“The CHURCH of Sacrifice VOODOO MURDERS” and 6 More Scary True Horror Stories! #WeirdDarkness
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IN THIS WEEKEND ARCHIVES EPISODE FROM FEBRUARY 08, 2018: The true story of the voodoo murders… are they proof of the mythical “Church of Sacrifice?” *** A man picks up a ghostly hitchhiker. *** For years, the residents of Circleville, Ohio were plagued by messages that revealed their darkest secrets. Who was writing the letters – and how did they know about the skeletons in people’s closets? *** If you drive through Hecker Pass in California, don’t be surprised if you see a bloody girl in a frilly white dress waiting for you. *** In a wooded area just south of San Antonio, lies a nondescript railroad crossing. Legend has it several children died on the tracks – but did that really happen? *** Poveglia Island – some considered it a place of hell hundreds of years ago. And some still do today. *** And the history, hauntings (and hoax) of the original “most haunted house in America”.
STORY SOURCES AND MUSIC CREDITS…
“The VooDoo Murders of Clementine Barnabet” by Troy Taylor: https://weirddarkness.tiny.us/3hqkn5pp
“Thumbing For a Hitch” by GhosterCK for YourGhostStories.com: https://weirddarkness.tiny.us/45bgp999
“The Sinister Mystery of the Circleville Letter Writer” by Stephanie Almazan for The Line Up:https://weirddarkness.tiny.us/45qhanr3
“The Angry Ghost of Hecker Pass” from BackpackerVerse: https://weirddarkness.tiny.us/t80g1pg8
“Ghost Children Haunt Texas Railroad Crossing” from GhostsNGhouls.com (link no longer available)
“Mystery Of The Bloody Island Poveglia – A Place Of Hell” from MessageToEagle.com: https://weirddarkness.tiny.us/eikwk53m
“The House on Ridge Avenue” by Troy Taylor for AmericanHauntingsInk.com: https://weirddarkness.tiny.us/vmrsatuk
Weird Darkness theme by Alibi Music Library. Background music, varying by episode, provided by Alibi Music, EpidemicSound and/or AudioBlocks with paid license. Music from Shadows Symphony (https://tinyurl.com/yyrv987t), Midnight Syndicate (http://amzn.to/2BYCoXZ), Kevin MacLeod (https://tinyurl.com/y2v7fgbu), Tony Longworth (https://tinyurl.com/y2nhnbt7), and/or Nicolas Gasparini/Myuu (https://tinyurl.com/lnqpfs8) is used with permission.
(Over time links seen here may become invalid, disappear, or have different content. I always make sure to give authors credit for the material I use whenever possible. If I somehow overlooked doing so for a story, or if a credit is incorrect, please let me know and I will rectify it in these show notes immediately.)
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What has been called the “Church of Sacrifice” murder spree started with a telephone call in January 1911. A police officer in West Crowley, Louisiana, took an urgent call from neighbors, who feared that something terrible had occurred at 605 Western Avenue. When Officer Ballew arrived at the house, he found that the home’s three occupants – a man, woman, and young boy – had been murdered in their beds. Their skulls had been split open. The beds were drenched in blood and smeared footprints were on the floor. The doors were all bolted from the inside, indicating that the killer had entered the house through the window and killed the family while they slept. In the corner was a bucket, filled with bloody water. Propped against the head of the bed was the murder weapon – a blood-stained axe.
The local newspaper called the crime “the most brutal murder in the history of this section,” but it would turn out to be the first in a series of axe slayings across Louisiana and Texas in the early 1910s. The newspapers would eventually “reveal” that the murders were connected to a deranged Voodoo woman and a cult called the “Church of Sacrifice,” which claimed its victims for bloody rituals. Suspicion initially fell on several men, but the murderer turned out to be a woman named Clementine Barnabet. She eventually confessed to killing 35 people – although the true number of her victims remains a mystery.
I’m Darren Marlar and this is Weird Darkness.
Welcome, Weirdos – I’m Darren Marlar and this is Weird Darkness. Here you’ll find stories of the paranormal, supernatural, legends, lore, crime, conspiracy, mysterious, macabre, unsolved and unexplained. If you’re new here, welcome to the show – and if you are listening to Weird Darkness on the radio, on a streaming station, or on YouTube, be sure to look for and subscribe to Weird Darkness in your favorite podcast app as well – I upload episodes every day of the week! And if you’re already a member of this Weirdo family, please take a moment and invite someone else to listen. Recommending the podcast to others helps make it possible for me to keep doing the show! And while you’re listening, be sure to check out WeirdDarkness.com where you can find me on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, MeWe, and more.
Now.. bolt your doors, lock your windows, turn off your lights, and come with me into the Weird Darkness!
THE “VOODOO MURDERS” OF CLEMENTINE BARNABET
Shortly before the murders attributed to “Billy the Axeman” began to occur across the Midwest, a string of equally bloody slayings was taking place in towns along the Southern Pacific Railroad line in the south. They seem to have started in January 1911, when Walter Byers, his wife, and their son were slaughtered in West Crowley. Louisiana. The police were stunned by the brutal attack in which the victims were “brained with an ax,” as one newspaper put it.
A few weeks later, on February 25, the killer struck again, murdering four members of the Andrus family in Lafayette, Louisiana. The police had now started to suspect, since the crimes were so similar, that they must have been carried out by the “same terrible monster.” A month later, Alfred and Elizabeth Casaway and their three children were also murdered with an axe in San Antonio, Texas.
The police investigation fizzled out quickly after each crime. There were no forensic experts in those days. Fingerprint collection and comparison was just getting started and was limited to larger city police departments. There was also very little cooperation between various law enforcement agencies in the same state, let alone across state lines. Newspaper reporters were connecting the various cases but – as would soon be realized – their methods of investigation weren’t always reliable.
