Is Duncannon the suicide capital of America?

The Doyle Hotel, a Duncannon landmark


First settled in 1792, the Perry County borough of Duncannon presents a countenance of charm and small town serenity. It is perhaps best known as a key stop along the Appalachian Trail, which runs directly through the borough, and the home of Lightning Guider sleds, which were produced in Duncannon from 1904 to 1988. Today, the factory is home to the Old Sled Works, a must-see destination for antique lovers throughout central Pennsylvania.

And yet, although the population of the tiny borough has never surpassed the 2,000 mark, Duncannon has compiled an unenviable record of suicide that is-- at least to the best of my knowledge-- unsurpassed by any community in Pennsylvania. In fact, the dark history of suicide in Duncannon is so unfathomable that, in more than a few instances, it has claimed multiple members of the same family.



Suicides: The Early Years



The first recorded suicide within the modern-day borough limits took place in 1869, a quarter of a century after Duncannon was formally incorporated. Although the victim's name has been lost to history, newspaper reports from September of that year indicate that the victim was a man from Mechanicsburg who committed suicide "by hanging himself to a post with his suspenders." [1]

In May of 1877, borough resident S.S. King, who was employed as a traveling salesman for the Duncannon Iron Company, fatally shot himself in the head while staying at a hotel in Danville. He had left behind three identical notes, each one simply stating: "My life has been a failure and I am tired of it. Please deliver the letters to my friends." [2] Just two years later, Rev. Alexander Tripner of the United Brethren Church in Duncannon, hanged himself in the attic of his brother-in-law, Henry Everhart, in York County. [3] Census records indicate that the population of the borough had not yet eclipsed one thousand by this point.

Two more Duncannon residents would commit suicide before the close of the century; a farmer named Philip Keel, despondent over financial matters, hanged himself in the hayloft of his barn in March of 1885 [4] while a local girl named Fanny Stevens took her own life at the home of her uncle in Clearfield County in October of 1893. [5] 




Early 20th Century Suicides


The borough's population exploded during the beginning of the 20th century as the railroad and iron industries transformed Duncannon from a rural farming community to a thriving economic hub. However, the borough's newfound prosperity did not reach everyone, and numerous suicides occurred in the borough in the years leading up to the First World War.

Borough constable Calvin Leedy ended his life on September 19, 1903, by hanging himself from a tree on Carvel's Hill [6]. Three months later an Italian laborer identified variously as "Joe Currie" or "Joe Crowley", while drinking at a local bar, stabbed a co-worker from the iron works in the back with a stiletto, then took his own life by jumping into the icy Susquehanna River. His body was found several days later encased in ice less than ten feet away from where he had jumped, indicating that death had been virtually instantaneous. [7]

On New Years Day of 1908, John Eberly celebrated by ingesting Paris green-- a popular insecticide of the era-- inside his North High Street home. [8] In late January of 1910, Mrs. John Martin committed suicide by drowning herself in Little Juniata Creek. Her body was found in late March in the river at Goldsboro, nearly 40 miles away. [9]

On August 9, 1912, the unconscious body of 60-year-old James C. Mutzabaugh was found along the bank of the Little Juniata Creek next to an empty body of laudanum. Dr. Reutter was summoned to the scene, but Mutzabaugh could not be revived. [10] Seven years later, in 1929, a Duncannon native and former resident named George W. Mutzabaugh hanged himself in the attic of his Harrisburg home; as this is a common last name in Perry County, it is unclear whether these two individuals were related. [11]

In April of 1913, 31-year-old Enos Hartzell committed suicide on the porch of a cottage between the Juniata River bridge and the Duncannon subway by drinking poison. The cottage, incidentally, is still standing and presently used as a private residence. [12]

Not all suicide attempts are successful, of course, and there are a handful of notable cases. One such case took place in August of 1915 in room twenty-four on the fourth floor of the Central Hotel on Market Street. Since the only 4-story hotel I know of in Duncannon is the Doyle Hotel (which has gone through numerous name changes since its initial construction in the late 18th century), this leads me to believe that it is the same building. The deed was carried out by Lee McKinley Lightner, an 18-year-old Marine, who shot himself in the chest with a 32-caliber revolver. His life was saved, however, by Mary Brice-- a quick-thinking chambermaid who had heard the gunshot. Lee, who had been married for less than a year, was the son of Linn Campbell Lightner, who owned a farm in Duncannon. [13] Sadly, Lee would pass away a few years later at the age of 21 from tuberculosis. But that's not the end of the Lightner family saga, however (more on that later).

