Sunday, September 10, 2017

Henry Shoemaker: Folklorist or Fake-lorist?

The grave of Henry Shoemaker
Highland Cemetery, Lock Haven


A special note of thanks: Throughout this article I reference Lou Bernard, a Lock Haven resident who writes regional history for The Express and does wonderful tours of the town. I have had the opportunity to go on a number of his tours and have also had the privilege to do a number of programs with him. A big thank you goes out to him for his insight on Henry Shoemaker.

Resting in Highland Cemetery, at the top of the hill overlooking the West Branch of the Susquehanna and Lock Haven University, is a man who definitely left his mark throughout central Pennsylvania. His stories can be found through the region and many of them continue to be repeated over and over again, becoming a part of the region’s culture.

I arrived early one morning, having made the decision to park at the bottom of the hill and walk to the top; by the time I reached the apex I realized that I definitely was not as young as I was the last time I hiked up to the top. On a previous visit to Highland Cemetery, I met up with Lou who gave me the “Who’s Who Tour of Highland Cemetery,” and though it had been a couple years since that tour I definitely remembered where the grave I sought was located.

After catching my breath, I walked over to where Henry Wharton Shoemaker eternally slumbers next to his second wife, Mabelle. Standing in the grass, wet with the morning dew, I couldn’t help but recall the words that Lou had spoken to me a number of times: “Despite his flaws, you can’t say that he didn’t bring a lot of attention to Central Pennsylvania.”

Henry Shoemaker was born on February 24, 1880 in New York City and as a young man led a life of travel and adventure. After attending Columbia College, he served as a broker, diplomat, conservationist, historian and folklorist. His fascination for the history and lore of central Pennsylvania started with his memories of spending his summers at the family estate near McElhattan.

In 1902 he first published his first article, “The Legend of Penns Cave” and the rest is history. The popularity of the story had readers demanding more.

Shoemaker became a member of the Pennsylvania Historical Commission in 1915, serving as the chairman from 1924 to 1930. Also in 1924 he would help found the Pennsylvania Folklore Society, becoming its president in 1935. He would remain in that position until 1956. From 1937 to 1948 Shoemaker would be the state archivist and in 1948 he became the state folklorist, a position he held until 1956. Henry Shoemaker died July 15, 1958 and was buried on top the hill overlooking Lock Haven.

I grew up hearing the stories that Shoemaker had recorded. While I did not believe in all of them, many of them I knew as regional lore. Some of his stories had been called into question over the years, even from the time Shoemaker first published the collections. In the introduction to Tales of the Bald Eagle Mountains Shoemaker addresses the issue, admitting his own colleagues have been asking what is fact and what is fiction. To this very day, I still debate how much of it is fact and how much of it is fiction, in my own mind, there is much more fiction in his stories than fact, an issue I’ve debated often with Lou.

“There are a couple things you need to keep in mind. First look at the names of the people Shoemaker cites. For example, Seth Nelson was known for his unbelievable tales. The man could have caught a minnow fishing, but by the time he got home he caught a monster of a fish and everybody would believe his tale. To be honest, if you get rid of the stories told by him and John Dice we’ve tossed out most of the controversial Shoemaker stories,” Lou reminded me. Seth Nelson was a real person who lived in the mountains of Clearfield, overlooking the West Branch of the Susquehanna. Seth, like many of the early hunters liked to take real events and just stretch them a little. Please see note below about Seth Nelson.

“And don’t forget some stories, like “The Giantess” (Tales of the Bald Eagle Mountains) existed before Henry Shoemaker was around. I found reference in The Clinton Democrat about a similar statue being discovered. The man was good, but I don’t think he was ten years before he was born good,” Lou laughed.

“The best part of his stories is, if he wrote a place, then you know it existed at one time. If Shoemaker describes a cave a mile deep in the woods with a strange rock in front of it, you can bet there is a cave where he said it would be with a strange rock in front of it.” I had to give Lou credit on that point. 

Many of the geographic features Henry Shoemaker talks about actually existed and many of them still exist to this day. A vast majority of Pennsylvania’s forests, mountains, and parks were named by Shoemaker in honor of prominent Pennsylvanians. Shoemaker would eventually name a mountain after himself: Shoemaker Knob in Lycoming County. Please note: Some sources state that Shoemaker Knob is in Union County, but after carefully analyzing a number of topographical maps, I’ve determined that the peak is actually in Lycoming County, close to the border with Union County.

Despite all the good things he did, I could go on and on about the amount of “facts” that Shoemaker created: the Greene Massacre in Sugar Valley which he had a monument erected in memory of the event; the ancient rock fortress covered with hieroglyphic symbols that supposedly exists near the head waters of Moshannon Creek; the legends of Penns Cave, Woodward Cave, Veiled Lady Cave and Mount Nittany all come from Shoemaker’s works.

