Debunking the Legend of Augusta Bitner
It was a story I'd first read about as a child, in one of those books on local legends sold in the gift shops of museums and tourist traps scattered across Pennsylvania, and it may have been the very tale that ignited my curiosity of all things strange and tragic. It is the story about a haunted statue in a Lancaster cemetery-- a statue of a young, beautiful woman, that is said to come alive and descend from her pedestal when the moon is just right. It is the statue marking the grave of Augusta Harriet Bitner, a 21-year-old woman whose death in 1906 has spawned many a ghost story. It is also the story of a remarkable statue that, to this day, continues to attract scores of curious visitors.
I no longer have a copy of that particular book of Lancaster County legends, but the way I recall the tale from memory, Augusta Harriet Bitner was a ravishing beauty, and the only daughter of a wealthy merchant. On the day of her wedding, while showing off her exquisite matrimonial gown, she tripped over her dress, fell down the stairs, and died of a broken neck. Her parents were so distraught that they commissioned a well-known sculptor (whose name has been lost to history), to immortalize her in marble. Their affection for their daughter was so deep, and the workmanship of the statue so stunning, that the statue has been known to come alive beneath the glow of a full moon.
A similar account of Harriet's tragic death appeared in the Lancaster Intelligencer Journal on October 12, 1990. The author states that the young woman died just after returning from her honeymoon when she tripped on the fold of her Victorian gown and fell down the stairs, resulting in a snapped neck. While the article makes no mention of the statue coming to life and going for a midnight stroll around the graveyard, it does state that the marble figure does take a step down from her pedestal at midnight on Halloween, and that if you hold the left hand of the statue on a dark night while holding a glass of water up to your ear, you will hear the sound of a woman screaming and a body tumbling down the stairs.
If you were to visit the statue for yourself, it's easy to see how this legend might have come about; the woman depicted in the statue is every bit as breath-taking as claimed, and is wearing a long, flowing gown. She is depicted descending two marble steps, her slender body in a cautious but feminine pose, as if taking the last step of her life. The author of the Intelligencer article quoted a Millerville University professor of English, Sumner Germain, who stated that, for several years, he made a habit of taking students of his writing composition class to the cemetery to be inspired by the marble likeness of Augusta Harriet Bitner.
"Some of the best writing I've gotten at Millersville has come out of this statue," said Germain. "She galvanizes people to write well, to write from the heart."
So what is the truth about the young woman whose life was cut so tragically short?
|The Bitner house, Marietta Ave., as it appears today|
The Bitner Family
Born on August 24, 1884, Augusta was the only child of Amelia and Charles W. Bitner. The Bitners were a well-respected family throughout Lancaster County; Augusta's grandfather, for whom she was named, built a fortune for himself at the age of seventeen by forming a partnership with his brother, John, and going into the business of transporting freight between Lancaster and Philadelphia. Charles Augustus Bitner and his brother dissolved their partnership in 1874, having accumulated enough savings to pursue separate interests. Charles Augustus invested in the city's first cotton mills and became a stockholder in many local ventures, such as the Lancaster Bolt Works, the Millersville Horse Railroad and the Lancaster Watch Company, which was erected on land he donated. He was also the director of the company responsible for building the railroad to Quarryville, and was chairman of the Farmers' Northern Market building committee.
|Charles Augustus Bitner|
Perhaps one reason why Augusta's grandfather was so industrious was because he knew that wouldn't live long enough to fully realize the fruits of his labors. He suffered from a kidney disorder known as Bright's disease, which was virtually incurable and almost always fatal. Before passing away in December of 1884 at the age of 53, he took into partnership his son, Charles W., who, upon graduating from West Chester Normal School, began working as a freight agent for the Reading & Columbia Railroad. Charles Augustus Bitner succumbed to his illness while Augusta was still an infant.
Augusta's father, Charles W. Bitner, inherited a great amount of wealth from Charles Augustus, but he was a determined businessman in his own right. For several years, despite his strict Moravian upbringing, Charles was involved in the tobacco trade, and later became a buyer and seller for Otto Eishenlohr & Brothers, a Philadelphia-based cigar manufacturer, which, by 1916, was valued at around $9 million, thanks to the popularity of its "Cinco" brand of cigars. This business success allowed Charles and his wife, Amelia, along with their infant daughter and the family housekeeper, to occupy a modestly elegant yellow brick home at 902 Marietta Avenue, just down the street from President Buchanan's Wheatland estate. Like his father, Charles was also cursed with poor health, and would pass away in 1919 at just 57 years of age.
|Augusta Harriet Bitner|
The Life and Death of Augusta Bitner
As to the legend of Augusta Bitner's death, it did not take place on her wedding day, nor upon her return from her honeymoon. It did not involve her tripping over a dress, or breaking her neck. In fact, it didn't even take place in Lancaster County.
