The Ghost of Reverend Nowak: The Pond Hill Tragedy
Located in Conyngham Township, Luzerne County, the community of Pond Hill presents a picturesque appearance. Nestled in a valley between the Susquehanna River and Lily Lake, this community has been a quiet, peaceful place for most of its history. However, the serenity was broken one July evening in 1921, when a raging fire destroyed the home of Reverend Felix Nowak. When the smoke cleared, the charred remains of Rev. Nowak, his wife, and their three children were found in the smoldering debris.
The fire shocked the Pond Hill community, but the events which followed shocked them even more. It was soon discovered that the blaze had been set intentionally, and an examination of the bodies proved that Rev. Nowak had been shot four times before the house was burned.
On Sunday evening, July 24, Felix Nowak and his family slumbered peacefully in their beds, in the upstairs of a two-story farmhouse they shared with the Valoroso family. On the first floor was a chapel where Rev. Nowak, a former Catholic priest with the Diocese of Scranton, held services in Polish. The second floor contained five rooms, two of which were occupied by the Nowak family, while the remaining three rooms were occupied by the family of Frank Valoroso.
It was sometime around 1913 when Nowak purchased the property, but three years later he decided to sell it. It was Frank Valoroso who agreed to buy the farmhouse for the sum of $5,000, which was to be paid off in monthly installments. Until the debt was settled, the Nowaks would continue to live on the premises and Felix's name would remain on the deed. By 1921, Valoroso had paid just $900 to the reverend, and the buyer's erratic payment history caused no small amount of friction to develop between the two households. Adding to the headache was the fact that there was only one bathroom, which both families had to share, and only one exit from the second floor. In order to leave either upstairs apartment, it was necessary to pass through the bedroom of the other. The families quarreled frequently over this arrangement, and it was only a matter of time before things came to a boil.
Reverend Nowak and his family had spent Sunday evening visiting friends in Mocanaqua, five miles down the road, leaving to return to Pond Hill at around nine o'clock. His friend was reluctant to see him go, but Nowak remarked that unless he got home early, Frank Valoroso would lock the door. Nowak made it home just in to time to prevent getting locked out of his own property.
Pond Hill was deep asleep when the fire broke out sometime around three o'clock in the morning, and when neighbors awoke just before sunrise and smelled the smoke in the air, they raced to the Nowak farm, only to realize that it was too late. By seven o'clock, the fire had burned itself out, and even though nobody could find the Nowaks, there was little cause for concern. The Valoroso family had not only made it out of the building safely, but they had managed to save all their furniture, which had been carried outside and placed on the ground. The Valorosos had also managed to salvage fourteen large barrels of wine and whiskey from the basement. Surely, the reverend and his family had ample time to flee the burning building. But where had they gone?
This was the question that was on everyone's mind-- until a neighbor noticed something sticking out of the heap of smoldering rubble that looked like a human arm.
Neighbors immediately began to sift through the pile of debris, and before long they located what remained of Reverend Nowak, his wife, Frances, and their three daughters: Angelina, age 7; Beatrice, age 5; and Lucy, who was just two months of age. All five bodies were found in a pile, indicating they had never made it our of their bedroom alive. When one of the locals realized that a feat such as removing heavy furniture and wine barrels from a burning house would have required multiple trips up and down the lone staircase, suspicion immediately fell upon the deadbeat home-buyer, Frank Valoroso.
On the scene, the Valorosos pleaded their innocence. A teenage stepson, Rocco Chickillo, claimed that he came home at 11:30 the night before and immediately went to bed, while Frank claimed that he, and the rest of his family, had retired for the night between 8:30 and nine o'clock. But if this were true, then who got out of bed to unlock the door for Felix Nowak? Nowak would have just departed from Mocanaqua at this time, and would've arrived at Pond Hill long before the teenage Valoroso boy came home. Things were not adding up. To even the untrained eye, this appeared to be a premeditated act.
