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The Tragic Fate of Homer Swaney

Downtown McKeesport as it appeared in Swaney's time.


When Homer H. Swaney, former lawyer, president of the Pacific Steel Company and prominent citizen of McKeesport, lost his life in the sinking of the steamship Clallam off the Pacific coast in January of 1904, it seemed to conclude a strange tale of superstition and native curses.

Four years earlier, Swaney and a McKeesport real estate developer named James L. Devenney traveled to Port Townsend in British Columbia. Among the many souvenirs they brought back was a totem pole that had been carved by the chief of a local Indian tribe. Although British law forbade the taking of Indian relics outside the territory, the two men managed to sneak the totem out of Port Townsend and into the United States.

Misfortune appeared almost from the first moment the artifact was brought to Pennsylvania.

The totem pole was first displayed inside White's Drugstore in McKeesport, where it attracted a great deal of attention. Among those who came to see the relic was James Petty, a newspaper reporter who wrote a story about the totem pole. En route to the post office to mail his story to his editor, he suffered a fall and broke his leg.

Within the first day of the totem pole's arrival in McKeesport, misfortune also fell upon the real estate developer who had brought the souvenir back from British Columbia. James L. Devenney fell down a flight of stairs, fractured his skull and was laid up for six months recovering from his injuries.

The totem was removed from the drugstore and taken to Devenney's office in East McKeesport, arriving at 4 o'clock in the afternoon. At 10 o'clock that evening, a neighboring church burned to the ground and was completely destroyed.

Eventually the totem was donated to Dr. Holland, director of the Carnegie Institute, where it found a home on the second floor of the museum.

As for Homer Swaney, his body was eventually located by the tugboat Bahada on January 19, floating in the water two miles north of Dungenness. It was still wearing a life preserver from the steamer Clallam. According to reports, both his eyes were gone-- probably pecked out by hungry sea birds.

The moral of the story? Don't be like Homer Swaney and have your eyes pecked out by hungry sea birds. If you happen to come across an Indian relic, it just might be a good idea to leave it alone!

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