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John C. Bell: Pennsylvania's 19-day Governor

The names of many governors in Pennsylvania history are familiar to most of us. Some are memorialized in the names of our counties (Mifflin, McKean, Snyder), while others are memorialized in the names of our cities, villages and townships (Shunk, Findlay, Wolf, Hastings, Bigler). Two of our governors even have state forests name in their honor (Sproul, Pinchot) while the names of many more grace our streets, highways, bridges, buildings and schools.

But when it comes to state governors, there's one name you won't find on a street sign or football stadium, however-- and it is a name that even many Pennsylvania historians might not recall.

That governor is John Cromwell Bell, and if you don't recognize the name, it's because his tenure as governor of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania lasted just 19 days-- making him the shortest-serving governor in state history.

A Philadelphia native, Bell came from a family with a political pedigree; his father served as Pennsylvania Atto…

An interesting story from Marietta

The following comes from the Harrisburg Telegraph on April 26, 1913.


A sword-wielding apparition in York

The following story appeared on the front page the Jan. 30, 1897 edition of the York Semi-Weekly Gazette.


Solved: The mystery of Pennsylvania's rock cairns

Hidden in the woods throughout Pennsylvania are countless man-made rock piles. These mysterious structures can be found in a variety of shapes, from beehive-shaped mounds to neatly-stacked piles. They appear to be quite old, which has led to numerous theories on their origin, ranging from the mildly plausible to the downright ridiculous.

The most mundane explanation is that these rock piles were created by 18th and 19th century farmers and pioneer settlers attempting to clear their planting fields. Others have suggested that the mysterious cairns are monuments or markers created by Native Americans. Still others claim that Pennsylvania's man-made rock piles are relics of an ancient, unknown civilization, comparable in size and construction to other mysterious cairns that have been discovered in Wales and Ireland.

These rock cairns can be found throughout the state, but the most well-known examples are found in the remote wilderness of Susquehanna County. Other cairn fields have been…

Notorious Pennsylvania Outlaws: Eatabite Tibbs

Crime and colorful nicknames go hand in hand, from Babyface Nelson to Prettyboy Floyd to the Sundance Kid. While these outlaws may be more famous or their exploits more sensational, few criminals have been endowed with a nickname as unusual as Angus "Eatabite" Tibbs, the eccentric and charismatic bandit who terrorized western Pennsylvania in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, while managing to escape from mental asylums and jailhouses and surviving gunshot wounds that would have killed a normal man along the way.

Eatabite Tibbs first earned notoriety as a result of Uniontown's Jasper Augustine scandal of 1895. Augustine, a wealthy and powerful member of the local community, was arrested for keeping "a disorderly house" and was sentenced in November to one hour of jail and a $500 fine. The investigation revealed that Augustine's brothel was frequented by many of Pittburgh's most prominent businessmen. These revelations, along with the striking beau…

A ghostly tale of Mt. Carmel's Reliance Colliery

Reliance Colliery, located south of Mount Carmel on Locust Mountain, saw many tragedies since its construction in 1867. Of these, the explosion of September 2, 1926, is perhaps best remembered, which claimed the lives of four miners and badly burned several more.

However, one remarkable tragedy that took place in the shadows of Reliance Colliery didn't involve a miner at all, but a middle-aged Lithuanian woman named Annie Metzgas. Her death in 1903 didn't warrant more than a few sentences in local papers, but the stories of her ghost haunting the surrounding hills kept the residents of Mount Carmel inside their homes at night for weeks after her unfortunate demise.

On Friday afternoon, July 10, a powerful thunderstorm swept over the area. It came suddenly, catching Annie Metzgas by surprise as she was picking huckleberries on the hill near the colliery. Annie had arrived in the country just a few months earlier, and barely spoke a word of English. She shared a home with her dau…

The Bludgeoning of Biddy Quinn: The first murder and execution in Lebanon County

In 1826, the citizens of Lebanon were horrified to learn that a murder had taken place in their peaceful, idyllic community. In every household in every village throughout the county, the crime was discussed, and continued to be a fixture of local conversation for years afterward. Parents and preachers alike used the murder and the subsequent execution of the killer as a teaching device in order to illustrate the perils of intoxication and the evils of liquor.

Lebanon, then just a tiny town, was holding its Cherry Fair at the time. It was the 25th of May, and the streets were swarming with merry-makers of all ages. The men disappeared into the city's taverns to enjoy a drink, while the women and children ambled from merchant stand to merchant stand by the old market house sampling molasses candy, honey cakes, mint drops and other sweets.

While the residents of Lebanon were frolicking at the fair, about a mile west of town a very different scene was unfolding. In narrow ravine tha…

Camp Michaux: Cumberland County's secret WW2 POW camp

In the heart of some of the commonwealth's most breathtaking natural scenery lies the ruins of a secret army camp used during Word War II to interrogate enemy prisoners. For thirty months the Pine Grove Furnace Prisoner of War Camp operated in the depths of Michaux State Forest, its very existence known to but a select few, where military intelligence officers endeavored to extract enemy secrets about Nazi weaponry and military tactics.

