Pittsburgh's Greatest Scandal: Mrs. Soffel and the Biddle Brothers

Picture Mount Washington, an evening in April 1901: unpaved, rutted roads lit only by gaslight. For several months, Pittsburgh has been rocked by almost nightly robberies committed by a trio of vicious bandits, brothers Edward and Jack Biddle and their partner Walter Dorman. The robbers are audacious. They came at night, while their prey slept. The lucky victims were chloroformed into a stupor; the unlucky ones were ordered out of bed to turn over their valuables and to be terrorized for sport. One time, an old woman refused to cooperate, so one of Biddle boys calmly busted a chair to pieces and used one of its legs to beat her almost to death. The newspapers wouldn’t even print some of the atrocities because the truth was just too awful for early 20th Century readers.

 April 12, 1901: in the course of a robbery gone bad, grocer Thomas Kahney at his home above his store at 13 Albert Street. The police suspected the Biddles were the culprits, and the next morning, cops went to the boarding house where they were living and arrested them—but not before Ed mortally wounded one detective and shot another in the arm. Dorman immediately began confessing. He pinned the grocer’s murder on Jack and Ed. In all, 41 burglaries were pinned on the gang.

The Biddle brothers were sentenced to be hanged, and Dorman was given a life sentence. The Biddles awaited the hangman’s noose in the Allegheny County Jail. Thirty-five-year-old Kate Soffel was the wife of the warden of the jail, Peter Soffel. They’d been married since she was 16 and had four children. After Mr. Soffel became warden, the family moved into the warden’s residence in the jail.

Scandal of all scandals, Mrs. Soffel became infatuated with Ed Biddle, who was 11 years younger than she was. She'd visit the Biddles in their jail cells, ostensibly to read them Bible passages. Eventually, she started flirting with them. She became so certain of the brothers’ innocence that she wrote to the governor pleading for their release. Her request was denied, so she decided to take matters into her own hands.

On the evening of January 29, 1902, Mr. Soffel incapacitated her husband, the warden, with – you guessed it – chloroform. The next day, at 4:15 am, the Biddle brothers escaped from jail -- with the help of Mrs. Soffel. She provided them with hacksaws and a pistol. Upon emerging from their cells, the brothers grappled with guards – fracturing the skull of one and shooting another in the hip. They locked up the guards in a dungeon, then they burst through the library door where Mrs. Soffel was waiting for them. She took them out through the warden’s residence and onto Ross Street.

If all that was not sufficiently scandalous, Mrs. Soffel, herself, went with condemned murderers. The threesome had an almost two-hour head start because the Biddles’ escape was only discovered when the day shift guards came on duty at 6:00 a.m. “Wanted” circulars were handed out announcing a $5,000 reward for the Biddle brothers’ capture -- dead or alive. When he figured out what happened, Mr. Soffel was on the verge of collapse and decided he had no choice but to resign as warden.

The Biddle brothers and Mrs. Soffel stole a one-horse sleigh and a black mare named Flora and made their way to what is now Route 8 in the direction of Saxonburg. On January 31, they were overtaken in Butler County, amidst a gun battle in the snow that was like something out of an old time western.

When the Biddles were brought to the jail, 5,000 people gathered, and when their bodies were carried out of the sleigh, the crowd “cheered madly.” It was a carnival atmosphere. Within 24 hours, they were both dead. Mrs. Soffel had also suffered a gunshot wound but survived. She underwent surgery to extract a bullet and developed symptoms of pneumonia. As to how she was shot, Mrs. Soffel told three different stories. She shot herself. Ed shot her. The police shot her. 

