By Eileen Mountjoy Cooper
In an overgrown valley about 12 miles west of Indiana
and one mile from West Lebanon lies the site of a mysterious R & P coal town known as
Whiskey Run. For over 50 years, the community of Whiskey Run has been synonymous with
violence, secrecy and unsolved murder. Mystery even surrounds the town's name, with
several explanations vying for authenticity.
The oldest version was often repeated by Earl Holstein, a lifetime resident of West Lebanon. In Holstein's tale, early Indiana County settlers, splitting logs at the eventual site of Whiskey Run, were suddenly set upon by four angry, whiskey-drinking Indians. To save themselves, the quick-talking farmers persuaded the Indians to help split the logs apart by having two Indians pull at opposite sides of one partially split piece of work. As the four Indians pulled with all their strength, one of the farmers knocked out the wedge holding the log apart, and the Indians' hands were caught in a vice-like grip. Then, the farmers murdered the Indians, and in commemoration of the event, named the nearby stream Whiskey Run.
Two other possible reasons for the town's colorful name date from a few years later, when the post-office harbored a thriving but untaxed liquor business. One day word reached Reed that government officials, commonly known as revenuers, were on the way. When the local entrepreneurs heard of this impending visit, they quickly disposed of all liquid evidence by dumping it into the little stream that ran through the area. With danger thus averted, locals began calling the valley Whiskey Run.
A third and most obvious reason for the naming of Whiskey Run refers to the need for a constant supply of cold, running water to condense the steam used in the Whiskey-making process. As Reed Station's friendly, winding brook fulfilled this requirement to perfection, the stream and the immediate area surrounding it may have become known as Whiskey Run. While all these stories concerning the name of Whiskey Run probably predate its inception as a coal town in 1906, subsequent events proved the appropriate character of the name.
At the time of its founding, Whiskey Run seemed little different from its parent town of Iselin, five miles away. Whiskey Run came into existence when Iselin mines #1 and #2 expanded due to the great demand for the Elders Ridge Pittsburgh seam coal. Mine #3 was opened, the coal company hurriedly constructed a few "shanties" and the town of Whiskey Run was born. Rapid development of the mine at Whiskey Run required many new miners, and the word traveled, as far as New York, where newly-arrived immigrants secured tickets on the B R & P Railway for Indiana. Upon arrival in Whiskey Run, men quickly learned the techniques of coal mining while their wives and children struggled to make the adjustment to a new life.
From the first, Whiskey Run attracted attention with its own brand of lawlessness. In an age accustomed to small-town crimes associated with various forms of drinking and Saturday-night fights, this small community soon became a by-word for violence. Beginning with a 1907 Gazette headline reading "Two Men Fall in a Pistol Duel," Whiskey Run's sinister reputation grew as steadily as the area's mines, until by 1926 an estimated 22 unsolved murders had taken place within its confines. While the 1907 pistol duel resulted in no fatalities, the case reveals a feature common in Whiskey Run crimes of a later date. Two rival groups instantly sprang up to the defense of each wounded man, with an "animosity so marked" that, while placed aboard the same train, the men, one with a bullet in his neck and the other with a bullet in his abdomen, bad to be taken to separate Jefferson County hospitals to preserve what remained of the peace. This "factionalism," while not unknown in small towns, surfaces with persistent frequency in the memories of Indiana Countians who can recall the murders at Whiskey Run.
The next reported Whiskey Run outbreak occurred two years later, resulted in a fatality and further entrenched the idea of secrecy among community residents. On January 19, 1909, "Mike" Buttaro, during a quarrel following a drinking session in house #232, attacked Peter Spera with a "blunt instrument." Several days had passed, the Indiana Evening Gazette noted, before word of the assault and subsequent death reached "outsiders," as "Spera was cared for by friends." Once notified of the crime, County Detective Josiah Neal acted fast. In hot pursuit behind the fleeing Buttaro, Neal easily identified the criminal by the two missing fingers on his left hand and arrested him aboard a train bound for Pittsburgh. Within six days after his capture, Buttaro was safely behind bars in the Western Pennsylvania Penitentiary to begin a four-year term for manslaughter.
Several long-time residents of the West Lebanon area who can recall the Whiskey Run shootings agree that often, "many of the killings involved women," and details of one death in 1910 support that theory. Early shortages of both housing and ready cash in the community created the necessity for boarding houses, resulting in overcrowded conditions. A situation involving as many as 12 or 13 men living in the same house with a young married woman contributed to the sensational case of the Commonwealth vs. Mrs. Virginia Mancanelli.
