Skip to main content

A police station with a haunted painting?


Allegheny City (now part of Pittsburgh) as it appeared in the late 19th century


The following story comes from the October 23, 1898 edition of the Pittsburgh Press and involves a painting of a criminal who was made to pose for the artist against his will. The painting was said to change colors-- and the convict's expression was said to change from frowning to laughing. The official explanation was that the changes were the result of inferior quality oil paint. What do you think?




A MYSTERY PICTURE: STARTLING CHANGES IN A PAINTING IN ALLEGHENY POLICE DEPT.

The Allegheny police department has a mystery picture, and the queer antics of the canvas have excited widespread curiosity. To the casual observer it is nothing more than an ordinary oil painting with very little to recommend it to the eye of the critic. Yet even a person uneducated in the mysteries of colors cannot help but observe the many changes of this picture if he but pause a few moments and study it. The countenance of the subject actually changes, and at times smiles, then assumes a hangdog look, and in a little while changes again to another.

The picture is one in oil by Charles McKeown, a well-known Allegheny sign painter, whose pictures have excited great admiration and who has achieved quite a reputation in both cities for his work in oil. It was painted in May, 1891, and is entitled "Photographing a Criminal".

The subject of the painting is George Gamble, who was arrested at the time, and, being a man well known to the police, it was decided that he pose for the occasion. He was bound in a chair with a thick hempen rope wound tightly around him and his head held back by Director John R. Murphy. Gamble, after a little consideration, concluded that he did not want his face in oil and tried hard to change his countenance so that he could not be identified by the painting. He was so obstinate that the artist had to give up the task. A photographer was called in and the prisoner's picture taken. McKeon then painted the picture from the photo.

The picture was hung in the front office, and up until a few weeks ago it was scarcely noticed. But last Wednesday, Assistant Superintendent John Glenn and a number of others were sitting in the office facing the picture, when he noticed the face change. He called Director Murphy's attention to the change and Supt. Henry Muth was also called to notice the singular incident. The three sat and watched it and, instead of the murky countenance of the convict, the face had assumed a laughing expression and remained so for fully ten minutes, when it went back to its natural position.

This has occurred daily since then and more than this the colors of the picture change daily. The drab coat of Gamble is sometimes black, sometimes green, and often white. The face assumes all colors and the shape of the hat even changes. The arms and hands change position and many times the collar, which fits the neck tightly, appears to be six sizes too large.

Mr. Glenn explains that the recent damp weather is the cause of the many changes, owing to the fact that the colors used in the paint were of a poor quality, and that the dampness has a tendency to loosen the oil and make the colors apparently flow together, and make dozens of rays and hues that do not belong to the painting. He says that when the cold weather comes around the picture will settle down to its normal condition and will be as good as ever. The colors do not flow, as explained, but, becoming soft, the pigment comes to the surface, and that causes the changes in color. Then the least softening of the materials causes the canvas to become loose and this changes the position of the lips and other parts and portions of the painting.

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…

Natalie, Pennsylvania: A Murderer's Paradise

When a miner named Michael Wanzie was murdered in June of 1905, it was evident that something wasn't quite right in the tiny village of Natalie. Although the scenic mountain village had a population of less than two hundred, the slaying of Michael Wanzie was the fourth murder committed in the village in less than a decade.

By 1924 the population had nearly doubled, thanks to a building "boom" that saw the construction of 40 new homes during the preceding year by builders employed by the Colonial Collieries Company, owners of the Natalie Colliery. Twenty of these homes, many of which still stand today, were built by the Evert Construction Company of Kulpmont. In 1923 there were 56 homes in the village, housing 375 residents. By April of 1924 that number would swell to just under 400 residents and 93 homes.

Although the building boom lent a measure of respectability to the village, Natalie was still imbued with a notorious reputation as being one of the most lawless places …

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 …