Lou and I have debated the subject time and time again as we’ve attempted to discover the truth behind many of Shoemaker’s works. Despite all the things I dislike about Shoemaker’s legacy, I have to admit there are a number of things I appreciate. Shoemaker was influential in the development of historical spots around the state such as the Conrad Weiser Homestead and scenic rest areas like Hairy John’s Picnic Area.

No matter what one may think about Henry Shoemaker and his writings, one thing is definite: they caught the attention of thousands. With each printing, more and more outsiders arrived in central Pennsylvania to see the places Shoemaker wrote about. The popularity of “The Legend of Penns Cave” was eventually expanded into a booklet about Penns Cave and more stories about the surrounding region. Shoemaker even created a tour book for north-central Pennsylvania entitled Eldorado Found. He managed to bring tourists into the remote wilds of Pennsylvania.

Whether I like him or dislike him, one thing is for sure: he definitely left his mark on the region.

A note about Henry Shoemaker’s tales: With Halloween approaching I’ll be sharing a number of his stories in this year's “13 Days of Halloween,” which will be posted throughout the month of October. Please tune in as I share some of this stories along with other legends and lore from Pennsylvania.

A note on Seth Nelson: In his stories that are told by Seth Nelson, I’m not exactly sure which Seth Nelson he’s referring to. It could possibly be Seth Senior or Seth Junior. Both men were noted hunters and tellers of tall tales. Looking at the time they lived, my educated guess would be the Seth Nelson who Shoemaker was talking to would have been the son who died in 1932, opposed to his father who died in 1905. But it is possible he was hearing stories possibly from both of them. Either way, both father and son rest in a remote cemetery along the Keating Mountain Road known as Nelsonville, a collection of homes that grew up around his own house.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Fort Wheeler


Monument for Fort Wheeler, Lightstreet
Original location along Paper Mill Road
A note to start: The monument for Fort Wheeler has been moved since I originally wrote this entry. It is currently located at the Lightstreet Community Park. I have not been to visit the monument at its present location, but had the opportunity to visit it when it was at the site where Fort Wheeler once stood. Pictures of the memorial are from its original location and were taken in the autumn of 2010..

I drove slowly along the pothole infested road that was known as Papermill Road searching the hillside for the monument for Fort Wheeler. The coordinates I had for the monument had it just off of Interstate 80, but I had to take the long way around to get there; after all I did not think that parking along the interstate and walking down the hill would be the wisest thing for me to do.

I saw the pines trees in the middle of the field and knew where I had to go - under their branches I could see the memorial for the fort that once stood there. Parking along the dirt road, I looked around for any “No Trespassing” signs and spying none, I started up the narrow lane that led towards the growth of trees. Closing in on my destination, I stepped off the lane and  ducked under the branches to confirm this was the location I sought. It was -- I had arrived at the monument for Fort Wheeler.

Located just north of present-day Bloomsburg and just west of the community of Lightstreet, Fort Wheeler had its origins in April of 1778 when Lieutenant Moses Van Campen was ordered by Colonel Hunter to erect a fort along Fishing Creek roughly three miles from its junction with the North Branch of the Susquehanna River. It was one of a line of forts that stretched from the West Branch to the North Branch of the Susquehanna. This chain of forts included Forts Rice, McClure, Bosley (also referred to as Bosley’s Mills), Freeland, Brady, and Wheeler. The purpose of these forts was to protect the settlers in case the rumors were true and a British and Indian invasion into the region came true.

After scouting the region, he selected a spot on the farm of Isaiah Wheeler; the fort was named in his honor. The exact size of the stockade fort is not known, however it is known that it was large enough to safely house all the families living in the immediate area. As the fort was being erected, Van Campen had his men create a barrier made of sharpened, interlocking sticks and brush surround the fort to offer some protection in they were attacked.

Monument for Fort Wheller
No sooner had Van Campen started erecting the fort than word arrived that a party of Indians had been spotted in the area. Settlers fled to the unfinished fort and waited for the raiding party to arrive. The party did soon arrive and the settlers watched from the safety of the fort as their homes were ransacked and set on fire.

With the houses on fire, the raiding party turned its attention to the fort. A number of shots were exchanged by both sides. Knowing that supplies were low, Lieutenant Van Campen had two of his men leave under the cover of darkness for Fort Jenkins, roughly three miles away. The two men arrived safely at Jenkins and obtained lead (for bullets) and powder. It was dawn when the two men returned to Fort Wheeler, but by that time the supplies were not urgent because under the cover of darkness, the Indians had left the area. Some blood was discovered on the ground from a wounded, or possibly killed, member of the raiding party, but no bodies were discovered.

Fort Wheeler was the location of a second attack in the June of 1778. This time the group of Indians was spotted by a sentry approaching a group of ladies who were in the field milking cows. Van Campen led a small group of armed men and, using the ridge for cover, attempted to cut them off before they attacked. When Van Campen ascended the ridge, he discovered himself within pistol shot of the group and shot and killed the leader. The rest of his men opened fire upon the raiding party as they ran for safety, but no others were killed in the ambush.

