STORY AND PHOTOS BY MARSHA MORGENSTERN, Erie Times-News
September 28, 2013
On a breezy September evening, my husband, Eric, and I meet Haydn Thomas, a Haunted Pittsburgh tour guide, in front of downtown Pittsburgh's City-County Building. We arrive early for the downtown tour, the most popular of three walking tours Haunted Pittsburgh has offered since 2008.
There is still daylight and it is easy to identify Thomas as our tour guide. He is dressed in black from head to toe and wearing a Haunted Pittsburgh T-shirt. Thomas informs us that we will have a big group of about 30 that night. It is not uncommon to have large groups like this in the fall. In fact, Thomas says Halloween is like Haunted Pittsburgh's Christmas.
"The reason to take our tour as opposed to some of the other tours is that you learn a lot of Pittsburgh's history on our tour," he says. "We are not docents, relaying a dry 'this happened here, this happened there.' We have to be story tellers."
As our group forms, I notice that participants range from a family with two teenage boys to couples on a date night. At 7 p.m., Thomas jumps into his storytelling, previewing some of the sites that will be visited and ghost tales that will be shared. He starts right on time. As we briskly walk toward the first place on the tour, Thomas explains that we will not be stopping everywhere along the way, explaining that not every place in Pittsburgh is haunted or has a ghost story. "If you go on a tour and they have a story for everything, ask for your money back, because they are making it up," Thomas says.
We can't share all of the details because it would spoil the tour, but here are some highlights. We begin outside the historic Allegheny County Courthouse and Jail, where we learn about a most famous love story in the history in Pittsburgh from the 1900s. Mrs. Soffel, a warden's wife, fell in love with one of the prisoners, Ed Biddle, and escaped with him. Her ghost still haunts the jail and the story inspired the 1984 movie "Mrs. Soffel" starring Diane Keaton and Mel Gibson.
From there, we go outside the famous William Penn hotel, which was built by Henry Clay Frick, and was a meeting spot in the sordid case of union corruption, greed and murder. Thomas tells how W.A. "Tony" Boyle, incumbent president of the United Mine Workers of America, ordered the death of Joseph "Jock" Yablonski, who was challenging him for control of the United Mine Workers Union and had accused Boyle of corruption. Three hit men murdered Yablonski, his wife and their 25-year-old daughter at their Clarksville home. (Editor's note: The trial of the three hit men was held in Erie.) Boyle eventually was convicted of the murders and embezzlement.
Along the way, it is easy to see that Thomas has a real passion for the stories he tells. He first started leading tours for Haunted Pittsburgh around Halloween of last year when the company was short-handed. There are no gimmicks on the tour and we never actually step foot into a haunted location; however, Thomas transforms participants through his stories."We have to work to bring them vividly to life so it makes it a lot more interesting than just a dry historical tour," Thomas adds.
Toward the middle of our tour, Thomas shares his favorite tale, what he calls "Pittsburgh's most important ghost story." It involves the famous Homestead steel strike of 1892, when Frick and Carnegie decided to crush the local union. Frick had hired an "army" of Pinkerton detectives during a lockout of the Carnegie Steel Works and as the Pinkertons arrived, workers and their families fought back. "My great grandfather was a part of that fight and I really enjoy telling that story," Thomas says, adding that there is a strange twist to this story. "A man tried to assassinate Frick, and Frick claimed that his deceased daughter appeared at his side, a flash of light that blinded the would-be assassin," he says.
Our last stop is at the former site of the Monongahela House, a hotel that Abraham Lincoln, president-elect at the time, stayed at in 1862. Thomas explains the dark connection between the Monongahela House and the assassinations of Abraham Lincoln in 1865, President James Garfield in 1881 and President William McKinley in 1901. The presidents all spent the night there in the same bed, and all are rumored to have had nightmares about assassination. It is one of the most picturesque moments of the tour as we are across the river from the Station Square restaurant and entertainment area.
We walked about one and a half miles that night and came away from the tour feeling like we had learned a lot while having had fun along the way. In all, the tour was an hour and 45 minutes long. Many of the historic buildings in Pittsburgh are visited and many of the famous people in Pittsburgh are discussed.