Pittsburgh is proud of its famous sons and daughters,
including William Pitt, Stephen Foster, Andrew Carnegie,
Nellie Bly, and Fred Rogers. But like most families,
Pittsburgh has had its share of black sheep. Some
of Pittsburgh's most notorious residents have stories
that still fascinate today.
You may have heard of the stream called Girty's Run. A tributary of the Allegheny River that runs through the
North Hills, Girty's Run has often been in the spotlight
because of recurring flooding in the municipality of
Millvale. Not only has the creek caused problems,
but its namesake, Simon Girty, wreaked havoc in the area
more than 250 years ago.
Girty was born in 1741 near Harrisburg to Irish
immigrants. When his father was murdered by
Indians during the French & Indian War, Girty was taken
prisoner by the Seneca at the age of 15 and held
captive, where he endured watching the Indians torture
his stepfather to death. While in captivity, he
picked up the language and Indian culture. After
Girty was released, he served the British as an
interpreter of the Native American languages and settled
near Fort Pitt on a small stream or run which became
known as Girty's Run. Simon Girty did not conform
to military life and was eventually discharged, but not
before being charged with treason, coming under
suspicion for planning the capture of Fort Pitt.
Girty was eventually acquitted.
When revolution broke out, Girty sided at first with
the patriots; but in March of 1778, he turned his back
on the colonials and cast his lot with the British,
deserting with several others. Girty is reported
to have participated in savagery against the Americans.
Among his most dastardly deeds was his behavior during
the cruel death of Col. William Crawford in northwestern
Ohio. According to the Ohio Historical Society,
while Crawford was being burned, stabbed, and scalped at
the hands of the Delaware Indians, Crawford begged Girty
to shoot him to end his misery. Girty is reported
to have laughed.
After the Revolution, Girty still assisted the
Indians in their resistance against the Americans
settling Ohio. As more Indians realized that
resistance was futile, Girty escaped to Canada where
this renegade from Pittsburgh died in 1818.
If Girty hadn't died in Canada, he may have enjoyed
the same fate as John Tiernan. Tiernan has the
dubious distinction of being the last person publicly
executed in Allegheny County. He was charged with and
convicted of brutally murdering a co-worker. On
March 25, 1818, Tiernan was transported by cart from the
jail. A large crowd followed him to the gallows on
Fourth Street. Spectators including women and
children lined the nearby roof tops, as the noose was
placed around the criminal's neck and the trap door
If you could cast a theme song for our next notorious
Pittsburgher, it would have to be "What I Did for Love."
In 1902, Katherine Soffel, the wife of the Allegheny
County jail warden, fell in love with convicted criminal
Ed Biddle, who was housed in the jail. Biddle and
his brother, Jack, were awaiting execution for murder.
The pair was believed to be part of the "Chloroform
Gang," a band of criminals whose modus operandi was to
break into a business or home and use chloroform to
render their victims unconscious so they could rob them.
During once such caper, a shopkeeper was shot and the
Biddle brothers were held for his murder. Soffel,
who was reported to be a reserved, God-fearing woman,
smuggled a gun into the prison and helped the brothers
to escape. Abandoning her four children, Soffel
joined the Biddles as they hopped a trolley to West
From there the fugitives walked to a farmhouse on
Route 19 where they stole a horse-drawn sleigh and a
shotgun. They headed toward Butler with the intent
of escaping into Canada. Police officers from Allegheny
and Butler counties plotted how to thwart the trio,
taking up a position at the Graham farm. When the
fugitives arrived at the farm, they were ordered to
surrender. A shootout ensued wounding both Biddle
brothers and Kate Soffel. The Biddles died, but
not before Ed admitted to shooting Kate at her request.
She survived her injuries and was convicted for her
crimes, spending several years in the Allegheny County
jail, from where, ironically, she had helped the Biddles
to escape. When she was released, Kate Soffel
became a seamstress, opening a shop on the North Side on
Maiden Lane. She died not long afterward.
Many books have been written about this sordid episode
in Pittsburgh's past, and the movie Mrs. Soffel,
starring Diane Keaton and Mel Gibson brought this doomed
love story to the big screen.
Crime of the Century
Surely, you remember the Crime of the Century, the
murder trial of the accused with the pair of initials
for the first name? If you're thinking O.J.,
you're wrong. The first "Crime of Century"
happened in 1906, and the star accused was none other
than Pittsburgh's own H. K. Thaw. Thaw was the son
of a wealthy coke and railroad magnate. Many
believed that H.K. Thaw was mentally unstable. He
became infatuated with Evelyn Nesbit, also a Pittsburgh
native. The beautiful Nesbit was one of the most
sought-after models of the time and a "Florodora Girl."
Thaw pursued her until she consented to marry him.
Stanford White, the noted architect (of such edifices
as the Washington Square Arch and Madison Square Garden
II) and womanizer, had instigated an affair with Nesbit
when she was only 16 and he was 47. In addition to
his architectural works, White was famous for his Red
Velvet Swing. He liked to have his conquests in
various stages of undress swing on it in his apartment.
Apparently, the thought of White's having had his way
with Nesbit was too much for Thaw to bear. On June
25, 1906, Thaw and Nesbit attended a dinner theatre atop
Madison Square Garden. Unfortunately, White
happened to be there as well. As Thaw and Nesbit
made their exit, Thaw pulled a revolver and unloaded
three bullets into White's skull, killing him.
Thaw was charged with murder and went to trial.
The jury found him not guilty by reason of insanity.
This period in Pittsburgh's past inspired the novel
Ragtime and the movie by the same name, as well as
another flick entitled The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing.
Thaw is buried in Allegheny Cemetery.
While these Pittsburghers may not be as revered as
some of our better known local heroes, they nevertheless
contributed to the lore and legend of Pittsburgh's past.
Written by Jan Palko