Shortly before Thanksgiving, 1910, a miner named Moiden Nune was taken by train to the Adrian Hospital in Punxsutawney. Nune was paralyzed from the waist down and his back, near the spine, was found to contain a bullet from "a five barrel, .38 caliber revolver." Acting on the basis of an accusation made by the semi-conscious Nune, County Detective Neal arrested Mrs. Mancanelli and confined her, with her young infant, to the women's section of the Indiana County jail. Moved to pity, Indiana County women reacted at once. During the long, cold month that the woman and her baby remained in jail, daily messengers bearing nourishing food and warm clothing visited the cell and also, as the woman spoke no English, made dedicated efforts to teach her their language.
In the weeks that followed, Nune lingered between life and death in the hospital, ungallantly swearing that the pretty housewife, after her failure to persuade Nune to "run away with her", had shot him in the back with her husband's revolver. Finally, as the future darkened for Mrs. Mancanelli, Nune died in the Punxsutawney Hospital. Fortunately, however, in a death-bed confession, Nune altered his story and revealed that it was he who actually precipitated the shooting by "bothering" Mrs. Mancanelli while her husband was at work. At a hearing held on February 18, 1911, the young wife was acquitted, and she and her child returned to house #262 at Whiskey Run.
While not alone in contributing to the long list of shootings and stabbings common in small towns in the early 1900s, Whiskey Run is singled out for the enactment of a unique "first": the original and probably only quadruple murder ever committed in Indiana County. On Sunday, August 13, 1911, three men were shot and killed instantly in a "duel type shooting affray," a fourth man died the next day. The incident, which occurred in a Whiskey Run boarding house, centered on the affection of three of the men for an 18-year-old girl who also lived in the boarding house. On this particular Sunday afternoon, a fourth suitor arrived from Holsopple, Pennsylvania. By evening, a heated discussion had broken out and gunfire soon commenced.
At the sound of shots, Marie Bartino, "the innocent cause of the trouble," peeked outside to see what was happening, and a stray bullet struck her in the leg. Due to the untimely deaths of all participants, this case was declared closed with the subsequent burial of all four young men. At the funeral, an unusual calm, often noted in Whiskey Run slayings of the World War I era, was remarked upon by the Gazette reporter. "The spectacle of the procession of hearses bearing the remains of the murdered men excited but little attention . . . " he wrote.
In the next few years, reports of violence emanated from Whiskey Run with enough regularity to firmly establish the community's evil reputation. While other coal towns at times seemed to compete with Whiskey Run for first place in the crime department, the town's isolation and suggestive name aided in giving it a special aura of mystery.
In 1920, a new element emerged in routine Whiskey Run crimes: the "revenge" type of killing for which the town has become infamous. On September 14 of that year, county newspapers found rich material in the fatal shooting of Peter Villa and Camel Cosma at Whiskey Ran. Details acquired "under protest" indicated that Cosma, who lived in Johnstown, was a former resident of Whiskey Run. While working there in mine #3, he was injured in an accident and began receiving compensation.
It was soon discovered that Cosma had made a regular practice of travelling to Whiskey Run at about the time of the semi-monthly pay and collecting sums of money for his "organization." According to various bits of testimony gathered with difficulty by local law enforcement officers, it appeared that certain residents of the community became outraged at the "bleeding" process and determined to rid themselves of both Cosma and his friend, Peter Villa.
Details of the shooting, in true Whiskey Run form, were nearly impossible to obtain. A woman, Mrs. Mary Cimano, who had seen the shooting, was taken into custody as a material witness, but refused to give any testimony that would clear up the case. At the inquest, conducted by Coroner A. H. Stewart, it was learned that Cosma's body "had been perforated 24 times and that nine bullets had entered the body of Villa." Deterred considerably by lack of cooperation from Whiskey Run residents, efforts of officials to solve the crime tapered off into complete inaction as those who know the particulars of the tragedy refuse to talk, evidently afraid of sharing the fate of the dead men."
Another more cruel type of extortion is remembered by Lawrence Redding, who came to Iselin as superintendent in 1922. "Sometimes, these criminals would obtain money from immigrants by threatening that, unless they paid up the extortioner would arrange to have one or more of the miner's relatives killed back in the old country."