After many false leads, detectives focused on a Lafayette, Louisiana, man named Raymond Barnabet, a small-time criminal and sharecropper from the “black part of town.” Raymond was arrested after a fight that he had with his mistress. She told a friend that she believed he was somehow connected to the murders. That was all it took to land him in jail. He went to trial in October 1911 and his children – Zepherin and Clementine – both testified against him. Clementine, who was just a teenager, told a vivid tale about her father returning home one night with blood all over his clothes. He warned his family to keep quiet about it – or elese. Zepherin confirmed his sister’s story, even adding that their father had bragged that he “killed the whole damn Andrus family.” They both told the jury that they feared for their lives if their father did not go to prison.
But while Raymond was in jail, another murder occurred. On November 26, 1911, Norbert Randall, his wife, three children, and a nephew were all killed in Lafayette. The manner of the crime was identical to the earlier murders, with only one difference: the entire family was killed by an axe, but Norbert Randall had been shot in the head.
It was clear that a murderer was still on the loose. Lafayette Parish Sheriff Louis LaCoste – already suspicious about the stories told by Raymond Barnabet’s children – arrested them both. During Raymond’s trial, the defense brought up the questionable reputations of Zepherin and Clementine. Their neighbors had even described them as “filthy, shifty, and degenerate.” And there was one other thing that had been bothering the sheriff since he had arrested Raymond at his home – officers had discovered blood all over Clementine’s clothes. During her father’s trial, she claimed that Raymond had wiped blood from the murder scene on them, but Sheriff LaCoste was beginning to doubt her story.
When deputies arrested Clementine, they searched the family home and found more evidence. According to a newspaper report, there was “a complete suit of woman’s clothes in her room, saturated with blood and covered with human brains.” They also found that the front door latch was covered with dried blood. Zepherin had an alibi for the night of the Randall murders – as did Raymond since he was in jail – but Clementine did not. She was immediately arrested.
But the murders still didn’t stop.
In January 1912, three more families were murdered. At the third scene, in Lake Charles, Louisiana – where Felix Broussard, his wife, and three children had been slaughtered – the hands of the victims were splayed apart with pieces of wood and a handwritten message was left on the wall. Some newspapers said that it was written in blood; others, in pencil. Either way, it was a chilling biblical message: “When he maketh the inquisition for blood, he forgetteth not the cry of the humble.” The message was signed “Human Five.” The number in the signature led police and reporters to believed that a band of murderers was at work and newspapers dubbed the killers the “Human Five Gang.”
That was bad enough, but it soon got worse – and became more misleading. An enterprising reporter – likely from the El Paso Gazette, which was one of the first to explore this angle – decided that the story of the repeat killings would be even spookier if black magic was involved. And what could be scarier than Voodoo at a time and place in American history that was steeped in racism? Surely, it was implied, no white men could be involved in such heinous crimes, so it must be part of some sort of African-American ritual. The Gazette published its first story along this line with the headline “Voodoo’s Horrors Break Out Again.”
The story suggested that the crimes were connected to human sacrifice rituals that were part of Voodoo. The number five was emphasized because it had “ritualistic relevance.” Of course, there was no truth to this whatsoever, but it was a great story, and everyone knew that scared readers bought more papers.
And the newspapers weren’t finished. If one reporter could suggest that the murders were all part of some Voodoo ritual, then another reporter could top that with something even scarier. Rumors had started to spread that Clementine was the leader of a cult called the “Church of Sacrifice,” which was supposedly led by Reverend King Harris, a Pentecostal preacher with a small congregation connected to the Christ Sanctified Holy Church. The police brought Harris in for questioning, but the reverend had never heard of the “Church of Sacrifice,” and was visibly upset to think that any of his sermons could have inspired a series of axe murders.
On April 5, 1912 – after sitting in jail for a couple of months — Clementine finally confessed to 17 murders. In her story, she claimed that she had bought a Voodoo charm that was meant to protect her while she was committing crimes. If she did, it didn’t work. She also said that she and her accomplices drew numbers to see who would commit each murder. When her number came up, she dressed as a man so that she could get around unnoticed at night. She only wanted to kill the adults in the houses she chose, Clementine told investigators, but she “killed the children because she did not wish them left orphans in the world.” She refused to reveal why the murders were committed in the first place – perhaps because she couldn’t make up a story that explained them.
Newspapers printed her full confession on front pages, but even reporters that had been writing lurid stories of Voodoo and cult sacrifices didn’t believe much of what she had to say. One noted, “Clementine’s confession has been received with varying shades of belief owing to the positive way she swore in the trial of her father, and the misleading information she has given as to her accomplices.”
Clementine had difficulty keeping her story straight and investigators were all over the place with the information she provided. She had previously testified in court that her father was the man behind the murders. When they kept happening, though, she took the blame. She gave detectives the name of her accomplices but either they didn’t exist, or they were men with solid alibis. A few arrests were made but the search for the “Human Five Gang” and the “Church of the Sacrifice” went nowhere.
The newspapers had created so much confusion in the case that it was almost impossible for investigators to understand what was going on. The public was even more confused. For one thing, there was probably never a “Church of the Sacrifice,” as the papers claimed. Reverend Harris had preached in Lafayette on the night of the Randall murders, but was completely uninvolved in the case. Everyone seemed to be confusing the Sacrifice Church – which was never proven to have existed – with Reverend Harris’s Sanctified Church. Things became even more confusing after Reverend Harris was brought in for questioning, which seemed to substantiate the rumors. Once the Voodoo stories were added to the mix, things spun out of control.
However, I think the confusion came from another place – the race of everyone involved. This was a very racially divided period in history, especially in the south. It was an era when lynchings of African-Americans were still occurring in many small towns and when race riots were causing unrest in America’s larger cities. Racial slang and descriptions appear in nearly all the newspaper stories about the case and prejudice made it easy for white residents of Louisiana and Texas to believe that blacks were capable of committing murders for Voodoo rituals that had been concocted by the press.