The bodies were taken away by Deputy Coroner Benjamin C. Cook, who soon arrived on the scene. Watchmen assigned by State Trooper Carne were stationed around the perimeter of the property to stand guard until the County Detectives Powell, Bachman, Gwilliam and Allerdyce arrived. Frank Valoroso was taken into custody and detained at the Wyoming barracks of the State Police while evidence was gathered. This outraged Frank's wife, who immediately summoned an attorney, George Ritchie, who had Valoroso transferred from the barracks to the county jail-- presumably so he wouldn't say anything incriminating in the presence of law enforcement.
|Artist's sketch of Frank Valorosa|
As the detectives gathered evidence, it was the deputy coroner's examination of Felix Nowak's body that produced the most damning proof that Valoroso had murdered the reverend. Four bullet wounds were found in the reverend's body, and Nowak's safe-- which he had always kept in his bedroom-- was found buried under the floor of the barn, establishing a possible motive of robbery. It was a heavy safe, which meant there must have been an accomplice. In a tragic twist of irony, detectives also found six fire extinguishers in the rubble; according to friends, Felix was deathly afraid of fire, and once had a premonition that his family would perish in an inferno.
Rocco Chickillo, the seventeen-year-old stepson, was brought in for questioning and pleaded ignorance. Frank's wife, however, spoke freely about the fire when she paid a visit to her husband at the Wyoming barracks before he was transferred to the county jail. According to police records, Mrs. Valoroso claimed that she had gone to bed at around 8:30 the night of the fire, and was awakened at around three in the morning by the crying of her infant daughter. Smelling smoke, she roused the rest of her family and escaped. But when asked why she hadn't awakened the Nowaks, she said that it was her belief they weren't home. "I saw Rev. Felix Nowak and his family go out in an automobile," she said.
Despite the bumbled alibis and misleading statements given by the Valoroso family, there was a glimmer of hope in the case against Frank Valoroso. It was an established fact that Felix Nowak always carried a revolver with him, thereby raising the possibility that the wounds found on his body could have been the result of cartridges exploding in the fire. Witnesses recalled hearing what sounded like "firecrackers" in the middle of the night, but assumed that it was just some neighborhood kids making mischief. But if the fire had caused the cartridges to explode, why were there no wounds on the other family members? Felix could've fallen asleep with his revolver in his vest pocket or trousers, but he also stored a number of extra cartridges in his desk. Why was no one else wounded by the shrapnel?
On Wednesday, July 28, Shickshinny police chief Lawrence Ryan obtained a chilling confession from Frank Valoroso's teenage stepson after hours of intense interrogation. According to the confession, Rocco returned home at around 11 o'clock and noticed that all the furniture had been moved out of the Valoroso living quarters, with the exception of the beds. Some time later, he saw Frank Valoroso leave his room fully dressed, cross the hallway, and enter the bedroom of Reverend Nowak. When he came out of the room, Frank told his stepson to go to the basement and bring up three gallons of gasoline and three gallons of kerosene. Rocco obeyed, and watched as his stepfather poured the liquid onto the floor and walls. When this was done, Frank ordered Rocco to set the house on fire.
While Rocco was giving his confession, fingerprint experts were examining the safe that had been found buried in the barn. Joseph Gawlas of the H.H. Roth Locksmith Shop opened the safe, and state police detectives examined the contents, which included a number of documents written in Polish, insurance policies, a marriage certificate, and a will showing that Felix Nowak planned to turn over the entirety of his estate to his sister and his wife. There was no money, jewelry, or other valuables inside the safe.
One interesting detail to emerge from sifting through the rubble was the discovery of an illegal still, which had been kept in a downstairs room adjacent to the chapel. Police couldn't determine who the moonshiner had been, though the Valorosos had saved several whiskey and wine barrels from the basement before the inferno.