Hints of an "organization" involved in Whiskey Run murders emerge early in the folklore surrounding the history of the town. Memories and opinions differ sharply on the existence of such a group, but believers in the old "Black Hand" society are emphatic in their testimonies. The term "Black Hand" seems to have originated in Brooklyn, New York, in 1903. The "New York Herald" adopted the expression and popularized it, resulting in a wholesale acceptance of the "Black Hand" designation by other American newspapers.
In 1906, a Punxsutawney newspaper reported the pitched battle between Troop D of the Constabulary of Punxwutawney and a group of alleged Black Handers who barricaded themselves into a house near the Florence mine. In the resulting gunfire, two troopers were killed and two wounded. "There are many trecherous members of the Black Hand in and about Florence mine and the surrounding mines," stated the paper, firmly rooting the term in the vernacular of Jefferson, Armstrong and Indiana counties. In May of 1907, the Indiana Evening Gazette reported: "Fourteen Black Hand Men Arrested Saturday Night at Barnesboro."
Threatening letters, often stamped with a black handprint, began to appear in connection with local crimes, and a new emphasis on extortion is evident. On October 1, 1908, two "Black Handers" used eight sticks of dynamite to blow up the front porch of John Wheeler, a Dixonville businessman, when he refused to pay a sum of $15,000 to the sender of a sinister note. After this date, alleged Black Hand crimes were reported almost weekly in Indiana County, and cases poured in from Heilwood, Blairsville and downtown Indiana.
Inevitably, the Black Hand became associated with Whiskey Run violence of all types. The belief in an organized crime ring persisted well into the 1920s, when a new series of murders occurred, some reported and some, due to Whiskey Run's code of silence, never known to the outside world. By this time, although the town now contained more than 30 red-painted houses, had a company store, mine office and a visiting doctor, the community still retained its aura of mystery. Even the addition of such coal town refinements as two nearby grade schools and five additional grocery stores just outside of town did little to diminish the town's reputation.
Mrs. Christine Ruddock English, whose family lived for many years on a farm above Whiskey Run, went to work in the town's company store in,1918. Max Henry was the store boss, she recalls, and it was her job to come down each morning before the sun rose, open the store and post office and set out the mail. Mrs. English also remembers several murders which occurred during her employment at the Whiskey Run store: "I know of one that happened right below the first house near one of the shanties. There was a well for water there, and one night a man was shot and killed beside the pump. Someone had a grudge against him, I guess."
Mrs. English also tells of a double murder she knew about. "It happened one Sunday in the last shanty before the mine office. "When I went to work the next morning, boards had been laid over the spot where they'd been killed, to cover the blood. Oh, the police came out, but I don't remember anyone ever being caught in those murders."
In spite of these unnerving experiences, Mrs. English maintains, "I was never afraid. These people never bothered anybody, only people they wanted to get rid of." Mrs. English believes that an active Black Hand society did exist in and around Whiskey Run. "I'm sure of it. They probably did something back in the old country and weren't apprehended. They were followed over here by other people who would complete the job of getting rid of them."
In 1921, some-one wanted to "get rid of" at least two more Whiskey Run residents. In February, Carmelo Rosso was shot and killed near the company store, "after darkness had fallen." His friend, Domenick Moriana, was found lying on the ground beside his dead companion, "tormented by pain from bullet wounds, but not so much tormented that he was willing to tell who had shot him, or any of the circumstances leading up to the shooting." Constable Harry Fulton of West Lebanon was immediately called to the scene but in spite of his heroic efforts to locate Rosso's killers, this case, like all but two Whiskey Run murders, went unsolved.
Within months, Whiskey Run was in the headlines again when the town barber, Charles Lecatta, was found shot to death in his own shop one November morning. Investigators,headed by County Detective Thomas Moorhead did their best, but members of Lecatta's family refused "to advance any information that might lead to the arrest of the one responsible for the deed." West Lebanon residents who remember this particular murder agree that a reporter's opinion at the time of the shooting: "The murder is believed to have been the result of a vendetta, a revenge for some fancied or real wrong." Mrs. English, who remembers most of the murders of this period, remarks on the local acceptance of these deaths: "...it got to be such a common thing; everything just went on the same after it happened, and everyone went to work the same as usual."
Two years later, another murder occurred which seems to support the belief in Black Hand involvement in some of the Whiskey Run killings. On February 6, 1923, the body of Patsy Terrana was found near the drift mouth of mine #3, "riddled with bullers". Terrana, a track walker had been in the employ of the coal company for 14 years and was a naturalized American citizen.
