Odd Bits

Don’t be evil-eying my guns!

Many Americans see government regulation of guns as a curse. There was a time when they thought witches controlled their weapons with curses.

Thomas Mellon, father of Andrew Mellon, explains such peculiar habits of German farmers  in his 1885 memoirs, “Thomas Mellon and His Times”:


9780822955726_l“The old and wise men among our Dutch (Deutsch) neighbors possessed abiding confidence in the folk-lore of their ancestors. They would admit that the active practice of witchcraft had generally ceased, but most of them claimed having had, at one time or another, personal experience of its effects.

Many of them in their youth had been great hunters; even in our day, Peter Hill and other old Germans were accustomed to make their annual winter excursion into the then wilderness of Clarion and Forest counties, and would each bring home a sled load of venison.

And they all expressed undoubting belief that no matter how unerring the aim, if some one 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 is taken off.

This was done by marking a human figure on a tree to represent the witch, and shooting a silver bullet into it with the gun supposed to be affected.

The bullet was usually the smallest silver coin battered into the proper shape.

Old Philip Drum and our neighbor Peter, who were great hunters, usually took the precaution of ridding their guns of these sorceries before setting out on the hunt; taking it for granted that if the gun was not affected, the purification would do no harm.

Hex sign to ward off  "evil eye."

Hex sign to ward off evil eye.


Thomas Mellon:

“. . . The signs of the Zodiac in the Dutch (Deutsch) almanac afforded an indispensable guide for farm work . . . Our neighbors generally entertained these beliefs and only pitied the presumptuous ignorance of such as ourselves who disregarded them. Science had not as yet greatly disturbed their thoughts . . .”

Zoom In, Zoom Back

This week we stroll down the alley of Pittsburgh's past, picking up a few odd bits. This is Banner Way in Lawrenceville in 1908 as it gets paved in brick. Asphalt covers it now, but the buildings remain. See photo below.

Click on this 1907 photo to zoom into the past of Banner Way in Lawrenceville. My money says the man under the derby in foreground is a salesman. Note the bi-racial crew paving the alley in brick. Also check out the flame in the gas street light, the lack of telephone lines and poles, and the girl in the window with the best view.  Asphalt covers over their work now,  but the buildings remain largely intact 110 years later. Google provides a modern view of Banner Way below. This old photo and thousands of others can be seen at:

Historic Pittsburgh Images Collection

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Why People Don’t Like Cellars

In the late 1800s, as the number of Pittsburghers multiplied amid the communal filth of outhouses, they began to think it would be healthier to get that disease-ridden waste out of their neighborhoods and flush it where God intended it —  the river.

It was generally recognized that rivers were divinely created to carry anything humans didn’t want to the boundless ocean. If that created problems for people downriver, well, that was their problem.

Plumbers were enlisted to install sewer lines and toilets, sinks, and tubs. That meant going into people’s cellars and digging into their dark secrets.

The following profile (abridged) is in the Sept. 3, 1885, issue of the Pittsburgh Commercial Gazette.

Plumber Exposes Secrets

Sickening tales of infanticide are told by Owen Downs, a Grant street plumber. He claims to have unearthed and exposed more of these crimes than any other man in Pittsburgh. . .

“I have raked out from the vaults and cellars of houses right in the very heart of the city the corpses of four babies . . . I notified the coroner, and, without exception the crime of infanticide was proven to the satisfaction of the jury. . . It was an unpleasant discovery in every instance, of course, and I hated the idea of being one of the principal witnesses at each of the four inquests, but you see I couldn’t help it. My business revealed the crimes to me.

I was greatly horrified at the first discovery, but after that I got used to finding the corpses. . . Now I can easily stand it. It is terrible the extent of child-murder . . . I have seen more of it here than anywhere else.”

Zoom In, Zoom Back

Sands of Time

These children at Lawrence Park in Lawrenceville in 1924 could well be offspring of the older children in alley photo above. An, of course, they are all gone now. See the sand pour through their fingers.

These youngsters at  Lawrenceville park in 1924 could well be the children of some of those in the previous 1907 photo. Of course, all are likely dead now. Sand, like the days, pours through their fingers. This photo is among those in the Historic Pittsburgh Images Collection.


A Pox Upon Your House

And a Fire, Too

The following  is an excerpt from the memoirs of Jimmie Owens, a contractor in Pittsburgh through much of the 1800s.

I had only been married a few months when my wife was stricken with smallpox, which was prevalent in the city at the time (1854). I called Dr. Halleck to wait upon her, and he put a sort of paste on her to keep the air out of the sores. This was so irritating that I had to tie her hands to the bed to keep her from scratching herself. When he came the second day to put the paste on her, I would not let him do it.

“What do you know about medicine?” he demanded of me.

“I don’t know very much, perhaps,” I replied, “but I do know that the stuff is driving my wife crazy, and killing her by degrees.”

Jimmie Owens

Jimmie Owens

So I paid the doctor off and sent him away. He said if she died he would not be responsible, and I told him I had a notion to have him arrested for trying to kill her.

As soon as the doctor was gone, I went to Francis Bailey’s drug store and asked him for two bottles of the finest olive oil he had.

“What do you want the oil for?” he asked me.

“My wife has smallpox,” I told him, “and I want to bathe her.”

“Take the oil and go,” he said, handing it out and getting away from me. “You need not wait to pay for it.”

That suited me very well, as I had no great surplus of money about that time. When I got home, I bathed my wife with the oil, and she felt so refreshed that she slept for four hours, and from that time began to get better, though she was ill for weeks, and I had to give her most of my time, night and day, as I could get no one to nurse her.

The morning after I discharged the doctor, St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church took fire, and the lumber yard between my house and the church was soon ablaze. I stood the heat long as I could, and then, as I had no one to help me fight the fire that threatened my house, I took my wife in my arms and carried her up the hill to Alex Malloy’s house. When I appeared at the Malloy door with my wife wrapped in a blanket, everybody ran out of the house, and left me in full possession.

The fire was kept from reaching my house, however, and after the danger was past I got two men who were not afraid of the smallpox to help me carry my wife back home.

At this time I had the contract to do the stucco work on the new cathedral which was to take the place of the cathedral burned a year or two before. . . The church people wanted to dedicate it about Christmas and it was getting uncomfortably close . . . Bishop O’Connor would not allow them to take the contract away from me, as they wished to do, and told them that under the circumstances it would be very unchristian. So I was given all the time I needed. . .

This is why people ran in terror from anyone associated with smallpox

This is why people ran in terror from anyone associated with smallpox. Vaccinations in the last century eradicated the disease from the Earth (if you don’t count what governments store in labs). The last case was reported in 1977. People in England called it smallpox beginning in the 1400s to differentiate it from syphilis, which was called great pox.


— Jimmie Owens memoirs: Recollections of a Runaway Boy, 1827-1903.

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