Saturday, October 31, 2015

Twice-Told Tales II: Steel Town Ghosts

In last year's Halloween post I re-told my father's story about spooky goings-on in the Woodlawn School auditorium. This year I have several more tales of ghosts and apparitions from Pittsburgh.
Spooky stairwell in the east wing of the Homestead Library.--Photo by Ceridwen Christensen

The haunted theater is a common tale. In addition to the Woodlawn auditorium, the Music Hall of the Carnegie Library of Homestead--not to mention the library itself--is alleged to be haunted. However, these stories have been told so often by so many people that it's impossible to know the origins. Some people believe that these are the ghosts of steelworkers taking revenge on Carnegie for the '92 Strike. I don't buy it. By the time the library was built, the unionists had scattered and the mill was filled with replacement workers. I have never heard a first- or second-person account about Homestead Library ghosts, nor experienced anything there myself. If you want to hear the traditional ghostlore of the place, I'd suggest going on one of the ghost tours that are offered as fundraisers for this historic building.
The Pittsburgh Playhouse, built 1933,

Another theater haunting story is another one of my father's. Dad was active in Pittsburgh theater beginning with his college days at the University of Pittsburgh. At the Pittsburgh Playhouse in the 1930s, Dad worked with an actor named John Johns. One evening in 1963 Johns suffered an apparent heart attack after dinner in the Playhouse restaurant.  My father's version was that Johns walked to his dressing room, #7, but died on its threshold; another version is that Johns' colleagues carried him to #7, but he died before they could get him inside. Either way, since then, many witnesses have heard Johns' footsteps coming up to the door of #7--and ceasing.
The crumbling portico of the stone house that once was home to the Eagles lodge in McKeesport.--Photo by Jonathon Denson
 Real estate agents are often good sources of uncanny tales. I've heard two stories from realtors about houses in McKeesport. Having fallen on hard times, McKeesport can be a spooky place, especially at night, so it's easy to imagine ghosts roaming the halls of the old, abandoned buildings there. But both of these tales date back from my early years of ghost story collecting, so who knows if these houses are even standing.
A rickety vacant frame house in McKeesport.--Photo by Jonathon Denson
 Story #1 involves a rarity among my story collection: physical contact. An agent was showing prospective buyers a turn-of-the-century house. As she entered the house, the agent immediately felt a hostile presence. As she took the couple through the downstairs rooms, the agent felt shadowed by a malevolent energy.  This feeling stayed with her on their tour of the upper floors. As the agent stood at the top of the staircase in preparation for leaving the house, she felt unseen hands forcefully push her from behind. The couple behind her were astonished to see the realtor suddenly plunge forward. Caught unaware, the agent desperately grasped at the banister, managing to stop her fall a few steps down. Badly shaken, the agent and buyers beat a hasty retreat. Needless to say, the couple did not make an offer on the property.
A once-grand McKeesport Victorian, now abandoned.--Photo by Jonathon Denson

Story #2 also involves physical movement. A large Victorian house that had stood vacant for many months went on the market. The only furnishing remaining in the house was a grand piano in the parlor. The first time the listing agent brought clients to the house, he could not get the front door open. The huge oak door would unlock, but would not budge from its closed position. The agent went around back and came in through the kitchen. When he went into the front rooms, he couldn't believe his eyes: the grand piano was firmly lodged against the front door. He assumed that mischievous kids had shoved the piano to bar entrance, but there was no evidence of a break-in. A week later, the same thing happened to another agent. She had tried to bring clients through the front, only to find the piano blocking the way. Once again, the listing agent enlisted friends to help him move the heavy piano back to the parlor. However, when the piano was moved in front of the door on three more occasions during the ensuing weeks, the agent came to believe that something supernatural was at work. Was the house haunted, or was the piano? In any case, the agent urged the sellers to remove the piano, which they did. The piano stayed put in its new home, and the house eventually sold. The agent hadn't heard stories from the new owners--and frankly, did not want to know if large objects were moving about inside the house.
A typical Munhall brick foursquare house.

The last story is about a modest foursquare house in Munhall.  In the 1980s, a family of four moved into the house. The nine-year-old son, "Tom", got one of the back bedrooms, while his older sister got the other. They had not been in the house long when the son (who told me this story) began waking in the middle of the night, feeling like someone was in the room watching him.  After this had happened frequently over a period of several months, the boy asked his parents if he could change rooms. When he told them why, his father scoffed at him, telling him that he had an overactive imagination. However, his sister believed him, and sometimes he would pick up his pillow and blanket and go into her room to sleep on the floor. Then, one day, Tom saw the ghost. He awoke at dawn, disturbed by something. There, in the half-dark, standing by the door was the misty form of a middle-aged man in work overalls, glaring at him. The boy stared at the apparition, terrified, for a moment. And then it vanished. When he told his parents about the apparition, his father again chided him, saying that ghosts don't exist. But fortunately, his father didn't prohibit Tom from sleeping in the sister's room whenever he felt the presence in his own. The family lived in that house for two years, and every day of their stay there the boy was anxious about spending time in his room. Now an adult, Tom thinks that the ghost was that of a former owner, a deceased steelworker, whose room became his--sort of. At any rate, Tom was happy to see the last of that place.

A street of abandoned houses in McKeesport. If they aren't haunted, they should be.--Photo by Jonathon Denson
From ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggity beasties, and things that go bump in the night, Good Lord deliver us. . .and Happy Hallowe'en to all!

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