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The Lamb's Gap Murder Mystery: Unsolved 92 Years and Counting

The History of Pennsylvania's Most Perplexing Unsolved Mystery



One third of all murder cases go unsolved. This is true even today, with all of our advances in crime-solving technology and forensic science, and so we can only surmise how many murders must have gone unsolved a century ago. And yet, with so many unsolved crimes marring the pages of our commonwealth's history, only a select handful still haunt our collective memory. The Lamb's Gap Murders, which took place not far from Marysville in 1924, certainly fit that description. What you are about to read is the complete history of the crime, and how the relentless pursuit of justice has continued for nearly a century.

On the morning of May 17, 1924, a soft breeze rustled through the trees along a quiet road in Lamb's Gap. Birds flittered from branch to branch, breaking the early morning stillness with their cheerful chirping, oblivious to the parked automobile alongside the road and its gruesome cargo.

A man's body lay on the car's running board. A girl's body slumped over the steering wheel. Both were dead; the victims of the same bullet. It was later removed from the left arm of the female victim. The victims were identified as Harry Ganster, 21, who, only a few years earlier, had graduated near the top of his class from Marysville High School. The female victim was Leah Ellenberger, a pretty schoolteacher from Hollidaysburg. They had left Marysville the previous afternoon in a car belonging to Harry's grandmother and went to Lamb's Gap to pick wildflowers.

Authorities determined that Ganster's left thumb had been injured, because it was neatly bandaged. Probably the result of a prick from a thorn. The pair of springtime lovers were unaware of the danger lurking nearby, in the form of an expert marksman with a high-powered rifle. Through the scope of the rifle, perhaps the killer observed the tender care provided by the young woman to her lover as she carefully bandaged his wounded hand. And Miss Ellenberger was surely a tender woman; for she proudly wore Harry's class ring on her finger.

This was the scene which greeted the young man's father, Joseph Ganster, and the young woman's uncle, George Albright, shortly before sunrise in Lamb's Gap. Miss Ellenberger had been a guest at her uncle's home, having arrived a few days earlier from Blair County. When the young lovers failed to return home, Joseph and George took to the woods for an all-night search, but nothing could prepare them for the horrific discovery they would make shortly after four o'clock in the morning.

Leaving the bodies, Albright raced back to Marysville to spread the alarm, while the horror-stricken father remained by his son's lifeless corpse. Two state troopers were summoned from their station at Progress, and they were met at the scene by Coroner Ambrose Peffer and County Detective Ross Trimmer. Soon the party swelled to include seventeen troopers, led by Sergeant Austin. The shooting had taken place near the border line separating Perry and Cumberland counties. Throngs of newspaper reporters and photographers descended upon the crime scene, along with hundreds of local residents and curiosity seekers.

Back in Marysville, indignation ran high; Ganster was a favorite son of the community. Pursuing a career in medicine, he had been invited to give a commencement speech to the Marysville senior class. It was an engagement he would never keep. The mother of Miss Ellenberger was also beloved by the community. The former Miss Tillie Shull frequently visited her old friends in Marysville, occasionally singing solos in the town's Methodist church.


The Authorities Take Charge

The bodies remained at the scene until noon, when Major Lynn G. Adams, head of the Pennsylvania State Police, took charge. Like many of the troopers who worked under him, Adams was certain that the killer would be caught and brought to justice. The troopers combed the woods with a fine tooth comb in their search for clues-- footprints, shell casings, scraps of clothing and any other discovery that might shed light on the horrible crime. However, the large crowd of onlookers trampled the scene, contaminating the area with their own litter and unintentionally complicating the efforts of Major Adams and his men.

The prevailing theory among law enforcement was that Ganster and Ellenberger had been killed by moonshiners, who, since the early days of Prohibition, had operated illegal stills in the surrounding mountains. Revenge may have been a motive; Harry Ganster, enamored with amateur sleuthing, had reported the discovery of a still to the State Police less than a year earlier. Ganster, who was also an avid photographer, had taken pictures of the still. The authorities had paid a visit to the still, only to find it abandoned. Ganster's amateur sleuthing had worried the moonshiners, who once confronted him and issued a stern warning that, the next time Ganster explored the woods, he would be wise to leave his camera at home.

Ganster's family knew all about these threats, but neither Harry nor his father ever reported them to the police. Did young Harry take his girlfriend to Lamb's Gap to show her the moonshiner's stills he had discovered? Or had the excursion been nothing more than the natural desire for two young lovers to be alone?

During the course of their investigation, police learned of a remarkable incident involving Ganster and a high school teacher from Marysville. Two years prior to the double homicide, Ganster and his teacher friend had a run-in with moonshiners inside of a cabin. The incident culminated with a bullet from Ganster's revolver entering the leg of one Sherwood Myers. The injury to Myers was minor and the incident was never reported. Myers was questioned by police after the murder, but authorities failed to find any connection to the slaying.