Plaque on the monument
It notes the site of Fort Wheeler and
It was Erected by Moses Van Campen
The fort became the headquarters for Lieutenant Van Campen who spent the majority of 1778 there. He and his men would patrol the region for attackers, but other than a small skirmish in early summer of 1778, no enemies were discovered. Fort Wheeler is last mentioned in connection with Lieutenant Van Campen in the spring of 1780 when it is mentioned that he left the fort to go to his father’s farm.

Without having a positive source to say one way or another, I believe that this was the time when the fort was abandoned. With the Great Runaway happening in the summer of 1778 (the period of time when the majority of the settlers in the Susquehanna River valleys fled to safer parts of Pennsylvania due to increased hostilities with the combined forces of British Loyalists and Indians) it is highly probable that Fort Wheeler fell victim to the raiding parties. It is known that Fort Jenkins, which was located roughly three miles away along the North Branch of the Susquehanna, was burnt during this time period, so it makes sense that this is when Fort Wheeler was also destroyed.

While the fort itself seems to vanish into history, local tradition maintains that the fort existed for quite a few years being manned only by the local residents before it fell into ruin. 

The location for the fort is vague and I could not find any source that gave a definitive location. All sources seem to state that it was to be erected roughly three miles from the North Branch of the Susquehanna, along Fishing Creek. Even when the marker was placed, it was debated if this was the actual location. Some evidence hinted that it may the spot – a spring mentioned in connection with the fort was nearby and a farmer doing some digging discovered the foundation of a fireplace that was believed to have been a part of the fort.

I finished taking in the area where the fort once stood and slowly walked back to my vehicle, leaving the Fort Wheeler monument standing alone in the field, hidden in the branches of the pine tree that had grown up beside it, I paused at the vehicle and took one last look before leaving this historic spot in a lonely peace that the thousands passing a couple hundred yards to the south do not know even exists.

The area where the monument originally stood
Under the pine tree
A note on Moses Van Campen: A lot has been written about Van Campen and his service during this time, so much that I'll be coming back to investigate him in the future. He was a noted Indian fighter who was among those securing the region in the aftermath of the Wyoming Massacre and had participated in General Sullivan's campaign to attack the Iroquois in New York. He would become a surveyor and moved to the state of New York where he settleddown in the Dansville area. His full story will be a ramble for another day.

Please note: As I mentioned at the start of the article, the stone memorial has been moved since I had last visited it. It presently stands in the Lightstreet Community Park. There is also a familiar blue Pennsylvania historical marker for Fort Wheeler. It is located just south of Interstate 80, along Route 487, near the intersection with Paper Mill Road.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Private George Sandoe: The First to Fall?

Twenty-First Pennsylvania Cavalry Monument
Gettysburg
“Where are we headed?” Zech asked as we were driving southward.

“Gettysburg.” I responded. “There are a couple monuments I’d like to photograph.”

“You have quite a number of places on this list, so where are we starting?” he asked as he looked at the listing of monuments I had planned on photographing.

“The Twenty-First Pennsylvania Cavalry,” I replied. “It’s not too far off of Route 15.” Located along the Baltimore Pike on the southeastern edge of Gettysburg, the monument for the Twenty-First Pennsylvania Cavalry is just south of Colgate Avenue and the Visitor’s Center. I parked in a pull-off area on the opposite side of the road and we waited for an opportunity to cross and then found safety beyond the guide rail.

This is one of the two monuments to the Twenty-First Pennsylvania Cavalry, with the other being roughly forty yards from the one I was currently standing at. This one is topped with a granite sphere with the relief of a horse’s head on the front.

On the front of the memorial is a piece of information that many have passed by without realizing its importance:

Near this spot on June 26th 1863 fell
Private George Sandoe
An advance scout of a Company of Volunteer Cavalry
Afterwards Co. B, 21st Pennsylvania Cavalry
The First Union soldier killed at Gettysburg

The Twenty-First Pennsylvania Cavalry was created during the summer of 1863 under the direction of Governor Curtin in response to President Lincoln’s call for soldiers on June 15, 1863. Volunteers would serve a six month term of service. One group of volunteers, most of which hailed from Adams County, would become Unit B of the Twenty-First Pennsylvania Cavalry.

Twenty-First Pennsylvania Cavalry
Among the volunteers that comprised Unit B was Private George Washington Sandoe. George  lived in Mount Joy and at the age of twenty decided to enlist in the Union army. Please Note: The Mount Joy that George called home is not the community of the same name which is located in Lancaster County. This Mount Joy is a collection of houses to the southeast of Gettysburg along Route 134 (also known as the Taneytown Pike) in Adams County. The community appears presently as a place name rather than an actual town and is marked by the Mount Joy Lutheran Church and Cemetery.