Augusta received her schooling at St. Mary's Academy in Philadelphia, where she met and fell in love with a young businessman, Stanley Hart Tevis. They were married in Lancaster on May 3, 1905. The ceremony was conducted by Reverend Dr. H.A. Gerdsen of the Moravian Church inside the parlor of the Bitner home on Marietta Avenue, with 30 guests in attendance and Miss Maud Kulp playing the wedding march on the family piano. After the reception, the newlyweds left Lancaster on the 7:15 train for a two-week honeymoon in upstate New York and Canada.
|Interior of 902 Marietta Avenue showing stairs|
The young couple moved into a simple townhouse at 4948 Larchwood Avenue, in the up-and-coming West Philadelphia neighborhood of Garden Court. By the 1920s, Garden Court would be known as one of the most exclusive neighborhoods in the city, but at the turn of the 20th century, Garden Court was a fast-growing "streetcar suburb", so named because electric trolleys provided a way for young professionals to commute to the downtown area. Stanley Tevis eventually obtained a position with the Gulf Oil Corporation, and he continued to work in the oil industry until the late 1950s.
On Christmas Day of 1905, Augusta Harriet Bitner Tevis gave birth to a daughter named Sylvia. Sadly, mother and daughter would have a mere six months together before tragedy ripped them apart. In the spring of 1906, Augusta returned to Lancaster to visit her family and fell ill. She returned home and was diagnosed with typhoid fever. On the afternoon of May 8, 1906, a nurse hired by the Bitner family, Bertha Kurtz, left Lancaster for Philadelphia, and for a while it appeared that Augusta would pull through. However, her condition suddenly worsened and, on June 1, a doctor sent a telegraph to Mr. Bitner asking him to come to Philadelphia at once.
Augusta passed away before her father could arrive at her bedside. Her death certificate from the City of Philadelphia lists her cause of death as intestinal hemorrhage with typhoid septicemia. In other words, to put the legend to rest once and for all, Augusta Bitner didn't die from a fall down the stairs, but from bacteria eating a hole in her small intestine and the contents of her stomach poisoning her blood. Not quite as romantic as the Lancaster County myth, but a sad tragedy nonetheless. Augusta's body was sent back to Lancaster for burial. Records indicate that Charles and Amelia Bitner became the legal guardians of Sylvia Tevis soon thereafter.
The Story of the Statue
There have been some historians who argued that the statue at Lancaster Cemetery was carved by renowned American sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, an artist famous for designing the Saint Gaudens Double Eagle $20 gold piece and other coins. His sculptures of famous American historical figures can still be seen at Central Park, Boston Common and Chicago's Grant Park. In 1970, the cemetery caretaker received a letter from John H. Dryfhout, museum curator of the Augustus St. Gaudens Historical Site in Cornish, New Hampshire, who believed that the statue may have been one of Saint-Gaudens' creations.
Dryfhout had heard all about the statue in Lancaster and the many myths surrounding it. Many of these stories had been popularized by Mrs. W. Hensel Simpson, who was a childhood friend of Augusta Bitner. Mrs. Simpson claimed that she had been present in the room when Mr. Bitner commissioned Saint-Gaudens to carve the statue for the princely sum of $27,000. Dryfhout researched this claim, but found no record of any such transaction, even though the sculptor's son had kept meticulous records of his father's commissions. His study of the statue itself also poked a hole in this legend; according to the museum curator, the Art Nouveau style of the monument was not consistent with the Beaux-Arts style of Saint-Gaudens.
Saint-Gaudens died in New Hampshire on August 3, 1907, after a seven year battle with cancer. As the sculptor's death took place four days before the statue arrived in Lancaster, it's extremely unlikely that Saint-Gaudens-- who was bed-ridden at his home in Cornish and on the very brink of death-- would have had the energy to produce such a statue.
The stunning Italian marble monument marking Augusta's gravesite was erected at Lancaster Cemetery on April 7, 1907, just one day after it had been furnished by the Leland & Hall Company of New York, the leading mausoleum and statuary firm in the country. According to company records, the marble statue, six feet and five inches in height, was carved at one of the company's studios in Pietrasanta, Italy, and was probably the handiwork of several different sculptors under contract with Leland & Hall. Proof of this can be seen in the monument's various features; while the statue itself is Italian marble, the steps are of Barre granite from Vermont, and the ivy around the shaft of the adjoining pillar is made of bronze.
