Skip to main content

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!

Popular posts from this blog

Mount Carmel's Mysterious Suicide Cell

Tucked away at the head of North Oak Street in Mount Carmel is a quaint shop housed in a tiny historic brick building. The Shop at Oak & Avenue is a must-see destination for visitors, offering an impressive variety of gifts and handmade jewelry. It is a gem in an otherwise drab coal town whose glory days faded away with the demise of the steam locomotive and the trolley.

While this quaint small town gift shop gives off a pleasant appearance, the history of the building-- one of the oldest in the borough-- is tinged with horror and death. For this tiny building, erected in the 1880s, served as Mount Carmel's first city hall and jail, and this jail had a rather dark distinction of being the site of the cursed and mysterious "suicide cell".

History records six suicides taking place in the basement cell, along with scores of other attempted suicides. For a reason that has defied explanation, this tiny jail in this tiny town seems to bring out the darkest demons lurking wi…

The True Story of Shamokin's Famous "Mystery Head"

Hardly a week goes by that I don't receive an email from a Pennsylvania Oddities reader asking me to write about the Shamokin "mystery head"-- yes, the very same human head, complete with curly hair and mustache, that was put on display in the window of the Farrow Funeral Home (presumably to show off the establishment's embalming abilities) and later displayed at a local mining museum. The head belonged to an unidentified murder victim whose headless body was found in the woods near the Hickory Ridge colliery in 1904, and the head has been a source of local pride and urban legend ever since.

I've resisted the urge to write about the "mystery head" for a few reasons. Having grown up in the area, I heard about it so many times that the story has worn thin. Secondly, the erroneous local legends and false claims are probably a lot more entertaining than the actual truth about the "mystery head". These local legends run the gamut from plausible to …

Mount Carmel's Night of Terror: The Strantz & Yorkavage Crime Spree of 1937

On the evening of April 9, 1937, two bandits with their guns blazing left a trail of carnage through the sooty streets of Mount Carmel and Shamokin. For one of the gunmen, the trail came to a bloody end in Diamondtown after a shootout with police. For the other gunman, the trail led to the electric chair at Rockview State Penitentiary, with 2,000 volts of electricity coursing through his body.



The Ballad of Joe Cabbage and Wild Wally

A reunion of sorts took place in January of 1937, after Joseph Yorkavage was paroled from the Northumberland County Prison in Sunbury. Known to his friends as "Joe Cabbage", the notorious ruffian was released on the 25th and, oddly enough, this was the very same day Yorkavage's best friend, Walter Strantz, was paroled from the infamous Eastern State penitentiary in Philadelphia.

Back in 1919, "Joe Cabbage" was one of three men who staged a failed train robbery in Centralia. The three men dynamited the tracks and then hid in the bus…