For reasons known only to him, George enlisted with the Union army on June 18, 1863. George had managed to avoid fighting in the war up to this point. He married Dianna Caskey in February 1863 and when he left to enlist, he left her behind, pregnant with their child. Sadly, George’s time of service was a very short one. George failed to see his first pay. It had only been nine days since his enlistment and three days into his service.

On June 26, 1863 he was with Private William Lightner acting as advance scouts for their unit. The two of them were scouting along the Baltimore Pike when they encountered Confederate pickets of the Thirty-Fifth Virginia Cavalry. Privates Sandoe and Lightner did not see the pickets due to the thick undergrowth until they were right on top of them. When the two were commanded to stop they turned their horses and attempted to flee. As their horses jumped a nearby fence that bordered the Baltimore Pike, Sandoe’s mount stumbled and threw the young man to the ground. Private Sandoe managed to remount but, in the process, was mortally wounded in the head. Private Lightner’s horse cleared the fence and he managed to safely escape the scene.

George’s body would be claimed and taken to the Mount Joy Lutheran Cemetery for burial.

“Question for you,” Zech asked as he reread the information on the monument. “Didn’t the Battle of Gettysburg start on July First? So how can George Sandoe be the first Union solder killed at Gettysburg?”

“I guess it all depends on your definition of when the Battle of Gettysburg started.”

Most tend to view the Battle of Gettysburg as beginning on July 1, 1863, and ending on July 3, due to the major battle occurring during this time period. However, both Union and Confederate forces were traveling through south-central Pennsylvania in the weeks leading to the major battle. It was one of those chance encounters that ended in the death of Private George Sandoe.

If Sandoe is to be considered the first Union soldier to be killed, then the Battle of Gettysburg happened over a much longer period than the three days with which it is often associated. In order to consider Private Sandoe the first Union soldier to fall during the conflict, then the battle had to start June 26.

However seeing nothing more became of this skirmish (and to be honest even calling the events that claimed George’s life a skirmish is pushing the definition of what a skirmish is), it is almost impossible to directly connect the actions of June 26 to the events that started on July 1. The strongest connection is the events that claimed Sandoe’s life were on the same grounds that the Battle of Gettysburg would later be fought on. No other immediate military action occurred in the hours or days following the ambush, making the conflict a side note in the weeks leading up to the Battle of Gettysburg.

If Private Sandoe can be considered the first killed at Gettysburg, then there is another soldier who must be considered. Corporal Rihl was killed near Greencastle on June 22. Rihl must be considered the first Union soldier to die during the Battle of Gettysburg, seeing his death was a part of the Gettysburg Campaign. More information about Corporal Rihl can be found here:

Rereading the monument I realized something that I pointed out to Zech. “You notice that the monument doesn’t state he was the first Union soldier killed during the Battle of Gettysburg? It states he was the first one killed at Gettysburg.”

“So technically he was the first Union soldier to be killed at Gettysburg, just not the first to be killed during the battle.”

“Technically, yes,” I responded.

“So to which monument are we headed next?” he asked after we crossed the road.

“We’re headed southeast of here,” I replied. “We’re going to stop and pay our respects to George Sandoe.”

Grave of Private George Sandoe
Mount Joy Cemetery
After a slight scenic detour that allowed us to take in Adams County’s countryside, we arrived at the Mount Joy Lutheran Church and Cemetery. Entering on to the sacred grounds, we found George’s resting place rather quickly. It is roughly twenty yards inside the cemetery (when entering from the walkway in front of the church) and towards the main road.

“That’s interesting,” Zech spoke as he read Sandoe’s stone. “Reading what is here, it makes it sound like he died during the Battle of Gettysburg, not in the days leading up to the battle.”

I had to agree with Zech's thoughts. The words on his stone read: “A true patriot that fell on the Memorable Field of Gettysburg. Died for his country’s honor June 26, 1863.”

We silently stood there paying our respects to Private Sandoe and the sacrifice he made while serving his country. Whether he should be considered the first Union soldier killed in the battle, or whether he is a strange footnote in the grand scheme of things, George’s sacrifice is not forgotten and will always be remembered on the monument for the Twenty-First Pennsylvania Cavalry.

If you choose to visit George’s grave, I ask that you do so respectfully. If you choose to visit the monument for the Twenty-First Pennsylvania Cavalry please be cautious crossing the Baltimore Pike. The road can be extremely busy at times and I would not personally recommend young children trying to cross it.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

The Lamb's Gap Murders

The resting place of Leah Ellenberger
Evergreen Cemetery, Dunsannon
Resting near the rear of Evergreen Cemetery in Duncannon is a simple grave that gives no hint of the tragedy that befell the young lady resting there. Buried next to her parents, the stone only states her name and the years of her birth and death: Leah E. Ellenberger 1902-1924.

