Author spins spooky yarns at library
October 29, 2012
ZELIENOPLE — On a cloudy, wet October night, as dead leaves fell on the sidewalk leading to the Zelienople Public Library, an author of six books on Western Pennsylvania legends and ghost stories spun a few of the creepy yarns he has collected during the past 13 years. Thomas White, who grew up in Ross Township, Allegheny County, was always interested in folklore and odd history. His position as archivist and curator of special collections at Duquesne University’s Gumberg Library and adjunct history professor at LaRoche College served as the conduit between oral tradition and a studied, written history of each legend. “Every time I see something on the Internet or someone has told me a story, I’ve tried to research it and look at the historically verifiable truths,” White said, “and what the legend means beyond the ghost story.” White said because a plethora of reality shows featuring the paranormal have cropped up in the past few years, his subject matter has become extremely popular. He gives eight to 12 presentations per year on his books, which includes “Legends and Lore of Western Pennsylvania,” “Ghosts of Southwestern Pennsylvania,” “Gangs and Outlaws of Western Pennsylvania” and others. White did not disappoint the dozen people who attended his Monday evening presentation at the Zelienople library, where he shared local stories of tragedy, lore and hauntings. Pennsylvania is a great area for sustaining legends because residents tend to remain here for generations, thereby perpetuating the stories decade after decade. “You don’t have that in, say, Phoenix,” White said. “This area is loaded with legends.” One of White’s favorite tales is familiar to many Butler County residents. White explained that the Black Cross on Cornetti Road in Winfield Township is the mass grave of dozens of immigrant mine workers, mostly Italian men, who were the victims of the Spanish Influenza pandemic that swept through the country at the end of World War I when soldiers returning from flu-plagued Europe brought the virus home with them. He said the close living quarters and poverty of the immigrants rendered them easy targets for the fast-spreading flu. Because of their social position and the lack of relatives to pay for their burials, three to five immigrants or more were placed in each grave in the fall of 1918. White said a local clergyman insisted a funeral service for the flu victims be held, and a large cross was fashioned from two railroad ties. The cross was placed among the graves. “It was supposedly this time of year when they died,” White said. “So people say this is when you will start to see and hear things.” Alleged occurrences at the site include hearing the men speaking in Italian when an ear is placed close to the ground, trees over the wooded graveyard bending toward one another, and the wail of infants who never got to know their fathers. White said by the 1970s, the cross was reduced to a small black stump and the legend began to fade. But he said the Internet, a flurry of pandemic warnings in the 1990s, and a stone memorial placed at the site 10 years ago resurrected the legend of the Black Cross. “Ghost stories are a form of history as well,” White said. “Every time you tell it, you are memorializing people, particularly marginalized people (like the immigrant workers.)” White also told the tale of an alleged haunting at McConnells Mill State Park, which is just over the Butler County line in Lawrence County. White said legend has it that an old caretaker that stayed at the once-thriving mill to protect it from robbers after it was closed has never left the property, and never stopped protecting the mill. The specter of the caretaker is said to emerge from the woods with a club to scare away the curious who beep their vehicle’s horn near the mill. White said the nearby covered bridge is reported to be haunted as a result of two Amish drowning in the Slippery Rock Creek below. White has heard that motorists who stop in the middle of the bridge at night will see the boys in their rearview mirror. When the terrified driver turns around, however, the boys will be gone but the back seat will be wet. White said legends undergo embellishments through the years according to the phases of society. He said in the 1970s, many legends and ghost stories took on a Ku Klux Klan layer. In the 1980s, satanic cults were added to old stories due to the furor over satanic messages in songs. The Green Man of Beaver County, the Quaker Church and Cemetery in Perryopolis, Fayette County, and the various activities in the Cathedral of Learning on the University of Pittsburgh campus were other Western Pennsylvania lore shared by White on Monday. Asked if he has ever seen anything paranormal, White replied that he has “had weird things happen.” He said when he worked at the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh, he sometimes heard the sound of ice chipping. He said the center was built on the site of an old ice plant that had exploded, killing dozens of employees. “And there’s definitely been times when you just get that feeling,” White said. Lynn Mooney of Zelienople said she enjoyed White’s presentation. “It was very informative,” Mooney said. “And I like that he talked about places we knew about.” Her son, Ethan, was also impressed with White’s knowledge. “He has done a lot of research,” Ethan said. Henry von Rintelen of Jackson Township found it interesting that various layers are added to legends and alleged hauntings as time passes. He also appreciated White’s knowledge of local lore. “I never heard a lot of these ghost stories,” he said. White’s books can be found on www.amazon.com.