Unsolved Mystery: The Muleshoe Curve Suicide Grave
|The original PRR culvert at Muleshoe Curve|
The William Penn Highway, which ran from New York City to Pittsburgh, winds through the states of New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania and is stitched together from many different highways. Today, this historic auto trail, or at least the portion of it running through Blair County, is better known as Old Route 22. Drivers along this scenic route will be rewarded with breathtaking views, and will pass a unique topographical feature known as "The Muleshoe", a curve-shaped mountain gap in the Allegheny Mountains in the vicinity of Gallitzin Spring.
For several decades, motorists along this stretch also encountered a sight that was less than charming-- a crude, shallow grave next to the highway marked with a simple, plain wooden cross.
This would be the grave of a man whose name has never been ascertained, a suicide victim who, in July of 1905, was found hanging from a tree by a liquor dealer named John Becker. Becker ran to tell John F. Goldy, proprietor of the nearby Fountain Inn, and the two men then notified the authorities. Goldy, better known as "Cappy" in those parts, was a colorful fellow from Scotland, and since the inn was of some historical significance, it is worth devoting a few paragraphs to the illustrious establishment before we get back to the mystery of the unknown suicide victim.
The Fountain Inn, built during the era of stage coaches and operated by John Fries until the late 1850s, was one of the most famous lodging places in America at one time. During its heydey, when it was owned by James Maitland, the inn provided shelter to scores of celebrity guests, including President Van Buren, P.T. Barnum and the "Swedish Nightingale" Jenny Lind. The inn derived its name from the "Font-of-Eight", an equally famous mountain spring a half mile away, and stood at the site of the present-day Muleshoe Reservoir. According to historical records, dozens of large trout were kept in a pool at the inn, and guests would point to the fish they desired to eat, which would then be caught in a net by the chef and prepared to taste. Sadly, the historic inn was destroyed by fire in 1908 (a different establishment, the "New Fountain Inn" was built about a mile away in 1920).
|Fountain Inn, circa 1898|
The property was soon sold to the Pennsylvania Railroad and torn down to make way for the reservoir. As for Goldy, he was shot in 1908 by an unknown assailant who showed up at his house with a revolver. The man fired at him as soon as Goldy opened the door and then fled into the woods. Although the gunshot wound was not fatal, the affair took a toll on his health, and he passed away in June of 1909 at the age of 65.
Burial of the Suicide Victim
After Becker and Goldy had notified the authorities, they returned to where the body was hanging. They discovered the dead man's coat lying nearby and wallet containing $25.90, but found no clue that could help identify him. Soon the deputy coroner, H.W. McCartney, arrived, accompanied by undertaker C. Liebegott, Mr. Bridenbaugh of the county almshouse, and a handful of curiosity seekers from Duncansville and Gallitzin. They scoured the woods for clues, but came up empty-handed. Because the body of the victim, who was hanging from a tree by a belt, was so badly decomposed, it was impossible to tell what his face had looked like in life.
Undertaker Liebegott's two sons, Luther and George, were assigned the task of burying the body, along with Samuel Keller, who was employed as the caretaker of that particular stretch of highway, which was known as the Pittsburgh-Philadelphia Turnpike at the time. The body was buried about 150 yards from where it had been found, just beyond the shoulder of the road.
Although the body was never identified, the clothes matched the description of those that were worn by a man who, two weeks earlier, had checked into the Norman Hotel in Duncansville. The man, who appeared to be around 45 years of age, spoke English well but had the hint of a foreign accent. He had been seen at the hotel asking for directions to Johnstown.
A Devoted Caretaker
Samuel Keller never stopped thinking about the unfortunate man he had buried alongside the highway in July of 1905. For more than three decades he visited the grave each and every Memorial Day and placed an American flag atop the burial mound, which had since been planted with lilies, irises and other wildflowers and marked with a wooden cross. Every spring and summer, when the flowers would bloom, the decorated burial mound presented a curious and colorful spectacle to passing motorists up until 1929, when the grave was moved to a different location.
In 1929, when that particular stretch of roadway was relocated to bypass a dangerous curve, the new highway had to pass directly over the grave of the unknown suicide victim. Keller, who was still employed as the highway caretaker at the time, considered it his duty to make sure that the body was properly and respectfully disinterred. Keller, assisted by several members of the highway construction crew, opened the grave and found that the original casket had completely decayed; all that remained were bones, a scrap of leather belt, a dime that had been in the dead man's pocket at the time of his burial, and the metal handles of the coffin. All of these objects were placed into a small box except for the dime, which Keller kept as a memento.
A new grave was dug approximately fifty feet from the south side of the new highway, and marked with a white wooden cross. Keller continued to tend the grave for the remainder of his life-- a devoted caretaker to the very end-- and arranged for his son to take over the job when he passed away.