Pittsburgh likes to tell a romantic, shocking tale about one of its wealthy young heiresses. It’s been telling the story for 174 years. The story is mostly wrong.
Lurid speculation in newspaper accounts of 1842 get passed off as accurate history.
I refer to the elopement of Mary Croghan and Edward W.H. Schenley.
You know the name from Schenley Park, the former Schenley High School, etc.
In the story, Mary is only 14 years old at a Staten Island boarding school. Sometimes she is 13 or perhaps 15. What happens?
Edward W.H. Schenley, an image printed many times in Pittsburgh where he was perceived as a sleazy gold digger.
Schenley, a dashing English captain, a hero of the Napoleonic Wars, a relative of the school owners, lurks about because he is AWOL.
Despite being called dashing, he is 43 years old. So that makes him creepy. He preys on innocent rich girls.
Mary agrees to secretly marry him and run off to England.
Wealthy dad in Pittsburgh gets upset and local reporters cover it.
In reality, Mary was nearly 16. She was known throughout her adult life as a clear-minded woman of good judgment. It seems, even at 16 she knew what she was doing.
Schenley was not a cad. Anything but.
In fact, British documents now online reveal a different Schenley. He was a tireless hero to thousands of kidnapped Africans enslaved in the Caribbean. His voice comes through in hundreds of dispatches:
” With reference to the barbarous state of the criminal law in Surinam, alluded to in my Despatch of June 13, 1843, I beg leave to state, that at this moment there is passing my windows a most frightful spectacle, confirmatory of its severity. Seven negroes, who were detected in some paltry theft of sugar from on board a punt (boat), have been taken, by sentence of the Court, to the public gallows, and there “Spanish bucked,” or flogged on their naked posteriors and thighs, with freshly cut tamarind rods, until not a vestige of whole flesh can be discovered; one mass of clotted blood presenting itself to view, as they lie chained in a mule cart upon their faces, and proceeding to the prison in the fort, for the purpose of being heavily ironed, as soon as they revive from the inanition (exhaustion) caused by the severity of the flogging.”
It wasn’t a very big city, to be sure; less than 6,000 residents, but still there were balls and plenty of coming-out parties to attend. Then, there was church. What would you wear?
We’ve been looking at 1816, the year Pittsburgh got big enough to become a city
Thanks to the Internet and the popularity of Regency Era romantic books and movies, 1816 fashions are at least as available now as they were then.
Ready-made clothing only started to appear just before 1816. Sorry ladies that was just for men.
Most everyone knew how to sew, but they got a tailor or seamstress to make the best outfits. You can still get those patterns on the Internet.
If you’re a man, you can do it the modern way — buy ready-made. Like the outfit below.
DO YOU WANT TO BE HIM? The coat will cost you about $300, the hat about $100. All told, you’re looking at about $900 to become a Regency Period count complete with pocket watch and cane. Just click on photo for details and other outfits.
Present day bus and light rail vehicle on south side of transit tunnel.
Pittsburgh’s most persistent myth may be that the transit tunnel under Mount Washington was once a coal mine. It never was.
That errant community memory stems from an otherwise long-forgotten tunnel nearby.
It doesn’t help when people who should know better repeat the transit tunnel legend as fact. Pittsburgh Magazine just did it in a piece on Pittsburgh tunnels:
“The one-time coal-mine-turned-tunnel was upgraded in 1904 and used by as many as 600 streetcars a day at its peak”
Sorry, as much as we all like the idea of repurposing old things, the transit tunnel started out as a tunnel. It never has been anything else.
How We Forgot
Perhaps, we should explain the origins of the myth.
Back when Mount Washington was just a hill, it had a less marketable name, Coal Hill.
It got the name soon after Fort Pitt was built at the Point. Fort dwellers and those living in shanties around the fort dug coal out of the hillside for subsistence heating.
The trees were already gone, stripped away and burned. Coal was carried across the Monongahela River in canoes and later ferried in flat boats.
But, they didn’t just walk to the base of the hill and start digging. That would have been too convenient.