It didn’t help that Clementine had named a Voodoo priest who supposedly gave the invisibility protection charm to her: Joseph Thibodeaux. She said that he also gave her the ideas for the crimes, but Thibodeaux swore that never happened. Not only that, he stated that he was certainly not a “Voodoo priest.” He practiced root medicine and healing and a newspaper that came to his defense stated that he “has been regarded as peaceful in disposition and harmless in intention” and was “noted for the practice of conjuring warts away.”
Despite the fact that hardly anyone believed her story, Clementine did go to trial. District Attorney Howard E. Bruner believed that some of the murders were copycat crimes, but he also believed that Clementine was a “moral pervert” who was capable of everything she confessed to, including the sexual caressing of the corpses of her victims. Apparently, that was enough to try her for murder. He official filed charges against her on April 14, 1912.
Her defense attorneys claimed the 19-year-old young woman was insane – and they were probably right. While in jail, she confessed to a total of 35 murders. Every time that she re-told her story, though, the details changed, so it was impossible to know if anything she said was the truth. She was found guilty at trial and was sentenced to life at the Louisiana Penitentiary. She attempted to escape in July 1913 but was caught the same day. Aside from that one incident, she was a model prisoner, but was not behind bars for long. According to one brief report, Clementine received a “procedure” that was said to have “restored her to normal condition” and she was released on good behavior after serving 10 years.
In the end, we have to ask: what about Clementine’s story was true and what was made up by the newspapers of the day? The evidence found in her home suggests that Clementine did commit at least one of the murders – the Randall crime, if I must hazard a guess – but probably not all of them. It’s impossible to know which of the murders were connected and which were not. It’s possible that Clementine knew who committed the other murders, but we’ll never know for sure. Regardless, I think that we can be fairly certain that the murders had nothing to do with a Voodoo cult or the mythical “Church of Sacrifice.”
Perhaps if Clementine – and everyone else accused in the case – had not been a poor African-American, we’d be closer to knowing the truth. Everything about the story was designed to send fear into the hearts of white Louisianans at a time when race was a polarizing issue in the region. Of course, it was not the only reason the crimes were never solved, but it played a part.
Serial murders – or repeat murders, as they were called then – had become a fixture in newspapers since the 1880s, when Jack the Ripper terrorized London. In the United States, there had been other axe murder sprees that began around the that same time and continued into the 1910s, including the “Servant Girl Annihilator” murders in Austin, Texas and the aforementioned New Orleans Axeman murders and the Midwest Murders that spread over several states.
None of those cases were ever solved either.
Whether or not the murders that were linked to Clementine Barnabet were connected remains a mystery, but one thing that we do know is that her story – with all its tangled legends and lies – continues to haunt us after all these years.
THUMBING FOR A HITCH
The week of Mardi Gras, I decided to drive out to New Orleans to surprise some friends of mine.
We all had a great time.
When on long road trips, I’m usually looking at the road or the scenery going by while talking with my girlfriend Carrie or listening to Music via my iPhone.
On the morning of February 24th, I checked out of the Wyndham Hotel early so as to get a jump on the traffic coming into New Orleans for the annual Mardi Gras festivities. I wanted to get out Of the city before the traffic became to insane to deal with. I got out just in the nick of time. I was awake and alert while driving and concentrating on the drive ahead of me.
Not long after leaving the vicinity of Baton Rouge heading west bound on I-10, and going through the wetlands of Louisiana, I became aware of a presence… In my car!
Out of the peripheral vision of my right eye, I saw a young woman. She had long, wavy black hair and was wearing big, round sunglasses, kind of like the type that were in style back in the 1960’s. (Picture Jackie Onassis)
When I looked right at her, she would be gone.
She never looked at me, but only at the road ahead. She never said a word, even when I spoke to her. (Heh, talking to a ghost.)
Instead of continuing on I-10 which would lead me into Houston, I took a right turn onto I-96 in Beaumont and then a left on 105.
From that point on, I never saw her again. I am left wondering who she was and why she chose to ride with me out of New Orleans in the middle of the night.
CIRCLEVILLE LETTER WRITER
In 1976, the citizens of Circleville, Ohio began receiving sinister handwritten letters. The anonymous author knew many personal details about each resident and claimed to be watching them. They were postmarked from nearby Columbus, without a return address.
The most dangerous letters were directed at Mary Gillispie. The Circleville Letter Writer accused the local bus driver of having an affair with the superintendent of schools.
“I know where you live,” read one of the threatening missives. “I’ve been observing your house and know you have children. This is no joke. Please take it serious.”
Shortly thereafter, Mary’s husband Ron received a letter. Whispers of the illicit affair spread through the once-quiet town.
hen a new letter arrived at the Gillispie door: “Gillispie, you have had 2 weeks and done nothing. Admit the truth and inform the school board. If not, I will broadcast it on CBS, posters, signs, and billboards, until the truth comes out.”
Surely this malevolent scribe was someone close to the Gillispie household. Mary and Ron gathered with their loved ones – including Ron’s sister and his sister’s husband, Paul Freshour – to discuss possible suspects.
The letters stopped briefly in 1977. Then, on August 17, Ron received a phone call that infuriated him.
The man burst out the front door and climbed into his car – armed with his gun.
He would never return home again. Later that day, authorities found Ron’s car wrapped around a tree, with Ron’s body inside. Strangely, his gun had been fired, but the reason why remained a mystery.
Circleville authorities ruled his death an accident caused by alcohol – a decision that upset the Circleville Writer. Soon new letters surfaced accusing the sheriff of a coverup. A local journalist reported that, according to police records, Ron Gillispie died with one-and-a-half times the legal limit of alcohol in his system. According to close friends, however, Ron was not a heavy drinker.
Eventually, Mary and her lover confirmed the affair, though they claimed their relationship started only after the letters began. Notes continued throughout 1983, with some addressed to Mary’s daughter. That year, the anonymous wordsmith even took to installing signs along Mary’s bus route for the world to see.
Tired of the harassment, Mary pulled over, climbed out of her bus, and went to rip down one sign. But to her shock, she found it was rigged to a box with a string. Upon opening the box, Mary found a gun pointed right at her.