Detectives were also able to reconstruct the final hours of the Nowaks. At two o'clock, Felix and his family had taken a drive to Lily Lake where they had spent the afternoon, then traveled to Mocanaqua to visit friends. He was last seen turning into his driveway at 9:30, approximately five hours before the fire was set.
A Hearing is Held
During the preliminary hearing in front of Judge Fuller on Monday, August 1. As a no-nonsense judge, Fuller demanded that the testimony be as brief as possible. He wanted the facts, and only the facts. Dr. Benjamin Cook testified that he had found four bullet wounds in Felix's body. Of these wounds, two were penetration wounds in the right side of the chest, which passed through the right lung. Another bullet had passed through the center of the chest. The lungs, according to Dr. Cook, showed hemorrhages indicating that Rev. Nowak was alive at the time the wounds were inflicted. The Scranton Times-Tribune reported that, in addition to the gunshot wounds, Felix's head was found "hanging by a shred" and that his limbs showed sings of having been chopped with an axe. As for the other victims, they had been burned so badly that it was impossible to tell if they had been murdered before the fire was set. Later this would raise a curious legal question; if Felix had been killed before his wife, his sister, Josephine Lisewska, would be the sole beneficiary. But if Mrs. Nowak died first, her relatives would be the ones to administer the family estate.
Rocco's testimony mirrored what he had said in his confession, but real damage was inflicted when he was questioned about the safe. According to Rocco, the stable and barn had been used only by the Valorosos; Felix Nowak rarely set foot inside. Valoroso was charged with murder and remanded to prison to await trial. As for Rocco, he was held as a material witness for the Commonwealth until August 23, when a grand jury would be convened.
Outside the courthouse, Mrs. Valoroso made various statements to the press, claiming that her husband was innocent. She claimed that, on the night of the fire, she had heard an automobile outside the house but did not get out of bed to investigate. Her theory was that it was some enemy or enemies of the priest who had paid a visit to the home and set it ablaze. Oddly, this "detail" was one she had neglected to tell detectives during her questioning... it was almost as if she had just thought of it on the spot.
The Trial of Frank Valoroso
August 23, 1921, was a busy day at the Luzerne County courthouse. Besides the Valoroso-Nowak case, there were three other murder cases for the grand jury to decide and a dozen manslaughter cases. It wasn't until August 26 that the jury rendered its verdict, indicting Frank Valoroso on multiple charges of arson and first-degree murder. The trial date was set for September 12.
On the morning of September 12, Valoroso appeared before Judge Fuller to enter his plea of "not guilty". He was clean-shaven, though sloppily dressed in a pair of worn-out trousers. The rest of the day was spent selecting a jury and on Tuesday the proceedings got under way with the District Attorney James presenting the commonwealth's case. Behind Frank Valoroso sat his wife and three of their four children. Their infant daughter had passed away since Frank's arrest, an event which Mrs. Valoroso attributed to worry over her father's fate. It was a dubious claim, as the other older children displayed little interest in the proceedings, seemingly unaware of the gravity of the situation. The only surprise of the day came when Rocco Chickillo took the stand, and contradicted his own confession when he denied seeing his father douse the building with flammable liquid. He even claimed that his father had attempted to wake the Nowaks, but abandoned them in order to save his own young children. As for his confession, he claimed that it had been given under duress after Chief Ryan of Shickshinny gave him "the third degree". When Chief Ryan took the stand, he refuted this accusation.
The prosecution rebounded strongly the following day, however, when testimony was given by George Buzzer of Reading, who was serving time at the Eastern Penitentiary. The men had shared a cell together after Valoroso's arrest, and Frank had confided to Buzzer that he had ordered his stepson to pour gasoline throughout the home. "I guess I'm in for it now that I hear my stepson has turned against me," Valoroso allegedly said to Buzzer.