Roughly fifteen miles south of here and just inside the gates of Chestnut Hill Cemetery in Marysville is another simple stone that gives no clue about the young man buried there. The stone that marks his grave only has his first name and middle initial, but the family stone lists his name along with his birth and death years: Harry L.Ganster 1903-1924.

The only thing that the average person may notice about the two graves is the year of their death is the same: 1924. I had arrived at the two graves to pay my respects to the young couple whose death on May 17, 1924 remains unsolved. On that otherwise beautiful morning the young couple was discovered murdered near the top of Lamb’s Gap.

The young couple was well liked by the community. Harry was a local boy who had graduated from Marysvile Area High School. The son of Joseph and Louisa was planning on attending Susquehanna University to study medicine that fall. Harry was described as having a curious and investigative mind.

Leah was a teacher living with her parents near Hollidaysburg and would spend her free time at the home of George and Nancy Albright (Nancy was Leah’s mother’s sister). Leah taught school at Clover Creek, which is located near Williamsburg. She had been in Marysville for the two weeks leading up to the murder and her parents were expecting her return soon.

According to the family when Harry and Leah met the young couple were instantly in love. When not in school, Leah would spend time with Harry roaming the mountains around Marysville.


The resting place of Harry L. Ganster
Chestnut Hill Cemetery, Marysville
The afternoon was a typical day for the duo. Around four-thirty that afternoon Harry announced that he was going out to pick flowers for the upcoming graduation ceremony at Marysville. Harry promised to be home by six that evening. Six came and went without him returning. When darkness began to creep over the land, Joseph sought out George’s help and the two of them set off in search of the young couple.

The two men gathered a couple more men and began the search for the young couple. The search continued throughout the night and Leah and Harry were discovered by Joseph Ganster at four in the morning of the seventeenth. In the light beam of the flashlight he carried, Joseph had thought that the two had fallen asleep.

As Joseph approached the car he realized that something was wrong and the moment he touched Harry he knew the truth: the young couple was dead. Harry was on the passenger’s side of the car. He had one foot on the ground, one on the car’s running board with his body slumped on the passenger’s seat. Leah was in the driver’s seat with her head slumped back and her left hand resting on the car door. Harry’s left thumb had been injured at some point before the murders and was wrapped in a bandage and the first aide kit still sat on the front seat between the two lovers.

Upon realizing that the young couple was dead, Joseph remained at the scene while George returned to Marysville to alert the authorities. Residents soon began arriving at the scene as word of the crime spread, but it wasn’t until noontime that the state police finally arrived. By that time any clues at the scene were destroyed or disappeared due to the number of people who wanted to help or were merely curious about the murders.


Graves of Leah Ellenberger
And her parents
Evergreen Cemetery, Duncannon
Once the state police took over the scene they started looking for what clues may still exist. They believed that the case would be an easy one to solve, but the scene’s contamination proved it to be impossible. Studying the bodies, it was discovered that Leah and Harry had been killed by a single shot. The bullet hit Harry, passed through him and then almost the whole way through Leah, ending its fateful journey in her left arm. With no signs of struggle at the scene, it is believed that Harry was in the process of getting into the car when the shot was fired.

Expanding their search, state police discovered Leah and Harry had walked along an old logging road and at one point they were being followed by an unidentified person. They also found a location roughly one hundred feet away where they believed that the shot was fired that killed the two. But they failed to discover a shell casing or any other evidence about the identity of their killer.

The question arises of who had a motive to kill the couple.

The most popular theory was they were killed by one of the local moonshiners who had targeted Harry; Leah was an innocent bystander. Harry’s hobby of photography had included photographing a number of the stills located in the area. Some of the pictures had been published in a local newspaper. The moonshiners had threatened Harry for his actions and the police believed this was a case of revenge. In addition to the photographs, Harry had been involved in an altercation with moonshiners about a year and a half before that resulted in shots being fired. Amid the gunfire, one of the moonshiners was shot in the leg and claimed the shot came from Harry’s gun.

Police searched the mountain for any active stills. The stills they discovered near the crime scene had been abandoned and from the looks of them had been for a while. While this theory is the most popular one and the one that police looked into the most, no arrests were ever made.

Other rumors began to quickly circulate around the Marysville area. A popular theory was they were shot by a jealous husband. Supposedly the man’s wife was cheating on him and he followed the car thinking that Leah was his wife. In a blind rage he shot the two thinking he was killing his wife’s lover. Police looked into the theory and dismissed it.

Another theory at the time was Leah was being stalked by a former boyfriend from Hollidaysburg. Supposedly the man was spotted in Marysville during the two weeks Leah was there. The unknown stalker had followed them to the gap and ended their lives. Police looked into this theory too but Leah’s parents stated firmly that Harry was Leah’s first love and the rumor of her loving another was just a rumor.

A rumor that quickly began to circulate was Harry killed Leah and then himself. With no gun found in the area the state police also squashed that theory.