Terrified, she reported the incident. Police examined the firearm. While the serial number was partially scratched off, it was still traceable. The weapon belonged to Mary’s former brother-in-law, Paul Freshour.
Paul was adamant of his innocence – yet with the firearm as evidence and an inconclusive test comparing his penmanship to the threatening letters, authorities believed they had their man. They arrested him for attempted murder.
On October 24, 1983, Paul stood trial for the attempted murder of Mary Gillispie. While Paul was not officially accused of being the Circleville Letter Writer, the prosecution repeatedly brought up the inconclusive results of his handwriting test to cast guilt on the man.
Right or wrong, the jury connected the dots. They found Paul guilty of attempted murder, and the judge handed down the maximum sentence of 7 to 25 years.
Circleville breathed a sigh of relief. Surely the letters would stop now, right? Wrong. New letters arrived from Columbus, even though Paul was locked away behind bars in another town, with part of his sentence spent in solitary confinement.
What’s more? Paul received his own letter, while he was in prison.
To Paul, The Circleville Letter Writer wrote: “Now when are you going to believe you aren’t going to get out of there? I told you 2 years ago. When we set ’em up, they stay set up. Don’t you listen at all?”
Paul served a decade in prison and was finally released in May of 1994. By then, reports of threatening letters ceased in Circleville. Paul maintained his innocence until his death in 2012.
To this day, the unsolved case of the Circleville Letter Writer attracts speculation. Was Paul really the man behind the poison pen? Could Mary somehow have been involved? Was there a formal coverup as the anonymous author alleged? The truth remains a mystery.
And they say that if you drive on that stretch of road late at night, you would do well not to stop on your way through, because there is a paranormal apparition there who just might decide that your soul looks like a tasty midnight snack.
Local legends, which date all the way back to the mid-1800s, state that there is a woman in a “white frilly dress” who haunts the area, and who sometimes attacks those who pass by in the middle of the night.
Unlike many haunted locations, however, this one does not appear to have a backstory (or if it does, no one has come forward so far to explain it to the general public.)
No, it just appears that the ghost of a woman roams the area.
And she is a very, very unfriendly ghost.
“They found my great-grandfather’s journals,” says Hattie, an 86 year-old who currently resides in one of Watsonville’s retirement communities, and who chain smokes unfiltered Camels between puffs on her oxygen tank.
“He was a homesteader, you know, and he built him a cabin on the other side of the pass.
“He disappeared in 1876, and was never heard from again.
“He was very afraid of her, and thought she was some kind of spirit.
“Those entries went on every day for four months, until the day he just simply was gone and no one ever saw him again.”
Similar disappearances in modern times have been hinted at by locals, although so far no hard evidence exists to prove or disprove anything.
Multiple times a year, nighttime drivers through the area will report seeing the woman – who always appears in a nineteenth-century-style frilled dress.
In almost every report, it is the moment when she looks up that most drivers step on the gas to get the hell out of there.
“She has fangs, man,” says one young driver who used to drive through the pass regularly, but avoids it at all costs now – at least at night. “And there’s blood all over her face.
“She’s a killer, I’m telling you, and I don’t want to be her next victim.”
Although nothing is etched in stone when it comes to the ghost in the white frilly dress, one thing is clear:
She inspires fear in the hearts of those who see her.
GHOST CHILDREN RAILROAD
In a wooded area just south of San Antonio, lies a nondescript railroad crossing. Legend has it several children died on the tracks and now aid stalled vehicles. But is the story true or is it nothing more than an urban legend?
On a bleak, rainy day in the 1930s (or perhaps 1940s) a crowded school bus stalled at a railroad crossing near San Antonio, TX. A train roared closer, and though the engineer desperately tried to stop, it was too late. The train plowed into the school bus, killing a dozen children (give or take). Nowadays, if someone stops their vehicle on the same tracks, an unseen force will push the car to safety. If the person dusts their bumper with baby powder and then stops on the tracks, small hand prints will appear. It seems the children killed all those years ago want to save others from suffering the same fate, or so the story goes.
Though reports of moving cars and ghost prints persist, the school bus accident never happened, at least not in Texas. If such an accident had occurred, it would have certainly appeared in newspapers. Yet, no articles exist. However, a horrific bus-train accident did occur in Salt Lake City, Utah. In 1938, 26 children died after a train struck their bus which had stalled on the tracks. The accident resulted in days of nationwide coverage, and researchers believe this incident inspired the San Antonio legend.
While the accident back story may be false, what about the mysterious movement of visitors’ cars? Could the paranormal be to blame? Not likely. The San Antonio tracks slope slightly downwards, meaning gravity, not ghosts, move the vehicles. And the hand prints? It’s far more likely the powder reveals old prints left by the living, not the dead.
Tales of gravity hills and haunted railroad tracks are not uncommon (complete with ghost children and doomed school buses). Though the San Antonio story is the most famous, similar stories can be found around the country.
“Mystery Of The Bloody Poveglia Island – A Place Of Hell”
Over the course of history this creepy island had a number o names. It has for example been called the bloody island, the island of madness and the island of hell.
The mystery of the Island Poveglia dates back to the 5th century. Today, the island is no longer inhabited.
No-one visits it and fishermen even steer clear of the island for fear that they will catch human bones in their nets. This dark place has for decades inspired superstitious terror into the hearts of people.
Located off the coast of Venice, Italy, Poveglia Island is one of the world’s darkest and most evil places in the world. According to legend, the island was formed from the ashes of burned plague victims, criminals and mental patients who were exiled there.
The dark history of Poveglia Island began during the Roman Era when it was used to isolate plague victims from the general population.
Centuries later, when the Black Death rolled through Europe it served that purpose again.
The dead were dumped into large pits and buried or burned.
As the plague tightened its grip, the population began to panic and those residents showing the slightest sign of sickness were taken from their homes and to the island of Poveglia kicking and screaming and pleading.
They were thrown onto piles of rotting corpses and set ablaze. Men, women, children were all left to die in agony.
Napoleon also used the island for a darker purpose, and stored weapons there.