The site, which originally served as a farm for the nearby iron furnaces and later as a camp for the Civilian Conservation Corps, has been preserved by the Cumberland County Historical Society with funding from the Community Conservation Partnership Program and other grants. Thanks to the exceptional efforts of the CCHS, lovers of history can now enjoy a self-guided walking tour of Camp Michaux (click here to download) and learn about this rare gem in Pennsylvania's majestic treasure chest of history.

I explored Camp Michaux earlier this week …

Phildelphia's Ghoulish Firehouse

In the Rittenhouse Square section of Philadelphia, just a few blocks southwest from the famously spooky Mutter Museum, stands a modest little firehouse. Built sometime in the 19th century, the humble brick structure is tucked among other larger brick buildings on South 16th Street, making it easy to miss.
It has been years since this charming building housed any fire-fighting equipment; today it's just a private, anonymous building with private, anonymous owners, one of hundreds of such buildings that can be found in any given city.

But, like all buildings, the tiny brick firehouse has a story to tell, and it's strange story might even be more chilling than any of the human oddities that have been displayed a short distance away at the Mutter Museum.

In the fall of 1892 the building at 754 South 16th Street was home to the firemen of Truck E. Even back then it was an old building and had fallen into a state of disrepair. It had been built years earlier as a soap factory, and had…

An interesting window display

Nothing attracts customers to a business like human remains in the window. In 1925, C.W. Ross of Oil City found a human skull while excavating at his property along the Allegheny River.  It appeared that the skull was missing its top, suggesting that the skull had once belonged to a native who was scalped during a battle with an enemy tribe.

As any person would, Ross had a desire to show off his nifty find, and decided to place it in the window of his general store on Colbert Avenue.

The following appeared in the Franklin News-Herald on July 10, 1925.




Ancient Giants in Danville?

Could Danville have been home at one time to the world's tallest man? It's possible. In 1901 workers uncovered a stone footprint measuring 18 inches in length. Presently, the world record for the biggest feet belongs to Rodríguez Hernandez of Venezuela, who stands 7 feet 2 inches tall and has feet measuring just under 16 inches in length. The previous record holder was Sultan Kösen, who still holds the record for the tallest living man at 8 feet and 2.82 inches. His feet measured 14 inches-- 1/3 of a foot less than the Danville stone footprint.




So how tall might this ancient giant have been?

The famous American giant, Robert Wadlow of Illinois-- the tallest person who ever lived-- still holds the record for the largest feet of all time. His feet were just a tiny bit longer than that of the Danville giant, at 18 and 1/4 inches in length. Wadlow stood 8 ft 11.1 in height and weighed 439 lbs. at the time of his death at the age of 22 in 1940.

So, it would be safe to assume tha…

The secret tomb of Salem Lutheran Church

A centuries-old secret lurked beneath the Salem Lutheran Church in the Franklin County village of Pleasant Hall until it was discovered by workmen reconstructing the church in the spring of 1929. Even today, very few people are aware of the secret Indian grave located in the bowels of the church building.

The humble brick church that is visible today, a well-known landmark of Letterkenny Township, was built on the site of the original house of worship, which is believed to have been built in or around 1740. Although historians still debate the date of the original church's construction, it is evident that the church could not have been built prior to 1736, when the title to that particular section of land was still held by Indians.

Several decades later a new church was erected on the same spot, and continued to serve the Lutheran worshipers of the Letterkenny valley without interruption until major renovations took place in 1929, at the direction of Rev. W.J. Schultz. Among the sc…

The Mystery Box of Tamaqua's Odd Fellows Cemetery

In April of 1898, Mrs. Margaret Wyatt of Tamaqua passed away. A quiet, unremarkable woman with a quiet, unremarkable life, Mrs. Wyatt was prepared for burial without much fanfare. She was to be interred at the Odd Fellows Cemetery and the necessary preparations were made by Joseph Southem, the graveyard sexton.

However, as Mrs. Wyatt's grave was being dug, Mr. Southem made a curious discovery, leading to a mystery that has remained unsolved for over a century.

The following comes from the Shenandoah Evening Herald, on April 4, 1898:





Why on earth would anyone bury an empty box in a cemetery beneath a one ton boulder? Who would go through such trouble? Did the box once hold a valuable treasure that had somehow been unearthed before 1898? Or was somebody planning on returning to the spot later with the hopes of burying something that nobody would ever be able to find?

That, of course, is the mystery, and it's a mystery that boggles the mind the more you stop to think about it.
The s…

Petrified Indian found in Clearfield County

From the Philadelphia Inquirer, Sept. 30, 1898.


Notorious Pennsylvania Outlaws: The Sallada Brothers

Henry and Jacob Sallada, executed for the 1917 Coal Township murder of Charles Schleig, hold a dubious distinction in the annals of Northumberland County history-- of being the first criminals sent to the electric chair by a judge at the county courthouse in Sunbury.

Although the Sallada brothers resided in the Schuylkill County village of Sacramento, in Hubley Township, their criminal exploits often took place over the county line in neighboring Northumberland County, perhaps due to the fact that Northumberland County was known for imposing lenient sentences on hardened criminals.

Henry, the older of the Sallada brothers, was a notorious bandit who had  a lengthy criminal record long before he committed the murder that led to his execution. In May of 1915 he was arrested and sent to jail in Pottsville for stealing $2,000 in gold from an elderly resident of Sacramento, which he buried in a tin can beneath a chicken coop at his home. Police recovered most of the money, though $164 in …