They had to climb three-quarters of the way up the steep hillside to find and excavate coal. Then, they slid it down.
The coal — compressed remains of ancient swamps — was in a layer that was very large, but not particularly thick. It ranged from a few feet to not much more than the height of a miner.
But the Pittsburgh Coal Seam, as it came to be known, enabled a community to grow around the fort, and then flame into an industrial power.
It lay about 100 feet down from the top of Coal Hill. There was no coal at the level of today’s transit tunnel.
That tunnel, now used by the “T” light rail system and buses, was dug to replace a train tunnel that indeed had been a coal mine.
That mine was far up the northern slope, or downtown side, of the hill. On the southern side, the valley floor is much higher. So, the mine was only about half way up that side.
Now let’s explore the business of carrying coal and people through or over Mount Washington. It required so many contraptions to operate, and so much patience to use, that it is hard for modern minds to fathom.
This is why we went to a lot of trouble to ride through or over Mount Washington. Many workers walked this every day. It is a 1910 view of Indian Trail Steps, named after a path that followed the same route. Believe it or not, people took horses and wagons on the trail before these steps stopped them.
Next generation keyboard, as in the next human generation. This child’s model has the same letter arrangement as first created six generations ago.
The Striking Story of a Keyboard Design
Look down at your keyboard. See it? The first six letters spell QWERTY.
That’s what they call the keyboard layout we’ve been using for 140 years: the QWERTY layout.
It looks very much like an emphatic adjective: QWERTY! I propose we start using it that way.
Well, that’s very QWERTY! . . . She’s had a lot of trouble, but she is so QWERTY!
It would certainly be easy to type. Just slide a single finger across that row of keys. I’ll let you decide which finger. It may depend on your mood.
It would mean enduring.
Not only that. It would mean many good stories are told about the subject. Not all are true.
That certainly is the case with the QWERTY layout.
Early “literary piano.” It’s resulting typewritten sheets were hidden inside until you brought them out.
It appears QWERTY may have been conceived in the mind of an investor from Meadville, 90 miles to the north of Pittsburgh. It was then born in Milwaukee, WI., and grew up in Kittanning and Pittsburgh.
We’re talking about the late 1800s. There seems to have been a lot of tinkerers looking to get rich, at least in the just-victorious North. They often put their heads together, and their money, to come up with things that would sell.
Christopher Latham Sholes wanted to make a typesetting machine for his Milwaukee print shop after his typesetters went on strike. That idea failed. So he used it to make a machine for print shops that could be used to number pages, tickets, etc.
He and a fellow inventive printer patented a prototype . The patent attorney they went to also was an inventor. I told you, everybody was.
“Couldn’t this print letters and words, too?” he asked. That, of course, was Sholes original idea.
The attorney joined the partnership, providing development money.
The trio came up with the “literary piano.”
Seriously. It looked like a small piano. It was wooden. The keys were ebony and ivory. The alphabet ran the way it’s supposed to: ABCD. . . They got a patent in 1868 and typed hundreds of letters on the machine seeking investors.
One letter went to James Densmore who lived in Meadville at the time. He was so taken with the typed solicitation, that he bought a quarter of the patent without seeing the device.
If superstition thrives amid uncertainty and fear, there was no better place for that than Southwestern Pennsylvania in the mid to late 1700s.
Our ancestors were ruled by beliefs we find childish and strange today.
It was not a good place to be if you were a woman, and managed to stay alive into old age. Your neighbors might think you were a witch.
Okay . . . yeah, it’s easy for us to judge.
We don’t live moment to moment concerned about our children starving, or a tomahawk crashing through our spouse’s skull, or illness snuffing us out in a day or two.
But, it can be fun to be judgmental, so let’s judge.
Plus, we’ll look at superstitious practices in Pittsburgh since then. I guarantee that where we find superstition, we’ll find fear.
Tales From theWilderness
My main source for the crazy worldview of settlers comes from Joseph Doddridge, who was brought into the wilderness south of Pittsburgh in 1773 as a 4-year-old.