In 1922, a mental hospital was opened on Poveglia. Local legend says that one doctor at the hospital tortured and killed many of his patients, butchering them horribly only to later die by falling from, or possibly being thrown off of, its bell tower. His death remains a mystery until this day.
Over time, the island became a cemetery. Dead people were brought here to be either burned or buried in mass graves. Researchers have suggested that more than 200,000 people are buried here.
All these events led to the belief that the island was haunted.
People reported seeing ghosts of plague victims and hearing horrifying screams of tortured patients. The horrible place became known as the cursed island.
Today, the Poveglia Island remains strictly off-limits to visitors. The Italian tourism board prohibits visiting the island (on paper) and requires a lengthy application process, where you must obtain approval, before you can step your foot on the island.
If you want, you can still get there by boat, but the question is whether you really like to visit the final restless place of thousands of diseased, murderous and insane people…
For many years, stories circulated about what was called the “most haunted house in America.” To look at the place, where it was located on the north side of Pittsburgh, they said, one might never suspect what dark secrets lingered inside. There were tales of bizarre murder, human experimentation and gruesome death told about the house and visits to the residence inspired horror stories and even a great inventor’s fascination with death and the afterworld. If any building deserved the reputation for being America’s most haunted house, it was this one!
Or so it seemed anyway… In truth, the “House on Ridge Avenue” was not one of America’s greatest haunts, but one of its greatest paranormal hoaxes.
The story of the infamous “House on Ridge Avenue” has always been one of my favorite tales of ghosts, horror and the supernatural. I ran across this story for the first time back in 1979 and never forgot it. It chilled me to the bone and perhaps because I was at such an impressionable age then, I never doubted that the story was true. In the years that followed, my interest in the story never faded and as time passed, I should have realized that something was not quite right about it, but I never did. Or perhaps I never wanted to realize it or to doubt that the tale was not an authentic one. I refused to see that the story of the “Original Most Haunted House in America” seemed almost too good to be true. It seemed too good to be true – simply because it was.
I can’t help but be embarrassed now as I look back and wonder how I didn’t miss the signs in the first place. The story of the House on Ridge Avenue had appeared in at least one of my books on ghosts and I had even wrote a couple of magazine articles about it. By late 2003, my faith in the story had wavered and I became determined to try and track down the details of the story. It can sometimes be difficult to trace a story that occurred quite some distance away from you (which is my only excuse for being hoodwinked by the story for as long as I was) but I decided not to let the miles between Illinois and Pittsburgh stand in the way. If someone knew the facts behind this story, I wanted to find them.
As I began contacting people who should have been aware of the salient facts behind the story of the Ridge Avenue house, I realized that those who claimed knowledge were simply repeating back to me the same account that I had already heard. They cited the same sources and as far as I can tell, this “local legend” first appeared in the book Haunted Housesby Richard Winer and Nancy Osborn. As this had long been one of my favorite books, I was dismayed when I discovered that Mr. Winer was as fooled by the story as the rest of us were. I have been unable to discover where the authors may have first heard the story themselves.
As I continued my search, I found the same story regurgitated back to me over and over again. People who claimed to recall the details behind the events suddenly forgot them and witnesses who stated that they had information that went beyond the standard accounts became bewildered when the story did not match the historical details of the case.
All that I can say is that I hope you enjoy the recounting – and the debunking – of the legend that follows. This was not a story that I wanted to tell but we can’t be afraid of the truth. If stories that are show to be fraudulent are reported as real, then how can we expect the real stories to be taken seriously?
THE LEGEND: PART 1
According to the stories, the House on Ridge Avenue was located in a quiet residential neighborhood in Manchester, on the north edge of Pittsburgh. A man named Charles Wright Congelier built it in the 1860s. He had made a fortune for himself in Texas following the Civil War and such men were commonly referred to in the south as “Carpetbaggers.” They made a lot of money preying on the broken economy in the former Confederacy. Congelier left Texas by river steamer, taking with him his Mexican wife, Lyda, and a servant girl named Essie. When the steamer docked in Pittsburgh for coal, Congelier decided that the Pennsylvania town looked like a good place to settle. The three of them left the ship and Congelier purchased a lot and began construction of the house.
A few months later, the new brick and mortar mansion was completed. It was located at 1129 Ridge Avenue and was considered one of the finest houses in the area. From the expansive lawn, Congelier could look out and see where the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers met to form the Ohio, offering a breathtaking view. The former Carpetbagger soon became a respected member of the local business community and his new home became a frequent site for parties and social gatherings. Then, during the winter of 1871, an event took place that would bloody the location for decades to come.
That winter, as cold and snow settled over the region, Congelier became embroiled in an affair with his servant girl, Essie. Whether she was a willing participant or not, Essie soon became a constant bed partner for her employer. For several months, Lyda Congelier was unaware of the affair, but when three people reside in the same house, it’s only a matter of time before secrets are revealed.
One afternoon, when Essie did not respond to her call, Lyda went to the girl’s room looking for her. As she came down the hallway, she could hear heavy breathing and moaning coming from behind the door. Knowing that her husband was the only man in the house, Lyda became enraged. She hurried to the kitchen and snatched up both a butcher knife and a meat cleaver. As she began climbing the stairs back to the servant’s room, Lyda became screaming with rage, which naturally provoked a panic inside of Essie’s bedroom. Before Congelier and the girl could dress themselves and exit the room, Lyda had already taken up a post outside. When the door opened, she brought the meat cleaver down on the head of the first person to open it. Charles Congelier fell to the floor, a cry on his lips and blood streaming from the wound on his head. As Essie reared back, bellowing in terror, Lyda proceeded to stab her husband 30 times.
Several days later, a family friend called at the house and when no one responded to his knock, he opened the door and peered inside. He called out, but there was no answer in the darkened house. However, as he entered the foyer, he could hear a faint creaking noise in the parlor. He called out again, but as there was no answer, he walked further into the house. Following the odd sound, he entered the parlor and saw Lyda Congelier rocking back and forth in front of a large bay window. The wooden chair that she rested in creaked with each backward and forward motion that she made. “Lyda? Is everything all right?” he spoke to her.
