a crematory be built in a local public cemetery. This did not happen. So, Dr. LeMoyne had the crematory built on his own property.
Dr. LeMoyne’s cremation advocacy resulted in negative responses from the Washington, PA, community. Dr. LeMoyne even offered to educate the public about cremation. How do you think that this went?
On December 5, 1876, Dr. LeMoyne finally received a body to cremate.
Dr. LeMoyne passed away in 1879 and his body became the third to be cremated in his own crematory.
According to “Disconnected from Death,” Dr. LeMoyne’s crematory still stands on Gallows Hill in Washington, PA. The Washington County Historical Society maintains it.
I had to memorize a bunch of Pennsylvania “firsts” in school. I didn’t have to learn about this cremation thing in school. So, here you go.
Back in the olden days before Joe Biden was elected POTUS, I had to learn in “Pennsylvania History” class that James Buchanan was the only U.S. President born in Pennsylvania. My history teacher and my “Pennsylvania History” book both pretty much said, “James Buchanan was the only President born in Pennsylvania. We shall NEVER speak of this again.” Ha, ha, ha. If you want to learn a little bit more about Buchanan’s administration, go Google what was said about his Secretary of War, John B. Floyd.
Do you have any interesting Pennsylvania “firsts?” If so, please reach out to me.
Thank you for continuing to read this blog. This has been a tough year. I have really enjoyed sharing stories, lore, and photos with you. Please share this blog if you enjoy it as well.