As noted at the time of the investigation by County Detective Thomas Moorhead, two cuff buttons were found near the body, together with five empty shells from a revolver. Mrs. English remembers that incident too: "People at the time said that the murdered man had just gone inside the mines. After the outside door closed, he noticed these cuff buttons lying there. That was his warning, and whoever killed him did it right inside the mine. Nobody ever knew who did it or why. And he and his wife were very likeable people."
Tony Bertolino, whose father "Joe-John"
Bertolino ran one of the general stores just outside the Whiskey Run company property,
remembers hearing of several murders which never reached the ears of the authorities.
In one case, "they shot a poor peddler one day. He used to travel all over the
Whiskey Run area with a big bundle of clothes on his back. Somebody killed him. We never
knew who or why."
Tony also remembers hearing how some of the killers made their escape, often assisted by friends: "Sometimes, the murderers would sleep overnight at the old church outside of town, run to the West Lebanon train station next morning, catch a train and disappear. While tales have been told of bodies being taken to Ernest or Lucerne and "dropped into a coke oven," Tony says: "Most were taken by train to St. Bernard's or to the cemetery at Iselin."
Amid the murders, banner headlines and a reputation that, as Mrs. English says, "used to make people shudder when you mentioned Whiskey Run," there was another aspect of the community rarely brought to the attention of outsiders. Dr. Walter Patterson of Needham, Massachusetts, grew up just outside of West Lebanon. In his youth, Dr. Patterson often drove his father's horse and wagon into Whiskey Run to sell the cherries, apples, wheat and butter produced on the family farm. When Dr. Patterson's uncle Hamilton Holstein was the night man at the Whiskey Run power station after World War I, he took a revolver to work, and Walter's grandmother always checked to see that the gun was loaded before Ham left the house.
Walter also once saw an actual Black Hand note in the possession of a detective, and was familiar with all the tales of murder and mayhem surrounding the community. In spite of all the obvious violence, however, Dr. Patterson is emphatic in his insistence that "there is no evidence that the crime rate affected more than a few individuals or families. For the most part, the miners and their families were law abiding and were interested in the future of their children."
Mrs. Mary Wagner of Marion Center can attest to the validity of Dr. Patterson's statement, as she taught at the Whiskey Run elementary schools from 1923 until 1926. On her first day of teaching, Mrs. Wagner walked the mile from her home in West Lebanon to Whiskey Run, just 18 years old and filled with enthusiasm. Mary was no stranger to Whiskey Run as her father R. W. "Wilse" George ran a taxi service in the West Lebanon area. On several occasions Mr. George had been deputized to drive Constable Harry Fulton out to Whiskey Run to investigate several of the murders.
Inside the old West Lebanon community church formerly maintained by William Coulter and Alex Holstein, she found one hundred pupils, all from Whiskey Run or local farms. Mrs. Wagner's friend, Mary Fulton Fowler, taught the "three R's" to a group of older children in another little building across the road. At first, "it was like a beehive in my school," says Mrs. Wagner, "I had to keep one group at the blackboard all the time and another bunch on the recitation bench." The next year, Mrs. Wagner coped with her huge brood of students by arranging half day sessions for each group. "The children were very sweet," she remembers, "and so anxious to learn."
When quizzed about the more notorious side of the community, Mrs. Wagner insists: "I don't believe that Whiskey Run was any worse than any other coal town; it just had the name. I never taught any place I liked any better." "The children all came nicely dressed to school. Those kids would sweep and clean the schoolrooms without anyone asking them."
"The town, due to having the coal car tracks going right up between the two rows of houses, wasn't as clean or pretty as Iselin, but the women did their best to make their homes attractive." When talking to Mrs. Wagner, there emerges a Whiskey Run quite different than the town most people imagine: "They would walk, when they could, to Holy Cross Church in Iselin on Sundays. In the fall, carloads of grapes would be brought in to make homemade wine, but I don't remember too much drinking going on."
Mary's father, Wilse George, also had a warm relationship with Whiskey Run people. In addition to his taxi business, Mr. George also "huckstered" to the town, which meant that he took orders to miner's wives from the stores in West Lebanon. "Everybody out there loved my dad," says Mrs. Wagner. "They called him 'George.' He took a great many of the miners to town to get their citizenship papers. They needed someone to drive them to Indiana and sign for them." Since R. W. George owned one of the first cars in the West Lebanon area, he was often called upon to perform this service.
While most of Whiskey Run residents evidently went about the business of coal mining, housework and school work, one individual seemed destined to keep the name of the town firmly in the annals of Indiana County crime. On August 8, 1926, Clarence Rye died from gunshot wounds near Newton Armstrong's store in Hart Town, about a mile from Whiskey Run. The next day Thomas McEwan died of wounds received in the same shooting.