There was no reply. Lyda continued to rock back and forth in the chair. As her friend drew closer, he could hear her softly crooning a lullaby under her breath. It was a child’s nursery song, he realized, and he saw a bundle that was wrapped in a blanket in Lyda’s arms. She held it close, as she would hold a baby, rocking it gently. The man felt a sudden chill course through him. He knew that the Congelier’s had no children.
He spoke to her once again, but there was still no answer. Lyda stared straight ahead at the snow outside, her eyes glazed and unfocused. He gently leaned over and eased the bundle out of her hands. He carefully opened the pink blanket and then recoiled with horror, dropping the bloody bundle onto the floor! It landed on the wooden floorboards with a solid thud and the contents of the blanket rolled away. The friend fell backwards on the couch as Essie’s bloody head came to halt a short distance away from his feet!
For more than two decades after, the house on Ridge Avenue remained empty. Local folks considered the place “tainted” and avoided it at all costs. Few dared to even trespass on the grounds, although sometimes small children threw stones at the windows and sang about the “old battle-ax and her meat-ax.”
THE REAL STORY: PART 1
Like most legends, the story of the house is a clever blending of fact and fiction, although in this case, there is much more fancy than fact. To start with, no one named Charles Wright Congelier ever existed and neither did his wife, Lyda. There is no record of any dealings in Texas and no record of his ever living in Pittsburgh. In addition, there are no police or criminal records that state that Lyda murdered her husband and the servant girl in 1871. The use of a date here adds solidity to the story but it also makes it easier to check the validity of the tale and there is none.
Secondly, the house that is described in the story was not a mansion. There really was a house located at 1129 Ridge Avenue but it was built in the late 1880s, not in the 1860s. It was a standard Manchester row house, commonly owned by working class people of the day. It must be mentioned however that the house was later owned by members of the Congelier family, even though Charles Wright Congelier, and the murderous Lyda, was a figment of a creative imagination. This is a further blending of the truth, which will be discussed later.
THE LEGEND: PART 2
In 1892, the house was renovated into an apartment building to house railroad workers. Most refused to stay in the place for long. They constantly complained of hearing screams and the sobbing of a woman that came from empty rooms. Others spoke of the ominous sounds of a rocking chair and of a woman mumbling old nursery rhymes and lullabies. Within two years, the house was abandoned once again.
It remained vacant until 1901, when Dr. Adolph C. Brunrichter purchased the house. The doctor became something of an enigma in the neighborhood. Although he had been warned of the past history of the house, he chose to purchase the place anyway and after moving in, had little to do with the nearby residents. He kept to himself and was rarely seen by those who lived close to him. Everyone in the neighborhood watched and held their breath, waiting for something terrible to happen. They didn’t have to wait very long.
On August 12, 1901, the family who lived next door to the Brunrichter mansion heard a terrified scream coming from the house. When they ran outside to see what was going on, they saw a bright red flash illuminate the interior of the mansion. The windows of the house shattered and glass shot out onto the lawn. The air was filled with the smell of ozone and the earth under the neighborhood trembled, cracking the sidewalks and knocking over furniture in the surrounding homes.
By the time the police and the fire department arrived, a crowd had gathered outside of Brunrichter’s house. It was assumed that the doctor was still inside as no one had seen him leave, but none of the neighbors were brave enough to go in and check. Finally, a contingent of fire fighters entered the house in search of Brunrichter. They were unable to find him, but what they did discover was enough to send even the bravest among them running for the street outside.
In one of the upstairs bedrooms, a gut-wrenching scene awaited police investigators. Lying spread-eagled on the blood-soaked bed was the decomposed, naked body of a young woman. Her head was missing and was later found in a makeshift laboratory that the doctor had set up in another room. From what the detectives could determine, Brunrichter had apparently been experimenting with severed heads. Using electrical equipment, he had been trying to keep them alive after decapitation. A fault in his equipment had evidently caused the explosion. The young girl’s head was found with several others and the graves of five women were discovered in the cellar. Each of the bodies could be matched with one of the heads from the laboratory.
As for Dr. Brunrichter, there was no sign of him. He had apparently escaped during the confusion following the explosion and had vanished. A manhunt produced no clues. He had disappeared without leaving a trace.
In September 1927, an old man was arrested in New York’s Bowery district. He was found wandering in a drunken stupor, living among the homeless and the street people. He was arrested and booked for public drunkenness and was taken to the local police station house. Standing in line with the other dirty and disheveled men, this particular vagrant seemed to give off what the officers would later recall as a “bad feeling.” As the drunks shuffled along, the policemen entered their names into record one at a time. When the old man reached the head of the line, the officer asked him his name.
He replied in a harsh voice, slightly slurred with a foreign accent. “My name is Adolph Brunrichter,” the man said. And soon, he began to tell stories to the officers at the police station and they were tales even the most hardened officers would not soon forget.
Brunrichter began by explaining to the officers that he was once an eminent doctor, a physician who worked diligently to prolong life. Unfortunately, he could only succeed with his experiments by ending the lives of certain test subjects. He told of how many years earlier, he had bought a house in Pittsburgh to which he enticed young women as guests. Anticipating romance, the women were instead beheaded and then used in experiments to keep their severed heads alive. Brunrichter told of sex orgies, torture and murder and then gave the locations of graves for other women who were not discovered in the cellar of the house. Authorities later checked the sites, but no bodies were ever found.
Brunrichter was kept behind bars for one month at Blackwell’s Island. Despite newspaper stories that called him the “Pittsburgh Spook Man,” the mad doctor was deemed “harmless” and was released. On the wall of his cell, scrawled in his own blood, were the words “What Satan hath wrought, let man beware.” After those fateful words, nothing was ever heard from the man who claimed to be Dr. Adolph Brunrichter again.