The following day, Frank Valoroso took the stand in his own defense. During his two hours of testimony, he rebutted the claims against him, though, on cross-examination, was at a loss to explain why he said that he hadn't purchased kerosene or gasoline in three years when a Pond Hill merchant said that he had purchased fuel just a few days before the fire.
It took the jury just three hours to find Frank Valoroso guilty of murder. The verdict was read at 3:30 on the afternoon of September 16, and with the words "guilty of first-degree murder" Valoroso's face turned a greenish pallor. He seemed to stagger as police led him out of the courtroom, urging his attorney to file an appeal.
Motion for New Trial
Headlines were made in a few weeks later when it was revealed that the commonwealth's star witness, George Buzzer, might have fabricated his story in order to win favor with the warden of the Eastern Penitentiary and earn an early parole. Evidence supporting this allegation found its way into the hands of Valoroso's attorney, George Ritchie, who, in turn, presented it to Judge Fuller. This evidence was a statement from a Luzerne County inmate named Theodore Cadwalter, who claimed that Buzzer had already made up his story before Valoroso arrived at the jail. According to Cadwalter, Buzzer had read a newspaper article about the Pond Hill fire and had made up his mind to use it to his own advantage "even if it sent the other man to the electric chair".
In November, Judge Fuller refused a new trial for Valoroso on the grounds that Cadwalter's allegations-- even if true-- were not enough to warrant such an extraordinary remedy. The case against Valoroso had been strong enough even without George Buzzer's testimony. In his decision Fuller wrote, "We may now say with the greatest confidence, as a succinct and sufficient summary of the case, that if Nowak, whose body was found in the ruins, came to his death by criminal agency, that is by being shot, the defendant did the shooting, and thereby committed murder of the first degree." All that remained was sentencing, and Valoroso's conviction carried an automatic sentence of death by electrocution.
Judge Fuller pronounced sentence on November 28, and a dramatic scene ensued when Valoroso, trembling and haggard, clutched a crucifix, raised his hands, and called upon God to send the spirit of his Son into the courtroom to perform a miracle. "I lost everything in the fire and am now a ruined man!" he screamed. "There will be no one to look after my wife and children." Judge Fuller was unmoved by Valoroso's display, though attorney George Ritchie vowed to take his appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
The Murder Trial, Part 2
Ritchie argued his case for a new for his client before the state Supreme Court on January 16, 1922, in Philadelphia by raising a question of law that had not been addressed during the murder trial. During the trial, one of the pieces of evidence used to convict Valoroso was a letter from Rev. Nowak's attorney, ordering Valoroso to make a payment on the house or face eviction. This, the prosecution had argued, was sufficient to establish a motive for the murder. However, Ritchie argued that the letter from the attorney had been addressed to both Mr. and Mrs. Valoroso, and what if Frank's wife had read the letter but never brought it to her husband's attention? That would eliminate revenge as the motive, and without a motive there would not have been a conviction.
Ritchie's strategy worked; on March 6, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted Valoroso a new trial.
The second trial for the murder of Rev. Felix Nowak opened on May 29, 1922, once again with Judge Fuller presiding. However, it wasn't until May 31 that the first points were scored for the prosecution, when Pond Hill resident Irving Schlosser took the stand. It was Schlosser who had been the first to find the bodies in the rubble, after he told Valoroso that he thought he smelled burning flesh. "Must be the chickens," Valoroso had said in response. When Schlosser asked where the reverend was and none of the Valorosos seemed to know, Schlosser grabbed a pitchfork and jumped into the cinders and rubble. Only then did he discover the five bodies.