The incident had its roots in an argument aroused during a baseball game on the Whiskey Run field. Those who remember the shooting state that a bat had been broken, both the Hart Town and Whiskey Run teams demanded retribution and soon the while discussion moved to the little grocery store. The debate quickly grew heated. According to witnesses, the two "American" men enraged the Whiskey Run miner by calling him an unflattering ethnic slur. After sending his sister out to his Chysler touring car for his overcoat, the killer pulled a .38 caliber revolver from the pocket and shot Thomas McEwan in the stomach. Then, his gun still smoking, the murderer gave chase to Frye, who fled down the road. Taking careful aim the killer fired again, and shot the running man three times in the back. Then, in true Whiskey Run fashion, the criminal dashed for his car, climbed in and made his escape while stunned onlookers stood immobile.
County and state authorities combined to conduct a complete investigation, but clues were vague. At first, police believed the killer had fled in his own car, but later data showed that Wilse George, not suspecting the motive, had picked the man up in his taxi and driven him to the train station in Saltsburg. From there, the Whiskey Run slayer disappeared, seemingly into oblivion.
By the beginning of World War II, the town of Whiskey Run had vanished almost as completely as its last killer. The mines at the site, including those at Hart Town and nearby Nesbit Run, closed in 1934. People who lived in the town, says Tony's brother, Liberty Bertolino, "Just kept moving out one by one, until eventually it became a ghost town. The process, he recalls, "began around 1928. Lots of people went out to Detroit. They'd just get on a train, and put their furniture right in the boxcar." The houses, though, were not simply left to the ravages of time: "They were torn down and moved . . . In Shelocta, one fellow bought a couple of Whiskey Run houses and built a barn from the materials. It's still there."
The town of Whiskey Run, however, was not to be so easily forgotten. Just as memories of the community's notoriety were beginning to din, Gazette headlines again carried the coal town's well-known name. On December 28, 1941, the paper announced: "Man Taken in Whiskey Run Murder." In an article which captivated Indiana County residents familiar with the events in Hart Town 14 years before, a reporter announced that District Attorney Edwin M. Clark, County Detective William J. Moore and State Motor Police Sergeant Louis R. Feloni were leaving immediately for Los Angeles, California, to question a suspect in the double murder.
Alerted by a telegram from Los Angeles authorities, county officials showed immediate interest in the man, who upon being routinely fingerprinted as he applied for a liquor license, was found to match the description of the Whiskey Run killer. In the intervening years, the former miner had, except for a liquor violation, led a most exemplary life, married a wine-grower's daughter and settled down to a respectable existence.
Within days, the suspect was returned to the Indiana County jail and charged with the murders of Frye and McEwan. By the end of January, all of Indiana and Armstrong counties waited with keen interest as the date set for the trial neared. Assisted by Attorney James Jack, District Attorney Clark conducted a vigorous prosecution, while the defendant, "appearing calm and serious," pleased "not guilty" to the crimes on the grounds of self-defense.
Now nearing 80 years of age, Newton Armstrong was called to the stand to describe events as he remembered them, and a woman who had been Frye's wife at the time of the shooting told of her discovery of her husband's body with three bullet holes in it. Wilse George, having first been excused from jury duty, also testified. On March 14, the defendent took the stand, aided by his sister who spoke through an interpreter. Supported by a few other witnesses, the former Whiskey Run miner maintained unflinchingly that Frye and McEwan had been drunk on the night of the fatal baseball game, had threatened him with a hammer and an iron bar and that he had acted only in self-defense.
On March 17, 1941, Whiskey Run's most sensational case came to an end when the Los Angeles man was convicted of second degree murder. Sentencing was pronounced as his wife's sobs filled the courtroom: a fine of $3,000 with incarceration in the Western Penitentiary "of not less than six years or more than twelve." After sentencing. The killer of Clarence Frye and Thomas McEwan disappeared the second and final time from Indiana County.
Thirty-seven years have passed since Whiskey Run captured the headlines of county newspapers, but many local residents, upon hearing that name, still pause, raise their eyebrows and, given a few moments, can still conjure up memories. While those who can remember may not agree on the exact number of killings or on their causes, all are unanimous in the opinion that, long after other coal towns have been forgotten, Indiana Countians will recall the infamous Whiskey Run ---- where coal dust mixed with murder.
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