The Ganster Family stone
Chestnut Hill Cemetery, Marysville
Then there is a theory that the whole thing was a complete accident. Police quickly pushed aside the theory that the young couple was hit and killed by a stray bullet.

There was one clue that the police discovered that made no sense and even today causes people to scratch their heads. A hypodermic needle was discovered in one of Harry’s pockets. While Harry did have an interest in medicine, it is unsure why he had taken the needle with him that day.
Sadly the only solid evidence that the police were able to obtain was the identity of the murder weapon. Examining the bullet, they determined that the couple was killed by a bullet fired from a .44-40 Caliber Winchester 1892 rifle.

The funerals of the young lovers were polar opposites. Leah’s was a simple one held at the house of her uncle and was attended by only family members and some close friends. Her body was taken to Evergreen Cemetery in Duncannon for burial. Harry’s funeral was held at the local Evangelical church and was open to all the residents of the community. His body was laid to rest at the Chestnut Grove Cemetery in town.

Almost a century has passed since the tragedy that shocked the community of Marysville. The case that had grabbed the headlines and that the police thought would be solved still remains unsolved. Sadly the young couple and the tragedy that befell them has been mostly forgotten.

If you choose to visit either of the cemeteries where Leah and Harry are buried, I ask you do so with the respect that the area deserves.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Gettysburg's First Shot Marker

First Shot Marker, Gettysburg
Front side
As with all of the previous times I had traveled west on Route 30 from Gettysburg, I missed the marker. Even as I zipped past it, the GPS began screaming for me to find a place to turn around and head back east.

"Did you see a monument?" I asked Zech who confirmed that he too had missed the marker.

I quickly found a place to turn around I slowly drove back towards the location where the GPS claimed the monument was located. Thankfully there were no vehicles behind us as I approached the location.

“There it is,” Zech observed as I slowed down. The monument I was seeking was located at the junction of Chambersburg Pike (Route 30) and Knoxlyn Road. After making a quick assessment of the area I decided to turn around once again and return to the location, I hesitantly pulled off on the northern edge of the road parking slightly on the grass of the house next to the monument. Putting the four way flashers on, I grabbed my camera and got out.

"You coming?" I asked Zech whose look told me I was on my own so I walked westward along the very busy Route 30. The monument is located roughly three miles west of Gettysburg on top of a small hill on the north side of Route 30. It stands only a couple yards away from a nearby house and in all of my trips through the area I assumed that the marker was part of the homestead. Unsure if the house next to the monument had somebody living in it or not (and already feeling bad that I was temporarily parked in their yard), I remained along the edge of the road until I arrived at the marker. Making my way up the hillside on a well-worn path, I found myself standing at the marker known as "The First Shot Monument."

First Ahot Marker, Gettysburg
Eastern side
A note about the land that the Marker is on: In researching the monument and its history, I came across a number of articles that revealed that I did not have to worry about crossing the yard because it was now a part of the Gettysburg National Battlefield.

I made my way around the granite marker reading the words chiseled into it. On the front side of the monument (the southern side and the side facing Route 30) is written: First shot Gettysburg July 1st 1863 7:30 am. Making my way around the monument, I took in the writing on the other sides of it. The eastern side states: Fired by Cap. Jones with Sergt. Shafer's carbine. Co. E 8th Ills. The northern face reads: Erected 1886. And the west side of the monument reads: By Capt. Jones, Lieut Riddler, Sergt. Shafer.

While many people have claimed to have fired the first shot that started the Battle of Gettysburg,  one of the strongest claims is held by Lieutenant Marcellus E. Jones (he would later be promoted to the rank of Captain as it is marked on the stone). Jones was a member of the Eighth Illinois Cavalry and had been assigned picket duty along the Chambersburg Pike.

The soldiers of the Eighth Indiana, along with those from the Twelfth Indiana and the Third Indiana, were sent out to watch for any signs of the Confederate army. The unit took command of a small hill west of Gettysburg that gave them a view of the Chambersburg Pike. This advantage point happened to be in the yard of local blacksmith and gunsmith Ephraim Wisler. Please see note below for more information about Ephraim Wisler.

First Shot Marker
Northern side
Around 7:30 on the morning of the July 1, 1863, dust was spotted coming from the direction of Cashtown. Those on picket duty watched as the cloud of dust grew and soon the Confederate troops came in sight. This division of the Confederate Army was under the command of Major General Henry Heth. The pickets waited and watched as the Confederate troops started crossing Marsh Creek, about a half mile west of the Union troops. It was then that Lieutenant Jones decided to take action.

Borrowing a carbine from Sergeant Levi Shaffer, Jones rested the rifle on the rail fence and took aim at a mounted officer and squeezed the trigger. It is not recorded if he hit his target or not, but it would seem he indeed missed. But the shot was enough to draw the attention of the advancing Confederate forces. The Confederate artillery under the direction of Major William R.J. Pegram returned fire. The first round of cannon fire destroyed the trees above the Union soldiers.

