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 beauty of the madam, Jessie Davis, created a media sensation. The circus continued for months, with Augustine's wife filing for divorce and allegations made by Augustine's attorneys that Jasper had been framed by a business rival.
Many civic leaders, prostitutes and petty thugs were caught up in the Augustine scandal, and among them was Eatabite. The June 14, 1895 edition of the Pittsburgh Daily Post reported:
Another phase of the case was the trial of Samuel Magie, a wealthy liveryman; Mell Baxter and "Eatabite" Tibbs, the latter two negroes. The men were charged with assault and battery upon R.P. Kennedy, Augustine's attorney. Magie was acquitted, but the colored men were convicted.
During the trial Eatabite stood up and complained that one of Jasper Augustine's witnesses was abusing him, but he was shouted down by Judge Mestrezal. Infuriated, Eatabite returned to the courthouse with a revolver and said that if the court wouldn't protect him, he would protect himself. He was promptly sentenced to nine months in a work house for carrying a concealed weapon. There, he convinced his jailers that he was insane, and attempted suicide by hanging himself. He was transferred Dixmont mental asylum, from which he escaped a few weeks later by pulling a gun on the guards. Tibbs later claimed that it was one of Jasper Augustine's associates who had helped him concoct and execute the insanity ruse and subsequent Dixmont escape by providing him with a rope and a gun.
The police authorities of Pittsburgh and Fayette County were notified last Friday evening to endeavor to recapture Angus Tibbs, a negro, who escaped during the morning from the Dixmont Insane Asylum. Tibbs is known in this county as "Eat-a-bite", which name he is said to have acquired through his cannibalistic habit of chewing people in his numerous fights. He came to Uniontown from Roanoke, Va., during the coke workers strike over a year ago. He worked for a short time, and then began to assume control over the negroes. After he was sent to the Work House, "Eat-a-Bite" shammed insanity and made his actions so annoying that a petition was presented in the Fayette courts for his removal to Dixmont.-- Connellsville Weekly Courier, Aug. 9, 1895
Cannibal or Pie-Eater?
There is some debate as to how Angus Tibbs earned his unique sobriquet. While newspapers liked to report that he was called Eatabite because he like to use his teeth during fights, others have claimed that he had been called "Eat-a-Bite" from an early age because of his passion for pies and pastry. One account stated: "He ate pies by wholesale. A strange freak of fate had so shaped his face that he could swallow a pie without breaking the crust or spilling the juice."
|The remains of Dixmont State Hospital|
The Graveyard Shootout
On the evening of March 17, 1896, a shootout took place on the outskirts of Uniontown between Eatabite Tibbs and local lawmen, who finally caught up with the escaped asylum inmate after he burglarized a house and attempted to kill Judge Mestrezat earlier that evening.
It was Judge Mestrezat who had sentenced him to nine months at the Claremont work house for carrying a gun the previous summer, and revenge was never far from Eatabite's mind. On Tuesday night he drank freely of liquor and with each glass his hatred of the law deepened. Finally he got up and left the saloon, declaring, "I'll fix him, now." Concerned bystanders passed the word onto the police, who spotted him just outside of the judge's home. As luck would have it, the officers were already searching for the outlaw, who was believed to be behind a break-in in another part of Uniontown.
When Tibbs saw the officers he ran away down Railroad Street and was headed for the Catholic church when Constable Murphy ordered him to halt. Eatabite jumped a fence, stumbled, but regained his footing just as the posse was closing in on him. He dashed across the church graveyard but had lost his steam. With the law on his heels, he turned and opened fire.
The officers fired back with a volley of gunshots that lasted ten full minutes. Twenty-two shots were fired. Tibbs finally staggered forward and fell to the ground with two bullet wounds in his body. One of the bullets entered his right shoulder, while the other entered his chest and lodged in his lungs. He cursed the officers as they attempted to arrest him, fighting them off with his fists and feet and vowing that they'd never take him alive. At the jail, a doctor examined Eatabite and pronounced that the wounds would be fatal and that the outlaw would be dead by morning. Eatabite laughed and said he'd recover. He was right.
Nevertheless, Tibbs was now facing more than 30 separate felony and misdemeanor charges for his asylum escape, burglary, attempted murder of a judge and shootout with the police. If convicted, Eatabite Tibbs faced a prison sentence of 105 years.
On June 8, Eatabite was tried and convicted, but was sentenced by Judge Ewing to just four years at Riverside Penitentiary (later known as Western Penitentiary). A week later, as Tibbs was being delivered to the penitentiary by Sheriff Chalfant, a crowd of hundreds showed up to catch a glimpse of the infamous outlaw.