April of 1917 saw the suicide of John Doutrich, who shot himself in the temple with a revolver on the streets of Duncannon while taking a stroll with his girlfriend, Annie Silks. One of Doutrich's sons became involved in an altercation with Annie, who drew a knife from her purse and gave chase. At this point John went behind a bush at the bottom of Duncannon Hill and took his own life. [14]



The Roaring Twenties and the Depression Era



Bridge from which Robert McLean hanged himself in 1922



After the death of his wife in the summer of 1920, 65-year-old Duncannon native John Gray disappeared. Gray, who was said by neighbors to have been in a melancholy state, supposedly drowned himself in the river. On  September 20, his body was found in the water beneath the Clark's Ferry bridge. [15] Almost one year to the day of Gray's suicide, another untimely death rocked the borough, this one leaving a mystery that is still waiting to be solved.

On September 15, 1921 an unknown woman who appeared to be in her 50s or early 60s arrived in town and sought lodging at a boarding house operated by Naomi Sampson, giving her name as Mrs. Jones. Based upon her appearance and mannerisms, it was evident that the stranger was wealthy and came from a refined background. She kept a low profile, though remarked to one of the other guests that she had come from Florida. According to witnesses, even though she was an older woman, she was remarkably youthful and beautiful. Six days later she was found dead in her room.

The woman had brought with her several pieces of luggage, but no clues as to her identity could be found. However, markings on her belongings revealed that she had traveled extensively in the weeks and months preceding her arrival in Duncannon. She had made stops in Tampa, Memphis, Charleston, Tacoma, Los Angeles, and other cities.

At the time of her death, she had been writing a letter to somebody named Mary. The cryptic message read:

"I guess the doctor told the truth and that my mind is blank at times. I believe the Lord will take care of me, as I have always done right. I want my friends to know me as I once was."

Unfortunately, since Perry County did not have a coroner at the time, the woman's body had already been embalmed and placed into a burial vault before an autopsy could take place. While some local officials doubted the suicide theory, others claimed that a bottle of pills had been found next to her body, and one doctor speculated that death had resulted from an intentional overdose of aspirin.
One fascinating aspect of this mystery is that the unknown woman had been closely following the Fatty Arbuckle sexual assault scandal, which was making headlines at the time of her arrival.

Apparently, she had collected every newspaper clipping that she could find pertaining to the scandal. This, along with the fact that her deathbed letter stated that she wanted to be remembered as she once was, has raised the possibility that she may have come from Hollywood. [16]

Another unusual suicide took place the following September-- the third September in a row-- when an Iowa carpenter and mechanic named Robert McLean tied a noose around his neck and jumped from the newly-constructed Juniata River bridge connecting Duncannon with Duncan's Island, exactly at midnight on September 9, 1922. Just before his death he purchased a cemetery lot at the United Brethren Cemetery and paid for the digging of his own grave. McLean, who was around 60, had come to Pennsylvania after he was hired by the construction firm of Whittaker & Diehl to help construct the bridge, which still stands today. [17]

A failed suicide attempt much different from that of Lee McKinley Lightner took place in 1927, when 22-year-old Sarah Peters tried to shoot herself with her father's shotgun in the upstairs of their Duncannon home. After the gun failed to go off, she secured her brother's revolver and tried again. Not only did she survive, but she went on to enjoy a long, happy life, passing away at the age of 87 from natural causes at a nursing home in New Bloomfield. Apparently, her guardian angel was looking out for her.