The Union forces would retreat and the Confederates would take control of the farm.

Returning back to the monument where I stood, it was placed in 1883 by Jones, Shaffer and Alec Riddler (an associate of theirs) in 1883. They brought the shaft of Illinois granite to the Wisler farm (owned by James Mickler at this point) and purchased a small plot of land to erect the monument. Over half of the shaft is buried in the ground providing stability to the monument. At the time of the placement, the Chambersburg Pike was level with the marker - due to time and resurfacing the road over the years, the Chambersburg Pike had been lowered, placing the monument on top of a hill along the road.

In the years of exploring Gettysburg, I had never realized that the monument or the fact that the first shots happened miles away from the main battle. I guess that I am as guilty as countless other people who tour the battlefield thinking that all of the action occurred at the main battlefield.

After paying my respects to the brave men of the 8th Illinois who served and to Marcellus Jones whose shot touched off the battle that would rage over the next couple of days, I returned to the vehicle ready to explore more corners of the battlefield.

Please be careful when visiting the monument, there is very little parking and traffic on Route 30 can be heavy at times.

First Shot Marker
Western side
About Ephraim Wheeler: In researching the history of the First Shot Marker, I found an interesting story about Mr. Wisler and a mystery that surrounds his death.

According to some early sources, after the firing began, Mr. Wisler stepped out of his house to see what was going on. As he emerged from the building, a Confederate shot hit the ground immediately in front of him, covering him with dirt. This was enough to send him back into his house. Wisler was said to have taken to bed, never to rise again and died less than a month later - the shock of the near death experience with the cannon ball supposedly paralyzed him.
I’m not sure if he died of shock like these sources state because he did file a claim after the battle for loss and destruction of property.

If he didn’t die of shock, then what killed him? If the story of the cannonball exploding in front of him is true, then it may be possible that Ephraim died of wounds from the skirmish. When the cannonball exploded in front of him, it may have fragmented and injured Wisler, causing the paralysis and his eventual death. If this is the case, then Jennie Wade was not the only civilian who died during the Battle of Gettysburg.

There is another possibility about the cause of Ephraim’s death. His house was used by the Confederate Army during the battle as a hospital. Mr. Wisler most likely contracted a disease of some sort from the soldiers treated there and, left unchecked, caused his death a little over a month after the battle.

What is known to be fact is Ephraim Wisler died August 11, 1863 and was buried in the Lower Marsh Creek Presbyterian Cemetery along Knoxlyn Road.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

The Babes in the Woods Murders

Memorial to the Noakes Sisters
Westminster Cemetery, Carlisle
I pulled into Westminster Cemetery on the northwestern edge of Carlisle in search of a number of graves relating to a tragic murder that shocked the residents of the Cumberland Valley and grabbed the attention of the nation. While I had the names I sought and the directions to three of the five graves, I had a vague idea where the other two were resting. I knew Zech and I would definitely have another challenge trying to locate those two graves without help, but we did have an extra hour to look around the cemetery grounds.

Heading west on Route 641, known locally as the Newville Road, we passed the first entrance to the sacred grounds and turned right into the cemetery at the next entrance. I only had to drive a very short distance to the first intersection -- the location of the three graves for which I had directions. In the middle of the intersection, beneath a large evergreen, rests the headstone of three girls.

Plaque on the Noakes Memorial
The plaque on the stone gives a brief account of their story:

The Babes in the Woods

Norma Sedgewick Noakes    Aged 14 Years
Dewilla Noakes                     Aged 10 Years
Cordelia Noakes                    Aged 8 Years

Natives of Roseville, California
Found dead in South Mountains near
Pine Grove Furnace, November 24, 1934

The morning of Saturday, November 24, 1934, should have been a normal day for the residents of the Cumberland Valley. However the discovery made by Clark Jarmine and his uncle, John Clark, while cutting firewood on the northern slope of South Mountain would be anything but normal.

The two men noticed a large green blanket spread out roughly twenty feet from the road (present day Centreville Road) with something obviously beneath it. They tossed around ideas what was under the blanket. It could possibly be a deer that had been poached, waiting for the poacher to come back and get it. Another possibility, due to the beer bottles littering the ground was it was somebody from the nearby Civilian Conversation Corps camp who got drunk and was sleeping off their night of drinking.

What they discovered was neither of those two. Lifting up the corner of the blanket they discovered the bodies of three young girls. Dropping the corner of the blanket, the two of them ran to contact the authorities of their grisly discovery.

When the authorities arrived at the scene on South Mountain, they found the bodies of three young girls who they believed were sisters due to all three having similar facial features, light brown hair and grey eyes. The girls were placed side by side and appeared to be peacefully sleeping.  An autopsy revealed that the three girls had been either straggled or suffocated by a soft blanket or pillow and had been dead approximately two to four days before their discovery.