The Evidence, and Lack Thereof

Major Adams questioned members of a Boy Scout troop who were camping in the vicinity of Lamb's Gap. They reported hearing four shots between six and seven o'clock the previous evening. Other residents claimed to have heard only two or three shots, while still others insisted that only one shot was heard. It seemed that no one could agree on the time of the shooting. Adams adhered to the single shot theory, explaining later that, in his expert opinion, the victims had been surprised by their slayer. There was no evidence of a struggle and based upon the positioning of Harry's body, it seemed obvious that the young man was just stepping into the vehicle when the fatal bullet pierced his body and then continued to travel into the body of Miss Ellenberg. So sudden was the act that Harry's glasses remained in place even as life escaped from his body.

After taking careful measurements, Adams concluded that the killer had fired the shot from a distance of approximately one hundred feet. The spot where the killer stood, according to police, provided an excellent view of the victim's automobile. Through a clearing of branches, the killer had a perfect shot.

In spite of the meticulous efforts of lawmen, the shell casing from the fatal bullet was never found. Also absent were the presence of any footprints near the spot where they believed the killer had stood.
However, authorities did find the footprints of Ganster and Ellenberger on an old logging trail that led to the parked automobile. Not far behind these footprints were a second pair of prints, made by a large boot. The killer had evidently stalked his victims like prey.

But why did he wait to make his move? Why had the killer permitted Ganster and Ellenberger to reach their vehicle? Why was there no attempt to conceal their bodies? Was the killer frightened away by the headlights of a passing motorist? And, if a motorist was driving by, why didn't he or she report the murders? Anyone who can answer these questions might be able to solve the most baffling case in the annals of Pennsylvania crime.



A Curious Discovery

There was one discovery that baffled police the most. Inside Ganster's pocket they discovered a hypodermic needle. Ganster was seeking a career a medicine, and that seemed to be the only plausible explanation. Yet even that explanation raised more questions than it answered. Who takes a syringe on romantic stroll through the woods to collect wildflowers? For that matter, who takes a syringe anywhere?

Ganster also had a notebook, and his notebook contained a detailed listing of the calibers of all the revolvers owned by his family. The weapon of each relative was described in great detail. The only possible explanation was that the notebook was part of the amateur sleuthing game he liked to play in real life.

Ganster's notebook also contained a careful record of all his treks into the mountains. He chronicled everything he came across: wildlife, flora and insects. He took numerous photographs of plants and flowers.
Yes, it appeared that the young man had a keen interest in many subjects, from botany and medicine to photography to amateur crime solving. But which one his many hobbies had gotten him killed? Had the killer even been interested in taking the life of Leah Ellenberger, or had the ruffian managed to kill tow birds with one stone without even trying?


A Swirling Whirlpool of Rumors

The local rumor mill was working overtime in the wake of the Lamb's Gap murders. While most favored the death-by-moonshiner explanation, other theories emerged.

One popular theory was that a jealous husband from Cumberland County mistook Leah Ellenberger as his cheating spouse. Others insisted that Leah had another lover, who stalked the couple and then killed both victims in a fit of jealous rage. Others believed that the tragedy had been an accident, the result of a stray bullet fired by a backwoods hunter or target shooter. To many, it seemed implausible that any murderer could hit two victims with such uncanny accuracy.

Ganster's grave, at Chestnut Grove Cemetery in Marysville


Another popular rumor was that Ganster had killed the girl before taking his own life. But this seems unlikely as the murder weapon was never found. Unless, of course, the gun was carried away by an accomplice or passerby. Stranger things have happened. Police did investigate all of these theories thoroughly and found no substantiating evidence.

Months after the crime, authorities announced that most of these rumors were spread by those with known ties to the moonshining business, in an attempt to muddy the waters and stall the investigation. It was also later revealed that, in the hours following the murders, several local moonshiners had mysteriously moved their stills. Whether this decision to change their base of operations was because they played a role in the crime, or simply because the mountains were crawling with cops, is unknown. What is known, however, is that one notorious moonshiner of the era, Dan Smith (who died five months before the murders), made a habit of hiring armed sentries who were positioned at various locations along the mountain.

Leah's grave at Duncannon's Evergreen Cemetery



A Possible Clue

In 1939, fifteen years after the Lamb's Gap murders, Major Lynn G. Adams, now retired, disclosed the type of weapon used in the crime. This was the first time that this information was made public. The rifle used was an 1892 model Winchester of 44.40 caliber. Adams also stated that the bullet was of a soft-nose, smokeless powder type that, at the time, had only been on the market for about eight months. "We watched for that rifle for years," Adams recalled in 1939, "but it never showed up."

It seems plausible that a new type of ammunition, made available to the public for the first time only months earlier, could have been sold by only a handful of retailers in Cumberland and Perry counties in 1929. No evidence has been found to suggest that State Police tracked down these dealers and attempted to ascertain the identities of customers who had purchased this new type of ammunition.

It also seems plausible that, at some point in the last ninety-two years, an 1892 Winchester has either come up for sale at an auction or antique shop somewhere in Pennsylvania. Perhaps the rifle is now a family heirloom, displayed over the mantel of a descendant's fireplace. Perhaps this very rifle has been in your family's possession for a century, faithfully keeping its bloody secret.


Sources:

Harrisburg Telegraph, May 17, 1929.

Harrisburg Telegraph, May 23, 1929.
Harrisburg Telegraph, May 17, 1939.



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