There were two suicides in Duncannon in 1928. On May 25, Mrs. Russell Baker shot herself with her husband's shotgun in the orchard of their farm, using a yardstick to discharge the weapon. She had been in ill health for several years. [18] Two months later, Lillian Daugherty died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Daugherty operated a gas station on Duncan's Island known as Beanie's Place, and had become despondent after her business license was revoked. [19]




In late April of the following year, William A. Stewart died instantly after shooting himself through the temple with a revolver in the front room of his home at 316 North Market Street. His wife had pressed assault charges against him earlier that same day. [20]

On April 19, 1930, the body of a well-dressed elderly man was found hanging from the rafters of an abandoned barn in Duncannon. The suicide victim was never identified, and was buried in an unmarked grave at the Methodist cemetery. [21]

Faith Hiller, age 36, hanged herself from a rafter in at North Hight Street home of her aunt, Adelaide Schiller, on Christmas Eve of 1935. [22] In October of 1937, a shoe repairman from Cumberland Street, Robert Wilkinson, disappeared from Duncannon. His body was found nineteen days later in a nearby wooded area; he had evidently shot himself through the head. [23] Morris Hair, a 47-year-old farmer from Duncannon, was found hanging in his barn in June of 1939. Although he was still alive when discovered, he died from his injuries a few days later at the Harrisburg Hospital. [24]



Suicides of the WW2 Era



The borough experienced a slew of suicides in the 1940s. Perhaps the most gruesome suicide in Duncannon history took place on July 30, 1940, when J. Howard Lusk, superintendent of the borough's electric light plant, laid his head on the Pennsylvania Railroad tracks, in the path of a passenger train. It goes without saying that he was decapitated and died instantly. [25]

On the morning of October 14, 1941, a mere fifteen minutes after arriving for work at People's National Bank-- just a stone's throw away from the scene of Lee McKinley Lightner's attempted suicide in 1915-- cashier Mervin A. Lightner went into a back room and shot himself in the right temple with a .32-caliber revolver. According to relatives, the 52-year-old bank employee had been hobbled so badly by rheumatism that he could barely walk. Coincidentally, one of the directors of the bank at the time of the suicide was Adelaide Schiller, whose niece had hanged herself on Christmas Eve six years earlier. [26]

Another tragedy struck the Lightner family less than a year later when James Justin Lightner, state treasurer of the Young Republicans and the younger brother of Mervin Lightner, took his own life inside a hotel room in Philadelphia. On the afternoon of June 9, 1942, a chambermaid at the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel found Lightner's lifeless body with a lamp cord wrapped around his neck. Lightner, who was Perry County treasurer from 1936-1940, had traveled from his home on North High Street in Duncannon to Philadelphia to attend a Republican convention and appeared to be in excellent spirits. [27]

On June 15, 1943, George Leedy shot himself inside a shed at the Evergreen Cemetery. Leedy, who was an employee of the borough's electric light plant, made the decision to end his life just hours before he was ordered to turn over the electric company's books for an audit. He was still alive when discovered, but died from his injuries a few hours later. As stated earlier, the electric company's superintendent committed suicide three years prior. [28]

In September of 1944, a farmer just outside of Duncannon named J. Edward Steele, hanged himself from one of the trees in his orchard [29], and in February of 1956 John Seabold died after shooting himself in the throat inside the bedroom of his home, just three days after the birth of his daughter. [30]


The 1950s to Present



In 1950 the population hit its historic peak (1,852 according to that year's census), yet 1950 was a dark year for the borough, with three more suicides being added to the record that year alone. Just five days after Charles Loman drowned himself in the Little Juniata Creek on March 15 [31], Gladys Bornman was found hanging from a rafter in her woodshed. [31] Clad in her pajamas, 19-year-old newlywed Joan Woleslagle left the Duncannon home of her mother on the night of November 10 and threw herself in front of a train. [33]

In early December of 1957, a motel handyman named Homer Dutt killed himself by carbon monoxide poisoning in the tool shed of his workplace on Route 11/15 just south of Duncannon. [34] Harold Carpenter used the same method to end his life less than a year later; his body was discovered in a wooded area near his Duncannon home in October of 1958. [35]

In December of 1963, a Camp Hill man named Robert Smith was found dead from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound inside his car, parked alongside Route 11/15 just north of the borough. [36]