The public’s reaction was unlike anything the area had seen before. Many people viewed the bodies at the crime scene in an attempt to identify them. After the girls were moved to the funeral home in Carlisle, over ten thousand people passed by them in the first twenty-four hours in an attempt to identify the bodies, but nobody recognized the trio. Locals, afraid that they would be discarded in the local Potter’s Field and forgotten about, raised money to have them buried in Westminster Cemetery with a proper marker. Under the guidance of American Legion Post 101, the funds were gathered for their burial.

The same day that the three girls were discovered, authorities near Altoona were investigating a murder-suicide that happened near Duncansville. The two bodies were identified as Elmo Noakes (32) and his niece Winifred Pierce (18) originally from California.

Soon a connection was made between the three girls found on South Mountain and the the two bodies found in Duncansville. The girls were identified as Norma Sedgewick and her two half sisters, Dewilla and Cordelia Noakes.

Memorial along Centreville Road
The tragedy that happened in Pennsylvania had its origins two years earlier in Roseville, California. On July 10, 1832, Mary Noakes passed away leaving Elmo to care for their two children and the daughter Mary had from her first marriage. What no one could have realized at the time that Mary’s death, that would be the first step resulting in the tragedy that happened on the opposite side of the country two years later.

Unable to take care of them by himself, Elmo sought help from his niece (by blood) Winifred Pierce. Winifred dropped out of school six months before the tragedy to become Elmo’s housekeeper and eventually his lover. This bizarre relationship caused fighting within the family.

On November 11, 1934, Elmo and Winifred hastily packed the girls in a 1929 Pontiac sedan Elmo had just purchased and fled California. A week later, on November 18, the group was spotted in North Philadelphia. They were approached by a lady who noticed the hungry and tired looking girls and offered to buy some food for the youngest.

The family stayed at a campground near Langhorne from November 19 through November 21. It is believed that when they left the campground that night, Elmo murdered his step daughter and two daughters.

Elmo and Winifred drove westward and would toss their suitcase out along the way. A hunter discovered the suitcase on November 22 roughly two and a half miles away from the place the three girls were to be discovered two days later. Turning it over to authorities, they found it belonged to the family from a puzzle book with Norma's name written in it.


Grave of Winifred Pierce
Westminster Cemetery, Carlisle
That same day (November 22) their abandoned car was discovered. Though the license plate had been removed the vehicle's identification number proved it to be the one Elmo had purchased the day before they left California. Side note: I find it odd that while other details of this case were covered closely by the newspapers at the time, where the car was abandoned seems to be very vague. Most newspaper reports list it as being abandoned between Pine Grove (meaning Pine Grove Furnace) and McVeytown, which is quite a distance between the two. A couple modern sources place it as being found near McVeytown, which would make a little more sense due to the fact Elmo and Winifred must have either hitched a ride or jumped a train to end their journey into Duncansville that evening.

On November 23, Winifred sold everything they had remaining on them and Elmo used the money to purchase an old .22 rifle. That next day, he shot Winifred in the heart and head before turning the weapon on himself. Their bodies would be discovered at the Spring Meadow Railroad depot at Duncansville.

Sadly, the police, after investigating the crime scenes said the reason Elmo killed the girls was because he could not afford to take care of them. Not wanting them to grow up in poverty or in an orphanage, he made the terrible decision to end their lives.

The three girls were buried in Westminster Cemetery resting side by side, in the same order that were lying when they were discovered. Elmo and Winifred would also be buried in this cemetery, quite a distance from where the girls rest.

We finished paying our respects to the girls before attempting to find the graves of Elmo and Winifred. With only the vaguest directions to go on, it was Zech that noticed the flag flapping by itself in another portion of the cemetery. Curious about the lone flag, we walked over and it was Elmo’s grave. His grave was marked with an American flag for his service in the Marine Corps. Strangely the date on the stone for his death is wrong. It states he died November 9 instead of November 24. In the plot next to him rests Winifred.

The rest of our time of exploration in the cemetery was done in silence, stopping by the girls' grave on the way out to once again pay our respects before leaving them to rest under the watchful eye of a community that came to adopt them as their own in the wake of the tragedy.

There is a marker placed along Centreville Road that depicts the location where the girls were found. While there is no place to safely park near the memorial, there is a driveway a couple yards away where I parked and walked back to the memorial.

As always, if you choose to visit the cemetery or the memorial I ask that you do so with the respect both spots deserve.


Grave of Elmo Noakes
Westminster Cemetery, Carlisle
A note of interest: Every article I've read in the newspapers of the time regarding this tragedy states that the bodies were placed at the location around eight the night of November 23. The reasoning behind this theory (as listed in the newspapers of the time) was due to the blanket covering the bodies was damp but not soaked from the rains of November 23. The the timeline listed in many Pennsylvania newspapers on November 30 correct this error stating that the girls had to be on the mountain on the morning of November 22. For some reason many modern retellings still state that the girls were placed there the night of November 23.