His memoirs were published in 1824.
Let’s start with witches.
Has your cow stopped giving milk?
That’s easy. There’s nothing wrong with your cow. And, it’s not anything you did, or didn’t do.
The old woman next door stole the milk, of course.
No, she didn’t sneak over and milk your cow. (What a dolt!) She’s a witch.
She just pinned a new towel over her door with a new pin, said a few words, and milked your cow at her house by pulling on the towel fringe.
That, wrote Doddridge, is what many people he grew up with, mostly Scotch-Irish, thought.
They didn’t make this stuff up here. They brought it with them when they crossed the ocean
Doddridge’s neighbors might have related to the people of Salem, Mass., a century before. But, as far as we know, they didn’t kill any suspected witches here.
Wizardry in the Wilds
They didn’t have to go that far. They had their own magic.
First, you could always hire a wizard, a male witch, to undo what the old woman did.
Wizards rarely used their powers for bad purposes, you understand.
Doddridge said he knew several who had as many patients as any medical doctor in the region.
I should point out that Doddridge thought bloodletting was the epitome of good, modern medical practice.
Witch masters, as wizards also were called, made no secret of their powers. Accused witches, on the other hand, always denied everything.
Funny how that works.
Is your child ailing from a mysterious disease? It’s a witch’s spell.
You should hang a sealed container of the child’s urine in the chimney. Why?
Well, the witch will develop a urinary infection. She will not be able to urinate. If she does, she will experience dire pain.
That will force her to remove the spell. Unless . . .
. . . well, unless she uses another option.
Something Borrowed, You’ll Be Blue
She can undo any spell placed on her by borrowing something — anything — from the person who cast the spell on her.
Doddridge sadly recalled several old women with nearly broken hearts. They asked to borrow something, were denied, and then they were told why.
Doddridge studied German so he could preach among German settlers as a Methodist minister.
One of the things he learned is that German glassblowers threw puppies into their furnaces to drive witches out.
Only a witch could be responsible for the mysteries behind a failed bottle, right? She probably didn’t want you peeing in it, then hanging it in the chimney.
German farmers east of Monroeville blamed sorcery when their hunting shots were off target, recalled Thomas Mellon, the patriarch of the banking family.
” . . . they all expressed undoubting belief that no matter how unerring the aim, if someone with an evil eye or possessed of the power of sorcery should happen to put a spell on their gun, no game could be killed until the spell was taken off,” Mellon wrote.
The Silver Bullet
That was easy enough to take care of, though. Just fashion a bullet out of a silver coin and shoot the witch. . .
Well, not exactly. Draw an outline of the witch on a tree and shoot the silver bullet into the figure with the affected gun. I presume, since the gun’s aim was cockeyed, it was done at close range.
Oh, yeah. The silver bullet trick also works if your child is sick and you don’t want to hang urine in the chimney. That can be SUCH a bother!
Just draw the old woman who cast the spell on a stump or board (not a live tree) and shoot her, er . . . it.
She will feel extreme pain in the part of the body hit — until she removes the spell.
Farmers and Lunacy
Mellon said his German neighbors just shook their heads at the ignorance of the Scottish-Irish such as himself, people who didn’t know there was a right time and a wrong time to do farm work based on the phases of the moon.
If you clean out a springhouse during the decline of the moon, for instance, well any fool knows, it will surely go dry.
The Zodiac calendar also ruled farm work. Put up a fence under the wrong sign, and it will rot much sooner. Spread manure or plant potatoes under the wrong sign, that is absolute folly!
“Science had not yet greatly disturbed their thoughts,” Mellon observed.
But, on the other hand, they were able to explain everything.
Many of the people you know, and perhaps yourself, have thoughts undisturbed by science.
These thoughts come out during times of stress. Is anything more stressful than putting your house up for sale?
There is one sure way to find a buyer quickly, and it’s not lowering the price — although that will work, too.
Not Just Any Ole Joe
You must lower St. Joseph.
Simply get Joseph out of the nativity scene in the attic, and bury him upside down next to the “for sale” sign in the yard.