Four years later, just as his sentence was set to expire, Eatabite Tibbs was transferred back to Fayette County Prison to await sentencing for his armed robberies. Tibbs had other plans.
|Fayette County Courthouse, Uniontown|
The Soup Carriage Escape
On October 1, 1900, Tibbs became the first person to successfully escape from the stony walls of "Old Fayette", and he pulled off this feat without violence, dynamite or hacksaws. Tibbs simply stepped onto the elevator, rode to the basement, and casually walked out through an unlocked door. It was a plan that was ingenious because of its astonishing simplicity, and only a person with Eatabite's bravado and personality could pull it off without a hitch.
Inside the jail, Sheriff George McCormick had installed an elevator connecting the kitchen in the basement with the first, second and third tiers. The elevator was used to deliver meals to the inmates, who referred to it as the "soup carriage". Although the doors to the elevator were securely locked, Eatabite had been granted a small measure of freedom because of his "trusty" status, which grants certain privileges well-liked and well-behaved inmates.
According to reports, jail officials had come to like the eccentric Eatabite, who was said to entertain the other prisoners with jokes, songs and funny stories and was very helpful and cooperative with the prison staff. But just as he had feigned insanity in order to execute his first escape, the congeniality was just an act. Undoubtedly, escape had been on Tibbs' mind since the day of his arrival.
Eventually, Eatabite's trusty status earned him the job of transporting meals to the inmates. Although he wasn't permitted in the basement or inside the "soup carriage", he was granted access to the corridor which led to the elevator. On the day in question, he waited for the right moment and then jumped on top of the elevator carriage as it descended to the basement.
The guards, led by Deputy Sheriff A.Y. Stum, gave chase to the fleeing convict through the woods and up the ravine known as Coon Hollow, but couldn't catch up with Eatabite. Stum later recalled that he and the other guards could have shot Eatabite, but they were all too fond of him to kill him.
For reasons unknown, Sheriff McCormick suppressed word of Eatabite's escape from the press, as well as from the citizens of Fayette County who had no idea that a dangerous, erratic and notorious outlaw was on the loose. Although the jailbreak occurred on October 1, 1900, the public was not made aware of the escape until October 24:
There are a number of persons who would feel decidedly uneasy if they knew Eat-a-Bite has the freedom of the town, and perhaps it was to prevent such apprehension that Sheriff George A. McCormick decided to not advise the public of Tibbs' exit from the stone fortress of 'Old Fayette'.-- Pittsburgh Post Gazette, October 24, 1900
Eatabite Defies Death Again, Grants Bedside Interview
At around 11 o'clock on Sunday evening, October 4, 1903, a man named Charles Stratton was returning from to Uniontown from Connellsville on a streetcar when he was shot in the arm by an attacker identified by Stratton as Eatabite Tibbs.
According to Stratton, he and Eatabite had both been courting the same girl from Connellsville, and Tibbs had threatened him on several previous occasions to stay away from her. Stratton said that Eatabite had been stalking him all weekend, and had grabbed a seat just behind him on the streetcar when it stopped at Wheeler. At the Mt. Braddock stop, Tibbs approached the conductor, Evan Jeffries, and said, "Mr. Jeffries, I have a gun." Stratton said Eatabite said no more after that; he pointed the gun at Stratton, shot him in the right arm, and then jumped from the car.
When officers attempted to arrest him in Uniontown, Eatabite, as usual, attempted to escape. He was shot through the back and then taken to Cottage State Hospital, an armed guard stationed outside his room. Because the lead ball was located right next to his heart, doctors decided that it would be too dangerous to remove it. Eatabite proudly claimed that he could feel the ball every time his heart beat.
Reporters flocked to Cottage State Hospital to talk to Eatabite, who loved seeing his name in print nearly as much as the newspaper editors themselves did. In 1955, George H. Moore, the revered Pittsburgh newspaper man, reminisced that the two biggest days in his 60-year news career were William McKinley's election in 1898 and the shooting of Eatabite Tibbs. "Tibbs was always good copy he was in trouble so much," Moore recalled.
Confined to a hospital bed recovering from yet another gunshot wound that would have claimed the life of a lesser man, Tibbs granted an interview to a reporter from the Connellsville Weekly Courier. When asked about his next possible escape, Tibbs said that escaping from Cottage State Hospital would be easy enough, but he planned on staying put for the time being. "A man must hide and a man must eat," he stated. "Eating is one of the biggest considerations when you are trying to get away from the law."
He was then asked about his infamous soup carriage escape from Old Fayette.
