BEANERY ONLINE LITERARY MAGAZINE
GHOST ON LAUREL MOUNTAIN (PA)
The greatest Allegheny County scandal at the start of the 20th century involved a woman connected to Laughlintown, Pennsylvania, three and a half miles east of Ligonier.
On April 12, 1901, an attempted burglary and a murder were committed in a store and the adjoining home of Thomas Kahney, in Mt. Washington, a part of Pittsburgh overlooking the city from high atop the hills. The crime was committed by the Biddle Boys and their gang, the Chloroform gang.
Mr. Kahney was fatally shot in the head by one of the gang members. It was this awful mistake during the robber that landed brothers Ed and Jack Biddle in the Allegheny County jail, to end their miserable lives once and for all. It is also where our story really begins.
Well, let’s see…about two years earlier a house was built in Laughlintown, a handsome stone home with a maid’s quarters, old-fashioned fish pond, and in-ground pool—quite fashionable for its time. It was built by Pete and Kate Soffel as a place to take their children, including Kate, to escape smoggy Pittsburgh.
Kate had heard about the famed Biddle Boys, who had had their trial and were sentenced to Death Row. It was easy for her to visit them, since she had open access to the jail due to her father’s position—deputy warden of the jail.
She had rooms there. As a matter of fact, she was known as the “Queen of the Jail.”
It wasn’t long before Kate was making Ed treats and bringing him reading material, including the Bible. Soon his charms won her over.
Little did she know that her husband had filed for divorce. It wouldn’t have mattered, anyway. Kate was in love and with a doomed man. Ed gave her all the attention and affection a young wife needed and didn’t get from a pre-occupied husband. Ed made her feel passionate again, and alive, in a place where life had ceased in so many ways.
By November, 1901, escape plans were begun.
Kate brought saw blades to Ed between the pages of the Bible. She brought him black wax and chewing gum, used to reaffix the bars after they’d been cut in preparation for the time of escape.
On the morning of the escape, Thursday, January 30, 1902, Kate lightly chloroformed her husband Pete so he could not answer the alarms. During the scuffles and fights between the guards and the Biddles, Kate was not really sure whether to stay or go with them. Ultimately, she left with the brothers.
We really don’t know the truth about the rest of that day until they stole a horse and sleigh in Perrysville at 1:00 a. m. At 7:00 a. m they stopped for breakfast at a country hotel in Cooperstown, 38 miles north of Pittsburgh. By that time, an armed posse was already after them. It consisted of two sleighs, one from Pittsburgh, the other from Butler.
At lunchtime, Kate, Ed and Jack ate at a hotel in Mt. Chestnut Hotel. Then, while traveling northwest towards Prospect, they met the posse at the crest of a hill.
It was about 5:00 p.m.
Ed gave the reins to Kate and fired the first shot. Then all the men were firing their guns. The posse shot Ed twice and Jack fifteen times, and one of their horses was killed The lawmen, miraculously, were unharmed.
The Biddle Boys and Kate tried to fulfill a suicide pact before they were caught, but they botched that. Jack shot himself twice in the mouth. Ed shot himself in the chest, and either he shot Kate, or she shot herself.
The brothers didn’t die until that Friday evening. Before Ed died, he admitted to Kate that he loved no one in his life but his mother. Because Kate was significantly older than Ed, he may have seen her as a mother substitute. Should Kate have seen that coming?
On Saturday the bodies of the Biddle Boys were exhibited for two hours. A crowd of about four thousand people gathered to view them. They are buried in a single grave in a Pittsburgh cemetery.
Kate healed from her gunshot wound, pled guilty to aiding and abetting the escape, and was sentenced to two years in Western Penitentiary. After she was released early for good behavior, she tried to capitalize on her infamous name by recreating her story in a play called “They Died For Liberty.” Later, she tried to hide from the notoriety by using her maiden name. Alone and humiliated, her children gone, she supported herself as a seamstress.
Ed had filled her head and heart with empty promises wrapped in nothing, and now even he was gone. She’d given him everything, even a last hope for a chance at a new life.
Pete resigned his position as warden of Allegheny County Jail and took the children to Ohio, where he remarried.
FOOTNOTE: My parents purchased the house on Laurel Mountain near Washington Furnace Restaurant. I lived there between 1973 and 1979. One night I saw a misty human shape that whirled and turned, and moved from the dining room to the living room, then through the open French doors, before it disappeared. My dog was also alert at this time. Could this be Kate’s ghost, revisiting a spot of joy in her life?
And the only case in American history where the verdict was decided on the testimony of a ghost…