Perhaps because he prefers to be right side up and not buried, the figurine uses its powers to attract a willing buyer. You then must disinter Joseph and give him a place of honor in your new home.
If you don’t, well don’t be surprised if the old place keeps going up for sale after you’ve left.
The fog of myth surrounds many religious practices, but the makers of the above home-selling Joseph kit, God bless them, want to clear things up for you. Play the video, if you dare.
The Catholic Church calls such magic practices evil. Many churches stopped selling Joseph in their saint shops.
A good portion of the statues are bought by non Catholics any way. They’ll try anyone’s magic, if it will sell their house.
The Church says one should just pray to the foster father of Jesus. He’d be sympathetic. He often changed where he lived.
Superstition is no more characteristic of Christians than anyone else who tunes in to the spiritual.
Long before Christianity, and continuing today, people carry smoldering sage through a house while they think happy thoughts.
It relieves the home of negative energy and replaces it with positive. That causes lookers to become buyers.
The Chinese also have long addressed good and bad energy in a living space. The practice is called Feng Shui.
For instance, Feng Shui devotees say one should eliminate clutter. Nothing magical in that.
Use red, a good luck color, where possible.
Line the walkway to the house with red flowers, and it will draw in buyers. I suspect the positive energy generated by that comes from thinking the owner has taken care of the property.
Fortunately, none of that endangers anyone. Well, you might lose your soul to the Devil’s magic, but otherwise it’s harmless.
However, superstitious Pittsburgh drivers do pose a danger. Many sound downright obsessive/compulsive.
Some hold their breath while passing cemeteries. Don’t want to make the dead people jealous, you know.
Some lift their feet and touch the car ceiling while crossing railroad tracks. This will keep a loved one from dying within the week, or keep your lover from leaving you, or. . . (you fill in the blank).
I suspect it goes back to bad vehicle suspension, when it was more comfortable to hang from the roof-mounted hand grip rather than absorb rail-induced jolts with human hindquarters that were not as well padded as today.
Many drivers race through a yellow light and feel compelled to slap the sun visor afterward. Why?
Because you’re supposed to. That’s why.
People from out of town bring a common superstition that doesn’t work here. They try to hold their breath while driving through our tunnels. Pittsburghers know better.
The tunnels are fairly long, but not too long. The average healthy person can stop breathing for one to two minutes before they pass out and careen into tunnel walls.
That’s plenty of time to clear Pittsburgh’s longest tunnels, if you maintain your speed. There’s the problem. Many do not.
Maybe those who slow down are heeding a superstition. You know, the one in which the tunnel walls close in on your car the faster you travel.
Lastly, I’ll mention what has been reported time and again: the superstitions of the Pittsburgh Penguins, and athletes in general.
What do those big tough guys fear that would cause them to rely on superstition? Losing, of course.
Actually, that’s not quite true. They fear not winning.
What’s the difference?
Well, their superstitious tendencies arise mostly when they are winning.
Penguins players seek to replicate the small things leading up to their wins and incorporate them into a pre-game routine: the socks they wear, where they place their hockey stick, who they arrange to “accidentally” bump into, the order in which they take to the ice, whether they shave or not– the lists go on.
In the end, it’s fear. They fear bad luck can trump championship skills.
The magic they employ helps them survive what passes for danger in the 21st Century, in Southwestern Pennsylvania.
Not as bad as being burned at the stake. I guess that makes us . . . what?
BTW: The font color in this post is a new color marketed by PPG Paints. It’s called “Superstition.”
Leon J. Pollom, writer/researcher
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'History doesn't repeat itself, but it often rhymes.'
--Attributed to Mark Twain, but there is no evidence he ever said it or wrote it.
'History is a bucket of ashes.'
'Memorizing dates and names assures we learn nothing of history.'
-- Leon J. Pollom
'History is a set of lies agreed upon.'
'Any event, once it has occurred, can be made to appear inevitable by a competent historian.'
-- Lee Simonson
'History is mostly guessing; the rest is prejudice.'