City of steel is a city of scares


Knox Coulter | Staff Photographer

The Early American Nationality Room is supposedly haunted by the ghost of Martha Jane Poe McDaniel.

By Erica Guthrie, Staff Writer

Pitt students looking for a haunt don’t have to look far. Pittsburgh is home to several haunted locations for those looking for a scare all year long, including one of Pitt’s own Cathedral of Learning Nationality Rooms.

The Early American Room, situated in room 328 of the Cathedral, is allegedly home to the ghost of Nationality Rooms director Maxine Bruhns’ grandmother.

The Early American room is one of only two Nationality rooms that isn’t used as a classroom. A closet by the room’s fireplace contains a lever that, when pulled, reveals a hidden staircase that leads up to a bedroom loft. Several of the decorative items in the room belonged to Bruhns’ grandmother, Martha Jane Poe McDaniel.

Bruhns believes that the ghost of Poe McDaniel entered the room when she donated her grandmother’s 1878 wedding quilt to the room almost four decades ago.

“The first day it came in the mail, we put it on the bed. The very next day, quite early, the custodian, John Carter, came to see me,” Bruhns said. “He said, ‘Max, don’t tell anybody, but this is what happened. I came in here this morning, I went upstairs, and the quilt was all messed up and I straightened it out.’”

Soon thereafter, Bruhns said, tourists began to hear the cradle rocking back and forth four times as they climbed the steps to the bedroom.

Bruhns does a ghost watch each year on Halloween from 6 to 8 p.m. in the room. Some years Poe McDaniel gives watchers a sign that she’s there, Bruhns said, but sometimes she does not.

“The last report, I believe, was in 2015,” assistant to the director of Nationality Rooms Maryann Sivak said.

Off campus, the City of Steel has many hotspots for alleged paranormal activity. Tim Murray, a local attorney and one of the founders of the ghost tour company Haunted Pittsburgh, is familiar with many of these sites. He said that the Allegheny County Courthouse and Jail complex in downtown Pittsburgh is the most haunted building in the city.

“It is the most significant building in Pittsburgh from an architectural perspective, and it’s widely considered one of the greatest buildings of its era in the United States. It is also the most haunted building in Pittsburgh, in our opinion,” Murray said.

The courthouse and jail was famously used as a filming location for the 1991 psychological horror film Silence of the Lambs, centered around the fictional cannibal Hannibal Lecter.

Long before the world met Lecter, the courthouse and jail had its own string of unusual occurrences occur in the late 19th century and early 20th century. Kate Soffel, the warden’s wife, fell in love with an incarcerated gang member named Ed Biddle in 1902.

“She died in 1909, but her ghost was believed to linger. A deputy warden of the jail reported that a picture on a wall moved all by itself. There was a sound like sand shifting in the wall. And he felt a cold hand on his arm,” Murray said. “The movie, Mrs. Soffel, starring Diane Keaton and Mel Gibson, was based on this story – it was filmed in Pittsburgh, using the actual jail.”

Murray said Soffel helped Biddle and his brother escape, but one day later the trio was caught by a mob of detectives. Both Biddle brothers died in a shootout, but Soffel was sentenced to time at the prison. The story had amassed a public following and even made it into The New York Times.

William Culp took his own life in the jail’s murderer’s row just a few years later in 1907. At the time, Culp behind bars awaiting trial for murdering his brother during a brawl.

The Monongahela Valley Republican, a paper that ran from 1851 until 1908, gave an account of the story in its Oct. 24, 1907, issue.

“Culp or Culp’s ghost had come into his cell and after awakening him, began to rehearse the scene of murdering his brother,” the piece said. “At least, three condemned criminals confined in cells along murderer’s row declared that they saw ‘it’ distinctly. When examined by the warden, they all gave the same description of the ghost, the direction from which it came, and its antics in front of cells on murderer’s row.”

Murray added more context to the story. He said the incident scared the inmates so much the jail had to move rooms around.

“The men were so terrified, the warden had to move the entire murderers’ row to another part of the jail,” Murray said.

Not all spooky stories you hear about Pittsburgh may be true, according to Robin Weber, the National Aviary’s senior director of communications and marketing. The National Aviary in the city’s North Side neighborhood is home to over 500 birds, but no ghosts, despite a prolonged myth about the facility.

The Aviary was built in the mid-20th centuries on land that once belonged to the Western State Penitentiary, which occupied the space from 1826 to 1882. Confederate soldiers were housed in the prison during the 1860s, and “it is reported that the tortured souls of the deceased Confederate soldiers roam the halls of the aviary at night,” according to Popular Pittsburgh — a website dedicated to publishing stories about Pittsburgh from Pittsburghers.

“There’s rumors of haunted places, and the fact that the aviary is one of those because it’s on the site of the former Western Penitentiary,” Weber said. “It is one of those things that people say, that’s all I can add.”