One of the most chilling incidents in the modern history of the borough was the triple murder committed by Byron Halter on, or about, March 30, 1965. After fatally shooting his wife, daughter and mother-in-law inside their Duncannon duplex at 820 High Street, Halter became the target of an exhaustive statewide manhunt, which ended in Northumberland County three miles outside of Stonington on April 3, after a local woman found the body of a man inside a car parked along the highway. Halter had taken his own life by way of carbon monoxide poisoning. [37]




Police were uncertain about the exact date that the murders took place. The daughter, Holly, was last seen on March 30 when she was picked up by her father at Susquenita High School. Holly's body was discovered in her bedroom on the second floor of the house by the state police a few days later, and her mother's body was found in the basement. The body of Halter's mother-in-law was found in the dining room of her adjoining home. In addition to operating several local businesses, Halter was also a Sunday School teacher at the Duncannon United Church of Christ. [38]

On April 15, 1977,  a 64-year-old Duncannon resident, Alvin Seiders, was found dead inside his car from a self-inflicted gunshot wound on  a private lane in Cove. [39]

The borough also played a role in the 1985 murder-suicide committed by Randy Lee Campbell of Thompsontown. On December 18, Campbell shot and killed his boss at a construction site in Liverpool. After leading police on a high speed chase along Route 11/15, Campbell stopped his vehicle in Duncannon and turned the gun on himself. [40]

Records indicate that a half dozen or more suicides have taken place in the borough in the last three decades, but, out of respect for living relatives who may still be coping with the loss of a loved one, I shall not go into detail, as these additional deaths do not add or detract from this story. And, undoubtedly, there have been earlier suicides that, for one reason or an other, never found their way into newspapers. By my estimation, that places the number of people who have killed themselves in Duncannon (or Duncannon residents who have killed themselves elsewhere) at around 50.

At any rate, that one tiny town with a population under 1,500 should play a role in so many cases of suicide is a strange piece of morbid Pennsylvania trivia.



Sources:

1. Carlisle Weekly Herald, Sept. 24, 1869.
2. Perry County Democrat, May 30, 1877.
3. Harrisburg Daily Independent, October 17, 1879.
4. Shippensburg Chronicle, March 20, 1885.
5. Altoona Tribune, Oct. 28, 1893.
6. Altoona Tribune, Sept. 21, 1903.
7. Carlisle Sentinel, Jan. 1, 1904.
8. Perry County Democrat, Jan. 1, 1908.
9. Harrisburg Telegraph, March 23, 1910.
10.  Harrisburg Telegraph, Aug. 9, 1912.
11. Perry County Democrat, June 5, 1929.
12. Elizabethville Echo, April 17, 1913.
13. Harrisburg Telegraph, Aug. 28, 1915.
14. Harrisburg Telegraph, April 5, 1917.
15. Harrisburg Evening News, Sept. 20, 1920.
16. Harrisburg Evening News, Sept. 23, 1921.
17. Harrisburg Telegraph, Sept. 11, 1922.
18. Gettysburg Times, May 26, 1928.
19. Wilkes-Barre Times Leader, July 10, 1928.
20. Perry County Democrat, May 1, 1929.
21. Perry County Democrat, April 23, 1930.
22. Perry County Democrat, Jan. 1, 1936.
23. Perry County Times, Oct. 21, 1937.
24. Newport News-Sun, June 8, 1939.
25. Newport News-Sun, Aug. 1, 1940.
26. Duncannon Record, Jan. 19, 1939.
27. Harrisburg Evening News, June 10, 1942.
28. Harrisburg Telegraph, June 16, 1943.
29. Perry County Democrat, Sept. 20, 1944.
30. Indiana Gazette, Feb. 26, 1946.
31. Gettysburg Times, March 15, 1950.
32. Perry County Times, March 23, 1950.
33. Hazleton Plain Speaker, Nov. 11, 1950.
34. Hazleton Plain Speaker, Dec. 5, 1957.
35. Hazleton Plain Speaker, Oct. 27, 1958.
36. Connellsville Daily Courier, Dec. 12, 1963.
37. Shamokin News-Dispatch, April 3, 1965.
38. Lebanon Daily News, April 2, 1965.
39. Newport News-Sun, April 28, 1977.
40. Indiana Gazette, Dec. 18, 1985.

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