"Mr. McCormick has been blamed for letting me go, but that wasn't any fault of his. It was simply because Eatabite was too smooth for the prison people. I had that thing framed up to make a general delivery that time and if those boys in jail had any sense they would have gotten out. If Bill Sims had been a brave man he would never have hung, for a I showed him how to get out when I left. Ed Spinner was in then, and both he and Sims were sentenced for murder. I told them the night before that I was going out the next morning and asked them to come along."
Eatabite said that he only ever divulged his plans and methods to murderers, adding that he didn't waste his time with the "short term men". As for the origins of his nickname, Tibbs said that he made it up himself while he was living in Cheat Haven to scare the local children. "I used to tell them that I would eat them up. 'My name's Eatabite!' I used to holler at them," he explained. "And the name stuck to me."
He told the reporter that even though he had been shot through the back, he could've gotten away if he really wanted to. After shooting Tibbs, Officer Jesse Shaffer put his revolver on the ground as he knelt down next to the outlaw. "I was still able for a good run and I could have stopped Shaffer easily with his own gun. But I liked him. He's too good a fellow to shoot."
The nurses at Cottage State Hospital adored Eatabite, telling the press that he was one of the best patients they had ever taken care of. Tibbs was later sentenced to 12 years for shooting Charles Stratton and was once again taken to Western Penitentiary.
|Cottage State Hospital|
The Eccentricities of Eatabite
Tibbs is of a very peculiar character. He is possessed of an intelligence far above the average Negro and is well versed in the Scriptures. He claims to be a servant of Satan and no one seems to doubt that he is. He is always ready to do anything for a friend, but the one who incurs his ill will had better prepare for trouble.-- Connellsville Daily Courier, Aug. 5, 1904
Eatabite could hold a grudge better than anyone, and in 1905 he was delighted by the news that his old Fayette County adversary, Judge Ewing, had been killed by the No. 3 train as he attempted to cross over the tracks between Fayette Street and Jefferson Street in Uniontown. Eatabite collected every newspaper clipping of the judge's demise and from inside his cell he built a wooden model of the spot where Judge Ewing had been killed. Working entirely from memory he constructed an exceptional model, depicting every detail of the vicinity, every building and sidewalk in the vicinity, and even built a miniature model of the No. 3 locomotive. Tibbs wanted to paste a picture of Judge Ewing on the exact spot where he had been killed, but none of the newspaper clippings featured a photograph of the victim, so Eatabite drew the judge by hand. By all accounts it was an accurate and fairly good likeness of Judge Ewing.
For Tibbs, finding ways to kill time was the hardest part of being in prison. In addition to building models and drawing pictures, he also fancied himself as an inventor. In November of 1906 he unveiled a plan for a six-horse wagon that could be pulled by a single horse. Claiming that his new invention would "revolutionize the world", he attempted to find an investor who could secure him a patent (there were no takers). He also passed the time by dabbling in mysticism and claimed to have discovered the secret to eternal life:
Eatabite Tibbs, a Fayette County inmate of the Western Penitentiary, has written a Uniontown man that by taking a certain letter of the alphabet and adding it to one's name, he or she will be assured of eternal life. Eatabite says he can point out just what letter is necessary in each case.-- Pittsburgh Weekly Gazette, Nov. 22, 1905
Unfortunately for Eatabite Tibbs, his study of the occult and Scripture couldn't ward off the dreaded disease of tuberculosis, which he contracted during his incarceration at Western Penitentiary. In early October of 1913, the 41-year-old inmate sent for Rev. P.H. Thompson of the Mt. Olivet Baptist Church in Uniontown. Eatabite had a strange but simple request of the pastor; he asked Rev. Thompson to preach his funeral sermon-- while he was still alive to hear it. The reverend declined.
As Eatabite's health deteriorated he was sent to the home of his sister, Mary Ferguson, in Steelton, Dauphin County, to spend the remainder of his days.
Sadly, no newspapers remarked upon his death, which records showed occurred at Steelton on December 14, 1913. He is buried in Culpeper County, Virginia.
For all the things that have been written about him, the fact remains that Eatabite Tibbs never killed anybody, though some may speculate that this had less to do with intent and more to do with lousy marksmanship. Eatabite himself probably believed that he never caused trouble for anybody unless he felt they deserved it, and, had fate been a little more kind, Tibbs might have gone down in history as a folk hero of sorts. He certainly had the personality and charisma for it. At any rate, Angus "Eatabite" Tibbs holds a place as one of the most fascinating and unusual outlaws in Pennsylvania history.