The Bitner Family Curse?
While the legend of Augusta Harriet Bitner's death and the legend of the living statue are easily disproven, there are other aspects of Bitner family history that are strangely intriguing. There's the family history of kidney disease, which led Charles A. and Charles W. to premature deaths. And then there's the chapel.
In December of 1908, ground was broken at the corner of Franklin Street and Park Avenue for a chapel constructed through the generosity of the Bitners, as a tribute to their beloved daughter. This chapel, which was to be named after Augusta, was intended as the home to the Rossmere congregation of the Moravian church, under the charge of Reverend F.W. Wantzel. The December 5, 1908, edition of the Lancaster Semi-Weekly New Era reported that, despite the cold weather, a large number of people were on hand to witness the groundbreaking ceremony, and that the first spadeful of dirt was churned up by Sylvia Tevis. The New Era concluded:
The chapel will be of Hummelstown brownstone, with tower, built in the old English style of architecture. It will be erected with as little delay as possible.
The large plot of land, which was once the site of McGrann Park, was directly opposite the Clay Street school building (currently the Buehrle Academy). Up until 1907, this sprawling expanse of open field was where circuses and carnivals were held. For one reason or another, construction ceased the following year and the Augusta Bitner Tevis Memorial Chapel was never built. The Rossmere Moravian mission closed, and Rev. Wantzel departed for Egg Harbor, New Jersey.
Perhaps one reason for this was financial hardship. Aside from the staggering cost of the cemetery monument, there was a fire on April 10, 1909, which completely gutted Bitner's tobacco warehouse, resulting in the loss of several buildings and 1,300 cases of tobacco. The mysterious fire, which was believed to be the work of arsonists, resulted in damages exceeding $100,000 (the equivalent of nearly $3 million in today's currency). Oddly, the fire might have been contained if only the alarm had functioned properly. The Lancaster Intelligencer reported:
Frank Rittenhouse was on his way home when he saw the smoke, and upon making an examination found that the warehouse was on fire. He went to fire box No. 15, which is located a short distance west of the building, but he did not understand how to send in an alarm, as he had never done anything of the kind before. He must have pulled the lever too often, and the result was that a badly mixed up alarm was sounded. All kinds of numbers were struck, and the firemen were at a loss to know where to go for a considerable time.
A Tale of Two Families
Although the warehouse was insured, Bitner never received a payout because of the suspicious nature of the fire, and he spent the next several years waging a legal battle against six different insurance companies, to no avail. In 1912 he was sued by George Newman, a former business partner from Philadelphia. By 1914, Bitner was severely in debt and had no choice but to file for bankruptcy. A notice in the March 21, 1914 edition of the Intelligencer lists his home and warehouse for public sale at auction, and at the time of his death five years later, he and his wife had relocated to a humble row home at 134 Pearl Street.
|134 Pearl St. (left), where Bitner penniless died in 1919|
Sylvia Tevis, who was a mere infant when her mother passed away, eventually married a Florida liquor store operator named Guy Rasbury, who was several years her junior, and moved to Fort Lauderdale, only to have their home destroyed by Hurricane Betsy in 1965. She died in 1976 at the age of 70, thus putting the final nail in the coffin of the once-prosperous Bitner family.
As for Stanley Hart Tevis, he remarried shortly after the death of Augusta Bitner and moved to Westminster, Maryland, where he founded a successful Gulf Oil distributorship. His second wife bore him a son and a daughter; Stanley Tevis, Jr., took over the family business upon his father's retirement, and the daughter, Dorothea, went on to become a Drexel Hill socialite and, later, the wife of Baltimore Colts president and general manager Donald Stafford "Red" Kellett.
Lancaster Semi-Weekly New Era, May 8, 1905.
Lancaster New Era, May 8, 1906.
Lancaster New Era, April 8, 1907.
Lancaster New Era, Nov. 20, 1908.
Lancaster Semi-Weekly New Era, Dec. 5, 1908.
Lancaster Intelligencer, April 14, 1909.
Lancaster Examiner, Oct. 9, 1909.
Lancaster Morning Journal, Oct. 26, 1909.
York Gazette, Feb. 3, 1916.
Lancaster News-Journal, July 11, 1919.
Lancaster Examiner, July 16, 1919.
Baltimore Evening Sun, May 3, 1963.
Lancaster Intelligencer Journal, Sept. 15, 1970.
Lancaster Intelligencer Journal, Oct. 12, 1990.