THE REAL STORY: PART 2
The house was built in the late 1880s and while a working class home, was not used to house railroad workers. During this time, it was owned by Marie Congelier (who would go on to become the only recorded death associated with the house) and it was never purchased by anyone named Dr. Adolph Brunrichter. Like Charles and Lyda Congelier, he never actually existed. The only mention of Brunrichter that I have ever been able to find in my own extensive files and books about American crime is in connection to this house. This seemed rather odd to me since his crimes would have obviously have been gruesome and lurid enough to garner the attention of reporters and crime writers. However, there are no listings for him in any books that I could find.
Not content to let it go at that, I also contacted several noted crime researchers and asked them to check their own files for mentions or records of Brunrichter. None of them could find anything. Another check of newspaper and library archives for New York, where papers had allegedly written of the “Pittsburgh Spook Man” also failed to reveal any listings. The same problem occurred while trying to search for reports of the crimes in Pittsburgh, as well. There is no mention of the “explosion” or the discovery of the bodies in the house in the Pittsburgh newspapers. In addition, there is not a single death record, real estate record or police record involving anyone named Brunrichter in connection with the house on Ridge Avenue. The mysterious Dr. Brunrichter vanished without a trace because he never really existed in the first place.
THE LEGEND: PART 3
After the horrific discoveries in the basement of the house, the Ridge Avenue mansion was abandoned. It stood empty again for many years, gaining an even more fearsome reputation. Those with an interest in psychic phenomena made occasional visits to the place and it came to be believed that the house was inhabited by a “fearsome presence.” One medium who probed the house, Julia Murray, detected a horrible spirit there and witnesses who accompanied her to the mansion stated that “objects hurled by unseen hands barely missed striking her.” Murray predicted that the entity would kill and would eventually extend out beyond the confines of the house.
In 1920, the stories about the mansion caught the attention of another man, one of the greatest inventors that America has ever known. His name was Thomas Alva Edison and in addition to creating the light bulb, he went to his grave in search of a device that would be able to communicate with the dead.
Edison was a self-taught genius who began experimenting with scientific theories as a child. Throughout his life, he maintained that it was possible to build anything if the right components were available. This would later include the already mentioned machine. Edison was not a believer in the supernatural however, nor a proponent of the popular Spiritualist movement. He had always been an agnostic and although he did not dispute the philosophies of religion, he didn’t necessarily believe in their truth either. He believed that when a person died, the body decayed but the intelligence the man possessed lived on. He thought that the so-called “spirit world” was simply a limbo where disembodied intelligence waited to move on. He took these paranormal theories one step further by announcing that he intended to devise a machine that could communicate with this “limbo.” Edison’s announcement appeared in newspapers after his visit to the house on Ridge Avenue. What happened during his visit to the house is unknown, but whatever it was, it certainly inspired him to go to great lengths to create the machine.
According to journals and papers, Edison began working on the apparatus. The famous magician and friend of Edison’s, Joseph Dunninger, claimed that he was shown a prototype of the machine but few others ever say they saw it. Edison reportedly continued working on the machine until his death in October 1931. Did Edison’s machine actually exist? And if so, would it have worked? In the years following his death, curators at both of the Edison museums in Florida and New Jersey have searched extensively for the components, the prototype or even the plans for the machine to communicate with the dead. So far, they have found nothing, making Edison’s device the greatest mystery of his complex and intriguing life.
THE REAL STORY: PART 3
In the best hoaxes, fact and fiction are blended using real dates and real people to create a convincing story. In the case of the House on Ridge Avenue, the names of people like Julia Murray and Thomas Edison have been used to make the story seem more real. As everyone knows, Edison really did exist and he did express interest in creating a machine to communicate with the dead. Whether he actually did or not remains open to question.
Unfortunately, I can find no records of a spirit medium named Julia Murray. I will not state definitively that she is a fictional character but so far, I have seen nothing that says that she really existed.
Edison, on the other hand, was very real but there is absolutely no record to say that he ever set foot in the house on Ridge Avenue. If he had, he would not have found an empty “haunted” house but the home of Marie Congelier and her family would certainly have a memory of a visit by the famous inventor. According to Mrs. Congelier’s descendants, no such visit ever took place.
THE LEGEND: PART 4
In the middle 1920s, Julia Murray’s premonitions of “evil” connected to the house on Ridge Avenue remained in the back of many minds. During this period, the Equitable Gas Company, which was located just a few blocks away, was nearing the completion of a huge natural gas storage complex. To cut costs, many of the regular workers were laid off and were replaced by Italian immigrants, who would work for a much lower wage. A number of vacant buildings in the neighborhood were converted into apartments, including the house at 1129 Ridge Avenue.
The Italian workers who took up residence in the house quickly realized that something was not right in the old mansion. Their complaints and reports were met with quick explanations from the supervisors at the gas company. They told the immigrants that the strange occurrences were the work of the American workers who had been replaced. The former employees were playing tricks on the new workers, hoping they would abandon their jobs. The men soon dismissed the strange sounds and ghostly footsteps as practical jokes until an incident occurred a few months after they moved in.
One evening, fourteen men were seated around the table in the common dining room. They had just finished consuming large quantities of pasta and were now laughing and talking over glasses of homemade wine. One of the men got up and carried a stack of dirty dishes into the kitchen. He joked to his brother as he left the room, calling out a humorous insult over his shoulder with a smile. The remark was answered with laughter and his brother tossed a crust of bread at his sibling’s retreating back. The conversation continued for several minutes before the remaining man realized that his brother had not returned from the kitchen. He got up and walked into the other room to find the door to the basement standing open.
Suddenly, the festive mood in the dining room was shattered by a chilling scream! Rushing into the kitchen, the men saw the basement door as it yawned open. Taking a lantern from atop the icebox, several of the men descended the steps into the cellar. Before they reached the bottom of the steps, they froze, staring at the macabre scene that was illuminated by the glow of the lantern. In the dim light, they saw the man who had left the dining room just moments earlier, now hanging from a floor beam that crossed the ceiling above.