A lost letter from Ed to Mrs. Soffel was found in the snow near where the shootout took place. It revealed they had been planning their escape since Dec. 2, 1901. Mrs. Soffel had fallen in love with Ed in November and Ed started writing love letters to her. Originally Ed wanted Mrs. Soffel to flee to Canada to meet up with them. It’s unclear if Ed’s feelings for Mrs. Soffel were in any sense sincere. But before his death, Jack reported that if it were not for Mrs. Soffel, he and Ed would have stolen two horses and could have been a hundred miles away. Instead they made it only to Butler. The Biddles had decided they couldn’t let the poor woman go by herself after betraying her husband and family for them.

After their deaths, the Biddles’ bodies were brought back to Pittsburgh by train. A curiosity-crazed mob tussled outside the morgue to see the bodies. Another Biddle brother who was not involved in the crimes saw his house at 98 Knox Avenue overrun with curiosity seekers looking for the bodies. Crowds – mostly women -- formed outside of the South Side funeral home where the brothers were laid out the morning of the viewing, and the streets were jammed for blocks due to the crowds. Street car officials reported it was the biggest day in the company’s history. Thousands who worked in the South Side mills had to walk to work that day as the street cars were filled with crying, hysterical women. When the doors of the mortuary opened, 5,000 people – again, mainly women -- viewed the bodies at a rate of 55 a minute. Mary Dale, 25 of Northside, didn’t go to view the bodies but instead wrote Jack a letter about her undying devotion, telling him that they would meet in heaven. Then she killed herself by drinking poison. Newspaper clippings and photos of the Biddles were found pasted to her bedroom walls.

The Biddles were buried in Calvary Cemetery in a single grave. Women followed their caskets to the cemetery.

During Mrs. Soffel's recovery, she received large amounts of mail from all over the country. Many were letters offering advice of a religious nature, but she wouldn’t even read those. Mrs. Soffel remained hopeful that her husband would forgive her. He never did. On May 5, 1902, Mrs. Soffel pled guilty to aiding and abetting in the escape of prisoners. She made a special request to not have any of her relatives present. She was sentenced to the maximum of two years in the Western Penitentiary.

On June 28, 1902, the now ex-Warden filed for divorce. He alleged that Mrs. Soffel had led a double life and had been “intimate” with men other than just Ed Biddle. Five co-respondents were named in addition to Ed in the divorce complaint but it said there were also others.

Mrs. Soffel was released early for good behavior. She was picked up in a carriage by a woman friend and taken to her sister’s house at 26 Southern Avenue.

There was a popular play written about the Biddle brothers and Mrs. Soffel called “A Desperate Chance” that played in various places for several years. One critic said it was an even-handed account of the entire affair, while another said “it is bad from every point of view.” Mr. Soffel attended a performance in Cincinnati and was incensed that his and his daughter’s names were used in the play. He went to court and got an injunction to force the producers to change their names in the play. That play, by the way, featured the actual horse, Flora, and sleigh used in the Biddle brothers’ daring escape. The Pittsburgh Police Department donated the pistols and handcuffs used in the famous gun battle in the snow. For her part, Mrs. Soffel attempted to no avail to star in the play.

Then she took up dress making, and continued living with her sister at 26 Southern Ave. Mrs. Soffel died on August 31, 1909 at the West Pennsylvania Hospital of typhoid fever. Her daughter, Margaret, was a nurse there. She was laid out at 22 Southern Avenue, her father’s home.

And of course there are ghosts in the story. The office of the last Deputy Warden of the old jail was actually the location of Mrs. Soffel’s bedroom. The Deputy Warden said: “I’m not a believer in the spirit world, but there were some creepy things that happened there.” Like when a picture on the wall moved on its own; and when he heard what seemed to be sand shifting in the walls; and when he felt a cold hand on his arm that he believes was that of Mrs. Soffel.

A widely circulated news article in 1907 stated that prisoners at the Allegheny County Jail complained about seeing the ghosts of the Biddle Brothers roaming the halls.

Based on the number of documented sightings, the old Jail is the most haunted building in Pittsburgh. Here more about it on Haunted Pittsburgh's walking tour, which runs from spring to early November every year.