The prosecution went for broke, with District Attorney James calling a steady stream of witnesses who claimed to have heard Valoroso making threats against the reverend. Attorneys Slattery and Goldberg for the defense raised objections to every scrap of evidence, and in this manner the trial carried on like a hard-fought tennis match. But the highlight of the retrial came on June 1, when the prosecution entered into evidence the remains of Rev. Felix Nowak, which had been kept in formaldehyde and stored in jars inside a metal box. Examining a glass jar containing the dead preacher's lungs, Dr. Hugo testified that the bullet wounds had been made prior to death, pointing out that there were no signs of smoke inhalation or asphyxiation. Quite simply, Nowak was dead before the flames ever reached him. Dr. Cook and Dr. Hart spent five hours on the stand reiterating this point, and things began to look very bleak for the defense. The only bright spot that day came when Rocco, the stepson, was called to the stand, but was nowhere to be found. Apparently, he felt that skipping town was his best option.
The turning point in the retrial came on June 5, when Dr. Janjiglan, a pathologist at the City Hospital testifying for the defense, gave a slideshow presentation proving that Rev. Nowak was alive when the fire was set. One picture showed the priest's body covered in a reddish brown substance, which he said were the red corpuscles of blood. If the body had been dead before the fire, the corpuscles would not have shown up. With the courtroom darkened, the pathologist showed slide after slide, showing how the chest injury did not completely puncture the lung. This suggested the injuries had most likely been the result of falling timbers and other debris, rather than the result of a gunshot.
On June 7, Frank Valoroso walked out the Luzerne County courthouse a free man.
The Haunting of Pond Hill
To this day, no one can be one hundred percent certain how Felix Nowak and his family met their demise. Were they murdered before the house burned to the ground? Or had Frank Valoroso's wife, Grace, been telling the truth all along when she said that some enemy of the reverend had paid a visit to the house shortly before the fire was set? Perhaps the answer to this mystery can be found in the haunting of Pond Hill.
In August of 1922, one year and a month after the fatal fire, a man named Frank Pantalone who lived near the scene of the tragedy reported that he had seen a ghostly figure prowling in the ruins of the Nowak home, which had remained virtually untouched since the fire. Though some claimed this ghost was nothing more than someone's white mule rooting for something to eat, other Pond Hill locals reported seeing the same apparition-- the ghost of a priest digging, as if looking for something, perhaps the vital piece of evidence that would bring his killer to justice. Pantalone and others also reported seeing mysterious lights in the orchard near the foundations of the farmhouse.
The August 24, 1922, edition of the Mount Carmel Item reports:
In plain view, all too plain, so silent that it appeared ominous, the ghost of of the priest has been seen digging in the cellar for hours at a time. Pantalone is absolutely certain it was the form of the priest, for he recognized him. Pantalone had occasion to visit the farm, known as the Thomas farm, and was returning in the early evening at dusk, when as he looked into the cellar he saw the white form of a man digging in the pile of sifted ashes that was left by detectives in their search for clues in the supposed murder and burning of the priest and his family.
"He was right there. I could see him," declared Pantalone. "He had a fork. I was scared and started away but I looked over my shoulder and could still see him digging as I ran."
The article went on to state that Pantalone was so sure of what he had seen that he once walked two miles out of his way to avoid walking past the Nowak house-- and that was in broad daylight. The article continues:
Constable Cragle, who lives near the Nowak place, has seen the lights appear mysteriously at night among the trees in the grass-grown orchard above the house... Few approach the place. It is left as it was upon the day of the fire, with all the mute evidences of life remaining. Some caps and wraps of the children who met such untimely deaths are still there and the ruins untouched. The few visitors who have been to the scene point out the fact that grass or weeds have failed to grow in the basement, where the wood ashed and litter would form a natural place for the rank growth that is everywhere else apparent about the farm.
The Valorosos moved to Binghamton, New York after the acquittal. Frank Valoroso died in 1954 while his wife, Grace, passed away in Binghamton in January of 1962. They are buried at Mount Greenwood Cemetery in Trucksville, Luzerne County.
Wilkes-Barre Record, July 26, 1921.
Scranton Times-Tribune, July 27, 1921.
Wilkes-Barre Record, July 28, 1921.
Wilkes-Barre Record, July 29, 1921.
Wilkes-Barre Record, July 30, 1921.
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