On the floor, directly beneath his feet, was the man’s brother. He was lying face down in a spreading pool of blood. A splintered board had been driven through his chest and now exited out through his back.
The leader of the group on the steps crossed himself religiously and a gasp escaped from his lips. His friends repeated the gesture before all of them found themselves slammed backward by a force that they could not see! The feeling of a cold wind pushed against them and then rushed past up the stairs. The men later said that they could hear the pounding of footsteps on the wooden treads, but could see nothing at all. The door at the top of the stairs slammed shut, startling the men in the kitchen, who didn’t hear anything. However, they did report other doors mysteriously slamming throughout the house.
When the police arrived, they attributed both deaths to a bizarre accident. The first man, the detectives stated, tripped on a loose step and fell down, impaling himself on the propped-up board. The other brother’s death was the result of the same loose stair step. When he fell, though, his head was somehow tangled on an electric wire that was hanging down above the staircase. Accident or not, the other men quickly moved out of the house, wanting nothing more to do with the place.
THE REAL STORY: PART 4
Once again, real-life events blend into the story to make it more compelling. In the 1920s, the nearby Equitable Gas Company did lay off many of their workers and replaced them with Italian immigrants. As many of the houses in the neighborhood were worker’s homes anyway, several of them were converted into housing for the replacement employees. However, there were no records of any accidental deaths taking place at 1129 Ridge Avenue, associated with these workers. One accident did take place however, on the same day that another accident destroyed a gas storage tank nearby.
On the morning of the explosion, November 14, Marie Congelier died from a laceration caused by a piece of glass. The glass had severed her artery and she bled to death on the way to the hospital. She did not die in the house but her death came about because of it — with nothing supernatural involved. She would become the only death that can truly be connected to the House on Ridge Avenue.
THE LEGEND: PART 5
On Monday, November 14, 1927, a crew of sixteen workers climbed to the top of the Equitable Gas Company’s huge, 5,000,000-cubic-foot natural gas storage tank to find and repair a leak. At 8:43 that morning, a great sheet of flame erupted from the tank and the huge container shot impossibly upwards into the air. Steel, stone and human bodies were sent hurling into the sky. Two of the men who had been working on top of the tank were thrown against a brick building more than one hundred feet away and their silhouettes were outlined there in blood. Seconds later, another tank exploded, creating another gigantic ball of fire. Then a third tank, this one only partially full, was wrenched apart and added to the inferno. Smoke and flames were visible for miles. The force was so awesome that it blew out windows and shook buildings for a twenty-mile radius. Locomotives were knocked over and homes and structures damaged as far away as East Liberty.
Across the street, the Union Paint Company was flattened and dozens of workers were buried under the rubble of the building. Bloody men, women and children ran frantically about in the streets.
The Battalion Chief of Engine Company No. 47, Dan Jones, was part of the first fire unit to arrive on the scene. He described the holocaust saying “great waves of black smoke swept through the streets and there was a whining noise in the air.” According to a book compiled by the Writer’s Project of America, the destruction stunned the city. “As houses collapsed and chimneys toppled,” they wrote, “brick, broken glass, twisted pieces of steel and other debris rained on the heads of the dazed and shaken residents who had rushed into the streets from their wrecked homes, believing that an earthquake had visited the city.”
Even the rescue workers and fire fighters who arrived on the scene were injured and killed when weakened structures collapsed on top of them. Entire neighborhoods were flooded by broken water mains while huge sections of the city lay in ruins. Sections of the giant gas storage tanks were later found more than a thousand feet away. Rough estimates from the following day listed at least twenty-eight killed and more than six hundred people injured from the explosion. Rescue crews dynamited the ruins in a search for the bodies of the dozens of others who were still missing. Thousands were left homeless by the destruction.
Mounds of rubble and debris marked the spots where buildings had once stood. At one place though, not even bricks and stone remained. At 1129 Ridge Avenue, just two blocks away from the blast site, there was nothing but a smoldering crater. Although homes on both sides, and across the street, from where the Congelier mansion had stood were heavily damaged, they were still standing. Yet where the “most haunted house in America’ had stood, and where Julia Murray’s proclaimed “evil presence” had lingered, there was nothing. A hole that nearly eighty-five feet deep was all that remained. It was the only house in the vicinity of which no trace could be found.
Today, the Carnegie Science Center occupies the site of the Equitable Gas Company tanks and the terrible explosion is only a faint memory from the past. The house on Ridge Avenue is all but forgotten. Its location is the present-day site of the Route 65 and Interstate 279 interchange. Nothing from the days of Dr. Brunrichter, the Congelier’s, or the luckless Italian immigrants still lingers, or does it? If it is possible for the spirits of the past to still wander restlessly along a busy highway, then it would be at this place where such spirits would dwell — the place where one of the most evil houses in the country could be found.
THE REAL STORY: PART 5
Spooky ending, huh?
Unfortunately, it’s not accurate either. The gas storage tank at the Equitable Gas Company did explode on November 14, 1927, and killed twenty-four people in the surrounding area. The concussion and subsequent fire did wreak havoc in this part of the city and it destroyed many houses and buildings, leaving hundreds of people homeless. The details of the destruction that are recounted in the legend of the house are true and accurate – for the most part.
Where things veer off course is in regards to the house at 1129 Ridge Avenue. In every version of the story, the house is destroyed by the blast, leaving only an ominous crater behind – as if it was sucked down into the very pit of hell. While this makes a fitting ending to the dramatic tale of America’s “original most haunted house,” it’s not the away that it happened in real life. In truth, the house only suffered minor damage from the explosion. A number of windows were broken but that was about all. According to a family member, Robert Frederick Congelier, the house stood for several years after the disaster and was only torn down to make way for the freeway and the redevelopment of the area.
There is an old saying that goes that “truth is stranger than fiction” and in many ways, I would say that this is the case. However, not with every story. In the tale of the House on Ridge Avenue, fiction was really much stranger than fact ever could be, and truth proved to be the undoing of the haunting of “America’s original most haunted house.”